Comics Do Matter, Bill Maher.
With Uncle Stan interred, I begin the final phase of my life.
Comics were my first introduction into the idea of the fantastic. They were the first time I could see something that appeared in my imagination, regularly. Created by someone else. Created as a living, portable dream able to be slipped into my back pocket (gasp) and then unfolded and dived into one more time, absorbing every line, savoring every color, parsing each word for meaning beyond the offering on the page, the meta-narrative I had to grow to understand.
Comics introduced me to an approachable fantastic realm one which looked like my world, but had a hint of the amazing always going on just out of the corner of your eye. I could imagine Spider-Man swinging overhead, Superman flying a giant robot into space, the Avengers battling in the middle of midtown Manhattan.
Comics introduced me to space, into the vastness of the cosmos, investigating the Greater Magellanic Cloud to understand the Kree. Reading up on the Andromeda Galaxy to know more about the Skrulls. Trying to figure out where in the hell Oa might be, since it claimed to be at the center of the Universe…
Comics made me learn about transistors. So that I could understand that transistors didn’t power roller-skates, no matter what Iron Man said. He was a drunk after all, maybe he was just mistaken in his comics. It drove me to discover what gamma rays were, because I didn’t ever want to accidentally become the Hulk.
Comics gave me a ready opportunity to explore the science of the Universe, to question everything around me, to wonder about worlds as yet unseen, unimagined or even un-dreamt of as yet. Could I imagine a world no one had ever seen?
A question which would come around to me again in the future…
Then I reached my middle years
where I struggled to find myself and to understand that the world contained so many more variables than the simple black and white morality of the comics from my youth. By then, the damage had been done.
I longed for a simpler time. I believed in the morality presented to me by comics. That being good and righteous was its own reward. That it was easier to be evil, to do the wrong thing to take advantage of people and their all too exploitable weaknesses, to use them for all they were worth.
I promised myself I would never take that road. I would never sell my soul to Satan, because I learned from the Ghost Rider and the Son of Satan, that deals with the devil never work out in your favor. I would remain my own man or die.
Then I joined the military. I experienced hardships the like of which I had never imagined. Comics could not give me this. They could make me aware of the world but they could not give me the reality of the experiences.
The taste of fear was made real. I had read about it, and then I was feeling it. Then the comics became a level deeper than I had known they could be. The I began to map my own experiences into the comics I had grown up with. I began to realize writers were mapping their experiences into their work. The best were able to tell their story and make it YOUR story.
And I was renewed in my efforts to read comics. Unlike the childhood me, I didn’t learn the names of writers or authors. They were incidental to the stories themselves. What I wanted was the adventure, the drama, the pathos, the dedication of evil to its purposes, the clever manner in which heroes kept their secret identities.
Now, I needed to know the names of the people who made them real. I didn’t just read the comics. I read the letter columns. I wanted to know the stories behind the stories. I even went back into my collection and read those letter columns I had never thought to read before.
Then I began to learn about the creators. The men and the few women who were working in this industry and my respect for them grew, as my understanding of their industry grew.
I learned about the process of creating comics, the design of books, the feel of bristol board, the process of printing, the final printing and distribution. I learned about how comics were made because I was compelled to understand how this simple thing could bring me so much joy. How buying a bag of these things on Friday could make my weekend vanish in a blaze of imagination, of stories, myths, dreams and tales of subterfuge from every genre on the planet.
Comics would be a backdrop to my ideas of writing for years. When I left the military, I went to college and decided I wanted to write. No. That’s not right.
Writing possessed me.
I took a writing class with a teacher I would come to appreciate as an instructor and later as a friend. She let me write whatever came to me and the early touches of writer’s madness were there. Just enough creativity to be dangerous, not enough talent yet to do anything useful.
Fortunately, I had a career as an IT guy coming into existence and for twenty years, I never had to think about writing again. Don’t take it the way it sounds. I wrote.
I wrote white papers You know, those things you read when you want to know something about a company or their products and you didn’t want to read through their crappy website. I distilled the corporation or the product to its best essence. Can’t say I always agreed with the product or its company, but it was a good living.
I wrote grant proposals in which I convinced companies to share their vast fortunes for whichever organization I was working for to continue their efforts to make the world a better place. I was very successful at it, even though I didn’t like doing it. I knew how to tell a story. I knew how to reach a place where a person felt things and would be willing to support an idea they thought was worthy. I knew worthy. I knew Thor. I knew Superman. I knew Spider-Man. Worthy meant sacrifice. A view of a greater purpose. I knew all about that. I never missed a grant proposal I cared about.
I wrote RFPs (requests for proposals) where I analyzed what I would need to finish grand projects costing millions of dollars and which vendors I thought could get the job done. Tony Stark and my natural autistic gifts gave me the capacity to think about things in pieces, in segments, in an integrated way bringing pieces together into a new whole. Comics, Reed Richards and super-science went together.
My whole approach to such documents was to break it down, then build it up in a way the reader became part of the process. Creating an enthusiasm for the project in such a way the reader wanted it to be finished as much as I did. I sold such presentations to many a board of directors, infused with the can-do spirit of comics.
This would be how I wrote for years, never truly creative, evocative perhaps, bringing ideas to people ready to hear them. The closest I got to creativity was playing role-playing games. There, I made worlds. Then I let my friends play in them. Destroy them. Rebuild them anew with their creative powers added to the work I only thought I knew.
I would game with my friends at Tita’s House of Games for a decade. Some of the finest gaming I have ever known. We experimented with stories from every genre, every time period, from every kind of reality we could cobble together. It was a glorious time. This was the only creativity I allowed myself. The only outlet because in truth, I was frustrated. I wanted to write more.
But I never could find the time.
My life already had too much going on and I wouldn’t, couldn’t give myself permission to write again. Until I was convinced to work on an idea with the crew from Tita’s on a gaming magazine or two. We wrote, we created, we turned our games into printed reality. Then I knew I was ready. For a time we created a magazine with the help of R. Talsorian Games. And it was good.
Then like all things, life turned on a dime and I wouldn’t write again in a creative way for another decade.
In 2009, my life changed once more. The economy flat-lined. Work as I knew it was gone. And for the first time in twenty eight years, I didn’t have a job to go to. I had nothing to do. Nada. Zip. Zero.
I started writing, again. Slow. Tentatively. Trying to decide if this was the time. At the same time, I rediscovered comics. There had been a window of about ten years, I did not read them. I didn’t have time. My work life was so absorbing, I just didn’t have any free time. My son was also born then, and I had even less time than I thought I would.
Now, I had too much time and nothing to do. I threw myself into writing, with a vengeance. Comics gave me the courage to try again. Because just like Morlun laid the beat down on Spider-Man, he refused to quit, no matter how outclassed he was.
I knew this was one of those dark times heroes went through when in the course of the story, they lost everything. Their powers, their purpose, their belief in themselves, the real underlying capacity for everything else started there.
This was that time for me. No job. No faith in the future. For the first time in my entire life, I was unemployed and try as I might, no new jobs seemed forthcoming. Thousands of resumes later, I was resigned to the idea my career was dead to me. For a time, at least, I would have to do something else. Something that didn’t pay as much, a job whose wages matched what was making back in 1986.
I raged. Didn’t matter. I fumed. Didn’t matter. I wept. Didn’t matter.
The world was as it was and if you weren’t already wealthy, you were now in a desperate race to hold on to what little you had, by any means necessary. You watch your neighbors lose their homes and disappear into the past. You watch your friends who kept their jobs worry about losing them. When they did, you had no comforting words for them because you knew deep in your heart nothing you said would be true. There was no comfort out there. Not right now. All we had was our dreams of better days.
Millions would follow. Unlike you Bill, there were millions of us out here who lacked your creature comforts during those times. A perk of being a celebrity, I guess. You earn far beyond your value to society. Meanwhile you look down from on high and judge us.
During this dark time, I was put in mind of my favorite Marvel hero, Adam Warlock. A gloomy fellow, he had never known anything but suffering during his superhero career. Considered a flop by Marvel when he first came on the scene, I found him compelling for his very realistic view of a hostile Universe. He spoke my truth to me; the truth of my existence in a world where not being White meant you were nothing at all, in the eyes of many.
Yet, he persisted. He carved a way out of the flesh of the Universe itself.
Not without great cost. In what I think is one of the greatest stories of its era, The Strange Death of Adam Warlock, Adam is forced to kill himself in the past to prevent his future self from becoming a threat to the Universe. Meta.
Was this that moment where I discovered who I was and perhaps this change of fortune was what I needed — to be who I was meant to be? Did I need to die, to live?
I died. Figuratively, of course…
Yes. I am different than I would have been if I had stayed in corporate America. I had a decade to absorb information about the world in a way I never would have before. All of my focused drive and energy normally given to an employer was now mine to lavish on any idea I wanted. I wanted to learn about everything.
So, I did. Most importantly, I spent a decade working with my son, who like his father before him, has autism and needed focused attention I never could have given him, if I went to my 50 hour a week job. As much as I disliked the economic crash, I have come to realize it has given me my son.
It has given him the power of speech. It has given him a love of comics, because I used comics to teach him to read and how to think about things. Short enough to hold his attention, long enough to challenge his mind. Comics changed his life too.
Some of my new friends and fans would tell you that this is my calling. My explosion of writing covered every possible realm of possibility. Essays, articles, treatments, short stories, novellas, blog entries, online forums, posts on anything and everything. Science, superheroes, mathematics, the environment, writing, weapons, technology, the sun, cosmology, narrative analysis, movie critiques, nothing was safe.
I became whole. I began to be reconciled with my creative side again. My analytical capacity had run my life, was the heart of my information technology career, with just a smattering of creativity to season my powerful reasoning abilities.
I am complete. I write, I think; now I can use my analysis like a laser and my creativity like a scalpel. I can deconstruct anything, art, music, science, ideas, and find the heart of them, harness those ideas in a novel way. I am a person in a way I have never been before. Creative, analytical and adaptive, in the same body at the same time. My powers have never been greater.
Then Stan Lee died.
The other half of my dream team of comic creators, Jack Kirby, had died years earlier.
The creators of my childhood were no more. Yes, Marvel and DC still exist with a host of other comic companies aborning like virtual particles in the vacuum of space. But these two icons, two of the oldest and brightest stars of this particular firmament were gone. A part of me has died with them, the best most idealistic parts of me.
My middle years were spent working. No regrets. I did what I had to do. I wish I had the temerity to create then like I do now.
In this, the final stages of my life, I am ready to create my own worlds.
I am ready to imagine my own realities to inspire someone else, the same way those twenty-five cent miracles printed on cheap paper, gave me the freedom to imagine the impossible, to create the unbelievable, to realize the Universe could be made bigger, just though the force of my will.
Bill Maher, you may believe there is nothing to the work of comic writers, their creations, the work they do may be beneath you, because you don’t believe in anything greater than yourself.
Religulous(your documentary) was your way of saying you don’t believe in a higher power. Fair enough.
I am not a believer in a higher power, either.
But the difference between us, is I believe in things greater, more grand, more magnificent than we are. I recognize we are little more than a sentient scum on the slimy surface of a tiny wet ball of iron and silicon, circling an insignificant star on the edge of a tiny galaxy on the edge of the Great Attractor.
And I am humbled by that thought. And this is why you can’t imagine why fans of Stan Lee love him and those creators at Marvel or DC or any other comic company peddling dreams. You can’t imagine what a gift it is, when you inspire the imagination of a person, to imagine a world bigger than themselves. That’s not your job description. Your job is to bring people to the inadequacies of themselves and find humor in it. It’s a living.
You think you are the center of your Universe. In a way, you’re right. You just make a small Universe, Bill. Stan Lee, and comics in general, gave some of us the capacity to imagine something greater than ourselves.
To pierce the veils of our individual Heavens and see something like us, only more pure. Ideal. Worth aspiring to. Even those who miss the mark and take comics to a wrong place, and they do exist, at one time, knew of an ideal they could believe in.
Such was the gift of comics. I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for comics, Bill. I can call you Bill, right? My wife loves your show and we are regular watchers. Sometimes, we even think you’re right.
Just not this time, Bill.
Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Reginald Hudlin, Gail Simone, Walter Simonson, Tom King, Christopher Priest, Alan Moore, Bill Mantlo, Elliot S Maggin, David Walker, Brian Michael Bendis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Neil Gaiman, Curt Swan, Alex Ross, Mike Mc Jim Starlin, Arthur Adams, John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Dwayne McDuffie, Joe Illidge, Mike Mignola, and many, many others defined my Universe as something created by many, and always able to be expanded upon when new talents came to town, and with the promise the Universe could always be expanded by…
I included that list so you could go and educate yourself, Bill. You can’t speak on a thing you know nothing about. Okay, you could, but this is the very thing you are always going on about on your show…
Stan’s letters from the editor always told us we could make ours Marvel. He extolled us to dream big. He told us to imagine a world we could not see with our own eyes. He believed in peace and justice in a time when both were in short supply.
Yes, he was often a shill. There were challenges for him over his career, a career which often cost him relationships I think he regretted losing. Such is the life of men. They do what they think is important, say what they think is important to them, not always knowing the price of their pronouncements. Stan Lee believed in his work at Marvel, long after they stopped paying him for it. While you don’t subscribe to the power of belief, Bill. You shouldn’t discount it.
You chose a different path than many of the people who read, follow and entertain themselves with comics. They don’t have to be trapped in the basement or living with their parents. Many of them have normal day jobs, not as glamorous as yours, I suspect. I am also certain, whether they are willing to admit it or not, you have a Marvelite or two working with you. Silently, I’d bet.
Belief in things not seen has moved mountains. Overturned armies. Destroyed oppressors. Freed people. Cured diseases (using science, you bastard). Belief changed the world we live on for both good and ill. Whether or not a belief in something is real, the willingness to put oneself out for that belief is a powerful thing.
You’re wrong, Bill. It’s a personal viewpoint when you say that comics aren’t meaningful. You haven’t cloaked yourself in the imagination that protects you from the harm bullies cause you; whether they be on the school ground or the board room. You haven’t found yourself digging deep and been inspired by your icons, and remembering how to remain valiant against impossible odds.
Yes, these things are dreams. Ephemeral, untouchable. Just words on a page.
If they are just words, then so is Belief. Hate. Love. God. All just words without meaning to them. Making your words, the most empty of them all, sir.
Comics are more than just their words, pictures or narrative structure, Bill.
They embody the spirit of an age, an age of heroes, an age of tragedy. They may be the final inspiration for a world that must dig deep to save itself from its impending annihilation.
The heroic example of comic heroes may be exactly the inspiration the future will need. It is as viable as you believe your quest for truth through discourse and laughter are. Before the end, we may need them both.
Don’t discount what you don’t understand, sir. For some of us, comics saved our lives. One day, their fantastic example may save us all.
In his secret identity as the Answer-Man, he talks about comics and pop culture as a scholar and historian of the many genres, highlighting the best and worst comics has to offer. He has over two thousand essays covering the eighty years of narrative storytelling created by DC and Marvel Comics. He is also quite knowledgeable about the many independents who have come to life in their shadows.
He is also a freelance journalist for Polygon.com and Panel & Frame magazine. Thaddeus is the co-founder of Futura Science Fiction Magazine and one of the founding members of the Afrosurreal Writers Workshop in Oakland.