Friday, October 28, 2005

Comics Made Me Dead Inside

The doctor said I needed to watch my weight so I started drinking diet soda. Liquor tastes like crap and I don't like getting drunk to begin with; tobacco is disgusting; I'm too nervous as it is to even consider illicit drugs. No, I like soda pop, it's my one true vice. And now I have to make do with this watered-down crap that leaves the unmistakably horrid taste of saccharine in my mouth.

Not that I'm fat, no. But if I kept on the same path I would be; joining the ranks of the seemingly hundreds of thousands of comics folk -- pro and fan alike -- stricken by obesity. How many comics pros look about two onion rings away from a triple bypass at any given moment? Those creators who aren't shopping at the Big & Tall seem to have ferret metabolisms, invisibly vibrating like Barry Allen used to do and in the process burning more calories than they can manage to eat until their bodies begin to devour their bones. Yes, Grant Morrison, I'm looking at you. Most indie comics folks look like they may not know where their next meal is coming from, so they hardly have the luxury of corpulence.

About the same time I realized I needed to seriously think about healthy eating for the first time in my life, funny things began to happen to my eyes. Pages and computer screens that had once been crystal clear began to seem just slightly obscured. I would begin a session at the computer in a normal seated posture, but slowly my head would lean down, unnoticeably but inexorably, until my nose was less than a foot from the screen. The awareness of my slowly diminishing sight was finally trumpeted by the arrival of minor but annoying headaches positioned just behind either of my eye sockets at random intervals.

The optometrist said the damage to my sight was still minor, and that a I wouldn't yet need to use permanent eyeglasses -- just reading glasses. But the implication can't be ignored: it only gets worse from here. Of course, I've a long way to go until I'm blind or even seriously impaired: but that doesn't mean, for someone who has always enjoyed perfect eyesight, that it isn't a significant blow. I can understand how anyone -- especially anyone similarly infatuated with a visual artform such as this -- facing far more serious visual impairment could afford to be far more vituperative. Those who are blinded without also gaining the luxury of a super-keen radar sense have every right to be bitter.

Entropy is the end result of all things -- youth fades, energy dissipates and is spent, knees buckle and eyesight disappears. This is no more true for comics fans than it is for football players or bankers, but for those of us who spend so much of our lives wrapped in the comforting blanket of fantasy it seems a double betrayal. You wake up one day and realize you're getting older, and I'll be God-damned if Superman isn't still the same age he was twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Even if you've left behind superheroes, or regard them as a passing entertainment, they remain forever young. Like a latter-day Dorian Gray, Spider-Man remains eternally youthful while what remains of his core constituency begins to crumble with age.

But if the reader is the superhero's true alter-ego, the picture has become calcified and yellow. Superman may be twenty-nine forever (at least he should be), but he carries the scars of every middle-aged disappointment suffered by his fans and creators. Do I want to read about a Superman buffeted by self-doubt, moral ambiguity and marital stress? Trust me, I have enough of that as it is. The only plausible outcome of giving a character like Superman grown-up problems is to limit his readership to grown-ups. Little kids don't want the rigors of adulthood in their entertainment, they want a fun and flashy facsimile of maturity. Spider-Man's early adventures were in no way a documentary recreation of an authentic high school experience; they were every bit the high-drama and shameless soap-opera that younger kids imagined high school life as being. Real high school is far less interesting.

Art has no responsibility to give succor or moral suasion. But those of us who grow up reading these crappy superhero comics come to expect comfort from the tropes of superhero fiction. But really, just because they fulfilled an unfulfilled need in us during unhappy or unrequited moments of forgotten childhood anguish, does not mean they can bear that weight for a grown adult. And I think, at least for me, one of the most important signs that I had become an adult was the fact that the stories didn't fulfill any such vital emotional need anymore. You grow up, you look up from your book, you face the real world. (Some people get skittish and stick their nose back in the book, but that's neither here nor there.)

But on the other hand, sometimes when things are bleak and your world is falling apart, you miss the moral certitude that came part and parcel with crappy old superhero comics. But when I pick up an issue of Spider-Man, I see . . . what? Peter Parker facing some mysterious disease? Emotionally distant and unable to communicate with his loved ones? I'm sorry, that rings way too close to home to be plausible escapism. People who write stories about Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman being unable to communicate because they lose their mutual trust and are unable to bridge a highly-charged emotional gap aren't writing superhero stories for kids, their letting their own mid-life relationship anxieties inform the characters to a simply absurd degree.

But we all know the books aren't for kids anymore. If I had a kid I'd steer them towards Ultimate Spider-Man, because whenever I flip through that book I see everything I should expect to see in a Spider-Man adventure: angst, adventure and romance. No thinly-veiled metaphors for mid-life impotence or marital dissatisfaction, thank you. The Powers That Be at DC say that after the current crossover the books will become light-hearted and cheery again, but it won't work. It won't be the same thing. It's an ironic pose, and kids'll want nothing to do with it. They're busy buying manga, the most popular examples of which present a much more concise, emotionally satisfying and essentially comprehensible vision of the world -- like Spider-Man used to do.

I wish I was ten again and could walk down to the Seven Eleven and get a pile of comics for less money than it would cost to fill my gas tank now -- and that each of those comics was a fascinating, kinetic dose of escapist fantasy. Puerile? Livid? Gratuitous? Hell, yes, give me more. But even if I could, it wouldn't be the same thing. I'm not the same person I was when I was ten years old. I regret that, but only in the vague way that any change is essentially bittersweet -- not that I would seriously consider life as a perpetual child. I would regret it far more if I was unable to recognize the limited emotional palette utilized by the vast majority of the stories.

There is no succor. People grow old, become sick and get injured. Family members die and friends fade away. Wives and husbands leave, lovers betray. It is something of a comfort for the future that Spider-Man will remain eternally young for new generations of readers to discover, but he gives me no comfort in my travails, nor should he. He is for the young -- leave him be. I don't need him anymore -- and if I still did I'd be in far worse trouble than I am now.

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