Unlike my older and smarter sisters, I wasn't much of a reader as a small kid. But then, in a stroke of genius, my eldest sister gave me a bunch of comic books and a They Might Be Giants CD for my tenth or eleventh birthday. And so I was doomed to be an incorrigible nerd for the rest of my life. The comic books (an Uncanny X-Men from the dense and confusing time the team was laying low in Australia while battling Reavers, and a few other Marvel titles) blew my mind. I soon became an obsessive collector, aided and abetted by my father. Because both of my parents worked a lot, Sunday afternoons with my father at Comics Plus, then located in a big and beautiful building in Park Slope, were the highlight of my week. Afterwards we'd get milkshakes at the Greek diner and I'd try to explain who Galactus was as my father looked on, dazed and bemused. I shudder to think about how much money I badgered and pestered him to spend, but I also know that comic books filled me with curiosity about the wider world.
This was in the days before Wikipedia, when learning the minutiae of the Marvel Universe, and the DC Universe and Nexus and Magnus, Robot Fighter and all the rest, was a serious undertaking. Definitely not for dabblers. Pretty soon I knew virtually everything there was to know. I even badgered my father into taking me to a comic book convention at the old Hotel Pennsylvania, where I blew my "savings" on an old-ish Uncanny X-Men from a patent lawyer who was probably younger than I am now. On another memorable weekend my parents took me with them on a long drive to Pittsburgh to visit some of their close friends from Bangladesh. Turns out my parents' friends had two very cool college-age sons who were amused by my interest in comics. By "cool" I mean they spent summers working in Alaska on the pipeline, certainly the coolest summer job I can think of. They handed over a treasure trove of Bloom County books and some pretty alterna-comics, like Howard Chaykin's amazing American Flagg!, which are still among my most cherished possessions, silly as that sounds. I wish I could find these guys and thank them. It's humbling to think that these guys, not far removed from their own adolescence, would be so generous. I don't even remember their names, but I'll always consider them role models.
I kept on collecting comics until around my sophomore year of high school, when I turned to other forms of periodical literature, particularly Andrew Sullivan's New Republic. It was a less wrenching transition than you might think, as the TNR of that era was full of zany and colorful characters who were only marginally less crazy than the supervillains who had previously captured my imagination. I can't really overemphasize the lasting impact of comics on my brain. Even now my intellectual obsessions track my old obsessions with obscure comic book characters: I'd read and read, gorging myself on a particular character or set of scenarios, then grow exhausted and move on to another. I later felt the same way about, say, anarcho-primitivism or state theory or the Brazilian terrorist group MR8. So it certainly could be that comic books have permanently destroyed my brain, and my ability to engage in truly deliberative thinking. I don't think so, though.
Even now I'll occasionally swing by a comic book store, and I'll find that preteens and their dads are no longer the main demographic. It's all men around my age, in part because comics are quite expensive and in part because the medium has steadily grown more "serious" and in part because, well, you know, video games. One of my best friends from high school and college, James, has actually become a very serious collector, and he keeps us appraised of what's going on. The truth is I've grown allergic to most superhero titles. As prudish as this sounds, I'm sort of troubled by the bodies, which are often so distended and misshapen, the women in particular. There's something dispiriting and lame about the pneumatic bosoms and bulging biceps.