Holding Out For A Hero — by Greg

Like many life-long comic readers, my introduction to the medium came through my early love of superhero comics, in my case, primarily from Marvel’s Silver and Bronze Age. The appeal of superheroes does not require any deep analytical insight. What I loved, and continue to love, to this day about them is this: they are, wait for it ... heroic.
They are exemplars of humanity and they are clear wish-fulfillment fantasies, playing upon what we like to think we would do if we were imbued with superpowers. We’d fight the good fight. Protect the innocent. Destroy evil. Uphold justice.
But superheroes, in comics anyway, have been struggling of late. Superhero comic readership is way down, and one of the reasons for this does not seem to be particularly complicated. Many of today’s superheroes are no longer, wait for it again ... heroic. In far too many cases, they’re dull, hyper-violent, self-serious and so casually cruel that they are quite often difficult to distinguish from the villains.
Blame it on Watchmen, if you like. But no question since that seminal tale was published, superhero comics have never fully recovered. “Dark and gritty” completely usurped the superhero output of the major publishers.
Watchmen was a brilliant re-imagining of a superhero universe, no question. But the entire reason for the success of Watchmen was that it was different. It was a revisionist look at superheroes, turning the conventions of the genre on their heads, much like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven did with the standard myths of the Old West.
But the thing about revisionism is that when it suddenly becomes the norm, it’s no longer revisionist. It’s now the new stereotype. The new hackneyed storytelling. You’ve now completely and utterly subverted everything that your reading audience loved about the stories in the first place.
And understand that I’m not talking about all the series you’re running through your head right now to counter the argument. Yes, those are all great superhero comics, written by terrific writers and drawn by terrifically talented artists. I’m talking about the other 90% of superhero comics. The brutal, excessively violent, hopelessly dark series. And also please take note that I am specifically talking about superhero comics. Not romance comics, or talking animal comics, or science fiction comics. And certainly not horror comics. After all, the fine folks at Kaleidoscope are certainly going to be putting out some horrifying comics, but that’s exactly what they are: horror comics. The audience understands what it is getting itself in for.
But many of today’s superhero comics are like advertising a Walt Disney movie playing at the local theatre, only to switch it last minute to the latest Quentin Tarantino flick once all the little kids are in their seats.
Much has been made in the press about the massive global haul of Joss Whedon’s glorious Avengers movie, but neither I nor any of my many comic loving, superhero worshipping friends, were the least surprised by its success. Why? Because it’s fun, dammit! Remember fun? If not, go see the Avengers again for a reminder. Because while Whedon injected enough character tension and dramatic frisson to satisfy anyone, he remembered to add plenty of the most important element of any good superhero tale, characters that are — after all is said and done — HEROES!
The various members of the Avengers fight, bicker, argue amongst one another ... but they do not debate for one second what it means to be a hero and whether or not they should battle the evil elements they are confronted with. Hell, yea, they are going to battle evil. Know why? ‘Cause they are the good guys.
The final battle scene is the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in a decade. It’s spectacular on a million different levels and I truthfully cannot wait to see it again. And I won’t lie, there were actually a couple moments where I had to fight the urge to leap from my seat and cheer. Seriously! I was a kid again, and every complexity in the world could once again be boiled down to the crystalline beauty of good defeating evil.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love complex, multi-dimensional characters as much as the next guy and I’m certainly not arguing for a return to the one-note stories of comic’s Golden Age. But I don’t think complex characterization and heroes that behave like heroes are mutually exclusive.
The Marvel Silver Age proved there was ample room for complexity in our heroes without losing sight of their nobility. Let’s not forget — Peter Parker had money and girl problems, and Tony Stark’s very life was threatened every second by the shrapnel hovering over his heart, and the Thing was enraged over the monster he had become, and Captain America lived with the constant pain and guilt for having lost Bucky ... but they were not defined by these emotional traumas. What made them special is that they rose above their problems.
No matter what was thrown at them, they were still heroes.
And isn’t that exactly the same characteristics we look for in our real-life heroes? People who do not succumb to adversity, but rise above it. People who are faced with a seemingly endless succession of obstacles, but who never give up, never back down.
So much of today’s superhero output is about nothing but the adversity without any of the payoff. Just endless suffering and drudgery. Extreme, bone-crushing, blood-spewing violence, brutality, cynicism. By their very definition superhero stories are morality tales. We should be uplifted by them. Instead of feeling like you need a shower after reading them.
The comic industry has wrung its hands for years over the fact that it is not attracting new readers. But it doesn’t take a great deal of mental gymnastics to figure out some of the cause. Sure, the twisted continuity is an issue. But, even worse, is the twisted images splashed through much of the superhero books.
When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, superheroes inspired and entertained me. Dare I say it, but they actually taught me much of the moral code I stand by to this day. I’m afraid a teenager reading many of today’s superhero books would be thrown into a deadening despair even greater than that caused by his own swirling hormones.
Sadly, one of the reasons for the prevalence of the new ‘anti-hero’ mentality is based on nothing more than storytelling laziness. Truth is, writing a moving, inspirational superhero piece is much harder, and takes a greater skill as a writer, than producing the ‘gritty’ tales that have taken over the industry. Hey, when in doubt, have someone’s arm ripped off. Stuck on a plot point, why not have someone pull out a gun and put a bullet through someone’s head. It’s shock simply for the sake of shock.
And as to the argument that goody-goody superheroes are boring (yea, I know what some of you cynical misanthropes are thinking) I’ll point you to yet another medium: television.
My family and I recently finished watching the entire run of Smallville on DVD and you know what, it was pretty amazing. Not perfect, mind you. But a really great show, all in all. And here’s the thing, through 10 seasons (that’s right, 10 seasons!), the character of Clark Kent never wavered. He was always good. Always kind. Always tried to do the right thing. Sure, there were a couple red Kryptonite episodes, but those only went to remind us what a terrific young man Clark was to begin with.
And, yet, despite Clark’s unfettered goody goodiness, the show was practically overflowing with angst and melodrama. It was quite literally a soap opera, only with super powers. Lots of complicated characters, many of whom changed allegiances, and our budding Superman has some serious girl troubles from day one, but in his pursuit to understand what it is to be a hero, he remains steadfast. He wants to do good. He wants to help people. That is his motivation and we as viewers, and as lovers of the character of Superman, don’t need anything more than that. The only angst comes from him wondering if he is being hero enough.
So, will the success of the Avengers translate back into a change in the comics and characters that originally inspired the movie? It’s a strange predicament, for sure. That the industry that launched these heroes in the first place has lost the thread to the point that another industry — Hollywood, no less — needs to get it back on track.
The Avengers’ monster box office proves unequivocally that moviegoers — and comic readers — need more than just doom and gloom. Sure, audiences are still going to flock to the darker and more brooding Dark Knight Rises when it is released, but well over a BILLION dollars in box office receipts proves that we want something more. Another option to the despair.
We want our heroes back! Strong-chinned and morally unwavering. We want them to reflect what we feel inside. That we still live in a world where good can squash bad, where heroic men or women can still make a difference.
It’s guaranteed that Hollywood will heed its audiences’ wishes. Will our beloved comic industry do the same?

Live Forever! — by Greg

Truth is, I have been too despondent, too ravaged by sadness and regret, to even formalize my thoughts into words over the past week. The world’s greatest writer is dead and it feels like a hole has been blasted into the center of the universe. And me. I feel empty. Like a part of me has been scooped away. And, of course, it has.
Ray Bradbury is a part of me. His stories and passion and love and morality and joy are a part of my very being. We are all influenced by artists, musicians, writers. And there is simply no other human being on earth who moved me in quite the same way as did Mr. Bradbury. Who thrilled me, made me wonder, opened my eyes to the universe and stuffed my young mind full of stars.
Last Wednesday morning, I did the most curious thing: I went up into my bedroom on the second story of our house and sat in a chair by an open window and simply stared outside. For nearly an hour. Something I have never done before in eight years of living in this house. Never. Not once.
And while I stared out the window I remembered back to my bedroom as a child when I would stare out the second-story window of a very different house (my childhood home!) and filter through all the emotions that reading Bradbury’s stories raised within me. A Bradbury story was a link to another world. Not just those in outer space, but those within yourself as well. That was part of his magic. It was like every story was being filtered directly through you, as if Ray had written each and every one in an effort to enlighten you, make you a better person.
It was while looking out my bedroom window last week that my wife came up, tears in her eyes. “Did you hear the news?” she said, stifling her sobs. “Is that why you are up here?”
“No,” I said. “I just needed time to myself. But, you don’t need to say anything. It’s Ray, isn’t it? He’s gone.”
“How did you know?” my wife asked.
And you know what, I have no idea. But, I did. I knew.  Part of me, the glimmering, ever-hopeful part of my soul that Ray Bradbury had nurtured for so long ... it knew. That the world’s greatest writer. One of the most joyous souls to ever grace this earth. Was gone.
There are a million things I could say if I had the words. A million gushing remembrances. But they all sound a bit flat right now. So perhaps the best thing I can do right now is to share the first thing I ever wrote to Ray, the first time I ever corresponded with him. It required a little editing, but here it is, my first letter to Ray back in April 2005, telling him what I had waited a lifetime to tell him.


Dear Mr. Bradbury,

What a wonderful evening I had last Monday in Chicago, attending the Ray Bradbury Day events at the Chicago Public Library, and hearing your joyful voice booming down from the speakers overhead!
I have wanted to be a writer since my seventh grade teacher read aloud the compelling sequel I penned to King Kong (sadly, this great work of American literature has been lost to the ages, but rest assured it contained all the requisite dinosaur battles and far-flung intrigue one would expect). There are two writers that began to fuel my imagination from a very young age, and I returned to them time and again. The first was Edgar Rice Burroughs. (A shame the man only wrote 64 books; I believe I got through them all in one summer, devouring them whole). The second writer, a man who has mystified me throughout the years with his ideas and his poetry, his heart and his humanity, is Ray Bradbury.
I was a tutor at Columbia College Chicago for quite some time and the students with whom I worked were from the inner city and were all products of the Chicago Public School system. Most of them had only a basic level of reading and none of them felt at all comfortable with writing. In fact, many of their teachers had given up on them; that is why they were seeing me. But then, I would read them “The Fog Horn.” The transformation in these young people was amazing, both heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time. For the first time they saw how words could be used to chip away at so many emotional truths. They saw how the fantastic can open our minds to the every day. But, most of all, it motivated them. I read many different pieces to them — from Steinbeck to T.C. Boyle — but it was always your work that resonated most. You opened up a piece of their soul they were not even aware they had.
And that is how it was for me.
One of my most cherished memories is discovering your work for the first time. I was ten or eleven and the story was “Kaleidoscope.” After reading it, I lay in bed half the night, staring up at the night sky through my window, gently crying. The way I looked at reading, writing and storytelling was forever changed.
Since then, I have gone on every journey with you. The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The October Country, Green Shadows, White Whale, From the Dust Returned, Golden Apples Of The Sun, A Graveyard For Lunatics, Driving Blind, The Cat’s Pajamas, Let’s All Kill Constance. And all the rest. Each new release is another reason to celebrate the work of the man who so stoked my imagination as a child. The man who made me believe in the impossible.

Until this week, I thought perhaps you were done teaching me lessons. I was very much mistaken. Thanks to your wonderful biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, I feel like a student at your feet once again. Your words about writing, about life, about love, have all struck such a chord with me. How rare that a childhood hero stands the test of time. Even rarer is the childhood hero who actually grows in esteem.
Your biography is the first I can remember where I had more respect for its subject after reading it than I did before. Truly a testament to the life you have led, and your attitude toward love and happiness.
All of this is an extremely long-winded way to say thank you! For showing me the beauty of poetry, for demonstrating the power of imagination. Every day, I dream of changing the world just a little bit with my words. It is a desire that has been handed down from you. I know you have influenced hundreds, thousands — millions — of writers throughout the years. I count myself among the proud many.
During your telephone interview on Monday night in Chicago, you were asked to define love. Your answer was that you should consider all the things you couldn’t live without — all the things that would sadden and crush you if they did not exist. With that definition, there can be no question then that I love you.
A world without Ray Bradbury. It is too much to imagine.

All the best,

Greg Kishbaugh

And here is dear Ray’s response:

Dear Greg,

Thank you for your wonderful letter. It is one of the finest I’ve ever received in my life. It brought tears to my eyes.
How wonderful to know that my stories touched you at a young age and opened you up to life. Many of the things that you mention in your letter occurred in my own life. THE FOG HORN is a pivotal story. In February 1953 I sent a copy of my book, THE GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN, to London to put it in the hands of John Huston, little realizing that that gesture would change my life. In August, John Huston showed up in Los Angeles and offered me the screenplay of MOBY DICK. Six months later, in Ireland, one night I asked John why he had chosen me to be the screen writer, when nobody in the world knew that I existed. He said, ‘It was that book of yours, THE GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN. When I read THE FOG HORN, I felt I had discovered the soul of Herman Melville.’ So you see, all of our lives our joined in mysterious ways.
Thank God I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five and continued my love, when I was thirteen, with King Kong. One of the first stories I wrote in high school was a direct plagiarism of the screenplay of King Kong. My teacher didn’t know where the idea had come from, but at the top of my script she wrote in red pencil, ‘I don’t know what this is all about but you write very well.’ She remained my friend for life.
You mention some of the same ideas in your letter and the interest you had in Edgar Rice Burroughs, who started me on my journey to Mars, and the comic strip Buck Rogers, who came into the world in October 1929 and caused me to move into the future and never want to return.
So you see, you and I are joined at the hip and the brow. We’re a clan of people whose loves are strange and wild and wonderful.
I will keep your letter always, Greg, and I hope some day to meet you.

I send you much love,

Ray Bradbury


Mr. Bradbury and I corresponded from that moment on, about a number of things, but nothing can replicate the magic of hearing from him that first time. It was transcendent.
I suppose the difficulty of this past week is in trying to figure out the proper way to say goodbye to my literary idol. But I know now that I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. You don’t say goodbye to someone that is a part of you. You don’t say goodbye to someone who has left such a rich legacy. After all, since his passing, I’ve already reread several of his stories, and most movingly have had two of his stories read to me by my 13-year-old daughter.
So, I won’t say goodbye to Ray. Simply, until next time. In a different place and time.
I will continue to read his work and he will continue to move and entertain me and chaperone me to the ends of the universe.
Last night I looked up to the stars, twinkling bright in the distant blackness, and I could have sworn they formed the outline of a face. A face I would know anywhere. And he was smiling.
What else could I do but smile back.