Marvel and Meaning, Part 1: Just Bananas

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When I need food, I drive past the local grocery at the bottom of my hill and hang a right on the way to the Von’s, a chain supermarket farther down the boulevard. But today I just need bananas and I’m not driving through a half dozen stoplights just for dang bananas. I will, however, drive to the local grocery at the bottom of the hill. So, hello again, local grocery. I haven’t seen you since I realized you don’t carry kale. On this muggy summer weekday afternoon, I’m here for a couple of whatever sad bananas you’ve got in your bin, hopefully more yellow than black.

Cormac McCarthy once told an interviewer that at his age, he doesn’t buy green bananas anymore. As you get older, you’re attuned to these indicators from those who’ve gone before. What do they see up there and how will it look when I get there? Does it really prey on your mind that you might be dead within a week? I mean, that’s true for all of us, but it’s more true for some than others. That slighty exaggerated but thunderously simple observation on buying produce burrowed into my mind and took up residence. Now banana purchases make me think about mortality. 

But not today, because the moment I lay eyes on these bananas, I am delighted. First, plenty of them are insistently green, which is just the way I like them. A green banana can survive in my kitchen for days to come! It will have a long life on the shelf where I’ve decided bananas live, patiently waiting until its service is required. The only thing sadder than finally giving up on a banana you bought and dropping its blackened saggy corpse into the trash is giving up on a whole bunch of bananas you bought. “If only I were making banana bread,” you muse, pondering the spotted carcasses splayed among coffee grounds, medical packaging, and paper towels. The faint scent of banana lingers even after the trashcan lid has closed. 

But second and far more important, I am delighted by these bananas because each bunch is adorned with a Marvel sticker depicting one of the Avengers. I must have them! I check to make sure no produce authorities are watching. An elderly fellow draws near and waits for his turn at the banana bin, but he’s Cormac McCarthy’s age, so he won’t want any of these green bananas. Plus he’s an adult, so he won’t want any of these Marvel bananas. I pluck a single stickered banana from each bunch and collect a Black Widow, an Iron Man, a Captain America, and a Hulk. The bananas are as green as Hulk himself. 

At the cashier, I put the handful of loose bananas on the conveyer belt. The woman all but rolls her eyes that I hadn’t simply grabbed a bunch. “Regular or organic?” she asks.

“Well,” I begin, “They’re not organic but they’re not regular either. Because, look, they have superheroes on the-“

“Regular,” she says, uninterested in my nonsense and not even looking at me. I think about telling her which four Avengers I’d gotten, but then I would drop in her estimation from jerkwad to asshole. She can’t see me grinning as I pay my $1.79, because I have a mask on. I hurry home to show someone. Anyone. You. I’m a grown man who would normally be pondering the imminent death of one of this country’s greatest literary figures, and here I am excited about four dumb stickers on four dumb bananas. Time was I would have stood aside to let the elderly gentleman grab his bananas first, and then I might have chuckled at the stickers, grabbed one bunch, and if someone happened to be at the house when I was looking at my bananas on the shelf where I’ve decided bananas live, I might have pointed at them and chuckled.

“Can you believe it?” I would have said, every bit as uninterested as the cashier. I wouldn’t have even cared which Avenger I grabbed. It could have been Black Widow or Iron Man for all I would have cared.

But today I’m taking a picture of stickers on bananas and thinking about texting it to a friend or maybe Tweeting it, but deciding it’s time to talk about Marvel instead of just wallowing in it. Because that’s what I’ve been doing. Shamelessly wallowing in Marvel nonsense of various types. I’ve had a long strange year for many reasons, sickness being one of them, isolation another, how I consume entertainment yet another. And I think they might be related in some disjointed slurry of existentialism, comic books, videogames, movies, TV shows, and the most ludicrously lucrative and slapdash colorful kiddie entertainment boondoggle this side of Star Wars (rest in peace). 

Previously, I had dismissed Marvel’s relevance to me as nothing more than a well for filmmakers to draw from. So what happened? Why do I now have opinions about certain expressions of this mythology? Why do I have opinions about certain characters, certain storylines, even certain issues of certain comic books? What happened that made me actually care enough to read the source material and why haven’t I stopped in favor of reading something more…edifying? Why am I insanely excited about reading a series of comics someone is sending me next week? Where is Tom Chick and what have I done with him?

I have several answers and in the coming weeks, I’d like to share them with you. But first, I’d like to explain my opinion about comic books themselves. Despite years of gently trolling my friends, I’ve never looked down on comic books. Lord knows, I read my share as a kid. I wasn’t interested in superheroes, but I still read comics. I remember Richie Rich and imagining what it would be like to be so wealthy I could have anything I wanted. I remember Archie and imagining what it would be like to be a teenager. I read volumes of Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County and I devoured whatever comic strips I could find in newspapers, but I couldn’t have been less interested in stories about people in capes with magical powers to punch really hard. I mean, what was Dungeons & Dragons? Chopped liver? Why would I look at picturebooks about people in capes with magical powers to punch really hard when my half-elf ranger was already one of those himself?

My overall takeaway of superhero comics — I still believe this — was that they’re power fantasies for children, helping to teach them that power should exist within the contexts of responsibility, compassion, and protecting the vulnerable. These are valuable lessons to teach people, especially in secular cultures where those values aren’t imparted through religious mythology. Does that sound patronizing? I don’t mean it to be. Because I’m aware that comics can be more than stories for children. Some comic books have been appropriated for tremendously relevant and meaningful movies: Dark Knight as a Greek tragedy about how Apollo and Dionysus can go round and round all they want, but the people will ultimately have to save themselves; Black Panther as a triumphant paean to multiculturalism, a repudiation of isolationism, and the coronation of a new celebrity mere years before he would die; Logan as a grimly loving commitment to family and responsibility and all the hassles that entails without once mouthing blandishments about “family”. I still couldn’t have cared less about actual Batman comics, actual Black Panther comics, or actual Wolverine comics. Why would I when I have these stories instead? But I knew that comics were just a medium, and surely they have their own Dark Knight, Black Panther, and Logan, right?

This dismissal of comics was never judgmental about the people who read them. I was still fascinated by people who follow comics with the same passion I follow movies, or opera, or videogames, or McCarthy novels. Interest is inherently interesting. Heck, I had tried comic books myself as an adult! Many many years ago, my brother-in-law loaned me his copies of three graphic novels: Watchmen, some Frank Miller Batman thing, and a third thing. I read all three and discovered I have difficulty with the format. When I read a book or watch a movie or listen to music, it flows. It moves at a deliberate pace without my help. My eyes know where to go and my ears know if they’re needed. My mind knows which doors to hold open, which to leave ajar, and which to firmly shut. I know how to be a vessel for other people’s stories. It’s one of my favorite things in life. 

But I never learned to read a comic book. To me, it felt like walking through a museum when I’m not sure what pace to keep. Is this room important? If I lollygag here, am I stealing time from something spectacular in the next room? Do I really need to read all these placards? Can I just skim? How much time should I look at this picure? When have I seen all I need to see? Should I be studying some pictures carefully, or do I just read the words and let the pictures slide by? When I returned the three graphic novels and said they weren’t for me, I was worried he would feel obligated to keep loaning me more until I liked them. So I told him that while I kind of enjoyed the third thing, the Batman and Watchmen weren’t for me. But then he and my sister divorced — nothing to do with comic books! — and that was that. I was off the hook.

But over the years, I adjusted to the format. I’ve appreciated some non-superhero comic books — not Richie Rich or Archie, but indie stuff about normal people you won’t find on banana stickers — and especially some Japanese horror. Talk about having to learn how to read comic books! It’s still weird to me that English translations of Japanese comics are read from back to front throughout, and right to left on each page. But if I can read Uzumaki, how hard can some superhero thing be? 

So years after handing back those three graphic novels, I got to thinking about that third comic book he loaned me. I’m not sure why it popped back up in my mind, but I’m pretty sure it was related to some videogame brawler. Perhaps Activision’s original Marvel Ultimate Alliance? Marvel Ultimate Alliance: Hardly Any Of These Guys Are Even In A Movie Yet. Diablo but with a rogue’s gallery of pre-made characters drawn in simple strokes. Wait, hold on, back up. It might have been Freedom Force, where I realized goofy superheroes who didn’t belong to any comic book company can be characters in well written stories. Or maybe it was just simple curiosity, born from nothing in particular.

But for whatever reason, I got to thinking about that third comic book. Hmm, I thought. Just “hmm”. Nothing too deep, nothing obsessive, not even that interested, just kind of idly wondering, thinking back, going “hmm”, and at some point, ending up with my own copy of that third thing. And reading it. And really liking it this time. And the whole point of that third comic was that it was Marvel. My brother-in-law wanted me to read a DC comic, a Marvel comic, and whatever Watchmen was supposed to be. In the long run, many years later, it was the Marvel comic that finally “took”.

My theory is that’s where it all started, even if I didn’t know it yet.

Up next: My first Marvel character is also someone you won’t find on a banana sticker

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