I have spent most of my life fascinated with heroes - I think because as an adolescent the only heroes I had were fictional ones. Most of my heroes were pulled from the pages of DC and Marvel comics. They were well-drawn dreams of super-strong men & women with an almost inhuman code of ethics. They were gifted ones who valued all life equally, and in many cases whose fictional existence was a metaphor for my sexuality. I understood this metaphor long before I could articulate it. This gave me hope where the rest of the world had failed me.
From ages 11-14, I often felt as though I wanted to die. I lived in almost constant consideration of suicide. Instead of killing myself, I retreated into books and comics. I escaped to a small forest near my home, where I drink stolen liquors and read whatever comic I could get my hands on. I lied to my parents about social engagements, swim meets, dates to football games and church youth rallies. I did this to escape to the comfort of my own fortress of solitude, a place hidden in an few acres of wood, across the street from our house, down the hill in a gully, where I hid my comic books in a plastic garbage bag for protection. They lived under the lip of a large rock that extended out over a creek bed. In the summer, the sewers would back up into the creek and the stench of rot would consume the area, but I didn’t mind, because I was safe there, and I had my heroes to keep me company.
I much preferred team comics to those of the solo hero. As an adolescent, I reveled in a group of misfits, freaks aliens and genius who came together as a surrogate family and not only were they better people as a result, but the world was a safe and nicer place. I dreamed that I could be certain characters. I would often while away the hours at school creating story-lines for the book that would bring the heroes to meet me, imagining they would whisk me away to their secret hideout and make me the team mascot. I was particularly fond of The Teen Titans (the Wolfman/Perez years) and The X-men (the Kitty Pryde/Rogue Era). These featured young heroes, who like me, could not get on with their family or their peers. They were exiled from the real world because fate had given them a birth defect or and accident had rendered them different than everyone else. I more than identified with them, I needed them. They were the only sign I had in a neo-Baptist world that another life existed in the world somewhere, that people had been what I had been, and were writing these characters for me now. On some level, I knew that because these characters existed in the world of fiction, that there was someone in the real world who knew my own angst, and that maybe, if I waited until I grew up, I would not be this alone forever.
Nightcrawler was an X-man of particular importance to me; he was a circus performer, a freak on the outside, the way I felt on the inside. He was a true warrior, but fighting ate at him, he did what he was called on to do, but he never understood why humanity always made him fight. This took a toll on his sweet soul, his unassuming nature. I often wished to be him, because I thought that to be a fuzzy blue elf that could transport his physical body anywhere, on a whim and in the blink of an eye, was certainly a better curse than that of being gay and an Arkansas native, because at least the elf, like the rest of the heroes, was straight. And if he was unlucky enough to find himself in an Arkansas small town, he could get out. Fast. He also lived by a (paraphrased) code, "as long as they believe me evil, I must behave better than them. I must be more than just good. I must never give them a reason for the hate to be justified" I loved him for this concept, andI tried in vain to live by this code for years.
As I grew, I learned that my my sense of liberal morality had been instilled by these heroes. There had been no one in my childhood to teach me that racism was bad, that men should not disparage another men just because he believes something different, that a woman has the right to choose, that we all deserve a chanced at life, even when we have fucked up a few times already. None of my childhood role models taught me that "an eye for an eye" never wins a fight, that there are no winners in any war, or that no one really deserves the trappings that conventional wisdom wants them to have. These basic tenants of my existence, these moral codes that I hold to be the core of my goodness, the foundation of my nature as a man were not set (with few exceptions) by example by my parents, grandparents, pastors or teachers. I learned these things from the fictional heroes of comics. From Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Storm and Wolverine. From Robin (Nightwing), Wonder Girl, Starfire and Gar Logan. These are the characters who taught me that the rich can suffer and that the poor can rise in the world, and that when your compassion leads your judgement, everyone wins. They taught me that when all else fails, stand strong, defend yourself, and to always stand those who can not defend themselves.
It is because of them that I became the man that would break the nose of the man who tried to mug me in the winter on 1992. It is because of them that my moral outrage would strengthen me enough to pull two teenagers off a 70 year old man on the 49th street N train entrance one rainy afternoon in 1995. They had him pinned against the locking door grate of on the landing of the stairwell just as they had found his wallet by rifling through the poor mans pocket. It is because of them that I would become the a man who got angry at the police officer who came to interview me after the incident, when he lasciviously leaned into me and said “they were black right?” It is because of them that I could tell that cop that he disgusted me.
This is why NIghtcrawler was my first tattoo. Because, in the 90's, as my friends and I fought for our lives in the streets, I wanted a reminder of his philosophy. As long as I was called evil by those I stood against, I would do my best not to give them any ammunition with which to prove it.
As I aged, this turned out to be an impossible standard. The older I got, the more I failed to maintain the standard, and the harder I judged myself. But eventually I would learn to turn another Superhero standard, and I would begin leading my judgement with compassion. For myself. And then, Nightcrwaler's code took on a whole new meaning.