Folks this one is a little harrowing. It was hard to write and I find it hard to reread. I apologize for any typos or format errors. I couldn’t go over it that many times.
I was a lonely child in a house full of living things.
Seven siblings, two parents, family friends, members of the Catholic community, big dogs (a succession of German Shepherds), two to five cats, two budgies and a large fish tank. I shared a bedroom with at least two people till I was in my twenties. The only space I had to be alone was either in/under the holly tree in the yard (with the mean German Shepherd who loved only me) or the local library.
When I was eight (or there a-bouts) I found a collection of dusty comic books at the local used bookstore. I discovered the X-Men, Dreadstar, the Justice League…and a single battered copy of Avengers 212, when I was about ten.
It featured a woman called “The Elfqueen” whos husband is murdered, triggering a rampage of vengeance. In the end, she chooses to stop, to put down her rage and walk away because of something you’d not expect in a superhero comic.
The compassion and understanding of one man: Steve Rogers, Captain America.
I was fascinated by the big, handsome blond. I’d recently, due to Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, come to realize I rather liked boys. Steve became something between a crush and a beloved teacher.
Through the Avengers I found the Hawkeye 1983 mini-series and entered into a life long obsession with the Avenging Archer and the Shield Agent Known as Mockingbird — they gave me hope that an angry, lonely “too smart for your own good” girl could find a person who loved them.
But Steve was always there, the sun around which my love for these heros revolved. Even my love for the X-Men was tempered by my thoughts about Steve (I sided with the Avengers when they came for Magneto).
But I don’t know that I really appreciated how much Steve meant to me until April 2017, when Marvel began the run of their Secret Empire II comic.
This isn’t going to be (much) about that story or the value of that narrative.
This is about my seeing the image of Steve Rogers dressed as Captain America saying “Hail Hydra”, in the parking lot of a Shoppers Drug Mart, in 2017 and doubling over, weeping and retching. Spitting bile and mucous, the door to my car propped open to the angry chiming of the ‘key is in the ignition’ alarm. My phone lay face down on the drivers side floor, where I had dropped it.
(I’ve been through this passage twice and only just realized I didn’t write “Hail Hydra” in there until now, as though I am yet unable to process the words.)
I’m not usually that affected by art; I ‘m not really that emotional a person. But to feel that strongly, that viscerally, I knew there had to be a reason.
It took weeks, to force my brain back to the moment I was remembering in my grief and rage.
Remembering when I was a young teen and I had planned to kill myself.
The trigger doesn’t matter much now. At the time there had been incidents, small enough — and nothing “big” ever happened. Nothing I would bother to report now, decades later. Nothing that anyone but a lonely, desperate, sad child would really care about (or so I told myself). Things happened. They mattered. They still do. But nothing will ever be done now that I have not already done, including cutting a person out of my life after decades of a different kind of toxic abuse and channeling any remaining rage into both my art and physical exertions.
And yet it festers, a poisoned wound.
How much poison wasn’t clear till I saw that image (and frankly one less prominent one that upset me even more, of Steve Rogers kneeling to the Red Skull).
I remember the darkness at the top of the attic stairs, smelling of the cat’s litter box that lived there. I remember sitting on the worn carpet listening to the sounds of a house full of people at night, never still. Never alone. Never at peace.
I remember deciding to die.
I don’t remember what I intended to do.
I think it would have succeeded, whatever I method I chose. I was clever and knowledgeable. I knew the consequences of failure. I read books on all subjects. It wouldn’t have been that difficult, even for a sheltered, terrified, immature teen.
I remember being outside, in the our large yard. I remember the wet vegetation and the still cold of the moonlight.
And I remember Steve Rogers.
Somewhere, in that time, from the reek of cat piss to the heavy smooth leaves of the holly tree, my refuge, Steve found me, in his costume, cowl down, smiling at me. I remember that he was beautiful and stern at the same time. And I remember what he said to me–though oddly I can’t hear “his” voice anymore. I hear Chris Evans–the One True Cap of the Marvel Universe, Forever And Ever Amen–well, frankly these days I see Chris too. Chris is pretty clearly this universe-within-the-multiverse’s Steve for real. A girl could do worse to be saved by him, no matter what guise he wore at the time.
I know Steve–no matter his face, his voice–was an internal projection. Of my will to live, of something in me that was not wholly broken yet. But symbols matter. Imagery clarifies and intensifies emotion. And what that projection of a kind, loving, compassionate man, a man who could stop a grief-fueled superhuman rampage with simply the words “I’m sorry”, a man who was and is both implacable warrior (which my own warrior heart yearns to be) and sensitive artist (which I have inside me too, sometimes) — what that projection told me was the words of a family I didn’t feel I had, father and brother, friend and lover all at the same time:
I love you
I believe in you
You are worthy
You matter to me
You’re a fighter
My internal struggles have always presented as aspects of violence. I’m no delicate flower — my heart is martial and I have molded myself to that pattern. I mean, quite frankly I’ve been turning myself in Mockingbird (Bobbi Morse/Barton) for about 25 years. Looking for my Hawkeye still.
In my mind’s eye Steve on that night…in the comic stories of him I’d read and would read after…on the movie screens in my adulthood…I found both the rough respect of fighter to fighter, when you know punching someone in the face is actually the best thing you can do for them and the heart of a leader and counselor, who wants only for you to surpass them, to be better, kinder, smarter.
And as these thoughts slowly swirled in my head, in those weeks after my episode, I realized why I’d had such a reaction.
Because if Secret Empire II had been a running story during my childhood I would be dead.
If the “Supreme Hydra” had been the Steve Rogers I knew–with all the strident hypocritical insistence from Marvel and the title’s writer that he was the “real” Cap–I would not have reached out for him as a symbol. I would not have conjured that image, that face, that voice (even overlaid as it is now) as my guide and refuge. I would have killed myself.
I cannot sugar coat that. I cannot deny it.
I would have, in despair, taken my own life. I know that.
Perhaps I know that wrongly. Perhaps I would have found or made another symbol to pull me through.
Maybe, I might still be.
The bone-deep, blood-borne, heart-wrenching “fact” though is my own brain saw my image of hope and justice and righteous wrath against fascism turned evil and whispered “There is your death, child. There endth that lesson.”
I have now, months later, read most of the comics comprising that event. It’s well written; I don’t fault Spencer’s technical abilities**. I’m suspicious of his politics and his motives and I’m still livid at the way both he and the Marvel Publishing treated readers who were expressing (often poorly and stridently) valid and painful concerns. Equally, I loathe those who pump up the narrative “It’s only a comic book”. Culture matters, pop or otherwise. Culture is the story we tell about our selves, the stories we try either to eschew or live up to. Super heros in particular are merely, only, the direct descendants of myth and legend, of legacies so powerful they resonate through our minds and hearts after thousands of years.
In that sense, Spencer did much good as well, by continuing with the story of the “new” “true” Captain America.
The embodiment of Sam Wilson as a black Captain America, the new catalyst of hope and resistance, is powerful in ways the original blue eyed blond Steve can never be. For Sam and the symbol he was, is and should be to black children I am indescribably grateful. I wish desperately his story had played out in a time when the real world was not a mirror of the comic one.
The timing of the event turned out to be disastrous, given the subsequent election of a vile, stupid, misogynist kleptocrat as president — leading to the open rise of violent fascist groups, the inhuman treatment of immigrants, the incarceration of children daring to wish for a better life. My own personal dark night of the soul means nothing in comparison to that. My despair is now to see a nation that I love–not even mine own–being reduced to this foul, villainous parody of itself.
It mirrored my despair to see Captain America “turned evil”.
I still see in Steve Rogers (in comics and on the movie screen), in Sam Wilson, in the alternate universe Peggy Carter who carries the shield, in Dani Cage (a Captain of the future), even in the ill-fated Bucky Barnes who struggled so hard to live up to the Captain’s legacy despite his past–I still see in those heros the symbol not of America as it is or was but as it should be.
The storied shield, that red white and blue outfit — in those symbols I still see his watch words: Freedom. Justice. Tolerance. Courage.
I still see the thing that kept me alive.
I see Hope.
And I still hear his words.