When I was about 10, I developed an obsessive love for The X-Men. It started with the Saturday morning cartoon show, but quickly became about comic books, as well. To this day, long-overwritten plot points from the Marvel universe take up a significant portion of my memory space (as my husband can attest). In my marriage, I am the one who is called upon to flesh out the backstory and conflicts with source material after my husband and I have seen an action-hero movie.
But I didn't own a single comic book until I was 19.
In fact, I'm not sure my parents or friends even knew I liked comic books. All my reading, for nine years, was done in secret. I'd slip into the comic book aisle at the bookstore when nobody was around to see, grab an anthology off the shelf, and spend the next two hours nestled in a corner somewhere — with the comics safely hidden behind a magazine or large book. I did the same thing at the public library. Never even checked one out. If I couldn't finish a library comic anthology in one afternoon, I'd hide it in a seldom-used section and come back the next day. (My apologies to the librarians of the world for that.)
Partly, that shame and fear came was about being labeled a nerd, in general. But there was, for me, also a pretty heavy gender component. Tall, clumsy, nerdy, ignorant of fashion or makeup, and definitely not "attractive" in the way that sheltered pre-teen and teenage society defines it, I spent a good chunk of my adolescence paranoid about my identity as a female. Where and when I grew up, there weren't a lot of good role models for diversity of female experience. My parents always supported who I was, but society and my peers seemed to have a pretty strict definition of who girls were and what they liked ... and I didn't fit. Admitting that I was into comics felt like it would be just one more thing I did wrong. That's why I really, really love Women Reading Comics in Public Day, an unofficial holiday started by the bloggers at DC Women Kicking Ass.
I fully acknowledge that boys got flack for being comic book fans, too. Basically, it's hard out there in junior high for anybody who doesn't fit in — or can't at least make their peers believe that they fit in.
But guys, at least, never had to feel like they were doing something wrong, as a member of their gender, by being into comic books. There's apparently not a lot of comic reader data publicly available online, but Johanna Draper Carlson at Comics Worth Reading worked for DC in the mid-1990s and has posted about what she learned from the surveys they commissioned back then.
In 1995, as I was busily hiding X-Men behind the latest issue of Seventeen, 92 percent of DC's readers were male. Surveys like this one came out in single-issue comics, the kind you purchase weekly, not the thick, bound volumes carried by the library or stocked at Barnes and Noble. It's unlikely that a reader like I was would have ever seen (or answered) a comic book reader survey.
I was ashamed of reading comics in public because comics were a boy thing. Because I was ashamed of reading comics in public, I wasn't counted as part of the readership — a fact which, multiplied over lots of ashamed little girls, only made comics look like even more of a boy thing than they actually are. Shame perpetuates shame.
That's why I identify with Women Reading Comics in Public Day, and why I think it's important. Kids growing up today need to know that simple customer surveys don't always reflect who the audience actually is — and they definitely don't reflect who an audience should be. When you fall outside the norm, you need to know that you're not alone. You need to know that it is, in fact, perfectly normal to fall outside the norm. "Average" and "Right" are not the same things.
Basically, Women Reading Comics in Public Day is awesome for the same reason that Bronies are awesome. You shouldn't have to be ashamed of liking the things you like — even if those things aren't "made for you".
I didn't feel that way until I was 19, when I met a great group of friends in college who helped me learn to feel comfortable with myself. The Sandman series were the first comics I ever read in public — surrounded by friends, male and female, all of us devouring the illustrated word. The copy of Brief Lives I'm reading in the photo is the first comic I ever owned. My friend Max bought it for me in January of 2001. My hope is that, if I read comics in public today, some other little girl won't feel like she has to wait so long to publicly enjoy the things she enjoys.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.