Wednesday, February 18, 2009
What exactly is wrong with telling a lie?
This is a question every fourteen year-old must ponder, the indoctrination of virtue not yet fully ingrained in their fragile psyche, the juices of rebellion still giving crunch to the soul – the primal bite that counters growing civility.
I was struggling with the ancient moral conundrum, one late spring day in 1978, crouched behind my parent’s bed, the cord of their phone pulled all the way from my father’s dresser, its coils as taut as the truth I was busy stretching. Desperately trying not to giggle, I was conjuring up the cover to The Secret Society of Super Villains No. 14, a comic book that had yet to be published. Carefully describing this phantom of the near-future to my best friend Derek, as if it were the naked body of Bonnie Gramley, the Farrah-Fawcett of our eighth grade class, I was acting on a ruthless cunning nearly the equal of that exhibited by the costumed bad guys in our favorite comic.
Derek, like myself, was a victim of the four-color obsession, another innocent seduced by the harmful lure of pulp literature. He and I were equals in a ludicrous fascination over one of the more negligible comic books ever published, a title whose concept was so thin it fairly reeked of the marketing room. My great act of deception that boring spring afternoon was merely a symptom of this irrational fixation, one that would forever rupture a friendship, though it could hardly have been known at the time.
As we grow in this life, we learn that others can be hurt by the utterance of a thing as seemingly benign as a lie, both emotionally and physically, often ruining relationships, reputations, even livelihoods. We discover that the untruth we weave between cunning hands is a cord of infinity, a ligature of probability, one with which we will willingly cut the oxygen from fact, murdering history in the process.
Derek was about my height, with curly, sand-colored hair and heavy-lidded eyes. He always seemed to be somewhere else, his mind distant, slow to respond, especially when we were at his house, the old Craftsman located just down the road from the volunteer fire hall, next to an antique shop that never seemed to be open, its dusty windows stuffed with colorful and enticing things, forever to remain mysteries. His house was marked by a certain strangeness, an air of unease that I could only presume came from his younger brother, who was severely autistic, a boy trapped inside himself, crawling about the house like some injured crab. His thump, as he made his way up the carpeted stairs, digging at each step with his hip, hoisting himself like a sack of potatoes, was a common sound. Often I’d hear it, like Poe’s beating heart, while sitting upstairs at Derek’s bedroom desk, drawing or writing the latest of the numerous super hero fanzines we produced under the banner of DJ Comics. It was an unnerving atmosphere, one only made more so by the presence of Derek’s two older sisters, dark-haired beauties who lingered like sirens in unseen rooms, biding their time, until the day they would lure me into their intoxicating physicality.
DJ Comics was the glue of my friendship with Derek, an enterprise identical to many others I’d experienced, the creative course to allegiance that has colored my life. We had begun earlier that year, with the first issue of Deadly Duo, a team-up comic featuring two super villains of my creation, SweatBee and Conductor, a production that had me cribbing panels from dozens of Marvel and DC comics, redressing the likes of The Wasp and Spiderman with costumes that Derek had created. This was, in fact, his only real role in the DJ bullpen, apart from hand- coloring the covers to the dozen or so duplicates we’d make on the copy machine at the cluttered department store his father managed. I would write the stories, Marvel-style, making them up as I went along, flipping through our combined comic collections for the next suitable image to swipe, adding the off-the-cuff dialog at the very end of the process.
It was through such avid devotion to the genre that we first met. Derek had been trading comics with another budding nerd, at the back of the school bus, passing around bright objects that had caught my eye, hinting at the feverish hours we’d wile away together over the next fifteen months or so, the willing surrender to fantasy that would culminate in my lie, and the lurid glee I experienced fabricating a comic I knew would have Derek drooling like an addict.
Much like our own amateur effort, The Secret Society of Super Villains exclusively featured a roster of “do-badders”. That we were both so attracted to the rogue side of the super-powered equation made my little crime more than a bit ironic. There I was, feeding a mutual desire, the mad anticipation we both regularly suffered, waiting the eternity for next month’s comics to fill the rack at the drugstore. It was a reality wherein the truth was forever held at bay, our imaginations fixating on the tiny blurbs that teased of the coming issue’s content. It was with this impetus of madness that I found myself that fateful afternoon, doing the devil’s work in my fiendish retreat, half-covered by the curtain of my parent’s bedspread, luring my best friend into a wicked trap, having decided that, no, there was nothing wrong with telling a lie. Wasn’t I just using my imagination, after all?
Perhaps the real question to ask is, just what is pure of fancy? What is free from the shadow of falsity? What action, what thought, what feeling we experience in this maddeningly elusive existence is utterly free from fabrication? How many times a day does the parent lie to the child, doing so only with the child’s good in mind, as much reflected through their own fears as those they imagine belong to their offspring? And how often are we hurt more by the truth than the lie? Who hasn’t used the knowledge of the truth to hurt someone? And to what great sanctity do we ascribe such a truth? Can we save face while acknowledging the noble lie?
It is circuitous questions like these that have given birth to culture as we know it, this structure of so-called reasoned living we call society, the order of things based on the demarcation of good and evil, of right and wrong. It is this wholly subjective blanket, the companion we clung to as infants, hide behind, hold for confidence, eventually crawling from the crib still clinging to it, that carries with us the rest of our lives, reappointed as morality, the key to gods and heroes and the fiction that reflects their image.
Of all the American comic books I puzzled over as a teenager, it was The Secret Society that spoke to those questions of right and wrong still bubbling in the puritanical cauldron, the artistically tepid title that Derek and I had nevertheless feasted our imaginations on, like Golding’s savages dancing about the head of their slaughtered pig. Published by DC Comics, from June 1976 to July 1978, lasting a mere fifteen issues, it was one of a few titles testing the appeal of the “anti-hero”. This appetite had already been sensed in The Joker, the Batman foe’s own brief, self-appointed title, also Marvel’s bad cop/bad cop curiosity, Super Villain Team-Up, which pitted the infamous Victor Von Doom in cahoots with a different up-and-coming baddie each issue, often turning upon one another by the end, there being no honor in thieves or super villains, it would seem.
I remember clearly the day Derek showed me his copy of the thirteenth issue of our favorite comic, something I wouldn’t acquire until a week later. I was sitting at his little desk, hunched over the enticing publication, staring at the art, trying not to spoil the story before I had my own copy. So transfixed was I in the doings of Gorilla Grodd, Sinestro and Star Sapphire, that I didn’t even hear the younger of Derek’s two sisters approach me from behind. A plump girl with dark hair, she was as fully bosomed as most mothers. Without warning, she pressed her herself against me, wrapping her arms about my scrawny chest, leaning over my shoulder. “What are you reading?” she asked, her voice a wet purr in my ear. She moved herself against my back, side to side, like a cat marking a banister. “Secret Society,” I croaked, my face burning, not daring to turn and look, feeling her breath on my hair, her warm softness. The fact that, just the week before, her older sister had walked into the same room, wearing only peach-colored underwear (such things one doesn't forget), gasping in a mock surprise when she saw Derek and I huddled over our latest self-publishing project, made me only more nervous. The thoughts I’d been entertaining of her had put a dawning libido on full alert. Slim, but with the same dark, straight hair, the older sister was the true object of my lust, a girl so perfect in form I’d secretly been drawing her every time I traced another panel of Star Sapphire, cavorting about in her pink, evil-doer’s bathing suit. That Derek gave all of our female characters skimpy costumes, enabling me to indicate the luscious lines of meeting breasts, made the sister’s always imminent presence all the more uncomfortable. “Is it any good?” the younger sister asked, now playing with my hair, her full weight against me. “It’s OK,” I managed, closing my eyes, wishing she would go away, the desire to turn and put my face right into her was overwhelming, so much so it terrified me. I was still a year or two away from learning first-hand of that magnetic pull between animals in heat, the compulsion of the sexes, a thing as inherent as our capacity to lie in the face of what we perceive as the truth.
As a fourteen year-old, still navigating a new country, as well as his own increasingly foreign body, the lure of the super-powered individual who chose to turn on society and its demanded code of righteousness, was strong. It played into my general dislike of the “boring characters”, the ever-popular Superman and Wonder Woman, the messiah-like emblems of virtue.
I generally preferred super villains, plain and simple. I liked the passion they seemed to bring to their work, the sense of humor they exhibited, the keen recognition of irony, their upfront admittance of cowardice and self-interest.
In myth, we are given the villain in order to define the hero, the divination of light from dark, of dark from light. Each we define by the absence of the other’s characteristics, a notion, in reality, about as practical as cutting the Earth in two in order to halve its burden. That the villain represents the inclinations a good man learns to suppress in himself is a suspiciously accommodating set of circumstances, the very devotional challenge of the hero giving birth to the concept of his existence, like an egg giving birth to itself while the attention is elsewhere. This is the flimsy origin of the man who has risen beyond base influence, the caped wonder drinking apple juice in the Garden of Eden. And such an ideal demands purification of the soul, the squelching of deep-seated desires and contemplations, all natural aspects of our brain chemistry and its shadow play of the heart.
“Who’s on the cover?” Derek asked, short of breath, a fish oblivious to the hook.
“Gorilla Grodd is punching Captain Comet into a big vat of acid! It’s super cool!” I gushed. “He’s saying: “Perish, Comet! All who defy Grodd shall die!””
“Wow! I‘ve got to see it! Where’s Sapphire? Is she there?” breathed the innocent victim, my well-rehearsed performance working perfectly. I was a pretty excellent liar. Some will say I still am, but I don’t want to press the issue.
“Yep!” I replied. “And, man, her tits are almost hanging out! They’re like super duper big!”
Derek made a funny noise. I bit my tongue, tears in my eyes. I was the king of lies, the master of the burn. I was all-powerful! Bring it on, Grodd, let’s see what you have against the natural momentum of a fourteen year-old in a lying groove.
“I’m coming over!” Derek almost cried. “Mom! Where’s my bike?” I heard him yell, having left the phone of the hook. His mother, once a cocktail bunny at the Playboy mansion, was also a clandestine source of inspiration for Star Sapphire’s glorious cleavage. That she looked more like her eldest daughter’s peer, than the woman who gave birth to her, only aided this heated fancy. God, how I loved and both feared visiting that house.
“You can’t!” I wanted to say, but couldn’t, the phone now more like a barbell in my hand. Caught in my mendacity, I was helpless to escape it. “OK,” I said, setting the phone back in its cradle, wondering what I was going to do when he arrived. Creeping from my parent’s bedroom, I had a sudden ache in my gut, the coming pains of a guilty conscience. That Derek lived almost two miles away only made things worse.
Thumbing through the dusty pages of our forefather’s prosperity, the tomes of ancient story that have infected our world, we find men who cannot suppress their wicked inclinations, those emotions we have been trained to hide away. From this comes the root of our curiosity, and the notion of a fall from grace, ever the trope of our mythological language, the very crux of evil’s origin.
It was with all of this largely unrecognized baggage that I originally came to The Secret Society of Super Villains, immediately enraptured by its core group of buddy bad guys, now the stars of their own book, crowding the stage with their own evil ambitions and conflicts, numerous colorful rubes and trollops, offering me stories where the sudden appearance of the hero was often reason for despair.
“Where is it? Let me see!” exclaimed Derek, sweat lining his forehead, a wild look in his heavy eyes. I’d rarely seen him so focused on any one thing.
I grinned uneasily, the previous issue of The Secret Society held at my back, out of view. I had grasped it, in a last minute act of desperation, not knowing what else to do. That it was the very comic he’d first acquired the month before, flaunting it before my eyes the day his sister had offered me such confusing intimacy, only amplified my guilt. “You really want to see it?” I teased, a victim of my own villainous progress.
It was a fine line that DC walked with The Secret Society’s premise, that of super villains combining for their own common good, a device that necessitated still portraying the criminal in an essentially negative light, all the while nurturing reader interest in their well-being.
If the ultimate precondition of the reader’s identification with a fictional character is that he or she wishes the protagonist not to perish, then followers of The Secret Society like myself were genuinely empathizing with the bad guy. It was the appeal of the “devil”, that red-skinned embodiment of our sin, the mirthful master of the eternal below, the angel thus fallen. In our embrace of this evil, we are told, so do we forgo our virtue and join the hot lord in his fiery, molten playground of everlasting damnation. All sinners go to Hell, all liars are kin to Satan, every fibbing boy an agent of his dark majesty’s wanton designs. Idle hands indicate a scheming mind, both the tools of all wickedness.
It was with such thoughts, such learned fears, that I presented my best friend with a comic he’d already read untold times, its cover etched upon the lining of his loquacious eyelids. The look of disappointment on his face made me feel my eminent membership in Gorilla Grodd’s gang was all that was left for me in this life. I was a “bad seed”, just like the old neighbor whose peas I’d eaten had claimed to my mother some years before.
Swallowing his disappointment, Derek lunged at me, calling me the “F” word, shoving me off my feet.
Moments later we were fighting, a fury of arms and legs, two opposing forces crashing with all the might of our Godly teachings, Derek the Virtuous claiming his moral supremacy over I, the wretched liar, beating me to death, sending me to meet my maker and stand trial for the error of my ways.
We parted, only the most tenuous of friends. I watched him pedal off down the hill, his slow eyes holding a grievance they would never quite relinquish.
A couple of weeks later, when I paid my thirty cents for an actual copy The Secret Society of Super Villains No. 14, I didn’t even bother calling him. That it turned out to be the penultimate issue of the series did little to make things any better. I had destroyed the joy of sharing.
It is of such lines drawn that life is made.
This we learn, as we navigate our way through the byzantine avenues of our emotional inheritance, leaving friends deceived and foes born, while societies of separation become more than just imagination, they become their own secret shame.