When I was about eight, my family moved across the border from Kentucky into southern Ohio. We eventually landed in a small factory town where my new school was a little rougher than what I was used to. This event coincided with another major discovery in my life – that I was a total sissy who could neither throw, catch nor hit a ball. It didn’t take long for me to become the target of swoop-and-dive bullies who soon made my life a living hell. When the cafeteria finally became unbearable I started walking home each day for lunch where I would eat a grilled cheese sandwich and watch “Search for Tomorrow” while my mother ironed and took care of screaming infants to whom we were vaguely related. School, which I’d always enjoyed in Kentucky, was now something I could barely stand. All I wanted was to get home in one piece, hide in the quietest room I could find and disappear into my latest childhood obsession: comic books.
I had always liked comics, but now my relationship with them was changing. Every Tuesday I would sit at the dinner table staring holes through my poor father. I didn’t dare say anything, but secretly I tried to beam him psychic messages to chew a little faster so we could get the hell out of there and make our weekly run to the newsstand. I had gotten wise to the fact that every Tuesday a new shipment of comic books arrived in town. Fortunately, my father and the guy who ran the newsstand enjoyed talking to each other, so I usually had at least forty-five minutes to read as many as I could. Then when the two men ran out of conversation material, it was time for me to decide which comics I would be buying with my measly allowance. This was always a horrible “Sophie’s Choice” kind of moment for me. Sometimes, I would try to pry a little extra coin out of my father, but it rarely worked. My dad was a farm-raised, Depression era baby who believed in hard work and self-control. I loved my dad, but I already knew that I took more after my mother’s side of the family who believed in doing what you could get away with and worrying about it later.
My comic book addiction was primarily financed by running errands for the old people who lived in the low-rent senior citizen apartments nearby. When I got my first real bike it allowed me to double the number of runs I could make to McKaig’s Market each day. Generally, I could expect anywhere from a nickel to thirty-five cents for each trip to retrieve a loaf of bread or a half dozen eggs (my least favorite item since they tended to crack on the ride home). Business was usually steady, but sometimes when I needed extra money for additional comics, I could become something of an extortionist, ringing doorbells and suggesting that a horrible sleet storm might be on its way; a storm so bad that it might knock out power lines and close the roads for days to come. Would they be okay if that happened? Soon, I was peddling toward the market for Milk of Magnesia and a carton of Camels.
Once, after I’d endured a particularly humiliating ass-kicking at school, I sent a stack of my drawings to Stan Lee and asked him for a job working at Marvel comics. He wrote back saying my work was good and to keep drawing. I was a little pissed. I guess I’d expected Stan and the heroes of Marvel to rescue me from this hellish existence I was living. My disappointment triggered a strange development. I began drawing my own line of comics which I named “Space World.” I only drew the covers of the comics (on 3 x 5 index cards), but inside my head I had written a story for each edition. The small size of my comics made it easier for me to hide them – a real necessity in our crowded and chaotic house. More than once I had slaved over a piece of artwork only to come home and find it partially dissolved in the mouth of a fat, slobbering baby.
The heroes of Space World were all knock-offs of Marvel and D.C. characters and the covers had a lot of words like “ZZZZzzap!” and “THUD!” on them. I loved my creations because they were all misunderstood, lonely freaks (like me). The very thing that made them so cool was also what isolated them from the world. In their normal (human) lives, they were forgettable “nice guys” who never attracted much attention. But when they donned their mask, flew across the sky and zapped some evildoer with a red-hot laser beam, they became an unquestionable force for good; someone to be revered and reckoned with. Within a few years my obsession with Thor, Batman and the Fantastic Four expanded to include endless daily reruns of shows like “The Avengers,” “Lost in Space” and of course, “Star Trek.” Although I managed to do reasonably well in school, I never talked about it at home where my distracted family struggled to stay afloat. If anyone wanted to know if I loved Jesus or why I didn’t have a girlfriend, I kept my answers short and vague. Indifference was my force field.
I preferred Space World. My superheroes and I had a lot in common. We both had secrets we could never tell; powers that were best kept under wraps. And we both longed for love and acceptance in a world that didn’t really welcome us. When I finally left for college at age eighteen, I feared I might be headed for another strange and lonely planet - but once there, in the safety of a wildly liberal campus, thousands of miles from my family’s home, I slowly started to test my super powers. Amazingly, I learned I could make people laugh, write for the school paper, argue with a professor and even sing out loud in front of an audience of people who had actually paid money to be there. As these powers slowly inched out of the box, I became someone new. Finally, it was time to remove my invisible cloak and reveal my true identity.
I loved the scene in Christopher Nolan’s "The Dark Knight" where Michal Caine’s character explains why the world needs a Batman. I suppose nowadays, no one believes much in heroes coming to the rescue. Still, I’m hoping someday to actually show up for a studio note session dressed in a mask and cape. And just before the security guards arrived to taze me, I’d like to leap onto the desk of some poor terrified executive and shout “Be not afraid, mortal! I have come to save you from the dark, sinister web of corporate thinking. I have been sent at last, to lead you from the mind-numbing mediocrity of demographics and marketing and into the fresh air and blindingly, brilliant light of originality!” How fitting and ironic that the last sounds I would probably hear would be “ZZZzzzap! THUD!” Have a good week, fellow citizens of Space World. See you next time.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being quietly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/