NOTE: I wrote this a couple months ago, but didn't post it because it was too whiny. I still think that, I just don't care as much. I hope you gag on it.
After so many years, I finally got fed up pissing and moaning about my childhood, particularly my relationship with my father, so I more or less knocked it off. The old man and I actually get along okay these days, although I only talk to him twice, maybe three times a year. Even less, come to think of it. There's still a lot of that bile simmering beneath the surface, and it tends to come out in my writing more often than not. I don't fight that, because at least it's a creative way to deal with that sort of shit, much moreso than going on Dr. Phil and crying about it. But I still tend to avoid talking about it directly, if for no other reason than it's very un-Dude.
Worry not, this still has to do with comics. But I've had a couple things knocking about in my head that I've been wanting to write about, but have been lacking a (somewhat) interesting way to go about it until today. Today, I read Ultimate Spider-Man #133, and there's a really nice interview in the back with writer Brian Michael Bendis. If you've read any Marvel comic at all over the past ten years, chances are Bendis either wrote it, or a major story-arc that he wrote had a large editorial influence on it. The guy has more or less become the Stan Lee of this current generation, and in no way is this more obvious than the fact that he re-started the whole Spider-Man saga and saw it through to its timely end (well, sorta. I guess the book will continue, but the Ultimate universe as we've come to know it so far is pretty much nixed). So the interviewer made sure to address this, and Bendis talked about not just how much of an influence Lee was on him as a writer, but as a person. And he said something that I can certainly relate to, and is a subject I've given considerable thought over the years: in regards to how emotional he got over Stan Lee's gracious acceptance of him as Lee's title-bearer, Bendis says, "So I didn't have a father and then Stan Lee is nice to me and I act like he's my father."
This type of psychology should be no stranger to those of us fellows immersed in comics. Comics, particularly super-hero comics, are largely escapist. As young lads, what we're often trying to escape is dissatisfaction with our home lives. I'm painting in broad strokes here, but I've noticed that most of us fall into three categories: we had no friends, we had no fathers, or our fathers were total shitheads. I've read where Ed Brubaker has said, since he was an army brat and was moved around constantly, comics were the one constant in his life, as he was never in one place long enough to form any lasting friendships. Bendis, according to the aforementioned interview, dearly loves his mother and has no problems with how she raised him and his brother, but he definitely felt the absence of a male role model.
Guess which category I fall under. Boo-hoo, I know. But if you'll humor me, I'll explain why Stan Lee, as much as I love the guy, isn't my father, nor is Steve Ditko or Harvey Kurtzman or even Alan Moore or Chris Claremont or Frank Miller or any of the hundreds of other comics creators who began molding me into a man from the tender age of 11.
When I was 13 years old, me and Ryan Moore (no relation) were playing Butts Up after school. The plan was to hang out, go back to my house around the block and hang out for a while, and then come back for some lame-ass 8th grade dance. Only Ryan thought it would be more fun to pull the fire alarm while I wasn't looking. Ooops. So naturally, as the klaxon sounds and the day-care kids are lined up out on the softball field, I panic, hop on my bike, and book it home. Only thing is Mr. Reinike had seen me and Ryan down there on the handball courts just a few minutes earlier. So Dr. Quiocho, the principal, calls my house just as I pull huffing and puffing into the driveway. Man, was my dad pissed, so pissed he barely said a word as we drove back. Dr. Quiocho, bless her, a woman I'd always found to be fair even if kinda scary, waited until Ryan had been hauled onto the carpet as well before accusing me of anything. And Ryan, being in general an all-right guy, 'fessed up immediately and made it clear I had no hand in any of these shenanigans. Dr. Quiocho then excused me before she ripped Moore a new asshole in front of the firefighters who had been called down there erroneously. I followed my dad out as Quiocho blamed Ryan for the hypothetical deaths of orphans as their house burned down because the fire department was busy down at Joan McQueen Middle School because of him.
We weren't two steps out the door before my dad turned to me and said, "You probably dared him to do it, didn't ya?" Now, I'm a little guy, physically, and I was a little kid then. Yet never, before or since, have I ever felt smaller. I looked up into the face of the man who had sired me, and I saw there the disappointment that he would be denied giving me a whipping, as well as the utter surety that my worthless snot-nosed ass was the brains behind this operation. There was no way I was not culpable in any, if not all, of this because I was a miserable piece of shit, all overwhelming evidence to the contrary be damned. I looked over my shoulder at a couple of the firemen outside the office. They'd heard what my old man said to me, and I swear I saw the pity in their faces: "Man, tough break, kid."
I certainly don't believe this one incident led me and/or my self-esteem down the road to wrack and ruin. But it is, I think, pretty indicative of the environment I was raised in, and that environment had a profound effect on me. I've spent the rest of my life feeling like I never really have anybody in my corner, that the only person who gave a fuck about me was me. This is an exaggeration: I'd take a bullet for any one of my friends, and feel certain they would say the same. But when I talk with people who are close with their families, the one saving grace those families seem to have, even when they're driving you up a wall, is that "they're always there when you need them."
Yeah, well, I'll have to take your word for it.
But let me tell you another story now, a much happier one, as far as I'm concerned. This is a story I first read about in Gerard Jones' excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Back in the late '30s, Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, was running his own "shop," as they called it--basically, an office where comics artists could rent out space (that's really simplifying it, but I digress). Now, at this building, there was a towel service that was run by some Mafia goons, and they were constantly jacking the prices up, as Mafia goons will do. So one day, Eisner demands to see a representative about these price changes, and up comes a guy straight from central casting: big, broken-nosed, black shirt, white tie. Eisner says he's gonna find another towel service, and the guy lets him know, subtly but firmly, that that would not be a good idea.
Just then, in walks one of Eisner's fellow comics artists, a little five-foot-two guy. Before Eisner can even say anything, his buddy knows just what's going on: this is a goddamn shakedown. "Is this guy giving you any trouble, Will?" he says, ready to fly headfirst into the shit. And Eisner's like, No, hey, it's all under control. "Do you want me to beat him up?" the artist says, and at this point, I can only imagine the expression on this mobbed-up dope's face: here he is at a 'business meeting,' and in walks this sawed-off Jew threatening to beat him up. "Who is this guy?" he asks Eisner. Eisner says this guy is one of his best artists, and nothing had better happen to him or nobody's gonna be able to pay for any towels anyways. The goon says, "We don't want no trouble; we just want to do things business-like." And that was it; the price hikes stopped (for a while, anyways).
Who was that guy, Eisner's best artist?
Jack fuckin' Kirby, that's who. The guy who would go on to pretty much co-create the Marvel Universe as we know it with Stan Lee: the original artist of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and The X-Men, just for openers. The guy whose name is probably more closely associated with comics than any other.
"Let me know if he comes back, Will," he says to Eisner, "Tell me if you want me to beat him up." This little half-pint was ready to start swinging before he even knew the play; all he saw was his buddy Will Eisner getting bullied, and that was that. Didn't matter that the guy was probably twice Kirby's size. Eisner's his associate, and ain't nobody fucking with anybody associated with Jack Kirby.
I've not always been the biggest Kirby fan. I don't buy The Jack Kirby Collector. I went to one of Mark Evanier's Kirby panels at WonderCon '08, and those guys are far more familiar with the man and his work than I'll ever be. And if you wanna get technical, the guy was far from the best artist ever, with no formal training at all. But I'll tell you one thing for sure: Jack Kirby's always been there when I've needed him.
Always in my corner.