Pop Culture
Dec 27, 2013, 10:46AM

How Comic Books Saved My Life

An aging superhero fights on. 

Screen shot 2013 12 27 at 10.45.24 am.png?ixlib=rails 2.1

I bought my first comic book when I was eight years old. My parents and I were on our way to visit my sister at Colgate University, an eight-hour drive we made at least twice a year for four years. We’d pile into the car around 10 a.m. with a lunchbox full of snacks and a stack of old cassette tapes—usually something like Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits plus a few of my favorite Disney soundtracks—and arrive in time for a late dinner.

By this point I was typically prostrate on the backseat, watching the streetlights shift through my semi-translucent white and yellow comforter and trying to gauge how close we were by the speed of the car and the frequency of stops and turns. But when we pulled up to my sister's dorm building this time I was still poring over my comic book, reading it for the 13th or 14th time.

It was a Batman comic book. Robin and Nightwing were venturing into Gotham’s equivalent of Central Park to apprehend Poison Ivy, only to discover that she was held captive by Clayface. Looking back, I realize it was an allegory for the oppression of the sacred feminine by the brutish and unyielding masculine, with the central images of a sedated Poison Ivy first entombed in a pillar of clay, and then, later, exploding out of that same pillar, resplendently naked, with strategically placed froths and plumes of water, barely obscuring the R-rated parts of her anatomy. At the time I only knew that the art—sketchy and full of muted, secondary colors that bled into one another—was nothing like what I had expected, and looking at it gave me a warm, insular feeling like burrowing underground.

I can’t recall the rest of the visit. It’s probable that we saw my sister’s a capella group give a concert after eating Sunday brunch at the Colgate Inn. It’s also possible that my sister introduced us to her current boyfriend and that he joined us for a game of Wiffle Ball on the campus green. All that stands out is the comic book. I grew up on Long Island, in a town called Greenlawn, which was cited in The New York Times a few years ago as proof that Small Town America is alive and well. I attended Thomas J. Lahey Elementary School, where I was happy and generally popular through grades first to third.

It wasn’t until the fourth grade that my long hair and giggling, sensitive disposition caught up with me. I was teased incessantly, permanently barred from playing Air Force One (or whatever action movie was being advertised on TV that week) with the rest of the boys during recess. Whenever a teacher ordered us to line up by gender, one of my classmates would invariably advise me that I was in the wrong line. One day two boys came upon me sitting cross-legged on the pitcher’s mound of the empty baseball field, holding a pair of red, pock-marked rubber kickballs in my lap. I don’t remember why I was sitting there alone, or what I was doing with the kickballs. In retrospect, I was inviting the ridicule that followed.

At any rate, one of them pointed to the balls and wittily observed, “They look like his balls!” I ignored them and hoped they’d go away. Of course the two merely continued to point and laugh, shouting things like “Hey, nice balls!” and “How’d your balls get so big?” while I sat there looking at the ground and feeling the heat of shame rise on the back of my neck.

After a few minutes I stood up and started back towards the school, letting the kickballs drop to the ground, where they rolled lazily towards my assailants. That's when I heard one of them shout, “Hey!” I turned around just in time to see him kick one of the balls in my direction. It connected with my face with a loud rubber thwonk. “Bull’s eye!” he exclaimed. This was the only incident I ever reported to a teacher, having felt up until then that tattling was unmanly, a violation of the code of the schoolyard. I’m sure she made the boys apologize, and that their apology was exactly as unsatisfying as teacher-prompted apologies always are.

Did I follow the example of the brooding and stoic Batman in order to make it through these difficult times? Did I bury my nose in the pages of his comic books in order to escape a world that had suddenly become so hostile and unwelcoming? I can't say for sure—my memories of childhood are so disjointed that I can't recall whether the kickball incident took place before or after that fateful road trip when I was afforded my first glimpse into his world—but I'd like to think I did.

When I was in the fifth grade I convinced my father to take me to a comic book convention in Manhattan. I don't remember what it was called, but I do remember the thrill of wandering that maze of brightly colored booths and kiosks decorated with posters and statues and action figures of all my favorite heroes, as well as many I had never seen before. That day I shook the hands of Lou Ferrigno and Adam West, honors I bitterly regret not being old enough to fully appreciate at the time. I remember Ferrigno was very polite, surprisingly soft-spoken, and spelled my name wrong on the photo of him and Bill Bixby he autographed for me.

Adam West, on the other hand, was rushed and businesslike, scoffing at a woman who had brought her own poster for him to sign rather than buying one from his display. This does not, however, jibe with the accounts of others who have met him at comic book conventions and award shows, nor with the impression of him I've gotten from interviews and his game self-parody on shows like Family Guy, so I like to think I simply caught him on a bad day, which allows me to still become teary-eyed whenever I watch “Beware The Gray Ghost,” the episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which he voices the part of an aging, out-of-work actor who briefly reprises the role of the fictional, crime-fighting Gray Ghost in order to team up with Batman, who it turns out was himself a fan of the Gray Ghost as a child.

I challenged a pair of much older self-proclaimed “ubergeeks” to a game of comic book trivia and, when trounced, received as a consolation prize an issue of an obscure indie comic about a sexy steampunk sorceress, the cover art of which inspired many pubescent fantasies in years to come.

I convinced my father to buy me a large, unwieldy plastic Batmobile and a Batman poster by some Japanese artist depicting the hero as uncharacteristically skinny and pale, standing balanced atop the steeple of a skyscraper like an undead circus performer against an improbably large full moon. I’d later consign this poster to the back of my closet, deriding the artist's depiction of Batman as “too Tim Burton-y,” though I was thinking not of that director's own take on the character from 1989 but of Jack Skellington, the fashionably emaciated hero of The Nightmare Before Christmas and patron saint of emo high school students everywhere.

Not all the booths we passed that day were devoted to comic books. At one of them a man who looked to be in his 20s asked if I'd like to see a trailer for a television pilot being optioned by the network he represented. I eagerly consented, and the man placed what looked like a futuristic virtual reality helmet on my head. For a moment I was enveloped in total darkness, the only sound the muffled chatter of the surrounding convention hall. Then a screen that filled my entire field of vision came alive with images and my ears were filled with the rumbling and portentous tones of a male voice-over narrator.

It was a trailer for the 2000 sci-fi action series Dark Angel starring Jessica Alba. It lasted about two minutes, and when it was over the man removed the helmet from my head and asked what I'd thought. I was going through a screenwriting kick at the time and told him that while I was intrigued by the initial nighttime shot of the camera tracking up the dirt road towards the big scary house, I found the narrator's line about “searching for the answers to the mysteries of her past” a bit clichéd.

He must’ve been impressed by the answer, because he asked my father and me to wait while he conferred with his partner. When he returned, he handed me a business card with a date and time written on the back and asked if I'd be willing to be part of a focus group the following day. I’d be paid $300 for my time. I agreed, and when the next day arrived my father and I took the train back into the city, found the address on the business card, and rode the elevator up to the designated office suite. The lobby was spacious and white from floor to ceiling, save for some modern art sculptures. It was filled with people, most older than me. There were also several stylishly dressed young urban professionals—or more likely, interns— like the one who had given me his card at the comic book convention, though not, I was disappointed to learn upon a preliminary scan of the room, the precise one. They bustled and paced about frantically, apparently overwhelmed by the task of herding us where we needed to be.

At last a group of us were ushered into a small, florescent-lit room with gray carpeting on not just the floor but also three of its four walls. The fourth wall was almost entirely taken up by a two-way mirror. Occupying the center of the room was a long, brown conference table, around which were several black plastic chairs—but not, we quickly ascertained, enough for all of us. After we had all either sat down or staked out a section of wall against which to lean, one of the interns informed us that they had made a mistake and invited too many people. So what he was going to do was tell us a little bit about the product they were focus grouping, ask a few questions, and then, based on our answers to these questions, decide who to keep and who to send home.

As it turned out, the product they were focus grouping was what is today known as a smart phone—one of the very first examples, I imagine, judging by the timeline—and I remember feeling confused as to why it had been decided that, based on my reaction to a trailer for Dark Angel, I would have anything useful to say about that. Still, there was the incentive of the $300. I would give it a shot. After the intern had described at length some of the smart phone's features, he went around the table asking each of us if it sounded like the kind of product we’d consider buying. I decided the best course of action was to answer honestly.

The way I figured, selling the product to someone who was already interested in buying it was easy. By talking to me, on the other hand, they could figure out how to sell it to someone who wasn't. Ergo, my perspective was the most valuable in the room. They were sure to ask me to stay! “No,” I told him. The intern thanked us all and asked us to please wait just a few more minutes and he’d be right back. Then he left, presumably to confer with the other interns.

The adults made small talk while I sat quietly by myself. After a few minutes, our intern returned with a small stack of money. He thanked all us once again for coming, but they had made the final decision on who wasn’t necessary. He read the names off a piece of paper. One of them was mine. “But because you were all kind enough to take time out of your weekends,” he added, “and because we don't want to send you away empty handed, we're going to give you each $100 of the $300 we promised.”

I was more disappointed about getting nixed than the deducted $200. When I told my father what happened, he gave me a piece of real-world advice: “When somebody asks you a question like that, always answer yes.” I reached puberty much earlier than most of my peers, and by the time I reached the seventh grade I already had a heavy dusting of facial hair across my chin and a voice that was a deep baritone. My classmates no longer called me “girl.”

This was also the year I delivered a lecture on the subject of comic books to the “Intellectually Gifted” class, effectively coming out of the nerd closet. I’d purchased a book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud from a local used bookstore that summer, a sacred tome that is to comic book readers, writers, and artists what Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is to biologists. I used it as my lesson plan, recreating in chalk the various charts and artworks contained therein, waxing enthusiastic as I did about the narrative virtues of the medium. My classmates were rapt. Several of them even approached me afterward asking to see the small collection of graphic novels I had brought with me as visual aids: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller, and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.

We sat in a circle on the basketball court during recess, passing the books around, commenting on our favorite panels and reading favorite lines aloud. It was around this time that I decided I wanted to be a comic book artist. I started by copying panels from the comics I owned into a hardcover Barnes & Noble sketchbook that I had covered in stickers in emulation of Enid Coleslaw, the protagonist of Ghost World, of which the film adaptation had recently become one of my favorite movies. I soon progressed to drawing portraits of my friends and classmates, which was especially useful as a means of flirting with girls.

One of my best was of a girl in my first period Global Studies class whom I had dubbed “Ethereal Girl” for the way her blue fishnet stockings made her pale thighs seem to glow with a faint blue light. Those stockings were one of the few injections of color she ever lent to her ensembles, unless you counted the streaks of purple and green in her choppy, brown hair. Ethereal Girl had long, knobby limbs, sharp, jutting hipbones, and small breasts, while I tended to prefer more voluptuous girls. But there was something about her personality, the ever-present smirk on her lips, the way she moved. She was slinky, like Catwoman. Even the thick, black rings of eyeliner around her eyes were reminiscent of that character's mask.

Though the attraction was mutual, it was never consummated. She eventually gave up the punk look in favor of a more sophisticated, mainstream fashion sense, sacrificing, at least in my eyes, her chief appeal. At 16, I experienced a nostalgic revelation while reading Batman: No Man's Land #3. I found myself staring at the same sketchy drawings and muted colors I'd spent the majority of that road trip staring at when I was eight years old. I’d lost that comic book and couldn’t remember any of the relevant information, yet here it was in my hands again another eight years later.

There's something about holding the object of a childhood memory that reconnects you to who you were then, like the ham radio that allows Jim Caviezel to talk to his six-year-old self in the movie Frequency. The nostalgia was a pointed one, for I’d made the discovery in the midst of a period of homelessness which followed my parents' divorce earlier that year.

Having been evicted from my childhood home, my father and I spent the first few weeks living like nomads, moving around between hotels, and I occasionally spent a night or two at a friend’s house while he slept in his car in the parking lot of Huntington Hospital. Eventually we ended up in a government housing facility in Wyandanch, sometimes referred to by its unofficial moniker, “Harlem's Little Sister.” We shared a house with several other families uniformly consisting of unwed black mothers and their two-to-four small children. One of these mothers had a habit of consoling herself by playing “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder on repeat at full volume for hours at a time, often all night. As a result, the effect of hearing that song on me today is roughly comparable to the effect of coming across a late-night airing of The Mark of Zorro has on insomniac Bruce Wayne in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

The facility had a rule that no minor was to be left unattended by his or her parent for any reason, which meant that when my father left for work early Saturday and Sunday mornings I was forced to accompany him to the Walt Whitman Mall, where for his entire eight-hour shift in the luggage department of Macy's I would wander the white linoleum halls like my hero, under the effects of one of the Mad Hatter's mind control devices, passing by the same storefronts, window displays, mannequins and dead-eyed stares over and over again. The facility also had a curfew, 11 p.m., which meant that I was prohibited from spending nights at friends' houses or attending social gatherings past nine, as the train ride back to Wyandanch took about two hours. As a result, I spent the majority of my time trapped within the fake wood-paneled walls of that facility, with its torn, black leather couches and plastic-wrapped mattresses and sign above the toilet that read: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be considerate and clean up after yourself and your children,” separated by what may as well have been a million miles from my friends, my hometown, and the world I knew.

The No Man's Land saga, meanwhile, recounts the events of the year that follows Gotham's being struck by a cataclysmic earthquake, reducing the already derelict city to rubble and prompting the government to officially evacuate the city and militarize its borders in order to isolate those who remained. The no man's land is plunged into anarchy, and Batman and his sidekicks must struggle to maintain a sense of order amid the chaos. It is an indescribably seductive thing, the impulse to compare one's life to the life of a superhero. I found myself having dreams where I was Batman with increasing frequency and likening a particularly flippant and extroverted friend of mine to the Joker—although I admit there were times when I felt more like the Joker, since I’d become so cynical and bewildered.

I continued the practice of drawing parallels between the women in my life and the various femme fatales of Batman's Rogue's Gallery. My girlfriend had a sort of ancient, Sephardic sensuality about her, and her father, though far from a super villain, was still extremely intimidating, so she was Talia Al Ghul. There was my former crush, whose feline features and body language, combined with the sexual tension which was still present in our friendship, made her a perfect Catwoman. I even had my very own Harley Quinn for those days when I was feeling Jokerish—although her red hair may have made her better suited for the role of Poison Ivy.

There was a feeling of being marked by destiny, chosen for greatness the way Batman had been chosen by the murder of his parents, Superman by the destruction of his home planet, the Flash by the cascade of volatile chemicals sent crashing down upon him by an errant bolt of lightning. Even outside comics, in the annals of classical mythology and literature, there was a correlation between traumatic childhoods and triumphant adulthoods, and I decided that my early years of social isolation, dysfunctional home life, my parents' tumultuous divorce, and present homelessness must all be a test, a cosmic trial by fire from which the future heroic me would rise like Phoenix from Jamaica Bay. And weren't there already signs of that transformation occurring? Hadn't I been cast as the lead in all the school plays? Hadn't I just won a national writing contest? Didn't members of the faculty request my autograph in the hallway so that when I became famous they could prove they knew me way back when? And hadn't my English teacher cited me as an example during a lesson on the Byronic Hero? I received my first kiss at the age of 14 on an airplane from a beautiful girl who was two years my senior! I was a literary protagonist!

In June of 2006, the final month of my senior year of high school, my picture appeared on the cover of the “Long Island Life” section of Newsday. In the accompanying four-page article on how I had overcome the adversity of my home life to win a scholarship to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama the author wrote, “He walks with a calm stride, his confident gait absent the bravado and timidity that typically fill high school hallways” and “his dark brown eyes pierce his sentences like punctuation marks.” This was it! My first brush with fame! My equivalent of that fateful Gotham Gazette headline: “Mysterious Bat-Like Creature Foils Ace Chemical Heist!”

I had overcome adversity and was about to take the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama by storm. Within five years—tops!—I’d surely be a movie star, sitting down to chat with James Lipton on Inside The Actors Studio, my image on the cover of every magazine, my poster hanging in every teenage girl's bedroom. I began practicing my Oscar acceptance speech—and my Batman voice as well, certain that being cast in that role was merely a matter of time. Hell, why wait to be cast? I would write and direct it myself! It would be the most faithful treatment of the character yet, a rumination on his nature as an avatar for our own tendencies to impose order and meaning on an inherently random and chaotic existence with yours truly portraying both Batman and the Joker to symbolize how the pair were two sides of the same coin.

I lasted all of three months at Carnegie Mellon. As it turned out, the trials of my adolescence were more than I could bear, and removed from the context of the fantasy world I had constructed atop my high school career, I simply could not function. I was skittish and insecure around my fellow drama majors, whom I found to be aggressively charismatic, and I was daunted by the workload assigned by professors who, unlike my teachers in high school, knew nothing of my home life and so offered no special leniency. Worst of all I was lonely, and I came off as desperately overeager whenever I made attempts at socializing.

My resemblance to an epic hero had vanished, tucked into storage along with the posters and the memorabilia. I wasn't Batman. I wasn't even the Joker. I was just another helpless civilian in need of rescuing. That rescue came in the form of my mother and her new boyfriend, who allowed me to move in with them after I withdrew. I spent the following year living in my mother's boyfriend's condo in Nashville, Tennessee, working in an ice cream shop, spending my free time watching reruns of The X-Files and Law & Order and AMC's “Fear Fridays,” and attending weekly sessions with a therapist.

In the end, the therapy worked, and in the fall of 2007 I began attending Prescott College for English literature and creative writing. I even made it a whole year before transferring to the State School of New York at Geneseo, where I stayed until my girlfriend graduated in 2010. Now we're just another couple of urban twentysomethings—about the same age as those stylishly dressed young interns from the advertising agency—making a go of it together in a cramped little studio apartment in Brooklyn. Just us against the world. Partners in crime. The dynamic duo. There’s a Batman poster hanging on our wall—specifically Alex Ross' portrait of the character from his “DC Heroes” series, which I chose for its photorealism. I even equate my girlfriend with one of his femme fatales, except that now she is Catwoman, not because she is slinky or feline in any way but because she is fiercely independent, in many ways a mirror of myself and yet a foil, capable of being both an antagonist and my closest ally.

There have even been other heroes since high school: Don Draper of Mad Men; a creative writing professor at Geneseo; Barack Obama, for whom I campaigned in 2008; and most recently the Doctor from Doctor Who, whose livelier and more hopeful persona befits the changes to my own personality since my darker and more brooding days as a teenager. Still, he watches over us, arms crossed, brow furrowed, chin thrust out defiantly, mouth refusing to smile, yet somehow evidently proud.

  • As with vinyl, books in general are such a pain to schlep when you've gotta move every year. But like with records, it's worth it. It's almost like having a pet (…almost?)

    Responses to this comment
  • Great piece, Colin. Your lecture to the class reminds me of my own time spent as a TA in a college comics class, where I tried to lead a conversation about Grant Morrison's history book Supergods when none of the bastards had bothered to read it.

    Responses to this comment
  • Colin, with you throughout. Less about comic books than the life preservers we come to clutch in heavy weather. Funny how they bob up like Queequeg's coffin.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment