Comic Books as Modern Mythology: An Interview with Comic Book Girl 19
Last weekend, over 100,000 people, many of them decked out in wild, colorful costumes, packed the San Diego Convention Center to capacity for the annual event that some consider a pilgrimage: Comic-Con. The mega-convention showcases all kinds of pop-culture media in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, but was originally founded to specifically celebrate comic books. Comic books nowadays have a mass appeal – especially because so many are being turned into blockbuster movies – but the true comic “fanboy” forms a well-known stereotype of someone who is anything but mainstream: a geeky outsider whose obsession with the tales in his illustrated magazines borders on cult-like worship.
Well, if comic books have a cult-following, then one of the new priestesses of this cult is Comic Book Girl 19, a rising internet celebrity, who reviews comic books, movies, books, and anything else you might find at Comic-Con, on her YouTube channel. I’m not a big comic book guy myself, but I found her when a friend linked me to a clip giving some of the back story of Game of Thrones. I was surprised to find a pink-mohawked, beer-toting, hilarious girl, swearing and cracking jokes with a cardboard robot… but also kind of brilliant and compelling. I checked out a few more of her clips, and a couple of them hit on just the kind of thing that interests me (your favorite rabbi on HelloGiggles) most: the intersection between spirituality and pop-culture. I started to see some similarities between the stories she was talking about in comics and the stories I’d studied in religion. So I asked her if she’d do an interview and talk to us about this stuff – and she agreed!
DK: Let me start with a dumb question. The name. Comic Book Girl 19 – where’s that come from? Why 19? Why a pseudonym at all, why not go with your real name?
CBG19: It’s a long and sordid tale. When Tyson and I first started the show, at the time I had an internet stalker, who’d been stalking me for, like, 3 years or so. So any time my name is on something, they’ll google me, and find it, and then they’ll attack me and just say really mean stuff.
DK: The internet is a dangerous place!
CBG19: It is! There are literally no laws that protect you! There’s nothing you can do. Like, I’ve looked into it, trust me – there’s just about nothing you can do, if they’re smart about it. If they’re really dumb, maybe you can do something.
So we wanted to come up with a name, and we were thinking, I don’t know, Lonely Girl, Comic Book Girl, whatever, I guess that works. And we were also looking for something that wasn’t already taken, and that’s a whole other ballgame. So I attached the number 19 cause I’m a big fan of the Stephen King Dark Tower series, and the number 19 has a big significance in the Stephen King universe. It’s also the number of the sun card in Tarot, which is about universal endorsement – it’s a very positive card. So…it’s a good number – I like 19!
DK: Oh wow! I thought maybe you’d just say, well there were 18 other Comic Book Girls. That’s a much more symbolic and interesting answer.
So, you also say on your website that you studied Comic Books in college, is that right? Is that possible? What does that mean?
CBG19: I did indeed! I went to Savannah College of Art and Design, in Savannah, Georgia – SCAD, for short. And I had a good scholarship to go there. And they had a program called ‘sequential art,’ which is all about learning how to write, draw, ink comic books. So I did that, I took the plunge! I graduated in 2007, right when the economy crashed.
DK: Yeah, but you’re actually using your degree, though!
CBG19: Yeah! I figured out a way to use it!
DK: If you chose to major in comic books in college, it sounds like you were interested in comic books from early on. What was it about comics that first grabbed your interest?
CBG19: I’ve always drawn. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawing – I love it. And so the art is initially what drew me. As a kid, you’re just like, wow, the cartoons! They just really get you. But it was the story that kept me there. I saw X-Men, and I was like, this art is amazing, but then I started getting into the characters, and that’s why I’m still reading it today. But it’s definitely a combination of both.
DK: Now, there’s obviously certain people that are super into comic books – like a comic book “type.” Do you think that comic books speak to a certain kind of person for a reason?
CBG19: Definitely. I would say people who have a very active imagination are captured by comics. Like I love being in an imaginary world, that definitely attracts me. But also, I feel like comic books attract outsiders. It has a lot of escapism to it. There’s a lot of underdogs and mutants, and people trying to have their very existence accepted into the world.
DK: I see, so the themes which are very dominant in the literature, are themes that speak to a certain kind of personal experience.
CBG19: Yeah, yeah, I would say so. For sure X-Men. X-Men got me for a number of reasons, but one of them was the mutant thing – they’re not accepted, they’re outcasts. People are scared of them, they’re different. And that really spoke to me when I was a kid, because I really felt like that growing up.
But it was just the perfect storm. Because it also has just as many women on the team as men – so that speaks to me as a girl. And they’re just as powerful, and just as many leaders – so they’re very much on an equal playing field. So that really spoke to me.
DK: You mention being a girl in the comic book world, and it’s obviously kind of a male-dominated culture, both in terms of the artists and the fan-base. What’s your experience like, being an increasingly prominent figure in this world, and bringing a woman’s voice to it?
CBG19: I’m really interested in gender roles, I’ve always been interested in gender. And I’ve always been attracted to industries that were male-dominated. Growing up, all the career paths that I wanted to go on were all male-dominated industries. There’s something about that, I like the competition, where you really do have to work your ass off and earn it, and when you’re in it, it’s gonna be such an accomplishment. I wanna get there, so I’ll put in the time, because it’s gonna be worth it.
But there should be more girls reading comics. There’s a lot of stereotypes surrounding comics that just aren’t true anymore. I feel like, partially, it’s that the movies are 20 years behind the times. The stories from the comic book movies are not up to date, in my opinion, and that’s what’s representing comics to the general populace. So when they see this movie, they think, well that’s the kind of story that’s going on right now in comics. It’s so frustrating to me as a comics reader. It’s like, catch up! We are so past the origin story! Who doesn’t know how superman came to be? Or spiderman? If I have to see Uncle Ben die every five years – I can’t do it! It’s killing me inside!
And also, these movies are more geared towards men, generally speaking, as well. So women see them, and they think, well, comic books are more for men. And that’s not the case. There’s a comic book for everyone! But people don’t know that.
DK: So, as you know, I’m interested in ancient cultures and how they also have all kinds of hero stories and stories of mysterious powers accessing all kind of different forces in the universe… so that usually, in the ancient world, falls into religion. Religion tells those stories, or Greek mythology – different sacred cultural traditions. So I wonder if you see comics doing a similar thing – taking up that kind of tradition, and telling the same kinds of stories? Or is it very different?
CBG19: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that people nowadays understand Superman far better than they can understand Apollo, even though they’re pretty much the same, they’re very similar at the core. It’s just a new way for people to understand it. I’m into that sort of religious…like Christian mythology is really interesting to me. I love all the angels and things like that.
What’s interesting about it, too, it’s that it’s always growing. It’s a universe, it’s its own living entity. Like a living creature. You know? And you have these people come in and take care of it. And why are people so attracted to Superman? Why has he been around for 80 years? He’s an icon. He’s a powerful icon.
It’s a new form of religion in my opinion. And you see people at comic book conventions.. I love costuming, I love “cosplay,” I wish I had more time and more money to do more of it… so I’ve been watching it for a long long time.
And you know, that’s a form of shamanism! Dressing up like this totem, that you’re really into, and going around as that person – that’s really powerful. I really feel the power of costumes and clothes. People don’t really pay attention to it, but it’s very transformative!
DK: So you’re sort of suggesting that, once upon a time, what people felt looking at the angels in Christian mythology, or dressing in traditional garb..
CBG19: And wearing a wooden mask that was supposed to be a God…
DK: Right…that there are aspects of comic book culture that are simulating these same phenomena.
DK: So what do you think they’re doing for us? What kind of psychological function do those activities and serve us.
CBG19: Well, part of it is, some people say, escapism. And that’s true. We do live in not the most exciting world sometimes, and its fun to go somewhere more imaginative. But then, imagination itself! That’s a lot of it. People aren’t… I mean, people are being stimulated, but not in the right ways. Art is just a way to get your mind going.
For me personally, I learn better through stories, because stories are a guide to life. I can’t really read a self-help book or an instruction manual. I’m not good at that. I won’t glean anything. But if you have story with the same message in it, with characters and they’re affected by it – then, I get it. For me, it really is a learning tool. It may not be as effective for everyone as it is for me. But there are a lot of other people like me, though, where it really reaches them on a deep level.
DK: It seems like part of what you’re saying is that every narrative is creating a separate universe. So it allows you to help create, in your mind, and enter into, a different existence experience. That’s really interesting.
CBG19: Well yeah, it can help you feel bigger than yourself. Help you feel things that you’ve never felt before, and understand things on a higher level. Have experiences that you would never have otherwise.
DK: So I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what it is about the message of comics you’re really into, like on your show you mention this comic, ‘Flex Mentallo.’ What about it is so striking and important?
CBG19: Well, it’s one of those comics that make you use your brain. There’s so many positive messages that are so simple, but if you take them to heart, will change your life.
DK: Yeah, like it seemed like you were saying on your show that it had a particular spiritual message for people?
CBG: Well, that everything comes from you. You’re your own enemy in the story. You have to check in with yourself. You have to have constant vigilance over yourself. To maintain a higher perspective. And make sure, whatever you’re doing, question yourself along the way. And the hero, Flex Mentallo, he himself is just an allegory for strength. The strength to choose love over fear. And as long as your decisions are based in love and not fear, then you are doing the right thing.
But as a whole, even though people aren’t aware of it, I think there’s always some sort of message. Comics have always had, a progressive, in my opinion, kind of countercultural, weird ideas, new ideas, questioning ideas. And it’s a very subtle medium. People don’t take it really seriously, so you can put a lot of stuff in there, which is kind of awesome. That’s kind of the reason that I think that maybe it’s good that its not mainstream, and maybe never will be mainstream. Because no one takes it seriously, you can really put a lot of messages in there.
DK: But in terms whether it’s going mainstream, obviously a big cultural signal point is that blockbuster movies are taking up comics. So it sounds like you’re saying that you don’t think it’s ever going to be fully mainstream. Is it always going to be countercultural? Or should it?
CBG19: I’m really torn about it, to be honest. Part of me, my elitist side is like, I don’t want everybody into it. Because it’s always gonna become watered down if it’s mainstream. Messages become watered down because they’re trying to do something for everybody. And you can’t get away with as much, because people are looking at what’s coming out.
At the same time, though, even though I’m selfish and part of me wants them to stay… cultish, it would not be a bad thing if everyone was reading comics. You look at a place like Japan, where more people read comics. Not everyone, but there are comics for adults, and children, and teenagers, and boys, and girls, and everyone in between.
There’s something for everyone, I promise! As much as I want to keep them for myself, it would be better if everyone read them. It would be a better world!