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Comics Made Me Fat
posted January 1, 2000
 

I'd like to apologize for the self-indulgent nature of the following essay. I'd particularly like to apologize to my new best friend Laura Henningsen, my pal John Preston, my brother Dan (call me!), my mother, and all the guys from the Zeta Deuteron chapter of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, 1987-1991 - particularly Kirk, Moke, Mitch, Alex, Ambro, Jamie, Larry, Greg, Yorio, Gato, Steve and Joey Z.

Okay.

One of the writers with whom I most enjoyed working during my time at The Comics Journal was Darcy Sullivan. Darcy's a funny guy, so his phone calls and e-mails were usually amusing. Darcy also displayed a healthy contempt towards the magazine's operations, particularly the pitiful amounts of money we were able to pay and the great reluctance and irregularity with which those funds were released. Thus our conversations were also often full of engaging, pointed banter on the theme of "you cheap bastards."

Most importantly, of course, Darcy Sullivan is a skilled writer who has done very good work for the Journal. The pieces of his that I'm most fond are the "Moolahverse" essays, and their close companions, the essays in the anniversary issue. What's fascinating about Darcy's deconstruction of comics consumerism is his notion that reading comics may indeed be a very bad thing for many of us, contributing in very specific ways towards our becoming emotionally and spiritually crippled. It was these essays I recalled when I recently started to ponder my weight.

I'm a big, fat guy. I stand six-foot-three-inches and weigh somewhere around 400 pounds. I say "somewhere around" because at a certain point, without easy access to shipping scales, you really don't have any idea - as far as the standard medical scales go, I weigh "tilt." I'm told I carry it well, to the point where I've imagined quitting my job and making a living conning carnival barkers across American into free stuffed animals I would then convert into cash. But honestly, there's carrying it well and then there's carrying it well. Not for a second to equate losing one's children to my appetite for chicken nuggets, but Job famously "carried it well," and all that meant was he stayed under a tree, scraped his sores with a pottery shard, and engaged in nearly inscrutable, bitchy dialogue with his Creator. Let me put it like this: When a guy at the gym recently asked me how much weight I wanted to lose, without blinking I said, "Half."

(As an aside, I've had some funny reactions concerning my weight from people in comics, mostly double takes and disbelief. Brian Biggs gave me my only clue as to why this is - because certainly a lot of comics people are lumbering super-mammals - when he said upon meeting me that I "write skinny." It's a start, but I have no idea what this really means, although maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'd made fun of obese people in print. People told me it's hypocritical to do that, but I consider it my own personal "Nigger, please." Which I hope to God means what I think it does.)

Okay, now here's the comic stuff. When I recently dissected my eating habits, it was amazing how many of the bad ones involved comics. The primary comics-food link is the "Pile of Comics/Pile of Food" relationship. As a "New Comics Day" shopper (which doesn't need to be in quotes, but it looks like "quotes" is the underlying theme of the essay), I used to buy a ton of food with every pulpy, four-color stack. At first this was about seven bucks worth of Rax Roast Beef; later it was as much food as the equivalent would buy in my local supermarket, including sandwich spread, Wonder bread, and the crack cocaine of Midwestern gluttony, the tater tot. I would then eat and read, eat and read, eat a little more, happy an asshole as ever there was, sprawled out on the living room floor.

This behavior fits in perfectly with another Pet Theory Designed to Annoy the News Editor and Keep Us Both From Working - that "New Comics Day" shoppers aren't engaging the art form on a work-by-work basis as much as seeking a comics-reading experience. My proof - not that I need provide any goddamn proof, being a beloved, nationally-renowned expert on the medium - is that many comics buyers will spend close to the same amount every week regardless of what's out, and everyone I know read Cerebus for 25 issues after they started hating it. Adding food into the "New Comics Day" mix is just a way of increasing the pleasure of the pulpy, four-color wallow; music or television on while you read are variations on the same basic idea.

And aren't comics just the dearest little eating companions? They're visual, so they give you something to look at other than your food; they're stop-and-start, so you can wipe the ketchup off of the carpet and jump right back into the story; most of them are really stupid and forgettable, meaning they can be read in a starch-induced waking food coma without fear of higher brain activity; and the classic pamphlet-sized ones - the best delivery system in the history of print, by the way - are perfectly-sized to fit on your table (or floor) next to your chow, particularly if they're folded over. If you're Ed Begley Jr., you could even use the comics to help clean up after the meal's eventual evacuation, although this isn't something you can really recommend with today's funnies and their fancy, slick, citified paper. But the old ones are great - I'm convinced Atlas would still be around if they'd just been marketed that way (implied marketing doesn't count).

There are other links between comics and food. Certainly I never would have stuck any of that nasty Dolly Madison shit in my mouth were it not for the diligent marketing efforts of Snoopy and the gang. And comic books are just chock full of ads for candy and other equally-healthy food items, although it's hard to tell if they're trying to wake up all kids' appetites or just targeting their sales pitches towards the already-tubby consumer with so much money they actually waste their time buying comics.

I can't recall any specific food consumption of my own linked to a comics ad, except for maybe Skittles, the worst named almost-food ever. One famous series of ads backfired big time with me, when I boycotted Hostess Fruit Pies for two years because of their denigration of the grim superheroic ideal. I recently learned that some people remember those ads fondly, which is depressing - not because the ads are so lousy but because they're ads, meaning they're soulless shit-things designed to take money from you in exchange for a worthless piece of unnecessary garbage. Admiring an advertisement is like noting the pleasing cadences in a child molester's come-on line.

Finally, and I'll pause for a moment while the wrenching shift in gears caused by my lousy writing fades away, comics has an effect on food consumption by fans because of their shared model for proper kids' behavior - doe-like passivity. As better critics than I have argued, superhero comics promote such an unrealistic fantasy based on bizarre, arbitrary models of action that they don't really give anyone a model for fully socialized behavior. A kid who idolizes the biggest shithead basketball player on Earth can at least pursue the sport in which his hero participates. But until fighting ninjas become a club activity on major college campuses, the core activities of the superhero are lost on the superhero devotee. What replaces it is a realization - the Stan Lee model of secondary selling by making the creator the hero and the reader a potential hero - that indulging in the fantasy aspects of the stories one loves can have eventual financial or vocational awards. In the meantime, stay in your basement, and if you need a companion while you're down there, call Domino's.

But that one didn't happen to me. The way comics made me fat is I got old enough to afford them - and the big bags of tater tots - every day, became forgetful enough to enjoy reading old ones during the meals in-between, and eventually screwed up my pathetic life to the point where I found myself spending four years working next to a library where hundreds of bad comics (I once took home the entire run of Champions) were at my disposal for every single meal and snack. In the sort of crushing irony that writers force in order to end essays, now that I no longer have a job, the comics are gone but the tremendous meals remain, and last Friday I sold some hardcover graphic novels to a used bookstore for grocery money.

I take consolation only in that while I may be fucked, portions of this essay will be re-posted on the Internet after my inevitable, obesity-related death.

Originally Published at TCJ.com in September 1999