When a lot of us hear the word ‘comics’, several already-formed thoughts come to mind. Some of us think of our childhoods. Some of us think of Wednesday afternoons. Some of us think of superheroes, or movies, or franchises. And some of us maybe have some not-so-pleasant memories, or some ideas about comics that we don’t share around our nerdier friends. But regardless of what we think of when we hear the word, comics are a huge part of the book world, and a huge part of pop culture.
But does this make them important?
I sat down with one of the owners of Vault of Midnight, one of Ann Arbor’s local comic shops (with locations outside of Ann Arbor as well), to talk comics. It was a great conversation, and it enlightened me, certainly, on the depth and value of comic books.
Kim Gray: I just wanted to start with a little bit about who you are, what Vault of Midnight is, and maybe your personal relationship with comics.
Nick Yribar: So, my name is Nick Yribar. I am the co-owner of Vault of Midnight. My partners, Steve Fodale, and Curtis Sullivan founded the business in 1996 and I came on as a partner. I’ve worked here for 10 years. I think I came on as a partner maybe five years ago. Something like that. And I grew up with a shop. I’ve been around for a long time.
So, I was hooked very, very early. I came by comics by way of single-issue stuff, you know, cheesy nineties comics. I mean, I was ten or eleven years old. I was just the perfect audience or exactly what was happening in that moment in the industry and was just ruined. I just couldn’t get enough. Life ruined. Every spare nickel and dime that I could find, I was just pouring into comics. It [was] like this whole new medium of art that just grabbed me right by the stem of my brain. And then as I grew up, I started to learn more about comics and was really lucky, too, that comics were kind of growing up along with me, you know, out of the nineties. So, as the medium grew and as the medium has matured in a lot of ways, and the breadth and width of comics has changed so much over the past twenty-three years, I’ve had a front row seat to it, so it’s been pretty cool.
KG: So you were basically kind of primed to do what you’re doing now.
NY: Absolutely. However my interests changed as I was growing up, there was something to meet me there in comics. No matter what, if it was some specific genre of book or if it was nonfiction, [something was there] for every type of interest that I was developing. There was either something that I hadn’t heard of, or something that had just released, that was perfectly aligned. Comics have matured as a medium tremendously over the past thirty years.
KG: Do you remember your first comic book or series?
NY: Yeah, I mean it’s probably Spawn. Almost certainly it was. I mean there’s also nothing cooler than Spawn, right?
KG: Do you remember how that comic book made you feel?
NY: It was just exciting and different. Spawn was also very transgressive. So I felt kind of bad reading it. Like I wasn’t supposed to be reading it. I probably should not have been allowed to be reading it. It was very, very mature. But it was also grasping in its really clumsy way to do something larger and play with the idea of superheroes. I think all kids are kind of aware of superheroes and how they work. And this was Todd McFarlane, the guy who made Spawn this thing right from jump street. It was like … this is going to be a twist on comic books. And he was kind of ham-fisted about it, and now I don’t think very successful, but at the time it’s like ‘this is not your daddy’s comic book,’ you know? Exactly what you want when you’re twelve years old.
KG: Do you think in general, maybe in the nineties’ and today, comics get a bad rap?
NY: Yeah. For sure they do, and there’s no doubt about it. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Comics, for a long time, were created as a product first and as art second. We were really lucky there are some amazing books by authors working out of the sixties, seventies, and eighties that really had a mandate to produce a product that happened to be genius. So they produced an amazing product. There was a lot of stuff that came out as a consequence at that time that is really tough to read, and you know, kind of thin. Not very good. But you also have some artists that are just putting their whole heart and soul and mind and body into this thing and they’re producing some amazing stuff. But anybody that just threw a dart at comics for most of the history of comics will be really forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t much there.
KG: I feel the general public has never been, until very recently, okay with the idea of comics. It was always, ‘well this isn’t literary, this isn’t deep.’ So comics were just brushed off as kid stuff.
NY: And I think that was kind of a product that was deliberate for the way the comics were produced for most of comics’ history. Yeah. ‘We have to put something out every month. The ideas have to be really big. We have to outdo what we did last month.’ The attention was paid to ideas. Best case scenario, a lot of attention got paid to really cool ideas, but not really great writing. And a lot of attention was paid to art and the specific type of art, but also a very uniform type of art, where everything kind of looked the same for a very long time. So I think people come by it honestly, this idea that comic books like they grew up with were pretty simplistic, you know, didn’t always have a lot to say.
And then when they did have something to say, it was so insular. It was so baked into a world that was not for you. [It was not] for you if you weren’t already in the club. Because so many people were reading it and you could just kind of dive in anywhere and it didn’t really matter, because everything… was kind of light and who cares. But it made a lot of people pick something up and say, ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’ It really was built for kids or for people that were already in the club. And this is the story of comic books over the past thirty years, specifically as inclusivity. It’s really making stuff that is accessible and inclusive for everybody.
KG: I feel like recently, and when I was in college, I actually had a couple of classes that had graphic novels assigned as reading. And they were books like Maus, and Fun Home, and all of that amazing stuff, and that was what they allowed to be taught in college as something more literary. Are graphic novels different than comic books, or are they one in the same?
NY: Yeah. In a larger sense, it’s all semantics, right? But there’s definitely a distinction between a book that was originally conceived to be this long form narrative versus something that was serialized. And that’s usually where the distinction happens. So they’re all, I would say, and we say around here, that they’re all working out of comic books. All of these folks are making comic books, right? The graphic novel is just a specific type of comic book that has a lot more pages and it’s built to tell the story over a longer narrative or a longer period of time.
But to say that they’re not comic books is when we start to get into the tricky kind of snobbery of how people want to think about comic books. It’s tricky for some folks to read Fun Home and think that it’s coming out of the same tradition and using even a lot of the same methodology and approaches that Superman uses. But they are, right? And that’s okay. Because you know, romance novels are working out of the same form as, whatever, as Dostoyevsky. But that is tricky for people to like, because it’s a new medium, and in a lot of ways it’s tough for people to put those two things in the same camp comfortably. And it makes some people feel better about reading Fun Home if they can disassociate it from Batman and Superman or the X-Men.
KG: My classes were definitely, ‘You can read these things, but don’t write a paper on Spider-Man.’ And it was the first time I’d ever encountered the comic book form in a formal setting. Do you think that’s changing? Are comic books growing up with the average reader? How much they’re changing?
NY: In academia they’re changing by the day. And the way that they’re being perceived and studied and taught. We work with libraries all around the state, and in talks with libraries around the country to help develop their programs to teach classes, [to help] professors and libraries to get this stuff into the hands of students. There are a million reasons why that happens, but a big part of it is that books like Maus and Fun Home opened a path towards people to [show] that you can make serious comics, in a way.
I grew up with this stuff and it was a lot of fun, and I can use this stuff that I loved when I was a kid, and I can make art with it, and I can tell really good stories with it. [I can make] really involved intricate stories. So here we are a generation past when Fun Home was released, and now all of these folks are growing up and making [graphic novels], and that’s just going to snowball, right? There is no way that’s going to stop, because now the biggest growing section of comic books is all ages graphic novels, right? So these are kids that are growing up with comic books that are so much better than Spawn was I was when I was reading. At least a good chunk of these kids are going to make comic books, and they’re going to make stuff that is going to be better than anything we can imagine, because they’re growing up with a higher quality of comic than anyone’s ever had access to, and it’s made just for their brains. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be into this stuff.
KG: Yeah. I have noticed that, even on the shelf from my comic book store when I was in high school some fifteen years ago, there being a very limited selection of series to there being a whole table [in Vault of Midnight] of just graphic novels that are long form, and I had never seen that until I was an adult.
NY: More and more of it. And another part of it is [that] there’s a growing acceptance of nerd culture in general. And that’s just across the board in all sorts of different things. You can blame it on the Marvel movies, you can blame it on pop vinyl, you can blame it on Stranger Things. It doesn’t matter; it’s not as big a deal to read a comic book and talk to your friends about the fact that you read comic books as it was. And in the same way that it’s not as scary to go play [Dungeons and Dragons] anymore, it’s not as scary to go to the comic shop and just buy something to see if you like it. This is how heavy the connotations were with some of this stuff, that comic books are for a very specific type of person that I am not. This is how people thought about this stuff for a really long time. And because the culture has changed so much in how it thinks about ‘nerd shit.’ That is slipping away all the time. It’s not gone, but it’s really slipping away. And I think the next generation of readers doesn’t have it at all.
KG: That’s really my hope. I mean, one of the reasons I’m writing this article is to put this out to people that maybe still think that comics aren’t something they would be into, or that it is kid stuff, or low art, or whatever you want to call it, that they will stop in and say, “oh, this isn’t exactly what I thought it was.”
NY: The one thing I would say to those folks is that we get it, we all get it. We built our shop around the idea that this is a thing, and that comic books need ambassadors, and you need to have your hand held for this stuff because it’s kind of intimidating. So the one thing we would say is that we understand that you feel this way. It’s wrong and that’s okay. And you should know, because you didn’t know. But also, you wouldn’t dismiss films or music. It’s a full-blown medium of art that means that there is stuff across the entire spectrum and that it goes way beyond whatever you immediately associate with comics. And to that end, there’s literally something for everybody in that there’s a movie for everybody in that there’s music for everybody. There’s a novel for everybody.
KG: I totally agree. There’s going to be something that you’re going to like to read. All right, important question of the day. Are comics important? Should we be reading them?
NY: Yeah, I think they’re incredibly important. The fact that we are seeing an entire medium of art, like an original, American-invented medium of art, come into maturity while we are all alive and watching it right now, is unique and singular and really exciting. I think that’s worth paying attention to, and it would be for any medium of art. Besides the fact that they can just be really, really good, and really moving and can change the way you think about the world. Just like any medium of art can, that’s not unique to comics. But comics are in this really interesting moment where we can see it happening in front of our eyes, like this maturation happening in front of us. That’s kind of cool. That’s not something that every generation gets to see about a medium of art.
KG: Do you think comics will become literary, or will the definition of literary change because there are lots of things we’re taught all throughout school that are classics of Literature. Are comics heading in that direction?
NY: I think we’re there. I don’t think many people that think about literature seriously, don’t also think about comics seriously. I mean, just from our experience. That was definitely the case maybe as recently as fifteen years ago, ten years ago. I don’t think it’s the case anymore. I don’t know that we’re changing what the word ‘literary’ means. I don’t know how helpful the word literary ever was, but the idea that this stuff can be of substance and can stick with you, it’s not just fluff. I don’t think anybody has any problem thinking about comics as substantial anymore.
KG: I think you’re totally right and I hope that I can, that we can, get that message out to even more people that comics have substance. Everybody reads historical fiction, or everybody has read Lord of the Rings, but no one’s read an incredibly great Batman series.
NY: Like if they’re reading historical fiction. That’s what’s kind of cool about it is that I can think of a hundred historical fiction books that we have upstairs. If you are into fantasy stuff like Lord of the Rings, there’s never been a better time to read fantasy comic books. And if there’s one thing I would say to people that already read prose… it is weird to read comics at first. It is weird to read [a] graphic novel. I know a lot of folks that have trouble opening a comic book. They just read the words on the page, and they don’t know the vocabulary of how to spend time with a page of [a] comic book, how to navigate it. It does take practice. I get stuff from my parents [that] yeah, I read it in ten minutes. I just read all the words, and I didn’t understand what was going on, or I didn’t like it at all. It’s a weird interplay. You’re not reading a book. You’re looking at an image, and then you’re looking back at the words, and then you’re looking at the next two images. Then you’re going back and it messes with time in a different way. You’re supposed to interact with it differently than you do a prose book. And that’s tricky for people that read prose, but it doesn’t take much practice. And then once you get into it, it can be amazing, but there is kind of an artificial barrier to entry that I think a lot of prose readers have trouble getting over.
It’s an interplay between words and images. And [you’re] not meant to just only look at the pictures, or only look at the words, and it is a learned skill. But it’s not a difficult learning skill… You’d be totally forgiven for just crashing through Watchmen, and just reading the mountains of text and being like, ‘well, I didn’t really see what was going on there.’
KG: Nobody’s on the chopping block for not knowing how to read comics, or not liking comics. You have to approach it, I think, like you would any new kind of art form. You wouldn’t walk up to a painting, glance at it and say, ‘obviously I don’t like paintings because I didn’t get anything out of it at first glance.’
NY: We actually don’t have a lot of context to engage with a new type of art. We just don’t. Everybody vaguely knows how to watch a movie. It’s kind of a passive experience. Everybody basically knows how to listen to a podcast. But a comic asks a little bit more out of you than, like, even reading a book does, which is weird. So, it’s tricky, but it’s worth it.
KG: Can I get some recommendations for those just starting?
NY: Sure. So this is for folks that maybe subscribe to newsletters about bookstores and about the book community. There are some books I think that are no brainers that are very, very accessible. So I would say Asterios Polyp, by Dave Mazzucchelli. It is a book about an architect who sees the world in a very abstract way and his partner who doesn’t, and it’s the story of their relationship. It is beautiful, and I think it’s an argument for comic books. I think it can only exist as a comic book. It wouldn’t work as a piece of animation or as a piece of prose. He’s playing with the idea of structure and aesthetics, and that’s as important as the story of this dude’s life, and this couple’s life. It’s amazing. And I think it’s really one of my go-tos for folks that are like, “I’ve never read a comic book, but I hang out at Literati.” That’s one of the first things I give them.
My favorite Thing isMonsters by Emil Ferris. It’s really, really good. I think either one of those two. I mean, I could go on for days. You mentioned Alison Bechdel (Fun House). Literally anything by Alison Bechdel.
KG: I think readers are always looking for new stuff to devour, so that’s a great start. Now they have somewhere to actually start instead of just, “Oh, comics. That’s a lot.” So thank you. And thank you very much for the interview.
Nick and I could have talked comics for the rest of the day. He’s an incredibly knowledgeable man on the subject, and you can tell how much he’s truly passionate about the art. In fact, he co-hosts a podcast all about them, called Super Skull, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts. It’s a great weekly show where you can hear about the latest issues, news, and a bit of history from people who really, really love the genre. Check it out if you like podcasts, comics, Vault of Midnight, or if you’re still not too sure about this whole comic book thing.
—By Kimberly Gray
Featured in October 2019 newsletter