20 April, 2017

The List: Reading January through March 2017

Alicia Martin, from the artist's Biographies series

By the generosity of Veronica S., John A., Kristin S., and, as always, my extraordinary, incomparable Mum, I swam, delighted, in the flood of books that poured in at the start of the year. And what a selection! Many came off my Amazon wish list and were guaranteed please, but more than a few surprises ensured that my reading went in unusual directions. (A confession: I put my best into reading that volume of history and the little book on spelling oddities, and failed miserably. Even my wide-ranging tastes have limits.) Finishing with each of the books listed below, I got such a thrill from sliding a finger along the spines of those yet unread, musing over which would most satisfy the particular literary craving felt in that moment, and finally selecting the exact right one. I don't get that luxury often. When I do, I savor it like something I may never get again.

* * * * *

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
No philosophy seems to come about except in response to, or building off of, a preexisting one, and Mill's utilitarianism is no exception. His mentor, the English jurist Jeremy Bentham, is best remembered (by someone, I assume) for his Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation, probably a real page-turner in its day. Bentham developed utilitarianism, but Mill refined it. Originally published serially in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Mill's Utilitarianism is densely written, even for its era, the 1860s. We can probably blame this as much on its high-minded subject matter as on Mill's intellectualism, itself attributable to his father, who raised him in the strictest homeschool environment, isolaten from other children, spoken to exclusively in Greek, and taught the principles of logic as life guides.

In a nutshell, utilitarianism, the "Greatest Happiness Principle," holds that what is moral comes from that which is determined to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Because it demands situational morality, not hard rules carved into stone tablets, Christians in particular took issue with utilitarianism. Mill countered their assaults by writing that even Christians' objective sense of wrong and right can only be as firmly adhered to as their belief demands: "The question, Need I obey my conscious? is quite as often put to themselves by persons who never heard of the principle of utility, as by its adherents. Those whose conscientious feelings are so weak as to allow of their asking this question, if they answer it affirmatively, will not do so because they believe in the transcendental theory, but because of the external sanctions." Amen.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Course curricula at Autodidact University (student body: me) are intellectually rigorous, with a strong a priori bent — meaning that the reading lists are killer. Nowhere are these lists more voluminous than in AU's English Department. Poets, from Kazim Ali to Dean Young, make up a good twenty-five percent of the names in them, and Thomas Stearnes Eliot loomed well above most. The man's work is canonical.

Wonky meter and erratic rhyme abound in this selection (a Signet Classic edition) of early poems. Even after multiple readings of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the simple profundity of lines like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" moves me. The title work, Eliot's ostensible masterpiece, however, is too fussy. His 1922 publication of "The Waste Land" featured no addenda, yet when he published it in book form, pages on pages of end notes appeared, clueing readers in on every biblical and operatic allusion, translating its French, German, and Latin lines, and generally presenting the work as pedantry rather than poetry. I'm not against poems that resist immediate comprehension — far, far from it! — but give me Eliot's straightforward ''Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" any day, over the closing lines of "The Waste Land":
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiarn uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories
The poet renowned for "Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" also had a way with prose. He might've finished the wry, wild picaresque novel that he intended ''Adventures in the Skin Trade" to be, but for his 1953 death — as good a reason as any to quit writing. The other stories on offer in this collection of gems are polished beauties. I told friends, in the midst of my reading, that you could frame almost any sentence from the book, hang it on your wall, and appreciate it as a work of art unto itself. This was no exaggeration. Thomas was known for agonizing over his word choices. At the level of the story, his religiosity is present but unobtrusive. Most obvious is his consummate humanity, the dovetailing of his mythology and mystery with lots of depravity and "the terrors of the flesh."

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
In the early 1900s, first-generation immigrants from Japan — Issei — joined the American laborer class, picking the produce that Mexicans, Filipinos, Hindus, Koreans, Blacks, Okies, and Arkies, en masse, couldn't. Prosperous prewar appetites were hard to sate. Japanese "picture brides" left home on ships, lured stateside by misleading letters ana photos from prospective husbands whose promises of luxury and prestige, opportunity ana abundance, proved false as soon as the mail-order brides stepped onto land and met their new mates — not captains of industry but migrant workers. And you thought the liars on MTV's Catfish were cruel! The Buddha in the Attic fictionalizes these truths and, in doing so, makes them real. In my ignorance of history I'd assumed that only American men wooed Asian brides to the us. The chorus of voices in Otsuka's novel reveals another story altogether, an overwhelmingly cruel, sad one, then tells of what happened next, as World War Two erupted and these hard-working, long-suffering women were wronged yet again. This book offers the kind of history lesson that I find most effective: no arbitrary dates, no names of faceless so-called heroes, just human stories, raw and relentless.

Albert Camus (Justin O'Brien, translator), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
In an absurd universe without what Camus called "eternal values," can meaning be found, or are we all just what the nihilist say: pointless nothings, deluded that we actually exist? (I pick some cheery stuff, don't I?) Camus was attuned to the questions of existential futility; his every work of fiction drips with ennui. The long-form philosophical essay lending this collection its title asks why conscious people in this incomprehensible universe, being aware of our human limits, exist without hope but nevertheless go on existing rather than commit suicide. What is the role of hope? Of the supernatural balms of gods and prayers? Of aesthetics? After concluding with those heaviest of concerns, Camus turns tour guide. Sensory-rich essays about his hometown of Algiers, the country of Oman, the city of Tipasa, are philosophical ruminations in disguise — the best kind. I'd willingly play Theseus to his Ariadne any aay, following the labyrinthine passageways along which he lays his thread, whether they be the stone-and-mortar variety or the kind that's as intangible as thought. Either makes for worthy adventure.

Ellison Rooke, Once-a Ponce-a Time… and Other Bean-isms
How many six-year-olds have collections of their quotes published? My friend's daughter, Bean, is the only one that I know of. Considering that she's the source of nuggets like "pretty please, with pepper on top," "how's your meatball doin' in that oven," and (one of the world's best-ever exclamatory phrases) "bust my brains," you can understand why.

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea: Stories
This man writes characters the way that Rolls-Royce makes cars — meticulously, in a spirit of polished ostentation, with what can only be called sumptuous interiors. A few of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker, where I recognized Marcus's amazing skill for rendering third-person narratives as intimate mental excursions. His protagonists are deeply flawed; they're often out-and-out failures. Many of them you can't possibly like. Still, thanks to how Marcus ensconces the reader inside his characters' fucked-up minds, you find yourself won over, a party to their struggles, with a vested interest in their well-being, time and time again. Reading Leaving the Sea is like a crash course in empathetic responses: afterward you feel sore and fatigued, but the bruises are totally worth it, considering the ride.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Nostalgia is what drives some to revisit fondly recalled books. Others want to re-experience the mood those books evoked the first time through. Still others, experimentalists, are curious about which aspects of the books they'll perceive differently after so many years. My freshman year in high school, over two decades ago, I read only about half of Lord of the Flies. What stopped me from finishing is now a mystery. Until February of 2017, I never went back to that isolated island with its imaginary beastie, its intermittent fire, its near-feral tweens running amok. What I found was Golding's lush prose, and that the beast in man is still very much at large. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic
Certain essays (the best ones) have a power. They transform their subject, like a magic trick, from something recognizable, into a fascinating never-before-seen abstraction that you suddenly want to turn every which way, inspecting for other angles that might reveal its secrets. A Muse ana a Maze performs this sleight-of-hand with the craft of writing, particularly literary fiction-writing, by inviting readers to play at puzzles, riddles, and thought experiments that, as Turchi reveals with a flourish, share vast common ground with the creation and appreciation of fiction. Erudite yet accessible, with eye-pleasing art throughout, this is an endlessly recommendable book, perfect for lit lovers at both ends of the process, who relish fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Without resorting to sensationalism, like a lesser writer might, Eugenides tells a tale — a family history, really — from the perspective of a middle-aged man with 5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphroditism, born to second-generation American immigrants a girl. Like its narrator, Cal/Calliope, the novel manages to be both one thing and another, conversational and complex, epic and intimate, tunny and tragic. This really is a stunning work of fiction, and it makes me intensely curious to see whether his debut, The Virgin Suicides, approaches a similar level of excellence.

Wilkie Collins, The Dead Alive
Legal thrillers aren't my thing. Precedent-setting works of fiction, on the other hand…. Published in 1874, The Dead Alive is among the first in the genre that would achieve ubiquity in airport bookstores and on suburban nightstands, in addition to being based on the United States' earliest recorded case of wrongful conviction. Collins was a popular mystery writer. In other words, The Dead Alive is no great literary achievement. Evidently the last 143 years haven't seen the genre evolve beyond an idle diversion. As a historical tidbit, though, this brisk little novel holds up well enough and brings to readers' attentions the dire flaws in Western jurisprudence — flaws that also, discouragingly, remain much unchanged by time. The modern-day reader will be forgiven if she comes away from Collins's book impacted less by its plot than by the persistence of injustice in our system of criminal law.

Curt Vonnegut Jr., Player Piano
Peeking through the cracks in this bland tale of one man's ennui in a retro-futurist dystopia of boredom, the satirical specialist Vonnegut would become (Player Piano is his first novel) was the only thing holding my interest to the end. The punch-card machines he envisioned conquering the American job economy, although not far from the realm of prophecy, now seem like quaint speculations from the era of Formica and malt shops. The real bar to enjoyment here is the heavy-handed praise, weighing down every other page, for "the two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and heart." Ten years later, in the 1960s, Vonnegut gave us Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, so at least there's that to be grateful for.

Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby
Around Halloween, Roman Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Raby usually airs as part of some cable network's seasonal lineup. I watch it every year, if I can. Never had I felt compelled to check out the novel on which it's based, though. Having read so many stilted, inartfully written horror novels I'm basically wary of the whole damn genre. (And genre fiction in general, truth be told.) What surprised me, when the novel happened to fall into my hands, was how faithful the film version is to its source material. Whole paragraphs of dialog made it onscreen. The unspoken elements found their way there, too — a cinematic rarity. It's nearly word-for-word. Only the novel's final scene, in which Rosemary discovers the shocking truth about little Andy, runs a smidgen longer, with just a daub of additional color, than the one in the movie. In it you can almost see Levin's grin as he toes that finest of lines between horror and hilarity.

01 April, 2017

Before Breakfast, at the Old-Man Table

Another morning in 3B. Three plastic mugs of coffee steam on the table in front of us, still too hot to swig from. Jim is filling little squares with letters. Opposite him, Chris's glasses perch at the tip of his nose as he studies the latest New York Review of Books. I'm focused on blinking, following six and a half hours of having my eyes closed. Our usual fourth is unusually absent from the table. Larry's usual laundry day is Friday, tomorrow, yet I spot him (fuzzily) wringing out a T-shirt in the utility closet. He'll be along shortly.

"Okay," Jim pipes up, pausing to ensure that we're paying attention. "The clue is 'Tesla CEO Musk.' Four letters. I think the third one's — "

"Elon," I tell him. "E-L-O-N."

"Sounds like a cologne. Who the hell is Elon Musk, and why should anybody know?"

"The CEO of Tesla," says Chris. "Pay attention."

"As in Nikola Tesla, the electricity guy? I think I went to school with him." Jim's absurd exaggerations might mitigate his unease about getting older; he turned sixty-seven last month.

Chris says, "I have no fucking idea what Tesla is." His face reveals evidence of appreciating ten thousand bygone jokes.

"Well then how do you know who's its CEO?" Jim demands, setting down his Bic in exasperation.

"Because Byron just said."

"Oh, fine. Fine. Let's ask the nerd a question about something not computer-related and see how he does."

"Tesla makes electric cars," I say, and both of them suddenly register total recall. Typical. "Jim, why don't you just give up crosswords and take up a more age-appropriate hobby — like cave-painting or inventing the wheel?"

"Or getting your affairs in order," Chris adds.

One of Jim's most amusing characteristics is a willingness to let his sarcasm unspool gradually. "I'm pretty sure my affairs are about as ordered as they're gonna get, in this place. My legacy will be you guys squabbling over my newspaper clippings and half-eaten bag of pretzels. And that's only if you're lucky enough for me to die before I can eat them. Granted, that's looking pretty likely."

"Pretzels? Woo-hoo!" It's Larry, joining us at last, his Droopy Dog features perennially at odds with his six-shots-of-espresso enthusiasm.

Jim flails his arms like a windblown scarecrow. "Oh, great, now Larry's here. Can my day get any worse?"

Larry ignores the slight. "You know, I did two years in the service — airborne division — and never once jumped out of an airplane…"

"Oh, here it comes." Chris covers his eyes.

"…they had to push me every time."

Groans all around. Jim says, "God damn it, Larry, nobody laughed at that last week. What, did you think it'd be funnier a second time, or are you getting too senile to remember who you tell your shitty jokes to?"

"I told you, but Chris and Byron weren't around to hear it."

"And our lives," I say, "were measurably better for that fact."

"No doubt," says Chris, ruffling his paper like a man shaking off an unpleasant memory.

Jim invokes his usual archaic stereotypes, calling Chris on his failure to side with a compatriot. "Or is it only when there's whiskey involved that you Irishmen ride together? Bunch of potato-eating hypocrites."

"Sour old Kraut."

"Sour, yes," Jim concedes, "but at least we Germans aren't lazy bottle-suckers."

"No, of course not. Whoever would associate the inventors of beer halls with drinking?"

"Well, we're industrious and efficient, anyway."

"Then why," I ask him, "aren't you finished with that crossword? It's almost time for breakfast."

"I'm taking it slow, letting you help, because I want you guys to feel like you're actually useful."

It's Chris who puts the brakes on this frivolity, asking Jim if he watched last night's episode of Nova. An earnest back-and-forth about science ensues, by a couple of blue-collar sexagenarians. Since Larry and I had no PBS in our Wednesday-night lineup, we're treated to a muddled (but amusing) recap before the table returns to silence — Jim to his crossword puzzle, Chris to his reviews, Larry to a new issue of Smithsonian, me to my janky eyesight. It's quiet enough that I hear someone's stomach rumble for food.

"Okay," says Jim, after a bit. "Here's one: 'Sailor, e.g.' Three letters."

All those nineteenth-century naval novels he reads, and yet… "Tar," I answer.

"Ohhhhhh, of course."

"See, this nerd knows all kinds of stuff, not just computers."

He squints. "What d'ya know about sailing, ye cack-handed lubber?"

"All kinds of stuff," I repeat. "I've even got jokes: which is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry takes the bait. He growls "Arrrrrr!" with aplomb.

"You might think it'd be R," I tell him, "but it's actually the C!"

More groans. I go for a sip of my coffee and think, This is why I fit in so well at the old-man table.

17 March, 2017

Comic-Book Adventures and Aspirations of the Phenomenal Fanboy

No cosmic rays, no secret government experiment, no ancient amulet, no genetic anomaly (that I know of) is to blame. Simple exposure is what transformed me, when a stranger aboard a flight to Amsterdam shared some comic books. One look through the pages of those four-color marvels and I was no longer a mild-mannered Kansas kid but

At every page of my seatmate's Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Excalibur, et cetera, I pointed and asked characters' powers and origins. The urge of the fan to talk comics dwells deep. It knows no age. For anyone else, a hyperinquisitive nine-year-old could be a drain, but the tourist beside me was patiently indulgent. By the time we deplaned I felt like an expert in superheroics. Silly me. That stack of comic books barely skirted the labyrinthine Marvel universe, never mind those of other publishers. Still, this peek into a fictional reality was huge and couldn't be unseen.

What kid hasn't read a comic book? At least in this respect I was typical. Asterix and Obelix was a favorite, as was The Adventures of Tintin. A few kiddie comics, like Uncle Scrooge and Casper the Friendly Ghost, also entered my possession here and there, thanks to neighborhood yard sales. One time, too, I found a lurid Tales from the Crypt knockoff so creepy that I buried it in a box of books in my closet and, when I uncovered it again, months later, just glimpsing the cover startled me. But the comics on that transatlantic flight, my first encounter with superheroes, appealed to that primal myth-making urge. In our secular age, comic-book characters' costumed adventures stand in well for bardic tales of derring-do. The distance between Beowulf and Wolverine isn't so great as scholars might prefer to think.

The form that comics take, coupling words with pictures, is also sometimes considered remedial, the stuff of ABCs and Dick and Jane, but the history of humanity since it discovered written language is replete with "mature" examples of images paired with language: the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, twentieth-century pop art…. Comics are highly malleable, too, allowing any style or story, as simplistic or sophisticated as you could ever want. They're limitless. An artist can contain a whole narrative in a single panel, or stretch one moment across the panels of an entire page. And it's not just time that comics have the power to subvert. A conventional book is read a certain way, left to right, top to bottom. With comics, sequence is fluid. A page may start in the lower left and proceed clockwise, with panels' shape and content prompting you in the appropriate direction, while the next page may go all Snakes and Ladders, or radiate simultaneous panels from a central hub, or offer a disorienting hodgepodge — all in the service of the story. The order, the shape, the proximity of panels — none are arbitrary; each has meaning. You learn how to read a comic book whenever you open one for the first time, inferring and adapting as you go, propelled by the visceral, almost physical momentum of the story being told.

Naturally, I drew my own comics, tinkering with this protean storytelling method. Entire afternoons winked by, on the floor of my room, pens and markers arrayed around me, a large white page filling with elaborate color. You could illustrate it as a splash page. In childhood's omnivorous creativity, I was just as apt to steal ideas from books, TV, and movies as to invent my own. One strip that I did was Dr. Droid, a sci-fi serial about an alien scientist whose spacecraft crash-lands on Earth. The gentle three-foot-tall humanoid is discovered by fearful humans who, mistaking his cybernetic implants for weapons, hunt him through the woods, to his crippled ship, and blow him up. The end (with shades of Frankenstein).

Years later I did a much more ambitious comic, a proper twenty-two-page book entitled Animal World. It imagined a posthuman future Earth on which anthropomorphic lions and tigers and bears (and cockatoos and crocodiles and chinchillas and… ) waged high-tech Darwinian war against each other — carnivores versus herbivores, with the omnivorous species forced to commit to one side or live as outcast "primitives" in the wild. I used themes from the classic Greek and Roman sagas that thrilled me — heroism and villainy, political intrigue, blood feuds, even a little forbidden love between the herbivore's leader, Keras, and Ghi'ra, one of the carnivores' royal family.

Through some Dungeons-and-Dragons nerds in my sixth-grade gym class, I learned about Clint's Books and Comics. My father, the afternoon I asked him for a ride, told me about buying Mr. Natural comics there in the ’70s. I had no idea what those were, but he smiled as though recalling a fond memory. While he hit the used-record store next door, I entered Clint's solo, in search of Usagi Yojimbo, the adventures of a masterless samurai rabbit in a feudal Japan "peopled" by animals — ninja bats, vampire cats, Panda Khan. I'd read about the series someplace or other. My first impression on walking through the door was that Clint's would have it, because it looked like Clint's had everything.

Every square inch a stereotypical comic-book shop, the place was a Shangri-La. Posters layered its black walls — Vampira, Green Lantern, X-Force, Bone, the Joker and assorted Batman variants, Conan the Barbarian, Captain America, the obligatory Superman. Polyvinyl (oh, magical word!) sculptures held aggressive, anatomically suspect poses everywhere. Action figures wielded claws, swords, guns, and ion blasters on the glass counters that displayed myriad trading cards — hologram, oversized, foil-stamped, ultragloss, and more — plus pogs. Comic books (did you forget the reason you came?) screamed for attention along every wall, lunged forth from spinning wire racks, and massed in row after row of black two-tier wooden shelves spanning one full side of the shop. In the back were source books and supplements, dice and lead figurines — the role-playing paraphernalia those kids from school dealt in. In the basement, adult fare. Over, around, and through everything hung the inextricable smells of aging paper and stale cigarette smoke.

A nice Usagi Yojimbo collection, a trade paperback, was available for cover price. When I went to ring up, the man at the counter, ponytailed, bespectacled, bearded, black-clad, cannily suggested another black-and-white animal-martial-artist title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "It's not like the cartoon," Ponytail intoned, his voice roughened by authority and Marlboros. "In fact, it's fairly gritty. Dark, even." He knew who he was selling to. I bought two back issues.

Free for the taking, in a basket by the door, issues of the eight-page Comic Shop News hung, packed full of reviews, artist and writer interviews, convention info, and handy checklists of next month's must-haves. I studied the paper all weekend long, in my father's passenger seat, at the dinner table, in my room, until not one word remained unconsumed, like Galactus devours planets. I had to know all, all, all. About every publisher. About every title. About every limited series, one shot, exclusive, ashcan, and TBP. Bitten by the comic-book bug (it wasn't a radioactive spider), I was suddenly ravenous.

But decades of back issues from the Big Two intimidated me; how could anyone start his collection with, say, Action Comics #308 (let alone #8) and not know what happened in previous issues? And what if those previous issues weren't to be found or afforded? Then there were crossovers and tie-ins to consider. Even if TPBs collecting every single story arc were available, the commitment required was staggering. Instead of taking an impetuous leap, I satisfied myself with once-removed comic-book geekery, reading the Wizard guides and Comic Shop News every month, talking the trade with old-guard fanboys at Clint's, cadging rides to conventions — sad little affairs in hotel suites and big trade-center events alike. Those tantalizing superhero comics remained beyond my summer-job budget and bedroom-closet storage capabilities, until Image came along.

Written and drawn by Todd McFarlane (renowned for his work on Spider-Man), the first Image Comics title hit shelves in May of 1992. Spawn is the Faustian tale of a murdered government assassin who bargains to see his wife again, only to be conscripted into Hell's army and discover that his widow went on to marry his best friend. Critics raved. To me it appeared sufficiently "gritty" and "dark," and because Image was a blank slate, with no burdensome back list of titles to beggar a beginning collector, I baby-stepped into the genre that, for better or worse, defines the form. Spawn #1 was mine. After that it's kind of a blur. Image burgeoned into a major publisher, and I bought everything they brought out.

Collecting in general was out of control then. Fans watched prices on precious vintage books go up, up, up, and inferred that all their favorite titles would be worth a mint someday. Vendors did nothing to disabuse them of these delusions; there was a fortune to be made in storage supplies. Every book had to go in a polybag — a clear plastic sleeve made especially for comic-book preservation — with an acid-free backing board. Issues thus packaged went into a sturdy, dark box stored somewhere cool and dry. Obsessives with money to burn could buy $400 vacuum sealers (as seen in Comic Shop News!) for keeping their paper treasures free from air, starch-hungry insects, and oily human touch forevermore. Polybags not included.

I drank this Kool-Aid. Each issue I bought got read once, cautiously, laying atop a clean, flat surface, then — thwip — slipped with a backing board into a polybag that, in turn, slid into one of five meticulously labeled Comic Defense storage boxes in my closet, beside my dresser. On rare occasions I'd treat myself to staring at covers through ten-mil ultraviolet-blocking plastic, wistfully.

Unable to reread the books in my collection, I created superhero characters of my own. The first was another alien, Shifter, whose power was to rapidly change shape. He could grow gills to breathe underwater, camouflage himself like a chameleon, morph his face to mimic a human's…. His two partners in the hero-for-hire field were a debauched telekinetic, Adrian d'Arq, who insisted that his psionic ability was really sorcery, and a genetically optimized swordsman named Yang, whose blades were second only to his wit in sharpness.

Others followed — a whole constellation in the Case Comics universe: the 1960s cyborg, Dreadnaught; the wind-wielding Gail Two Hawks; the conjoined (yes, I went there) psionic Serinkov Twins; the mute madman, Andre Chevalier; the hulking Megalith; the extraterrestrial Guise, Shifter's ex-colleague; the gaseous murderer, Nobody; the cthonic mutant Demiurge; the psychotic battle-droid, RAndoM; the (literally) explosive Ryott; and more, even less interesting to read about in the abstract.

Digging deeper, I pored over books on the technical aspects of comics, their forms throughout history, their cultural influence, and culture's influence on them. I bought VHS cassettes on how to draw in comic-book styles, how to break into the industry as an artist. My parents bought me a drafting table and chair. I hung a chart of the human muscular system, for reference, on my closet door. I blew an entire month's earnings on a set of markers. Later money went to pens, a forty-dollar mechanical pencil, drawing paper. Other fourteen-year-olds had friends; I drew, every evening, for hours. That I was going to someday draw comics for a living was commonly accepted among my family.

It seems a foregone conclusion that anyone this focused on his goal is going to, if not succeed, at least admirably fail while trying. The life I fell into admitted of little vocational planning, however. Profligacy killed my juvenile dream — a death from which, unlike a beloved superhero's, there would be no astounding resurrection.

Can you ever really outgrow comic books? Even at thirty-eight, I still get a little excited whenever a new X-Men tie-in comes to theaters. Drawings of stylized Spandex-wrapped physiques affecting action-ready postures still momentarily snag my attention. Still, from time to time, the face I find myself mindlessly doodling is Shifter's. The Phenomenal Fanboy may have hung up his cape decades ago, but the iconic imagery, the outlandish premises, the devoted geekery required and rewarded, the timeless good-versus-evil struggle we humans exist in thrall to — they shine like a beacon against dark, looming clouds overhead, signaling to the former Fanboy in his lonely hideout. He looks up and feels the old rush of adventure, remembers his erstwhile compatriots' heroic exploits. A mysterious smile teases up the corners of his mouth.