Secret Origins, Part 23

My earliest memory of a movie theater is something that I’m not entirely sure if it’s real or not, set in a place that hasn’t existed in something close to four decades, and seems just a little too on the nose for comfort. And yet, it’s something that, to this day, feels fresh and clear in a way that many other memories from childhood never could — which, let’s face it, might be another sign that it’s not entirely true and never was.

I was, by some simple math, three years old or so. Maybe four? I think I was in the theater for The Cat From Outer Space, which is what I remember so clearly: the poster for the movie, which featured this orange cat and a flying saucer shooting a beam down towards the ground. I remember the smell of popcorn, too, even though I’m pretty sure that it would be at least a decade or so before I even tried popcorn for the first time.

(The smell of popcorn has always meant the movies to me, and it’s something that’s almost entirely disconnected from the idea of popcorn as something that you’d eat — or, for that matter, popcorn as anything other than that movie theater smell.)

What’s so weird about the whole memory is, even as I’m utterly convinced that it’s all about The Cat From Outer Space, there’s a lingering suspicion that, somehow, Star Wars is involved. The timing would work out; we’d be talking somewhere in the region of 1978, so Star Wars might have been on re-release, or maybe just sticking around a long time from its original release, but still — was I actually there to see Star Wars and I just remember a poster for The Cat From Outer Space? Were my parents the kinds of people who’d take me to Star Wars when I was four?

(My dad was, at least.)

I’m not entirely sure what my first movie was, but there’s something about it being sci-fi no matter what that feels oddly fitting, if somewhat cliched. I was always going to be myself, I think.

Don’t Ask, Just Buy It

One of the stranger things to consider upon realizing that you’re a middle aged comic book fan is that you have likely been reading the adventures of a particular character or group of characters for a number of decades. Just think about that for a second; it’s not only that superheroes are one of the only forms of serialized media in which the same characters are omnipresent for that length of time — serialized prose isn’t really a thing anymore, and even so, stories didn’t last for that long, and even TV soap operas tend to change out characters as actors leave to do other things — but the fact that, if you’re anything like me, you’ve actually been reading stories about the same “person” on at least a semi-regular basis for more than thirty years at this point. That’s just surreal, to me.

I started thinking about this the other day, upon discovering a copy of Superman #1 in the collection; this being comics, I should specify that I mean the mid-1980s Superman #1, by John Byrne and Terry Austin. I was, I think, 12 when this came out — I think it was released late in ’86, but it might have been ’87 — and I still remember the thrill I felt in finding a copy in a local newsagents: the first issue of a Superman comic? Surely this had to be a big deal, and how could I fail to pass it up?!? (I was young, so the naivety can be excused, I hope.)

It wasn’t the first American Superman comic I’d bought for myself — there was an issue of Action Comics I remember from years before; it had the Justice League and the Teen Titans in it, so it too triggered the “this has to be a big deal” fever — but it was the one that led me to buy every subsequent issue I could get my hands on, as well as copies of Action and Adventures of Superman, for a number of years following, through until at least the early ’90s and Superman’s death and rebirth.

Even after that, I’d revisit him on something approaching a regular basis, even going so far as to pick up all the books every month between 2000 and, I think, 2003 or 2004 — and then again, starting in 2006 and going through to 2010 or so. In an odd way, I’ve spent more time with Superman across the years than with some real life, actually-alive, friends. I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or simply a weird thing, but I feel like I should at least be recognized as one of Superman’s Pals in the same way that Jimmy Olsen is.

Nibble Away at Your Window Display

I’m not entirely sure this is true, but I feel as if I started existing on the internet somewhere around 1997 or 1998; I can remember dial-up, and I can remember sitting in the computer room of the art school I went to, logging on to see whatever the hell was actually on the internet at that point.

More than that, though, I remember getting my first computer — an iMac, colored “Bondi-Blue,” if I’m remembering the name correctly — and that bringing the internet to me at home, if I was able to convince everyone to stay off the phone for an appreciable amount of time. I remember all-too-clearly that I would spend far too much time looking at the nascent comics internet of that period, which was a million miles away from the area that I now make my living from, and I’m curious just how much we’ve lost from those days in the rush to whatever internet we’re in now.

(Man, remember “Web 2.0,” when social media went mainstream?)

The olden comics internet was infinitely more fannish in its existence; it was dominated by the hardcore fan sharing their hardcore fannish theories and thoughts with a void, almost certainly in colored text with a colored background and a hit counter at the bottom to add that particular element of authenticity.

But it was, despite all of this, fun — there were these long, long screeds about why certain characters mattered or were cool, theories about the history of a certain idea or publisher or creator, and everything felt as if it was being shared in the sense of, if not friendship, then at least community. There wasn’t really any gatekeeping as audiences would recognize it today, because… being into comics and comic culture was still subculture enough that any attention was still deemed a good thing, perhaps…?

I remember cutting and pasting massive essays into documents and printing them out, to pore over them obsessively at my leisure. It feels miles away from what’s out there now, with everything monetized and commodified, and I can’t help but feel nostalgic about what used to be, even as I wish I was contributing more to the monetization and commodification, so that I could earn a living.

Start Getting Real

Watching The Real World: Homecoming or whatever it’s called yesterday proved to be a nostalgic experience, if not for the exact reasons that the show’s makers had intended. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun enough to watch Kevin, Heather, Julie, Norman, and the other three whose names I forget go on at genuinely extraordinary and dull length about how unbelievable it was that they were in exactly the same loft space as they’d been in 29 years earlier — that the show couldn’t have been filmed a year later to coincide with an actual anniversary feels as if it says everything about how lazy and contrived the whole thing is, wonderfully — but the nostalgia I felt wasn’t actually anything to do with the show itself, not really.

In the UK, the first season of Real World didn’t air on MTV, but as a Sunday lunchtime show on mainstream network Channel 4. As such, it picked up a lot of viewers who would otherwise have passed it by out of ignorance or simply never watching MTV. For example, me. Even better, for a further example, my mother.

While I’ll happily put my hands up as a fan of reality show trash, the same would never be true of my mum, who never watched an episode of Big Brother or any similar show in her life. But that first season of Real World obsessed her as much as it did me, feeling like the social experiment that the show claimed to be at the time — Michael Apted’s 7Up series on fast-forward and filled with particularly insufferable people.

We’d watch the show together as we ate lunch, the rest of the family doing more important things. (It was a Sunday, so they were probably reading the newspapers; buying seven or eight massive Sunday papers, with all the supplements and the magazines, was a weekly tradition in my family; we’d spend the rest of the day reading them.) It was a small, silly thing, our watching together and getting breathlessly sucked in — and reacting together, at whatever ridiculousness was happening that week — but, even at the time, it felt comforting and important, an unexpected thing we shared and bonded over quietly.

Far more than what had happened to the original cast, that’s what the reunion made me think of; a summer of lunchtimes with my mum, almost three decades ago. It’s a favorite memory, when I return to it.

There On The Stair, Right There

Watching It’s A Sin has unleashed a wave of unlikely 1980s nostalgia in me, and not because much of the show’s period soundtrack turns out to be surprisingly great; instead, what I was reminded of was the way in which the decade felt, at times, like the end of the world.

I remember, for example, the AIDS crisis becoming mainstream, and the panic and misinformation that brought with it — everything from the apocalyptic adverts on television and in newspapers, made by the government, that basically said, there’s this illness, we’re not sure how it’s transmitted, but don’t get it or you will die, good luck, to the rumors of how you could get it from using public toilets. There was a sense that it was an almost Biblical plague and, as such, it was incurable, so the only option was to surrender to it and accept its spread as unstoppable.

(I half-remember some of the context that It’s A Sin provides, but I wish I’d known more at the time; I was just a kid at the time, sure, but nonetheless, I wish I’d known more.)

It wasn’t just AIDS, though; I remember the free floating feeling, almost a certainly from many, that we were almost guaranteed to die in an imminent nuclear war. I remember hearing discussions about the US Navy base at Holy Loch, just across the river from my hometown, and how that was almost sure to be one of the first targets if and when war broke out. We were, I learned, pretty much assured to be vaporized when the US and Russia went to war, which I was all but assured was going to happen any moment.

Again, I was just a child during all of this; I was five when 1980 started. I never really stopped to wonder whatever that must have done to me, growing up with a background certainty that the end was nigh, but I’m sure the answer isn’t “nothing, that kind of thing is good for a developing mind.” It makes me wonder, not for the first time, what this COVID era is doing to kids today.

That might be the thing, though; maybe it’s always the end of the world for kids, and it’s just we adults that learn to tune it out.

I Remember How It Used To Be

For reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about my art school days recently. Not so much in the sense of the social aspect of it all — traditionally my go-to when feeling nostalgic about that time of my life — but the work-related parts of it all: what we were expected to do, and how we were expected to do it.

At the time, the studio structure of school was something we didn’t really think about. It felt like a classroom, after all, and that was something that the majority of us were all too familiar with; in fact, for most of us, it was all we’d really known to that point. The idea that we’d all sit at tables crammed next to each other in relatively sizable rooms just made sense, because that’s what we did, as a matter of course. You sit down surrounded by other people and you do the work.

Coming almost a year into lockdown, and multiple years into freelancing from home, I can’t help but wonder how the studio shaped the work I was doing, and the methods of working I had in general. I wasn’t in a bubble, just the opposite; I was literally surrounded by people struggling with the same things I was, and all our ideas were cross-pollinating, intentionally or otherwise. We were teaching each other as much, if not far more than, any of the lecturers were teaching us. How could we not?

I think back, and I can identify ideas I discarded or approaches I abandoned based on the people around me — either because they were doing something that felt better (or easier, or ambitious in a way I wasn’t, or vice versa, or…), or because I felt self-conscious doing so in comparison to what they were doing. I can think of times when I approached problems with solutions that were entirely based on what I’d seen others do in previous projects.

Working in a studio was, in a way, like having another teacher in the room at all times. (Or multiple teachers.) I mean that as a positive and a negative; after working in relative isolation for so long, it’s something I miss to a degree, but also something I wonder if I was accidentally constricted by, without realizing it.

And Now I Holler

I got news last week that an old friend had died unexpectedly, and in somewhat mysterious circumstances. I hadn’t talked to him in at least a decade — we lost touch awhile after I moved to the States, following the death of a mutual friend who was good at making sure everyone was checking in on each other — but his death has shaken me, left me pondering my own mortality and thinking about our shared past.

He was younger than me, although in my head that’s far more true than reality; he’s locked at the age he was when we spent most of our time together, when we were both studying for our post-graduate degrees. I know, intellectually, that he was actually in his early 40s and working in the art school we both studied in, but to me, he’s still the early 20s kid he was back then, making his death somehow even more tragic.

He was, back then at least, astonishingly kind and effortlessly selfless — to a fault, almost. He wouldn’t think twice about trying to do whatever it took to help out, even if it was inconvenient or downright difficult to him; it was something his parents had ingrained in him. I met them a few times, and they were the same — kind, loving even, to a relative stranger they’d only just met. Apparently, he was living in their old home at the time he died, a detail that felt unsettling to discover; I can remember eating dinner there, talking to all three of them together. All dead now.

We spent a lot of time together, during that intense post-graduate year — it was one of those courses where you do two years’ worth of study in a compressed 12-month period, and it wasn’t uncommon to work late nights, or all through the night entirely. I think of the nights where the school was empty except for us, and we’d be playing music loud as we tried to express whatever the hell was in our heads at the time. He’d be goofy, silly, enthusiastic about his random obsessions — Chris Morris, the Pixies, movie opening titles — and I like to think he was still like that to the end.

But then I think about the fact that there was an end, and I hope that he was, at the very least, happy.

Gift Horse, Mouth, etc.

I can still remember, oddly, the circumstances in which I got invited to join THR. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, but my famously shitty memory plays a significant role here; I can’t remember where I was when I first was brought onto Wired or Time or almost anywhere else I’ve ever worked; I have a vague recollection of what happened when I was asked to be a full time staffer on io9, but that’s mostly because it happened during a meal where the food wasn’t particularly good. The memory, it works in strange ways, I guess.

Nonetheless, I can remember what happened with THR with unusual clarity. I was back in the UK for my nephew’s christening — I was (am) his godfather, so it was a big deal for me — and it was a strange, somewhat surreal trip for me. It was the first time I’d been there since my father’s death, and that alone made the whole thing feel different; that I was staying with one of my sisters and keeping odd hours because I was still working on Pacific time during the whole thing just added to the strangeness. I’d be awake while everyone else slept, typing away and struggling with WiFi that seemed almost archaic in how bad it was, and how often it would cut out.

The first email I got was a polite, would you be interested from Marc Bernardin, who I knew through Meredith Woerner at io9, and I remember the sense of excitement and disbelief I got from it — it sounded far too good to be true, especially considering the way the gig was described, and I was partially convinced it was either a mistake or a joke. I said yes, of course, because I knew better than to do otherwise. I was convinced that, at the worst, it was flattering to be asked, and I might get a good story out of it. Even if I got the job, I told myself, I’d probably only last two years or so.

That was eight years ago.

Through Vale and Field, You Flow So Calm

I don’t have a lot of special New Year’s memories, mostly because New Year’s is a bullshit holiday that exists for entirely arbitrary reasons that owe, I suspect, to the desire for everyone to have some more time off around Christmas by hook or by crook.

That’s not to say that I don’t “believe” in New Year’s as a concept — it sure is the start of another calendar year, I know that to be true — or that I’m not entirely susceptible to the idea that there’s something special, even magical, about the idea that a new year can mean a do-over, or at least the chance for a fresh start. (Really, though: who would have a problem with that? Who doesn’t want to start again and do better?)

Nevertheless, when I think of New Year’s, I find myself remembering one New Year’s Day from when I was a young kid — young enough that the fact that I was awake early on January 1, and no-one else was up yet aside from my mother, almost disturbing in how unusual it was. Normally, the house was filled with people and noise in the morning, and things were unsettling in how quiet they were, everyone else having stayed up until midnight the night before, if not later.

With the house, essentially, to myself, I did what any kid would do: I put on the television and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inexplicably playing at the time. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched it, and I knew by this point that it was boring and slow and not what any movie with the word “space” in the title should be, but there wasn’t anything else worth watching, so I switched it on, anyway.

It had already reached the point with all the psychedelic colors and stargates and oh boy were these guys on something, and I can remember sitting there, watching it and thinking to myself that it was too bright and sunny outside for that time of year. All of a sudden, it felt as if something strange and unexpected was happening, as if the weirdness onscreen had somehow crossed over and altered reality.

I sat there, feeling as if something had changed in some significant and indescribable sense, and I remember feeling very clearly that this was what the start of a new year should feel like.

Here’s to a year that feels like that, only less disturbing.

Christmas Is A Joyful Day

It’s not really been about Christmas Day, for me; the whole December 25th of it all has, for decades, felt more and more like an anti-climax than an exciting end to the holiday season, with me mostly wishing that everything could go on for just a little while longer, if only…!

I wasn’t always like this, of course; as a kid, Christmas Day was everything — a bonanza of gifts and goodwill that was worth the countdown, with all the ingredients, from early morning toast and tea while unwrapping your presents to sitting down with the rest of the family for roast beef, roast potatoes, and Yorkshire puddings (and the crackers, the paper hats, and the bad jokes), combining to make something that felt truly special, something worth waiting an entire year for.

When that changed, I’m not entirely sure. The season has always been important to me, but at some point Christmas Day itself faded more and more in any internal ranking of what I loved about it. It was only one day, after all, and the day when the anticipation ended, the Yuletide fever broke. Why look forward to that?

Perhaps it’s that I stopped really getting excited about getting presents. (Now, giving them, that’s another story; I love giving gifts, especially at this time of year.) Perhaps it’s that I moved away from family, and didn’t get to go home each year — something even more impossible since the death of my parents, and the sale of my childhood home, the latter meaning that it’s literally impossible to return there. It could even be that I spent many Christmas Days lacking something that I didn’t realize…!

(Occasionally, I think back to The Worst Christmas Ever, a few years back — a day spent cleaning someone else’s house to prepare for a visit from people I didn’t really care for, with any notion of it being Christmas Day being marked by exhortations to work harder to make other people’s lives better. It was a cartoonishly Cinderella-like experience, and a sign something had to change in my life. Thankfully, many things did.)

All of which is to say: Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, Happy Holidays, to those who don’t. But this one day is not really the focus of things, not at all.