This is the essay I read last night at Essay Fiesta at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. Essay Fiesta happens there every third Monday as a benefit for Howard Brown Health Center. The mission of Howard Brown is:
…to promote the well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons through the provision of health care and wellness programs, including clinical, educational, social service and research activities. Howard Brown designed these programs to serve gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons in a confidential, supportive, and nurturing environment.
If you’ve ever felt like you had no one to talk to, had a professional or counselor dismiss your health concerns or felt marginalized by a system you thought was set up to protect you then know that Howard Brown has helped someone like you in the past.
If you want to support an organization like that or if you enjoy my work below, please consider making a small gift of $5 to Howard Brown or, if you’re in Chicago, stop in and buy something from a Brown Elephant resale shop. Proceeds from Brown Elephant help pay for the services for the more than 50% of Howard Brown clients who are under- or uninsured.
Big thanks to Alyson and Keith for asking me to read and for doing the work to benefit Howard Brown.
Now that my wife and I are pregnant, there are probably more important things I should be thinking about than comic books.
Quick aside here: I’ve heard more than a few people say “Well…she’s pregnant.” I understand what they’re getting at: It’s entirely clear my wife’s doing the lion’s share of the work when it comes to our pregnancy. But “my wife and I got pregnant” is the best phrasing here. I could say “my wife got pregnant” but then it sounds, at worst, like she was fooling around on me or, at best, like it was an accident. “Yeah, Erin was watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live when Jon Hamm was hosting and then she put on that second D’Angelo record and then next thing you know…”
Also, I’m not complaining here but there’s a lot of weird stuff you have to deal with to support your partner in her pregnancy. Like sleeping next to her as she slumbers in your bed with her arms and legs wrapped around a body pillow that’s one-and-a-half times the size of you and even though you’re happy because it makes sleep more comfortable for her you start to get a little jealous of the thing and even find yourself inexplicably calling the body pillow Maurice for reasons that to this day aren’t quite clear to you…
Let’s just say it’s as much “we” being pregnant as it is “we” who are going to raise our kid. And according to the doctors that kid’s going to be a daughter so I’ve been somewhat obsessed lately with how we’re going to raise her.
Which brings me back to comic books.
Last month, I was in Brainstorm Comics in Wicker Park. I was reinstating my account, which had been on hold during a bout of unemployment. Robert, the guy that runs the place, asked what was new. I told him my wife Erin and I were pregnant. After a hearty “Congratulations!” he said:
“I know I’m going to lose you now…”
At the end of last year when I told Robert I was moving to Beverly on the far South Side of Chicago – a good 20 miles away – he acknowledged in a good-natured way that, due to distance, he might lose me as a customer and reminded me he could always mail me my comics. But I’m cheap and don’t want to pay for postage and since I’m still getting my hair cut on the north side, it’s a quick stop in at Brainstorm on the way home. Even when I put my account on hold when I was unemployed, I told him I’d be back as a regular customer and here I was.
But now I was telling him that I was about to have a kid. Though not a father himself, Robert undoubtedly knows how children alter your sense of what’s important. Perhaps in his view I might, despite all intentions to the contrary, not have the time or extra money for comics. If that was all comic books were to me then he’d probably be right. But inherent in both the content of comic books and the character of Robert’s comic book shop are things I want to teach my daughter about the world.
Ours is a house where we read the news online, watch movies via a Netflix subscription that streams into our Nintendo Wii and listen to music via a laptop or iPod. The only analog forms of mass media in our house are books and magazines and I’m reading more of the latter on an iPad these days. I’m not one of those people who thinks this means the Death of Culture because ask anyone with similar patterns and they’ll likely tell you it means they enjoy a more diverse blend of news, movies and music than they did ten years ago. I also absorb it faster than I would in analog form and for someone who often views life in terms of what he hasn’t done yet, that’s some measure of relief.
Books are a different matter, literally and figuratively. For me, books are the one form where speed is not of the essence. I like watching the left side of the book get fatter while the right side gets thinner, new accomplishments – one page at a time. The same goes double for comics; I’ve tried reading comic books on an iPad and while the best comic e-readers evoke a cinematic aura, I’ve yet to find one that coveys the scope of the best comic art or preserves the context required to communicate the ideas found in the stories.
I’ll admit here to a certain bias toward the superhero genre. Because for titles that specialize in outsize stories that often take place in the far reaches of space, superhero comics are full of characters that have a lot to teach my daughter about humanity: There’s Superman to show her the power in being different from everyone else, Spider-Man on the need for self-imposed responsibility, The Fantastic Four on the importance of family and the Justice League on what it means to work as a team and also why you should never base your home office in Detroit.
Although if she does consume a steady diet of superhero comics, there are some follow up conversations I’ll need to have with her about the portrayal of women. It’s probably going to break her heart to learn polite society will not tolerate a young woman walking around without pants.
Most of all, I want her to know that no matter what others might tell her, her options aren’t limited. A couple weeks before we learned we were having a girl, one of Erin’s relatives told us she hoped we were having a boy as she – owing largely to my fascination with all things Kryptonian – had bought us a few Superman onesies. Not missing a beat, Erin and I said our unborn child’s gender wasn’t an issue in this case as either way our child would wear the shield.
Yet even Erin – a woman who more often than not shares my point of view – said to me at lunch last month “Our daughter might like pink and Barbies” in a tone that left unsaid the words “and that’s OK” as well as “and you might just have to suck it up and deal.”
None of this should suggest I’m set on Turning Our Girl Into A Boy. I want my daughter to be free
to form her own identity, irrespective of the expectations of others, including – or especially – her father. My wish for our daughter is that she would be the human equivalent of an order in a Chinese restaurant: a little from column A and a little from Column B, becoming a well-rounded, thoughtful, multi-talented individual who’s sees nothing in terms of gender and everything in terms of territory to explore at will.
All this brings me back to Brainstorm. If it’s important to have comics in our house then just as important is the source of said comics. I’d once heard most comic book shops unfavorably compared to porn stores as many are dark, poorly-organized and everyone inside seems to be anti-social and somewhat ashamed of their habit. And if a woman enters, she’s treated as a trespasser and given sidelong glances the whole time. I’d deny that’s the case for comic book shops in total but there’s a places in my current neighborhood that is exactly that, so there’s some truth there.
Brainstorm’s never been that way and it’s almost wholly attributable to Robert who shatters every Comic Book Guy stereotype out there: he’s personable, welcoming, enthusiastic and indulgent of everyone who comes in the store, kids especially. Women are as much a presence there as the natural light fills the store. Brainstorm reflects his personality and it’s why I’ve remained a customer through seven years, four jobs and five different neighborhoods.
I’ll continue be a customer at Brainstorm for as long as it’s possible. Because when my daughter sees the inside of a comic store I want her to think “There isn’t anywhere I can’t go.”
Note: Sharp-eyed readers will remember that three paragraphs of the above are pulled from a previous post, “Pink.”