Monday, August 21, 2006

Jeremy vs. the X-Men

“Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Colossus. Children of the atom, students of Charles Xavier, MUTANTS – feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect. These are the STRANGEST heroes of all!”

Image: Middle of the night. Jean Grey – the Dark Phoenix – returns home to Annandale-on-Hudson. She embraces her father.

Father: “This is fantastic! My goodness, girl, we haven’t heard from you in weeks! Why didn’t you write or call? Elaine! Sarah! Come Downstairs! Look who’s here!”

Dark Phoenix (thinking): “Oh, no! Please, no! My telepathic power is so sensitive, I can’t block out Dad’s thoughts. He’s an open book to me! Nothing’s secret, nothing’s sacred, anymore!

Mother: It's wonderful to see you, dear...You look thin, Jean. Are you eating enough?

Dark Phoenix (thinking): I can read Mom’s love for me, her concern. But beneath that – buried so deeply she probably isn’t even aware the feeling exists – she’s scared of me.”

--from Uncanny X-Men No. 136: “Child of Light and Darkness”

Lately, I've been thinking and writing a lot about comic books. I read comics from the ages of 11 to 14, when I was a bookish social outcast in Saginaw, Michigan. When my family moved to Florida, I suddenly stopped reading them. (I also stopped running track, drawing, and playing the flute. In Florida I discovered punk rock, black clothes, and the joys of hanging out with other outcasts, and I didn't have time for much else.)

Years went by. I sold my comic book collection. I ended up in San Francisco. Along the walk between my house and my old office there was a comic book store, which I ignored until Liko was born. A month later, I found myself going in and browsing. The proprietor, a rotund black man with a beard like Karl Marx’s, watched me warily, like an unwanted houseguest. The new titles were displayed in the front of the store along a junkyard of racks; the rear was filled with paperbacks piled to the ceiling. During my first visit I tried to extricate one.

"Do you know how to put that back?" asked the proprietor, hands quivering, eyes almost fearful.

"Sure," I said. I started to put the title back in its stack but the proprietor snatched it from my hand.

"You’re not doing it right!" he shrieked.

For the rest of the day, I thought back on this encounter with a combination of bemusement and annoyance. Later, after I visited other stores in the Bay Area, I realized that this dude was a fairly typical example of a comic dealer - they all have the personalities of shut-ins and treat their disheveled shops like inviolable Fortresses of Solitude.

But I kept coming back. His distrust never wavered and I never saw another customer in the store. I found the titles of my pre-pubescence – Frank Miller's run on Daredevil, the classic Dark Phoenix saga, and the first 40 or so issues of the New Teen Titans, as well as random old favorites like Rom: The Space Knight and Jack Kirby's Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. I started to buy the omnibus paperbacks, one a week, in which many of these stories are collected.

Faintly embarrassed, I’d hide my acquisitions from Shelly, and in the dead of night I'd read them, sometimes with the newborn Liko cradled in the other arm. At 11 years old, the art had seemed fluid and beautiful to me, but as I re-read the stories, it took only the smallest effort to see through the action to how stiff and shallow the figures and backgrounds were. At times I giggled aloud at the ponderous solemnity of the dialogue, particularly in Chris Claremont's X-Men.

But I was transfixed by the stories. I've never been good at remembering my childhood; at times it seems to me that I slept, like an astronaut in suspended animation, through my first decade-and-a-half of life, only to wake at 14 or 15 on a strange alien planet called Florida. Reading the X-Men, however, I found that I remembered the stores in Saginaw where I’d gone to buy comic books.

The first was a convenience store that I could reach on my Huffy, where the comics had been displayed in a revolving rack near the entrance. I'd loiter there munching on Twinkies and flipping through the pages; I don't ever remember the clerk telling me to get lost. I also bought comics at a specialty store called The Painted Pony, somewhere in downtown Saginaw. I remember the owner as a middle-aged, hunchbacked homunculus. He wore glasses that always sat at a tilt on his nose, whose lenses were so thick that they warped his eyes into ever-changing funhouse shapes. Was he really so grotesque, or are my memories distorted by childish perception?

One day after a trip to the Painted Pony, my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

"I’d like to own a comic-book shop," I said.

My dad was silent as he drove through downtown.

"Are you sure?" he finally said. "Look at that guy in that funny-book store I take you to. [My dad always called them "funny books."] Do you really want to end up like him?"

"What's wrong with him?" I wanted to know.

In general, my parents did not approve of my "funny book" habit. I think they saw comics as violent and emotionally unhealthy, and they were rightfully nervous about the social (anti-social?) milieu that surrounds the buying and selling of comics. But in reading the same comic books as a new father during the past two years, I've remembered many things about my comic-reading years that were previously lost to me. It's helped build a connection to my childhood that I think I need as a dad.

What really strikes me about these old stories, however, is how much, and what, they have to say about being a child and being a parent. Ninety percent of comic books are crap (Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of everything is crap), "but the remaining 10 percent is worth dying for." True enough. A series like the Dark Phoenix saga reads - I'm being completely serious - like a paradigmatic new myth about the inevitability of loss and the responsibilities that come with power. The parent-child relationship is at the center of the myth.

When Jean Grey discovers that her mother is secretly afraid of her - and parents, admit it: we're all a little bit afraid of our children - it's a terrifying moment for the child. "Behold your creation, Charles Xavier!" says Jean to her surrogate father, the leader of the X-Men, before she tries to kill him. Children represent the future, but they also evoke our mortality. In the end, the entire X-Men series - which tells the story of the next stage in human evolution - is about accepting change, loss, and renewal. (Which, come to think of it, is probably why the Phoenix image has become so central to the series.)

Such were the lessons imprinted on my tender, confused little brain. During the past two years, I've broadened my reading and brought myself up to date in the state of comic book art. I've found that comics have matured and dramatically improved in terms of writing, art, and sophistication - in fact, most comics these days seem much more directed to adults instead of kids.

James Robinson's Starman series, which is thematically focused on the relationship between fathers and sons, was one of the first new titles I encountered. The last five issues of the 80-issue series are stunning, especially when viewed through the lens of Daddy Dialectic's themes. Jack Knight, who inherited his father's mantle as the superhero Starman, himself becomes a father. Jack's dad, the original Starman, dies, and so does the baby's mother.

Instead of retreating into superhero fantasy, Jack becomes a stay-at-home dad. "My son is more my life than...crime-fighting," says Jack. In the panels of the comic book, we see an exhausted Jack changing, feeding, and burping the baby, often in the dead of night, surrounded by laundry and dirty dishes. "My boy needs feeding. He needs changing. My boy needs love so he can begin to understand I'm his dad and not just some weird guy he got stuck with. He cries for his mom. He misses her. I cry too sometimes for my losses."

Later Jacks seeks the counsel of Superman. "I have a son," he tells the Man of Steel. "He needs me now. I don't want him to become an orphan. And... I don't know... something's gone. Some part of me. I'm not motivated like I was. Suddenly there's an unknown vista ahead and none of them involve crimefighting. Is that wrong?" He asks Superman's permission to quit. "You met evil with valor," Superman replies. "Now let others."

You have to understand: at the moment I read this, I was thinking of quitting full-time work and staying home with Liko. I can't say that I ever "met evil with valor," but I know exactly what Jack is talking about when he says, "I'm not motivated like I was." And it was incredibly moving to me to see such an accurate picture of parenting in a comic book: not a romanticized, fantastic picture, but gritty and real. In the end Jack does quit. He packs a station wagon and drives with his son to San Francisco, queer capital of the world.

Think about it, folks: this is a fucking comic book that shows a man giving up his profession so that he can stay at home with his baby. Back in the Golden Age, Superman never would have done that. The superheroes of his time were muscle-bound warriors, not stay-at-home caregivers. In the end, giving it all up for his child is the most heroic thing Jack can do. It seems fitting that a father-figure like Superman guides Jack in that direction; it feels like a watershed.

What if I had read that when I was 14? What if such images became commonplace in our culture?


Chip said...

wow, that is absolutely amazing!!! Who's this James Robinson??

I think that this is the way changes happen, seemingly small stuff that taken together signals tectonic shifts.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

james Robinson's starman is, to me, the great american comic of the '90's, and it is to DC's credit that they've kept it in print in the collections. he treaded new ground in his father-son relationships, as well as somewhat novel resolutions to some of the conundrums that Jack found himself in, all while making a fan boys wet dream come true by substituting Jack as a surrogate comics fan for the Golden age heroes.

What stops the series from being even more highly regarded than it already is is the shift in art from Tony harris to the less than average Peter Snejbjerg. That the series still has impact is a tribute to the emotional equity that has already been built up in the series, as well as to Robinson's writing.

As a comic artist with two daughters, I can appreciate how difficult parenting is, since I'm right in the middle of it, and I think that I started my blog not just as a way to document the creative process in its own right, but to document it with the ME that is now: married, two daughters, both of whom love art, and trying to create meaningful stories and art that have some emotional impact beyond the average superhero crap. I enjoyed your post as I struggle with the meaning of my own addiction to this art form, and to what it all means. Good stuff.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I agree that the change from the wonderfully atmospheric Harris to Snejbjerg damaged the series, but Snejbjerg isn't completely without merits: he is the one responsible for the panels I praise depicting Jack at home with his son, plus I think his facial expressions are surprisingly effective -- check out how sensitively he renders the faces in key dialogues (e.g., between Superman and Jack, Mik and Jack, Mason and Charity).

Ok, lest these comments get too geeky, let me shift gears: I really get your last paragraph, about how hard it is to pursue a creative goals and still be the parent you want to be. I'd also second your comment about the value of blogging in that struggle: in some ways it seems like blogs are the parent's medium -- you can do it in short bursts, avoid constant revision, and still keep moving forward intellectually and creatively. But can you take your work outside of the blog into the world?.... that's a good question. I've done it a bit: many of the entries here have been, or soon will be, published as essays and articles, and it looks as though I'll be developing a book from the blog. I also suspect that Daddy Dialectic was key to me getting my new job (which I've only just started).

So, all you creative parent bloggers, keep at it, you never know what will happen.

Anonymous said...

i love this post! i think there is a correlative theme to be examined for rock and roll musicians who become parents. for me, it's being confronted by my lifelong avoidance of fitting in with the adult world or creating a real career, both of which are things that a child has need of you to do. i think there's totally a parallel between the anti-social shadow of the comic book world and the rock and roll world. both have really stultifying gender roles built into them in the classic context, but feature some really interesting changes that reflect how society is changing. perhaps i will be a rock and roller who makes being a stay at home dad cooler, somehow.

Anonymous said...

this is my first time at your blog and it's interesting.

in the United States, there's a tendency to view comic books as "low culture" or "childish." of course many are, but that doesn't excuse the snobbery and ignorance of most critics. after all, are people surprised when a live action movie moves them with engaging, realistic characters (well sometimes in this day of Hollywood clones)? Comic books and live action movies both use a plethora of visual design techniques combined with text as dialogue or monologue to tell stories.

Moving and important stories have been told using the comic book format since the 70s at least in Japan (called manga). Good examples are Nausicaa, an epic eco-fable set in a post-apocalyptic future; and Barefoot Gen, based on the actual experiences of a person growing up after the atom bombing of Japan.