It is 2007, and I am in exile. Maybe the year is wrong, this is what happens when years pass and memories soften around the edges. I feel the exile though. Painfully alone. In my early twenties with no sense
of who or what I could possibly be. Staying up all night reading comic books and watching films, desperately trying to connect with something in the ether. Waking up at 4 pm and doing it all over again. I only leave my room to get food. I am pitifully overweight, living once again in my parent’s tiny apartment. I have no job. Even my dreams are truncated. What I see in the pages of my comics is something distant and grander than I could ever hope for. What on Earth does it feel like to fly, anyway?
It’s like there
are two sides of my identity, and in both of them, I feel repressed in some way, unable to connect. And I have tried. Who else would know what it feels like to be Kryptonian and human, to be queer and a geek? I listen to podcasts on a loop through the night, in my bed, eyes closed and thinking of Walt Whitman’s words…
“…surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice”.
I have a job now. It’s later on in 2007. Maybe it’s 2008, who knows. It was a decade ago, let’s not dwell too much on that. Maybe our multiverse has had a reboot since. It certainly feels like it. I have a job, and I am at least leaving the house, but it’s a night job, and I am completely bored. I am walking home at 6 am, there isn’t a single person on the streets. This is a town I have created, like the Beyonder, that power to transform but not to have a complete experience. It is devoid of everything, except voices.
In my ears, voices. That first “Shaz…am!” and the dinky little music. Welcome to Comic Book Queers. A group of friends from Chicago talking all things comics. Hilarious, warm, and a hand reaching out from the other side of the sea with the right voice. Maybe I am not so alone.
I find them on episode 6. It takes me a day to catch up. I sign up for their online forums, my forum name is Merboy. I make friends. I share experiences, my awful blog posts, what I’ve been reading. I write an email to the show, they read it on the air.
I talk to Stevie D, one of the hosts, a lot through MSN. One day I am at work, it’s 11 pm and I am completely bored and numb, and my dreams are still not dreams. I have just eaten enough takeaway food for two people. I am not a happy person. I am not desired. He sends me a link to a noodle restaurant in Chicago.
“This is where I will be taking you on our first date.”
I’m not deluded. What are the odds we will ever meet? But for that one moment, the voice of Comic Book Queers goes beyond a one-way avenue. Maybe someone in the world finds some worth in me, maybe there’s an Earth-2 somewhere, and I am attractive to someone. The next week I buy a step machine and start eating salads.
On Free Comic Book Day, Stevie D understands my exile. He sends me a stack of free comics in the post, including a mini-comic about a Merboy he got at a convention. I send him an old issue of Dazzler #1 in Spanish. It’s just about the campest, tackiest appropriate thing I can think of sending him. He loves it. The show starts dramatic readings of Dazzler live with a full cast. He always teases me that one day they’ll do it in Spanish.
We do a podcast episode together once on John Francis Moore and Adam Pollina’s run on X-Force. We both have a great time, and confess to each other afterwards, laughing, that we were too lazy to re-read the books before the episode. He says we should do a podcast together. I say one day I’ll find the time and we can be cranky live on the air.
I am not one for phone calls. I am not one for “hey how are you?” messages. I can’t say we delve heavily into each other’s private lives, but we are there
. We are two people on monitor duty asking what each thought of the Avengers movie. We are there for “Hey I went to this convention and saw this and thought of you”. We are there to be cranky, and cynical. To fix plot points in terrible comics, and to long for a return to the Bronze Age.
It’s 2015, maybe. Less than a decade but I am still bad at years unless it’s for comic books. We’ve both given up on monthlies at this point, anyway. He’s in London, just for a short while. I rush home from university to see him. University! I am no longer in exile. We meet at Retro Bar, just off the Strand in London. I meet his boyfriend. He meets my soon to be husband. Who’d have ever thought?
It’s like coming home. It’s like he’s always been there, and this is just a monthly catch-up. He is warmer, taller, more handsome and more charming than I ever imagined. He ribs me gently about being cute, he ribs himself about his height. We fix the world of comics in person. We lose every second to hypertime. I promise to come and see him in Chicago. Maybe next year. Maybe next year after that.
He tells me about his sickness in the most matter of fact way possible, and I appreciate it because we are both the same that way. We make an agreement that I’ll check in from time to time, and he’ll keep me informed, but this will not become the focus of anything. That’s the way he wants it; it’s a Kryptonian language we both understand.
I invite him to our wedding. It is this year. We are now in 2018. There is no reminiscing in four colours. He is better, but it doesn’t look logistically likely that he can come. I start making plans to visit Chicago next year. I want to see him, I want to see the comic shops and all the places I imagined in exile, all the things my life could be through these voices direct from someone’s living room.
He starts a new podcast. I promise to call in live sometime. He cancels a few of them. He says it’s mostly for treatment.
I always think the worst.
Identity Crisis #6
I email him and tell him everything he ever did for me, and how I hope he understands how he changed my life, just by starting a podcast. He replies in typical Stevie D style, that wryness with the underpinnings of genuine affection. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I send him a message about the DC Comics exhibition I saw in London. He doesn’t reply until a couple of weeks later. I am on honeymoon. It is August 13th, 2018. I have very little access to the internet, we are sailing the Baltic Sea. Maybe this is the closest I’ll ever get to flying. Look at me now. You helped me get here. I don’t think he ever got that part, not totally.
“Very cool! Hopefully it’ll come this way” he replies.
Three days later I get an email from my friend Randy, telling me Stevie has passed away.
Wonder Woman #175
What do we do with all this? It’s a strange feeling, especially when you are not there, in the moment. When that person exists, but they exist to you often at the click of a button. The messages stop, yes. The world collapses somehow, a dying star on a parallel Earth slowly sucking its citizens out of existence, but the memories remain.
My good friend Randy was someone I met on the Comic Book Queers podcast. Through Stevie, we met and build a friendship that has lasted a decade. Randy and his husband Tom came to my wedding, their wedding present was a tailored waistcoat I wore on the day. These things last, they are tangible. There is a thread that starts with Stevie and makes its way across the world.
With Randy, I feel like we’re two survivors of some intergalactic war. Stevie would love that, forever memorised through heroic sacrifice, with one middle finger at everyone as he flew right into the sun.
It’s a language I can use with Randy, but I am muted by grief. It’s not coming out of me the way it would for everyone else. It doesn’t anyway, even when I’ve attended funerals of people I have seen almost every day.
So how do I honour this man, this friend? I thought this piece would be cathartic enough, but I think every time I pick up a comic book, he’ll be there on the pages. I’ll reach out for my phone to tell him something, to ask him something, to complain about the way they’re handling something, and I’ll realise all I have is August 13th, a frozen reply to everything.
Adventure Comics #312
Maybe I can delude myself happily into thinking that in 100 issues from now, something will find a way to bring him back, so what’s the point in sadness?
For now, that’s all I have. I have thought of donating to charity, of sending flowers, of drinking to his life, celebrating it in some way.
I can do all these things, I have done some of these things, but nothing seems heroic enough. For a man who helped set me on this path of dreams I am on today, who gave me a cape and said “fly, goddamit”, there must be more.
I will spend the rest of my life thinking of ways to attract the lightning to the life of my friend Stevie.