Saturday, March 24, 2007

My Secret Origin

Hi everybody, Greg here. Comic book addict.

It sounds like such a silly thing, addicted to comic books. They've always been degraded in our society, kicked to the curb, thrown out during maternal room cleanings(not mine, tho: thanks, Mom!!), housed in boxes in musty garages and attics, spilling haphazardly off childhood shelves.

Why would anyone take seriously this four-color medium packed with brightly-clad fools and 15 page stories, on flimsy, newsprint paper? How Greg, you ask, did you get hooked? This, then, is my secret origin.

My first superhero comic book was an issue of Detective Comics, I believe, from 1969. I think it cost a dime. The comics had, like the rest of the country, come down with a case of moon-landing fever, and this issue hollared "Batman and Robin on the moon!", in a story featuring that most famous luna-tic, the Joker. It turns out to be a hoax (reflecting the thoughts of some of our nation's doubting Thomases, no doubt)the Joker had spirited the Duplica Dynamica [who says I'm not learning Portuguese...] to an old warehouse, outfitting it to look like the surface of the moon. But Joker had apparently flunked science class and Batman was able, of course, to sort out the physical errors present in their faux-lunar environment and defeat the Laughing Lord of Insanity. A simple story, thinned out with ads for bodybuilding, seamonkeys, how you could sell magazine subscriptions for big money and other comic titles currently for sale.

In 1969, I was four years old. Probably Dad bought the comic for me on the way home from work, maybe part of his and Mom's campaign to not make me feel like a stepchild in the wake of my sisters birth. (Who knows, maybe it was Mom who bought it. I'll have to ask. I wonder if they'd remember, even.) But "Batman" was also on television at the time...and I was probably already thrilling to the occasional episode of "Superman", "Green Hornet" and "The Lone Ranger." In any event, I was hooked on the superhero thing at a young age.

I don't actually recall receiving that issue...who remembers much about Life At Four, after all? That issue would probably be valued more highly in the re-sale market today, if it didn't bear assorted crayon marks...and like many of my earliest comic books (mostly Archies and Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse...)...bears the marks of a bit of pre-vacation organization on my young part, in which I marked the covers of many (probably all...) of my comics with the legend, "Greg--to Long Lake" in preparation for two (as it turned out, quite rainy) weeks in the Adirondack Mountains.

When I was growing up in New Jersey, there was a store around the corner from our house called Pops. It was an old soda fountain, which is surely gone today, or at least no longer recognizable for what it once was. Candy, magazines, cigars, the soda counter. There was plenty there that didn't interest me, but at the bottom of an old wooden rack of magazines...and also in an adjacent metal spinning rack...there were four-color covers a-plenty!

In the Seventies (as I neared double digits), I think it's safe to say things were still pretty innocent and Mom would let me go there from time to time, to buy a comic book. I remember an issue of The Brave and the Bold that caught my attention with its team-up of Batman and Wonder Woman, which I mentioned last (first) post. Batman I knew, but about her, I was baffled. There was no red, white and blue costume, no lasso of truth...

[I'd be much closer to adulthood before I understood that, by then, Diana had temporarily(thank the gods!)abandoned her Amazon powers and bright costume in favor of a white jumpsuit and Emma Peel moves...]

...but still, she was wonderful, and matched an unpowered Batman move for move. I'm guessing it was the TV series that shortly brought her into sharp focus for me.

Other comics followed, but eventually I was visiting Riverdale and Disneyland less and less in favor of Gotham City, Metropolis, Central City and the like. I remember purchasing some Bicentennial-era (that's 1976 for you youngins...) giant-sized issues featuring Superman, Batman and the Justice League, reprinting old issues of that group's adventures (Wonder Woman was back in costume here) and I learned more about the great assortment of heroes these comic book worlds had to offer. I traded some with friends, or at least spent afternoons reading their collections. Captain Marvel was doing his SHAZAM thing on Saturday morning TV, and around the same time Lynda Carter burst onto the scene (and nearly out of that star-spangled costume) as Wonder Woman. (Dah da, dah-da-da- daaaah...)

There was an apple tree in our backyard, long unpruned. Two branches, waterspout-y things, that the gardener in me knows now ought to have been cut off but never had been. Growing parallel, they had created a perfect cradling spot for a young boy to climb up and nestle into with a stack of comic books on a warm summer morning. I remember trips to see our cousins in Florida, playing superhero (a shout out to the Towel Man!) and reading still more comic books.

My Uncle Rik had a nice thick stack of comics, as well, and I read those over and over on subsequent visits to Grandma and Pa's house. There I found many Disney characters, more Archies, Heckle and Jeckle, lots of Golden Key titles (the memory fails on the finer details), more Batman tales (with Ras Al Ghul, if I recall correctly...) and the Sons (what the?) of Superman and Batman.

My Uncle Jose was a truck driver back then, and at some point he came into possession of stacks of old magazines and comics which had suffered the indignity of having their covers torn off and returned to the publisher for credit. We won't dwell on whether he acquired these before or after the publishers had seen them, but the upshot is that my Dad got a fresh supply of magazines and suddenly I had a thick new collection of comic books.

These were almost entirely Marvel Comics, not my brand of choice. But still, I read them with interest, learning about such characters as Howard the Duck, Thor, Captain America, Ghost Rider and the Man-Thing. The writing didn't seem as strait-forward as the DC hero tales, but my eager young mind clamped on them just the same, reading them over and over in search of understanding. It was amongst these that I found a historic Spiderman tale called "The Death of Gwen Stacy" that presented not only detailed, adult tragic storylines, but some pretty accurate representations of physics, I learned much later. (Recapping for the uninitiated, Gwen was Spidey's girlfriend, killed when the Green Goblin dropped her from the top of the George Washington bridge. And the real tragedy was that she was actually killed when Spidey stopped her rapid descent too quickly with a spray of web that snapped her neck. So sad.)

Fast forward a few more years to 1978 and junior high school. One afternoon, as I fled from afterschool bullies (who somehow sensed before I did that I was different and thereby worthy of pummeling) I ducked into the local library, conveniently located directly across the street from school. The library resided in a wonderful old house built by New Jersey's early Dutch settlers, very solid and wooden and wonderful; truly it felt a world apart behind those doors. After catching my breath, I did a catalog search for superheroes (I must have felt I needed one...) and then went in search of the one book on the subject available, a hardcover collection that reprinted the origin stories of not only the primary members of the Justice League of America, but also, for comparison, those origin tales of their World War II era dopplegangers in the Justice Society of America.

And I found that book in the hands of a girl I knew from marching band (Yes, we went to band camp...and no, we didn't see, nor heard about, anything unusual done with a flute, though our drummers were delightfully incorrigible...), a glockenspiel player named Lili. We quickly bonded over the stories in this book, as well as the "Wonder Woman" television show, discussing and comparing assorted heroes and their tales of beginning. Yes, the "Incredible Hulk" and "Spiderman" were also on the boob tube, but even though the guy playing Peter Parker was kinda cute, there was no match for the Amazing Amazon. Finally, in Lili, I found a kindred spirit, a fellow fan, who was really willing to spend hours on the subject. We went to the library after school on as many days as we could manage, comparing notes on our various readings and viewings, and in the process, grew a wonderful friendship.

Around the same time, our world was illuminated with a bright light, as we learned that the gleaming towers of New York City seven miles to the east had recently stood in as the shining spires of the city of Metropolis, in a movie that introduced Christopher Reeve to the world. Lili and I saw "Superman: The Movie" together, watching open-mouthed, or quietly exclaiming to one another, as the filmmakers showed us that a man could really fly!! And we will both confess with a grin that we were uncertain whether we should evacuate the Hackensack, NJ cinema where we were seeing the movie, when Lex Luthor announced that city as the target of the second nuclear missile he'd commandeered. Not to worry, Supes saved us, of course, but at the cost (briefly) of Lois Lane's life.

As the days quickly passed, we realized we were both greater fans of the Princess of Paradise Island than any others (though for Batman and Superman a special place is my heart was also reserved...). In our infinite teenage wisdom, we determined that none of the stories or television episodes (not to mention the dreadful movie of the same name, featuring [of all people] Kathy Lee Crosby, later Gifford...)quite portrayed the Amazon Princess in the manner she deserved.

We decided we'd write stories (new episodes for the series, really, with camera directions, etc. at first) in which, naturally, young characters based on our own selves were mentored into superhero roles at the sides of Wonder Woman and other JLAers. They were stories we would continue to write and share, off and on, for some twenty years. I'm happy to say our writing improved over the years, tho the derivitive nature of our words (being set in someone else's world) remained.

In 1979, my family made the decision to leave North Jersey for our favorite destination upstate and I moved, five hours away, to those gloriously isolated Adirondack Mountains. Although I made friends there, I felt a bit isolated socially, since I was A) the new kid in town, and 2) beginning to understand better, if secretly, that "gay" was a word that described me and apparently no one else I knew.

Lil and I found ways to stay in touch across the miles (thanks, Dad!) and to trade story bits back and forth over the distance. I was thrilled to find (now that I was old enough to be making a little money from odd jobs, and before long, summer employment) that I was able to find stores in that part of the world who still featured heavy-laden spinning comic book racks...and my collecting resumed. There was so much to if the cast of characters supporting the Amazing Amazon, the Man of Steel and the Darknight Detective weren't enough, I also began following the Justice League regularly, as well as many of the individual members' adventures in their own titles. There were the old mainstays, like Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Black Canary and the Martian Manhunter working with young upstarts like Firestorm and Zatanna.

I learned that the JLA was creatively-based on the earlier versions of heroes with the same name. Those heroes made the Justice Society of America, and they lived in a parallel dimension on the randomly-numbered Earth Two. On yet another--Earth Three--the JLA had been reinvisioned as a group of villians, the Crime Syndicate, who fought against that earth's only hero, Lex Luthor. I learned that Adam Strange was an earth archaelogist who rode a Zeta Beam between Earth and the planet Rann, the Joker kidnapped Catwoman and made her more villainous (weren't she and Bruce ever going to get together?), the Flash's wife, Iris, was killed by a super-speed nemesis from the future...and on it went. My letters to Lili advised her on the latest DC hero happenings (her parents were less cool about her reading comic books) and we wrote our stories accordingly.

Now I discovered subscriptions, and was freed of my concerns about missing issues on the whims of newstand vendors, as hero titles began arriving in our post office box on a regular basis. I added a few more titles here and there as they interested me. The All-Star Squadron featured the lesser known superheros of World War II and served, too, as a regular history lesson. The New Teen Titans returned as the mysterious Raven gathered members of the old sidekick team and led them into amazing adventures through a perfectly-rendered world by George Perez. The Justice Society, we learned, had been forced into retirement by McCarthy's Communist hearings. A real collection began to grow.

In 1983, I went off to college, quietly eager to explore the "secret identity" of my sexuality in a place where no one knew me. A disease eventually to be called AIDS appeared on the horizon that same year, however, and tempered my enthusiasm. Still, my life was changing...I made new friends, tried new things, danced and fell in love. Meanwhile in the comics (still waiting at home for me on weekends), regular appearances of a shadowy character called the Monitor began to suggest that the lives of our four-color friends would be changing, too.

By 1985 I was looking to finish a two-year degree sidetracked by my need to grow socially. That Monitor was gathering the heroes of all the earths for something called the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Everywhere DC Comics proclaimed that in this 12 issue maxi-series "worlds would live, worlds would die...and nothing would ever be the same again."

How right they were! Over the course of two years, the good folks at DC sent me dashing from one newstand to the next (I hadn't renewed my subscriptions) in assorted college towns to find the latest issues of Crisis, as waves of antimatter swept through the DC multiverse, wiping out whole parallel universes and many of the heroes who'd lived there. Some of them were saved, while heroes closer to us...The Flash, Supergirl, the Superman of Earth-2, the Crime Syndicate and a host of others...died. In a final indignity, it turned out that in the new timeline that followed the resolution of this Crisis...Wonder Woman had supposedly never existed. And for a year or more, she didn't.

It was a strange time in comics, but it did pave the way, convoluted or not, for some incredible stories and character regenerations. Batman was experiencing a rebirth of sorts through the dark imagings of his future in The Dark Knight Returns. I remember escaping into that story to help me cope with my grandfather's imminent passing and the muddled business of my coming out.

A faceless hero, the Question, fought crime and corruption in his own dark city. A shiny new interpretation of Superman soared onto the scene, re-examining the Last Son Of Kyrptons legend. Welcome to the 80s: what made Lex Luthor more dangerous than his new status as a high-stakes businessman? Booster Gold was from the future, and had come back in time to use his knowledge of the past to become a hero. The Justice League was re-formed, but as an international organization featuring heroes who weren't as familiar. Somewhere in there The Flash came to television. Some comics now sold for a dollar or more each...but the paper and art reproduction qualities had improved over the years, too.

Meanwhile, I explored my world and got to know myself better, at the same time writing stories that led my old fictional alter-ego through the Crisis and into a new, more out-of-the-closet existence in the comics universe. By then I was attending Plattsburgh State University and discovered a little comic shop downtown, the Fantastic Planet. There I met first Donna and then Paul, the owners...and for many years after, they were the purveyors of my chosen vice. They even started a mail-order service so that I'd be able to keep up with the latest comics when I was in Long Lake on breaks (and that continued well after I'd graduated and moved away).

As I found my way in the world, meeting still more new friends, exploring new places, and trying a few more new things, Wonder Woman burst back onto the scene, in a stylish re-imagining of her amazing story, in a world drawn and written by the equally-amazing George Perez. She didnt speak English at first(Greek, of course...), she wasn't Diana Prince (Princess Diana, naturally)...but she did wear the costume (or some variation on it) and she was an ambassador from her island of Themiscyra and bore the powers and abilities of the Gods of Olympus (no longer did writers thoughtlessly interchange the names of the Greek and Roman pantheon). She was, in a word, wonderful.

And so was life, really. My coming out was not the great trauma that I've since learned it can be for many. Sure life was rocky for a little while, but when all was said and done, my family still loved me, I was making more friends than ever...and I felt good about being an honest person in the world again.

The years passed. Degrees were achieved, jobs were attained, plays were directed and gardens were planted. Batman and Superman had no less than four solo features each, while Wonder Woman simply maintained her own title, continuing to re-explore the great mythos of her Legend. Batman hit the big screen for a few summers, his newer darker self now firmly re-established (at least until George Clooney and the rubber-nippled bat-suit came along). New heroes were born, as old ones re-emerged to renew their careers in crime-fighting and mentor the younger generation.

Over the years since, heroes have banded together to fend off alien invasions, aliens who set of bombs that created hundreds of other super-powered people. Superman died for a little while. Gotham City presaged post-Katrina New Orleans when it was sealed off after a cataclysmic earthquake and biological plague and labeled a No Man's Land by the government. Metropolis was devastated in epic battle after Superman's return, foreshadowing, it seems now, the unthinkable destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

I'm sorry to say that after moving to the Cape, my finances changed and as cover prices continued to rise, I had to abandon my four-color fix. It certainly hasn't been easy, and on more than one occasion I've grabbed up a few issues I've found here and there, just to be in touch.

And when that blue-skied day of 9/11 changed our world, the superheroes paid tribute in comics to the real heroes of the day. The everyday people, the firefighters, the police, first responders. On that day, we saw there could be heroes in any of us, if the need arose. How can we discount the idea that super hero comics can encourage us to be just what a dark moment calls for? I think its great that you can find tales here and there around the Internet of people trying out a life as an occasionally costumed hero. Our world certainly needs them.

Two years ago, DC Comics created another company-wide event called Infinite Crisis, a sequel in which they addressed some of the loose ends left over from that original "Crisis" twenty-two years ago. In the process, they've shaken up the legends once again, freshening them up for new readers and revitalizing them for the rest of us...and they've drawn me back into the fold(with a little help from a show called Smallville).

Except for the occasional issue of Wonder Woman, I've been really good at resisting the temptation not to waste gas driving around the Cape looking for individual issues. Mostly I'm content to scan that spinning rack at Stop N Shop. With cover prices starting around $2.99, I'd be crazy to let loose the addiction once again. And I do have a huge collection of back issues just waiting to be slipped from their mylar sleeves and re-read again!

But at this point, these people...Bruce, Diana, Clark and so many others...they're like family--or at least really good friends--to me now. It's not like I have a choice: I feel like I have to know whats going on in their lives. And so I surf the internet for news/fan sites that'll tell me what's shaking. (I'll try to include links to my favorites here, eventually). Thanks to all those folks out there who share so much--I do buy some of the stories published these days in less-expensive paperback form, and I rely on internet reviewers and fans to tip me off to the "must haves."

Libraries have changed, too. An recent internet search of the CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing--if you havent got a card, get one!) System revealed to me over 300 graphic novels available through our local libraries...a far cry from that one book Lili and I met over too many years ago!

Anyway, that's my story, and I thank you all for stopping by the blog. Who'm I kidding: thanks if you've actually made it to the bottom of this post!! I'm still figuring out just what this blog will consist of, but I know that I'm interested enough in talking and writing about comics that it'd be a pain to continue interrupting my garden blog to do so.

So, how'd you get started reading comic books?

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