My comprehension was poor enough that when, many years later, I saw the same Batman television show with the sensibilities of a teenager who read real literature, I was shocked to see that the antics of Adam West and Burt Ward were intentionally comedic. This had been lost on me when I saw it as a child. I enjoyed it on some other level.
I didn't need to be told in words that the comics were aimed at kids, even though certain issues of Detective Comics were unmistakably hardcore. I simply saw that nobody over the age of 12 that I knew was reading any. And so, I stopped buying comics on any regular basis before Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the shelves clean of the worlds of my heroes. Earth One, Earth Two, Earth S, stacked up not very carefully in boxes.
By odd coincidence, I ended up buying all of three comics during the mid-Eighties and two of them were classics by Alan Moore. This really was a coincidence, or effective marketing on the covers, I suppose. Still, my focus was so absent that when my father picked up the first part of Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but never bothered to get the second part until nine years later.
In early 1989, with a Batman movie set to release, some friends of mine told me about Dark Knight Returns and one of them lent it to me. This was the first time I saw anyone grown and not completely lost in fantasy read a story about those heroes of the vinyl action figures. I'd read Shakespeare and Virgil by that time, and had friends who lived with their eyes deep in real literature. I tried to convey upon them that Moore and Miller had written real literature with the funnybook heroes, and saw some agree and others disagree. A friend and I watched one episode of Adam West's Batman as a drinking game, taking a sip of beer every time Batman lectured anyone.
During a period of three or so years, I read the comics again, and collected -- this time from a gun and comics store -- some of the old issues I'd missed. The comics had grown up while I did, in not very similar ways. Barry Allen was dead. Supergirl was dead.
I started writing for an audience of basically none, little snippets of prose that might be considered a stillborn novel or script. For every plot point on the page there were ten in my head. I imagined just how it would look, how my take on Earth One would go. It was the sort of homage that years later came frequently from DC Comics itself as they set a writer here and there free to re-tell their classic worlds in new takes, "Elseworlds" they called it. And some fifteen years later, when I again returned to the comics, after again taking a long hiatus to let my life happen in other ways, I was shocked to see that some very specific plot points of my unwritten, unread, maybe once-told story had shown up in real comics in the meantime. It felt like ESP plagiarism had taken place. A squad of heroic-seeming villains defeat the Earth's superheroes but leave the seeds of their defeat in failing to actually kill Batman, who stalks back from an Antarctic plane crash to lead the resistance, reasoning from their failure to finish him off what their weaknesses were. I wrote that! Or thought it. And to see that in a Grant Morrison story that was printed some five years later tells me that there were some ideas in the older comics that anyone with the same sensibilities would take from them. Darkseid as Hitler, Earth as the conquered Europe, the Justice League as the Resistance and Allied armies -- this is obvious, on some level. It had to be done. And the idea of a hero fighting back from being abandoned in the frozen polar regions -- well, it had been done before in a Green Lantern comic and Superman II.
Many mature stories and Elseworlds also cover the same material. Superheroes are outlawed. Darkseid or some other bad guy as the conquering Hitler. Blitzkrieg, occupation, Stalingrad and Midway, D-Day, victory. Nobody wrote this story. It happened. We found in my father's old things an "action figure" of Douglas MacArthur and a copy of Detective #286. There was a common idea there, and writers wrote the childhood heroes into modified versions of World War Two using some of the values that made "real literature" good.
They say comic books can inspire a reader but I have trouble pointing to any good I ever did having been inspired by them. Maybe there is some, but it sure didn't resemble what Superman did. No, but one thing I got from the comics is how different the separate takes on the heroes and villains were. The Fifties, the Sixties, my pre-Crisis era, the era that came later, when it was hard to know who was Green Lantern anymore when I saw a comic book shelf and saw no one I recognized.
And after I'd spent a longer time away from them, they pulled me in again. I read about Identity Crisis, then in progress, from CNN. I joined it mid-way, and later read a few other things, older and current. Kingdom Come, and then Infinite Crisis. What really pulled me in this time was the sense of community because I could discuss these things with other fans. I had never really known other fans in person, and to this day I do not. I have had a few conversations, but even driving right past a major comics convention while it is in progress has not made me really want to go inside. Parking nearby to eat with my family at an Italian restaurant is life. When I walk down streets where muggers sometimes strike, I think of the irrelevance of Batman as an idea. A man who refused to hand his wallet over was shot dead not far from where I currently sit. A friend of someone very close to me drowned, and thoughts of Aquaman saving him made me smile and cry. That's what Aquaman can do. He can make you smile and cry when you would otherwise be numb.
For the last three years, I found something very interesting sociologically in the oldest Golden Age comics; at the same time, I found something almost totally different in the cutting edge comics of, in particular, Grant Morrison. These two passions ignited a willingness to act, but not to save drowning men, because I can't do that. I have written, and in this online community, the same typing that I once put into recording, for an audience of none, my own fictional stories, I have offered analysis. At first, I tried talking about the Golden Age comics, but I stopped, and found myself writing regular issue-by-issue analyses of the current comics, and the reason why is very important. That's what readers care more about now. I see the traffic stats for my site. Every comic has a peak of interest that lasts a day or two and then fades. Sometimes a second or third peak occurs if an older comic is homaged, but that is a minority event. The interest for the comics of 1940 peaked in 1940. I've posted on those, but the reason why I am posting has a lot to do with community. Not the hollow metrics of seeing the traffic stats peak, but the active discussion and engagement, in the comments here and on the DC Message Boards. One sees the transient passing of the inspired and cannot long forget that the canonical comic book shows a lone figure commit acts of justified aggression. Justification is easy and many-way directed when it comes from within. Superman said, in the best comic book of the last decade, that dreams inspire us but what do the comics inspire? Probably not more lifeguards. The exciting part of an Aquaman comic is not when Aquaman stares at the beach but when he boards a ship and doles out punishment. That may be what it inspires.
The comics are a wonderful realm for setting the mind free. They invite one to be a detective far more than they propel one to saving lives or stopping muggers. The unexamined life is not worth living. I fell, just by being me, into a yearlong plunge trying to understand Grant Morrison's run on Batman and to answer the question, "Who is the Black Glove?" This remains something that happens online, not in my real life. I feel, in ways I'd like to expound upon later, that the activity has sharpened my mind and borne out the best practices of science and ways of being. I rather deliberately tried to bring the exact same habit from my comic book analysis to the standout television drama, Mad Men, just to see how the whole experience -- looking for subtleties, evoking a response from the online community, carried over. And in a respect, to go back to the discussions I had a long time ago as to whether superhero comics are real art. Understanding them is much the same as understanding real art.
That one can go from the comics to other venues invites that very transition. What is found in comics, and much that isn't, can also be found elsewhere. With the interruption of one part of my online discussion of comics, I will switch gears here. I will in the long run post much less and less regularly, and aim my focus elsewhere, some on this blog and some not. I may in the short run actually post more, to launch a few projects in discussion that seem worthy to me. That Grant Morrison's comics are changing seasons makes this timely. I have been offered pay for writing in a couple of venues and I will consider those.
The building where I bought those figures of the superheroes has long since ceased being a store of any kind. It burned down this fall, leaving a smoking shell. It's the sort of thing that a superhero would have stopped, easily, but there are no superheroes. Maybe some of the firefighters who stopped the fire from spreading were inspired by superheroes. Isn't it pretty to think so?