Today was Free Comic Book Day.
I didn’t know that, because I’m not really much of a comics person. I found out via an almost slapstick line-of-sight reveal: from going up the wrong ramp, seeing a fence I couldn’t get past, looking back the way I came, encountering a man in a spacesuit and cape, dismissing him as irrelevant to my escape, then realizing that he was out there advertising the comics shop hidden behind the adobe wall forming one side of my enclosure.
Ta daa. Free Comic Book Day.
I’m not traditionally a comics person, but I do try. I love Batgirl of Burnside, for example. I’ve seen…half…of the big movies? A lot of the reasons I’m turned off by superheroes are pretty cut-and-dried, I know. Nonsensical costumes, gravity-defying boobs, dumb love plotlines. A too-eager reflection of the real world, but tweaked, when what I typically want is a depiction of Anywhere But Here (see: Ferelden! the Shire! Morrowind!) with all the narrative and emotional pull of life as we know it.
But, costumes and gender problems aside, I also always took issue with the portrayal of hero flaws. They seemed far too pronounced. Even in third grade, tasked with writing a super hero story, I chafed at the weakness I was given to write about (we pulled weaknesses, like strengths, from notecards in a basket). “How can she be old enough to be super if she’s afraid of water?” I argued with my teacher [conveniently forgetting my own mandatory, remedial swim class for Kids Who Are Afraid Of the Deep End]. “Real people don’t do this!”
What I meant, or what I’m reinterpreting what was probably a much less nuanced argument to have meant, is that real people’s weaknesses aren’t so clear-cut and laid out there, plain to see. You don’t just fall apart at the exposure of your weakness, whether that’s water or cancer or the discussion of either. Right? I spent decades eschewing superheroes not so much for their superpowers as for their over-pronounced frailties. Everyone has weaknesses, sure, I thought. But you deal with them. They don’t weigh on you for episode after episode, lurking in your subconscious or your body like bombs, waiting for the proper moment to blow your plans to smithereens.
Except, that’s exactly what they do.
**SPOILERS FOR GOTG2**
When Peter Quill’s father tells him he put the tumor in his mother’s head, his reaction was instantaneous and 100% what I screamed for him to do in my head (albeit mostly in profanity): he attempts to blow this guy the fuck away. That the speaker is technically his father matters not one jot: here, personified, is the reason his mom died. Blam. You absofuckinglutely attack that. Thumbs-up, Starlord.
The deep satisfaction I got from Quill’s kneejerk reaction was not lost on me. Coming out of the theater to a confusing barrage of dammed-up texts about my mom’s hospice care, it was not lost on me. Maybe not as a third-grader (let’s be real: the cultural critique game is not that strong in those afraid of the deep end) but definitely as a teenager onward, I had disparaged superheroes for the giant bullseyes they walked around with, glued to their backs. “Hey father issues, over here!” “Oi, Krypton, pick me!” “Enclosed spaces! Come at me bro!” People, I thought, don’t work like that. Everyone’s issues are deeply buried and they only come up in the quiet of your own mind, are dealt with, and then are shelved away, hopefully a little better cataloged than before, but otherwise ignored.
Yeah, um. Nope.
If I someone were standing in front of me who could somehow credibly claim to be responsible for my mother’s illness, I’d beat the everloving fuck out of him. It’s a giant emotional bullseye that I was just too sheltered, or lucky, to realize I’d have to carry around one day. I wouldn’t even pause — as Peter Quill doesn’t even pause — to reflect upon the recriminations, legal or moral or otherwise, of my actions.
I have acquired my bullseye. I pick up an issue of Runner’s World magazine, see an article on one man’s doomed attempt to keep running in the face of Alzheimer’s and bam, slap that sucker right back down on the shelf, unwilling to bring that freshly energized sadness into my day. (Still haven’t read the article.) I walk into a movie theater with a bunch of friends to see X-Men, knowing zero things about X-Men, and suddenly I’m burrowing nine miles back into the depths of my hoodie, fleeing Patrick Stewart’s all too accurate portrayal of dementia’s viciousness.
It’s not that I didn’t think people had (and I’ve tried not to use this word, because it has been co-opted by too many people to mean too many different things, and not with the best of intentions) triggers. I grew up in the nineties and aughts. From What About Bob to What Dreams May Come, we knew shit went down. That people got fucked up. But I always thought it would be…well. Other people, I guess. Not me.
The level of fuckery required for superhero-level bullseyes, I thought, didn’t apply to me. Unlike families I’ve since come to know intimately, no one in my house screamed at each other or threw things at each other, or starved themselves or drove their cars into trees on purpose, and I thought well, good. Bases covered. I’m safe from bad things. I knew the disease was coming, had seen it take my grandmother, and figured I was as ready as one can be.
I was wrong.
In a movie rife with enjoyable comedic and emotional beats, Guardians‘ portrayal of Quill’s reaction there is still my favorite moment. Because it is so true. (And, I guess, a little forgiving, if I think of it as true.) No one presses pause there to make judgmental Instagram reposts of Pinterest quotes in Lucida Handwriting pontificating that they would have shown compassion to their mother’s killer. No one chastises Peter for having feelings. They just do their best to help him mow down the fucker who killed his mom. And who also, okay, will kill everyone else if left to his own devices, but that, for me (if not for Quill — this is why he’s the superhero and I’m not) is beside the point.
Maybe, then, the unrealistic thing about superheroes isn’t their giant bullseye weaknesses just waiting to be exploited.
It’s that they get to overcome them.