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Friday, June 4, 2010

Geek Chic

Before I post this, I should point out that I realize Joseph Campbell wrote all about this stuff, and he's somewhere in the middle of the giant pile of books I haven't gotten around to yet. I'm sure his observations are much more astute than mine, but his don't come in convenient blog form.
For me, it was comic books. I vaguely remember a time before I could rattle off the names, powers, and favorite colors of all the mutants in the Marvel universe, but only vaguely. The X-Men leaped into my life one day 20 years ago, and they haven't left since.
I was an awkward, lonely kid. I kind of lived inside out - like all the ugly things that other people could hide were on display for every kid I ever met. It was partly that I was smart (though never as smart as I thought I was), partly because I was creative, but mostly because I had no social skills. I found myself at the bottom of the social ladder at school, and I never quite figured out how to claw myself out. The X-Men were like me, I thought - rejected by a society that feared and hated them for being different, for being special. I remember hitting puberty and feeling a tiny bit pissed that I didn't develop some cool power that would open up the world for me. 
I was an ugly duckling, and I clung desperately to the hope that there was a flock of swans just around the corner.
When you think about it, the things geeks tend to like are stories with the same message. Luke Skywalker never fit in on the farm because he was born to walk in the stars. Harry Potter was unkempt, unloved, and unable to change his station until his fairy godfather showed up in the form of a simple-minded fat dude. Frodo and Bilbo really wanted to hang out in the Shire like all the other hobbits, but they were destined for something bigger.
My mom never liked the story of the ugly duckling because, she said, sometimes ugly ducklings are just funny looking ducks. Meaning some folks aren't ever going to be graceful or elegant or find that their long-lost family has been waiting just around the corner. Some people just have to bloom where they're planted, she said. And she was right. There was no X-Mansion for me, and I still live my life inside-out, still unable to hide all the ugly other people conceal so well. And while it would be totally awesome to have claws and a Danger Room and Gambit for a boyfriend, I ain't doing so bad, considering.
So why do I still love comics? What is it that has me drooling like a fanboy over glossy covers and really, really badly made movies? In the words of the great sage Raspberry Tart of Strawberry Shortcake fame, "Aren't we a little old for these things, dearie?"
Well, we are and we aren't. You know how you've got a bunch of Facebook friends you haven't seen in decades and may never see again, yet you keep them around because it's a comfort to know that they exist? Well, the X-Men have been there for me through broken hearts and crippling depression and birthday party snubs. And while they're pretty silly on the surface, they've been kind of substantive as well. Back in 1963, when the X-Men premiered, Professor X was at least partly modeled after Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when the jury, in the minds of a lot of folks, was still out on civil rights, Stan Lee and the gang were a little brave in writing that allegory. Would have been a little braver to introduce a black character less than a decade later (Storm doesn't show up until 75), but still. In 1991, the writers of Alpha Flight were a little brave to introduce a gay character years before Rosanne sparked massive controversy for kissing another chick. A more recent title had the X-Men rescuing a bunch of mutants from a prison that was almost surely modeled after Git Mo. Maybe they get away from this because most grown-ups would never deign to read a comic.
So sure, I'm getting a bit old for thrilling to clever catch phrases like "It's cloberin' time," but I'm not too old to identify with a bunch of ugly ducklings.

The pic is what's left of my old comic book store, the place where I feel like I spent half my youth.


aruam25 said...

Just because other people thought you were an ugly duckling doesn't mean you ever were. I often look at some of the things other people do as silly or a waste of time, it's called contempt prior to investigation. Reading comic books as an adult suddenly seems like a "fine idea"(Forrest Gump).

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Remember when you would read my comics out loud to Jeremy and me, making all the sound effects? That was pretty awesome.

Anonymous said...

You're mother had wise words. What I liked about Marvel comics was that the heroes lived in a very human world: they had marriage issues, they had embarrassing parents, they had cars that broke down, and they had mortgages. A lot of it was over-simplified and juvenile to be sure, but it was a different direction than the Jungian-hero-archetypes like Superman or Batman.

I'd like to think that my adolescent embarassment innoculated me from being self-conscious as an adult. I can honestly say that at my age, there's very little that I'd feel self-conscious about.

Anonymous said...

I just bought my first comic books last year. What does that say?