While reading Last Night, A Superhero a Saved My Life (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2016), I was struck by how emotionally invested I became in these tales of lives saved and redeemed by comic books’ four-color worlds of wonder. Not surprised, mind you, but simply reminded of just how essential comic book characters are to so many of us, and how we carry them with us as personal avatars even into adulthood. There is a lot of talk now about our cinemas, bookstores, and popular culture in general being saturated by superheroes and other comic book properties. Those that bemoan this current cultural ascendancy of what was previously considered ghettoized genre work, meant for shy nerds and socially challenged geeks, are often missing the point. Comics tell stories, in much the same way as our most cherished works of literature, myths, and legends always have. That characters sport otherworldly powers and wear outlandish attire is simply window dressing (extremely fun window dressing for fans, mind you). Those that can’t see past the fantastical surface with comic books will likely be unable to understand what makes an anthology like this so life affirming. Some of us, while reading comics and science fiction and other genre stories, came to better understand ourselves, flaws and all. It must be nice to simply be confident or self-motivated, but for most of us we need a little help getting within a few blocks of those neighborhoods. We aren’t always sure that we have the strength to do everything life demands of us. We look to these stories and characters as ways to inspire us to reach further than we ever believed we could.
The writers chosen for this collection understand how these qualities encourage such fervent love and affection for comics from readers. The best essays in the anthology offer personal reflections that are inextricably linked to a given writer’s beloved comic book character of choice. These chapters provide honest and touching stories that would not seem out of place in an anthology that wasn’t related to comics. Some of the contributions are more lighthearted and occasionally a bit less memorable. Big names like Brad Meltzer, Neil Gaiman, and Jodi Picoult contribute chapters, each previously published elsewhere. The most effective contributions share something important in common: they reveal not only how superheroes saved the writers’ lives, but also why they needed saving in the first place. The anthology’s editor, Liesa Mignogna, writes about growing up with a single mother who was doing her best to keep them afloat while she struggled with degenerative spinal issues, mental illness, and post-traumatic stress after being the victim of a carjacking and sexual assault. Mignogna reveals how, through all of this, Batman was always there for her and proved to her that madness need not always breed more madness. Leigh Bardugo looks at how fraught a woman’s body issues are and how Wonder Woman helped her to be both more bold and thoughtful about her own body. She gains strength from Wonder Woman’s ability to own her audacious undies-on-the-outside look and, similar to how the hero uses her Amazonian bracelets to deflect harm, Bardugo learned to deflect the male gaze as necessary. Brendan Deneen’s determination to be a writer was cemented at a young age when, having sent Grendel creator Matt Wagner a short story he’d written, he received back a note of encouragement from the author: “Your story is very good. Keep writing.” Ron Currie, Jr. describes how Wolverine satisfied his twelve-year-old enthusiasm for “righteous badassery,” making a case for the adamantium-enhanced mutant being the ideal representation of the postfeminist male. Charles Yu puts into words something that all comic book fans eventually come to realize: our conceptions of the universe, time, and space, are all shaped early on through reading fantastical stories like the ones in the shared Marvel universe.
The stories told by Jamie Ford and Karina Cooper were particularly moving. Ford’s essay reads like a perfect mix of personal reflection and literary nonfiction and will ring true for anyone who’s had even a slightly similar experience. He recounts how, at the same time that he was reading Frank Miller’s classic, epic, and sweeping love story of Daredevil and Elektra, he was living through a similarly tumultuous teen romance. Allison (“my Elektra,” as Ford refers to her) weaved in and out of his life for years, similar to how her comics’ counterpart kept returning to torment her one true love, Matt Murdock/Daredevil. Decades later, on a tour for his first novel (which was about long-lost love, of course), Ford is asked by an audience member about his first love. While relaying a story about Allison as part of his response, he looked into the audience and there, tenderly smiling, laughing, and nodding along, sat Allison. Keeping with her mysterious ways, she disappeared after the lecture was over, leaving Ford to wonder “if she was ever there at all.”
Karina Cooper sees parallels in how she and Rogue both have the power to wreck others’—and their own—lives if they get too close to anyone. Surviving sexual abuse as a child, along with a family life that was in a constant state of upheaval, Cooper became “present in a physical form but emotionally detached” as a teenager. She found some relief working at a comic book shop, where she rediscovered her love for Rogue, a love that originated years earlier while watching the ’90s X-Men animated series with her brother. Rogue’s mutant power meant that with a simple touch she could put anyone, including her soulmate Gambit, in a coma. This sort of isolation shaped Rogue in ways similar to Cooper’s own sense of detachment during a less than ideal childhood. Cooper finds love with a kind, patient, and compassionate man, one she eventually feels safe opening up to, something she never dared dream would happen for her. Before they started dating, he gave her a mix CD with an image of Rogue and Gambit on the cover, not knowing about her strong connection to the character at the time. There it is again: comics helping to bring someone closer to feeling a little less broken, and instead, more loved.
Like the writers in this anthology, my life is also filled with moments where the right book or character came along at the right time to help me persevere. For instance, during my awkward preteen and teen years, reading Cloak and Dagger, Spider-Man, and X-Men comics helped an extremely introverted kid like me, who sometimes simply felt too shy to speak in certain social situations, to feel like there was still hope that I could find ways to express myself through art and writing. To quote Karina Cooper’s essay, “In the pages of that comic I found something I hadn’t yet learned to articulate: I found me.” Comic books, like their cinematic cousin the b-movie, or their prose partners in the science fiction/fantasy genres, often speak most profoundly to young people when they’re taking those first uneasy steps out of childhood and into adolescence. And because attachments to these stories and characters often form at a young age, they tend to stick with us for a lifetime, saving us time and time again, in those moments when we need them the most.