How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.
Anguish. Antagonist. Annihilate. Adept.
What do all these words have in common?
Venerable. Veritable. Volcanic. Variable.
I’ll give you a hint: I had learned to use all of them in a sentence by the time I reached the third grade.
Sinister. Selfless. Stygian. Saga.
Where does a kid who can barely reach doorknobs pick up a vocabulary like this?
Rickshaw. Radioactive. Restitution. Relativity.
Why, comic books, of course.
Like many boys my age, every time I could scrape up twelve cents (or even better, a quarter for the Giant Size Annuals) I ran downtown to the drugstore and bought the latest copy of “Journey into Mystery”, or “Strange Tales”, or the “Fantastic Four”, or “Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes”.
Since those nickels and dimes were not always easy to come by, I could rarely indulge in the luxury of following one hero, one title, from month to month. The resulting story lines were fragmented to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t care: the images jumped off the page – vivid and exotic in those days before color television – and the writing was extravagant and overwrought, filled with words and ideas that Dick and Jane and their silly little dog had never even imagined. Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, every thought, every utterance was gravid with significance.
When the evil Mano annihilated his own home world in the ultimate act of rebellion, the word was wedded to an image that made it impossible to misunderstand. When Doctor Strange’s ghostly spirit form left his body to go roaming, passing through walls and even mountains as if they didn’t exist, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the writer meant by describing that transparent figure as ethereal. When the Mighty Thor pissed off his dad by falling in love with a mortal, there could hardly have been a better showcase for the meaning of wrath.
I saw in this morning’s news that a north Texas school had banned – and then un-banned – seven books, by authors that included two Nobel Prize laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a prominent Native American diarist, among others. The books were banned because some parents were concerned about depictions of sexuality, of abuse, of racial injustice, and of philosophical self-examination that overstepped the conceptual boundaries they had set for their teen-aged children; un-banned, because the school authorities realized how meaningless that effort was. How many kids reach their teens without having been exposed – at least indirectly – to the weakness and wickedness that the human race is prey to? Red Riding Hood could have covered her eyes when the wolf approached her, but that certainly wouldn’t have prevented him making a meal of her; Rapunzel in her doorless stone tower was just about as safe from the influence of the outside world as she could be – right up until she let down her hair for the very first man who thought to ask her to do so.
This was not immortal literature. This was a handful of guys in smoke-filled rooms hunched over drafting tables, cobbling together outrageous tales of heroism and derring-do riddled with misspellings, continuity errors, and mind-bogglingly bad science.
What mattered was not the quality of the art form, but the fact that the heroism and the science — such as they were — were couched in a way that made them accessible and acceptable to the minds of children being inexorably conditioned to filter knowledge, discarding the unprofitable, the unpalatable, and the improbable on their way toward adulthood.
Foreboding. Felicitous. Fictitious. Feral.
And even more importantly, it was an unedited glimpse into the world of conflict and existential threat that we kids were about to inherit.
In the comics, nobody was sending us out of the room before the subject of nuclear armageddon was discussed; nobody told us that we were too young to worry about what pollution was capable of doing to our bodies; the conversations about racial tension didn’t suddenly slam to a halt every time we strolled in to ask for a cookie. Superman was saving the world, again and again, every month – which could only be happening if the world were at risk of being destroyed. In Dick and Jane’s universe there was no war, no violence, no murder, so there was no need for a Batman, an Iron Man, or an Invisible Woman to deal with those problems. We didn’t have to understand the social and economic pressures wrenching at the fabric of our society to know that Dick and Jane – and probably the dog, too – would not have lasted long in the world our parents were passing along to us.
Obviously there was a downside to this kind of back-door education. Problems, no matter how intractible, were always solved within a few pages, and usually by the convenient deux-ex-machina of super-powers, or super-science, or the application by the hero of an even greater level of violence than the bad guys could bring to bear. Those were examples that did not translate well into the “real” world of guerilla warfare, of the Kennedy assassination, of overpopulation, of the breakdown of traditional social structures. They did, on the other hand, demonstrate that ordinary people could be one radioactive spider-bite, one dose of cosmic rays, one science experiment gone awry, from becoming people who could save the world. They gave us an alternative to despair, and a list of new words to clothe the terrors that the best of parental intentions could not keep from us.
Ethereal. Elongated. Ectoplasm. Entomologist.
When I was a child, adults frequently objected to my reading material, comic books included. So much fantasy, so much violence, so much unreality – could this possibly be helpful or useful for the child?
The irony, of course, is that all this unreality, this fantasy, is sometimes the only tool a child has with which to make a meaningful connection with the “real” world. Without it, we would be forced to try to cope with the ills that beset our civilization armed with nothing but a spotted dog and a red ball. “A bunch of fairy tales,” goes the argument — oblivous to the fact that fairy tales of any given age are frequently a window into the terrible world that awaits a child, and in posing awful questions, sometimes suggest hopeful answers.