With most of the crowd I run with on a daily basis, the attractions of the book or pamphlet as a physical object are, as with most truths, held to be self-evident. For those who don’t quite get it, I offer this case study.
Imagine you’re a nine-year-old boy in a moderately cosmopolitan downstate Illinois college town and prior to a long road trip (The one time you went to Minnesota? The annual summer trip to Lake Michigan?) your mom surprises you with a small stack of comic books to read in the car. You’re not much of a comic book reader–your tastes run more toward crime-solving kids and your weirdly obsessive fascination with reference books and your need to memorize lists of U.S. presidents and major league batting averages–but hey, who are you to say no to free comic books?
You remember now how your mom had that sort of genial but fundamentally muddled half-grasp on your tastes and interests that most well-intentioned but inherently remote grown-ups do, so you know she probably got you a couple of funny ones–Archie, Richie Rich–and maybe a Spider-Man, though chances are just as good she got you a D.C. superhero comic, and this despite the lengthy explanations you have given her for why, even as a casual comic reader, the Marvel superheros are clearly superior to the D.C. stable, the whole fundamental misunderstanding setting you up really with intimations of the basic unknowability of interior lives. But anyway, you don’t really remember specifically what comics she got you.
Except for one.
For whatever reason, your mom thought you and your tender nine-year-old sensibilities might like this chipper little collection of stories that included such gems as “When will I die AGAIN?” (a man who comes back from the dead after a hit-and-run accident lies paralyzed and confined to an oxygen tent in a hospital and ends up blowing himself up to kill a mob hit man), or “When Phantoms stalked the Wolf-Pack,” in which a sadistic U-boat captain is dragged to the deep by the seaweed-wreathed ghosts of the Lusitania. (Note the historical details and the fact that this was said to be a true story!)
But for the kid who at the age of nine has clear opinions on the relative merits of the Monroe administration contra that of John Quincy Adams (sure, you appreciate the whole Era of Good Feelings but your opinions are colored by your impressions of Adams the man, who from what you understand literally dropped dead on the floor of the House of Representatives while arguing against slavery, with like cartoon x-shapes for his postmortem eyes and perhaps some Tom and Jerry-style birds circling his head–which frankly until this comic book was put into your hands is pretty much how you pictured what a dead person might look like–which endears Adams greatly to you, as a little duly indoctrinated citizen of the Land of Lincoln)–anyway, for a kid with an interest in presidential history, it’s “The Specter Screamed–KILL” that makes a real impression on you.
OK, even those of you who don’t sit around recreationally swapping presidential anecdotes probably remember the story of how Teddy Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee and got plugged in the chest by a would-be assassin but that, because the manuscript of his speech slowed the bullet, TR went on to deliver his campaign speech? “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best,” said TR. But the supernatural kicker–and, as the subtitle to the comic book notes, true story here–did you know that John Schrank, the man who fired the gun, did so because he was haunted by the ghost of William McKinley, who urged vengeance for his own assassination?
Presidential ghosts urging murder.
So to say that you–the little amateur historian already carting around all the basic fears and tics endemic to nine-year-old kids plus maybe a few extra, like don’t even get you started on barking dogs–are freaked out is maybe an understatement. But instead of just throwing the thing away, this comic book becomes weirdly fascinating and repulsive, and you are forced to add another step to your already somewhat elaborate bedtime rituals (brushing your teeth, laying out tomorrow’s clothes, making sure the closet door is completely shut) because now you have to check your roll-top desk every night to make sure this comic book is in the desk, face-down, and that the roll top is tightly, emphatically down.
I will additionally note that after nearly 35 years, you’ll notice that you’re still carting around this piece of ephemeral throwaway semi-literature (you found it out in your garage last week) and it still conjures up a specific time and place and mood, and maybe perversely it also conjures up the security and structure that comes from being a nine-year-old kid lucky enough to grow up in a house with a loving family and a decent bunch of friends. Your Rosebud is creepy and it has a pretty good track record of giving you nightmares but you’re OK with that.
So you’ve got an ephemeral physical object that happens to be a text, and its associations unfold in a complicated emotional way redolent of love and death!
And that, fundamentally, is what keeps me in business.