Unfettered Imagination – The Power of Comic Books

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It started with a musty cardboard box in the basement of my childhood home. In that box was a stack of equally musty comics, most of them tattered and dog-eared, the way comics should be. They were my older brother’s comics, cast aside when he discovered girls and cars, just waiting for a little brother to happen along and fall under their spell. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first stumbled upon them, but I was young. Barely reading, and probably skipping over the big words.

The box contained three or four dozen comics, most of them early Marvels. I must have studied those comics endlessly, absorbing every line of masters like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, every Ben-Day color pattern. The covers of a great many of them are still burned into my memory. Just a few: Avengers #13 and #20; Amazing Spider-Man #33 and #41; Fantastic Four #36 and #55; Tales of Suspense #84; Journey Into Mystery #103; Strange Tales #144. I can summon up mental pictures of those covers as easily as I can scroll through photos on my smart phone. The images imprinted upon me permanently.

The other permanent effect of poring over those newsprint masterpieces was that I gained an appreciation for the power of words and pictures together. Mankind has been telling stories with pictures since we painted on cave walls. We all grow up with picture books. But so many of us seem to eventually lose our appreciation for the magic of words and pictures telling a story. That box of well-loved comics made sure mine never went away.

It was a few years before I started gathering my coins (this was when you could still get a comic for coins) and plucking my own selections from spinner racks in drug stores (this was when there were still spinner racks in drug stores). I gravitated toward Avengers and Uncanny X-Men, figuring that a whole team of super-heroes was a better bang for your buck (or 35 cents) than some solo hero. I encountered the art of George Perez and John Byrne, and started to understand that people actually wrote and drew these things, and some were better at it than others. I discovered the black-and-white magazine Savage Sword of Conan, which was even better because … well, guy with a sword. And scantily-clad ladies. And monsters!

In another few years, I followed the same path my older brother had, and put aside comics in favor of more usual teenage pursuits. But that didn’t last. I was growing up in the mid-1980s, and so were comics. I was lured back in by things like Walter Simonson’s incomparable Thor run, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, the Wolfman and Perez New Teen Titans. The watershed year of 1986 rolled around, bringing Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchman by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I never looked back. I was reading everything from the superheroes I’d discovered in that cardboard box, to new and different flavors like American Flagg!, Nexus and Grendel.

All those comics instilled a sense of wonder, of discovery. They were instrumental in pushing me toward writing comics as a career, something I’ve been doing steadily for more than 20 years now. I tell people it’s better than working for a living, and it is. Yes, the hours can be long. Yes, there are frustrations. But the days it truly feels like work are few and far between. Without doubt, the best part of my job is when one of the artists I’m working with delivers a new page to my inbox. That page existed only in my head when I wrote it, but the artist breathes life into it, makes it real. There are no budget constraints. An artist can fill up a page with a giant, world-devouring menace almost as easily as depicting two people chatting in a cafe. If you can think of it, you can show it.

That’s the power of words and pictures together: unfettered imagination. Leave out the words, and it’s akin to a gallery show. Leave out the pictures, and it’s a novel. But together, there’s a mysterious alchemy; the two parts go together to create a greater whole.

The contents of an old cardboard box changed my life. If I’m lucky, maybe something I’ve written, some rumpled comic consigned to another cardboard box, can do the same for somebody else.


Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, starting his career with a lengthy run on Silver Surfer for Marvel. Since then, he has worked for virtually every major publisher and compiled a long list of credits, including stints on Green Lantern for DC Comics, Star Wars for Dark Horse and Witchblade for Top Cow. His most recent work includes Magdalena and Artifacts for Top Cow. His creator-owned series include the current Shinku at Image; Dragon Prince at Top Cow; Samurai: Heaven and Earth, and Pantheon City, at Dark Horse. He lives in New York State, with his wife, three children, two dogs and four horses. But the horses live in the barn. 

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