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December 17, 2011

Diana Gabaldon on Comics

Posted by Katherine

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.” Dr. Gabaldon holds three degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and Quantitative Behavioral Ecology, (plus an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters, which entitles her to be “Diana Gabaldon, Ph.D., D.H.L.” She supposes this is better than “Diana Gabaldon, Phd.X,”) and spent a dozen years as a university professor with an expertise in scientific computation before beginning to write fiction. She has written scientific articles and textbooks, worked as a contributing editor on the MacMillan ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMPUTERS, founded the scientific-computation journal SCIENCE SOFTWARE QUARTERLY, and has written numerous comic-book scripts for Walt Disney. None of this has anything whatever to do with her novels, but there it is. Here she talks about a great gift for the bibliophile who has everything: comic books.

She and her husband, Douglas Watkins, have three adult children and live mostly in Scottsdale, Arizona.

You know what imprinting is, right?  That’s when a little animal fixates on its parents, and thus learns how to act.  Little goslings follow the parent geese, and so they learn how to swim, fly, and poop on golf courses. I was born to a multigenerational family of bibliophiles.  I learned how to read while cooking, bathing, and crossing busy streets.

Consequently, I consume books like salted peanuts, and --- genetics and nurture being what they are --- so do all my children.  We’ve always told the kids that we’d buy them any book they wanted, and we have.    When you live this way, though, what do you do about Christmas?

Naturally, you’d give someone you loved a book for Christmas --- but what book?  It’s meant to be a surprise, so you can’t ask for a specific title that the recipient would like (and if you did, they’d probably run out and buy it for themselves the minute they thought of it).  And by the time your kids are out of middle school, you no longer have any idea what they’ve read and what they haven’t (though turning over your son’s mattress may give you a clue to his tastes, it probably won’t help with the Christmas shopping).

Some years ago, I stumbled upon the solution to a bibliophilic Christmas: cartoon collections.  This may be in part my own imprinting at work again; I learned to read at an early age by reading Walt Disney comic books, and thus have always instinctively understood the appeal of comics.  Beyond the bright colors, a comic is a study in concentrated character --- it’s not coincidence or lack of imagination that causes most comic strips to be named (either directly or indirectly) after the central character; the character is the story.

Popular as cartoon-strip collections are, though, they aren’t the sort of books that people normally buy for themselves.  I think this may be in part because they’re sequestered off by themselves, hidden away in a remote bay of the bookstore called “Humor.”  People browse Mystery, Fantasy, Romance, YA…but Humor?   You just don’t think, ‘Oh, I need something to read,” and head for Calvin and Hobbs or Mallard Fillmore.

And yet, cartoon collections are a compulsive bibliophile’s ideal; they can be read anywhere, under any conditions (there are always a pile of them in the bathrooms), can be read repeatedly with continued enjoyment, can be read straight through or in hasty snippets, have a broad appeal, and above all, have that unique characteristic of a great book --- the urge to read bits aloud to someone near you.  Consequently, they’re fodder for conversation, as well as a solitary pleasure --- and trading them back and forth leads to familial interaction, always a Good Thing at Christmas.

So our halls are decked with Dilbert and Dagwood, Pearls Before Swine and Sherman’s Lagoon, Foxtrot and For Better and for Worse, Baby Blues and Zits.  The only drawback, really, is that they’re hard to fit in a stocking.