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Heroic Fantasies…

…AND TOXIC AVENGERS

I was first inoculated by what became a lifelong obsession, and not incidentally a lifelong career, by comic books, in the late summer of 1955, when, at the age of four, I inherited a refrigerator packing crate half filled with comic books of every conceivable genre, from my two considerably older cousins.

It is certainly a coincidence, but no less relevant to me and my experience, that comics invaded my life at almost precisely the same time that the Comics Code Authority arrived to infantilize the medium, and to be very clear, to infantilize the audience, too, driving away, for at least a decade, the more adventurous reader, who found at least some satisfaction in the advent of underground comics.

This inoculation, this literal immersion I might add, considering the fact that I climbed into the box with all those comics like Scrooge McDuck in his vault, was the first transformative moment among many in my long life.  Three truths emerged from that pile of mildewy paper, the scent of which I can still recall from my sense memory.

One, I was immediately addicted to this stuff.  Two, someone, somewhere out there made this stuff.  And three, I had to find a way to be one of those people who make this stuff.

Or die trying.

I’d like to say that I fell in love with comics of all sorts, unconditionally.  This wasn’t the case.  I read them all, and liked some of the various genres, was indifferent to others, and was repelled by horror, as my appetite for supernatural gore, then and now, is nil.  But of all the various subjects comics delivered in those Jurassic days, it was the super posing, cape, cowl, insignia and mask stuff that owned my preadolescent ass, and would do so for the next decade and a half.

A year later, when I was in the first grade, I was reading on a fourth-grade level, thanks in every way to having the hunger to know what was being said on those pages, and having taught myself to read from that box of comics.  I may not have been able to pronounce “indestructible,” but the synchronicity, the synergy of image to text, made it possible to parse out its meaning—and from that, to this day, I remain a reader, discriminate and indiscriminate in equal measure.

Needless to say, when, at the age of thirteen, I first read TARZAN OF THE APES, young John Clayton’s autodidactic experience in his long dead parents’ cabin felt oddly and reassuringly familiar, and gave me a bit of flush of shared experience with that primal hero.

My parents, conventional idiots both, reacting to my reading at such a level at so young an age, regarded me as freakish, a weird genius, a genetic anomaly, some sort of unearthly portmanteau of Herbie the Fat Fury and Damien.  It never occurred to them—and this remained true until their all too timely deaths—that what they regarded as pointless junk was what made me who I was and would become, for good and bad, for all my time.

And among all of those sucked in by the transient lure of comics who remained enthusiasts, or as most did eventually outgrew this material, not to mention the few of us whose inoculation by comics led to a career, much if not all of our earliest ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, of something so specific as a moral compass, derived from those superheroic comic book narratives.

Despite what would seem to the uninterested and detached civilian to be a single and singular path—be the good guy, of course—this identification with and of heroism led many of us down a slew of paths, or in the most extreme, rabbit holes and dark alleys leading to some pretty bizarre fucking places.

Some of us, enthusiasts and professionals both, maintained an almost fatuous identification with these costumed characters of our childhood, ignoring the complexity, the layers of meaning, the acceptance of nuance required of any rational adult in the navigation of a rationally adult life.

From this, we can in all likelihood draw a line to the adult superhero stuff, the silly slather of narcissistic gravitas on a fifteen-year-old boy’s idea of adult behavior, unfortunately produced by and for grown men and women, for fuck’s sake.

In its extremis, this might have been what led to that utterly nutty outburst a few years back of dipshits, losers, and lunatics dressing up, as the justifiably scornful and contemptuously dismissive media put it, as Real-Life Superheroes, again for fuck’s sake, and fighting crime on the streets of their home towns.   Crime.

As if the Guardian Angels weren’t shitheads enough, their spiritual children had lessons to learn from all those popular comic books of suicide poetry adjacent agony, aging teenaged angst, and self-mythologizing wounded heroes, delivered with all the depth of pop stars singing IMAGINE on Zoom.

I wistfully remember the horrific glory days of my childhood, when cautionary tales in a vein of hysteria fed slow news days with stories of kids tying bath towels around their necks and jumping out of windows. Now these latterday masked and costumed real life shmucks had nunchucks.

Some, again both consumers and producers of entertainment, in their recognition of the childish presumptions of this influence, publicly embraced a performative posture of that heroism, while living a life that was anything but, recognizing as they did that there was an exploitable and credulous mass out there, desperate to be bullshitted into fatuous compliance.

My personal cornfield is crowded with the miscreants of all stripes with lives lived entirely detached from the moral code they dispense with in their work.

And some recognized that real life is intrinsically more complex than a dualistic equation of good and evil, but still held those most basic of moral lessons learned in childhood in some esteem, an affection transcendent of nostalgia, at a safe and justifiable remove from the day-to-day experiences of an adult life.

In that first category, I’d have to include a discomfiting majority of middle aged, mostly men, who make up the shrinking swarm of institutionalized comics fandom, not to mention the far larger audience for professional wrestling, where it isn’t about heroes and villains, but self-designated good guys and bad guys, an often-shifting and consistently incoherent landscape of narrative that is basically musical theater for the homophobic, and/or their closeted brethren, too.

In that second category is that swarm of smiling nihilists who have so many of that first category convinced that nice is a perfect substitute for good, this so successfully that they’ve built brands on their social presence.  In my professional life, I’ve received, more often than I can recall, notes from overt and covert ganefs among my clients, requests to try to find a way to make protagonist’s actions more “altruistic.” If your character is good, no reason to have to be good yourself, right?

Naturally.  Sure.  Right.  Of course.

I fall into that third category, holding my childhood experiences and the filter provided by comic books—and of course, the books, the movies and television that were part of the armature of story that informs my life—at an emotional and critical remove, in recollective pleasure of memory, while understanding that real life is one endless series of gray moments, of compromise and accommodation of ideas, sensibilities and attitudes that are occasionally tangential, and all too often perpendicular to my own.

And then, and then…there’s cosplay… that curious, curious to me anyway, inclination to literally yes, and figuratively, too, dress up as fictional characters and play act on days other than Halloween, too often queasily involving participants who have long aged out of adolescence, committed to holding on to or pursuing that youth for reasons which all too often remain mystifying to me.

And for the purposes of my argument here, I’ll divide this particular and peculiar subdivision into three categories of its own, as well.  Hey, it’s my argument, so I can indulge in all the categorizing, characterization and reductive caricature as I choose.

First, of course, there’s the easily identified, often ridiculed, conventional comic book convention attending iteration, ranging from, as noted above, the dressing up as a comic book character, ranging in turn from comically inept and amateurish in its costume and prop manufacture to the weirdly detail oriented authentic, for whatever motive might motivate, to the more esoteric realm of the Furries, who are, despite mockery, at least comfortable with the honest acknowledgment of the sexualization of their obsession.

Then there are those who don’t need to dress in costume to self-identify as heroes, those relentless yentas across the spiritual, political and moral spectrum, who believe they have a secular or divine understanding of right and wrong, and have been granted the moral probity to lead a charge in the name of whatever consumes and attracts them and their posse comitatus at any given moment.

They may not be costumed, but, performing for public consumption what they perceive as acts of heroism, they are just as much self-defining fantasists as those mooks fighting crime on America’s streets only a few years back, with keyboards in lieu of nunchucks.

Call me crazy, but I do earnestly and honestly believe that despite the vast and broad trough that divides these uncostumed cosplayers politically, the most active among them in their pushy busybodiness are motivated from a lifelong identification with fictional heroes and heroic fiction of all varieties, cherry picking from their fantasy role models to support the granular details of their self-involved savior sensibilities.

These people are convinced, secularly or religiously, as noted, that they represent the true path to righteousness, bereft of query or doubt.  And like all zealots, it’s perfectly acceptable when their side does it, and blasphemous—problematic, for the secular—when the other side does the same.

Most recently, see MAUS for one perspective.

See also HUCKLEBERRY FINN, for another.

See the right wing‘s hysterical and misapprehending anathema in regard to the teaching of Critical Race Thinking in schools.

See the left wing’s insistence that the 21st century USA remains just one unaltered Jim Crow Mississippi, circa 1951.

Evangelical Christian Jew baiters love for Israel finds its perfect match in Queers for Palestine.

Comedy gold, if you ask me. Or even if you don’t.

And finally, there’s the third, and for me the most interesting, terrifying too, of these phenomena.  There is perfect synergy between the first and second, the costumed paraders and the moral crusaders, in the rehearsal insurrection of a year ago January, in which cosplay found its political voice in so many decked out in hyper butch combat camo drag.

As I watched the event unfold live on television, I thought immediately of all those guys dressed as Stormtroopers at conventions, or the women dressed as superheroines, too, not to mention those masked nutcases who flourished on the streets of American cities a few years back—and realized that for so many, my facetious and self-deprecatory remark, about my being willing to mistake attention for affection, is common currency, with traction and truth for among far too many of my fellow citizens.

Like those misguided and all to often hysteric crusaders in the name of social justice, these costumed clowns are the heroes of their own internalized comic book movies.   And nunchucks aren’t enough anymore.  They’re armed to the teeth.

And, as it’s obvious to anyone paying attention, an alarming number of the political and social proposals posited by those self-anointed guardians of the public good on the left are driving far too many of their fellow American citizens into the arms of the right.

This, despite the fact that this puts these swing shifters in league with armed insurrectionists, antisemites, xenophobes and racists, whose political representatives are committed to the elimination of democracy as I recognize it in my lifetime.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m fucking old, so take note of that time frame and tremble with me, if you will.

Imagine for just a moment how batshit a moral philosophy, so aptly named the Successor Ideology by the all too often AWOL Wesley Yang, has to appear, right or wrong mind you, to a fence sitter to make the choice t make a rightward shift.

I mean Lauren Boebert?  Tom Cotton? Marjorie Taylor Greene?

So, from my perspective, the illiberal left, in its obsession with its own delusional sense of its own virtue and unacknowledged but all too real reach for power, might be the best thing that’s happened to the autocratic right and its all too widely acknowledged reach for power.

One might hope for an equal struggle between two totalitarian ideologies, but it’s not happening here, and it’s not happening now. Morlocks always eat Eloi, no matter how smugly cool those adorable know-it-all Elois know they are.

Suffice to say, toxic fandom…it’s not just for comic books anymore.

And speaking of ideology, and guns, and toxic fandom, too, I have been surprised, delighted and at least temporarily relieved that there has yet to be a mass shooting event at a comic book convention.  Surprised, I say, when considering the volatile mix of those various champions of personally defined moral probity that fill those aisles, alongside those convention newcomers, those blissfully ignorant moms, dads and strollers, just innocently looking for a Funko Pop Batman to commemorate their moviegoing experience.

When the shooting starts, as I fear it inevitably will, those civilians will be the first to go—just like in real life.

And I guarantee that the murderer here, as in so many situations like this, will identify with Batman, or the Punisher, or the Black Widow, or some other paper-thin vigilante construct, convinced they’re doing exactly what superheroes do best—achieving liberal ends by fascist means.

All this said, I’ll stick with the Furries.  At least I know where I stand in their regard.

As ever, I remain,

HOWARD VICTOR CHAYKIN…a Prince—and neither a hero nor a role model.  And I mean never.

 

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