Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Batman and Me

Twenty-five years ago I bought my first superhero comic book. The cover date was April 1992, which means it was actually published in February 1992, for reasons that are unclear to me, but I'm going to go ahead and call April 2017 my 25-year superhero anniversary. The book was Batman 476, and the cover featured Batman revealing his secret identity (gasp!) to Vicki Vale.

I was twelve. I had always loved Batman, whether on reruns of the 1966 Adam West TV series or on Super Friends. When I was little I'd had pajamas featuring Batman and Robin, and another set featuring Superman. My older sister had made me a reversible cape that was Batman on one side and Superman on the other. When the Michael Keaton movie came out in 1989, I got special permission from my mom to see it even though it was rated PG-13 and I was only nine. That movie kicked off a renewed phase of Batmania in American culture, and I loved that it transformed a beloved character from my early childhood into a kickass character my pre-adolescent self could appreciate.

I don't remember what inspired me to pick up that Batman comic. I know I was fascinated by the cover of this particular issue because of the seemingly seminal moment it portrayed; was I getting in on Batman comics just as he was going to reveal his most guarded secret to the woman he loved? As it turned out, no, I wasn't--the story shows Batman imagining what it would be like to reveal his secret identity, but he doesn't actually get around to doing it.

Despite the mild disappointment of the cover fake-out, I was hooked. The gorgeous art by Norm Breyfogle portrayed a sexy, muscular, dynamic Batman. He wore the familiar blue and gray colors that recalled the campier Batman of my young childhood—as opposed to Michael Keaton’s black rubber suit—but Breyfogle made that costume look cool with its long bat ears, pupil-less white eyes, and skintight fit over an athletic physique. Breyfogle remains my favorite Batman artist to this day. The story itself, written by Alan Grant, was dramatic and exciting in a way that connected with me, even though it was the final part of a multi-part story. The story felt very grown up to me, compared to the Batman of my early childhood, and that made me feel grown up. Like Breyfogle, Grant also became one of my favorites.

Batman was a gateway drug for me. From there I quickly branched out to the Justice League, the Teen Titans, and every other DC character I could afford to follow with my meager teenage income. I loved the brightly-colored costumes (shocking, I know) and the perfect male physiques (also shocking), but more than anything I loved that these characters had fifty years of history behind them, and that history was continuing to unfold in a shared universe. You never knew when a Batman story might reference a Superman story from a decade prior. I spent the rest of my adolescence digging through back issue bins to fill in the gaps of that history that I couldn’t fill in at the library. I spent lunch recesses in the school library, reading and rereading the few collections they had there. I took frequent bus rides to the state library to check out their collections, as well as a superhero encyclopedia I checked out so many times I may as well have owned it.

I could psychoanalyze my reasons for diving so deeply into the world of superheroes. The universe these characters shared was a fantasy I could fully immerse myself in when the real world sucked—as it did for me through much of my teenage years. The characters became friends I could connect with at times that I was afraid to connect with real people. One of the primary conceits of the genre, the secret identity, was something a deeply closeted gay Mormon kid could relate to. And so long as I was unwilling to let myself fall in love with real men, being in love with fictional characters was a safe outlet. (One of my sisters once expressed concern that I was attracted to men because all those scantily-clad, large-breasted women in my comic books had desensitized me to female beauty. All I could think was, Do superheroines have large breasts? I hadn’t noticed.)

(Yes. Yes they do.)
Honestly, I don’t know why I fell in love with superhero comics, and I don’t know that it matters. I’ve been following these characters through twenty-five years of ongoing stories. I’ve seen favorite characters die and come back to life, grow old then get retconned young again, get married and unmarried and married again, and have children who’ve grown into new favorite characters. I’ve been through three Robins in my comics-reading life and have gotten to know three others through the back issue bins. I always thought I’d eventually grow out of this thing, but twenty-five years later that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s just that my reasons have changed—as a teen the stories made me feel grown up, but as an adult they make me feel young again.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chasing Immortality

Last night I finally watched Passengers, which I'd been meaning to see for months, because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Honestly, I could have watched those two talk to each other for two hours and I would have been fine--have two more likable people ever existed?--but it turns out the movie itself is pretty great too. If you haven't seen it and don't mind spoilers, the premise is that two people have woken up too early on a 100+ year interstellar flight where everyone is supposed to be in suspended animation. There's no way for them to go back into hibernation, so basically they're going to die on this spaceship while all the other passengers and crew continue sleeping.

I particularly identified with Lawrence's character, Aurora Lane. Aurora is a writer planning a round trip so that she can return to Earth a couple hundred years in the future, the first writer to go to the colony worlds, come back, and write about the experience. Except now she's woken up early so that's not going to happen. So what does she do? She writes. She documents this horrible experience of being alone with a stranger on a spaceship full of sleeping people. As I watched this, I wanted to shout, "Yes, she gets it! Writing makes you immortal!"

There are a lot of reasons to write, I suppose, but as I've examined myself recently I've realized that it all comes down to my massive ego. I believe that what I have to say is so interesting, so important that not only will people besides my immediate relatives want to read it, but people who haven't even been born yet will want to read it. Not only will they want to read it, but the world will be a better place for generations to come if I can just get these amazing, wonderful, earth-shattering ideas out where people can read them.

The urgency of this need to speak to future generations has grown significantly since I stopped believing in an afterlife. I am quite honestly terrified of ceasing to exist. I wish I did believe in heaven, because living forever sounds nice, but I simply don't see the evidence to support that theory. This life is all I've got, so I am going to do everything I can to make my mark while I'm here. And what better way to achieve immortality than by writing, so I can live on through my words?

As much as I humor my ego with these grandiose plans and beliefs about my own importance, though, part of me still recognizes that dead is dead, published writer or not. William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh, and Michael Jackson are not any less dead than an unidentified John Doe in the morgue. So at the same time that I plan for the inevitable future, I try to stay grounded in the present. If this life is all I've got, then I'm going to live it well, to enjoy this short time I have with my family and friends, and, if nothing else, have a positive impact on those close to me. Mika expresses this idea beautifully in "Last Party," his tribute to Freddie Mercury:

If it’s the end of the world let’s party
Like it’s the end of the world let’s party
Wrap your arms around everybody
If we’re all gonna die let’s party

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Velvet Fish

My husband likes to point out that fish is one of the few foods where the best thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t taste too much like what it is. “Give this a try,” people will say, “it doesn’t taste very fishy at all.” No one says, “Try this steak; it’s not very steaky,” or “Mmm, this pork isn’t porky at all!” If fish were good, my husband argues, then having a fishy taste would be a good thing, not a bad thing. While I enjoy fish quite a bit more than my husband does, I have to acknowledge he makes a valid point.

Exhibit A

A lot of people, straight and gay, treat being gay like being fishy. “He’s gay,” a well-meaning straight person might say, “but he’s not one of those flaming, in-your-face gays. He’s just a normal guy.” You can blame it on homophobia, but the truth is that gay men do this as much as anyone. No one is more guilty of worshipping masculinity and devaluing femininity than gay men. “Does he have to talk like that? Does he have to walk like that? It’s limp-wristed, lisping fags like him that make the rest of us look bad.” Is there an acceptable range of variation from straight masculinity beyond which we’re too gay?

I recently started listening to the audiobook of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs. In the book, Downs questions why so many gay men are obsessed with fashion, decoration, and all things fabulous. Is there a gay creativity gene? Downs postulates that these over-the-top self-expressions are making up for years of deep-seated shame from growing up in a world that invalidated a core part of who we are. Most of us have overcome the belief that being gay makes us broken, but there still remains a deeply entrenched belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. So we attempt to drown out the shame with sex, with drugs and alcohol, with having perfect bodies, beautiful homes, successful careers. We hide the shame behind a fa├žade of fabulousness.

Exhibit B

Appropriately enough, I started listening to The Velvet Rage while painting my kitchen in bright pink, yellow, and aqua. The juxtaposition of thought-provoking audiobook and on-the-nose home decoration activity certainly made me question my motivations. While working with a therapist through some unresolved childhood issues recently, I discovered within me that shame Downs is talking about: a belief that at my core I am flawed, unlovable, wrong. Maybe my recent obsession with decorating my home and body in bold, bright colors is an attempt to cover up that shame, but I think it’s more about moving beyond the shame. For me it’s about reclaiming an identity that I spent years trying to hide. Pretending to be straight was exhausting and now I don’t have to pretend anymore; what better way to celebrate than by embracing the fabulous? That doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt stereotypical gay mannerisms or hobbies just for the sake of proving I’m gay. It means I’m going to be 150% me and I’m not going to apologize for it. And I sure as hell am not going to criticize other gay men who do the same—whether for them that means being a glamour queen draped in pink feather boas, a leather-clad muscle daddy, or a nerdy computer guy who couldn’t care less about fashion or home decor.

Thankfully, I’m surrounded by people who get this. When one of my best friends and I were discussing my newly-painted kitchen the other day and she said jokingly, “Well, it is kind of gay,” she couldn’t have given me a higher compliment. Yes, it is kind of gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Alternate Realities

Sometimes I feel like I wasted my twenties. In high school and into college I had serious aspirations of writing and publishing. I majored in English, got a master's in creative writing, won contests, published in small literary journals, briefly considered moving to New York and doing an editing internship just to get a foot in the door of the publishing world, but somewhere along the way I got sidetracked by real life. I married young--a woman, because that's what my church told me was the only viable option--and we started a family not long after that. With a wife and kids to support, practical concerns took precedence over lofty dreams. I needed a real job that paid real money, so I went back to school to get a more practical degree, and then I landed in my current job. It's a great job that pays well, treats me well, gives me the flexibility to be actively involved in parenting my kids, and I'm very good at what I do. For the most part, I enjoy the job--the work we do is interesting, and I love the people I work with. And yet here I am, 37, just barely trying to launch a writing career that I put on hold more than a decade ago. Isn't this what I told myself I'd do in my twenties?

The reality is that very few people have a writing career. Many people write, a few publish, and a very small fraction of those people make enough money to call it a career. For most, writing is a hobby, at most a side job. The frustrating thing for me now is that my husband makes more than enough to support us; in an alternate reality where I married him first, maybe I'd be a stay-at-home dad who writes while the kids are at school, and any publishing success I have would be extra income, not essential. Maybe I would have gotten a jump-start on my writing career ten years ago if I hadn't felt the need to be the family's bread-winner. But in this reality, I did feel that need ten years ago, and now my husband and I both have ex-wives and kids to support, which means both our incomes are essential.

Another part of me recognizes this is all first-world, upper-middle class, white male privileged whining. Many, many couples both work multiple jobs just to support their single family household, leaving little time for a hobby that maybe one day could possibly turn into secondary income. Many, many women put their dreams on hold in order to raise a family, and end up starting their career of choice ten, fifteen, or twenty years later than their male counterparts. To the extent that I can as a man, I identify with those women who felt pressured to fill a role that perhaps wasn't exactly what they would have wanted for themselves.

At the same time, I also identify with those women who are grateful for the good that has come from their choices, whether or not they would make those same choices again. I love my kids; in that alternate reality where I married a man the first time, I have no doubt that we would have had kids and loved them just as much, but we wouldn't have had these kids. I am grateful for ten years of memories with a great friend who continues to be a wonderful mother to our children. I am lucky to have the job I do, with all its benefits, financial and otherwise. And I'm privileged to be in a place now where I can focus on my writing again, even if it's just a stolen hour here and there--it's more than many have. So I'll give myself a minute to mourn lost opportunities and imaginary alternate realities, then plant myself firmly in the pretty fantastic reality I've got, and forge ahead.