When last we left this drama, I was departing for college, intending (or perhaps hoping) to set aside the comic book habit once and for all. It had served me well and filled my time for years, but the serious-minded hunkering down of adulthood was meant to accompany the step up to the costly concentration of higher education, wasn't it? Besides, the comics industry had changed considerably in years since I plucked individual issues of Fantastic Four and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-man off the lowest shelf of the magazine rack at the local grocery store. Comics were largely absent from supermarkets, drugstores, gas stations, the sort of places where they once shimmered enticingly for impressionable eyes, luring in new readers. Instead, you needed to find a specialty shop, a place that basically only sold comic books, usually one wall covered with the most recent releases and the rest of the space taken up by pricey, desirable back issues. I was going to college in a fairly isolated, smallish city. There was no guarantee I'd find such an establishment.
Truth is, I wasn't there for long before I found a comics shop, located conveniently, problematically right around the corner from my new bank. By necessity, I scaled back my purchases significantly. My only source of income, besides the very occasional generosity of distant relatives, was a modest work-study job with the university, serving as a projectionist for the film classes in the communications department ("projectionist" at this place and time largely meant pressing play on a VCR and then sitting out in the hallway with my homework, although I faced the frustration of working with the rickety 16mm projector a couple of times thanks to Dr. Midkiff DeBauche's Soviet films course). I had little money and couldn't indulge in the sort of stacks I once enjoyed. This caused me to largely forgo the titles I used to collect obsessively in favor of exploratory purchases of comics I was curious about, but had never actually seen. Besides the comics themselves, I was an insatiable reader of magazines, newspapers and any other stray article I could find relating to comics, so I had a working knowledge of almost everything going on in the field even if I didn't have the nerve to order any of that stuff sight unseen from the various mail order outlets.
So, one day I walked into the comic shop and walked out with this:
I was familiar with the barbarian aardvark from a handful of reviews or other accolades in the sort of "Bang! Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" articles that sprouted like Sumerian crabgrass back then. I had even read a couple of atypical stories that were published in Marvel's Heavy Metal wanna-be Epic Illustrated. But I had never seen an issue until that day. I'm not sure why it grabbed me--writer/artist Dave Sim's storytelling style was not well-suited to single issue reading by this point--but it did. In short order, I bought a few recent back issues, which only served to prove that, unlike my initial foray into superhero comics, I wasn't going to be able to get into this extended tale in a piecemeal fashion. Sim was creating a 300-issue "novel," divided into hefty individual stories running for anywhere from 25 to 50 issues. Luckily (or not, depending on the perspective) the next new issue to hit the stands began a new storyline, one that was especially well-suited to a reader starting fresh: the understated, beautifully evocative "Jaka's Story."
I was newly committed to regular trips to the comic shop, seeking out the next installment of Cerebus. And since I was there, I may as well pick up other stuff, too. It always felt a little awkward to only get one thing. Many other patrons were walking up the counter with piles as tall as a couple Chicago phonebooks, after all. Just getting one thing made you look like an interloper instead of a proper denizen of the comic geek nation. Eventually, I befriended others who helped perpetuate the habit. soul_shear set me up with a better comic shop, the old Galaxy Hobby, and caker_66 was my Cerebus cohort, engaging in ludicrously literary late-night conversations about the fiery grey aardvark and introducing me to other series from the artier part of the comic universe. He'll tell you it was me that introduced him to the comic book about the fucking cats. That's true.
After college, I stayed in Stevens Point for another year-and-a-half, comfortable in my routines. Eventually, though, the time came to move on. I got a job in commercial radio and moved back to my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. This was another major mile marker in my life's journey and a new opportunity to make a break with the comic book habit, this remnant of my youth. Except that I had mentally committed to Cerebus and it was still years away from its planned ending with issue number 300. Like an addict always pledging a change in one more day, I had my new endpoint. I would stop reading comics once Cerebus reached its conclusion.
You probably already have a sense of how well that plan worked out.