In my last Nerdy Dad article, I confessed to being a life-long geek for sci-fi, fantasy and superhero stories. There are a number of reasons that I love these types of stories. Obviously, I enjoy that each genre story presents a reality that is not our own, by small or large degrees. Whether it’s a world where magical creatures exists, a potential future, or a world almost identical to ours but with its own paranormal differences, I enjoy the creativity of the variations.
I can see the argument that there is a bit of “silliness” (for lack of a better term) for the otherworldly differences. Wizards and magic rings, men in capes, and out-of-control robots all can seem non-sensical. However, virtually any hobby or interest could be seen as silly from a certain perspective.
Let’s take sports fans (which I’m a minor one). You’re watching other people playing a game (or a version thereof) that you could be playing, except for the fact that you’re sitting there, doing nothing.
Actually playing sports? You’re playing kids’ games. Do you play on swings and monkey bars?
Do you enjoy fashion? You’re still playing dress-up like you did when you were a kid.
Whatever your interests or hobbies, the arguments against them don’t matter though (nor should they) because you enjoy the “silliness” of them. The silliness brings you joy and happiness, because, for you, they’re fun.
One of the other reasons that I enjoy genre stories is how easily they can act as metaphors for real life topics. A well-told genre story about an imaginary world can present a different perspective on our world. A story about animals taking over a farm may seem like a silly children’s book, but in the hands of George Orwell, “Animal Farm” became a metaphor for the Soviet revolution and a classic piece of literature.
As another example, I present to you one of my favorite comic book stories: “The Nearness of You” from the Astro City comic book series, originally published by Image Comics in the 1990’s.
Astro City is a comic book series created by Kurt Busiek, a talented and well-regarded writer. Busiek created the Astro City series with two goals. The first was to present a superhero series with a different focus. LIke other comic book series, Astro City is set in a metropolis filled with superheroes and super villains, but the main focus of the stories are not on these individuals but rather on the world that they inhabit. Astro City seeks to answer the question, what would it feel like to live a world where super-powered and mystical individuals live and battle each other on a daily basis.
The second purpose of Astro City was to provide a different superhero metaphor. From its inception, the superhero story often was an allegory for male adolescent desires. For instance, Superman and Captain Marvel (the guy who yelled “Shazam”) captured young boys’ desire to transform from geeky, clumsy nobodies into powerful and admired heroes. Another example is the X-Men, which captured teenager angst by portraying mutants: people whose powers and often appearances appeared at the onset of puberty.
In Astro City, Busiek wrote stories where the stories present symbols for things beyond adolescent desires and fears. For instance, in the first issue of Astro City, we’re introduced to Samaritan, a Superman-like hero.
Samaritan loves to fly. In fact, he dreams of it every night. No problem, you might say. One of his powers is flight so he does what he loves every day. The problem is that. as a superhero, Samaritan must fly at super-speeds to save a life here or to prevent a disaster there. One trip takes a half of a second while the longest flight takes a lengthy six seconds to travel. When you add in the responsibilities of his cover life, he has even less time to do what he loves. By the end of the day portrayed in the issue, Samaritan has flown only fifty-six seconds total, one of his better days. As Samaritan thinks to himself several times that day, there’s never enough time.
With that, we come to “The Nearness of You,” which features Michael Tenicek, a regular guy with dreams different from those of the Samaritan. Michael’s dreams are of a beautiful woman named Miranda. He knows a lot about Miranda. She has a tooth that was capped after a bicycle accident. Her hair smells like apples and wildflowers, she likes roasted garlic on her pizza and she bites her fingernails.
Michael also knows that he has never met Miranda, and as far as he can tell, she doesn’t exist.
Every night, Michael dreams of Miranda and, every day, he can’t stop thinking of her. His personal and work lives are floundering. He’s terrified that he’s going insane and nothing, not conversations with friends or family nor pills, can drive away his thoughts or dreams.
Then one night, he’s visited by The Hanged Man, Astro City’s mystical protector.
Yes, we’re truly into the “silliness” now.
The Hanged Man shows Michael some recent events. Over the course of four pages, we see that a super-villain named the Time-Keeper, frustrated with his recent defeats from heroes such as the All-American and his sidekick, Slugger, stole immense power over time in order to kill his foes. Astro City’s heroes fight him, leading to a battle where timelines converge, people disappear, and, of course, dinosaurs appear in modern times. (I can’t recall a single story about time disturbances — and I have read or seen many — where the story didn’t show dinosaurs appearing in the wrong time period). Eventually, the Time-Keeper is defeated and the heroes are able to fix almost all of the damage caused by the Time-Keeper.
Almost all of it.
The Hanged Man explains that Michael was married to Miranda, but, in the aftermath of the war with the Time-Keeper, her grandparents never met and, in this new reality, she never existed. The Hanged Man explains that Michael still remembers her due to their close bond. He thinks that understanding this fact will help Michael, but he offers another option. He can make Michael forget Miranda if he wishes.
That leads to two of my favorite comic book pages. You can click on them for pop-up, larger versions.
In “The Nearness of You,” Busiek presents an imaginary world where unrecognizable (and perhaps silly, although I say fun) things occur. We don’t recognize people who can fly or travel through time; time disturbances; or people being “unmade.”
We recognize, though, what Michael is feeling. We know grief and what it feels like to lose someone we love. We understand how the grief can overwhelm us and take control of our lives. We know what it’s like to want the painful thoughts and memories to stop.
“The Nearness of You” reminds us that the answer is not to forget. Because no one forgets. No one. Instead, with time and the understanding that we loved those we lost and they loved us in return, we’ll stop fearing the dreams and memories.
And there’s nothing silly about that.