Beloved Comics Characters: Looking Back at 60 Years of Reading Comics

By Kat Kan, MLS

Recently, a friend on Facebook challenged me to post images of 10 comics characters that had an impact on me. Since I started reading comics with newspaper comic strips when I was in Kindergarten, I realized that I have been reading comics, in one form or another, for 60 years. I used that Facebook challenge to think back over the decades.

I remember watching lots of cartoons on television when I was between four and five years old: mostly Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Yogi Bear, and all the various Hanna-Barbera cartoons that were on back then. We had just moved to San Francisco from Hawaii in 1959. The newspaper’s comics page had strips like Peanuts, Blondie, Little Orphan Annie, and Steve Canyon, but I paid more attention to the humorous strips. I thought I was pretty grown up while “reading” the newspaper every day, although I always went straight to the “funnies.”

PopeyePopeye was one of my favorite cartoons. I could sing along with his “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” theme song, and I decided to eat lots of spinach in the hope I could grow to be as strong as he was (as I’m sure a lot of other kids did, too). Bugs Bunny was another favorite character, and my mother could get us kids to eat whole carrots as a treat. She let us strut around the house saying “What’s up, Doc?” while eating carrots like they were candy. Hmm, my Japanese mother was pretty smart, using cartoon characters to “trick” us into eating healthy…

When my Air Force Sergeant dad was transferred to Japan in late summer 1961, I was ready to start first grade. He and my mother started taking us kids with them to the Base Exchange (BX) every Saturday—think of it as WalMart or Target for military families. The BX had a magazine rack, and the bottom rack was filled with “funny books,” otherwise known as comic books. Until then I really had no idea that such things existed. My parents allowed us to choose one comic book each week (they had to approve our choice), which we three kids had to share. As the oldest, and the one who was actually reading, I tended to choose the comics. Over the course of every week, I’d read and reread the books until they fell apart.

Little LuluSome of my early favorites include Little Lulu, Nancy and Sluggo, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, Dennis the Menace (yes, there were comic books, not just the newspaper comic strips), and Richie Rich. Of these titles, my absolute favorite is Little Lulu. She was such a sassy girl, easily able to handle all the boys, especially Tubby. I loved that she wore dresses, but that it didn’t stop her from doing all kinds of fun, physical things. She also believed that she and other girls were just as good as boys, and she acted on that. Decades later, Dark Horse Comics published collections of John Stanley’s Little Lulu comics, and my younger son, then about eight years old, would sit in a chair in my study and read them, giggling most of the time. One day he looked up and told me, “This comic is for girls.” I asked him, “You’re reading the book, do you like it?” “Yeah.” “So, if you like the comic, that means it’s not only for girls, right?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Yes!” And now, present day, Drawn & Quarterly is doing its own reprinting of Little Lulu comics. That girl has had lasting power… and I love it!

When I was in third grade, we Air Force families were moved from the Washington Heights housing in central Tokyo (near Ueno Park) out to newly built housing (called Kanto Mura) nearly an hour away from the city. The housing was set up in quadrangles of four-unit buildings. We had new neighbors, and all of us kids played with each other and went to each other’s homes all the time. The moms all helped each other keep track of us. Our house became the place where a bunch of the boys would come with their stacks of comics; I was the only girl in the group. We’d sit on the living room floor in kind of a circle, put all the comics in the middle, and just read one comic book after another. My parents still only let me buy the funny comics, but some of the boys brought really cool superhero comics. That was my introduction to Batman, The Phantom, Superman, and The Spirit. I really liked those heroes. I loved the adventures, and they just seemed to go better with the books I was reading: mythology, adventures, and mysteries.

Green LanternIn 1964 we moved back to the U.S., and within a few months my parents decided to buy a house. It was just a couple of blocks from a drugstore that had a comic book rack. By this time, I was getting a weekly allowance of a whopping 25 cents! I used part of that allowance once a month or so to buy comics. But now, with my own money, I was buying superhero and adventure comics. I really loved The Green Lantern then; Hal Jordan was my favorite superhero. I think I liked that he was pretty much a regular guy who got his powers from his ring, which in turn was powered by the lantern. It seemed to be more straight science fiction, which I was reading in books.

I also bought Tarzan comics (published by Gold Key). I was already reading the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, borrowed from my local public library. Back then, starting at age 10, I didn’t have to have a parent with me to go to the library and check out books. I read a lot, close to a book a day. When my mother ordered me to go outside, I’d often take a book or some comics and sit outside on the front steps from the sidewalk up to our lawn and read, until she’d order me to either pull weeds or go ride my bike.

By 1967 I would also pick up random comics that tied in to shows I watched on television: The Green Hornet, Star Trek, The Rat Patrol…I reread those comics a lot. I would also borrow comics from our neighbors. I remember reading a big stack of Metal Men comics and some Batman Family comics. I loved Batgirl on the Batman TV show, but the Batgirl in the comics wasn’t like Yvonne Craig’s portrayal, so I didn’t seek out Batman comics on the store racks. I had a nice little stack of comics that I kept reading. I also bought the occasional issue of “Mad,” especially if the issue included a parody of a TV show or movie I liked. In addition, I bought a number of mass market paperback collections of Peanuts comics, which I also read to pieces—literally.

My dad had been deployed to Vietnam the summer of 1967. When he returned home in 1968, he had orders to move across the country to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia. As an enlisted man, he didn’t have a generous weight allowance for household goods to be shipped to his new assignment, so he ordered us kids to get rid of a lot of our stuff, especially books and comics. I snuck a few of them into one of my boxes, but I had to give up most of them.

For a couple of years, I just kept rereading those few comics I saved, especially Star Trek and Green Hornet, since I no longer had easy access to stores. We spent one year in Georgia, before my dad was reassigned to Hawaii. While we lived in Kailua that first year there, I found a stack of Classics Illustrated comics at a neighborhood garage sale and bought them. I read lots of classic literature already, but the comics were so much fun! When we finally got base housing at Hickam Air Force Base, where my dad was assigned, I started high school and met a girl who loved science fiction and comics as much as I did. Ruth introduced me to Marvel Comics. In the mid-1960s I had watched the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons on TV, but I was a DC superhero comics fan. I spent a lot of time at Ruth’s house, where we would read through her X-Men comics.

Fast-forward to the mid-1970s. I was attending University of Hawaii and living at home, while working part-time at the local WaldenBooks. The store carried trade paperback collections of Heavy Metal comics translated from the French: I remember “Lone Sloan: Delirius.” And Simon & Schuster published trade paperback collections of Marvel Comics in “Origins of Marvel Comics,” “Bring On the Bad Guys,” “The Superhero Women,” and others. I found the trade paperback of “God Loves, Man Kills”—a classic X-Men story—and lots more. I went on a buying and reading spree. “Elfquest” by Wendy and Richard Pini came out in trade paperbacks in the late 1970s, along with comic book adaptations of Robert Asprin’s “Myth Adventures” fantasy novels, and I bought and read all of those.

MaiI focused my buying and reading on the trade collections of comics, because I bought them from bookstores. By this time, most supermarkets and drugstores carried very little in the way of magazines or comics. They had done away with the spinner racks, and just displayed a few magazines and maybe some Archie comics digests at the checkout counters. WaldenBooks didn’t carry them, but Honolulu Bookstore carried English translations of Japanese comics, starting in the mid-1980s. When we lived in Japan, I used to “read” the comics in my mother’s Japanese magazines, so when I saw some manga, I picked them up. One of my earliest purchases was “Mai, the Psychic Girl” by Kazuya Koda and Ryoichi Ikegami.

Ronin RabbitI also finally ventured into a couple of specialty comics shops. From that time, I started buying comics issues of some Marvel and DC series, then branched out to Eclipse Comics, Valiant, and several other publishers. Fantagraphics had been publishing “Usagi Yojimbo” comics, and I bought the trade paperback collections. I have kept up with “Usagi Yojimbo” through several decades now; Stan Sakai combines Japanese history, folklore, and cultural traditions to tell compelling stories featuring his ronin rabbit. As a mixed Japanese-White person (in Hawaii we’re called Hapa), I really appreciate seeing my Japanese culture represented in comics. I also bought the original black and white “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” trades.

These days, I enjoy manga for the time the creators take to tell the stories, and for telling stories in many different genres—from crime drama to fantasy, to wacky humor, to serious science fiction, to historical fiction, to stories focusing on food, to creepy horror. I like the black and white art, which helps me read horror. I don’t like full-color gore that so many American horror comics depict. I also get a kick out of the fact that several publishers are reprinting or publishing new comics featuring some of the comics characters I read when I was young. And I love seeing prose writers getting into comics: people like Joe Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and others. I jumped up and down in my chair and screamed with joy at my computer screen when I saw that Jerry Craft’s graphic novel “The New Kid” had won the 2020 Newbery Award.

I read comics for all different age levels now, including mainstream superhero and independent comics, in almost every genre. I have supported Kickstarter and Patreon projects for a lot of new comics creators. I’m now 65 years old, and I love comics even more than I did at five. I don’t plan to stop reading comics until I can’t read any more at all. I love the incredible diversity of creators, styles, and genres that people can read. They exist in print and online. Some are available for free. Many libraries carry at least a few graphic novels that people can borrow. And I really love that my work at Brodart focuses on helping librarians find good graphic novels for their collections.

I never would have believed, even when I was in library school, that I could use my love for comics in my job. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ll continue on it as long as I can.

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Katharine

If you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

 

5 thoughts on “Beloved Comics Characters: Looking Back at 60 Years of Reading Comics

  1. I have a collection of comics from the 60’s and 70’s that I accidentally left at my aunt and uncle’s house while visiting one summer. They are in the attic there but they are too frail to climb up there now, and said my cousin will get them down for me; but I am 60 and they are still up there- Lots of Mad, Sad Sack, Tales from the Crypt, Weird… probably some Harvey comics – but I never liked Casper. He’s so needy! Come on dude, let’s scare people!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The major items missing here are EC comics. I was too young to read these in their original form but their line of horror, science fiction, war, and crime comics are classics of narrative illustration. Mad Magazine was their only continuing publication and one obsession of my youth.

    Like

  3. Hi Steven.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I must confess, I was never a big fan of EC Comics. But that’s the beauty of comics – there’s something for everyone!

    Best,
    Kat

    Like

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