Monday, July 18, 2016

Tony Stark: the Iron Man I Needed to Be

Boss, boss! So very boss.
My first exposure to Iron Man was two-fold, so close, I cannot tell which came first. I will guess my first exposure to Shellhead was in The Avengers #143, with him and Cap getting Patsy Walker to be the new Hellcat.

I was 11 or 12. The line "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into" to me was comedy gold. I knew of Laurel and Hardy and seeing two superheroes act properly [a lady is undressing] while kvetching about the situation was beautiful to me. It was fun; it was noble; it was unavoidable.

Iron Man and Cap were cool guys. I've covered the coolness of Cap; I owe Shellhead his due.

Mildred Ferguson, Lutheran Lady of Cool gifts
So my next door neighbor, a widow with two grown children and my mother's best friend, gave me gifts a few Christmases in a row. Thinking back, she made a real bummer of a Christmas morning [Santa had not gotten me a bike nor an Evel Knievel figure with cycle] pretty cool. Millie--as mom called her--was like that. God sent grace through this woman.

She on this one fine Christmas, she gave me a K-Mart "Triple Pack" of comics, that had three issues of Iron Man for "...one low price!"

Kraken's Kirby Krackle Kills!
Those were dam' good issues. It was Iron Man 94-96 with Jack Kirby covers and George Tuska art [Kirby did the inside of 94 as well].

Dude, you have no idea. While I admit the cover to 95 is merely serviceable, the covers for 94 and 96 are epic, with every bit of goodness we want in good Master Scene shots.

Thus, Iron Man became one of my faves. I liked him. I followed him in the Avengers. I bought the Mego action figure. He was neat.

Fast forward three years. David Micheline, Bob Layton and John Romita, Jr. get busy crafting the armored avenger.

Oh yeah. One other thing: America is going through a tech explosion. My parents buy their first digital calculator, FM radio is picking up speed and surpassing AM in listeners, our school gets a photocopier and lastly, personal home computers begin to appear. I even learn to load cassette programs onto a TRS-80 at a local Radio Shack. The guys were very generous to me though I was an annoying boychild. [cringes at memory of same]

Has Tony Stark ever looked cooler?
Nay, dear reader. Nay.
Demon in a Bottle
This was the watershed book; Tony Stark has fallen into alcoholism while playing superhero - the pressures of running his company Stark Industries and  unintentionally killing a sweet ambassador [and ardent fan] have come down so hard he is self-medicating. The art on the splash page is necessarily glorious and Shakespearian, for we are watching a nobleman in grave despair.

It is considered one of the finest Iron Man story arcs ever done. You may know all that. What you do not know is what it meant to me.

I was being bullied. I was being humiliated. It was a bad time in my childhood development. I was learning how hard, painful, relentless, cruel and vicious the world can be.

While I did not know it, there was alcoholism in my family and that meant I had the same cast in my heart: the desire to escape by self-medication.

My blue collar father and artistic mother, after putting me into a Christian Prep School - Southern Baptist Educational Center for one year, allowed me to escape the [expletive, expletive, expletive] hole of sanctimonious hell and let me return to public school. Where I promptly enjoyed myself and stupidly made an enemy with some large, surly, quiet Hispanic kid who made sure he hunted me down to teach me some manners. I think I almost deserved it. I was a smart mouth.

But he? I suspect he's doing [or ended] sort a poorly. He did not have a forgiving or kind spirit.

I had to pick myself back up from that, go to a nearby friend's house and tell him I'd just been hit. In the face. Yeah - it was just one hit. What a crybaby, you know?

Fast forward four years. I am again getting my face beat in. Also for "mouthing off" to someone bigger than me. The fist that blackens my eye and bruises my cheekbone, leaving a full unhideable mark that takes two weeks to heal is caused by a family member with a cross tattooed on his fist.

I heal. I move forward. I learn my lesson about the power of my words and threat. Some men - very manly ones - will pound me. I am not a man to them. I am a boy. Worse, I am a faggot.

No, I am not gay. I am a Momma's Boy. I have to learn slowly from dedicated Christian men and women how to be a man. It will not happen for decades. On this, I learn slowly. You learn by taking on responsibilities wisely and doing what is in front of you.

You learn to leave well enough alone. You learn to trust God and not men. My dad simply was a man; the Marines edited his Kentucky boy wildness and he respected them for it.

Me? I was too pretty and too civilized. Too egalitarian and liberal in my thinking. I was not a man. I was a man-ling, due to my mother's emotional needs and my father's absence. Later, it was black men and a white female manager who "manned" me up. They said "You are responsible for this. We trust you to do it. Don't lie down and quit. Just do it." When I did what I was supposed to do, a healthy pride and confidence came to me. They respected me, too.

I say all that to share what Iron Man meant to me.

It meant that a civilized, smart, charming man could fail and fail hard. He could even get someone killed, or endanger others with neglect. But if he was a man, he dealt with the problem. He seriously apologized, wiped his face off, took his lumps and got back up. That's the entire point of the character: he has a damaged heart. He looks great but inside can be dying.

But he gets back up.

He faces murder charges. He is falsely accused. The government is about to take total control of his company. His girlfriend admits she has a husband and must leave him. He weeps. Surrounded by wealth and power, he weeps.

And he gets back up.

I think God used this story arc of Tony Stark at just the right time in just the right place to help me accept a great deal of pain and abuse - some self-inflicted by childishness, some unwarranted no matter how I try to justify my perpetrators.

This verse from the Bible shows the same concept, though it was written roughly 3,000 years ago:

Proverbs 24:16
"For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, But the wicked stumble in time of calamity."

God picked me up. I saw graces in many friends even as I was hurt. I saw sympathy and compassion.

I pray I too will grant the same--or at least inspire another to do what Tony Stark did --get back up to fight evil one more time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Captain America - 240 Years and Counting

I was 10 when I first saw Captain America in a comic. He was fighting big nasty spiders in New York under the control of the Yellow Claw in Captain America & Falcon #165.

The next time I saw him, he was with Iron Man and helping Patsy Walker become the Hellcat. I showed my dad the splash page after he was asking why I was reading comics in the car. "Because they are cool, dad - look!" He took one look at George Perez's fetching pinup of Hellcat and gave a appreciative grin. "Yeah. O.K."

He never bothered me about reading comics in the car again.

The next thing I remember seeing Cap in was a read-along Power Record, where he fights the son of an old villain. It was essentially a radio drama, an edited version of Captain America #168, put on a 45 rpm record.

CAP TAUGHT ME HISTORY
I learned a lot about the burdens Cap carried, just for being alive. All his enemies of ages past - or their offspring - hated him still. It was no fun surviving World War II. It seemed only your foes stayed vibrant.

I kept seeing Cap every month in the Avengers and so I was happy. He was a great soldier - a veteran like my dad and his friends - and he had an indestructible shield which simply was too cool for words. Back then, we comic fans knew only three things were absolutely indestructible in the Marvel Universe: Thor's hammer, Cap's shield and Ultron's robotic body.

As I matured and different writers came aboard, Cap changed to - he became more stalwart and less dramatic. I imagine it must have been the legacy of the writers as well - each one wanting in their time to add to the legend of Captain America.

But I think something else was transpiring, and it is hard to put into words so bear with me, gentle reader.

CAP WAS NEVER A SUPERHERO
Captain America looks and sounds just like your iconic superhero, one can easily forgive this error.

But the fact is, Cap is a super soldier, a man who wanted to fight for his country and stepped up to be experimented on. He is neither a victim nor an accident. His training came afterwards. He was always been a man on a mission. He's just America's most patriotic superhero.

Even his "secret identity" is as nothing. Steve Rogers is known by anyone who cares on sight.

CAP IS AN IDEAL
When Cap returned from "suspended animation", that was Jack Kirby bringing back his WW2 creation to speak to the disaffected youth of the 60s. I mean, seriously, you bring back a supersoldier patriot, and saddle him with a smart aleck carny trickshooter and two mutants and call them the new Avengers?

Wha?

But Jack and Stan knew that kids were feeling the changes in their society and it must have been just the easiest gut instinct to pair an old WW2 vet with some weird punks, just to show that old does not mean square or stupid. There can be acceptance and wisdom and respect - if you give some.

Cap is therefore a symbol - not just of America, but her veterans and her ideals worth fighting for.

In the first Avengers movie, there are some fabulously great "Cap" lines that say all the things we want to say as Americans. Things John Wayne used to say.
Steve Rogers: Word is you can find the cube.
Bruce Banner: Is that the only word on me?
Steve Rogers: Only word I care about.

Did you miss that?

You see America has this hope and ideal that men should not be judged except for their character. Not by the color of their skin, nor their wealth or power, just their character. In this brief exchange, actor Chris Evans simply NAILS the essence of Captain America: he doesn't care what the world says [i.e. "word on the street" or "word"], just that this cursed and alienated man is here to help, so Cap immediately accepts him without judgment.

This is the Cap we have before us now, and he's pretty good.

CAP IS A SYMBOL
He's struggled and limped through Viet Nam, Watergate and the end of the Cold War. He's been Nomad, the man without a nation and simply "the Captain" in the 80s, but we always knew Cap would come back, it just would take time.

Cap reflected our disillusionments in America after the glorious victory of WW2. The things we feared, he took on. From embracing mutants [hippies] to fighting the Serpent Crown [Watergate] to refusing to be a government puppet [Iran-Contra] and even fighting Iron Man [yuppies in corporations].

He's part of American history now. He's arguably one of the most recognizable superheroes ever created outside of Superman.

What did Cap do for me, as a kid, then as a young adult, by reading him and watching his legacy grow in the pages of the Avengers and the greater Marvel Universe?

He made me realize how tough it is to be good and how nobility is won by lots of little decisions. That a God-fearing American soldier was not some gung-ho nationalistic machine-gun toting testosterone-filled killing machine.

He was rather a man of conviction, of faith, of integrity who honored those who had fallen so that all men could live in freedom.

He stood for American ideals and lived them out. He was never petty nor rancorous nor fearful. He led with his body and mind and never backed down.

Cap had Batman's intensity but Superman's kindness. I have always - I mean after 40 years of reading - admired that.

There's one last weird thing about Cap, though.

He's no good by himself. He exists to serve and protect. I always, always imagine him with a team or with a partner. He's just too perfect by himself and it hurts me to see him alone. Cap loves people and needs people.

You see, his indestructible shield is not just to protect himself; it's so he can protect others.

Captain America may often walk alone, but he can never stay alone.

A captain needs men to lead, and America needs Americans to exist.

A super man can be super by himself. So can a wonder woman by wonderful or a bat man be... uh... batty.

But not so with Captain America. We created him and he has defined us.

Thanks, Cap.

Amen.