Thursday, June 9, 2011

Marvel's Menagerie of Miscreant Martyrs!

Benjamin J. Grimm of The Fantastic Four, crotchety hero inside, monster outside. It's
all about appearances. Or is it? From FF #51, arguably Lee and Kirby's finest moment.

My friend Donna G., who has been awfully nice to me through all of this, sent me the following extract:. I've edited it slightly for brevity:

Paul Collins, author of Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism, interviewed on the public radio program Speaking of Faith: “[Star Trek's Mr. Spock] has one foot in the human world, and the other one isn't. He's trying to figure it out and trying to somehow reconcile this. That's one of the reasons that a lot of autistic people find him to be such a sympathetic character, because his situation mirrors their own. They are very much part of our world. And yet, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to them. And particularly ... there is so much to social interactions that can't really be explained very logically. You just have to intuit them. And when you actually try to sit down and explain it to someone, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”

Oh, my. I never thought of it that way. But 'tis true. And the list of heroes for people like me does not begin to end there.

A lot has been written about the not-so-deeply hidden "gay agenda" in the X-Men movie series (and people like Brian Singer and Sir Ian McKellan don't deny it). . . but that "agenda" is really nothing more than a new wrinkle grafted onto an already existing subtext in the original Marvel comic books. Teenage angst comes in many forms, and Stan Lee was probably the very first to exploit it on a grand scale as the Editor-in-Chief and Global Mastermind behind Marvel Comics.

The Marvel heroes were socially awkward, but secretly powerful. Not every Marvel fan has Asperger's Syndrome, but now I understand why I was drawn to a particular "spectrum" of characters in the Marvel Universe: the Freaks.

I started reading comics in the first place thanks to a brief piece in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section that focussed on the late Steve Gerber's best-known creation, Howard the Duck. This cigar-chomping, endearingly grouchy waterfowl who referred to humans as hairless apes was stranded in our reality when the Cosmic Axis shifted and dragged him through a wormhole from another dimension. The tagline printed on the cover of every issue could not have been more specific: "TRAPPED IN A WORLD HE NEVER MADE!"

That was just how I felt. Still feel.

Few writers in the Marvel stable really understood The Incredible Hulk; even Stan the Man himself had a hard time figuring out how to use the character at first. For my money, Rascally Roy Thomas was the first one to get it right, essentially portraying Ol' Greenskin as a full-blown Autistic, which underscores the character's dangerous element: imagine all that power literally in the hands of a five-year old with a deep set of communication and emotion-management issues. In later days, Roger Stern was the only other writer who "got" it.

Up to a point in the early eighties, I own every issue of The Incredible Hulk ever published. He was my absolute favorite. I knew all about meltdowns and their consequences. Doctor Robert Bruce Banner, who could devise the nation's first and only Gamma Bomb, can't handle basic interpersonal relationships -- and when he gets mad, you'd best be moving out of his way quickly. Banner could be the poster boy for Asperger's Syndrome.

My absolute favorite issue of The Incredible Hulk is still the one in which Roy Thomas introduced Doc Samson, a neurotypical scientist who, in the name of curing Bruce Banner, steals the Hulk's power, pumps himself up into an Adonis, and then moves in on Banner's girlfriend, Betty Ross. This pisses off Banner so much that he sneaks back into the lab and re-exposes himself to gamma radiation in order to become the Hulk again. The Green-skinned Aspie and the pumped-up neurotypical square off against each other, with the over-confident Samson not realizing that he has all the power of the Hulk -- when the Hulk is calm. But Jade-Jaws isn't calm any more. He's pissed. And, as was expressed in almost every issue, "The madder the Hulk gets, the stronger the Hulk gets."

The ehm, "disagreement" ends with the total humiliation of that sand-kicking Doc Samson. Unfortunately, when Betty goes running out onto the scene of battle, it isn't the Hulk that she goes running to. We last see Ol' Greenskin standing alone in the street, looking on at Doc Samson cradled in Betty's arms, knowing that he's lost something, but, for the life of him, not being able to figure out what that something is.

*Choke* Gets me every time.

I used Benjamin J. Grimm for my graphic this time because the image came readily to hand, and because the message reflects how Autism and Asperger's children feel. But The Thing is really a very different case -- which is perhaps why the fabulous Fantastic Four were an acquired taste for me. Ben Grimm is a 100 percent neurotypical, a jock, to be honest, who happens to be trapped in the body of a . . . well, a rocky orange thing. He doesn't represent Asperger's or Autism because he totally gets the neurotypical world. But his physical appearance is so severe that he feels humiliated and shies away from social contact. Consider it a really, really bad case of acne.

You see, Marvel Comics was an Equal Opportunity exploiter of the fears that Young People have. If you know of a child who is suffering from anxieties of any sort, I would suggest identifying a corresponding character in the Marvel Universe and putting the stories in their hands. NOT the current stuff -- the classics, Marvel circa 1962 to 1969. It's all out there.

Discovering comics, in the years after I graduated from high school, when I had already read "serious" writers like William Faulkner and George Orwell and James Thurber and Anais Nin, really opened some doors in my head. But that's for another post.

-- Freder.

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