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.


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.


broken hook


For the record, I massively love in Moana how the guy who presents as a cocky jerk is broken apart so visibly. Obviously there’s the fem main character too (plus her sexuality not being part of the plot), but I knew about that going in and I was already on board for it. But I didn’t expect to see some self-aggrandizing jock torn up, not just via implication but verbally and openly. He places all his self-worth in this tool outside himself, and without it he sees himself as nothing, and he says it. That’s the sort of thing you usually surmise about people after they die and you try to put together the pieces of their life in a way that makes sense to you. And we are just out and told it, in dialogue and in song. It twists up my stomach, the way I first remember the shrinking episode of Lois and Clark (yeah I know, of all things!) doing. That kind of vulnerability (its exposure?) makes me a little nauseous, but it’s so worth portraying. Self-awareness, people! Self-awareness. Even if it turns you a little green.

“Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted

You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough”


ah, so these are triggers

Degree to which I can deal with Patrick Stewart’s performance in Logan: NEGATIVE NINE THOUSAND.

ME: This is fine.

BRAIN: No it’s not that’s Mom up there 

ME: He’s just doing a great job is all.


ME: The frail cruelty switching unexpectedly to tenderness and back is particularly true to–


Seriously. I have zero stakes in the X-men — I know little about them; they’re not a fandom of mine. But criminy. I cannot deal. After the movie over drinks and dinner I did elaborate pirouettes around the subject of Patrick Stewart, desperate not to have to discuss it or return there emotionally because oh my god. No. I can’t. There are no hoodies deep enough to hide the tears. Most of the feels for that movie were supposed to be elsewhere but I spent every scene with Patrick Stewart on-screen sitting there poleaxed, one supportive shoulder squeeze away from complete meltdown.

grief has no wide angle


Normally I’d post a spoiler cut for a movie still comparatively recent in its release date, especially one with a limited distribution. But that doesn’t apply here, obviously. What’s new isn’t what happens but how you get to see it, and how Jackie shows us grief is really powerful.

Namely, you’re smashed into close-up after close-up — I wouldn’t be surprised if something like a third of the movie was a close-up — in an endless too-close encounter with grief you’d prefer to see from a bit more of a distance. I can’t emphasize how valuable that is. What you want, as a viewer, is distance, and context. You want the camera to back up so you know where you are, what the room looks like, what the surrounding territory looks like. Hell, you’d even in some scenes settle for a view of someone’s coat or shoes, versus being trapped in the lines of John Hurt’s face or the smears streaking Natalie Portman’s cheeks and chin. But you don’t get that distance. You don’t get to pull away, even when you want to.

There is no wide angle on this grief, no neatly-arranged tracking shot that tidies up a personal disaster. This, of course, is where Jackie tries to go — not the route of national disaster, which is a story we know well by now, but a personal one. And the camera brings us too close to it. Not because of decaying statues of decorum vis-a-vis presidential families but because no one wants to be that close to grief, famous or not. The camera doesn’t give us a choice in Jackie, and that is so powerful. You’re trapped. You don’t get to pull away, even to try to understand this constant shattering within its own national landscape. That would require the distance that people cavalierly summon when they write obituaries or biographies or dissertations. This is not that.

There is also, as perhaps was known to people more familiar with the subject matter than I, a great deal of anger, and that was fantastic too. Glued close to the drooping eyelids and withered lips giving voice to the same old platitudes about everything being for a purpose, you are smashed up against the ludicrousness of those platitudes in a way that I hope hurts people who still use them. I hope it cuts deep. See how grandiose and all-knowing you appear when all you are is a frail face full of wrinkles squinting in a strong wind. See how much comfort you offer, and understand why anger in the face of that grotesque hollowness persists. The film doesn’t let you pull back from that.

Nor should it.

unintended consequences of watching every wes anderson movie with very young strangers

Realizing that:

1.) These kids can’t find happiness in anything unless everything broken is fixed, but

2.) neither could I when I first watched, say, Life Aquatic, wherein I now find myself

3.) defending characters I used to hate, specifically,

4.) when pressed, by rewarding them for their self-awareness of their flaws, which doesn’t deserve a medal really, and I would know because

5.) I’ve essentially become those characters.


Also realizing that I had a dream last night where I had a kid but the oceans turned to ice mid-crashing-wave and we stood on a frozen breaker in the snow as Staralfur played and I tried to explain that the ocean wasn’t always frozen, that the waves used to move; but I couldn’t make the kid see it. I was trying to be sad about it and s/he was practical and said if it weren’t frozen we couldn’t be standing there admiring the snow, could we? We’d sink.

random music fridays : now we are free

As a kindergartner, I knew about gaming the system. The Reflections contest theme that year for elementary school kids was “If I could give the world a gift, I would give it…” and I drew a picture of a bunch of people encircling the globe and wrote “love!” in big bubbly red letters with hearts. When I won first place I announced it proudly, followed immediately by “I knew that would get ’em!” I was a wily, if not exactly endearing, five-year-old.

By the time I was applying for college, though, most of the craftiness had bled out of me, sapped away by adolescence and a waning desire to broadcast myself as anyone other than who I was. Being a teenager sucked, and I wanted out: to be as far from the place and people I knew as possible. So Princeton was one of my reach schools, and their essay topic was to list your favorite song and why it held that spot in your heart. This was the song I picked.

The school I got into instead had a much more conventional prompt, and I was able to write both seriously and humorously in response — so maybe earnestness was the wrong tack here. Or maybe, to write in for a song whose words were rendered essentially just sounds to you, they expected that you’d better then be able to talk shop about the song’s technical prowess. More likely still, a Hollywood blockbuster like Gladiator earned disdainful sniffs all around the admissions table. Who knows? The people of my age group I met later who went to Princeton came away with some pretty terrible prejudices, so it’s probably for the best that I didn’t get in.

But Now We Are Free, composed by Hans Zimmer and sung in pseudo-Armenian by Lisa Gerard, was and remains dear to me. I bought it immediately after my parents and I — not my sister, who’d abandoned the family movie outing in what I correctly assessed to the the first of many such abandonments — saw Gladiator in theaters. We always used to go to Tower Records after a movie, to grab the soundtrack. I skipped immediately to its track on my CD player (still technically branded a Walkman, I believe) and listened to it as thunder raged outside our van on the way home. I went all the way to the back, on the bench seat, and lay down listening, to see the rain streak the window from the lower-down angle that I remembered from roadtrips in our old station wagon. But from my position tipped over sideways on the bench, my parents’ headrests rose further than their heads, and it looked to me like they weren’t even there anymore. (When I was four, I kept dreaming they disappeared from the front of the car as we drove to the Smithsonian, and I never saw them again. I’d wake up yelling.) And I found myself crying. I thought of Lucilla’s love and how it didn’t really matter anymore; Maxmius had made a home and it had been taken from him. And I thought — his parents weren’t there — how miserable, to have carved your mom and dad out of what your image of home and love should be, in an afterlife. How lonely I’d be if it was just me wandering through the fields of Elysium, parents gone and relegated to their own versions of paradise, which wouldn’t include me. How, surely — keep in mind I was thirteen, and a late-bloomer to boot; I wanted nothing to do with relationships — no one would ever populate my empty Elysium, if you didn’t even get to keep your parents.

Unless, I thought, as my dad slammed on the breaks and my mom  yelled at him — the storm knocked out the stoplights and someone almost hit us as we tried to go through an intersection — you died young. Maximus’s son got to be with him, after all. He got to “count” as worth seeing, after death.

What a raw deal.

Culture gives us these ways to talk about people who are dead — the afterlife, heaven, hell, fields of Elysium, take your pick — but no one prepares you, as a thirteen year old, to be in a constant state of losing someone. For years. They are still alive in that you can look into their eyes, but those eyes don’t know you anymore. Or themselves.

This, too, is rather a raw deal.

Mom, you are welcome to my little plot of the Elysian Fields anytime, when you get there. It won’t be empty, but you’re still invited.