I wouldn't call myself a huge comic book fan. Sure, I grew up with them and I still have a bunch lying around, but it had been years since I stepped foot in a comic shop.
Mostly, I read web comics... and mostly because they were free. Still, I had a special spot in my heart for the brainless slam-bang adventures of old, back before everything needed to be serious and logical. Back when Superboy could be turned into a living sphinx and nobody thought that was crazy.
It's that fondness for nostalgia that caused me to take offense when my girlfriend of five years, Katie, made an off-hand comment about how "idiotic" comics were. It was in response to some sneak preview or another we'd seen on television. Captain America or Iron Man or whoever.
"They're not stupid," I cleared my throat and weaved by arm around her waist, "not all of them."
"Uhh, yeah," she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes, "yeah they are."
I said nothing more. I'm smart enough to take that option. Instead, I continued to cuddle with her on the couch and silently formed a nefarious plot in my mind.
The next day, I ventured back into the local comic shop - a strange, musty realm that smelled vaguely of hot dogs. Assuring the geek on duty that I knew my way around, I quickly made for the dollar boxes.
The plan was flawless, at least in my head. I'd often heard that the best way to change someone's mind about comics was to give them one to actually read.
I picked up a couple fun-looking old Batman comics, some crime drama title I'd never heard of, and so on. All told, I picked out seven different comic books of various genre and style. There had to be something there that would pique her interest.
I was pretty much finished when a streak of vibrant red caught my eye. It was the long, flowing hair of a cartoon woman standing proudly on a cover toward the back of the box.
Romance Comics Presents: Licorice Whiplash
The red-haired fox was dressed in a racing outfit and stood victoriously before a sleek-looking sports car, trophy in hand. I could tell the comic was aged and well-read by the creases and cracks, but it still looked interesting. I gathered it had been published somewhere in the 1950s or 60s.
Maybe Romance Comics Presents was a bit too on-the-nose when shopping for a female would-be fan, but it seemed like the protagonist was "empowered" enough to make up for the stereotyping.
"What's going on?" Katie studied me with narrow eyes as I approached her, hands behind my back.
She'd been working on a puzzle of all things when I arrived home that afternoon. Puzzles... now THERE'S a grown-up hobby.
"Guess!" I teased, leaning to the side as she tried to look around my all-too-skinny form.
"No," she replied flatly.
"God! You never play along!" I laughed, thrusting the small stack of comics out toward her. "Here!"
The reception was chilly. She didn't reach out for the books, and instead pushed them away with the tips of her fingers. It was a wary reaction I'd gotten once before, though the thing I’d offered was definitely not a comic book.
"I told you I don't want those." She shook her head and made a face like she'd whiffed a bag of garbage.
"You did not," I placed the books on the table, on the puzzle, "you said they were stupid. You never said not to get you some."
"Do I have to read them?" Katie groaned, looking to the books, then back to me with a pleading pout.
"Yes!" I nodded, "You have to read at least a few of them. Then, if you still want to say they're stupid... well, at least you'll know it for sure."
She let out a long, deep sigh and spread the comics out on the table, their clear baggies sliding easily over the surface.
"Batman... Hellboy... Transmetro-Transmetropopolis. Ugh, whatever!" She shook her head as if I'd bought her dog shit on Valentine's Day. "ROMANCE Comics?"
"Yeah, I dunno," I shrugged.
"Romance? Really?" She didn't seem to want to let it go. "Romance. Seriously."
Having found what was undoubtedly the most ridiculous and hare-brained story in the batch, she roughly opened the protective bag and slid out the romance title.
"She's a race car driver," I grinned. "Like Danica Patrick."
"But with insanely long, insanely red hair and huge boobs," Katie added.
She opened the book and started flipping through the pages, not so much reading through the panels as she was looking for things to be offended by. She stopped on a splash page of that Licorice woman walking away from a male race car driver, a tear on her cheek.
"If I WIN this race," Licorice thought, her innermost secrets displayed in a bubbly thought balloon, "Cliff Cavern will NEVER speak to me again!"
"Oh my gawwwwd," Katie put on a bad valley girl accent, "like, that would totally be a disaster!"
She flipped a few more pages and stopped on a close-up of Cliff Cavern. He was an absurdly malformed caricature of a man. His lantern jaw was huge and ended with the deepest chin dimple imaginable. A thick, sandy brown mustache was draped over the huge, square, stark white teeth that made up his wide grin. The man's eyes were nothing more than a few squinty lines, and his hair was an untamed sex carpet.
"I can see why she's hot for him," Katie remarked, her fingernail tapping Cliff's chin, "who doesn't want to date the Elephant Man's date-rape cousin?"
"Alright! Alright! Yeesh, you're ungrateful!"
I threw my hands into the air with a groan of defeat, and then moved to collect the comics from the table. I picked up the super-hero comics, the horror comics, and so on. However, when I reached for Ms. Whiplash's romantic exploits, Katie did something surprising.
She leaned away and let out an annoyed grunt.
"Nooo," she protested, "I want this one. I want to bring it out every once in a while so I can make you feel bad."
The rest of the books went in with my existing collection, which was moldering away in the garage. That romance comic, the Licorice Whiplash farce... Katie held onto it. At first, she'd laugh and groan at it, but soon enough I caught her actually reading it through.
She liked it. I wasn't sure why, I'm still not sure, but for whatever sick reason she enjoyed the silly thing. Figuring I'd get the upper hand once more in this meaningless disagreement over the validity of comics as an art form, I set out on another secret task.
I checked eBay, went back to the comic shop, and so on... keeping an eye out for more of those books.
"Do you have any, uh..." I stood before the chubby guy at the comic shop counter, and suddenly realized what I had to ask, "Do you have any more Romance Comics Presents stuff?"
He shot me a quizzical look, and I couldn't tell if he was wondering why I wanted it, or what it was.
"My girlfriend," I explained, figuring it was the latter problem, "I bought her one, from here, in fact, and she liked it."
"Yeeaah," he responded slowly, "never heard of it."
So, I'd guessed wrong. The reason he was confused, of course, was his total lack of interest in anything remotely like what I was looking for.
I got the same reaction everywhere I looked. Comic message boards were no help, and I had to change usernames after a few people wouldn't stop mocking me for asking.
In a last ditch effort, I traveled to a used book store that had a few plastic storage bins of vertically stacked comics. There were usually a few issues of National Geographic and Hi-Lites in there, as well.
"Can I help you find anything?" The old man in his wire-rimmed glasses peered down at me as I sat amongst the bins, searching madly.
I wasn't really in the mood for assistance. Especially since I was pretty sure he checked me out the last time I visited. Either that, or I had sat in something and he was studying it intently.
"Ah-ha!" I started pulling books out of the bin and scattered them on the floor around me. "Score!!"
All told, I'd found three additional issues of Romance Comics Presents, all featuring the ubiquitous formula racing femme fatale, Licorice Whiplash. They were numbered randomly; issues two, four, and twenty. Still, I was happy with the discovery.
"How much, by the way?" I asked, finally locking eyes with the elderly dude who honestly seemed like he wanted to put his hands down my pants.
"Twenty-five cents each, or ten for two dollars," he responded.
I contemplated getting seven more, just to make an even ten... but then I'd get the stink-eye again. It wouldn't have been a gift for Katie, it'd just be me derping through the door with my stack of funny-books.
I was absolutely silent as I unlocked the front door that evening. I slipped into the house, across the living room, and headed toward the bedroom where I heard Katie listening to whatever horrible J-Pop band she'd become infatuated with that week.
"Psst," I whispered as I approached the slightly open bedroom door, "I have a surpriiiise for yooou!"
As I pushed open the door, however, it was me that got the surprise.
Katie sat on the end of the bed in her kitty-cat bath robe, studying herself in the mirror across the room.
Her hair was dyed bright red.
"Whoa!" I shouted, unable to hide my shock, "What.. the... fuck?"
"Do you like it?" Katie turned to me and beamed, "I just did it. It came out perfect."
Katie was a lot of things, but fickle was not one of them. She liked routine. The same breakfast, the same TV shows, and the same things beneath the sheets. She was not one to make such a drastic change because of a comic book.
At least I had thought she wasn't.
"Uh... yeah. I guess. Wow, that's weird." I approached the bed and stared at the crimson mop atop my lover's head, completely awestruck.
"Oh, I'm so glad," she replied, "if you didn't like it, I would've just DIED!"
She went back to studying herself in the mirror, primping and preening as she saw fit. I'd never seen her act so self-centered, either.
"Hey!" She suddenly snapped her attention to the comics in my hand, the ones I'd forgotten to keep hidden, "Are those..."
She leaped from the bed and took the Romance Comics issues from my hand, jumping and squealing with joy.
"They are! They are!" She whirled around in place, her eyes locked on the colorful covers, and then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
From that point forward, everything I knew about Katie went right out the window. The hair was the first thing to change. Then, she started dressing in the jumpsuits. They weren't a match for Licorice's racing gear, but it was close enough to be all kinds of disturbing.
She started making every meal and attended to my every whim. In the bedroom, she did anything and everything I had been wanting. However, her sudden and disturbing shift toward coy, whimpering submission began to chill me to the bone.
The last night we were together... she breathlessly begged me to call her Licorice.
Finally, mere days after it had all began, I'd had enough.
"What's WRONG with you?" I demanded out of the blue. I had been quietly sitting over an untouched plate of poached eggs, sausage, and two different types of bacon. Something about the perfection of this spread had pushed me over the edge.
"What did I do, sweetheart?" Katie clasped her hands together, her face turning comically sad.
"This. Everything. These eggs! This fucking bacon!"
With one unthinking sweep of the hand, I ejected my entire meal from the table.
"Oh, no!" Katie whined, kneeling over the mess with a handful of paper towels, "Is something wrong with my cooking? Oh, I could just DIE!"
"Stop it!" I shouted, standing from the table and knocking my chair backward, "Stop acting so fucking stupid! If this is about the comics, you're really being an obnoxious bitch! I was trying to do something nice!"
"No!" she insisted, hands shielding her head as if I was about to hit her, "I love the comics! I love Licorice and her pit crew! I love her kitty, Checkers! … I love Cliff!"
"Oh come on, now I know you're full of shit."
"It's true! I'm sorry you had to find out like this... but... but I love him! I love him, and I've been seeing him while you're out! Oh, I can't believe what a mess I've made of things! What a silly, weak girl I am!"
Fatigued, awestruck, I fell back into my chair. Since it was no longer there, my descent persisted until I landed on the floor. There I sat, unable to make sense of what had happened to my girl's mind. I was nearly unable to move out of sheer shock.
Outside, a motor revved.
A horn blasted several times.
Katie leapt to her feet and bolted out of the room.
"Katie?" I shouted after her, "Katie, God damn it, I need to know what's going on! I need to know you're alright!"
I pulled myself up and stumbled after her. I made it out of the kitchen in time to catch a glimpse of bright red hair disappearing through the front door.
As my shoes hit the concrete steps in front of our house, I froze once again. Idling on the street was a sleek race car. It was an old design, perhaps from the 1950s or 60s, but it was spotless. Shiny. New.
I watched, helpless, as Katie reached the passenger's side door of the vehicle. Sitting in the driver's seat was a man I immediately recognized. The lantern jaw, chin dimple, mustache and wide, square teeth within a vaguely inhuman grin.
Cliff Cavern, his eyes little more than scrunched up wrinkles, flung open the door and let Katie in.
"Katie!!" I shouted as the car peeled off, leaving only smoke and skid marks, "What are you doing?!"
Within seconds, they disappeared into the distance. I collapsed on the stairs. All I could do was sit there, my jaw hanging open. The love of my life had gone to who-knows-where... with who-knows-what... and it was all because of whatever unfathomable influence I had brought into our lives... just to make a point.
I cried, feeling like the loneliest woman on Earth.