Reading Without Words
I don’t remember how or when it started, but I can still feel the excitement of visiting my grandparents. My earliest memories involve being in their spare room and sitting in front of a shelf in their spare bedroom. Uncle Tony and Uncle Mick had shared the bedroom growing up and despite the redecorating in the decades since, the bookshelf in the corner remained untouched. Anytime I would arrive at their home, there’d be a quick hug for Papa, a kiss on the cheek for Nana and a rush to the spare room. I would look up at the shelf, and the bright spines and pull down a book with a colourful hero on the cover.
I loved these books — all their pictures with movement and colourful characters. What I loved about these stories was that I could read them. They were different to my books at home. I was 3 or 4 years old and not one of the super intelligent toddlers that could actually, well, read. I didn’t need Mum or Dad to explain to me why the Rainbow Fish was upset. I knew the character, that I would eventually learn was named Two-Face, was bad because he looked bad and did bad things. I was excited by the action and a story I didn’t need words to understand. Retelling the stories to my Uncle, he would laugh at my Disney-flavoured interpretation of whichever Alan Moore novel I’d picked up.
I usually picked up the collected editions, feeling smart for reading the big adult books like the ones Dad had with tiny writing. My favourites were Batman and Superman, likely because it was the early 1990’s and I recognised their symbols from the cartoons I watched every Saturday morning. I was a precocious little kid, but I was an only child so my parents found it adorable, so would listen when I told them I had read this really long book, my favourite, The Death of Superman.
Twenty years later on Friday mornings (NCBD in Australia - fun fact), I would ride my motorcycle to collect my pull list for the week and enjoy my coffee before work or class with a story. When it rained and the ride was miserable, I’d justify a collected edition to cheer me up. One exceptionally miserable day, I picked up a familiar novel purely because it wasn’t already on my dormroom shelf. I remember reading the Death of Superman for the hundredth time at age 22, but about 5 pages in I realised I was reading it for the first time that day too.
I guess I’d forgotten that I’d read it without the ability to read because I assumed I knew the intricacies of the story. There were some sections, like the story between Lex and Supergirl, that I didn’t remember at all and I was WAY off with the onomatopoeia. I was surprisingly close though, which is not a comment on my intelligence as a pre-schooler as I’m the first to admit I was a late bloomer but reminds me how much context and characterisation the panels can convey. It’s remarkable how the dark eyes of superman as he rushed back towards the monster could show a child that her hero was in real trouble this time, or how a backwards cap and folded arms meant that a teenager had a bad attitude and was probably giving his mother grief.
I’ve changed a lot since I was 4, thankfully, and the stories I read are far more complex than the ones I created filling in the blanks as a kid. Sometimes I try and read comics without actually reading them. Focusing on the pictures and filling in my own story around it. It’s so easy to knowsomeone is evil from the colour of their uniform or the shape of their eyebrows, so simple to empathise when you see a character cry out in pain. It’s fun to remember the excitement spending an extra moment following the movement of a Robin as he leaps and flips. These days though it’s challenging now to avoid the words, and generally I just end up laughing at what I would have made of certain scenes in Saga. Sometimes, I manage to remember how I learned to love stories.
Really, I fell in love with reading because I couldn’t read at all.
Comics gave me stories of heroism, danger and love made accessible through colours, characters and movement. Whatever I saw I read through the mind of a pre-schooler and was only as sad, scary or risqué as I could imagine. Really, I fell in love with reading because I couldn’t read at all. I should remember to thank my Uncle for my love of fiction and for leaving his comic collection within easy reach of a young girl with grubby hands and curly hair.