Bill Hicks was a reader.
At least he tells us on one of his standup albums. While sitting alone at a Waffle House in Nashville, eating and reading a book by himself, a waitress making her rounds swing by his table. Noticing he was thumbing through a book, she asks, “What you reading for?”
Now, he had been asked what are you reading but never why you reading.
“Well, God damn it! You stumped me,” Hicks said. “I read for a lot of reason but I guess the main one is so I don’t end up working as a waitress at a Waffle House.”
Overhearing their curt conversation, a trucker comes to the waitress’s defense and declares to the Waffle House the funniest thing Hicks had ever said: “Well, look like we got ourselves a reader.”
“You got me there,” Hicks responds.
Hicks believed that anti-intellectualism in the country had reached epidemic proportions and there were a lot worst things to be called than a reader. Like Republican. Reading alone at a Waffle House wasn’t the worst thing in the world for Hicks and certainly isn’t the worst thing for me. For lack of Waffle Houses in Utah, I survive by eating alone at the counter or bar of any restaurant with a book. I didn’t learn this from Hicks but I like to think of him when I crack a book while sitting at a Village Inn.
His comedy is insane. He was wild, fiery and truthful. He was also incredibly funny.
Bill Hicks was a reader. The Texas comedian passed away from pancreatic cancer at the obscene age of 32 but left a comic legacy based on social criticism, religion, politics and personal issues. He would probably lambast me for writing a blog but I think he would enjoy talking about 80’s punk and the upside of eating and reading alone. I don’t like putting links on the blog but a quick search on YouTube can easily turn into the best three hours wasted.
I bring up Hicks because I am in the middle of my own intellectual mid-life crisis. Instead of going directly to the historic biographies that I make mincemeat out of, I have started to re-read comic books. Specifically, I have been purchasing The Walking Dead and destroying them. Obviously, I started watching the television series first. AMC makes good TV and The Walking Dead rivals anything else they have made. I have always been a fan of George Romero’s zombie universe and was excited to see a long, well-made narrative unfold every Sunday. It is brutal, scary and offers that very important question all good zombie shows asks: “What would you do if the dead rose from the grave?”
The comics are great. They are well drawn, the narrative is compelling and it is hard not to find yourself flipping through pages at an increased clip as the walkers start coming through the walls. The violence is second to none and they address some very ruthless questions. Revenge, death, grief and the intricacies of what survivors will do to continue living are covered on every single page and I have become a convert to the series.
Most importantly, it reminded me why I liked reading comic books when I was a kid.
Some people would ask boxer or briefs. For me, I ask DC or Marvel. I have always been a Marvel guy because I was addicted to reading The X-Men, Daredevil, The Punisher and The Incredible Hulk. There was nothing wrong with Batman or Superman but I never got into them as a kid and I don’t want to start walking down a new comic road. An average Friday for me between the grades 5th and 10th was spent walking to the local comic book shop and thumbing through the stacks of books looking for a new book to take home. My parents have always been supporting of me reading and were very generous with pocket change for me to buy books.
We all remember our first and for me it was Marvel’s X-Men #213. I bought it at a 7-11 across the street from the Red Rock Movie theaters on my way to see a movie by myself. I jumped into comics during the Mutant Massacre and in #213, Wolverine and Sabretooth duke it out around Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I never saw Wolverine’s claws before and I could imagine a character able to survive his berserker attack. It was awesome and thank you for letting me nerd out.
From this one comic, I attacked the Marvel universe and searched out as many comics as I could. Limited by money, I found myself reading at the local comic book store under the judging eye of cashiers wanting me to stop getting my greasy hands all over the books I had no way of paying for. Growing up in Las Vegas, pre-interweb, those lonely Fridays were made a lot more bearable reading comics. I eventually started into books and the classics. We were issued a list of the 100 greatest novels ever written when I was a freshman in high school and I vowed to read all of them before I graduated.
I got through 38.
The biggest hiccup came in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Anybody who has said they have read it either has a PhD in English Literature or is a God damn liar. I can’t even finish the Cliff Notes on it. It is my Achilles Heel, Mt. Everest and personal battle of the bulge. I try reading it every year and have even resorted to ridiculous measures to try and finish the book. For almost a decade, I was buying a copy at the beginning of spring with the intention of finishing it on Bloomsday. No dice. I am starting to look like Mark David Chapman with the dozens of copies scattered throughout our house. You have to be a Hell of a lot more dedicated and smarter than me to finish this tomb and I challenge anyone to try.
I have wanted to start a book club with friends but I already know how this would end. We would pick something like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, try reading it and get together only to polish off a bottle of Bulleit Rye.
I haven’t regretted one moment reading The Walking Dead. I am also glad that I have waited for there to be a nine inches worth of the graphic novel before I started it. There is something very satisfying sitting in Erin’s chair upstairs as she sleeps in the other room looking through a big boy comic book and being horrified about the alternative universe created when the dead come back to eat the living. I’m glad it is fiction and I am not forced to carry a ballpeen hammer anytime I have to make a run for beer at the local Smith’s.
“I read. There I said it. I feel better,” Hicks said at the end of his Waffle House encounter. He’d be 52 years old this year. Before he died, he moved back to his parent’s house in Little Rock Arkansas and spent his last days thumbing through a copy of Lord of the Rings. Not the last thing I would want to read before kicking off but I guess you could do a lot worse. I don’t think of Bill Hicks every time I open a book but I usually do when I put one down.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. I think I smell a podcast coming. Bill Hicks is second only to Richard Pryor as the greatest comedian of all time.