Batman and Other Reminders of Never Again

By Neil Ellis Orts 

It was a Sunday evening. I was a preschooler. Mama and Daddy were somewhere outside, at the barn or pig pens, doing I don't know what. Evening chores or repairing something, I guess. The TV was on to the current iteration of the Walt Disney program. My brother, Gary, four years older than I, was in the house with me.

I started crying.

Gary, surely puzzled, called Mama to the house. Out on the screened porch, she asked me what was wrong. Sniffling, I tried to explain. The TV show was so good and she was missing it. I wanted her to see it, too.

Mama said to go back in and watch it, it was okay, I should enjoy it. She said she and Daddy would be in as soon as they finished what they were doing.

I guess she went back outside. I guess I went back to the TV and watched with Gary. Everything else is pretty much forgotten. 

This is my earliest memory of what I've come to call my "sense of never again." It's an ache I recognized later, in high school, when we read Our Town by Thornton Wilder. When Emily leaves her grave to revisit one day in her life, she sees all the minutia we never pay attention to, all the details of a life we let slip by without proper appreciation. She grieves these moments as a spirit, but I envied her the ability to do that. I grieved the same things while living, without the ability to refresh my memory via time travel.

It's a sense I don't notice in many other people and maybe it's even rarer in these days of easy playback. In the days of my childhood—the above would have happened about 1970—many things appeared on TV once and disappeared, presumably forever. Nowadays, shows are available immediately after broadcast online and released as a DVD set at the end of the season.

Or maybe everyone has this sense to some degree—hence the ubiquitous digital cameras everywhere, recording so many moments of our lives.

It's hard to say what lies behind these things. I can only report my experience.

It was the summer of 1978. I was 14. Gary graduated from high school that May and moved off the farm immediately. This was the biggest change in my life to that point. It brought on a crisis of "never again."

To say I was lonely only begins to describe that summer. Suddenly hyper-aware of life changing, I began to notice other changes on the farm, things I couldn't quite remember. That screened porch I mentioned? It had since been closed in to enlarge the kitchen. What did the old kitchen look like? Where did we keep things in it? What did we keep on the screened porch?

There was a piece of floor attached to the back of our old barn, where we played basketball. It had once had walls and been a room in the barn. What did we keep there? Other aspects of the barn—the cows' feed troughs, the pens, the other rooms in the barn—had changed, too. I ached that I couldn't remember how all these things were before.

Into my first summer as an only child on the farm came a book I'd desired for years: Batman From the 30s to the 70s. DC Comics readers of my age will remember the ads pushing this and the companion volume for Superman. A hard cover book of long out print comics! Those ads also brought some little despair, as the book was over ten dollars, plus shipping and handling!

But somehow, I got both that impossible sum and my parents' permission to spend it on this thing (I would have definitely needed Mama to write the check). When I finally got the book in the mail, it felt like some kind of legitimizing moment for my hobby. A 300+ page hardcover book was serious stuff! I dove into this collection of stories, the type of which I'd only glimpsed in 100 Page Spectaculars and other such reprint vehicles of the 1970s. Best of all, I got to see stories of the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl, characters I'd seen somewhat revived in current comics like Batman Family and Teen Titans, but never in their original stories.

I particularly loved the Batwoman and Bat-Girl stories.

As I sprawled across my bed, hot summer winds coming through my open windows, this book took on other emotions of that summer. As much as I enjoyed current Batman books, I began to get that ache, the one that said "Never again will they make Batman stories with such goofy aliens; never again would Batman and Robin travel through time via hypnosis; and, never again would Kathy and Betty Kane fight crime with tricks from their utility purses—at least not as prominently as they did before I was born." Robin had long since gone off to college, so even stories of Batman and Robin could never again be the same.

This book fed that peculiar nostalgia for a time never personally experienced and braided it with my loneliness and sense of never again. It was a bad combination. There was occasional crying.

The pleasure I found in Batman From the 30s to the 70s was real, but so was the sadness. Really understanding for the first time that life came at you with changes you couldn't possibly control grieved this sensitive farm boy. I tried once to explain it to Mama—she could see I was sad—and I couldn't find the vocabulary. In another time and place, I would have found myself in the office of a child psychiatrist. Maybe I should have been in one, anyway. A 14-year-old crying for reasons he can't name probably should receive some professional attention.

But somehow I survived it, as a remarkable number of melancholy teenagers do, and even if I pined over pictures of comics covers I felt certain I'd never see much less own, I found the energy to move forward, to see the possibilities as well as the loss in uncontrollable changes.

As I write this, I'm days away from turning 50 years old. I still suffer bouts of "never again" and it's starting to share space with an encroaching sense of "never will be." Yet, maturity brings with it an understanding of these things, an acceptance that passing time is full of new, wonderful things as well as loss of old, wonderful things.

And if I ran across a copy of an old comic book with the original Batwoman or Bat-Girl on the cover, at a price I was willing to pay, I'd likely buy it without hesitation. And if it was at a price I couldn't pay? I'd pine over it, as I did the pictures in Batman From the 30s to the 70s, as I did over my loneliness in 1978, as I suspect I always will when I remember anything that will never be again.

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer living in Houston, TX. 

 

Survivor's Guilt

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Post 1 of 2

By Matt Allegretti

1. In the fall of 1988, I paid fifty cents to murder the Boy Wonder.  My family was living at Yale Divinity School. Four of us cramped together in a small dorm, littered with toys, action figures, trading cards, and my Dad’s religious textbooks. I no longer remember how I first got the Batman comic that changed my life, the issue with the advertisement that read, “Robin will die because the Joker wants Revenge, but you can prevent it with a telephone call.” My guess is my dad bought it for me to keep me occupied while he was studying, but I might have acquired a few issues through a trade or swap with Casey, an eight-year-old troublemaker who lived in the same dorm. After seeing the advertisement I became obsessed with calling the 900 number. I think I lied to my parents so they’d let me make the call. When the eleven thousand votes were counted, there were 5, 343 votes for Jason to die and 5,271 for him to live. If I had known the horror that Robin would go through at the hands of the Joker, and the sense of guilt I would experience due to his death, I would have cast my ballot differently.

2.  I was six. Casey and I were superheroes sneaking on to roofs to get a bird’s eye view of the campus, our Gotham City. We spent afternoons navigating canopies and parapets, spying on students and faculty. Jordie, a strange kid who always dressed in green tights and believed he was Robin Hood, sometimes came along on our adventures. He was a forager, before we knew what a forager was, eating everything, grass, branches, crabapples, unripe berries.  We were a superhero team. At eight Casey was the oldest and wisest and therefore Batman, I was Robin, though I didn’t realize it at the time, and Jordie was Green Arrow or Green Lantern, any superhero who was Green. This was the same year my first girlfriend, Isabelle, told me she could fly, and I believed her.

3. In Batman 427, the Joker kidnaps Robin and brutally beats him senseless with a crowbar. He then rigs the room with dynamite. Kathoom! Jason is caught in the explosion. At the end of the issue the readers were informed that they had a choice whether Robin lived or died. Readers had only 36 hours to act. The writer, Jim Starlin, wrote two versions of the comic depending on the verdict. The cover of the next issue read, “The Batman was too late, and now Robin lies in rubble, still silent, shattered, can he possibly be alive?” I joined the crowd calling for his death.

4. For over twenty-five years, comics have given me something to look forward to and anticipate, an escape from the rest of my life. I might lose interest for a few months or a year but I will always come back with the same enthusiasm and the sense of wonder of a six-year-old kid. I still revisit comics I bought twenty years ago, which I keep in Mylar bags entombed in heavy long boxes.  Every time I open the plastic sleeve I’m reminded of different times in my life, the way a good song brings back memories. As I flip through Batman and Robin 8, I recall the desperation and the sense of helplessness I felt the day I broke up with my girlfriend.  It was 2009, I was twenty-seven, trapped in a strange parallel universe where I somehow reacquainted with my childhood sweetheart and moved 3500 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to Chicago to be with her. When we broke up, I booked a ticket home on my computer in her living room and read Batman and Robin 8 while she assembled a piece of furniture in her bedroom.

5. The same year that Robin died we moved to Omaha, Nebraska. Soon afterwards, my Dad took me to Dragon’s Lair, my first real comic store experience. Inside were racks of new comics, role playing games, arcade machines, posters, playing cards. Valuable comics were enshrined on the walls like paintings at a museum. I used to spend my five dollar allowance each week searching through the quarter bins for cheap Wolverine comics or purchasing new issues of Batman and X-Men. My Dad always slipped me a few extra bucks, especially if it was something he wanted to read. Every morning he read Comic Shop News with his breakfast instead of a normal newspaper. It was a great time for comics. One year earlier, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Art Spiegleman’s Maus had been released to critical success. American comics were finally growing up.

6. Around this time, I started listening to my father’s old pulp radio broadcasts of The Shadow and The Green Hornet. I would close my eyes and let my imagination recreate what I was hearing. Sometimes I would try to draw what I was listening to. In school, I would create my own comic characters: the super villain Eight Ball, who threw exploding pool balls at his victims, or the hovering hero Ghost, who resembled Batman but dressed all in white. In the evenings I would take out my box of crayons and sketch superheroes on colored construction paper. I created my own company, Ballistic Comics, a universe of superheroes and villains forced to do battle in the space of one page. I made advertisements announcing a new character or the release date of a new comic and taped crude sketches to my door. At the end of the month, I would have my Mom photocopy my crude works of art and then charge her twenty-five cents to read them. It was a lucrative business for a six-year-old. When I wasn’t drawing I was reading comics.

7. I went to a Catholic school, Saint Pius/Saint Leo. I had to wear a uniform: navy pants and a light blue collared shirt. When I wasn’t chasing girls on the playground or playing kickball, I was drawing superheroes. In religion class, I used to imagine the characters of the Bible as God’s superheroes and the devil’s evil minions. I created my own comic book stories of the Bible where Jesus was captured by robots and his apostles had to save him. Going to church was a brain-storming session for ideas. At the time, I was fascinated by Catholic rituals. How did Jesus turn water to wine? How did he walk on water? How did he rise from the dead?

8. Every year on Good Friday my brother and I would reenact the Stations of the Cross for my parents. The year Robin died we performed a comic book version of the Passion of Christ. My brother, dressed as Robin, with a mask over his eyes, carried a cardboard cross from his bedroom, down the carpeted steps, through a crowd of action figures, past our barking dog, Rusty. My parents looked on in horror as I emerged from the kitchen dressed as the Joker with a green-dyed wig and white painted face, laughing hysterically like Caesar Romero from the sixties Batman television show. I beat my brother repeatedly with a Styrofoam crowbar and shouted, “Death to Birdboy!” as he tried to fend off my blows. I realized now that I forced myself to be the Joker as a form of penance. In a strange way, lashing out at my brother was the first step in letting go of my guilt for Jason’s death.

The Sound of Her Wings

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By Jeff Sensabaugh

It was 1991 and I was about to graduate from college.

I had done well enough, but I had no inkling of what I wanted to do.  I had earned a useful degree (chemistry) but I knew that I didn’t want to go into industry. Having no set path, and with the one thing I knew how to do well about to end, I decided to re-up my commitment to academia and applied to graduate school.  My grades and my recommendations were good enough and I was accepted to several schools. I decided to go to a school in Chicago; I had been on both coasts – why not explore the Heartland?

Graduate school started well enough.  I liked classes and I liked TAing.  I liked the people in the department and they liked me, but most of my interactions became school based.  Problem sets became the only basis for socializing. I was in a tiny furnished apartment with a foldaway bed with a paper-thin mattress. I ended up just sleeping on the couch most nights.  There was a lot of alone time. I programmed my computer; I read papers and books; I settled into routine. 

Soon, things started going wrong.

A month into school, the Oakland Hills Fire nearly wiped out my childhood home back in California.  My sister, who had been a regular communicant while I was in college, was in college herself now and hating it. And hating everything else.  She had broken off all communications with the family and had even spent Christmas vacation with a friend a few blocks away.  I was sent as an emissary to deliver some mail and her only words to me were “I don’t want to talk to you.”

I went back to Chicago.

By all standards, it was a mild winter for Chicago but it was still harsh.  It was dark a lot and my apartment was either freezing or blisteringly hot due to an outdated radiator. One of my classmates descended into a paranoid depression, and unsuccessfully attempted suicide.  The transition from classes to research was not going smoothly and I was starting to realize that perhaps I’d made a mistake in coming here.

My refuge in times of darkness is usually a bookstore, so I began to spend hours in the aisles of the university bookstore.  The undergraduate employees didn’t need my sale to pull in a paycheck, so I read mostly undisturbed.  One day I sat in the humor/comics section.  “Graphic novels” were still a new thing and mixed in with the cartoon books.  On a whim I grabbed the first trade paperback of Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes.  I didn’t know what I was getting into. 

The art was uncomfortable.

Dave McKean’s covers were fascinating but not what I expected in a comic book.  I pored over them looking at the details hidden in the Joseph Cornell-like boxes. Unlike the superhero comics I had read as a child, the palette was subdued and the characters seemed oddly distorted. Often they floated in dreamlike backgrounds, and the inking was positively murky.

The first three issues went by quickly.  An Alastair Crowley-like magician traps a mystical being –a pale man with weird mask.  The pale figure is trapped for years, causing people all around the world to have trouble with their sleep.  It turns out that he is Dream, the eternal being in charge of the dream world.  He eventually escapes and seeks to recapture all his tools. 

This notion of someone trapped against his will spoke to me.  There was both identification and wish fulfillment – he’s weak after his imprisonment, but he also has the ability to become a powerful being.  Each issue had another leg of his quest; the first two are a struggle but he succeeds.  The last part, however, stretched over three issues and went from escapism to someplace darker. 

At some point the art changed from Sam Keith’s rounded, softer style to Mike Dringenberg’s more angular, disjointed style. The story moved from more classic horror tales to more modern horror.  There was nudity, there was blood, and then there was a lot of blood.  People got hurt and people died in the comic books I’d read as a kid, but in Sandman the action didn’t move away from the damaged and broken bodies. The humor that had lightened the earlier issues went away.

I was a bit uncomfortable.  I stopped reading and went home.  I spent a day or two away from the book, but I couldn’t shake it.  So I bundled up, and went back to the university bookstore to finish.  I was probably wearing my puffy down jacket with the psych ward tag from a visit to see my classmate.  It’s still stuck to the inside of that jacket, which I stopped wearing when I left Chicago.

The second-to-last issue in the book pretty much wraps up all the important action.  Dream is restored, some of the damage is repaired, and the main villain is returned to Arkham Asylum. But there is one last issue contained in the Preludes and Nocturnes book.

Here, Dream goes to Central Park to meet someone.  He looks exhausted, and so does the art.  Dringenberg loved the photocopier a little too much, and many panels look identical.  A lot of backgrounds are traced photocopies of pictures of New York, or just photocopies alone.

A woman shows up -- Dream’s sister.  She’s a cute goth chick, with a black tank top and big messy hair. Not exactly like my sister, but not too far removed. She asks him what’s going on and he sums up the previous seven issues in a page or so.  He says that he feels empty after all the adventures, unable to enjoy his reclaimed power.  She’s glad to see him but furious that he hadn’t called for help and that he’s mopey about winning.

At this point I started to cry.  The story didn’t exactly match my life, but there were echoes of what I felt.  And of what I wanted.  I felt empty. I felt disconnected from my family. Here was a sister that was exactly what my sister was not at the time – loving, listening, and pushing Dream to recognize there were ways out of his situation.

It turns out that Dream’s sister is Death and they spent the rest of the issue going on her rounds, picking up souls. Despite the horrible things they see, she remains upbeat and comforting.  She is nice.  She reminds the souls of what they accomplished in life now that it’s over, rather than how they failed.  Seeing her fulfill her job with grace, Dream is comforted and accepts the challenges of returning to his job.

When the book was over, I might have started sobbing quietly. If anyone noticed, nothing was said. Here was the advice I needed from a fictitious sister.  I had only meant to read the book and move on, but now I had to buy it.  I figure any book that makes you cry deserves to be bought.  As I wrote this, I looked at the issue again and cried again.

I tried to keep on in graduate school, but soon realized that I needed to change paths and dropped out. I still haven’t gone back. My sister and I began patching up our differences at the end of that year, and we are closer now than we ever were growing up.

The whole rest of Sandman’s 75 issue run became a meditation on obligations and responsibilities that both tie us together and tear us down. There are some amazing issues in there, and it is a piece of art that I keep turning over in my head.  But Issue 8 is still my favorite, for the sister I needed at that moment.

 

Born Again

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By Max Delgado

For me, Toledo ended at dusk, sometime in the fall of 1995.  My friend Jake and I had gotten into the same college, and our families had decided to caravan through the night, leaving from the gravel driveway of his family farm to arrive at Fordham University ten hours later.  I was eighteen.  And I didn’t know it then, but I’d never live in Ohio again.

Jake and I couldn’t have been more different, but we were good friends and wanted to live together.  Packing both of our belongings into his dad’s truck made the move infinitely easier -- we’d cross into New York at dawn, squint at the sunlight together, and then move boxes into our cinderblock dorm room a little after breakfast.  More importantly, we’d share a poignant transition together: watching a truck ostensibly stuffed with our childhood belongings turn into a dorm room packed with what would become the first real artifacts of our adulthood.

Jake brought books, a stereo, and his trombone.  I brought my Pearl Jam CDs, my VHS collection, and some worn-out trench coats.

I did not bring comic books.

Fordham was in the Bronx and even though I had roots in downtown Toledo, saying I was ready for the Bronx is like saying a goldfish is ready to get tossed into the ocean.  It’s probably all different now, but here’s a snapshot of 1995: Go down Arthur Avenue far enough and the chatter turned from Italian to Spanish past the handball court; Puerto-Ricans ran Hughes Avenue; the Albanians had the little strip of E 189th on lockdown.  Across Webster Avenue, and down Fordham Road you got reminded that rap was born here.  Aspiring musicians sold freshly burned CDs of their homemade rap albums on folding tables they staged along the sidewalk -- it was an impromptu open-air market featuring glossy promotional posters and stacks of Kinko’s business cards.

And it was here, off Fordham Road, that I met Felix.

It was the start of my freshman year.  I’d spent my days hanging out with Jake and my nights with my nose pressed against a dorm window, watching kids lurch home drunk.

As far as I know, Felix was not a musician.  He just set up shop alongside these guys, maybe hoping for the miracle of herd immunity: the cops seemed to have no problem plucking unlicensed street vendors off one-by-one in other parts of the city, but here, en masse, the vendors operated for hours undisturbed.  For a business, Felix wedged himself between two hopeful rappers, dropped three folding tables, and laid out eight longboxes.  I was walking to the subway when I first saw his traveling comic shop.

“Look,” he said, patting the boxes.  “I got Avengers down to X-Men -- a dollar a book.  What you looking for?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “But thanks.”

“And it’s all eighties,” he said, smiling.  “None of that nineties bullshit.”

Confession: I wanted to be done with comics.

I’d been a super-fanboy for most of my life, and then experienced a bottom moment -- at fifteen I’d saved my restaurant tips for weeks to buy ten polybagged issues of X-Force #1, just to find excess printed copies in the sale-bin two years later.  Sure, I might have recovered; chalked it up to the puddle of my greed meeting up against the massive shores of Marvel’s savvy marketing, but then came the Spider-Man Clone Saga and the defamation of Gwen Stacy, which is when I had my total fuck-it moment.  Like the girl at the party who finally realizes her boyfriend is a cock, I opted to walk home alone, my heels tucked under my arm, just so I wouldn’t have to spend another moment on variant covers or inflated book events.

“There’s gotta be something you’re looking for,” Felix said.

Sure there was.  As a kid I’d always hustled to get my comics and I had huge holes in my continuity.  Back in Toledo, in my closet, I had stacks of half-digested stories; singleton issues looking for a run.  I knew the rising action to several Wolverine stories, but not the resolution.  I knew the climax to a Daredevil arc, but not the setup.  Like most kids, I had my entire collection memorized.  All it would take to fill some longtime runs was a few a moments, so I took a breath and walked over.

Twenty minutes later I was broke, but had a stack of twenty books I’d wanted since before my balls dropped.

As Felix sorted the comics, I asked: “How much for the Born Again run?”

“Miller and Mazzucchelli?” he asked.

“They weren’t in the Daredevil bin.”

“That’s because they’re special order.”

Something you should know: about once a year, from fifteen on, I’ve re-read Born Again.  I found the art pitch perfect; Mazzucchelli had a gift for large panel work - one picture on one page could tell you everything (check out the Murdock / Page reunion shot; it essentially tells whole story).  And the mixture of Catholicism and eighties crime; the swirl of heroin and redemption has always spoken to me.  I re-read Born Again when we moved out of my grandma’s house, when I failed math tests, when a girl rejected me.  It was something I did when I felt lonely, or displaced, or sad, and I’d felt all those things since getting to college.  Born Again was a comfort run for me and I’d left my copy in Toledo, in an attempt to evolve past it.

“How much?” I asked.

We negotiated a price: miraculously, the full back issue run would actually cost less than the trade, but I’d have to wait a week to get it.  “Come back then.  I’ll be somewhere here,” Felix said, gesturing at the sidewalk.

I went back to my new life for a week, which meant I tried to make new friends and kept studying so hard I was killing brain cells.  I was a not a natural student, like Jake.  A farm boy from rural Pemberville, Jake could fix anything using just a screwdriver, but he was also an accomplished musician who tinkered with computers back when even teachers thought the hobby was for nerds.  By contrast, I was a slow reader who accidently broke things, and I’d yet to surf the internet.  Despite our differences, our friendship centered on those things we had in common: band, theatre, and the sort-of-miraculous feat of having navigated our entire high school career without ever getting drunk.

But I was curious about drinking.

About a week later, on my way to pick-up the Born Again run, I stopped at a liquor store off the Grand Concourse and bought a small plastic bottle of vodka, the size of my fist.  It was the morning.  The sun was orange.  I found Felix about half-a-block from where we’d first met.  He smiled, took my money, and gave me the books.  I walked back to my dorm room, my guts twirling with excitement.  Jake was gone.  I sat at my desk and read, and drank.

It was my first drink ever.

Secretly, I’d never actually felt like things were going to be okay in life, but there was a moment that day, somewhere around issue 228 and nearly three fingers down where I felt like it could actually be beautiful.  Years later, at twenty-six, I would have my last drink in circumstances similar to my first: at home, alone, and with a narrowed pool of friends.  But that was the end and this was the beginning and it was not loss, or consequences, or crisis yet.  It was not my life as it is now either, where there is hope, and family, and fatherhood.  This was 1995 and the bottle was pure fireworks.  And it would never be that good again.