My Cub Scout leader was built like a dump truck. He was squat and jowly, with a huge belly and a retreating wave of dark, curly hair. No one would share a tent with him due to his incessant farting, but he was kind and jolly, and made jokes around the campfire about whose turn it was to fetch the left-handed smoke-shifter from the car, or how great last year’s snipe hunt was. He had the sturdy, dependable air of a farm implement.
Later on, he did so much cocaine that his wife left him, and you’d see him wandering down the roads of my small Connecticut town, dazed with psychosis.
I would have sooner believed that his destiny was to become Voort, the interstellar savior of Galaxor 9, whose mastery of gamma rays made other men envious and women swoon.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. By then, I’d been introduced to superheroes and had begun to realize that the frustrations of the comic book universe mirrored my own. Characters (“people”) did not live up to their storylines. They behaved in ways I never thought they would, doing things I didn’t think were possible. Other people (“writers”) told me what they said, and they were not as funny and amazing as they were yesterday (“last issue”).
In both comic books and my life at the time, there was narrative intention behind the scenes, but it was hidden and almost garishly absurd. I dreamed we moved into a red house by the sea with secret passages, and—a year later—we did. A Ouija board had told my brother’s girlfriend that her father would die, and he had. My meek Protestant mother—who thought sugar was toxic and PG-13 movies infernal—had an affair with a drug dealer and ended my parents’ marriage. And my Cub Scout leader, who was almost magical in his ordinariness, became an extra in a Miami Vice episode, lost in time and space in 1982. At the time, I could tell no one about any of this, except my father, who—being a recovering Christian mystic himself—had the same difficulty.
Long backstories gradually mutate comic book characters. Consider Magneto. The demands of hundreds of plot twists have expanded his abilities from magnetism to the following:
levitation, force-fields (which allow him to survive in space, withstand nuclear missiles, and selectively block matter or energy), invisibility, teleportation, the generation of electromagnetic pulses and photons, superhuman strength and quickness, astral projection, telepathy (including the power to read people’s dreams, resist telepathic attacks, suppress the powers of other telepaths, and issue telepathic commands), and the ability condense planetary objects into subatomic size
With these emendations, Magneto is not so much a character as he is a person-shaped hole where writers pour in all the demands of clumsy storylines, and by doing so, create a God, but a God that can’t remember all that they are and can do. All comic book characters that survive long enough to become popular contain within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution.
The best comic book writers are the ones who are aware of all the violations of plot and personality, and yet can harmonize them, make their superheroes and foes wryly self-aware of the wreckage of story logic and hasty decisions that make up their semi-immortal lives.
We are no different. We amuse ourselves by dramatizing our own actions and intensifying other people’s, turning everyone (including ourselves) into hallucinations that are anything but boring, but just believable enough. It is this unacknowledged psychic narrative that can spur us into greatness—into the transparent wonder of a polio vaccine, a sonnet that survives for 400 years, a prophetic dream that sutures reality like a stitch of lightning—but it is not always a kindness when we try to communicate our experience of the world.
One time when I was home from college on summer break, I found myself talking poetry with my friend’s 16-year-old little sister. She played the viola, worked in a food co-op, and was devastatingly sweet, with white-girl anarchist dreadlocks restrained by a plaid handkerchief. Since she was a feminist and passionate about social justice, I decided to show her a poem by Nicholas Christopher, entitled “Terminus.”
The poem concerns itself with the monotone testimony of a twelve-year-old Muslim girl in Bosnia who saw her captors cut the throats of her parents and her brothers, then had to endure gang rape for a week chained by the neck to a bed in her old schoolhouse.
The ending is brilliant, a model of self-restraint and brutal precision:
In not giving her name
someone has noted at the end
of the transcript that the girl herself
could not or would not recall it
and then described her as a survivor
Which of course is from the Latin
meaning to live on
to outlive others
I would not have used that word
I thought my friend’s sister would be moved—as I was—by the poem’s lyric indictment of history and the evil that is unmistakably woven into its fabric. Instead, she broke down sobbing.
It was practically an out-of-body experience, watching myself rigid on the couch in my gothic Sandman t-shirt and paint-annotated cargo shorts from my summer job, as she put her face in her hands and shook silently.
I was supposed to be the hero of this scene—changing someone’s life with a poem—but it felt like villainy, like I had taken the 493 words Christopher wrote, loaded them into a single sentence (“I think you’ll like it”), and shot her in the soul.
It slowly dawned on me that perhaps my carefully-cultivated literary sensibility might be a species of numbness. That it might, in fact, be a kind of cruelty. Yes, poems still gave me Emily Dickinson’s explosive craniotomy, mainlining a blue torrent of linguistic and emotional possibility through my brain. However, I was gradually coming to realize that not everyone took being shattered as a gift, and that imaginative empathy could leap across the void just as easily as it could make strangers out of us all.
http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Max_Eisenhardt_(Earth-616) (accessed October 18, 2017).
Christopher, Nicholas. “Terminus,” 5 Degrees and Other Poems, 61-63. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Simeon Berry won the 2013 National Poetry Series for his first collection of poetry, Ampersand Revisited (Fence Books), and the 2014 National Poetry Series for his second book of poetry, Monograph (University of Georgia Press). He has been an Associate Editor for Ploughshares and won a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
“Backstory” is an excerpt from Shibboleth, Inc., a memoir-in-progress about comic books, literary subculture, and cultural gatekeeping.