By Dan Whitley | Think Pieces | September 28, 2015 |
By Dan Whitley | Think Pieces | September 28, 2015 |
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Only screwballs read comic books. Misfits, loners, geeks in the old sense. People who simply don’t fit, because they are somehow other than their peers. They walk among us, and you may be one of them. They read other strange things too sometimes, like science-fiction and Terry Pratchett. They read these things because they need to find siblings in suffering, even fictional ones. For them, there needs to be something and someone out there, saying, “Being different is not bad.” Sometimes, one of these wayward souls uncovers some darkness when they’re not yet prepared, such as Ender’s Game or The Fountainhead. Evil works that tell them that it is the normal ones who are to be shunned and destroyed. And they are lost, often forever.
Some comics are very direct with this “being different is not bad” concept. The mutants in X-Men, for example, are so easily and readily read as a parallel for the LGBT community that it’s a forgivable thing to overlook in that sense of it being hidden in plain sight. Other comics are more subtle. Can anyone who would be attracted to comics really relate to Tony Stark? Doubtful, but he can serve as a lighthouse for the scientifically brilliant, warning up-and-comers away from his shoals. Some of us unlucky few, in our search for a role model among heroes, bounce around for a while, sometimes for years. But we all eventually cross paths with Bruce Banner and his green shadow, the Incredible Hulk.
Originally, this column was going to be about Banned Books Week. It’s kind of in my lane, we’ll say. But I can’t relate to people who grappled with parents or institutions who censored their reading habits, at least not specifically with that struggle. I was never kept from reading anything in my youth; precocity opens many doors, and some are not so obvious until much later. So instead, this is about the sort of young misfit who reads banned books, and that person is a Hulk fan.
Think about the Hulk fans you know or have met. They were likely, in a word, complicated. Other fans of other comic book heroes often take many forms, but Hulk fans are always Bruce Banner to a greater or lesser extent. You might not even know that about them, because they might have gone through a great deal of effort not to show you.
Consider how Banner treats the Hulk. He sees the Hulk as something to be kept in check. He speaks of the Hulk as though he’s a separate entity, despite knowing better. He is Hulk’s jailor in a lot of ways. The Hulk, by his own nature, keeps Banner alive on countless occasions, but the two are not friends by any stretch.
What sort of person relates to this? Someone with demons. People with demons divorce themselves from what haunts them. You hear them talk about their brain or their heart as an object, one that they are at odds with. They talk about not being in control of their thoughts or emotions. They go through spells where they can’t account for their speech or actions. And the worst is that, often, they couldn’t tell you where they stop and the demons begin, even if they tried.
More importantly, however, your Hulk fan is attracted to Banner’s virtue. They want desperately to be good people despite their deep flaws. All things considered, Banner is one of the better people in Marvel’s universe in terms of innate goodness. He craves to do good in the world, yet he is cursed to drag around this monster that he cannot destroy and can barely contain. And the monster is so resilient that, despite its power, it cannot destroy itself either.
In short, Hulk fans love Banner because the Hulk is a metaphor for their social dysfunction. Hulk fans ultimately yearn for a day when they can look back at Banner’s suffering as something they have moved on from. So what does this have to do with banned books? Banned books often have that sort of thing as central themes. Busybodies always think that keeping people from reading about violence and abuse and suicide and so on will keep them from thinking about it. As if you can just ignore it until it disappears, as if you can fence someone out from the trackless desert of their own soul when they’re already wandering it. Someone who relates to Banner likely suffers from a kind of social disorder, and would understandably be drawn to such books.
This is a lot of why you may not know who among your friends loves the Hulk and Bruce Banner. Because the Hulk is the dark place some of us go when the world’s madness screams too loud to bear anymore. The Hulk is what it’s like to be in your own head too much. It is a source of pain and shame. When it gets out, it causes trouble. And on the rare occasion that someone tries to step in and understand the situation, they often cause more problems than they fix. People who don’t like the Hulk often look at him and Banner and dismiss Banner as nothing more than some guy with weird blood who gets big and strong when he’s angry. Think of how gross a misunderstanding of a character’s basic traits that is. Now think of how similar that is to telling someone with anger issues to just relax.
This is not to say that Hulk fans are awful people to be shunned. Nor is it to say that all Hulk fans are dangerous to themselves or others. Quite the opposite, really. If you know a Hulk fan, then you can probably at least sense that they need people to help keep the guy in check. And they know intimately that such people are hard to come by. Some people are better acquainted with solitude than they would like.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t seek real help if you need it. I am saying that help comes in forms other than shrinks and priests. It often comes from fiction. A great deal of fiction’s power lies in its ability to allow us to frame the world in a way that makes a little more sense. When you ban books, you remove possible frames from humanity’s workshop. You nullify viewpoints for arbitrary reasons. You deepen the rift between those who fit and those who don’t.
Once, books were rare. This is why we are outraged when they are physically destroyed, even though in our times books are plentiful, and their contents kept safe across thousands of copies both analog and digital. Your caveman brain screams that that’s knowledge you’re burning. Information we can’t get back. This same mechanism kicks in when books are banned. You can never truly destroy an idea, but you can bury it, and make it all but impossible to find. And that is disgusting. Because someone like the Bruce Banners of this world might need those ideas, lest they be left with no one but the Hulk.