Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Gift

My mother died two weeks ago today. I hadn't spoken to her in nine years. When I heard that she was ill, I was surprised to learn that she had recently moved back to Michigan after years in Utah and Arizona. She has asked some of my relatives not to say anything to me about the move. I visited her on Friday the 12th, and she died as I pulled into the parking garage at the hospital on Saturday the 13th. That may sound quick, but I assure you that it wasn't. My experience with cancer to this point involves the victim writhing in pain for days until they die. My father died that way, and my mother's last days were no exception. I'm beginning to think that the cancer deaths I have read about from other survivors about their relatives dying peacefully in their sleep are complete fiction.

My mother and I were estranged for several reasons. First, she was an alcoholic and inflicted emotional pain without a second thought. If she felt wronged in any way, she would hit you where she knew she could do the most harm. She wielded the precision of a surgeon. I swore, in writing, when my wife and I adopted our daughter that my mother would have no contact with her. Second, she was a gambling addict. She once borrowed $500 from me and then filed bankruptcy, listing me as a creditor. How did I find this out? Via a letter from her lawyer. Third, for five years she allowed me, from ages 7 to 12, to be beaten by a man that she married without lifting a finger to protect me. He beat me, punched me, kicked me, and once pulled my fingernail off with a pair of pliers. And that's just the physical abuse. She at least did me the small favor of allowing me to go live with my father after my 12th birthday, because, in her words, "I thought he was going to kill you." I'm going to spare you the most gruesome details. Just understand that I (and my brother, too) went through things that no child should ever have to experience, and no child on my watch ever will again.

Although after I went to live with my father my life was relatively normal, the effects of abuse are long-lasting and if they're not dealt with, they will come back and bite you. I grew up cynical, sarcastic, unwilling and sometimes unable to trust people, especially when religion was involved. The oft-quoted, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was one of my stepfather's favorite lines. Every day, I fight a war inside myself. So far, I've won most of the battles. The ones I have lost have been costly, especially in terms of friends and family I have alienated. I can't overemphasize how important my friends are to me. Those of you who've stuck with me have my most heartfelt thanks. You have no idea of the depth of my fondness for you.

Now, my mother's house is my responsibility. No one else wants to deal with it, and it falls to me to see that her heirs receive fair shares of whatever is left of her estate after her creditors have been paid. There won't be much, but I'll be darned if I'll just let the bank take everything. So far, I have gone through all of her papers, finding no will. I've sorted through photographs and every shred of paper that my late sister ever touched. My mother kept everything to do with her and her youngest son. There was nothing among my mother's things to do with my brother or me, her sons. We found a few scraps among my sister's things. That sounds about right. Yet here I am, doing my familial duty. Would that my mother had had that same sense of duty.

In the past few years, I have been at peace with my childhood. I have worked to become a positive force in my classroom. I wish I had been for more of my career, but honestly, I did the best I could. Being a father forced me to take a good, long look at my behavior and make a big adjustment. I wish I'd done it sooner. Am I a great teacher/person? God, no. But I do okay with the tools I have. Every day I reflect on the stupid and careless things I have said. I never let anything go. I hold onto every mistake so I don't make them again. I know I'm supposed to forgive myself. Trust me, I know how that's supposed to work, but that's not how I'm wired. I was conditioned from age seven to not make mistakes for fear of being beaten. It's a survival instinct developed over a long period of time. It's not going away. I just make do as best I can and for a while, I was doing okay.

All my thoughts of progress and well-being went out the window the day my mother died. Going through her house with the stench of cigarette smoke and cases of beer still on the dining room floor and finding gambling receipts and photos of the man who beat me just sent that feeling of accomplishment right out the window. For the past two weeks, I have dreamed every night of that time. I wake up in cold sweats, and actually have to remove my soaked t-shirt so I can go back to sleep for a little longer. I've been averaging six hours or less for a while now. And tomorrow, it's back to that house again after a week away. I have to take care of it until it's sold. We're going to have an estate sale next weekend to clear out the garage sale crap that she filled it with. Whatever doesn't sell goes to Goodwill or the dump. We have the important papers and family photos. I hope to hell the place sells fast so I can put this behind me again and get back to what's important. That's an equally frustrating part of this. I haven't been able to focus on my comics work while this has been going on. I'm hoping I can learn to compartmentalize it so I can keep making progress at least.

My brother and I have had a running joke for a while that the abuse we suffered is "the gift that keeps on giving." I could have done without this final gift.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Batman v. Superman

Oh, the feels. That's what the kids say these days, isn't it, when they're talking about powerful emotions? Because that's what the Batman v. Superman trailers have been bringing out of me.

There are many, many reasons why Batman and Superman are important to me. I've written about it numerous times here on this very blog. They were childhood heroes who served as role models for me when I had none in the real world. They were like surrogate fathers. Maybe that's a bad thing, or maybe it's good. Even though I don't care for this phrase too much, it is what it is. I understand there's room for more than one interpretation of iconic characters. But seeing them on the screen this way never fails to make me mourn for the way they used to be. And seeing fan reaction so overwhelmingly bloodthirsty and hungry for violence between two beloved characters makes me feel very old.

I've written a number of times about how comics kept my hopes alive during the period in which I was abused, but I don't think I've committed to writing how they helped me come out of it. I went to live with my father during the Christmas break immediately following my 12th birthday. My mother gave me the choice of who I wanted to live with because she (and these are her words) thought that my stepfather was eventually going to kill me. It took 0.02 seconds to make that decision and looking back, I probably hurt her feelings with the speed at which I blurted out, "I want to live with Dad."

A few weeks later, my stuff was packed into a few boxes (we lived in a trailer; I didn't own much) and we were driving to the lower peninsula to move me in. My dad had said that he was living in a bi-level house with his new wife and her two daughters. We had the address and we looked up and down the country road that it indicated, and found no house. Eventually, we stopped for directions at a cement block basement with no house above it, protruding from a hill. It had lights on. Turned out that this was it! My mother looked around, and was mortified. There were few windows, no carpeting, but a few area rugs scattered around. None of the rooms had doors except the bathroom, but all had simple curtains drawn across the partitions. She was angry at my dad for lying, but turned to me and whispered, "Are you sure you want to live here?" I nodded quickly, hoping she wouldn't change her mind. In my head I was thinking, Are you kidding? I'd live in a rabbit hole if it meant not getting beaten every day. And so, life began again. I was away from my little brother and sister for the first time since they were born, but I was looking forward to a new life without being hit.

It took some time getting used to a whole new family. My new stepmother was interesting. She was generally pretty nice to me. She had four kids. Two daughters who lived with her, ages 17 and 16, and two sons who lived with their father, ages 14 and 13. So I went from being the oldest in the family to being the youngest. One of the first things I did as a symbol of my new freedom was buy comic books. If we behaved in church on Sunday (which I always did, being eager to please) we received 50 cents, which we could spend at the small general store in town. My stepsisters always bought cigarettes (I told you my stepmother was interesting) and I bought my first comic book ever with my own money. It was a tough choice that first time out, but it was a choice of simple economics. I bought Justice League of America #140. It was a 50-cent Giant, and it had all of my favorite characters in one book. It felt like I was getting away with something sneaky, but it was also liberating because my dad fully supported it. The story had Green Lantern being captured by and taken offworld to face charges that he had destroyed a whole planet.

Of course the Justice League came to his defense. That's what they do. During their investigation in the following issue, Superman and Batman are paired off with one of the Guardians of the Universe, and while they're in space, the Guardian questions the pairing. Batman simply responds by saying, "Superman and I have been friends for a long time. We're the world's finest team."

I have one page of original comic book art left from my collection. That's the one I still own. It symbolizes freedom to me; vindication; a return to the way things should have turned out for me. I survived my abusive situation in part because of Batman and Superman, and they've been with me ever since. Over the years, especially since the Crisis on Infinite Earths and subsequently the Man of Steel mini-series rebooted the relationship between the two heroes, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight put them at odds, they've fought over and over and over again. No matter how stupid or contrived the circumstance, whether mind-control or Kryptonite or (shudder) politics, I just never buy into it. They worked together without incident for decades, thrilling millions of kids like me. And now it looks like they'll clash because Lex Luthor tricks them into it.

When someone tells the new audience that "this isn't your father's Batman and Superman," they're damned right.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Old Wounds #2 and #3

Yes, I am Russell Lissau's friend. But as Russell will be the first to tell you, I will tell a friend when I don't like something that they've done. I'm told it's a rare trait, and it might explain why I don't have that many close friends. That said, Old Wounds #2 and #3 are great!

I reviewed #1 here. This is a superhero story in setting, but it's more of a detective story, for which I am always a sucker. A former superhero's ex-wife is murdered by the same MO that put the former hero out of action years ago, and now he's the target.

In issues 2 and 3, Michael Lane goes on the search for his ex-wife's killer. Everyone around him seems to be a target and everyone who knows his secret has an attempt made on their lives. And at the end of issue #3, we think we know who the killer is. I say "we think we know," because I've been fooled before. There has been enough groundwork laid to still provide some doubt. It's effective, because now I have to persuade Russell to let me see #4 ahead of its release as well!

The execution of the story is excellent. Russell is a great writer, and we're kept guessing right along with the former Night Hunter, Michael Lane. But what I really noticed in reading these past two issues in quick succession was that the art style is changing. It was much cleaner in the first issue and as the story progressed, it started getting sketchier. This can happen when deadlines loom, but I've also seen it happen as the chaos in the story begins to leak into the art, as in David Mazzuchelli's art in Daredevil #227-233. I think the effect really works here, even if it was incidental.

There are a lot of comics out there to read that are flashier, but I am finding this story far more engaging than one of last week's books, the new JLA #1 with art by Bryan Hitch. It was flashy, but it was big and loud and dumb. Old Wounds is none of those things.

Old Wounds #3 is in stores now.

Monday, April 06, 2015


In a recent article in The Atlantic, it was claimed that experiences trump materialistic rewards. I buy that.

When I was 19 years old and had a little disposable income for the first time in my life, I bought every comic book that Marvel and DC put out, and some selected independent titles as well. I was a collector. I carefully handled every comic, then put it in a bag with an acid-free backing board.

Thirty-one years later, I still buy comics, but I only buy what I like, and once they're available digitally on sale, I'll get rid of the floppy issues if they're worth anything. I would rather have all of my comics available to read on my iPad than to have physical copies that I have to haul with me on vacations and on planes and trains when I'm on business trips, which I take often now. Life has changed.

Back then, I started collecting superhero action figures, too. I was given the first Batman and Superman Super Powers figures, and I bought the rest. And the Secret Wars figures. All of them. I even worked at Toys R Us, and chose my figures from the cases when they were brought out to the floor. There were few enough of the figures back then, that I could keep up. There's no way I could do that now. I'd love to collect the Mego-like World's Greatest Heroes figures, but investing in my own business supersedes that want.

Then in my late 20s and early 30s, it was Magic The Gathering cards, and then other card games, Star Trek and Star Wars, mostly. Then it was original comic book art. I had some great pieces by some great artists. Take, for example, this George Perez New Teen Titans page, shown here. I had pieces by Greg Land, Norm Breyfogle, Tom Grummett, Dick Dillin, Brent Anderson, Bill Reinhold, Denys Cowan, Larry Stroman, you name it.

Then my daughter came along. When we adopted Sera in 2007, I gave it ALL up. Everything. I sold off all my action figures, all my original art (except one page, which has sentimental attachment and is worth only about $50), and all of my comic books. I still have quite a few things about me, including trade paperbacks and hardcover collections of comics. But all the valuable stuff is long gone.

Since beginning my journey of being a comic book creator, the collecting bug has lost its bite. I go to comic book conventions and buy little. I pick up a little souvenir for Sera, usually a sketch card or two, or something My Little Pony related, but nothing for me. There's just nothing in it for me anymore. I'd rather have money to pay artists to draw my creations and bring my dreams to life. When I run my Kickstarter, whenever my upcoming hardcover book is finished, I will be using the original art from the book as incentives. I will keep none of it. My wife asks me, are you sure you don't want to keep it? I always laugh and say no. A high-res scanned print will look just as nice in a frame on my wall if I want to display it and I won't have to worry about it being destroyed in a storm. I will even sell my George Perez portrait of La Calculadora. Yes, he's one of my absolute favorites, but the joy of receiving it from him and publishing it will always be a memory that I will never forget. And whenever I see him, he recognizes me as "that math guy!" That story alone is worth more to me than the actual physical piece of Bristol board.

In contrast, I read a post on Facebook yesterday about a man who has every key Marvel Silver Age comic, including Fantastic Four #1, in a safe deposit box and takes them out occasionally to enjoy them. Then he puts them back. He has literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in comics that he has to go to the bank to see.

I went to Las Vegas last summer to speak at the American Library Association annual conference, and I will be talking about that experience for years. Being wined and dined by an international publisher, being applauded and recognized for my work, traveling through Utah and Arizona seeing family, all of it was wonderful. I'd rather do that than be able to say, "Hey, look at this copy of Fantastic Four #1!" I can read Fantastic Four #1 whenever I want. It's on my iPad.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Stick

I have been putting this off for years, but I have to get some of this out right now. I tell this story to my students, so it's not exactly a secret. This is the short version. I'll write the full version someday.

I was an abused child. My mother and father swapped spouses with another couple in 1970-71 after my mother caught my father cheating with the neighbor lady. The neighbor's husband didn't take kindly to that, and my mother and he had an affair right back.

I was almost six when it started. My brother had just been born. The next year was spent making weekend visits where they went into their various bedrooms and did whatever, while we kids, my brother and me on one side, and the other couple's three children on the other, all bunked together.

Finally, one day, the other husband, Steve, came to pick us up and took me away from my home. My mother was very pregnant with his child, and we went to live with him. The beatings began shortly after. The first time he hit me, we were having dinner and I don't know if I was chewing with my mouth open or had my elbows on the table, but I was sitting to his right and he hit me so hard in the face that he knocked me over the back of my chair. I got up off the floor with blood filling my mouth, and cried. I had no idea what I had done. Later, I figured it out. It wasn't table manners that had gotten me hit. It was the fact that I was the son of the man who had taken his wife and I looked like him. I was a daily reminder of the loss of his family. I don't excuse his behavior. I am explaining his behavior.

I spent the next five years being beaten virtually every day. It wasn't always so nice as a backhand to the face. Mostly, he had me take my pants down, and beat me on my bare behind with a 14" ruler from DeNooyer Chevrolet in Battle Creek. It was wooden on one side, and metal on the other. It was affectionately called (by him), "The Stick." You know, as in "Shut up, or you'll get The Stick." "You're getting The Stick when we get home." The police were called at different times because of all the screaming that my little brother (age 1) and I were doing, and the police examined the welts on our behinds. They did nothing. We got it worse after they left, just to prove the point that there was no one who could stop him.

But the problem with corporal punishment is, it loses effectiveness after a while. I still remember the day when I was 11 and in 5th grade and The Stick lost its power over me. We were living in Allegan, Michigan, and Linda Ronstadt's Heart Like a Wheel was playing and he was going to town on my butt. And I wasn't crying. He hit harder. I wasn't crying. I just decided that I wasn't going to feel it anymore. He told me that I'd better cry or he'd keep hitting me. I wasn't crying. I felt like I had won a victory. Then he punched me.

The beatings continued to get worse throughout the next year. I would go to school with a black eye and he would tell me to tell my teacher I fell. I didn't. I told my teacher that my stepfather had punched me in the eye because he had taught me not to lie. Didn't matter, though. Nothing happens when your mother works at the Department of Social Services. This is before there were child protective services. The beatings grew so severe that my mother finally decided to let me go live with my father, who had divorced the woman with whom he had cheated, and had remarried to a  third wife. I didn't tell my dad what had happened because they still had my brother and I had been told what would happen to him if I told on them. So, I kept it quiet. I kept it quiet until my brother got the same opportunity six years later and there was no one left to hurt. Or, so I thought. When he started beating on my mother, she finally left him for good.

This little vignette only catalogs a fraction of the physical abuse. There was far, far more physical abuse as well as emotional abuse. I just had to do something to deal with the feelings I had when I was watching Outlander tonight and the alleged "hero" started beating Claire's bare behind with a belt. I had to clear the room quickly. Writing this helped get a little bit of the anger out. There's a lot of that. That it still comes on this strongly after 38 years is just amazing to me. The impressions made in childhood truly cannot be underestimated. I know I'll never get over it. All I can do is deal with it the best I can, and try to make sure that it doesn't happen to anyone else.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Old Wounds

I waited for a special occasion to write a new blog post here in my old stomping grounds. That special occasion is the release of Russell Lissau's and John Bivens' Old Wounds #1.

I've known Russell for some time now, and I know him to be a good guy. He's an honest guy, as honest as any I've known. And he's a journalist, like David Simon was. So, when I tell you that Old Wounds reads like an episode of The Wire, set in the world of Watchmen, you'll know that I mean business. He's telling a crime story like it is, as he's seen it. And that expert storytelling shows through and gives the world of Old Wounds a gravitas that almost seems too good for a world with powers in it.

The opening of the story focuses on Michael Lane, a former masked adventure called Night Hunter, as police wake him at his door to report the death of someone who used to be close to him. I don't even want to tell you more than that, because I don't want to spoil the blooming of the flower that marks the beginning of this story. It unfolds in a way similar to Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, where layers give way to more layers.

What I will tell you is that the story feels familiar, with settings and imagery evocative of Watchmen (secret identity closet) and The Dark Knight Returns (retired hero missing an arm) but with none of the baggage that go with them. It doesn't feel thirty years old. It feels comfortable, like your favorite sweater that has been freshly cleaned. But as the story progresses, that comfort is only temporary, as Michael and his former partner find themselves embroiled in a mystery that you feel isn't going to go well for them. The danger feels real, and I am genuinely interested in what happens to the characters, even though I just met them.

I can't wait to read more.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's Complicated--The Short Version

Every year on Father's Day, when people are extolling the virtues of fathers who did everything right by them, there's a silent minority who suffer. I choose not to be silent today.
I loved my dad. I miss him all the time. But to say he was a great father, or even a good one would be a lie. I hear people rationalize their fathers' poor behavior by saying, "He did the best he could." Well, to hell with that. Do better.

My father cheated on my mother. He didn't just cheat on her, he cheated on her while my mother was in the hospital recovering from the birth of his son, my brother. When my mother gave him an ultimatum to choose this woman and her children or us, he chose the other woman. We were moved out of our own home when I was almost seven years old to go to live temporarily (or so I thought) with the other woman's husband. Yeah, that was going to turn out well.

I spent the next five years being beaten virtually every day. I was older, so I got it worse than my baby brother--at first. Slapped at first, then spanked, then spanked on bare butt with a metal-sided ruler, then punched, then kicked. The beatings got so bad, that by the time I turned 12, my mother let me go live with my dad, because she thought this man was going to kill me.

My silence was bought with a threat of what would happen to my little brother, who was staying behind. My dad was married to his third wife by then, and her home was not a good environment in which to raise me. He split up with her for my sake. My dad did the best he could for the next six years, at least letting me stay at the same school through junior high and high school. I had moved 13 times before that. That's when recovery began for me, thanks in no small part to my grandmother and my teachers. It's not a coincidence that I became a teacher.

When I graduated and moved on to college, it was my brother's turn. He was getting it worse than I ever did, and the same arrangement was made. My dad took him in, but it did not go as well. My brother had lived with the sadistic man for virtually his whole life, and was a whole different person. My dad had divorced his fourth wife and gone back to his third wife at this point, and this time he chose the woman over his own son before a year was out and sent him back. By this time, we had told him about the abuse. We had explained in detail what had happened and what was going to happen if he was sent back. And he sent him back anyway.

I can forgive almost anything, but not that.

So, I loved my dad, but it's complicated. He saved me, but he saved me from a situation that he helped to create, and those of you who know me know that there are plenty of scars left. I do my best, but it's a fight. Every single day is a battle. And I wish, oh, how I wish that he had done the same for my brother.