Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Letters to CR

Michael Grabowski On Re-Reading Comics
posted October 10, 2009

I assume that as kids we all re-read our comics over and over because of the limitations of ecomonics: this is all we had on hand to read. At least, that's my excuse. Add to that the catch-as-catch-can nature of buying 1 comic a week from the choice provided by the local 7-Eleven, or the occasional 3-pack at the drugstore, and there would be a lot of story holes from the non-sequential issues and occasionally random titles I got. So successive re-reading of those single issues of '75-'78 Marvels was the only way to try to gather clues to what happened before and between those comics, or to feed my imagination's attempts at resolving the cliffhangers. Along the way favorites that demanded more frequent re-reading rose to the top, of course. When I discovered comics shops and back issue bins, I started filling in the holes and resolving the mysteries, and a funny thing happened: I stopped re-reading most of those once-favorite issues, though a few runs still rewarded it.

As a parent I've had the sort-of parallel experience of constantly re-reading certain children's books to my toddler daughters. Although we've got plenty of variety, the girls have got their nearly nightly favorites, and I've learned to look for things in the drawings and words that continue to keep the time lively for me. Scenery in the Madeline books, or the way the cartoons in the original Curious George books do more than just illustrate the text remind me of things to look for in comics to enjoy over and over, and in the bad cases have reminded me what I hate in comics.

Rereading comics in college honed my tastes such that stuff that seemed amazing to me as a teen so soon before suddenly seemed really dumb, a waste of money but especially time. Even favorite-to-look-at stuff like Kirby's "River of Death" Capt. America sequence stops being interesting when compared to Heart of Darkness. So now two decades later when I'm deciding what to buy my decision has as much to do with how likely I am to be rewarded for re-reading the book much later as it does with the potential to enjoy it now. The problem now is that these are real books whose re-reading calls for a chunk of time, not a pamphlet that can be enjoyed in a handful of minutes. How many books (comics or not) will I really have time to read in my life? How many will I really be able to dig deeply back into? (At least short comics are getting easier to re-read thanks to books like the Brunetti anthologies and Best American series.)

What I wonder is why re-reading comics, or books of any sort, is somehow seen as any kind of unusual. Who thinks twice about seeing favorite movies over and over? Quite a few cable channels and half the TV year are given over to re-presenting re-runs. There wouldn't be concerts and a recording industry if people were only to hear a song once. Granted these viewing/listening reexperiences tend to be communal rather than individual, and there's probably some of the same kind of nostalgia/"mental comfort food" issues that lead to seeing/hearing them again and again, but I'd like to think that these things are really due to our brains trying to get us to respond more critically to the art to which we expose ourselves, and (reiterating what you say about Gates' piece) how what we choose to re-view reflects our life choices and actions. Besides that overwrought justification, sometimes it's just good old fun to read those same visual riffs and hooks and choruses again, like the annotations to your short list suggest.