Sense of Wonder, My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story
© copyright 2017 by Bill Schelly
IN 2001, I WROTE a book titled Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom. It quickly sold out, and in the ensuing years, at signings in bookstores and other venues, people told me it was their favorite of all my books. They said things like, “I could really relate to it,” “I’m not much into comic books, but it reminded me of [fill in the blank],” and “When I reached the end, I wondered what happened next.”
This got me thinking. The book’s story ended shortly after I turned twenty-one, when I had no idea what the future held. Now, forty-four years later, I know what came next, and it struck me how the more recent decades of my life have answered many of the questions that filled me as a youth. In particular, I used to wonder how I would find a way to express my inner creativity as an artist or writer. As it turned out, I did become a writer, although the way I got from there to here is much different from what I imagined as a boy, a teenager, and a young man. How that happened makes up part 2 of this expanded edition of Sense of Wonder. In my story, you might find some things we have in common and perhaps even some insight into how you might move forward on your own path. I find that inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources, so in your case, why not from my story?
Comic fandom is interesting because the sequential art medium itself is an endless source of fascination, but what’s equally interesting is the way early fandom was a mix of all kinds of people. When you were corresponding with someone through that archaic method now known as snail mail, you didn’t know if the person on the other end was black, or in a wheelchair, or a stutterer, or anyone ostracized for a myriad of reasons in white-bread America of the 1960s. The interests you had in common were all that mattered. Even when the grassroots fandom movement progressed to the point where fans gathered for meetings and conventions, the love of a shared hobby was more important than any human differences.
However, it’s important to remember that there are some differences—such as a nonconforming sexual orientation or gender identity—that aren’t readily detectable in person. In the 1960s, the closet reigned supreme for homosexuals and others not on the societally sanctioned end of the Kinsey scale. If “coming out” as an adult comic-book reader was difficult before the rise of nerd culture, coming out as gay was difficult to the power of ten. To a lot of people, being gay meant you were an untouchable. If you weren’t heterosexual, you were considered, at the least, mentally ill.
I know because I’m gay and always have been. This meant that along with all the other challenges that one encounters in life, I had one more: how to deal with this difference within myself and what it meant for my life. How could I tell my parents and siblings, and what would they think when they found out? Did it mean I wouldn’t have a spouse or partner in life? Did it mean I wouldn’t have children? These are not small concerns. My sexual orientation raised other questions: how did being gay relate to my love of comic art? Did comic books mean something different to me than they meant to a straight person? What did it mean to be a homosexual in comic fandom?
When I decided to write this expanded version of Sense of Wonder, I realized it was impossible to tell my complete story without being frank about my sexuality. (Of course, my friends and family have known about it for decades.) Who you are as a person goes deeper than your sexual orientation or gender identity, but there’s no denying the life-shaping force of one’s sexuality. Thanks to a lot of activists over the years, being gay has much less of a stigma now than it did in 1966. One thing I know for sure: I wasn’t the only comics fan with a minority sexual identity. Fandom reflected the larger society, so every kind of human being was a part of that group. And aren’t all of us different anyway? Don’t all of us feel left out sometimes? Don’t a lot of us feel like our dreams might not come true?
For me, the way was through a hobby that told stories of heroic super-beings, intrepid reporters, enterprising ducks, worthless playboys, and a whole lot more. This is the true story of a boy whose whole world was altered forever at the age of eight, when his sense of wonder was awakened in the pages of a simple, four-color comic book. It’s the story of how that hobby led, in the unlikeliest of ways, to the writing career he always wanted.
So if you’re among the frustrated, there’s a message here for you—a message of hope—which is all I had for a long time.
Bill Schelly, 2018