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I Met You At a Very Strange Time in My Life: The Guidance of Superheroes

My dear friend Audrey is a Norse Pagan, a very devout one, and has a great yearly practice of choosing a god or goddess each year to swear herself to. It’s an oath, a promise, and at the end of the year she looks over the choices she’s made and where she’s come, to see if she fulfilled her oath, learned anything, and begins the process of choosing a deity to swear to anew. Recently she swore herself to the goddess Sif, wife of Thor. I responded with a picture of Sif from Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery, a Marvel comic, for those who aren’t aware.

That anecdote sort of sets the tone for this whole post, just to clue you in.

It’s 10:55PM on December 31st, and I’m sitting down with my pizza and salad and wine in my home, Wilmington, N.C. Any of you who know me (meaning most of you who read this) know that I made this place my home by choice, for a few reasons. Primary among those reasons is my dream of being a professional writer, and with any luck, I’ll get to write comics. I made this move in May of 2013, which means I’m still getting a little settled in this new place and I don’t have need for a New Year, not yet. I’m still on the old one, still catching up to those five months lost in a place that wasn’t where I needed to be. But I thought this was a good time for an address, of sorts.

Additionally, those of you who know me know about my love of comics. I can’t explain it. I’ve always loved comic strips, the funnies were a non-negotiable in my home and my cousin Nick’s issues of Batman and X-Men made my mouth water as a kid. In my goth teen years I swore by Sandman and Hellboy, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I got to appreciate superhero comics. I’m old enough now that the naivete often contained in comic stories doesn’t make me roll my eyes, it give me hope. Comics, to me, are the core of what speculative storytelling should be: they’re character-focused and driven, but safely out of our realm, just enough that we can explore ourselves. So it goes that I have mad love for just about anything brightly colored, any hero whose actions involve onomatopoeia sound effects, but there are two specifically who are my favorites: Iron Man and Nightwing.

Some of you just said ‘who?’ or possibly ‘like the movie?’ and I swear, you’ll get it by the end. Hang in there.

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Me in something like an Iron Man costume.

In 2012 I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton. I had, by all accounts, an amazing job. It was an amazing job for anyone my age, and made moreso by my lack of things like a Bachelor’s Degree. I’d gotten my marketing job solely on my own merit, by networking, hard working, and setting my brain to anything left unattended long enough for me to tackle. The problem was that I felt bad about it. I felt like a warmongering death merchant. Sure, I wasn’t designing UAVs and smart bombs, but I was working for a company that danced in the same graveyard. I wasn’t thrilled about it. I went to work with brass blaring happily in my head, painted on a smile and wowed everyone I could. I went home and stayed social as much as I could – I needed the distraction. I drank frequently. Not too much, but maybe not for the right reasons. My anxiety reached a tipping point. Then again, I got to attend a conference with science greats like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson, where people passed out drinks like they were breathmints and little robots buzzed past to say “hello, we are the future!”

It’s easy to see how I fell hard for Iron Man.

Specifically, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, which I dove into with a mad hunger. Watching Tony Stark lose his money, his company, and his mind taught me something I hadn’t really expected from the whole thing.

A thing about comics, if you’re not a comics reader and afraid of being spoiled on the story: nothing’s permanent. This, in and of itself, is a pretty good lessons.

Anyway, what I learned was that Tony Stark does come back, but he’s incomplete. His money doesn’t come back easy, his company is changed forever, and even his mind is only rebooted (yes, rebooted) to the point where he can’t remember some of his most horrific actions. But he’s still there. He’s still him.

In the end, he faces the Mandarin in an awesome ending, and emerges somewhat victorious, and decides to go. He has to leave. He’s moved past making weapons and at this point, even past making anything. He wants to explore where any great scientist longs to: the black velvet embrace of the Final Frontier. Space. So he goes, and Matt Fraction’s run on the series comes to a perfect end.

If I can get a little ship of Theseus on you guys for a second, I think our identities might not about our soul or our memories. I think it might be about who knows us, who loves us. Which means, I think, if you need to disappear and become someone else, you can. You just maybe can’t take anyone with you.

Which brings me to the fact that I have lots of people I can’t leave behind, or wouldn’t.Which brings me to Nightwing. More importantly, it brings me to my husband, my dear dear friends, my bunny rabbit Milhouse, my family. At the end of 2012, I had basically made up my mind that I had to go away, I had to do what Tony Stark did and go somewhere else to escape this strange future I found myself in, though the money and perks made that hard to do. So with Stark stubbornness and spontaneity I launched boldly forward where I’d never been before: uncertainty.

I don’t deal with uncertainty well. At least, in the past, I haven’t.

I’m not saying that I believe in comic book characters like they’re my patron saints, but I’m saying that if they were saints, they’d be my patrons.

I read comic books like most people read the Bible or James Joyce, if you haven’t gathered yet.

In March of 2013, my husband was laid off from his lucrative sales job. My current contract at Booz Allen – not one I enjoyed on the same level I’d enjoyed previous ones, not remotely – was coming to an end on May 5. We sat in that staggered way people sit in living rooms as things fall apart – him on the couch and me on the floor, picking at our coffee table – sobbing about our misery. It wasn’t that we didn’t have jobs, that’s not what made us cry, it was that we were going to have to put effort into finding new jobs, ones that we would hate just as much (if not more) than the ones we had to leave.

The weird thing about our jobs was that we didn’t think we hated them – they seemed great. In all truth, they were hated in that way you learn to manage out of necessity. Like what I imagine a bad marriage to be like. But to put forward more effort, to smile and interview and grit and grin through countless interviews, begging for a job we didn’t want?

Ew, basically.

One of us mentioned moving to my husband’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, and we began making plans.

So, I think somewhere in the beginning of 2013, while the idea of leaving was in my mind, I was at Urban Evolution with my best friend Kristin, and we were flying around on the silk – something about having control in the air made everything a little less awful, for me, thanks Iron Man – and I remember saying something about how I wanted to make a costume I could do silks in, and I should make a Robin costume, because Dick Grayson, the original Robin, was an acrobat.

Somewhere in that moment I told myself to look up a few Nightwing comics. See, after Batman and Robin stop getting along, Robin quits and becomes Nightwing, so it’s the same guy. His only home he’s ever known is the concrete jungle of Gotham City and the demands of his mentor, Batman. He does a few other things in another series, but his own series follows his move to the city of Bludhaven (that name, right?) and his attempts to find himself as a vigilante and as an adult. He joins the police force, works at a bar, spends his nights hunting down baddies, and generally runs himself ragged. The best issues don’t actually try to distance him from his relationships back home, or the ones he’s formed more recently – really, the best issues deal with his insistence that he’s his own man, while still being a part of the greater network of his chosen family. If the theme of Iron Man comics is about moving forward and up while not losing yourself,the theme of Nightwing comics is moving on and out, while trying to¬†find yourself.

It was medicinal, I guess. If I ever have to defend my comics reading, I read them medicinally.

At some point I realized what had happened to me. 2012 was the year of Iron Man. I achieved what I thought were my goals and felt miserable, felt the need to get away and find my actual goals, not the ones that were set for me by anyone or anything else. And as I walked around in my city by the water, living far away from my family and friends for the first time in my life, relying on the fact that tall, dark haired people in leather jackets with nice smiles are typically enjoyed wherever they go, I realized that 2013 had become the year of Nightwing.

Me as Nightwing, again somewhat literally.

Once I realized it, it felt great, actually. I read cheesy issues of 90s comics, blaring Third Eye Blind songs about running away from home and alternately laughing and crying. Fully letting myself identify with a character in a way I’d only done secretly in 2012.

Tony Stark stays Iron Man, but does it in space for a while. Nightwing becomes Batman, and then the publishers got weird and now he’s Nightwing again, but I secretly like to think it’s a big middle finger toward the idea of destiny. I don’t know who I’ll be in 2014, and that’s the point of this whole frakking thing. One big thing I have in common with both of these totally fictional people is that I have learned how much I need to shut off my repulsors, my swinglines, my brain, and just jump. Someone will catch me. They’ll have a lesson for me.

I’m not a superhero. I’m a writer. A really silly writer who just spent an hour on New Year’s Eve writing about how she is Iron Man, she is Nightwing, and she is eagerly awaiting her next patron character. My greatest wish is that it’s one I write myself.

Happy New Year, you Kings of Gotham City, you Princes of Bludhaven.

Tini Howard, 12/31/2013

One comment

  1. Very insightful. Asking about role-models (ironman, nightwing, etc.) and their actions is a way that I often do therapy as a counselor :) . This blog post made me smile.

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