true believers: inclusion, geek cred, and stan lee

I started reading comic books in earnest when I was about eight. My dad would take me along to the local smoke shop when he went to buy cigarettes, or else my mum would drop by to get a lottery ticket, and if I was good and it wasn't too soon since the last time, I would be allowed to scan the rotating metal rack of comic books and buy one that cost a dollar or less. My mum tried to get me to read what she called "girl's comics" — Richie Rich or Archie & Veronica — but almost always I headed straight for the superhero comics.

Because I never knew when I would be allowed to buy one, I tended to avoid any multi-issue stories. Instead I just went by whichever cover seemed the most interesting. I wound up with random copies of Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, The Phantom, Strange Tales, and loads of others which only lasted a few issues and which I've forgotten the names of.

The teenage boys who hung out at the smoke shop thought it was very amusing that eight-year-old me in my dresses and white knee socks always went for the superhero and supernatural comics, and sometimes they asked me if I liked Marvel or DC better. I always told them Marvel. Truth be told, I was very loyal to some of the DC characters like Batman (Wonder Woman not so much, but that's because I got to see Lynda Carter play her on TV every week, plus see her animated every Saturday morning in Superfriends), but Marvel had one thing that DC didn't, and that was Stan Lee's Soapbox.

The Soapbox was basically a newsletter, telling comic readers what issues to expect next and which members of the Marvel "bullpen" were working on them. Each column had several topics, all of which were prefaced with "ITEM!". The concluding paragraph was always "Excelsior!". Comic readers were "true believers".

What set it apart from other promotional columns (DC sometimes ran one, among others) is that it was completely and utterly hilarious. I usually read it over five or six times before I could make it through without laughing out loud. I found out during the writing of this post that the columns have been collected in a book (might have to look into getting that). If you want a taste of what the style was like, there's some examples on-line at the Marvel web site.

What was amazing about reading the column is that it seemed just as applicable to me, sitting on my bed with my dolls shoved to one side so I'd have room to read, as to the teenage boys back at the smoke shop. You didn't have to have all the appearances of Wolverine memorised to read the column. You didn't have to remember the year issue #1 of X-Men came out. If you spent a lot of time wondering what the Sea Monkeys advertised at the back of the book really looked like or not, you could still read the Soapbox. You just had to be a "true believer", and even at age eight I knew Stan was using that term with a just a bit of hyperbole. The price of admission to the club was a buck for the comic — and if you didn't have that, having the wherewithal to borrow it from your friend who did manage to snag a copy was a good enough substitute.

But now: now agents and publishers complain if an author hasn't "read widely in the genre they are writing in", which seems to translate to "read all the same books the agents and publishers have". Now men at conventions think it's totally okay to judge whether or not a woman is a real geek or a "fake geek girl", completely forgetting that they too could fall down on trivia if asked the right questions. Now "noobs" are derided, as if some people sprung from their mother's womb already knowing the circuitry diagram for the R2D2 costume. Now there are rules about what you can and can't wear to show your geek cred, how fat or thin you can be during cosplay, how much you need to spend on cultural artifacts. You will be judged on whether you saw the first episode of Doctor Who with the new Doctor as it was broadcast, PVRed, or much, much later when you borrow the DVDs off a friend.

And to anyone who thinks anything in that last paragraph actually matters if enough caveats and howevers are layered onto it:

Fuck off.

That's from me now, and from eight-year-old me with the Hollie Hobby doll sitting next to her copy of X-Men. I don't need your approval.

I'm a true believer.