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December 18, 2008

The Most Important Book

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Not all of the best presents are given on birthdays or holidays. For graphic novel artist Bill Willingham, the best gift he ever received came at the most unlikely of times—on a sick day.

What is arguably (and since I’m the only one in this particular essay allowed to make an argument, I win) the most important book in my life was given to me as a result of a dire and terrible betrayal by my own dear mother.

One day, in my largely misspent youth, I had to stay home sick from school. And since we were a largish family and mom had no time in her all-too-busy day to coddle one of her (possibly) malingering children, the standard deal was simple enough: In return for staying in bed, leaving her alone as much as possible to get her work done, and generally not being a complete pest, she’d pick up a handful of new comic books when she went out to run her daily errands. It was a great deal, and the only time comic-buying money would come out of a parent’s pocket, rather than mine.

And, by way of full and honest disclosure, I have to confess that I may have stayed home sick at times simply to score the free funny books. But those times were rare, since I actually enjoyed school for the most part, and they’d hardly constituted a betrayal on the same level of what my mother had done on that fateful day. Not only did she not buy me any new comic books, she brought home a book book instead. You know, the kind of book with no pictures of muscle-bound men in improbably tight tights jumping off of buildings. There was just page after page of text.

Boring, droning text.

Seemingly without end.

The thing had to be a hundred pages or more.

“I thought it was about time you read something other than your funnybooks,” was all she would say in response to my entirely reasonable protestations of shock and indignation—pronouncing the final word in a unrestrained sneer of contempt, as if a comic book occupied the same distasteful level as what one might find in a clogged toilet bowl.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t my first ever prose book. I’d been required to read them countless times before, at school. Real books were work. Comic books were what one read for pleasure. The two were mutually exclusive artifacts, alien to each other.

Mom had broken the pact.

She’d violated the sacred trust.

So I complained loudly. When she put a swift end to that, I sulked. That was good for an hour or two, but being in bed all day is boring. She wouldn’t let me get up to watch TV, or do anything else, because sick people stay in bed. Period. If I was well enough to get up for any reason, I was well enough to go to school. More to the point, it would mean I was obviously well enough to have gone to school in the first place, which was the sort of crime that had consequences, “When your dad gets home.”

Eventually, out of desperation, I turned to the book she’d brought me. It was a large-type abridged printing of The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which only deepened the betrayal. As was well known in the Family Willingham (stemming largely from my earlier childhood encounter with a very scary Johnny Weissmuller—which is a subject for another time), I hated Tarzan. He was that grunting, monosyllabic idiot in the movies who swung through the trees on vines—even though anyone could clearly see they were leaf-decorated trapezes, filmed at not quite enough of a distance.

There was more sulking and more complaining, all of which were steadfastly ignored by Mother Stoneheart. And so, lacking any other recourse, with incandescent reluctance, I began to read. Of course, you’ve already figured out the punch line. It was a truly wonderful book. I can’t swear to it, but I believe I finished it that day, in one (literally) fevered session.

It seems the Tarzan of the novels bore only the slightest resemblance to the one in the movies. He was smart, articulate, tougher than any number of spandex-clad superheroes, and even appeared in a full suit of clothes in the first chapter, seamlessly interacting with civilized people. And he was deadly in a way that the dubious Mr. Weissmuller never was, no matter how many giant rubber alligators he wrestled in the water.

On that single day, my love for reading (things other than comic books) was born. In the years that followed, I tracked down every book Edgar Rice Burroughs had ever written. I toured the dying planet of Mars with John Carter, explored Venus and the interior world of Pellucidar. I learned of the rage at the Mucker’s heart, the injustice that created the Outlaw of Torn, and the unimpeachable honor behind the gentlemen’s bet that wouldn’t let the Mad King shave his beard, despite the troubles it caused him. And I read more Tarzan. Veritable tons of Tarzan.

Years later, when I’d finally run out of Burroughs books, but hadn’t run out of a desire to keep reading, I reluctantly looked around to see if some other author had written anything worthwhile. It turns out one or two had. And the rest is history.

And fiction.

And romance.

And biography.

And folklore.

Et cetera.