Superman Without the “S” on His Chest? (Or, The “Flaws” That Make Us Special)

By the turn of the year, 1940, Superman was already a sensation.  The Man of Steel had been around for just under two years, and, as the first comic book superhero, the titles he starred in (Action Comics and Superman) always were at the top of the marquee.  Imagine the surprise, then, with the publication of Action Comics number 20 (January 1940)  when the world’s greatest adventure hero appeared on the cover with a major omission on his costume.

 

It’s not hard to visualize the youth of America that holiday season of 1939-1940 (historically, comics always appear on the newsstands a month or so earlier than the date listed on their cover) as they spun the squeaky comic book rack at the corner store.  Browsing the covers of the new issues, trying to decide which one to plunk down their hard-won dime on, surely they would have paused when confronted with the cover of Action Comics number 20.  What sacrilege was this?  How could they make such a mistake?  And yet . . . there it was, for all to see.

The yellow triangle with the signature red “S” at the center that was supposed to grace the Man of Steel’s barrel chest was . . . missing!  In its place was . . . nothing—a blank, an empty spot orphaned of its famous emblem.  Was DC Comics changing Superman’s costume?  Had they decided it was too flashy, too loud?  But no.  Of course not.  When the following month’s issues arrived, the “S” had returned on Superman’s costume, confirming that the cover of Action Comics number 20 had been . . . an oversight.  A mistake.  A gaffe.

 

The result?  Not much.  It’s not as if the youth of the day rebelled and planned a “Superman strike,” protesting the publication’s carelessness.  They continued to support the Man of Steel, and Superman has not suffered.  He has been around for eighty years, after all, gracing thousands of comic books, not to mention a wide array of TV series and movies.  The Man of Tomorrow is enduring.

 

But so is the cover of Action Comics number 20.  Maybe the buying public of 1940 didn’t create a stir (though surely there were letters streaming in to the publisher’s offices that winter), but, as the decades ticked on and as comic book collecting became a major hobby worldwide, vintage comics enthusiasts began to take notice.  In fact, they especially sought out the issue.  Action Comics number 20 is now a prized item, often priced higher than the issues that immediately preceded it (a rarity in comic book collecting, unless a particular issue introduces a key character or for some reason had a smaller print run).  Look it up in the comic book price guide and the note will be provided:  “Superman appears without ‘S’ on his chest.”  Rather than creating a black eye for the issue, the costume oversight has made it something special, something unique, a one-of-a-kind presentation.

 

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In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists also must deal with what they perceive as slights, flaws, blemishes that make them feel less-than or even freakish.  Mitchell Brant has a speech impediment.  Joe Marma is the shortest boy in his class.  Ryan Swinton is the tallest, and has a nasty case of acne.  Marc Kuslanski, as a junior-high student, is the class nerd; as he matures, he feels the need to shed his thick glasses and rid himself of the label.  And Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl,” feels like an outcast, wielding a rare and devastating power that makes others—and sometimes even she, herself–fear her. Each of them must learn to accept, even appreciate, the very things they are ashamed of, the things others make fun of, belittle, name-call.

 

They are not alone, of course.  We all carry insecurities inside of us.  Some of them are nagging things, relegated to the back burner, a little voice that whispers in our ear at certain moments.  Others are monsters, albatrosses, wound tight around our neck like a gallows waiting to snuff the life from us.  No one is immune.

 

There is no magic spell, of course, no secret code or talisman to erase the things that dog us and threaten to drag us down.  Whether it’s some aspect about our appearance, or the way we talk, or the way we walk, or our professional acumen, or the way we furnish our home or the car we drive, or any and every other permutation imaginable, we are all imperfect, and we all feel the weight of it.

 

But, in this season of Thanksgiving, perhaps we can at least try to perceive our “faults” a little differently.  Maybe, just maybe, that “S” that’s missing from our chest makes us stronger, more genuine, more compassionate.  Maybe it’s the flaws that radiate the beauty and the potential within.

 

Just ask the Man of Steel.  If any character is said to be “perfect,” surely Superman—with his super-strength and super-memory and super-intelligence and super-morals and super-everything—tops the list.  And yet, for all that, it’s his decidedly imperfect cover from eight decades ago that is still, all these years later, remembered and treasured by the collectors and pop-historians who know him best.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Musty Magic (Or . . .The Counterintuitive but Wondrous Nature of Collecting )

So . . . what do you do?  Where do you go?  How do you deal?

For me, when life gets too hectic; when the creative process is blocked with thick, rough-hewn logs; when the rage tweets emanating from Washington become more numerous and unhinged by the day, even the hour; and when the world just seems like too much to take, I have several “safe places” where I turn.  Places that calm me, allow me to escape the madness, if only for a little while, to get grounded again, to become reacquainted with the magic and the wonder.

 

Old movies provide comfort–I have always enjoyed films that predate my birth.  I often say, “If the film is black and white, I’ll probably like it.”  Walks in the woods or along winding country roads provide the opportunity to de-stress and re-center myself.  Vermont, my adopted state, is replete with quiet, pastoral hideaways, and for that I am thankful.  Books–fiction and nonfiction alike–have been my friends for as long as I can remember.  Stepping away from the cacophony to enter a well-plotted novel or an engaging biography or historical tome is, and always will be, bliss.  And sports and the long-standing family and friends fantasy football league I have been the commissioner of since the 1990s have always offered a fun diversion.

 

But if there is one thing that never fails, one thing I can count on just as surely as the sun rising at the break of day, it is comic books.  I fell in love with them when I was a little kid, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.

 

I remember where it all began, too.  In my older brother Dave’s room, back when I was six years old.  Dave was a collector of sorts–he’d amassed a collection of several hundred issues by then–primarily The Amazing Spider-Man, Conan the Barbarian, and The Defenders.  He kept his comics in protective Mylar sleeves, and the most valuable ones also had a firm, thin cardboard backing to keep them from being bent or folded.  I enjoyed leafing through his issues, admiring the covers, sniffing their distinct comic book scent.

 

Indeed.  That has always had a lot to do with it for me.  The smell.  That old comics smell.  In The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant is sure “that if you could store magic in a bottle, it would smell just the same.”  He won’t be getting any arguments from me.  And when I began collecting seriously myself, around the time I entered junior high, there was nothing that thrilled my senses more than visiting the local comics shop.  The musty scent was all around me, engulfing me like a fantastical cloud, full of wonders and adventures and history.

 

I spent all of my teenage years saving up what money I had to buy collectible comic books.  People would ask me, “Why not just buy the reprints?”  Why plunk down so much extra for an often ragged, beat-up original from 1955 or 1960 instead of buying a fresh, new replica for a fraction of the cost?  It was–and still is–a difficult question to answer.  It goes against everything practical, economical, utilitarian.  Whether you buy an original or a reprint, the story’s the same.  So why do it?

Countering with the old-comics smell isn’t sufficient.  While it’s true that newer comics don’t have that musty magic about them, it’s not enough.  There is more to it than that.  A lot more.

An original comic book from the 1950s predates my existence by two decades.  For me, that increases the charm exponentially.  There is something almost mystical about opening an issue from 1955 or 1956–or 1946, for that matter–and knowing that I am holding in my hands a treasure trove of memories.  If only the comic could talk, I think!  But it can.  If you listen, it can.

 

The artwork, the story, the dialogue–primarily aimed at children and teenagers of the day–feels dated, quaint.  It’s a window into a time sixty years in the rearview mirror, when adventures and imaginative tales were presented in a far different manner.  Reading such stories, I am transported back to a decade when my parents themselves were just teenagers.  I am, quite literally, stepping into a time machine, the years peeling away, reversing, autumn to summer to spring, fifty times over, crashing through the speed of light.

 

But even so, the skeptic says–can’t you still experience all that with a reprint?  Just read the stories . . . And that’s true, I suppose.  A reprint can offer a peek through the partially opened door, a glance through the window.  But it’s not the same.

A reprint is new, contemporary, a facsimile of something that came before.  (Though, it must be said, comic books have been around so long now, some reprints are, themselves, decades and decades old.) The original, the vintage comic book from 1945 or 1957 or 1962, was picked up, leafed through, handled (often roughly) by kids back then, when the story was conceived, when the writers and artists who created it were thinking of the children and teenagers of that day.  Every time I flip through an old comic, I think of the sandy-haired boy at the corner drugstore, sixty years ago, who may have grabbed the same issue from the spinning, squeaky comics rack in the corner, drawn by the cover and the promise of adventure within.  Did he have a dime to give to the store proprietor, enough to buy the comic and take it home?  Did his sister or his younger brother steal it from him later when he wasn’t looking?  And did he wrestle it back?  Is that where the spine roll came from?  The small rip in the upper right corner?  The creases that line the cover like wrinkles, forged by the passage of time?

 

There are two stories to enjoy in vintage comic books.  The one the creators cooked up, the twists and turns of the plot, the nuances and renderings of the art.  This is the same story available in reprints.  But the second story–the story only the original can share–this is the story of the physical comic book itself.  It’s the wear and tear, the yellowing of the pages, the mouse-chewed corner on page 6, interfering with a thought balloon.  It’s the ads for X-ray-vision glasses and sea monkeys, magic wands and moon monsters.  It’s the interweaving of past and present, of memories and moments, and of childhood dreams that have spanned the long years, bridging one century to the next.

 

You can’t get that kind of story in a reprint.  And you can’t put a price tag on it.

And, after all, there’s nothing quite like a tank full of sea monkeys.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Value of a Dime

In both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski can’t help but notice how inexpensive things are in the variant town of Colbyville.  In The Singularity Wheel, in fact, Ryan manages to secure a room in an inn for just $5 a night.  Prices like that make the boys think of period-piece movies, Beaver Cleaver, black-and-white still lifes from a bygone era, speckled with cobwebs.

 

Indeed, I once worked with a woman who, every year, upon receiving her annual “cost-of’-living” raise, would grouse, “Well, three percent of nothing is still nothing!”  Many of the other employees would nod their heads in agreement.  We all notice the increase in prices ($4.49 for that box of cereal?  $10 for a standard book of twenty stamps?) and are caught in the current of escalation as it continues along on its slow, steady, and inexorable march.

 

It has gotten to the point where there are plenty of people, reasonable people at that, who argue that coins should go the way of the dodo.  “Who needs ’em anymore?” a friend of mine said just the other day.  “All they do is clutter up my jacket pocket.”  And I had to admit, he had a point.  But I’m also glad we still have our coins, our one-cent, and five-cent pieces.

 

Our dimes.

In the economic milieu of the 21st century, a single dime cannot purchase much of anything.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Take comic books . . .

Nowadays, to buy a single issue, you need to plunk down $4.  But jump in an imaginary time machine, become ten years old again, and pretend it’s 1950.  At that time, a ten-year-old (let’s call him Kyle as a point of reference) might ask his dad for a dime, just one dime (“I’ll mow the lawn later, Dad, promise!”), and then head over to the corner store, where dozens of comics would be tantalizingly arrayed on a spinning rack.  He’d browse over the issues, the rack squeaking as he turned it, hunting for just the right one, and, maybe, just maybe, he’d pick out a gem like Strange Adventures number 2.

 

This particular issue hit the newsstands in the fall of 1950, and for just ten cents, Kyle was rewarded with a glorious, end-of-the-world-style cover, four feature stories, fifty-two action-packed pages, not to mention tempting advertisements, a short picture-less sci-fi tale, and various illustrated informational blurbs scattered about the issue, one of which was called “A World of Thinking Machines.”  This prescient piece laid out the groundwork for AI and advanced robots.  In fact, thinking machines were not just figments of imaginative sci-fi enthusiasts.  At the time of the issue’s publication, sixty-eight years ago, the article proclaimed the existence of a “metal monster with sinews of electrical wire that can solve the most intricate mathematical equation in minutes . . . [and which can] ‘think’ more perfectly than a dozen human mathematicians!”  The next step, according to the piece, “will be the robot–a tireless, mechanical servant that will perform man’s duties in factory or office or on farm with the utmost efficiency.  The metal workers will usher in the dawn of leisure”–which, the article concludes, will ultimately spread to the home itself, allowing for the “bliss of domestic luxury.”

 

That was a lot of material for a humble dime’s investment.  It brings to mind, in the cold, hard light of 2018, how far we have come, how much inflation has affected our world.  This isn’t a diatribe against inflation–I’m no economist.  Just a statement of fact.  It elicits a certain nostalgia.  I was born long after the phenomenon of ten-cent comic books.  But there is a part of me, perhaps a substantial part, that hungers for a simpler time, a simpler age, when coins were cause for a child’s excitement and enthusiasm.

 

What is the value of a dime today?  What does a single, solitary ten-cent piece, in and of itself, have to offer?  Anything except the ability to break change? In a purely practical, utilitarian sense, perhaps not.  But consider the dime from a different angle.  Look at it with a new perspective.

For starters, the physical characteristics.  I have before me a dime with the year 1993 imprinted on its copper and nickel surface.  The left-facing profile of FDR stares at something we cannot see, his stoic expression etched for the ages.  On the flip side, there is a lit torch flanked by an olive branch on one side and an oak branch on the other, symbolizing liberty, peace, and strength.  The dime in my possession still maintains some of its original luster, even twenty-five years on, though smudges also exist, the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fingerprints coming into contact with the surface–some rubbing, some squeezing, some flitting across it for the briefest of moments, but leaving their mark just the same.

 

And those prints, those hands that touched this lightweight alloy of metals, have a story to tell.  This dime could write a novel or a memoir if someone might just give voice to it.  Was it stashed at the back of a dresser drawer, out of sight, for months or years on end?  How many times did it get rolled and deposited into a bank?  How many cashiers handed it out when making change, and when they did, were they focused on this dime, the customer, the next person in line . . . or were their minds drifting, wondering what they might do when their shift ended, if Jeff or Suzie would agree to hang out later, what they would eat for supper, or where they’d go on their next day off?

 

Did the dime ever lie in the belly of a child’s piggy bank, the ten-cent portion of a financial dream?  Did someone perhaps drop it on a sidewalk or a parking lot unknowingly, or, if knowingly, without care?  And did someone else later pick it up, pocket it, and add it to their jar of coins under the kitchen sink?  How many cities has this dime journeyed through?  Has it been to the West Coast and back?  Was it in someone’s pocket as they toured Manhattan?  Has it tasted the sting of dust on a country road in late summer, the sun shining, hot, the hands that fiddled with it salty and moist with sweat?

 

It’s true.  A dime can no longer purchase fifty-two-page comic books that can mesmerize a child–or an adult–over the course of a lazy, leisurely afternoon.  But the other things it can do, the narratives it can weave, and the lessons it can teach if we’re willing to look and listen and wonder and imagine are worth far more than a mere ten cents.

 

And all this time later, I’d like to think that Kyle, our fictional friend from yesteryear and now on the doorstep of becoming an octogenarian, would see it that way, too.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Arriving at the Intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Classic Comic Books

What is your nostalgic pleasure, the thing that makes you hark back to a simpler time?  For me it is, and has always been, old, vintage comic books.  Since I was in junior high, these gems from yesteryear have called out to me with a song and a story I can’t resist.

 

I have always found it easy to imagine transporting myself to a time years before I was born–say, circa 1955 in a drugstore or a little corner shop, browsing through the comics rack, listening to the squeak it emits when I make it spin, and figuring out which issues to plunk my dimes on.

 

When I started collecting comics, the mid-1950s were, to me, an alien world glimpsed primarily via old, grainy, black-and-white TV shows or Hitchcock classics.  I enjoyed them, but they belonged to another era, beyond the purview of my personal experience.  Vintage comic books, however, brought the mid-20th century alive to me in ways television and cinema never could.  The culture of that period jumped off the pages, both from the stories themselves as well as from the ads and fan letters. I couldn’t afford the issues that were in tip-top condition.  I could only buy the ragged copies, with missing staples and spine rolls and water stains.  Some even had corners chewed off by rodents who had no doubt long since met their demise.  If anything, though, these imperfections just made me love these comics even more.  They were more personal this way.  More mine.

 

To this day, I still have hundreds of old comics.  I have the tried-and-true titles, such as Mitchell Brant’s favorite, The Fantastic Four, along with other stalwarts like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, and The X-Men.  But it is the science fiction comics from the 1950s, sans superheroes, that appeal to me the most.  The ingenuity of the stories, the old-fashioned and innocent tone, the crisp, imaginative artwork all inspire.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, I respect the attempt these vintage issues made to educate as well as entertain.  Granted, it was with a light touch, but the effort was deliberate and consistent.  The authors and editors of DC’s (the same company that gave birth to Superman and Batman) famous sci-fi duo of Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space eschewed all-out, no-holds-barred fantasy in favor of hard science fiction that always managed to have one foot firmly planted in the laws and realities of science.  By approaching their work in this way, the creative team inserted tidbits of learning for their readers.  The hero would generally solve a puzzle, perhaps even save the world, through some ingenious application of a scientific principle.

 

While it’s true that many liberties were taken, nuggets of actual science were always there to be mined.  For example, in Strange Adventures number 95 (August 1958), in a little tale titled “The Boy Who Saved the Solar System,” the protagonist, a twelve-year-old son of a scientist, accomplishes what the best minds of the Solar System cannot.  (Indeed, in the story, we meet the brightest minds from Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn.  Liberties!)  The entire Solar System is imperiled by a great gaseous cloud that emits a blight, the effects of which are ruining the crops and farmlands and limiting the food supply.  As the twelve-year-old’s father tells him one evening, “”It’s slow starvation, Son–for the entire human race.”

 

The boy is interested in science himself, and while his father tries to find a remedy for the worldwide (actually, Solar System-wide) blight, he fills balloons with hydrogen gas.  When his father forgets his wedding anniversary (he’s busy trying to save the world, so the date slipped his mind until it was too late!), the boy tells him not to worry, he’ll find something to give to Mom and then offer Dad the credit.  The boy picks some roses from the backyard–from the same rosebush one of his hydrogen balloons broke on the day before.  The thing is–the roses are perfectly healthy, not a sign of the blight that has plagued virtually all other plant life on Earth.

 

That’s when the boy and his dad realize–hydrogen kills the blight!  And Dad dutifully informs us that hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe.

 

So we have a good son, covering for his absent-minded dad, and in his kind act, he accidentally discovers the cure for the worldwide blight.  A neat and tidy (and deliciously corny) tale wrapped up and delivered in six pages.

In addition to the stories, there were other methods of sharing scientific information with the audience.  Take this same issue, Strange Adventures number 95.  In a page called “Amazing Ratios,” we learn that the weight of the earth in tons is equal to the number of atoms in a single drop of rain–6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  And that Phoebe, the outermost of Saturn’s moons, takes longer to revolve around the planet it orbits (550 days) than Earth does to revolve around the sun (365.25 days).

 

There is even a “Spotlight on Science” letters page, where readers ask science questions for the editors to research and answer.

Likewise, in both The Eye-Dancers and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel (scheduled for release this fall), an attempt is made to tether the far-out and the mind-boggling with some semblance of scientific explanation.  And the primary vehicle for achieving this, in both novels, is Marc Kuslanski, the science wiz, who is, in some respects, the scientific mouthpiece for the unfolding events.  When Mitchell or Ryan or Joe stray far afield in their speculations, Marc is there to reel them back in, often with a theory or a hypothesis grounded in quantum mechanics or cold, hard logic.  And does he ever have his work cut out for him in The Singularity Wheel--which takes the concept of parallel worlds from The Eye-Dancers and expands it exponentially.

 

At the outset of The Singularity Wheel, Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers, is five years older and five years more advanced in her ability to bridge the chasm between dimensions.  And she wants to explore.

From the opening scene of The Singularity Wheel:

 

“She was endless.  Infinite.  She knew that now.

Monica Tisdale smiled.

With her eyes tightly closed, she sent out a mental thought-wave to . . . herself.

No.  That wasn’t right.  Not to herself.  To herselves.  She was more than one—far, far more.

She had practiced religiously, diligently, ever since she’d contacted the boys who had rescued her.  The boys who had come here from another world.  That knowledge had awakened a thirst in her, a quest to learn and discover.

And connect.

She was not like other girls.  The day-to-day happenings in Colbyville, New York, bored her.  Sure, she loved her mom and dad, liked a few of her classmates at school, and sometimes just wanted to have carefree fun.  But she had always been different, attuned to phenomena most people didn’t recognize and didn’t see.  As the weeks merged into months, and the months to years, her awareness of these things had sharpened.

She was ready.”

 

And in so doing, Monica sets off a chain reaction that will push her to the brink, as she sees and experiences her life in an infinite number of worlds, remembering things from a billion places, unable to know one world from another, one self from another.

 

Marc will be there, of course, to try to make sense of it all–if he can.

So while The Singularity Wheel will be as much fantasy as sci-fi, it will, hopefully, in the tradition of the classic sci-fi comic books from decades ago, keep its eye on the factual and the actual as it ventures off into the shifting, capricious landscapes of the unknown.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Ditko or the King? (Or, Why Does It Have to Be an Either/Or?)

Nearly every second of every day, we are confronted with choices.  Many are made without our even being aware of it.  Did you just tap your foot against the floor, and perhaps not even realize it?  Did you glance up at the ceiling?  Look to the left?  To the right?  Maybe you cracked a knuckle, stretched your calf muscle, took a quick sip of coffee.

 

We make choices all the time.

When writing–be it a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, or a journal entry, and everything in between–we also make myriad choices.  Again, the vast majority of these are at an unconscious level.  If you were to stop and ruminate over every word you wrote, you would, quite literally, be paralyzed, incapable of creating a single sentence.  The words come as they come. The story evolves–often on its own, as if imbued with a certain ineluctable magic.  Authors and thinkers and scientists have pondered the creative process for centuries.  It may never be fully understood.

 

But, whether understood or not, whether made beyond the awareness of the conscious mind or only after a tortuous and seesawing inner conflict–the choices are real.  And, when writing, one of those choices is:  Should you tell it with gusto, with in-your-face enthusiasm and beefy, muscular prose?  Or should you go for a more subdued, subtle approach, using the quiet power of understatement to capture the essence of the scene?

 

Fifty-five years ago, in the offices of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee faced a very similar dilemma.

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In the summer of 1962, Marvel Comics was on the rise.  Just over the past year alone, the company had introduced The Fantastic Four, The Ant Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Mighty Thor to the world.  The driving creative force behind this comic book revival–Marvel (previously called Timely Comics during the Second World War and Atlas Comics through the 1950s) had been mired in a slump for several years–was Stan Lee, the company’s lead writer and editor.

 

But Lee certainly wasn’t acting alone.  For any comic book endeavor to thrive, it needs the services of a top-notch artist, and Marvel, at the dawn of the 1960s, had two of them:  Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Both were accomplished, worked quickly, and brought their own, unique form of genius to their work.  Kirby was the older and more experienced of the two. The King, as he was called, had already put his stamp on The Fantastic Four--he would be their primary artist for a decade.

 

Nevertheless, Stan Lee’s next planned her0–The Amazing Spider-Man, set to debut in the high summer of 1962–needed a different touch.  Kirby’s work was larger-than-life, his covers and panels bursting with energy.  He was ideal for penciling giants and powerful, musclebound monsters, action sequences, and battle scenes.

 

But for Spider-Man, Lee wanted a defter touch.  Spidey’s alter-ego, after all, was Peter Parker, an awkward teenager, a nerdy bookworm, the antithesis of powerhouses like Thor and The Hulk.  Who better to draw Spider-Man than Steve Ditko, a master of shadows and the macabre?

 

Ditko’s Peter Parker would be skinny, almost scrawny, a science geek who accidentally is bitten by a radioactive spider.  And Spider-Man himself, particularly in those early days, is lithe, a creature of the night, hunting criminals in back alleys and climbing buildings, elusive, hunted by the law and striving to avoid the limelight.

 

And so–who is the top dog here?  Does the decision go to Ditko, or the King?  To subtlety and nuance or bold, in-your-face power?  Perhaps there isn’t a clear-cut decision.

Maybe it just depends . . .

*********************

When it comes to the writing process, the Ditko method, if you will, is ideal for dialogue, where the characters’ words and body language, along with a sprinkling of interior monologue or brief descriptions of place and surroundings, say everything, and the need for lengthy, power-packed narrative exposition is limited.  This approach also works for emotions–rather than crafting paragraphs that tell what the character is feeling, a writer can instead simply describe what the character does, or how he or she acts, thereby indirectly informing the reader what is going on inside the character’s head.

 

In chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers, there is an attempt to accomplish something like this with Mitchell Brant.  Mitchell, self-conscious and lacking in confidence, is afraid of girls his own age. And so:

 

“Suddenly, the girl appeared—the pretty one.  She looked at him, and, up close, she was even more beautiful than he’d feared.  She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, close in color to his, and wore a sleeveless sundress that showed off a summer tan.  Worst of all, she smiled at him.

“So he did the only thing he could think of.  He escaped into the diner.

“As soon as he opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence.  Faces turned to look at him.  Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble.  Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up.  Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes.  The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window.  He saw the girl walking away.

“Whew.

 

But the Kirby approach definitely has its place, as well.  The Eye-Dancers is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, so there are parts of it that are “out there,” complete with interdimensional transfers and dreams that are far more than “just dreams.”  These portions are built for Kirby-esque flair.

 

In chapter six, Marc Kuslanski and the others are pulled into the void, bridging this universe with another.  From Marc’s perspective, the journey begins this way:

 

“‘Wake up!’ he said.  ‘You have to wake up!’  He wanted to shake them, hit them, but he couldn’t.  He had no hands.  All he could do was yell and plead and hope they would hear.  But they were almost gone now—beyond the point of hearing, perhaps beyond the point of anything.  And he was joining them.

“His arms were gone.  He had no feet, no shins, it felt like he was standing on air.  Horrifically, he watched as his thighs slowly vanished, eaten away by the invisible force that had trapped him.  The others were completely gone now, and he felt himself being pulled . . .

“He had no body now, none of him remained, but he could still think, was still aware of his surroundings.  The basement grew indistinct, fading out of focus.

“He tried to talk, to say something, anything, but no words came out.  And now the basement was gone, the bar, the blue glasses and bottles of champagne, a memory.  He looked around, saw nothing, no one—only emptiness, a vast blue ocean that spread out as far as he could see.

“‘What the . . .?’ he said, or thought he said.  There was no sound, only thought.

“And then, in a flash, he was there again—his hands, his feet, his legs, all of him—there.  He clenched his hands into fists, smacked himself in the chest.  Yes.  He could feel.  He could move and kick and reach.  But what good did it do?  There wasn’t anything solid to hold onto, no firm ground to walk along.  He was surrounded by blue, the deepest blue he had ever seen, stretching on forever.”

 

So often in life, we want to declare a winner and a loser, to settle a competition.  But some contests are better left undecided.  Or, perhaps more accurate, some contests are better left unplayed.  Because when said contest calls for us to choose between the literary equivalencies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, that is just as difficult, and unnecessary, as choosing between the artists’ original creations.  Why decide which style, or which approach, is “better” than the other?

 

Stan Lee found room for both men in the offices of Marvel Comics.

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Super,” “Fantastic,” and “Batty”? — Milestones All Around!

It was a gala event, an anniversary for DC Comics’ signature hero, and the creative team made sure to announce it to the world.

When Superman number 100 hit the newsstands in the late summer of 1955, the title had been going strong for sixteen years, and the character (introduced in Action Comics number 1, in 1938) for seventeen.

action1

 

The 100th issue would serve as a celebration of what the cover proudly proclaimed to be the “World’s Greatest Adventure Character!”

superman100

 

In 1955, this sort of special anniversary issue was a new phenomenon, in part because the comic book industry had yet to become the collectible gold mine it would morph into several decades hence, but also because most titles simply hadn’t been around long enough to feature major anniversary issues.  But the celebration of the Man of Steel’s status kicked off a trend in the industry.

supermanannual1gala

 

The following year, it was Batman’s turn.  The Caped Crusader’s title hit number 100 in the spring of 1956, and just as with Superman, Batman’s title was celebrating sixteen years at the time issue number 100 rolled around.  (The character of Batman had been around one year longer, introduced in 1939 with Detective Comics number 27.)

detective27

 

Once again, DC pulled out all the stops.  “Batty” stuff indeed . . .

batman100

 

Meanwhile, and several years later, another powerhouse in the comic book field–Marvel Comics–was marking the anniversaries of some of its signature titles:  The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, and Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four. All hit their 100th issue in the early and mid 1970s.  By this time, it was fully expected that such a milestone issue would be celebrated with pomp and circumstance . . .

spiderman100

avengers100

xmen100

ff100

 

The stories housed within these special anniversary issues may or may not have been among the best of the genre.  In some ways, it didn’t matter.  More than anything, a title’s 100th issue represented a benchmark, a reminder, if you will, that the heroes had been able to stand the test of time and that the writers and artists involved still possessed a passion for storytelling and a desire to press on.

************

I began The Eye-Dancers blog in the summer of 2012, a complete novice to the blogosphere.  If you were to look up the word “blogging newbie” that summer, my picture probably would have been looking back at you.

me

(Okay, so putting my kindergarten picture here is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  Chalk it up to poetic license!)

I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused as I launched the blog.  I was about to release The Eye-Dancers, the novel, and I knew I wanted to “get the word out,” but how would I manage to do that?  And how many original posts would I be able to come up with?

eyedancerscover

 

So I thought about it, and struggled through the first few months, still grasping for blogging ideas, flailing and poking and writing posts that I doubted anyone other than myself would read.  I’d hit the Publish button and imagine the words drifting outward, not to other bloggers, but to some nowhere zone at the center of a lost cyber-galaxy, an eternally hungry black hole that feasted on unread sentences and paragraphs.

blackhole

 

But then I would see a Like appear, and before long a few intrepid fellow bloggers began to follow the blog.  Very few at first, but their support filled me with enthusiasm and optimism.  Someone out there was reading my words.  Encouraged, I again thought about what I could do, how I could potentially blog for the long haul.  And I decided–why not just write about things that interest me?  Sure, I would want them to tie in to The Eye-Dancers, the novel, in some way, but even so, the possibilities seemed endless.  I dove in, and a remarkable thing happened.  The insecurity lessened, the ideas started to arrive in waves, and I had a blast!  It was fun.  And more surprising still, more and more bloggers began following The Eye-Dancers.  Suddenly that black hole I had initially imagined disappeared, and an ongoing and wonderful adventure kicked into high gear.

endlesspossibilities

 

And now, four years after its inception, The Eye-Dancers blog has reached 5,000 followers. If someone had told me in the summer of 2012 that, by 2016, The Eye-Dancers would be fortunate enough to acquire such a following, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  But that’s been the great thing about these four years.  The WordPress community welcomed me with open arms, and things just continued to get better and better.

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Then again, there’s no need for me to break out the past tense here.  I’m not going anywhere.  The sequel to The Eye-Dancers–as long as the literary stars stay aligned–will be due to come out during the early portion of 2017, and I will certainly be blogging about that, as well as many other things, in the months ahead.

starsaligned

 

It is my great hope that you all will continue to read and follow these ramblings and ruminations of mine.  Certainly, The Eye-Dancers doesn’t compare with the great superhero icons and their anniversaries from yesteryear, but your ongoing encouragement has often been as much a tonic for me as any radioactive spider bite or red Kryptonian sunlight.  You are the reason this blog is so enjoyable for me, and you are without a doubt the reason The Eye-Dancers blog is still going strong four years in.  I can’t thank you enough for all your support over these past four years.  You are all the best.

redsun

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait to get started on the next four years!

–Mike

The (Cover’s) the Thing . . .

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

It’s an expression so common, so overused, many of us may turn a deaf ear to it.  Perhaps we even roll our eyes and think, Can they spew out more cliches while they’re at it?

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But for authors who have worked countless hours on a novel, experiencing the high, soaring peaks and muddy, shallow bottomlands of the creative journey, and who stuck through the process, even on those dark days when all seemed lost and the literary well seemed as dry and barren as the surface of a dead world floating endlessly in orbit, the notion that the story, their story, which they have finally completed, needs the window-dressing of a sensational cover may at first blush seem rather insulting.  After all, isn’t it the story that counts?  The prose?  The characters that populate the pages?  Shouldn’t the novel stand alone, on its own merit?

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Of course it should, and, to a large degree, it does.  But readers can only enjoy your story if they know it exists.  They can’t become entranced by the literary world you’ve created unless they first choose to purchase the book.  And, apart from family, friends, friends of friends, what can an author who is anything but a household name do to attract a broader readership?  Social media, paid advertising, marketing, and of course joining the wonderful WordPress community are all potential ways of discovering a wider audience.

community

But creating a can’t-miss, spectacular cover for your book is essential, and its something comic book publishers have known, and practiced, since the first issues hit the newsstands nearly a century ago.

As a lifelong comic book collector, I am not ashamed to admit–there are some vintage issues I have acquired over the years simply on the basis of the cover alone.  I can well imagine the comics buyer from decades ago, the ten-year-old with the freckles, the teenager in pigtails, spinning the squeaky rack, deciding which issues they should plunk their dimes and nickels and pennies on.  In an era before cable television, before VHS cassettes and DVDs, and long before the Internet and smartphones, comic books were wildly popular.  Hundreds of issues graced the stands every month.

comicrack

A great cover was not just an option.  It was a necessity.

Classic comic book covers came in all genres, all styles, all moods . . .

From the bombastic . . .

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to the fun . . .

detective99

action57

to the spooky . . .

hos92

hos97

to the startling . . .

ASM121

shocksuspenstories7

journeyintoUW49

to the adventurous . . .

MIS44

marveltales152

to the ironic . . .

SA91

to the larger-than-life . . .

TTA10

SA2

*****

When it came to The Eye-Dancers, I knew from the outset who I wanted to design the cover.  One of the earliest posts on this website covered (pun intended!) this topic.  Matt Gaston, artist, graphic designer, and all-around talented and creative guy, is a lifelong friend of mine.  I was very fortunate that he agreed to do the cover for the novel when I asked him.

Like me, Matt is a longtime comic book collector, and we agreed that the look and feel of The Eye-Dancers cover should pay homage to our hobby.  So whenever anyone tells me, as some have, that the cover of The Eye-Dancers reminds them of a graphic novel or a vintage comic from yesteryear, I smile.  I’m sure Matt does, too.  We wouldn’t want it any other way.

eyedancers

When we were kids, Matt and I used to talk about the future.  Maybe we’d team up and do a comic book strip.  I’d be the writer, he the artist.  We never quite made it to collaborating on a comic strip.  But I like to think that The Eye-Dancers represents a little slice, a miniature helping of that long-ago dream.

*************

When that last sentence is written, when you shed a tear at “The End,” thinking of the long journey, the obstacles overcome, when you hope that your characters will move readers, that your words, your similes and metaphors, your twists and turns, your story will carry them away to another world, far, far away, beyond some distant, star-speckled horizon, consider those classic old comic books that wowed the young, and young at heart, of bygone eras . . .

No book should be judged by its cover.  But it just might be purchased because of it.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Embracing Your Inner Grogg, Zog, and Groot!

There are so many aspects, so many parts to the process.  An idea strikes, giving birth to a story–perhaps it’s a short story that can be crafted in a day; perhaps it’s a novel that will take months, even years to complete.  But here, now, at the outset, that’s not important.  All that matters is the desire, the need, to write.

idea

 

It doesn’t take long for that to change, and for the situation to become more complicated.  I know, for me, if I have written a short story, there is the initial euphoria of finishing it.  A job well done.  But now–where to submit it?  Will anyone want to publish it?  A dozen rejection slips later, a crisis of confidence hits.  Who was I fooling?  It isn’t any good.  Maybe it’s not as polished as I thought–so I go back, edit it some more, and then resubmit to a dozen more magazines.  Eventually, I have so many rejection slips and form letters, I can wallpaper my office with them.  But I keep submitting, keep believing.  It just takes one . . .

rejectionslips

 

And as for the novel . . . multiply the above by a thousand.  Whereas the short story is a sprint, a forty-yard dash, the novel is a marathon, a test of endurance.  At some point, I know, I will question the entire project.  There will come a low point, when energy reserves have been depleted, when ideas hide underneath rocks and behind thick, impenetrable walls, when I ask myself–“Is this story going anywhere?  Where do I take it?  What do I write next?”  Writer’s block, while in the middle of a novel, is a grim feeling.  All the work already put forth now appears for naught, stuck in the middle of a chapter that refuses to cooperate.

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I had to confront this middle-of-the-story crossroads while writing The Eye-Dancers–the point where the novel will either take off and infuse me with a literary second wind, or die on the vine, withering under a sweltering summer sun, thirsting for ideas that never arrive.  For me, and for The Eye-Dancers, this defining moment occurred in chapter 18.

I was slightly more than halfway through the novel, and felt pretty good about what I had so far.  But chapter 18 was a quagmire.  It was a pivotal chapter, and one of the longest in the novel.  I couldn’t seem to get it right–everything I wrote came up flat, like soda left out on the porch all night long.  I wrote a first draft–ugh.  Lifeless and forced.  Reluctantly, bemoaning the wasted effort, I deleted every word of the chapter and began anew.  The second draft proved no better.  I threw my hands up, literally.  Was my concept wrong?  Should I take a step back and rethink the whole thing?  I remember taking a long walk, thinking, figuring, looking at the impasse from all angles.  But nothing came to me.  Nothing sounded right.

crossroads

 

It brought to mind something George Orwell once said:  “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

orwell

 

Later that day, at a total loss, I flipped through some of my old comic books, looking for something, anything.

I found it.

**************

When I was in junior high school and began collecting comic books seriously, I never thought I would buy any issues that weren’t superhero-related.  The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and later Batman and Superman were my focus.  But as I learned more about the history of the medium, realizing how rich and layered old comics were, I decided to branch out.  One of the gems I later discovered was what collectors often refer to as “pre-hero Marvels.”

spiderman

 

Prior to The Fantastic Four number 1 (November 1961), Marvel Comics published a small line of adventure and sci-fi comics–certainly not unique in those days.  Even DC, creator of Superman and Batman, incorporated a quality line of non-hero comic books.  But what made the Marvels special were the monsters . . .

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With names like Grogg, Groot, and Zog, just to name a few, these larger-than-life creatures jumped off the page.

st83grogg

 

tta13groot

 

I can easily imagine an exuberant ten-year-old in 1960, at the height of the phenomenon, spinning the comics rack at the local corner store, trying to decide which monster-book to plunk his dime on.

jim56zog

 

The stories, with titles such as  “I created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die,” were formulaic, silly, and, frankly, ridiculous.  But they were magic, too.

goliath

 

What’s more, they were fun.

tta34

 

*******************

That particular day, seeking something of an escape from the writing process, I opened Tales of Suspense number 29 (February 1962).  Tales of Suspense is the same title that, ten issues and just over one year later, would introduce the world to Iron Man–but I wasn’t thinking of the Golden Avenger as I flipped through the story, laughing and smiling all the way through “The Martian Who Stole a City.”

TOS29

 

The story was dated, predictable, and by no means a masterpiece.  But it was just the tonic I needed.  It made me feel twelve years old again.  It infused me with optimism, a sense of wonder, and it instilled in me a belief that anything was possible, and that any obstacle to creativity can be hurdled and left far behind in a sun-streaked rearview mirror.

Energized, invigorated, I went back to the book, dared to key in the first word of the revised and revised and revised again chapter 18, which expanded to the first sentence and then the first paragraph.  Two pages later, I paused, pumped a fist.  The logjam had broken.  The mind-block had lifted, disintegrated, like smoke on the wind.

smokeonwind

 

It was a necessary reminder that, no matter what our Amazon sales ranking, no matter what or how many reviews we have, no matter how hard it sometimes is to get our thoughts and visions onto the page, when it’s all said and done, we are doing something we were born to do.  Something we need to do.  Something we love.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Zest.  Gusto.  How rarely one hears these words used.  How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them.  Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto. . . . For the first thing a writer should be is–excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”

As I continued to type, the words now pouring out of me like lava, the classic issue of Tales of Suspense number 29 still lay there, in full view, on my desk.

enthusiasms

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Precious Jewels Hidden in Tattered Pages

I remember it well.  It was one of those lazy midsummer days in western New York State, the air thick with humidity, the droning, mechanical call of the cicadas giving voice to the trees.

cicadas

 

My parents were entertaining an old family friend, who lived out of state.  He hadn’t visited in several years, and now, upon his arrival, I wanted to impress him–with my growing comic book collection.  I was seventeen years old, a month away from my senior year in high school, and I was eager to show this well-traveled gentleman, who lived in a fancy home out West, that I was no slouch myself.

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He slapped me on the back, told me he remembered me as a little kid with a bowl-shaped haircut, four feet tall–where had that kid gone?  I told him I collected old comic books, had been for years now.  Would he care to see the cream of my collection?

me

 

“Comic books?” he said.  “They’re worth something, eh?”

Were they ever!  I showed him the latest edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, published annually each April with updated market values for every American comic book that has ever graced the newsstand.  And I pointed out some of the issues I owned, purchased months or years ago, but which, over time, had appreciated, their price tag growing like green plants in a well-tended garden.

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“Kind of like buying blue chip stock, I see,” he said, as I showed him my most prized issues, vintage copies of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, along with select issues of Superman, Batman, and other heroes from yesteryear.

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After a few minutes, I could no longer resist.

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“You know what these are all worth, put together?”

He didn’t hesitate.  “Absolutely.  They’re worth whatever someone will pay you for them.”

I exhaled, feeling like a pin-pricked balloon, all my pride and anticipation and excitement bleeding out of me, drip by drip.  Whatever someone will pay for them?  But . . . what if I didn’t want to sell them?  Did that negate their worth altogether?  And besides, I didn’t like viewing my comic books as commodities in such a bald, in-your-face manner.  Sure, I bought the Overstreet Guide every spring when it came out.  And sure again, I enjoyed seeing issues I already owned rising in value.  But that wasn’t why I owned them, or why I’d bought them.

Was it?

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*******************

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares my love of old comics, particularly The Fantastic Four.  They hold for him, as they always have for me, an undeniable magic.  And yet, he, too, feels the need to put a monetary value on them–and a fictional one at that.  As he is prone to do, Mitchell exaggerates their worth, claiming, to anyone who will listen, that his collection would go for thirty thousand dollars if he wanted to sell it.  He knows this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, but he just can’t seem to help himself.

comiccollection

 

I would like to believe, however, that when he is alone, thinking about it in more depth, he will realize he is not only lying to his friends.

He’s also lying to himself–for reasons that go far beyond the actual market value of his collection.

*********************

When the out-of-state family friend left the next day, returning to the house he had built, the life he had fashioned, I still felt bad.  And I felt worse when I checked the values of my best issues yet again in the price guide.  What was I doing?  Had my perspective really shifted so far from center?  I needed a new outlook, or, to be more accurate, an old outlook–the same one I once had, when I was nine years old buying my first comics off the drug-store  rack that squeaked when I spun it, round and round, watching the covers flash before my eyes like action scenes from the greatest movie I ever saw.  I needed something to remind me why I had started collecting old comic books in the first place.

spinningrack

 

So I sat down on my bedroom floor, cross-legged, and pulled out my priciest issues–not as a collector, or an investor, or even a hobbyist.  But as a reader.  As a lover of the ride they took me on.  As a seventeen-year-old, standing on the rocky, high precipice of academic choices, college majors, and career decisions but wanting, desperately, to cling to an aspect of my childhood that seemed to be receding, day by day, further into the shadowlands of an irretrievable past.

cliff

 

I read issue after issue that day, copies printed years before I was born, stories that transported me to other worlds, distant galaxies, negatively charged universes, where the very atoms of matter itself were in complete opposition to our own.  I read about super villains who wanted to rule the world and who spouted off the corniest dialogue I had ever heard, and yet I loved every word.  I read about characters I had grown up with, who I knew so well it seemed they were real, and might at any moment jump out of the illustrated panels and join me in my room.

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And when I put those comics away, I felt better than I had in days . . .

I won’t lie.  I still purchased the Overstreet Price Guide in subsequent springs, still checked the market value of my comics from year to year.  But I also read through the entire Price Guide, enjoying the pictures of countless old comic book covers and reading the informative articles on the hobby.  It was now a supplement, a part of a whole.  It no longer defined the whole.

Because the truth of the matter was, those old comic books, many with brittle covers and spine rolls, water stains and clipped-out advertisements, housed jewels of the rarest sort within their tattered and yellowed pages.

sparklingjewels

 

Later that same summer, talking with a friend of mine, my comic book collection came up.

Inevitably, perhaps, the question arose:  “So, what’s your collection worth?”

I looked at him, smiled.

“Priceless,” I said.

sunsetpriceless

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Relics”

We learn early on in The Eye-Dancers that Mitchell Brant is a comic book collector.  The old, vintage issues transport him to a different place, one filled with magic, wonder, and gold-glittered avenues that lead to a world of endless possibilities.  As it turns out, these qualities will become essential to his survival.  As the novel progresses and things seem more and more hopeless, Mitchell must tap into that sense of magic and wonder.  He must believe in those possibilities, and keep the faith that everything will work out in the end.

I wrote the short story “Relics” while I was still writing the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.  The main character in “Relics” must, like Mitchell, believe in the unbelievable, and hold on to faith when all reason, all logic dictates that hope is lost.  And, surely, Mitchell would appreciate the role that vintage comic books play in this story.

I hope you enjoy “Relics” . . .

superman117

magic

seamonkeys

journey36

 

“Relics”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

*************

Looking at his wife from across the room, it was easy for John to pretend that things were normal, the way they should be, the way they used to be.  She was sitting on the couch, her light blonde hair in a ponytail.  Everything seemed in place, as if their life, her life, hadn’t taken a sudden, irreversible turn four months ago.

But then his eyes shifted, just a little, to the right, and he saw the wheelchair.  He swallowed hard at the sight of it, took a deep breath, and crossed the room.

She smiled at him when he sat beside her on the couch, and he reached for her hand.

At least she can move her arms, can breathe unaided, he thought.  At least the damage was only from the waist down.  The doctor had told him, hours after Lori had been rushed into the ICU, when his world felt like it was spinning and reeling, out of control, that his wife was fortunate.  The collision had been head-on.  It could have been much worse.  She was lucky to be alive.  And, after assessing her injuries, the doctor assured him that she would live, recover enough to lead a productive life.  There was only one catch.

She’d never walk again.

“Never?” John had asked.  Nothing seemed real.  Lori was fortunate?  Fortunate?  Is that what this guy had just told him?

The doctor looked away for a moment.  “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t say never.  But, in all honesty, it would take a miracle.”

A miracle.  He had read very little on paralysis—he’d never had reason to.  It hadn’t touched his life or that of anyone he knew.  But now, now, it loomed before him, a towering monolith, tottering, toppling, about to land on him and crush him to dust.

He scoured the Web for hours, days, gleaning information, searching for guidance, stories of recovery, of hope.  He read about the latest research, the new and exciting discoveries that were being made every day.  Of course there were differences of opinion among the experts, but nearly all of them agreed on one thing:  a cure was still a long way off—years, decades, even.  Someday, catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord would be healed.  There was little doubt about that.  But that day was but a speck on a distant horizon, ten thousand tomorrows hence.  What good would it do Lori?

“I think I have a little more feeling in my right leg,” she said.  Sitting next to her on the couch, as he had so many times before the accident, the questions came in a torrent.  Why couldn’t he turn back the clock?  Why did she have to be driving on that road, at that moment?  Why did the other driver, intoxicated beyond all reason, have to pick that night to lose control, why did he have to swerve into the wrong lane just as Lori was approaching . . .?

He rubbed his temples, his forehead.  A raging headache was coming on.  Ever since the accident, he’d been getting headaches regularly.  Thinking too much.  Brooding too hard, too often.

She loved to run.  She had been training for a marathon.  He tried to join her a couple of times when she went out for a run, but he couldn’t keep up.  Lori was like that with everything—a dynamo, always in motion, full of energy and life.  Now what was she?

A cripple.

“I just have to believe, that’s what I tell myself,” she said.  He saw her veins bulge out on the side of her neck, felt her hand squeeze his, hard.  She was trying to move her legs.  Pearls of perspiration beaded on her forehead.

He felt like telling her not to strain herself.  It wasn’t worth it.  It wasn’t worth the frustration, the effort, the heartache.  And yet, every day, multiple times per day, she kept trying. . . .

“Unnnh,” she said, and finally relaxed again.  She let her head fall back, against the couch cushion.  Immediately he noticed moisture forming in her eyes.

“Damnit!” she said, lifting her head, looking at him.  “Why won’t they move?  Why can’t I make them move?”  She cried then, and he reached out to hold her.

“Ssh,” he said, stroking her hair.  He wanted to follow this up by saying everything would be all right, things would get better.  But he didn’t.  He had no right to say such a thing.  He wasn’t the one who could no longer walk.  He wasn’t the one who now owned a broken and battered body, full of pain and unending, unrelenting frustration.

He again thought of what the doctor had said.  It would take a miracle for her to walk again.  The therapists at the rehabilitation center—where Lori had learned how to compensate for a crippled lower body, where she learned the skills she would need to lead a reasonably independent life, where she learned how to cope—all of them had said the same thing.  It was better, more productive, to work hard at rehab, focus on today, on realities, on tangible goals and graspable plans.  For the most part, Lori was adjusting remarkably well—better than he would have, he was sure.  She even intended to go back to work at some point.  But she had not been willing to believe that her paralysis was permanent.  Not when she first heard the news, and not now.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling.  “I didn’t mean to cry like that.”  He could tell by the determined expression on her face that she was readying herself for another try.

He didn’t want to watch her strain and strain, to no avail.  Not again.  He got up, feeling guilty, as he often did these days, at the easy functionality of his legs.

“I’ll go back to making supper,” he said.  The fact was, he hadn’t even started supper yet.

She looked at him.  There was a hurt in her eyes, and it had nothing to do with her now useless legs.  She had asked him before to believe with her, pray with her, dare to hope.

“Miracles are like flowers,” she had said just yesterday.  “They need watering.  They need care.”  Perhaps.  But he couldn’t raise up his hopes, only to have them dashed every time he saw her struggle to move her legs.  Maybe she was simply stronger than him.  Or more naïve.  Then again, it was her legs, not his, that were paralyzed.  He wondered, had their situations been reversed, how he would be coping.  He guessed that he, too, would be hoping, working, for a miracle, just as she was.  The difference was—if she were in his place, she would, undoubtedly, be believing, too, right alongside him.

“I’m making spaghetti and meatballs,” he said, feeling like a jerk, as he walked away, “with lots of garlic in the sauce, the way you like it.”

He hoped she’d smile at this, but she didn’t.  She just stared, straight ahead, concentrating, getting ready for another round of exertion.

He cleared his throat, wishing he could find the words she needed to hear, the words he needed to say, whatever they were.  But all he did was walk out of the room, into the kitchen.  He made supper, burning the sauce and boiling way too much spaghetti.  He didn’t have much of an appetite.

That night, after she had maneuvered out of the wheelchair into the bed without assistance, she was thumbing through a photo album.  In the pictures, Lori was usually smiling, moving, the camera catching her in full stride, or with a tennis racquet, about to strike the ball, or playing Frisbee, reaching out to make a one-handed grab of an errant toss.  There was one picture of the two of them, taken with a self-timer, on the summit of a mountain they climbed five years ago, a lifetime ago, on a trip they had taken to the Pacific Northwest.

Beside her in bed, his gaze, inevitably, continued to fix itself on her legs—how healthy they looked in the photographs, how ready to scale and run and conquer the land.  Why did she look at these relics?  These reminders of a life that used to be, but could never be again?  What good did it do?

He turned away.

Beside him, he heard the photo album snap shut.

“You know, it would really be nice to have you support me, John,” she said.  “It’s hard enough trying to deal with all of this.  I didn’t think I’d need to do it by myself.”

That stung.  It made him feel like a failure, a pathetic excuse of a man.  On the other hand, what was he supposed to do?  What was he supposed to say?  They didn’t exactly write instruction manuals on how to adjust to life after your wife becomes paralyzed.

“I need you to believe in me,” she said then.  “In what I’m trying to do.”

“Why?  So I can watch you cry and be disappointed day after day after day, when you can’t move your legs?”  The words shot out of him, too quickly, before he’d had a chance to think them over.  But now that they were out, he needed to go on, needed to explain the way he felt.  “Why do you look at those pictures, Lori?  Do you like torturing yourself?  Is that it?  I don’t understand it!”

“No,” she said.  “You don’t.”

“Why can’t you accept the truth?” he went on.  “We both need to accept it.  I have.  But you . . .”

“You must really think I’m stupid,” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice.  I put that there, he thought.  I hurt her, again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  The anger was gone, replaced by a heavy, massive blanket of regret.  Why had he lost his composure?  Didn’t she have enough to overcome, without his outbursts?  “I didn’t mean that.”

He thought she would turn away from him, stonewall him for the rest of the night.  Instead, she took hold of his hand.  “I know this is hell for you, too,” she said.  “And I’m sorry for saying you haven’t supported me.  You have.  You’ve been by my side throughout all of this.  Don’t think I’m not aware of that, John.  And grateful for it.  It’s just . . . Look, I know you don’t want me to get hurt, to believe I’ll be able to walk again, and then . . .”

He started to say something, but she stopped him.  “I have accepted this,” she said.  “I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I have.  Well . . . I’m working on it, anyway.  I know I might not walk again.  I know what the doctors said.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to lie down and tell myself it’s impossible.  I won’t stop trying, John, and I won’t stop believing.  And what I really need, more than anything, is for you to believe, too.  I need you on my side for this.  Can you do that for me?”

The logic-oriented part of his brain wanted to argue with her.  If she had accepted her situation, why would she still be trying to accomplish the impossible, or, at the least, the highly improbable?  Why put herself through that?  But he didn’t argue with her.  He just nodded, and said, in a whisper, “I’ll try.”

“Hi, John, glad you could make it,” Seth said, smiling, the creases in his face multiplying like randomly expanding spider webs.

John smiled back.  He liked Seth.  He’d worked for him at his previous job, and the two became friends.  When John quit, moving to a higher-paying position at a company across town, they remained in touch; though, since Lori’s accident, he rarely got out to see anyone.  He hadn’t seen Seth since the older man had visited him in the ICU, when the nightmare was still fresh and new.  He’d barely heard what Seth had said that day.

“Been wanting to stop in for a visit,” Seth said.  “But I figured it was still too soon, you know.”

John nodded, and an awkward silence hung in the air.  It was Seth who broke it.

“Come on inside,” he said.  Another smile, more multiplying spider webs.

Seth’s house was a spacious ranch, overlooking a two-acre backyard, complete with a trout pond, lilac bushes, a well-kept flower garden, and a vegetable garden that was his pride and joy.  He had boasted about his garden dozens of times at work, before the start of a meeting, as employees shuffled in to the conference room.  But the boasts were true, and now, at the height of its midsummer lushness, the garden looked to John like an oasis, a rich, green world just waiting to lure him in with its charms.

Seth led him to the back den, with its wall of windows and glass-sliding door that opened out onto the green expanse of the yard.  There was a birdfeeder just beyond the windows.  Blue jays and grackles scuffled for control, while a cardinal and two grosbeaks looked down from a nearby perch, waiting for a chance.

But what really caught his eye were the comic books.  There were two stacks of them, side by side.  One stack piled at least three feet high, the other much less substantial—only a dozen or so comics.  Beside this smaller stack, a pair of scissors, a collection of envelopes and stamps, and several clipped-out old advertisements lie scattered on the floor.

Seth sat down in a cream-colored, comfortable-looking oval chair.

“Plant yourself,” he said, motioning to the sofa across from him.  “Make yourself at home, John.”

He did as instructed, sat down, let out a breath that felt as though it had been building for months.  It actually felt good to be here, away from the house, for a little while.  He wasn’t sure if he should leave Lori alone, but she had all but pushed him out the door, assuring him that she’d be fine.  Besides, his extended leave of absence from work was coming to an end; he would be going back next week.  So this would be good practice for both of them.  She wouldn’t be a burden to him, she said.  They needed to get on with their lives.

“What you must think of me,” Seth said.  “I didn’t even offer you a drink.  Maybe that’s what being a department manager does to a fella after a while—gives him a big head.”  He jumped up, spry as a man decades younger, and walked swiftly into the kitchen.  He returned a moment later, with two glasses of lemonade.

“Thanks,” John said, reaching for one of the glasses, taking a drink.  Very tart, just the way he liked it.  But he felt shy being here.  Usually, when he saw Seth, they met for lunch or coffee in one of the cafes downtown.  Sometimes they golfed together.  Rarely did he come here, to his ex-boss’s house.

He eyed the stack of comic books, looking for a diversion.

“Yeah, I just found those the other night,” Seth said, sitting back down in his oval chair, the glass of lemonade already beginning to sweat, in his hands.  “Ever since I returned from my trip back home, I’ve been puttering around the attic lately.”

“You went back home?” John asked.  He’d been so out of touch with Seth, with everyone.  This was the first he’d heard of it.

Seth nodded.  “My nephew got married a couple weeks ago.  I went back for the wedding.  It was nice.”  He paused, brought his finger to his lips.  It was what John had always thought of as his thinking pose.  He sometimes used to do that at meetings, too, before saying something.  “Going back was odd, though,” he went on.  “Hadn’t been there in years.  I saw some old friends, talked about the old days.”  He shook his head.  “When I got back, I started looking for any junk I might find, lying around.  Stuff I’d maybe forgotten about.  I found my high school yearbook, flipped through that.  Looked at some old pictures.  And I came across those comics I bought way back when.  Most of them are more than fifty years old, you know.  Fifty years!”  He let out a whistle.  “Where’s the time go?”

John couldn’t relate.  Time, to him, had nearly stood still these past few months.  The vigil in the ICU, the long, tedious, torturous days at the rehab center, and now the days spent at home, with Lori, as she struggled to readjust her life, to master what had once been the simplest of tasks but now, thanks to the recklessness of one drunk driver, had become grueling tests of grit and patience.

“Why do you have them in two piles?” he asked.  He didn’t want to talk about time.  And he sure didn’t want to talk about Lori.  He needed to steer things in a direction of his choosing.  “What are the scissors for?”

Seth glanced at the scissors, then at him.  John could almost hear the cogs and circuits spinning in the older man’s head, could almost hear his thoughts.  Didn’t he come here to talk about his wife, about what happened?  Isn’t that what he needs?  To talk about it?  But, to his relief, Seth didn’t push or prod.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Seth said.  His mouth hinted at a smile, but didn’t consummate it.  “Going back home, seeing how so much has changed . . . I guess it made me feel kind of old.  I guess it . . .”  He waved his hand dismissively, set his lemonade aside.  “Ah, never mind.  I’m just rambling.”

But the clipped advertisements, the stacks of old comic books—these weren’t merely ramblings. . . .

Outside a blue jay hollered at a bold grackle, and there was a flutter of wings as they both flew away.  Eager to pounce, the grosbeaks descended on the feeder.

“Besides,” Seth went on, “you’re still young, John.  I don’t expect that you’d really want to hear any of this, or that you’d even understand if you did.”

Young?  Lori was young, too—in her midthirties, a lifetime ahead of her.  But what did it matter?  What kind of life would she be able to lead?  Yes, she would reenter society, return to work, read, think, dream, imagine.  But would she be able to run again, to train for marathons, to hike up hills and mountains?  Young.  What was youth to her now?  What was it to him?

He took a sip of the lemonade, hopped off the sofa, knelt on the floor, beside the comic books.  The top one on the taller stack was a Superman, with a cover story titled “The Man with the Zero Eyes.”  He examined the cover, admiring the artwork, then looked at the ads, scattered on the floor.  There was one for sea monkeys, another for a Daisy Air Rifle, another for free passes at an amusement park—valued at twenty-five cents, the ad boasted.  The advertisements themselves were brittle, the paper yellowing.  Relics.

“Did you just cut these out?” he asked then, as he picked up the Daisy Air Rifle ad, examining it.  Grinning boys, guns in hand, smiled back at him from across the chasm of fifty years.

Seth smiled, but there was no joy in it.  “Yeah, I did.  Stupid, I guess.”

John didn’t know very much about comic books, but he did know that old collectable comics were worth a great deal of money—sometimes astronomical sums.  He also knew that if you clipped out the ads, said value would plummet like a failing stock.  What was Seth up to?

“I used to cut out the ads that interested me back when I was a kid,” Seth said.  “Then I’d mail ‘em off, and wait.  And believe me, the waiting wasn’t easy.  I’d run home from school and ask my mom right off if anything for me had come in the mail.  Probably drove her crazy sometimes.”  He paused, looked away.  “It’s funny.  Back then, I remember wanting to grow up, you know?  Finish up with school, move away, make a lot of money.  Guess I did all those things.  But now, it’s just the opposite.  Now, I wish I could go back to those days, maybe try out for the high school baseball team, maybe appreciate my folks more, while they were still here, you know?  Maybe ask Gloria Cooper out on that date, like I always wanted to but never did.  I wonder whatever became of her. . . .”

John knew that Seth had never been married.  He rarely talked about his past, but he had mentioned once how lucky John was to have found Lori, to have found love.  And John knew he was right.  He hadn’t met Lori until he was twenty-eight, and he often wished he had gone to school with her, had a chance to meet her sooner in life.  But then he’d stop himself.  He was fortunate to have met her at all.  They’d planned on having children, but hadn’t yet.  They thought maybe next year would be the right time to start a family.  But that had been before the accident . . .

“Why’d you just cut these out now, though?” he asked.  His train of thought was moving too much toward his own life, his own loss.  He didn’t want to deal with that, not now.  Hadn’t he come over Seth’s to get away from himself, even if only temporarily?

The older man just sat there.  John thought about repeating his question, but he didn’t.  Surely Seth had heard him.

Seth glanced at the stack of comic books, the scattered pile of snipped-out ads.  “You know, most people would say I’ve had a good life, and I guess they’d be right.  I can’t complain.  I’m still healthy, successful.  I mean, look at all this.”  He swept his hands in a wide arc.  “This is what I always wanted, what I strived for.  But maybe, all this time, I was striving for the wrong things.  Because now, I . . .”  He smiled.  “It’s kind of hard to explain, I’m afraid.  Guess I’m just having my midlife crisis a little late.  Because looking at these comic books now . . . there are lots of ads in them that look good, you know?  They remind me of a time, a place, I had almost forgotten.  But now I wish I could go back to that time, to that place, and do things over.  Some of them anyway.”

John just looked at the older man.  None of this was making sense.

“Guess you’re still wondering why I cut out the ads,” Seth said.  “Well . . . I suppose you could say I’m looking for a miracle.”

“A miracle?”

“Yeah.  I used to believe in miracles, once.  I think we all did.”

John swallowed.  “What do you mean?”

“Guess it’s like I said.”  Seth reached for his lemonade, took another sip.  Outside the jays and grackles had returned to the feeder, squawking and pecking at each other.  “I wish I could go back—someway, somehow, at least for a little while.  So I’m clipping out those old ads.  And you know what?  I’m gonna send for them, just like I used to.  Oh I know they’ll probably just get returned, I know the addresses can’t possibly be good anymore.  But then, who knows?  Maybe one of them will get a response.  Maybe I’ll even get the product I sent for, at a price half a century old.  It doesn’t hurt to believe, does it?  To hope.  Sometimes, I think, believing is what we need the most.  Sometimes, that’s what carries us through.”

“But . . .”  All of a sudden, it seemed like there was so much to say, and yet nothing to say.

“Why don’t you take a comic or two, John?  I don’t mind.  As you can see, I got plenty to spare.”

He was ready to tell Seth that this was all crazy, a childish scheme, ridiculous.  A waste of time.  But he found his fingers rifling through the stack of comic books.  He felt them pull out an issue of Journey Into Unknown Worlds, number 36.  The cover featured a species of giants, preparing to menace the ill-prepared human race.

What am I doing? he thought.  Why am I taking this?

As if reading his mind, Seth said, “Maybe you can clip an old ad out of that, too.  Send it off.  And hope.”

He was in the living room, flipping through the comic book, actually enjoying the stories.  It was published in 1955, but the material held up surprisingly well.  Whenever he saw an ad, he examined the merchandise, considering whether or not to clip it.  He had a pair of scissors at the ready, on the seat beside him. . . .

“C’mon,” he said.  “Don’t be stupid.”

But one ad in particular caught his eye.

“Mystery!  Science!  Fun!  Magic!” it read.  “Magic wand to amuse and amaze your friends!”  It was fourteen inches long, with a black center and white tips.  It enabled the amateur magician to perform dozens of tricks.  It—

“Unnnh!”  It was Lori.  She was in the bedroom, supposedly taking a nap.  Apparently, she hadn’t felt like sleeping.  “Unnh!”  Every few seconds, he would hear her grunting.  He didn’t need to go to the bedroom to know what she was up to.  He formed a mental picture of her—sitting on the edge of the bed, arms pressed firmly down on the mattress, supporting her weight, as she struggled to move her legs.  He could easily visualize the sweat forming on her forehead, her face scrunching up, her eyes tightly shut as she pushed, focused, threw everything she had into the effort.

“Unnh!” she said again.

He looked at the ad of the magic wand, and suddenly he felt a firm conviction.  With his wife straining in the other room to move her legs, her feet, just a little, just a twitch, a spasm, anything—he picked up the scissors, lined them up just so. . . .

“I love you, Lori,” he said, and began to cut.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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