When I was a kid, it was decidedly uncool to read comics past the age of, say, 13 or so. We were all desperately trying to grow up as fast as possible, and toting around picture books full of Wonder Woman or X-Men stories was tantamount to playing with dolls or having imaginary tea parties (both of which I still adore, of course).
But over the last decade or so, comics have managed to infiltrate mainstream entertainment and have put a hipster gloss on my childhood guilty pleasure. Blockbuster films about super-powered mutants and arachnoid humans proved there were big bucks in the comic fantasy genre, and now it’s perfectly normal to catch a 30-something perusing the latest issue of the Fantastic Four while nursing a latte at his local coffee pit.
And it’s not just high-flying, laser-shooting superheroes that are copping attention from kiddies and adults alike. Serious-minded fare like the historic Roman epic 300 and Frank Miller’s gritty Sin City (both of which later made the jump to film) boast nary a spandex-clad do-gooder, focusing instead on bloodthirsty gladiators and gruesome serial killers. Even Barack Obama got into the game during his first kick at the American presidency, appearing in a few Marvel titles and lending yet another layer of cool to his urban appeal.
It was around that time that I began to notice a sprinkling of historical biographies popping up on the comic racks. What on earth was Hillary Clinton doing propped cheek-by-jowl to She-Hulk? And who the hell thought Sarah Palin belonged on the same shelf as a feminist icon like Wonder Woman?
Well, Darren Davis, did, that’s who. And judging by the surging sales and rapturous reviews, this indie publisher, writer and entrepreneur was bang on the money when he dreamed up the idea of combining pop art with (dare we say it) educational non-fiction. Not only is Davis’s Bluewater Productions publishing house making a name for itself alongside big boys like Marvel and DC, it’s doing something that neither company has hitherto deemed profitable: making history interesting, accessible and fun.
“I’m actually learning a lot from these myself,” Davis confesses. “Back in the 2008 election, I didn’t know much about politics at all. To be really honest, these helped me learn more and become better informed.”
A dyed-in-the-wool fan of the superhero genre, Davis was surprised by how the books’ real-life stories captured his imagination and is happy that they’re being discovered by a younger generation. “For me personally, I was a reluctant reader as a kid,” he says. “That’s why it’s so great that schools and libraries have really gravitated towards our books.”
It also helps that Bluewater’s biographical line cuts a broad swath across history, gender, entertainment and even sexuality. The Palin and Clinton issues certainly proved a hit with politicos, but biographies of Barbara Walters, Ellen DeGeneres and Carla Bruni give a solid variety to the roster. There’s even an issue on the life and times of Justin Bieber — a subject Davis felt some initial reluctance to cover.
“Before we did Justin Bieber I just thought he was this little punk,” he laughs. “But the truth is he’s worked really hard for what he’s achieved. I mean, I’m still not going to pick up his music, but I have respect for him now.”
As the line has grown, so has Davis’s plan to include subjects even less expected in the comic genre. Among Bluewater’s recent offerings are biographies of painter and AIDS activist Keith Haring, Frida Kahlo, RuPaul and even the King of Pop Art himself, Andy Warhol. And it only gets more fabulous from here.
“We’re also doing something on Stonewall,” Davis says. “I want to do something that’s kind of giving back to my community, and that one, because we now have a voice in the biography marketplace, will get more attention than it might have earlier on.”
The comic I’m most eager to pick up is an upcoming story called Lost Raven, Davis’s semi-autobiographical tale of a man coming to terms with his HIV diagnosis . . . while fighting monsters on an island. Like everything else I’ve seen from the Bluewater line, I’m certain this tale will have the humour and pathos that’s so eloquently woven throughout the other stories.
“I was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago,” Davis says. “HIV was just then beginning to become a manageable disease instead of a death sentence, along the lines of diabetes. So I wanted to write a sort of HIV 101 for others to read.”