Dark Mansion of Tween Passions

Wrapping up the tangled threads of a 20-year residence in a beloved place is no simple matter. So much to do–work matters to conclude, charities to guide to a gentle stopping place, people to see–or not to see according to the pain involved… My head’s been awhirl–and that field marshal of logistical organization who has guided me through every previous move–my mother–is no longer with me…

But there have also been blessings and gifts. The gift, for example, of buried treasure:

The comic collection my mother clung to for nearly forty years--a map to my 13-year-old mind.

An item from the comic collection my mother clung to for nearly forty years. (See, I come by the hoarding gene honestly!)

I should preface this story by mentioning I’ve been, as the real estate agent diplomatically advised me, “de-cluttering.” And boy, did my life need it. In the depths of my closets, I’ve found bank records from the ’80s–handbags fromĀ  the ’90s–shoes bought at end-of-season sales and never worn–a cache of not one or two but sixty scarves for giving away. For weeks now, garbage bags full of old clothes and electronics have been force-marched into the van for delivery to Goodwill.

With space and light and air circulating once again in my formerly crammed quarters, it’s dawned on me that I’ve truly been a “prisoner of my possessions.”

And there’s one cache of possessions I’ve been most assiduously avoiding. Specifically, a green plastic tub my mother “saved” for me–for nearly forty years, so you can see I come by the hoarding gene honestly, at least.

Its contents? The comic books I’d collected from about 1971 to about 1977. Not all of them, just the survivors–the ones that didn’t get loved to rags or traded or thrown away.

I haven’t been living under a rock, so even I know that comics are highly collectible these days. But the thought of looking through the stuff and learning enough about comic book valuation to determine what was worth something, how much it might be worth, and why–well, it seemed like such a chore, especially given how limited my time is now that the POD is parked in front of the house…

But then on Thursday, I emptied out the corner where said green plastic bin had been stashed… opened the lid, breathed in the scent of old inks and much thumbed paper … and received in return the gift of a map to my 13-year-old mind.

Phoenix–baddest of the bad asses.

Medusa, whipping Spidey's butt.

Medusa, whipping Spidey’s butt.

Shanna and Nekra--legendary girl fight.

Legendary Shanna-Nekra girl fight.


Here’s a representative sample of covers. Notice any common themes here? As in the noteworthy absence of male figures in any position other than … prone?

As I sorted through titles, sifting items in piles corresponding to condition–mint vs. OK vs. oops-I-guess-I-loved-the-cover-off-you–I was struck, again and again, by the number of covers featuring women. Almost half of the collection.

It dawned on me, as I dutifully recorded titles and publication information, that, at some point in my life, I had fully embraced the conventional wisdom that comic books are a male genre–about male desires, the male “gaze,” ya-di-ya-di-ya–and that the lithe, lightly clad “cyberbimbos” that fill their pages represent an unattainable ideal for which, ultimately, there is no satisfying feminist reading because … well … blah-di-blah “patriarchy”…blah-di-blah “rape culture” …blah-di-blah “body dysmorphia”… and so on.

But this two-day immersion in my personal collection of comic books has revealed something much more complex–an individual gaze actively and oppositionally selecting images and stories that spoke to my own journey; a female gaze translating and transforming what was meant for men (indeed, it was male cousins and male friends who initiated me and, grudgingly, included me in the culture) into a typology of myth that was meaningful to me.

This gaze could root for the bad-ass-ery of Red Sonja, all the while rolling my eyes at the absurdity of her chain mail bikini and the hunting knife strapped to her thigh. This gaze could equally thrill to the trials of the time-traveling Victoria Winters, skirts a-rustle as she fled the vampires, witches, and werewolves lurking amid Maine’s moonlit moors. This gaze was fascinated as much by swords and sandals (Helen of Troy, Alexander the Great) and horror (Werewolf By Night, House of Mystery) as by traditional fare, from Archie to Girls’ Romances and Heart Throbs. This gaze wore boots made for walking–and wouldn’t hesitate to walk all over you and your presuppositions.

People keep telling me how much money this pile of paper is worth. I don’t actually believe them. In these matters, condition is everything, and mama didn’t seal these babies up individually in Ziploc bags the day after I bought them.

Nearly half of the books in this 150-item collection don’t even have covers, and so are worthless. But I don’t actually think now that that’s what’s important.

I need to explore this bounty more carefully–reflect on it more deeply–write about what I think the collection represents more thoughtfully. And that will take time.

But two thoughts I’ll carry with me as I close the lid on the green plastic storage tub and place it gently in the POD that’s taking my stuff down South.

First thought–things haven’t really changed very much. The potent mix of sex, fantasy, violence, and self-fashioning that drew me to Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is the same stew that powers the Twihards’ fascination with Bella Swan’s travails or the throngs who root for The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen.

Second thought: I haven’t changed very much. The girl whose heart pounded when the Dark Phoenix’s powers threatened the known universe grew into a woman who moved heaven and earth two months ago to download Veronica Mars: The Movie on the first day and who spent the better part of yesterday’s pack-fest with a Season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon playing in the background.

That’s right. Yesterday, darling, dimpled Riley bent forward for his first Slayer kiss … and I felt my ancient, much bruised but still beating heart … lift.

The dark mansion of tween passion that I entered in 1971? Its doors are open still. And that’s all right, quite all right with me.