Saturday, December 15, 2007

Understanding the Value of Comics

When I was a kid, eight years old, my parents got divorced. I wasn't raised to be particularly religious, but when that happened it was like God died. My parents both loved me but they weren't particularly in the best places in their lives and they fought each other... for me. I felt that I had to choose, that I had to protect them from each other, that I had to bring the light, to take care of them, so that they wouldn't give up. I would never want any child to bare that but I still don't believe it was the wrong thing for me.

The stress affected me. In the course of four years I developed two major diseases. In fourth grade my left knee and right middle finger swelled up to four times their sizes. The pain petrified my right hand and my left leg. I had developed a rare form of arthritis that only a handful of kids in the country had and there was no guarantee that I would walk again. Sometimes my leg would cramp up from the lack of movement and I'd use the hospital bed to raise and lower over my knees so that I could have some movement without extreme pain.

When I was in sixth grade I weighed just over fifty pounds. I was wasting away, always thirsty, starting to wet my bed again, and always very tired and sickly. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes, a disease that would require me to take multiple shots of insulin a day, monitor my blood and my diet, and require me to actively keep myself alive every day of my life. I cried when I was diagnosed. The tears didn't last long. But then I had to call my dad and tell him and when he answered the phone he was so upbeat and optimistic. It broke my heart to have to tell him that his little boy, his only child, had a disease that would never go away.

A few months before the first disease, my mom was washing her clothes at a laundromat so I had to go with her. There was a Stop-N-Go next to the laundromat and she bought me a comic book to keep me entertained. It was a reprint of one of the most famous issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and it ended with a cliffhanger ending. I had to get the next issue and I'd visit the Stop-N-Go again and again checking to see if the next chapter was out yet. And when I would find that the next issue still wasn't out yet I'd buy a different issue of Spider-Man (there were four monthly Spider-Man comics being published at that time including the reprint title). One of those comics also had a cliffhanger ending and by the time that next issue did come out, I was hooked. Spider-Man's alias, Peter Parker, was a kid like me, not bad looking, but not someone who girls were lining up for. He'd save the day, but it often cost him with his personal life. He was an orphan raised by his Aunt and he felt responsible for the death of his uncle. Still, he kept doing the right thing, even though it didn't always work out for him. And every now and then, it did.

I always liked heroes. I appreciate the bad boys, like Han Solo, who did the right thing in the end and whom all the girls swooned for and all the boys wanted to be. But I liked the "good boys" better. They were the ones that had to carry the weight while the bad boy was looking cool and doing what was convenient for himself. Luke Skywalker and Superman were my first fictional heroes. And then came Spider-Man whom, at the time when I needed what made him a little more complex, was tailor made for me. All of these characters gave me something to believe in. They helped me escape the blues of the real world. They kept my head high. They were my new Gods.

Being sick as a child might sound horrible but the truth was it was never so bad. My parents put their war with each other on hold. I got more attention from the rest of the world than I ever got before. My dad came by one day with a huge stack of comic books which was like winning the lottery for me. And I never sat there afraid of what was happening to me, I just dealt with it and focused on what it took to get better. Within a couple of months of being diagnosed with the arthritis I was walking on crutches. A few months after that I was back on my feet. For a few years after that I'd feel a little tingle in my joints when the weather changed. Now I barely remember having the disease. And within a week I adjusted to being a Diabetic. I kept super tight control, especially as a kid. I understood what the disease asked from me and I did what I had to, and the truth is, most of the time, I forget that not everyone is Diabetic. It's a major part of my life. But I don't think of it that way.

I don't believe in giving up. The world isn't a perfect place and it often lets us down. But the reason I believe in heroes and in great things is because I believe in me. I'm not saying I'm a hero, but when I can't find the ideals of heroism in the world around me, I can find them in myself and that way I know they are real. I'm not perfect but I believe in doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Life's not always simple, sometimes it's muddy and gray, and sometimes there is real tragedy that you can't find anything good in. And sometimes we forget to be our "better selves". But for someone like me, someone who doesn't believe in a particular God or has any idea what the cosmic answers are, there is still room for faith.

I wholeheartedly believe that comics can tell any kind of story. I appreciate how comic books have "grown". I appreciate that comics "aren't just for kids anymore" and how deconstructionism has made comics more "sophisticated". But there is still a place both inside that and outside that, for stories that are fantastic, that blast us off, and give us something to believe in. I'm an artist and a storyteller and I've decided it's time to get on with it. There are stories that I'm craving that no one is doing so I'm going to do them myself. And some of it will be relevant, and some of it will be indulgent, and some of it will be provocative, but what I really want to do is tell stories that allow for people, old or young, to believe in something.