Tuesday, May 15, 2018

It's the little things ...

It's no secret that I love comic books -- the Batman, especially, and other DC characters, but Marvel heroes as well.  I've collected a pretty large number of them now, but I'm not one of those collectors who seal them away in plastic and never take them out unless wearing gloves so as not to leave any oil on them.  Well, I mean, I do have them in plastic, but I open them up all the time and take them out of their protective sleeves.  I like to read comic books.  I like the stories.  

There's a four-issue run of JLA (#50-54) that's part of the larger, "Divided We Fall" story arc.  In this tale, the characters who make up that iteration of the Justice League  -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman -- are each split into both their superhero identities and their alter egos.  So there's a Batman and a Bruce Wayne; a Clark Kent and a Superman.  Only Wonder Woman and Aquaman are unaffected, since at that time neither had a "secret identity."

While an interesting premise, it's where this story goes that so interesting (and cool!).  Who is the Batman without Bruce Wayne's anger and grief?  Who is Superman without the tempering influence of the so-very human Clark Kent?  Bruce Wayne becomes consumed with rage he can't process or direct; the Batman becomes ineffectual because there's nothing really driving him.  Superman becomes cold and brutal because he is nothing but a Kryptonian, while Clark Kent becomes frozen in fear.  Throughout these books the notion of identity is explored, and the need for not just these heroes but for all of us to learn to integrate the different, sometimes contradictory, aspects of ourselves.

I could name other story-lines that offer a great deal more than impossibly proportioned women and men in tights duking it out.  I'll give just one more example.  The Amazing Spider-man # 36 came out in the wake of 9/11.  The entire story consists of Spider-man's inner monologue as he responds to the horrors of that day.  It remains one of the most poignant and moving essays I've ever read on the subject.  "The sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen, because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things."

One of the things I really love about comic books, though, is the character development which at least some authors bring to their story telling.  If you have years of history with, for instance, the Justice League, or even just with a single character, you're rewarded with little details, seemingly throw-away elements, that can speak volumes for people who are really listening.  In one Batman story line, Jim Gordon, the Batman's friend and ally on the Gotham City Police Force, has been seriously injured.  The Batman and his loyal butler Alfred are in the hospital room, and the Batman says, with vehemence, "Jim will pull through."  "Or what, Master Bruce?" Alfred replies.  "You'll dress up like a bat and haunt the night for the rest of your life?"  In the next panel the two just stubbornly stare at each other.  Volumes about the (albeit fictional) history of these two men are revealed in this little exchange.

There's another such moment when the Batman, Superman, and Catwoman have been given a hard time (to put it mildly) by the super-villain Poison Ivy.  Catwoman knocks her out and Supermans asks, "Was that really necessary?"  In the next panel Catwoman and the Batman look at each other, silently, and then they both turn back to Superman and say in unison, "Yes."

Each of these seemingly insignificant exchanges might seem at first glance to be mere "filler."  I would think that this would be especially so for the casual reader, who doesn't have all of the background that's embedded in these moments.The Batman and Superman have always represented two different approaches to this superheroing business, and each has at times critiqued the other for their way of doing things.  All of this is contained in Superman's question.  Catwoman and Poison Ivy have been both opponents and partners at various times, and the hell Ivy had just put Catwoman through, and her sense of betrayal, is part of that punch.  And, of course, the Batman and Catwoman have had an on-again, off-again relationship, a  ... complicated ... relationship, which is beautifully depicted in that look and their unison response.

I'll mention two more.  (Not so much because I think I really need to give more examples, but because I love these so much!)  There's a story line in the Justice League in which the team is battling "white martians."  (Just go with it.)  Wonder Woman has taken the one she's fighting, Primaid, up into the stratosphere until the martian passes out from lack of air.  As she returns to earth, she says, "Can't believe how long she held her breath up there."  Green Lantern asks, "So how long can you hold your breath?"  "Obviously longer than Primaid."  Wonder Woman replies.  And then she adds, "What a strange question.  Why should anyone know how long they can hold their breath?"  Meanwhile, the Batman comes into the scene, pulling the martians he's defeated, and he just jumps into the others' conversation, saying, "Three minutes, fifteen seconds.  You'd be surprised why."

By far my favorite of these little, character moments comes in the last book of the incredible series Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Jim Lee.  (Trust me, if you read only one comic in your lifetime, let it be this one.  The story is wonderful, and the artwork is amazing.  Seriously.   Trust me.  Read this ... and then read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.)

Anyway ... the story takes place in the future.  I won't spoil the story, but let's just say that there's world-threatening hell breaking out, and Superman flies into the Batcave, desperate for Batman's help.  Batman refuses, and begins to explain to Superman why.  When he's done with his speech he turns around and realizes that Superman had left, unnoticed.   (Something Batman is known for doing, much to people's consternation.)  The Batman returns to what he was doing, with a little smile on his face, saying to himself, "So that's what that feels like ..."

Great, right?

But why have I devoted an arguably overlong post to all of this?  Two reasons.  The first is that I really love this little moments and ... well ... wanted to share them.  And since I can't invite everyone over to my house to sit on the floor and read comics, this post will have to do!

The real reason, though, is that our lives are made up of such moments.  Oh, there are large dramas and full-on dance numbers from time to time.  Occasionally our lives require green screen or a team of stunt doubles.  Most of the time, though, it'a these little moments, things that others might not even notice, that matter most.  And like these moments in the comics, it takes some knowledge of the backstory, of the history, the context in which they happen, that gives these little details such emotional power.  Yet even for those who are living these lives, whose life experiences are the context, such little moments are nonetheless all too easily overlooked, far to easily disregarded as merely "filler" between The Really Important Things.

If we miss these moments, though, we miss our lives.  It's that simple.  So keep your eyes, and your ears, and your hearts open, my friends.  And when you become aware of being in one of these moments, in your own life or in the lives of those you love, take delight.  Paying attention to things like these is a little like knowing how long you can hold your breath.  You'd be surprised at how important it can be.

Pax tecum,


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