I was sitting at a bar and grill on Michigan Avenue, eating a blue-cheese loaded iceberg wedge and drinking a basil-infused gimlet, taking notes in my little Moleskine notebook while the guide to the Chicago Art Institute that I'd been using as a bookmark lay on the table next to it. In small-talking the waiter I said I was from San Francisco and I'd come to Chicago because my son was attending G-Fest, a convention for Godzilla fans. We shared a smile: oh, those crazy kids, ha ha ha. Overall, I was doing a very good impersonation of an adult.
But ten days later I was at the San Diego Comic Con, and I wasn't with my son. True, I had a graphic novel to promote, one that sprang from a web comic commissioned by a nonprofit advocacy group. I could try to pretend that that's the only reason I was at Comic Con, but that wouldn't explain the twenty-six straight years I'd been there before this one.
I get why my son loves Godzilla and all his fellow kaiju. And it's not just that he's huge and destructive and free of the constrictions of society and all those other virtues I wrote about in Killing Monsters. It's that he's junk. He's chuckled at by the rest of the world, and Nicky is part of a select group who understand that there's something valuable in that junk, who can tell you why the guy who directed Mothra is better than the guy who directed Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and why YMSF makes more accurate vinyl monster toys (or "figures," if you will) than Bandai and how the composer of the best Godzilla soundtracks consciously combined Western symphonic music with Japanese folk ballads and why the American Godzilla movie really sucks.
I was that way with comics before they had a cachet, when comic cons drew only a few thousand obsessive guys and a few dozen embarrassed girlfriends. I liked discovering artistry in a medium completely dismissed by the world at large. I liked being able to take one look at a comic book page and recognize the artist, and somehow it meant more that hardly anyone beyond the confines of that convention center would even know his name. It wasn't just about finding a community and setting myself apart, either, although those were both part of it. It was also about coming to rescue of the junk. It was about saving great junk from the garbage and telling those obscure artists and writers that someone noticed. And it was about discovering gems that lay right under the noses of the mavens of culture but that they could never recognize.
That's part of what's drawn me to The Undressing of America. Because while comics have gone cool and even Godzilla has his conventions and fanzines, no one is championing the confessional magazines. No one is arguing for the importance of true crime magazines. No one tells the stories of the men who created the tabloids. It isn't even that I like the things as works. Far more even than in superhero comics and monster movies, the glimmers of artistry there are lost in a sea of hack work. Read ten True Story articles in a row and my brain goes numb.
But as cultural forces they mattered. As historical capsules they're rich. As threads in the American story they deserve far more attention than they get. When cultural historians write about the history of magazines in the Twenties they wax about the New Yorker and Mencken and Time, with perhaps an obligatory nod to the Readers Digest and the Saturday Evening Post. But naive, tatty, neglected True Story reached more people than any of them and did at least as much to change the cultural and social landscape. I like digging them out from under the piles of better-respected magazines that have been stacked on top of them for decades. In comic-fan terms, I like discovering them at the back of the quarter box.