I bought my first comic book from a gas station convenience store when I was eight years old.
My parents and I were on our way to visit my sister in Hamilton, New York, where she was studying English at Colgate University, an eight hour drive we made at least twice a year for four years. We’d pile into the car at around ten o'clock with a lunchbox full of snacks and a stack of old cassette tapes, usually something like Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and a few of my favorite Disney soundtracks, and arrive in time for a late dinner.
By this point I was typically prostrate on the backseat, watching the streetlights shift through my semi-translucent white and yellow quilt and trying to gauge how close we were by the speed of the car and the frequency of stops and turns. But when we pulled up to my sister's dorm building at the end of this drive—sometime between September of '95 and May of '96, this would have been—I was still poring over my comic book, reading it for what must have been the thirteenth or fourteenth time.
It was a Batman comic book. Robin and Nightwing (that’s the superhero persona of Dick Grayson, the first Robin all grown up, for the uninitiated among you) were venturing into Gotham’s equivalent of Central Park to apprehend Poison Ivy, only to discover that she herself was being held prisoner by Clayface.
Looking back I realize it was a modern day parable, an allegory for the oppression of the sacred feminine by the brutish and unyielding masculine, with the central images being those of a sedated Poison Ivy first entombed in a pillar of clay, and then, later, exploding out of that same pillar, resplendently naked, with strategically placed froths and plumes of water obscuring—but only just—the R-rated parts of her anatomy.
At the time I only knew that the art, sketchy and amorphous and full of muted, secondary colors that bled into one another, was nothing like what I had expected, and looking at it gave me a warm, insular feeling like burrowing underground.
I can’t recall the rest of the visit. It’s probable that we saw my sister’s a capella group, the Resolutions, give a concert after eating Sunday brunch at the Colgate Inn, where for dessert I would have either had a slice of chocolate chip cookie dough pie or been bitterly disappointed to learn it wasn't on the menu that week. It’s also possible that my sister introduced us to her current boyfriend, and that he joined us for a game of Wiffle Ball on the campus green.
All that stands out is the comic book.
I grew up on Long Island, in a town called Greenlawn which was cited recently in the New York Times as proof that Small Town America is alive and well. There I attended Thomas J. Lahey elementary school, where for the first through third grades I was happy and generally well-liked by my classmates. It wasn’t until the fourth grade that my girlish appearance (wide-hipped and chubby with shoulder length hair that my mother was loathe to cut for its extraordinary thickness and sheen) and disposition (sensitive, artistic and prone to expansive fits of giggling) caught up with me.
I was teased incessantly, permanently barred from playing Air Force One (or whatever action movie was being advertized on TV that week) with the rest of the boys during recess. Whenever the teacher ordered us to line up by gender, one of them would invariably advise me that I was in the wrong line.
One day a pair of boys named Andrew Harder and Brando Casalichio came upon me sitting cross-legged on the pitcher’s mound of the empty baseball field, holding a pair of red rubber kickballs in my lap.
I don’t remember why I was sitting there all alone like that, or what I was doing with those kickballs. It seems in retrospect that I was inviting the sort of ridicule that followed.
At any rate, Andrew or Brando (I don’t remember which) pointed to the balls and wittily observed, “They look like his balls!”
My response to this was to ignore them in the hopes that they’d go away. Of course the two merely continued to point and laugh, shouting things like “Hey, nice balls!” and “How’d your balls get so big?” while I sat there looking down at the ground and feeling the heat of shame rise on the back of my neck.
After a few minutes of this I stood up and started to walk towards the school, letting the kickballs drop to the ground, where they rolled towards my assailants. That's when I heard Brando shout, “Hey!”
I turned around in time to see him kick one of the balls in my direction. It connected with my face with a loud rubber thwonk.
“Bull’s eye!” he exclaimed.
This was the only incident I ever reported to a teacher, having felt up till then that to tattle was unmanly, a violation of the code of the schoolyard. I’m sure she made the boys apologize, and that their apology was exactly as unsatisfying as teacher-prompted apologies always are.
Did I follow the example of the brooding and stoic Batman in order to make it through these hard times? Did I bury my nose in the pages of his comic books in order to escape a world that had suddenly become so hostile and unwelcoming?
I can't say for sure—my memories of childhood are so disjointed that I can't honestly recall whether the kickball incident took place before or after that fateful road trip when I was afforded my first glimpse into his world—but I'd like to think I did.
When I was in the fifth grade I convinced my father to take me to one of the myriad comic book conventions that are held around the country each year. This one was located in Manhattan. I don't remember what it was called, but I do remember the thrill of wandering a maze of brightly colored booths and kiosks decorated with posters and statues and action figures of all my favorite heroes, as well as many I had never seen before, along with a few hundred or so of my fellow true believers.
As fate would have it, one of them was a classmate of mine whom I had not previously known was also a fan of comic books. His name was Alec Horowitz. Our encounter in that convention hall was brief, and most of the conversation between my father and his mother, but it marked the beginning of a long, if tacit, mutual understanding that would prove more durable than even my closest friendships. In fact, to this day I am more likely to correspond with him over Facebook about a subject such as the latest casting announcement from a studio producing a movie based on one of our favorite comic books than I am with any of the friends with whom I sat during lunch or performed in the school plays.
That day I:
1) Shook the hands of Lou Ferrigno and Adam West, honors I bitterly regret not being old enough to appreciate, having never, at that age, seen even a single episode of either of the shows on which those actors are famous for having played the Hulk and Batman, respectively. I remember Lou Ferrigno being very polite, surprisingly soft-spoken, and spelling my name wrong on the photo of him and Bill Bixby that he autographed for me. Adam West, on the other hand, I remember being rushed and businesslike, scoffing at a woman who had brought her own poster for him to sign rather than buying one from the display on his table. This does not jibe with accounts of others who have met him at comic book conventions and award shows, however, nor with the impression of him I have gotten from interviews and his game self-parody on shows like Family Guy, so I like to think I simply caught him in a bad day—a belief which allows me to still become teary-eyed when I watch Beware The Gray Ghost, the episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which he voices the part of an aging and out-of-work actor who briefly reprises the role of the fictional, crime-fighting Gray Ghost in order to team up with Batman, who we learn was himself a fan of the Gray Ghost as a child.
2) Rather naively challenged a pair of much older self-proclaimed “ubergeeks” to a game of comic book trivia and received as a consolation prize when the two fairly trounced me an issue of an obscure indie comic about a sexy steampunk sorceress, the cover art of which would inspire many a pubescent fantasy in years to come.
3) Convinced my father to buy me a large to the point of unwieldy plastic Batmobile and a Batman poster painted by some Japanese artist whose name I cannot now remember depicting the hero as uncharacteristically skinny and pale, standing balanced atop the steeple of a skyscraper like an undead circus performer against an improbably large full moon. I would later consign this poster to the back of my closet, deriding the artist's depiction of Batman as “too Tim Burton-y”, though as it happens I was thinking not of that director's own take on the character from 1989 but of Jack Skellington, the fashionably emaciated hero of The Nightmare Before Christmas and patron saint of emo high school students everywhere.
Not all the booths we passed that day were devoted to things comic book related, however. At one of these a man who looked to be in his late twenties asked me if I'd like to see a trailer for a television pilot being optioned by the network he represented. I eagerly consented, and the man placed what looked like a futuristic virtual reality helmet on my head.
After a moment of total darkness and the muffled noises of the surrounding convention hall, a screen which filled my entire field of vision suddenly came alive with images and my ears were filled with the rumbling and portentous tones of a male voice-over narrator.
It was a trailer for the sci-fi action series Dark Angel starring Jessica Alba. It lasted about a minute, and when it was over the man removed the helmet from my head and asked what I'd thought. Did it seem like the kind of show I might be interested in watching?
I was going through a screenwriting kick at the time, and I told him that while I was intrigued by the initial nighttime shot of the camera panning up the dirt road towards the big scary house, I found the narrator's line about “searching for the answers to the mysteries of her past” a bit cliché.
He must have been impressed by my answer, because he asked my father and me to wait just one minute while he went and talked to his partner. When he returned, he handed me a business card with a date and a time written on the back of it and asked if I'd be willing to be part of a focus group the following day. I would be paid $300 for my time.
Of course I agreed, and when the next day arrived my father and I took the train back into the city, found the address on the business card and rode the elevator up to the designated office.
The lobby of what in retrospect must have been an advertising agency (I was too young at the time to fully grasp the details of the situation, or to bother with such distinctions) was spacious and white from floor to ceiling, save for some modern art sculptures the colors and dimensions of which I cannot remember except to say that even I, at the age of ten, could tell they were modern. It was filled with people, most of whom were older than I, whom I could tell from the self-conscious and impatient way they fidgeted must be there for the same reason I was.
There were also several stylishly dressed young urban professionals (or more likely, again in retrospect, interns) like the one who had given me his card at the comic book convention, though not, I was disappointed to learn upon a preliminary scan of the room, that precise one. They bustled and paced about frantically, apparently overwhelmed by the task of herding the large crowd of us where we needed—or rather, where they needed us—to be.
At last a group of us not including my father were ushered into a small, florescent lit room with gray carpeting on not just the floor but also three of its four walls. The fourth wall was almost entirely taken up by what I realize now must have been a two-way mirror. Occupying the center of the room was a long, brown conference table, around which were several black plastic chairs—but not, we quickly ascertained, enough for all of us.
After we had all either sat down or staked out a section of wall against which to lean—I, in deference to my age, had been granted a seat—one of the stylishly dressed young interns informed us that they had made a mistake: They had invited too many people. So what they were going to do was he was going tell us a little bit about the product they were focus grouping, then he was going to ask us a few questions, and then, based on our answers to these questions, they were going to decide who to keep and who to send home.
As it turned out, the product they were focus grouping was an example of what is today known as a smart phone—one of the very first examples, I would imagine, judging by the timeline—and I remember feeling confused as to why it had been decided that, based on my reaction to a trailer for Dark Angel, I would have anything useful to say about those. Still, there was the incentive of $300, and I was going to give it my best shot.
After the stylishly dressed young intern had described at length some of the smart phone's features, as well as some of its potential uses, he went around the table asking each of us, one by one, if it sounded like the kind of product we would consider buying. When he arrived at me, I decided the best course of action was to answer honestly.
The way I figured it, selling the product to someone who was already interested in buying it was easy. By talking to me, on the other hand, they could figure out how to sell it to someone who wasn't. Ergo, my perspective was the most valuable in the room. They were sure to ask me to stay!
“No,” I told him.
The stylishly dressed young intern thanked us all and asked us to please wait just a few more minutes and he would be right back. Then he left the room, presumably to confer with the other stylishly dressed young interns.
The adults made small talk while I sat quietly by myself. After a few minutes, our stylishly dressed young intern returned with a small stack of money. He thanked all of us once again for coming, but they had made the final decision as to who among us they wouldn't be needing. He read their names off a piece of paper. One of the names was mine.
“But because you were all kind enough to take time out of your weekends,” he added, “and because we don't want to send you away empty handed, we're going to give you each $100 of the $300 we promised.”
Truth be told, I was more disappointed that I wasn't going to get to take part in the focus group than I was about the deducted $200. When I told my father what happened, he gave me one of the few real pieces of advice I can remember him ever giving me: “When somebody asks you a question like that, always say yes.”
I reached puberty much earlier than most of my peers, so that by the time I reached the seventh grade I already had a heavy dusting of facial hair across my chin, shoulders like a Gotham Knights linebacker and a voice that was a deep baritone.
My classmates called me “girl” no longer.
In addition to these welcome physical changes I began to add new items to my wardrobe, including a long black coat that was to become by trademark. The teacher’s insistence that I take it off upon entering her classroom, my refusal to do so, and the subsequent contest of wills that ensued became a daily ritual, a pantomime on a small scale of the rebellion against authority in which each day my classmates and I felt an increasing call to enlist.
It was these miniature mutinies, along with an emerging talent for cracking jokes in the middle of lessons, that finally earned me the respect of my peers.
Coincidentally, this was also the year I delivered a lecture on the subject of comic books to the “Intellectually Gifted” class, thus effectively coming out of the geek closet. I had purchased from a local used book store that summer a book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, a sacred tome that is to comic book readers, writers and artists what Darwin’s The Origin of Species is to biologists. I used it as my lesson plan, recreating in chalk the various charts and artworks contained therein on the classroom's blackboard, waxing enthusiastic as I did about the narrative virtues of the medium.
My classmates were rapt. Several of them even approached me afterward asking to see the small collection of graphic novels I had brought with me as visual aids: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller, and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.
We sat in a circle on the basketball court during recess, passing the books around, commenting on our favorite panels, reading our favorite lines aloud.
It must have been around this time that I decided I wanted to be a comic book artist when I grew up. I started by copying panels from the various comic books I owned into a hardcover Barnes & Noble's sketchbook that I had covered in stickers in emulation of Enid Coleslaw, the protagonist of both the graphic novel Ghost World and the film adaptation by director Terry Zwigoff, which had recently become one of my favorite films. I soon progressed to drawing portraits of my friends and classmates, which was especially useful as a means of flirting with girls.
One of my best was of a girl in my first period Global Studies class whom I had dubbed “Ethereal Girl” for the way her characteristic blue fishnets made her pale calves seem to glow with a faint blue light. In fact, those stockings were one of the few injections of color she ever lent to her ensembles, unless you counted the streaks of purple and green in her choppy brown hair.
Ethereal Girl had long, knobby limbs, sharp, jutting hipbones and small breasts, while I tended to prefer more voluptuous girls. But there was something about her personality, the ever-present smirk on her lips, the way she moved. She was slinky, like Catwoman. Even the thick, black rings of eyeliner around her eyes were reminiscent of that character's mask.
Though the attraction was eventually declared to be mutual it was never consummated, and though I have known many more beautiful women since—and though she eventually gave up the punk look in favor of a more sophisticated, mainstream fashion sense—it will always be Ethereal Girl whom I most regret not being with when I had the chance.
At the age of sixteen I experienced what I can only describe as a nostalgic revelation when, while reading the third volume in a series called Batman: No Man's Land, I found myself staring at the same sketchy, amorphous drawings and muted colors I'd spent the majority of that road trip staring at when I was eight years old.
I had long since lost that comic book, and could remember none of the relevant information with which I might have looked it up. And yet, here it was in my hands again after another eight years.
There's something about holding the object of a childhood memory that reconnects you to the person you were when the memory happened. Like the ham radio that allows Jim Caviezel to talk to his six year-old self in the movie Frequency. It's a feeling of past and present not so much colliding as exchanging a fond “Hello, how've you been?” before once again going their separate ways.
This nostalgia was pointed with a bitter irony, however, for I had made the discovery in the midst of a period of homelessness following my parents' divorce earlier that year.
After being evicted from my childhood home, my father and I spent a few weeks living like nomads, moving around between hotels, I occasionally spending a night or two at the house of a friend while he slept in his car in the parking lot of Huntington Hospital. One day a friend of his sister's with a large house in Syosset offered to take us in. We stayed with her and her family for just under six months, during which time they offered to assume legal guardianship of me, an offer my father very seriously considered for the simple reason that they were wealthy and he was not. I turned them down, however, and it became a point of contention between us. We moved out shortly thereafter.
Eventually my father and I ended up in a government housing facility in Wyandanch, also sometimes referred to by its unofficial moniker, “Harlem's Little Sister”. There we shared a house with several other families uniformly consisting of unwed black mothers and their two to four small children. One of these mothers had a habit of consoling herself by playing My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder at full volume, on repeat, for hours at a time, often all night. As a result, the effect that song has on me today is roughly comparable to the effect that coming across a late night showing of The Mark of Zorro might have on an insomniac Bruce Wayne.
The facility had a rule that said no minor was to be left unattended there by his or her parent for any reason at any time, which meant that when my father left for work early Saturday and Sunday mornings I had to accompany him to the Walt Whitman Mall, where for his entire eight hour shift in the luggage department of Macy's I would wander the white linoleum halls like my hero under the effects of one of the Mad Hatter's mind control devices, passing by the same storefronts, the same window displays, the same mannequins modeling the same outfits and the same dead-eyed stares, over and over again. The facility also had a curfew, 11:00 pm, which meant that I was prohibited from spending nights at friends' houses or even attending parties or social gatherings past 9:00, as the train ride back to Wyandanch took about two hours (by this point my father had either sold the car or it had been repossessed, I'm not sure which).
As a result, I spent the majority of my time within the wood paneled walls of that facility, with its torn black pleather couches and its plastic wrapped mattresses and its sign above the toilet reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be considerate and clean up after yourself and your children,” separated by what may as well have been a million miles from my friends, my hometown and the world I knew.
The No Man's Land saga, meanwhile, recounts the events of the year immediately after Gotham suffers a cataclysmic earthquake, reducing the already derelict city to rubble and prompting the U.S. government to officially evacuate the city and militarize its borders in order to isolate those who remain. The resulting no man's land is plunged into anarchy, and Batman and his sidekicks must struggle to maintain a sense of order amid the chaos.
It is an irresistibly seductive thing, the impulse to compare one's own life to the life of a superhero. I found myself dreaming I was Batman more and more often, and likening a particularly flippant and extroverted friend of mine to the Joker—although I admit there were times when I felt more like the Joker, so cynical and bewildered in the face of it all that I could only laugh.
I continued, too, the practice of drawing parallels between the women in my life and the various femme fatales of Batman's rogues gallery.
There was my girlfriend, who had a sort of ancient, Sephardic sensuality about her, and whose father, though not exactly a villain, I still found incredibly intimidating, and so she was Talia Al Ghul. There was my former crush, whose feline features and body language, combined with the sexual tension which was still present in our friendship and which frequently manifested as hostility, made her a perfect Catwoman. I even had my very own Harley Quinn for those days when I was feeling Jokerish—although in retrospect, her red hair may have made her better suited for the role of Poison Ivy.
There was, too, a feeling of being marked by destiny, of being chosen for greatness the way Batman had been chosen by the murder of his parents, Superman by the destruction of his home planet, the Flash by the cascade of volatile chemicals sent crashing down upon him by an errant bolt of lightning.
Even outside of comics, in the annals of classical mythology and literature there seemed to be a correlation between traumatic childhoods and glorious adulthoods. I decided that my early years of social isolation, my dysfunctional home life, my parents' contentious divorce and my present homelessness must all be a test, a right of passage, a cosmic trial by fire from which the future, epically heroic me would rise like Phoenix from Jamaica Bay.
And weren't there already signs of that transformation occurring? Hadn't I lately been cast as the lead in all the school plays? Won a national writing contest? Didn't members of the faculty half-jokingly request my autograph in the hallway so that when I became famous they could say they knew me when? And hadn't my English teacher, Ms. Goodman, cited me during the course of a lesson on the archetype of the Byronic Hero as a perfect example of that archetype? Hell, I had been born on my father's birthday! My name meant “strong and virile gift of god”! I had received my first kiss, at the age of fourteen, on an airplane, traveling alone, from a strange girl whom I had just happened to be seated next to and who was two years older than me! I was a literary protagonist!
Then, in June of 2006, the final month of my senior year of high school, my picture appeared on the cover of the “Long Island Life” section of Newsday. In the accompanying four page article detailing the story of how I had overcome adversity to win a full scholarship to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, the author wrote, “he walks with a calm stride, his confident gait absent the bravado and timidity that typically fill high school hallways” and “his dark brown eyes pierce his sentences like punctuation marks”.
This was it! My first brush with fame! My emergence into glory! My equivalent of the fateful Gotham Gazette headline “Strange Half-Man Half-Bat Spotted At Ace Chemical Heist”!
Like the article said, I had overcome the requisite adversity and now I was set to take the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama by storm! Within five years—tops!—I would surely be a movie star! Sitting down to chat with James Lipton Inside The Actors Studio! My image on the front of every magazine, my poster on the wall of every teen girl's bedroom!
I began practicing my Oscar acceptance speech—and, of course, I began practicing my Batman voice, sure that my being cast in that role was merely a matter of time. Hell, why wait to be cast? I would write and direct it myself! It would be the most faithful treatment of the character yet, a rumination on his nature as an avatar for our own tendencies to impose order and meaning on an inherently random and chaotic existence, with yours truly portraying both Batman and the Joker to symbolize how the pair were two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same fractured psyche! Genius! Brilliant! It would be Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca all rolled into one! And I would be the next Orson Welles!
Everything else was just origin story.
I lasted three months at Carnegie Mellon. As it turned out, the trials of my adolescence were more than I could bare, and removed from the context of the fantasy world I had constructed atop my high school, wherein I was the hero at the beginning of his hero cycle and everyone and everything else around me had some symbolic significance, I simply could not function. I was skittish and insecure around my fellow drama majors, whom I found to be overbearingly flamboyant and self-assured, daunted by the workload assigned me by professors who, unlike my teachers in high school, knew nothing of my home life and so offered no special leniency, and most of all lonely, which, combined with a determination to turn over a new leaf after a high school career spent being perceived as an inapproachable loner by most of my peers, resulted in my coming off as desperately overeager whenever I made attempts to socialize.
Any resemblance between myself and an epic hero had vanished, tucked away in storage along with the posters and the memorabilia. I wasn't Batman. I wasn't even the Joker. I was just another helpless civilian in need of being saved.
Rescue came in the form of my mother and her new boyfriend, who allowed me to move in with them after I withdrew. I spent just under a year living in my mother's boyfriend's condo in Nashville, Tennessee, working in an ice cream shop, spending my free time watching X-Files reruns on Sci-Fi, Law & Order reruns on TNT and AMC's Fear Fridays, and attending weekly therapy sessions with a psychologist who informed me I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the end, however, the therapy did the trick, and in the Fall of 2007 I began attending Prescott College for English literature and creative writing. I even lasted there a whole year before transferring to the State School of New York at Geneseo, where I finally learned how to socialize with my peers. Late night games of Mario Kart, Call of Duty and Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the occasional game of beer pong or flip cup, did me more good than any therapist ever could, and when my girlfriend graduated in 2010 I decided I was ready to follow her into the Real World.
Now we're just another couple of urban twenty-somethings—about the same age as those stylishly dressed young interns from the focus group!—making a go of it together in a cramped little studio apartment in Queens. Just us against the world. Partners in crime.
The dynamic duo.
Of course there's a Batman poster hanging on our wall—specifically Alex Ross's portrait of the character from his DC Heroes series, which I chose for its photorealism. I even persist in equating my girlfriend to one of his femme fatales, except that now she is Catwoman, not because she is slinky or feline in any way but because she is fiercely independent, in many ways a mirror of myself and yet a foil, capable of being both an antagonist and my closest ally. But most of my other memorabilia remains in storage, if not lost forever.
There have even been other heroes in my life since high school—Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men; a creative writing professor at Geneseo who became my mentor; President Obama, for whom I campaigned in 2008; and most recently the Doctor from the BBC series Doctor Who, whose livelier and more hopeful persona befits the changes to my own personality since my darker and more brooding days as a teenager.
Still, he watches over us, arms crossed, chin thrust out defiantly, knitted brow, mouth refusing to smile, and yet, somehow, evidently proud. And why shouldn't he be?
He's been through a lot.