The year: 1974.
The place: The Weldon family dinner table.
The players: A 6-year-old me; my 12-year-old brother.
I don't remember what set me off. Some run-of-the-mill older-brother-on-younger-brother dust-up, probably.
Maybe he'd called my superhero action figures "dolls" again. (This was his go-to, and he went there most days.) Or maybe he'd jeered at my abiding love of Sesame Street, a program (he took great pains to insist, with the wise, world-weary tone all 6th-graders seemed to possess) that was "for babies. Are YOOUUUU a BAAAAYYYYBY?"
Or maybe the violence was physical: Perhaps he'd knuckle-punched me in the shoulder — just the once, but hard — for asking him to change the channel because The Space Giants was coming on.
What's important is that I'd finally had enough. I wasn't angry so much as puzzled - deeply, profoundly puzzled. Why, I wondered, wasn't he more like Greg Brady? Greg Brady wasn't a jerk (yes, there was that unfortunate Johnny Bravo incident, but that had quickly passed). Greg Brady hung out with Peter and Bobby all the time. (Bobby, for God's sake! I was way more fun than Bobby!) Greg Brady smiled a lot.
The questions churned inside me that entire afternoon: What was wrong with my brother? Why did he regard me — when he regarded me at all — with such disdain? By the time we sat down to my mother's Chicken Tahitian, I was ready.
"Pass the fruit cocktail, spaz," said my brother.
There it was again: That casual anger toward me that seemed so umprompted, so sourceless, yet such a central part of his character, a thing that defined his very being, the essential him-ness of him.
I stared ahead, at the bowl of fruit cocktail. And I did not reach for it.
"You know what you are?" I said quietly, levelly. I lifted my face to his. My eyes narrowed to slits. Behind those slits burned the memory of a (brief, yes) lifetime's worth of insults, punches, noogies. My body seethed with a rage I'd learned to hone in the lawless Thunderdome that was Mrs. Cartwright's afternoon kindergarten, but I kept it throttled.
I could feel my parents' eyes on me, could sense their confusion at the prospect of their quiet one, their goody two-shoes, looking suddenly so ... different.
Did they hold their breath? I like to think they did.
"You," I said to my brother, my voice cool, removed, as if I were a naturalist noting some detail of his winter coloration, "are an enigma."
Then I passed the fruit cocktail.
Enigma, meaning puzzle, mystery, a riddle that defies easy explanation. It was a word I'd picked up from a comic book. From the Riddler, in point of fact.
Comics had taught me a lot of words like that. And other things too.
After the jump: The definition of "yegg"; teenagers are cruel and unbearable; mutants really seem to cheese people off; and other life lessons kids learn from comics.
Don't get me wrong: Many of the words I learned from comics never showed up in the verbal section of the SAT, but their frequent appearances in a medium I loved exposed me to them early, and couched them in a clear, unmistakable visual context that was, very literally, illustrative.
Batman comics, for example, came densely packed with the vocabulary of rank criminality.
Six-year-old me learned that henchmen were those burly types who kept finding themselves on the business end of the Caped Crusader's fists, and that they were also called goons, lackeys or minions. Safecrackers were called yeggs.
Henchmen worked for one of Batman's foes, or nemeses (in the case of the Joker, his arch-foe/arch-nemesis). They were dastardly rogues and mountebanks. They pulled heists, unless foiled by the Darknight Detective. Once foiled, the villain would turn to Batman and inform him, "You will rue this day!"
Batman would send criminals to the penitentiary, or the asylum. But first they would face the legal process: a District Attorney, evidence, exhibits and alibis.
Superman taught me what it meant to be invulnerable, except in the presence of a radioactive element from his home world.
Iron Man taught me exoskeleton, and, of course, invincible.
Dr. Strange taught me — well, a hell of a lot of words that looked dangerous and magical on the comics page, but sounded less so whenever I intoned them with as much portentousness as a 6-year-old kid in a Keep On Truckin' t-shirt could muster: Sanctum Sanctorum, sigil, ethereal, aegis, eldritch, orb, arcane.
Even the superhero costume itself came with its own secret language: Cowl, tunic, domino mask, utility belt, acetylene torch.
On Beyond X-Men: Life Lessons
Of course, the young me learned a great deal more than simply a random assortment of words he would spend the rest of his life inserting into sentences where they would not necessarily belong anti-matter excelsior.
The stories comics tell have much to teach the young about the social contract, the life of the mind, and how to get an early jump on body dysmorphic disorder.
Good Always Triumphs Over Evil
As long as we're careful to define "triumph" as "inconveniences slightly, for like a month."
Teenagers Are Just Awful, Awful People
When the super-powered teens of the Legion of Super-Heroes comic weren't playing cruel jokes on their teammates to prove some dubious point or another, they were lying to one another because they harbored trust issues, turning evil, or whining about their relationships. Ditto the Teen Titans, the young X-Men and a whole host of teen heroes since: Self-absorbed, hormonal jerks, all. (The great James Kochalka's just-published Superf*ckers, a candy-colored but darkly twisted mashup of scatology and spandex, simply takes this long-established comic book tradition to its very funny, and very extreme ... extreme.)
Reading the exploits of teenagers made me dread the onset of puberty like it was Sunday School. But oilier.
Boy, Nobody Likes A Mutant, Hunh? Jeez.
I was a precocious kid, sure, but I wasn't remotely sensitive to subtext, and the X-Men comic's organizing principle — its commentary on how we, as a society, deal with The Other — sailed way over my head. No; to me, the message was punishingly literal:
It would suck to be a mutant.
Old People Need Medicine. Like, A LOT of Medicine. All the Time.
Let's just leave it at this: Peter Parker's Aunt May really got on my last, 6-year-old nerve.
Meanwhile, Back at the Dinner Table
It was quiet for a long time. My brother stared across the table at me - frowning, as usual. But did I detect something else? A slight reddening of his cheek? No; just my imagination, surely.
I don't remember my parents' reaction, if they had one.
What I do remember, very clearly, is how the dimensions of the room itself seemed to change. The word had done that, had gone out and reshaped that avocado-gold kitchen, slightly distorted it such that I now took up a tiny bit more space than I had before.
It wouldn't change life in the Weldon household much; I soon came to realize that the answer to the puzzle of my older brother was that he was, simply, an older brother, and his behavior was a function of his species.
But words had power, I remember thinking. Well, not just words themselves. The right word, used to convey exactly what you intend, at exactly the right time, can make a difference, can make you feel ... what was the word?