Later this week, my family will be celebrating my daughter’s birthday, and this year she is turning…well, let’s just say that a fatherly concern for her privacy precludes me from saying exactly how old she’ll be, but it’s a milestone birthday in that she is most definitely not a baby anymore.
Parents, like comic book collectors and baseball fans, tend to obsess over “eras” and endlessly catalog and rank different periods of their kids’ lives for various criteria — kids will never smell as good as they do at 6 weeks, for example; they cry the most at 3 months; 9-month-olds have the most infectious laughs; 18-month-olds have the most trying tantrums; etc. ad infinitum (or ad nauseum if you don’t have kids; I understand.). As kids get older and better able to interact with parents, it’s also fun to note the milestones in the parent-child relationship, from the first smiles as a baby to the incessant questions of the toddler era into the boundary-testing that characterizes that brief period starting during toddlerhood and usually lasting only until retirement age or so.
One of the (admittedly self-centered) yardsticks that I’ve used to chronicle my relationship to my daughter has been what I’m reading, or, more specifically, how my parental responsibilities have impacted my ability to read as much as I would like to. I don’t think that this is uncommon; parents of young children since the beginning of time have been heard saying, “Man, I remember when I used to have time to _________,” and for those of us who like to read, that is usually one of the remembered pleasures populating that blank.
For me, it’s been kind of an obsession from the start. Before my kid was born, I passed the gestation period by pouring over parenting memoirs from Michael Chabon and Neal Pollack. I also figured, logically I guess, that since I wouldn’t be able to go out much when I had a young baby at home, I’d better lay in some big books to read, you know, when I was rocking the baby to sleep or something. Obviously I had never lived with a young baby. So while The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and 2666 gathered dust, my cultural consumption during those early days was limited to blankly staring at episodes of Project Runway and Twin Peaks. (I did eventually read those two big novels on the hour long train ride that was my commute in those days, and both were immense, ugly and incredible reads.)
As the dust settled and we began to get the hang of having a little person around the house, we also began to establish some routines that began to free up a little precious time to do a little reading beyond thumbing through the well-used parenting volumes. (For the record, we went the crunchy Sears and Ina May Gaskin route, but I’m convinced now that it doesn’t matter what “method” you follow. Parenting manuals are the ultimate placebos prescribed by pediatricians to give new parents something to do other than obsess over the baby.) I still wasn’t sleeping though, so I had to be strategic with the fifteen minutes of reading I could do before falling asleep. A steady diet of poetry, comics and short stories ensured that I packed a lot of impact into short bursts of reading.
During all of this time, I was, of course, reading a lot of children’s books with my daughter. Like, a lot a lot. I wish I could claim that some selfless virtuous parental wish for her intellectual well being was my primary motivator, but the fact is that this kid cried and fussed all the time, and I figured out at an early age that if I read to her she would relax very quickly. So what started, as it often does, with a simple ritual of reading a couple of stories before bed soon evolved into reading together at breakfast, while waiting to go to preschool, when we get home from school, while we’re getting dressed, brushing teeth, riding the bus, etc. It’s our go-to thing that we do together. And while I cherish the time we spend together reading, and am thrilled to have a kid who will happily look at picture books for a couple of hours a day, I will admit here to being not that into picture books. I certainly appreciate children’s books, and I have my share of classics that I have very much enjoyed. However, like any self-respecting kid, my daughter tends to ignore the carefully selected, age-appropriate masterpieces that I choose and to love and want to read over and over the titles that I think are junk. (Hello Scooby Doo!)
Or that was the case until recently, which brings me to the titular gift that I have gotten for my daughter’s birthday. Recently, I noticed that she was drawn to comic books that I would bring home from the library, most of which were definitely not age-appropriate. After trying to figure out how to answer her questions about the puddle of red stuff that Hulk was standing in honestly without scarring her for life, I decided to take a look for some superhero comics written for kids. I found that Marvel has a pretty decent series of origin stories going, including the Hulk sans blood, and while they were great picture books, I could tell that the kid wanted to read some comics. (Or at least it was a convincing projection on my part.)
After some trial and error, we found a few series of real comics that we both enjoyed, and we have been reading them nonstop for the past couple of months.
First and foremost, Art Baltazar’s Tiny Titans series is an absolute favorite of both of us. These are largely domestic tales of DC universe characters as little kids — Robin, Batgirl, Superboy and Supergirl, Wonder Girl, Raven, etc. Despite the costumed characters, these comics owe more of a debt to Charles Schulz than they do to Bob Kane. The greatest dangers these Titans face is unrequited love, laundry accidentally dyed pink by red superhero capes and boring classes taught by classic DC super villains. These books are hilarious, irreverent and absurd — a geeky send up of comics culture that works on many levels.
Another beautifully absurd series that we both love reading are the Adventure Time comics, based on the TV show of the same name. These comics follow the adventures of Jake the dog and Finn the human as they perform heroic acts across the Dali-meets-Steadman landscapes populated by Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen and many more cute/unsettling characters. Adventure Time is hugely popular with teens and so I hope my daughter is banking a little cultural capital that she can draw from when she gets into middle school.
When my daughter chose to check out a Smurfs comic recently, I expected a Scooby Doo level of inanity, possibly based on my recollection of the old Hanna Barbera cartoon. I was pleasantly surprised to find the comics, which are reprints of the original Belgian comic strips made by Peyo, to be funny in a way that is reminiscent of old comics from back when they were considered a deviant art form: clever, somewhat mean-spirited and edgy. I’ve found that I really enjoy reading these, despite their many flaws, and I feel like I’m getting an education in the history of the medium. I have some reservations about, among other things, a dearth of female characters, but I think it’s okay, and perhaps down the road my daughter will write a thesis about the objectification of Smurfette. A dad can only dream…
So there it is! I can’t think of a better gift than a shared love of reading with my daughter. What cultural things do you share with your kids?
-Dan, who is proud of his kid’s ability to name over a dozen DC characters, despite his preference for Marvel