Saturday, April 30, 2011

Has a Lifetime of Reading Comics Made Me a Hero...
Or Merely a Decent Human Being?
Fredric Wertham was a "glass half-empty" kind of guy.

Dr. Fredric Wertham was a psychiatrist who saw (or purported that he saw), in comics and mass media, the detrimental effects that exposure to negative, violent and subjective stories and imagery had upon the minds and spirits of their consumers - especially young people. (Info on Wertham [HERE].)

In the 1950's he waged a war on comics and other types of "low-brow" media that he thought sought to corrupt the youth of America.
His book, "Seduction of the Innocent", was the bible of the fear-mongering wave of adults, who thought that their children were being led down the wrong path - a dead-end road of crime, sex and depravity.
(Info on "Seduction" [HERE])

This backlash against the comics medium not only helped to cripple many publishers (such as the horror and crime comic leader; EC) but also the putting into place a watch-guard group, a self-governing body formed by publishers themselves, who would dictate the very content that comics would be able to contain... the C.C.A. (Comics Code Authority - [HERE]).

While many adults, at that time - and even now - have similar beliefs on the subject, the Comics Code has finally - after over 50 years - been rendered null and void. But that has less to do with the debunking of Wertham's beliefs, but instead because today's social mores allow for media's open display of all of the things he feared would fracture the psyches of the kids of America.

The irony is that Wertham saw only the negative aspects of the stories and thought that they were what would resonate strongest in the minds of the young readers. Despite the fact that nearly all comic stories usually ended with the villain of the piece either being undone by an ironic twist of fate (usually a direct result of his or her evil actions) or outright vanquished by a hero.

Instead of fearing the worst of readers, why wouldn't one hope for their best aspects to be awakened by such tales?

Sure, there was a lot of gratuitous violence, gore-dripping acts of brutality, and titillating scenes of wanton women wearing naught but torn blouses whilst in bondage. Granted. There was ample room for comics to clean up their act. But, still... there was goodness to be found as well.

That brings us to the point of this post.


Earlier this month the Gregorian calendar once again rolled around to my birthday.
44-years on the rock.
I had decided that I would use that day to do many "right" things that I had been meaning to get to, as a way to help the day "mean" something more to me than just marking another trip around the sun.


Yes, while there is a comic-book theme in this post, it is tangential. It's not a total "personal" piece, but does deal with the effect that comics may have had on my moral make-up. It just takes a bit of pre-amble to get there. Sort of like a piece I did two years back, on my "history" as a comic collector [HERE]. And/or a similar post to this one (and a great one, at that) where I showcased one of my most deeply held philosophical passages - from a Doctor Strange comic book [HERE].

Basically, I often find myself thinking of what it takes to make it through life (or even just a day at a time) keeping true to a certain "code" of "honorable conduct".
All too often, one finds that the people who do bad things, or who merely live with little heed to the needs/wants/rights of others, seem to thrive, while those who consistently do the "right thing", tend to walk against the wind.

Watching me go out of my way for others, giving up my place in lines, stopping my car to pick up materials that may present a hazard to people or animals (as well as stopping to scoop up animals who appear to have been hit by cars, and moving them to the grounds off the roads - in case they are merely stunned and not dead) as well as other such "crazy" things (like rescuing insects and letting them all outside, or my practice of checking my driveway [about a football field in length] for salamanders or toads, and moving them to safety before I drive in or out, or the fact that I mow my lawn with a weed-whacker because it allows me to see if there are any such critters whom I need to relocate out of harm's way lest they succumb to the whirling blade of death), my friends and co-workers look at me, a bitter-sweet look on their face, and they say; "'re a really nice guy, Pete," but then almost always end with; "...but, nice guys finish last."

Now, this post isn't about me claiming to be a saint or anything.
Far from it.
But, I refuse to try to "win" at the expense of others.

This belief system, or code of conduct, has been ingrained in me by various factors;
  • A proper upbringing
  • Strict religious ([Roman]Catholic) teachings
  • Comic books
For many years, I thought that the first two nurturing aspects were the real reason for my behavior.
Over the past few years, however, I have begun to truly question that, and I believe that it was the comic books and their heroic examples that are the root to my nature.

When pressed by life's many misfortunes, maintaining "niceness", honesty, and a good nature while within life's pie-in-the-face reward-system, I find that I tend to hold my comic-book role models in my mind's eye more often than those of a religious / golden-rule observance.

Oh, sure... I know that the 4-color heroes in my comics aren't even remotely real, and that (at least according to faith and some historical record) the figures in the Bible (and/or other religion's tenets) are (or were supposedly) real people with their real life-examples put to paper, but I am always (at least consciously at a certain level) aided in life by the role-models of  fictional "underdog" characters, who trudge on, doing the right thing, despite the slings and arrows that life arcs their way.

Why would I hold fast to the examples shown by make-believe characters rather than the millennium-old (or in the case of recent Saints; centuries or merely decade-old) examples of proper conduct? Perhaps it is the "everyman" nature of certain comic-book characters.

As lofty as it would be to try to be as good as a "Mother Theresa", not everyone is as absolutely giving and selfless. I sure know I'm not.

And yet, the super-hero alter-ego equivalents are flawed, like I am... and yet still strive to maintain a sense of right and wrong. Despite the costs to themselves.

However... and this is a valid draw... the comic heroes can at least complain or rail against the whims of the universe that sets them in such straights.
Most Saints (while they may have indeed tried to choose less noble paths) aren't generally known for their fist-shaking against the forces-that-be (since their forces-that-be tend to be God).

Also, another reason, the few times that religious figures have been shown to want to choose another path for themselves (Jonah, Paul, Peter, Moses, just a few among many) they are made, by divine intervention, to alter their path to the will of God.

Me? I like to make my choice to do the right thing while still being able to bitch about it if I want to.

But, all that said, when I am yelling at the heavens, as I mentioned, I'm not thinking of the religious or social mores for why I'm doing the right thing... no. I'm thinking about the comic book role models that seem to lead me by example.

My two primary comic-book role models? Not those you may think. Mine are...

The eternally put-upon:

Peter Parker
(not Spider-Man - as those are two different entities. I've always preferred P.P. to S-M.)
Richard Rory
(Born loser, good-natured guy, and friend of the Man-Thing. More on Rory [HERE].)

These guys also appeal to me, not just because of their do-goodery in the face of whatever shit-storm they are beset with, but also because of the fact that they practically live in a perpetual shit-storm.
A wind-tunnel of fate's fecal flack.
It's easy to be nice when things are going well, but to keep a smile when you're covered in crap... that takes a whole different set of muscles.

I flex those muscles on a daily basis.

Once again, it's not to say that I believe that these fictional characters are in any way "real" people.
They are, however, the implied reality of writers who, while striving to accurately portray someone of such a mild-mannered, fair-play, do-what's-right-no-matter-the-consequence archetype, that in so doing, present that template as a "real" person.

But before I delve too far into the comic-book roots of my psyche, I should continue my tale.


Setting out on my day's journey, I had a few things on my "to-do" list:

  • Get a physical exam.
    (required for a new job for which I am vying)

  • Get my car looked at by a mechanic.
    (because of a weird wobble that had recently started)

  • Bring a lot of old electronics - 5 giant CRT monitors - to the salvage yard for recycling.
    (so they wouldn't end up in a land-fill to bespoil mother Earth)
  • Go to the office supply store to recycle 25 industrial printer cartridges
    (again, to avoid aforementioned Earthly bespoiling).

  • ...and some house-work that required my attentions.

Well, I did the housework first, since I thought it best to get out of the way, then showered and went to my physical exam.

Since my professional downsizing, I no longer have proper health-care coverage, so I had to go to a local clinic that's based inside a pharmacy. Weird, but it's not like I was getting surgery or anything.

I arrived with about 40 minutes remaining in their short office-hours, with a patient already inside the office with the health-care professional.
Not knowing how long that person was in the office, I was worried that I may not be seen that day and would have to come back another day.
Luckily, the Doctor poked her head out and said; "You're next - you'll be my last patient for the day."
Relieved, I waited a few more minutes for the person she was seeing to come out so I could walk in.
Unfortunately, just then, two elderly women slowly walked up to the clinic - obviously wishing to be seen by the doctor.

Knowing what I was going to do next, I screamed inside my brain!

Even though this was really the only day that I had open to make this appointment, I knew that I would have to abide by my own code and let them go ahead of me. All I could hope for was that I might be able to squeak into an appointment and not be forced to try for another day.
This was really the only available time I had to fit in for the physical, but I was trying to juggle days and times in my mind to see when I could return.

My mind immediately likening the situation to just about any (or every) Peter Parker dilemma.

When the doctor opened her door, she was obviously in no mood for my chivalrous suggestion of allowing the two elders to cut in line. "No. You were waiting. You are next."
Looking at the two septuagenarians to my side, I tried to repeat my suggestion that they be seen in my stead. The Doctor was having none of it. She was irritated, and wanted to cut out of there as soon as possible. No way was she having this debate.
Luckily, the ladies stated that it was alright, and that I should go on ahead.
Perhaps, they too hoped that they might squeak in after me to be seen that day.

As soon as I was in the door, still offering to let them go ahead of me, the Doctor poked her head out and told them that they'd have to come back tomorrow.
I felt horrible.
(I STILL feel horrible about it.)
Short of my walking away from the appointment all-together, I don't know how I could have let the women be seen.
I knew by her tone and demeanor that this doctor was not going to reward my gallantry with a last minute appointment. Her attitude was more prison-guard than medical practitioner.

Still, as is my usual manner, I succeeded in winning her over and getting her to smile and respond favorably to my good-natured humor during the course of my physical exam.
She had obviously had a bad day, and I was at least able to favorably alter her mind-set before she headed for home.

Passing with a clean bill of health, I debated which of my other tasks I should get to first; car or recycling.
I opted for the recycling, since it would be better to get all those old, giant CRT monitors out of the car.
As I started driving, there was that car wobble again. But, the recycle center closed soon, so I still opted for that first.Driving along the interstate a few exits to my destination, suddenly it sounded like someone shot a rifle in my back seat.
The car started to pull to the side, and I knew that my tire had just blown out - obviously that was what the wobble was all about.

Normally, this would be a minor set-back, as I usually keep a spare and a jack in the trunk.
However, two things prevented this;

  1. I had recently obtained this car after a prior good deed had led to my having my previous vehicle totaled (I had my van involved in an accident while driving to have artwork scanned, which I had drawn for a charity auction - recounted HERE - the entire process of the artwork at this link HERE)... and I had not acquired a full-sized spare as of yet.

  2. While I had a "donut" spare in the trunk, I was without my hefty jack, only having the dinky P.O.S. that comes with the "donut". Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains and melted snow from weeks gone by, the ground upon which I was stopped was far too soft for that little jack to do anything but sink into the ground and potentially get me crushed for my troubles.
OK. Not a problem, I belong to AAA. It was a nice day, so I'd sit and wait for the tow-truck guy to come and help me out.

The guy from AAA arrived within 60 minutes (he was given wrong coordinates for my location) and he helped me swap the exploded tire for my ersatz spare. He did point out that I was lucky that it was a rear tire that had the blow out, as if it were a front tire, there would be a good chance that I'd be seriously injured - or dead, as that would have torn the steering wheel from me and flipped the car.

Well... I'll put that in the glass-half-full column.

Now, by this time, the recycle center had closed, so I wasn't able to make that.
The mechanic's shoppe that I frequent was also about to wrap up for the day - and since it was a Saturday, it meant that I was screwed until at least Monday.
So, it's all I can do to just hobble home and, if I can manage, drop off the printer cartridges at the office supply store, provided that I can drive my donut-wheeled vehicle in rush-hour traffic through the main thoroughfare passed several towns on my way.

Luckily, this I was able to do, veering (slowly) around potholes and other road hazards, while other cars sped past me.

Now. This would have brought my day to a close, but, alas, there remained one more surprise, and test of my "Mr. Nice-Guy" title.

After being stopped by a policeman, because he wondered why I was driving with my hazard flashers on (he wasn't the most observant cop), I was allowed to continue on my way, and he followed me to the end of the intersection, where I bore to the right and he stopped to park in a local lot.
Within mere yards of my turn, I witnessed a small girl hitch-hiking, alongside a larger person, a woman, it seemed - one whom, for reasons not totally certain, was having a hard time walking in a straight line.

Now, I wasn't eager to jump to any conclusions about the pair. The older person could be handicapped (or challenged, or "differently-abled", as the PC labels go), but to me, it just seemed that she was drunk.

A car a hundred yards ahead of me passed them by, and the young girl expressed her dissatisfaction (and youth) by spinning around to mime a "darnit" action with her arms. It was obvious that she was trying to hitch every car that passed, with no selection process in place.

Thus, faced with a small girl in danger of several alternative fates:

  • Having to walk along an uphill stretch of road - for an unknown distance.
  • Her older "caregiver" stumbling into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
  • Possibly being picked up by some deviant mutant to dangerous results.
I knew that I had to pick them up and drive them, with my car filled with giant monitors and a donut-wheel, an unknown distance for their safety. Yay me.

Pulling over, I quickly rearranged all the cargo to make room for my two passengers, but there was now only room in the front seat, and they both squeezed in for the ride.
Well... more accurately, the grown woman sort of spilled in to the car - and practically spilled out of her top.

I had only a moment's worry for my own safety, as I wondered if the woman would try to take control of the car, as she entered before I returned from the rear of the car, where I had stashed another monitor in the trunk.

Also of concern was that I wasn't sure if the goo-goo eyes that the woman was giving me was a drunken attempt at hitting on me, or that due to her state of being just couldn't keep her eyes looking in one place.

It turns out that the woman was the girl's mother, and that they were walking home from a birthday party which was held at the local bowling alley. Finding out where they lived, I was startled that, had they not been picked up for a ride, that they would have to walk over 5 miles - predominantly uphill the entire way (and a steep hill, as we live atop a mountain ridge). Drinking at a party with young children around, and with no viable means of getting home? Excellent parenting at work.

What made matters worse, was that they lived at the far end of a rustic, dirt road, that had no level areas whatsoever and was absolute murder on my suspension. I hoped that the donut could handle it without my needing to call AAA again - this time, for a tow home.

The road, muddy and nearly overgrown with creeping weeds, was almost swamp-like, so I couldn't help but think of Richard Rory in a Man-Thing story, picking up a runaway girl - and getting arrested for his trouble.

But, I managed to get the girl and her inebriated mother home safely, and then drive the length of their "road" (which was more like a muddy gash in the woods than a road) back to the main road and then up the remainder of the hilltop to get home.

(It would take me a few days to get replacement tires [and it turned out, I needed all four tires, since the used car dealer sold me a car with wheel rot on the unseen side of all the tires] and several weeks to be able to make it to the recycle center to drop off the monitors - which I did on Earth Day - as written about [HERE].)

This sort of day always happens to me, and I'm no longer even surprised when such events occur.
Instead, I think of the eternally good-intentioned, yet ill-fated hapless heroes of my comics and know that I'll keep their example in mind.

Dr. Wertham didn't take into account that some young readers would be eternally marked - for good, rather than for ill, by reading the lurid comic books that he saw as a menace.

There is a quote that I also keep in mind. One that has resonated with me, because of its tie-in to my comic-book roots.
Written by the famed poet; May Sarton, in a book that I have; "Journal of a Solitude"...

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."
- May Sarton

So. Has a lifetime of reading comics made me a hero?
Or merely a decent human being?



jade said...

BRAVA!! Best post of the year so far. Made my day.

Shlomo Ben Hungstien said...

every year here in the San Francisco Bay Area we have our comic book/sci-fi mega expo known as the WonderCon. the first few years it was held across The Bay in the city of Oakland (yes as in the Oakland Raiders). the very first WonderCon was in 1988 A.D. and i remember they had some sort of costume event in the evening known as the "Seduction of the Innocent Ball". now i get the reference. this so called Dr. Wertham sounds like a pseudo-intellectual type with too much spare time on his hands.
i do think nice guys finish last which is why i'm not always a nice guy. just most of the time. but in life when faced with moral dilemmas i just try to think what would ROM or Optimus Prime do?

~P~ said...

Many thanks for the kind words, Jade.

I wasn't trying to "toot my own horn" or anything. It's just that I prefer to see the heroism in comics rather than let the darker aspects "corrupt' me.

Certainly, I enjoy the darker aspects; the villains, the mayhem, the lurid undertones - but it is always the higher ideals and loftier aspirations that comics' portray which take hold of me.

Sorry for the delay in my reply.

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