Monday, May 03, 2010

Astro City: Confession - The Comic Book that Changed My Life

I liked this girl. She liked another guy.



It wasn't long after I returned to Albany from a brief life in San Diego. I was still too poor to move out of my parents' apartment. By that time, most of my native friends proved themselves more resistant than I to the magnet of Albany. I enjoyed exactly one group of friends when I returned and as soon as the aforementioned girl and guy were officially liking each other more than either liked me, I moved to the always uncomfortable but familiar position of wheel number five.

Ted and Mary were married. Their apartment was ground zero. Bob and Carolyn would pick me up and bring me there. They were the aforementioned girl and guy. We pounded beer shots during something that had a name like "power hour" - we drank one shot of beer every minute for a half hour. Usually, power hour was timed to coincide with Iron Chef. Ted, Mary, Bob, and Carolyn all thought Iron Chef was funny because it was stupid. I agreed with the stupid part. I had read James Clavelle's Shōgun while living in San Diego and complained that the losing Iron Chef contestants should be forced to cut open their bellies.

We were usually good and hammered by the end of Iron Chef; all except Mary who refused booze because she was pregnant. Eventually, we ordered food. Whoever we ordered from on a particular night could probably stay open two months longer because of it. With the exception of Carolyn, we were all huge. If the five of us were caught walking together, anyone who was lost and needed to find a good pizza parlor could just put their map away and follow.

By the end of the night Ted and Mary would retire to their bedroom and the rest of us found a couch or chair in the living room. Once Bob and Carolyn were a couple, Ted and Mary celebrated the union by letting them stay in the spare bedroom. That left me alone in the living room on their skinny couches.

One night, after it became clear Carolyn's gooey feelings towards Bob were upsetting me, Ted joined me out on his fire escape for a smoke. Ted was a good guy. A nice guy. I hope, whatever he's doing now, he's happy. But Ted was also something of a condescending assface. Ted thought he was a learned elder. You know the guy in a shitty movie - usually towards the end, after main character has made what is definitely a bad decision and just needs a learned elder to give him some advice that will put him back on the right path - who claps his meaty hand on the main character's back, shakes his head, chuckles, says "You know, son," and then says a bunch of useless, empty horseshit that shocks the main character out of his wrong-headedness? Sometimes it will be the kind of saying you'll read on a farmer's bumper sticker. Sometimes it will be a story. Usually, the older, learned storyteller will end the tale by flicking away a smoke or spitting somewhere as if to say "I just told you a rustic story that should change your stupid life, but I don't even care. That's how cool I am." Well, if he's alone with you and you have a penis, chances are Ted will do everything he can to let you know THAT is precisely the guy he wants to be. Yoda with a pitchfork. You know what? Fuck Ted.

So anyway, Ted came out on the fire escape to give me some advice. He told me about this story he'd read in a comic book I'd never heard of called Astro City. This dude, Michael, keeps on having dreams about the same woman. In the dreams, they're together. They're madly in love. Inseparable. The dreams seem so real that they affect Michael's real life. Michael's works suffers. His friendships suffer. His romantic life is dead. Eventually, this mystical dude named the Hanged Man visits him. The Hanged Man tells Michael he is an unfortunate victim of an epic super-battle. Time travel was involved, and while the good guys did everything they could to prevent the timestream from being corrupted, a number of people were literally wiped out of existence. They were never born. The woman Michael dreams of was such a person. They had enjoyed a life together, but now her entire existence has been rubbed off the canvas of time. Michael's dreams are all that remain of her. The Hanged Man offers Michael the only solace he can - to take away Michael's memories of his wife so he will no longer endure the dreams of a lover he can never touch. Michael refuses, choosing that he would rather remember and ache than lose what little he has left of her. As the Hanged Man is leaving, Michael calls out to him. He wants to know how everyone else who lost a loved one this way chooses. The Hanged Man tells him that no one chooses to forget. Everyone would rather bear the pain than lose the memory of who they lost.

So, basically, it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Which Ted could have just come out and said, but he needed a story to mentally film that scene in his life movie, so he found one. Good for fucking Ted.

It fell on deaf ears, and not just because those stories - no matter how well-intentioned or poignant - always fall on deaf ears when the ears' owners are in the midst of dealing with not having what they can't have. But also because I didn't love Carolyn. I was lonely. I liked Carolyn. I liked the idea of rolling around with Carolyn. I liked the idea of maybe, one day, loving Carolyn. But I didn't love her yet.

That night after Ted and Mary went in their bedroom and Bob brought Carolyn into the other bedroom to do with her what I was wanting to do with her, I found the comic Ted told me about. Astro City: Confession.

It had been years since I read comics on a regular basis. High school drove it out of me. In my teen years, I was friendless. Comics were a solace then. I bagged up all my comics and left them out on the curb, finally deciding I had allowed them to become too much of a shelter. A crutch. If I could do it over again, I would have kept the comics, but not because of what they were worth as collectibles. I would have kept them because, yes, they were a crutch. But at the same time, I was friendless. I was hated and alone in a military, Christian, all-boys high school. Comics weren't a crutch that, as I thought, were keeping me from walking on my own two feet. Comics were a crutch I needed because my legs were broken.

In spite of Ted's assfaced attempts to teach me a made-for-TV-movie kind of lesson, the story he told me about, "The Nearness of You," was the one thing about Astro City: Confession that didn't change my life. It turned out "The Nearness of You" was a stand-alone at the very end of Confession, while the rest of the book followed the teenager Brian Kinney, and this was the story that grabbed my attention. Soon after Kinney arrives in Astro City - a metropolis thick with costumed crime-fighters - he is inducted into the world of superheroes. The dark, mysterious hero The Confessor taps Kinney to become his new sidekick: The Altar Boy. While Kinney wrestles with school, life, apprenticing as a superhero, and trying to unravel his benefactor's secrets, Astro City is buckling under the weight of supernatural serial murders, rising anti-superhero sentiment, and the usual army of supervillains a world with this many superheroes can expect to wake up to every morning.

Astro City: Confession fought off any desire for sleep. I refused to shut my eyes until I finished. Once I did, I realized what I had just experienced was something that, to me at least, was completely new. I knew, without a doubt, that the man who wrote Astro City felt for superheroes the way Ted thought I felt about Carolyn. This guy, Kurt Busiek, loved superheroes. He loved them. And not the way a lot of us loved them. The guy who wrote Astro City saw more in superheroes than those of us who screamed at each other about who would win in a fight between Hulk and Superman (Hulk). He didn't love superheroes the same way a collecting comic book miser loved superheroes. The guy who wrote Astro City loved superheroes like the stereotypical poet loved a sunset or a rose. He loved them like an astronomer loved the heavens. The guy who wrote Astro City would approve of Michael the dreamer's choice in "The Nearness of You." Like Michael, he chose to keep aching for a world of dreams than find the peace that forgetting might bring. Whereas I chose the opposite years before and left my comic book collection for the garbage men.

Astro City seemed the polar opposite of books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It wasn't as violent or sexually explicit, but that wasn't what really separated it. And it wasn't just that while a book like Watchmen asked the question of what superheroes would be like in the real world, Astro City asked what real people would be like in the superhero world. Astro City didn't answer those earlier, darker books and didn't try to counter them. But while the nostalgia is just as palpable in Astro City as the paranoia is in Watchmen, what truly comes through its pages is love. Busiek and Anderson find beauty in a cityscape defined by suicidal acrobats and flying supermen. They find grandeur in the dance of lightning, fire, and emerald lasers tearing through pitched battles above the besieged city. Astro City doesn't deny what Moore and Miller saw, but if it answers their works at all, it says, "Yeah, but guys, there's this, too."



I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong. But that's what I saw. That's what I see.

Astro City woke something in me. I can't lie and say everything that followed was a good idea. I dived into Ebay and started rebuilding my collection. I also had a fascination I didn't have when I was a teen - comic book memorabilia. Action figures, posters, lunch boxes, wastebaskets, plates, twisty straws, inner tubes, you name it, they had superhero themed versions of it, and I hunted it down like Tony Stark hunting down a bottle of whiskey. At one point I spent a few days away from my parents' place. I returned to find over 25 boxes of comic books and comic book memorabilia that arrived in my absence.

Eventually, I had to cut out the spending, which coincided with me cutting out the group of friends in which I was wheel number five. I was long over Carolyn and happy that her and Bob had found each other. They rented a place together and I was a frequent visitor. The problem was that I was changing. In some ways, I was changing in ways of which Bob didn't approve, mainly because it meant we didn't hang out as much. Bob was an avid collector of more things than I even know. He would briefly be passionate about collecting one particular item and then months later would move on to something else. I didn't learn the extent of this until I saw the home where he grew up. He had collections of pictures. He had collections of soda bottles. Action figures. Comic books. Perfume bottles in the shapes of antique cars. When last we spoke, he was collecting license plates. He wanted to help me with my collection too, so he would drive me all over the place looking for rare Marvel or DC themed action figures forgotten in toy store clearance bins. When I finally decided I needed to move out of my parents' place, I told Bob enough was enough. I needed to move. I couldn't spend money on action figures anymore. He kept calling to go spending. I said no. When I started losing weight, losing 30 pounds in just one month in fact, he warned me that I wasn't being healthy. I was losing weight too quickly. When he told me that, I reached under my ass, yanked the thick stack of Arby's coupons from between my butt and his passenger seat cushion, held them up to him, and asked him what his expert opinion on healthy weight loss was. It wasn't long after that that I told him, once and for all, to go do to himself what I never got to do to Carolyn. I never spoke to any of them again. I saw pictures of Bob and Carolyn on facebook a few months ago though. They have kids. They're married. I hope they're happy. And fuck them too.

My newfound love of superheroes brought me to Comic Book Galaxy, which would later lead me here, to Superheroes, etc., as well as Trouble With Comics. I made more friends. One of them helped me get my current job, which in turn made it possible to return to college.

When I returned to school, I made superheroes my guiding star. Providence was with me. Writing about pop culture was very much in style. For a Sociology of Gender course I wrote a paper about how black male superheroes were depicted in comics. My undergraduate English Honors thesis was called "I Watched Krypton Die and So Did You: How Marvel Comics Reacted to 9/11 by Trying to Make Us Heroes, and Make Its Heroes Us." When stumped on how to react to the assignment of writing a manifesto on poetry, I decided the only figure who could convey my feelings on the subject was The Riddler. I wrote the essay "Nobody Likes a Smart Ass," and talked about why it was bad to write something whose sole purpose was to prove you were smarter than everyone else.

There are other creative endeavors I've been working towards, with the procrastinating fury of a constipated turtle, since my return to college and it's safe to say they take a healthy amount of inspiration from the world of comics. We'll see if I ever get off my ass and get them done, or if I'm ever as fortunate as Kurt Busiek to show the world that, given the choice, I'd rather be dreaming.

5 comments:

Jamie Carbone said...

Wow. Just wow. Sir, I wish I was as eloquent a writer as you.

Michileen Martin said...

Jamie, thank you very much for the kind words. It's damn nice to read a compliment so early in the morning.

Crispinus said...

Poignant, Mick, and brave.

Michileen Martin said...

Thanks for saying so, Crisp.

Eric Rodriguez said...

Don't know if you'll find this comment but a great resource which I wish was longer. I just finished reading this today and wanted to read others thoughts.