In eighth grade, maybe one Saturday a month, my friend’s mom would drive us into the city of Rochester to a store called Comics Etc. There I’d find one of my first speculative fiction loves, a monthly comic called What If? that tweaked some event from Marvel’s past and explored the consequences, e.g. “What if Kraven the Hunter killed Spider-Man?” (spoiler: Spidey’s girlfriend was sad), “What if the Hulk killed Wolverine?” (spoiler: Wolverine’s friends were sad), and “What if Captain America led an army of super soldiers in WWII?” (spoiler: Nazis used the ballot box to take over the U.S. Hmm….)
In retrospect it sounds like a one-note tune, i.e. “What if a character too commercially profitable to ever kill off actually died?”, but at 12 I fell in love with the concept. The Choose Your Own Adventure books had been some of my favorites as a child. The tales we love as children become the ghosts that haunt us the rest of our lives. What If? was a gift: here were adults who could write and draw showcasing the far reaches of the imagination. I was hooked.
For a kid whose curiosities and relationship with the unknown and the ineffable often ran into tensions with their family’s relationship with the Bible and church, reading about heroes and villains who could do the impossible, all the while saddled with relatable human weaknesses and struggles, approximated the kinds of questions and thinking that weren’t usually welcome in Sunday School. I wanted to understand the stories I learned in church, but the parts that seemed the most meaningful were often frustratingly unaddressed. I wanted to know the divine in the human and the human in the divine, because the greatest mysteries I could fathom were God and me.
I’d learned there was, before humanity existed, a great war in heaven, where Lucifer convinces a third of the angels to join his rebellion against God. But there’s no Biblical account of the war itself, nor any insight as to why the second-most wise and powerful creature in the universe and a good chunk of heaven’s denizens would start a fight they couldn’t possibly win. What had they wanted? What tipping point turned so many against all they’d ever known? Whenever I’d ask, I’d get “He was jealous of God’s greatness” or “It was all part of God’s ultimate plan” or “Why don’t you read something besides Revelation?” It felt deeply, personally important to understand the stories behind where everything started. Otherwise, how could anyone know what to make of the now? Or the end?
Late last summer my department head informed me I would lose my job come May of 2018. It was the usual narrative: budget problems; higher-ups; numbers game; nothing personal. You understand. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.
I was one of three lecturers getting canned, the three most recently promoted. I took the news well, I was told. I remember saying the right things but feeling like a character I once read in a comic, who had something bad happen, and they’re telling someone else that their head has split into two voices and one keeps saying normal respectable things and the other keeps screaming “aaaaaiiiiiiiiieeeeee!” without pause.
I was teaching a personal essay class I was really excited about; after the bad news came in, I poured myself into the work. I wanted to be distracted from losing my job, but I also felt stained by losing it for reasons that had nothing to do with my performance. A bureaucracy had ripped away my sense of peace. I wanted to be distracted by something pure. Talking about personal essays with a room full of students who were there by choice, after years of always working with students required to take an entry-level class, was like manna from heaven. I was surrounded by students’ stories whose endings were unwritten. As I had no idea what to make of my life, there was comfort working with people trying to figure out their stories, too.
My department head and some other angels in my program fought to try and save my job. A number of students, current and former, wrote and signed a petition to try and save my job; I later learned this did not please the higher-ups, but I was too proud of my kids applying so many of the persuasive techniques we talk about in class to give a shit what some faceless suits somewhere thought. I continued to give everything that I could to my teaching. But my feelings began to change. Months later, a reprieve: I was told my job would survive at least one more year. A small, grateful part of me felt some relief. Mostly, though, my feelings kept changing.
In January dozens of adjuncts were fired from my program. I felt survivor’s guilt having my job saved while all these caring, qualified people were fired for the same selective illogic that had put my position on the chopping block. I didn’t feel comfortable feeling relief, not only because others hadn’t been so fortunate, but because how could I trust the institution anymore? They’d already made it clear before firing all the adjuncts that my position was tenuous. What if some new budgetary shortage emerged? They’d fire me again without blinking.
There are two hallways that lead to my office. One passes the offices of the people I work with; one passes the offices of strangers in a different department. More and more I found myself taking the latter. Not because I had any personal beef with my co-workers, all of whom I’m cool to super-cool with. I no longer felt like I was on the ground floor of a long-term career alongside peers I could trust to be part of my life for a spell. Even though my job was salvaged, I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore. I felt like a rat whose home was destroyed by a flood, who watched many other rats drown, and who was sitting in the same hole in the wall as before, on edge waiting for the water to start seeping in again.
In eighth grade Marvel published Jim Starlin’s The Infinity Gauntlet.
The comics I’d read before Starlin had just enough philosophy and religious parallels to hold my interest. The Infinity Gauntlet blew the floodgates open. Here was a story whose characters spoke mostly calmly about becoming God, being God, overthrowing God, etc. Their motives differed, but mon Dieu! They had motives!
Thanos wants to be God because that’s the only way he’ll feel worthy of deserving the woman he loves, who happens to be Death — not the cute goth Neil Gaiman Death. Thanos’s Death never spoke.
The character Thanos seeks to usurp, Eternity, is used to being God, so he’s a bit touchy about someone trying to replace him. Thanos’s granddaughter, Nebula, wants to be God because she wants revenge against Thanos for torturing her. Dr. Doom wants to be God because Dr. Doom wants to be God, period. And the one character in the series who wants nothing more than to spend existence at peace, meditating on top of a mountain, sharing an entire world with just a handful of friends, otherwise blissfully cut off from the rest of the universe? That’s who ends up God. Natch.
For about eight months, I felt paralyzed by stress and anxiety. A few months ago I had a panic attack for the first time. It wasn’t any fun at all. Even more difficult than dealing with anxiety? What’s always been hardest for me: dealing with anger.
I’m angry someone with no awareness or regard for my existence signed a form or checked a box that made my job expendable. I’m angry so many caring, talented people lost their jobs for the same capricious reason. I’m angry that even though my job seems temporarily safe, I can’t trust anyone who says so. Mostly, I’m angry that thirtysomething years of rationalizing why my anger is generally unjustified has rendered me somewhat emotionally self-handicapped. So much of my worldview and understanding of myself is reliant on the idea that I’m so super-easygoing. I am pretty chill, but not as much as I like to think I am.
I’m hearing and learning more and more about so many men whose first response to anger is to disappear with it. To walk off, or run off, or sneak off, and to try and wrangle it and process it on their own, in private, and only after feeling like they have it corralled are they comfortable sharing their emotional process & conclusions in front of others. When my dad used to get upset, he’d go running. Miles and miles, hours at a time. I never consciously considered adopting this response, but you know what they say about how far apples fall from trees.
The person who hurt me the most as a child is someone I blocked out of my memories for many years; I didn’t know them personally and never knew their name; there’s no way to confront them. There never was. So I let it go. Like most people, there were formative pains that came from family drama, but I love my family. They’re some of the best people I know (yes, I’m biased, but also I’m right). Even though we hurt each other sometimes, I know we love and value each other. No point getting angry about people who love you and have sometimes unwittingly hurt you. So I let it go. Friends and lovers have taken advantage of me, but c’est la vie, right? So I let it go. I lost my job for reasons I couldn’t control, got it back for reasons I couldn’t control, and could lose it again tomorrow for reasons I can’t control. So I let it go.
There’s a moment in the third issue of The Infinity Gauntlet when Adam Warlock, who’s leading Earth’s heroes against Thanos, is looking for Wolverine shortly before the battle begins. Someone mentions they saw Wolverine headed for the rooftop of Avengers’ headquarters for a smoke, where the Hulk happened to be hanging out. Wolverine and the Hulk had a long, bloody history of conflict.
But on this occasion, they bond over their shared reputations as monsters.
Warlock finds them and tells them they’re the only two heroes whose morality concerning death means he can trust telling them being OK with killing Thanos. As Warlock walks away, the Hulk asks if Adam isn’t something of a monster, too.
“We are what circumstances make of us,” Warlock says.
At the end of Starlin’s story, Thanos is defeated, and Warlock now possesses the gauntlet, giving him mastery of time, space, reality, power, the mind and the soul. He already has plans for improving the universe, but Thor, Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer don’t trust him anymore.
“That power corrupts is a truism that cannot be ignored,” Dr. Strange warns.
“Already, the distance between what I was and am is insurmountable,” Warlock answers. “Like an ant contemplating the cosmos.”
I was never a big fan of the Avengers. In the Marvel universe literally everyone who isn’t a mutant or a member of the Richards family is a freaking Avenger. When the film The Dark Knight came out, I considered it the pinnacle of superhero cinema. The Avengers movie felt to me like a money grab. A few friends saw it and raved, but I was still non-plussed (I’m not sure anyone anywhere has ever been “plussed”). Then I heard the credits featured a glimpse of Thanos. I was sold.
14 films later (I saw the first Thor and Captain America films after The Avengers, though they came out the year before), the dream 12-year-old me never would have believed could come true opened in theaters across the country. I bought a ticket a month before it came out, something I’ve never done before. I asked my fiancee if she wanted to come, and initially she said no. But I hadn’t ever explained to her how important this story is to me, part of a larger relationship issue I’m working on where I’m often so internally focused I just don’t say a lot. I’m used to it, but I’m learning it’s not at all helpful for my partner to try and guess what, if anything, I’m feeling. So eventually I did tell her, and she saw it with me.
[NO SPOILERS AHEAD, BUT IF YOU LIKE TO GO IN TO A FILM FRESH MAYBE NOW’S A GOOD TIME TO TAKE A WALK OR CALL YOUR MOM OR SOMETHING]
The Avengers are the stars of the movie; in the original story, it’s a hodge-podge of Avengers, X-Men, aliens and cosmic beings. In the comic, Thanos kills half the universe because Mistress Death told him to; in the film he’s more like a radical undergrad Malthusian, all brutal pragmatism focused entirely on the forest with no regard for the trees. He doesn’t kill people because they specifically deserve to die. Like the faceless suits who fire people making far less money than the suits, it’s strictly business. Higher-ups. Numbers game. Nothing personal. You understand. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.
[OKAY, DEFINITELY A SPOILER COMING UP NEXT]
There are a few genuinely moving moments in the movie. For me, the most emotional is near the end, when a certain teenage web-head being played by his third actor this century realizes he’s going to die.
“I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says as he begins to disappear. “…I don’t want to go. Please, I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark.”
A LOT of people die in this movie, at least one of whom meant more to me than even Spider-Man. But Spidey’s death was the saddest, probably because I saw it as Peter Parker’s death. Parker is a young man, just beginning the time of life that is or at least feels self-directed. And then, just like that, it’s gone.
When I was young, violence and death in movies meant very little to me. I prided myself on being too cool to be bothered by virtually anything. A couple of weeks ago my fiancee and I started watching Hostel, which she’s seen before but I hadn’t. I knew pretty early on it wasn’t my cup of tea. I think I quit trying after 30-40 minutes. Yet only yesterday, we watched Logan together, which features more sheer volume of violence, some committed by and against young children. My fiancee seemed sickened by it. Didn’t faze me at all. Why do some violent acts sting so badly while others feel muted? Why does it change over time?
I wonder if it’s because when you’re young so much of your life is ahead of you, mostly unknown, so dreams are, proportionately, a bigger part of your life. Because most of your life is (seemingly) ahead of you, and most of that is, at the moment, dreams. They’re so abundant they’re cheapened. When I was 14, I wanted to be an NBA player. By 16, I wanted to be a film composer. The basketball dream was easy to let go, because there were infinite dreams to take its place.
When you’re nearing 40, odds are most of your life is behind you. Time and space erode so many of your dreams; you change; your priorities do, too. My body grows older, and changes; my mind sharpens in some areas and softens in others. But the dreams I cling to — of publishing a book; of being a good father and provider; of the Knicks someday not sucking; of politicians and businesspeople the world over receiving justice for their endless criminality — have survived mostly intact over my 14,000+ days on this Earth.
We’re trying to figure out where we’re going to live in a month. Do we stay where we are another year, and try to plan life? Do we move now, and figure things out along the way? It’s scary to think of moving again. A few years ago, I had to move five times in 10 months, covering almost 1000 miles. What’s scarier than that? Learning how much I still need to grow to be the kind of partner I want to be. Still trying to understand life, it seems. The questions change, but the source of all questions is constant.
I choose to believe that the universe unfolds as it must, which as apples go doesn’t seem to have fallen very far from “It’s all part of God’s ultimate plan.” But as The Infinity Gauntlet comic and Infinity War film demonstrate, even the divine’s motivations are subject to change. I can’t know what’s been behind my life’s path anymore than any character being written can know theirs. So the present and the future remain equally unknowable, too. I’m still trying to understand God and me. This time, though, the one I’m struggling to get answers from isn’t them. It’s me. Ant, meet cosmos.