It’s like this. We’re up sometime between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., and there is an inherent austere quality to being functionally conscious at such an hour. There is a sacredness to it, whether one is working through the middle of some graveyard shift, or lying awake in some lonely state of insomnia, or a priest readying for morning worship. It generally requires either some great devastation or some great purpose to be awake at this hour. It’s rough. Movements are necessarily slow, deliberate. I don’t want to knock the coffee mug over. Perception is hazy, confused at best. The coffee mug falls to the linoleum kitchen floor, cracks along the edge, coffee spills everywhere. I sponge it up with paper towels. It’s worth it, because we are driven by purpose, my 16-year old daughter Uma and I, and this is how it all begins, as it does every year for us in early October when summer’s about to expel its final breaths of warm air on New York City and we ready ourselves for a strange sort of pilgrimage.
The site we make our annual journey to is no hermitage or temple, though. Far from it. Our sacred destination is a gigantic convention center, born from glass and steel and cement and millions upon millions of dollars, sandwiched between the West Side Highway and Hell’s Kitchen, where more than 150,000 souls will join in a bizarre, glorious, garish, meticulously put together pageant, a celebration of nerdy self-expression, an overcrowded love fest of wallflowers and comic book literati, a kumbh mela of all popular culture. I’m speaking, of course, about New York Comic Con.
We are bleary eyed and giddy. It is our fifth year making this crazy 4 day retreat, and to my mom’s chagrin, the occasion has somehow transcended Christmas on our calendars as the most highly anticipated event of the year. We were sold on the event several years back during our first Con, when we happened to meet Chris Claremont, legendary Marvel Comics writer and creator of most things X-Men. Uma was new to comics, having been drawn into the world of Marvel through its burgeoning cinematic universe and through Willow Wilson’s incredibly well-crafted landmark female muslim hero, Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel. My own relationship with comics and with Mr. Claremont’s work specifically went back more than 30 years, as I had grown up on his X-Men and Star Wars stories as a kid, so jumping into his autograph line seemed like a no-brainer. We picked up an Uncanny X-Men graphic novel for him to sign and when our turn came, presented it to him, both of us starstruck and apparently mute. He quickly scribbled his name along the inside cover, then noticed Uma’s t-shirt.
“You know, that is one of the most interesting characters to come out in a very long time.”
He was referring to the image of Ms. Marvel on Uma’s long-sleeved red and white baseball tee, the masked and costumed brown-skinned Pakistani teenager posing like Superman, proudly, heroically, with her trademark lightning bolt emblazoned on her chest.
Uma smiled. Kamala Khan is for her what Peter Parker and Luke Skywalker were for me as a kid, a perfectly recognizable hero. Ms. Marvel is a smart, awkward, powerful teenaged girl, a child of immigrant parents who writes Avengers Fan Fiction in her spare time. She’s forced to schedule her saving the world gig around her homework and social responsibilities. And she’s Pakistani. Did I mention that already? Well, Uma’s Indian on her mom’s side and she fell immediately in love with Kamala, a hero who is as inherently familiar as her own face in the mirror.
I found my voice and mentioned to Mr. Claremont that Uma was becoming interested in creating comics.
“Really? Well, you’re in for a tough life, kid,” he said, only half-jokingly before waxing philosophically for a couple minutes on his work as a creator developing hundreds of franchise characters, from Emma Frost to Gambit to Cable, and the benefits and pitfalls of writing for a major publisher like Marvel. He was incredibly kind, honest, engaging and generous with his time, and we were subsequently hooked on the Comic Con experience for life.
But it is 5 a.m. now. And the ritual goes like this: We pull ourselves together, grab our badges, phones, keys, water bottles and shoulder bags and stagger out into the cold and the dark. We climb into our ancient minivan and I pray silently for a moment to myself that grace will somehow allow the engine to turn over. It does. There is a vague plan on our dream scenario for the day: who do we want to see, what do we want to accomplish? Actualization of this fantasy requires great willpower and patience. We’ve mapped out panels, estimated line queues and arranged backup plans. Our best result in this endeavor came last October, when we managed a photo-op with Mark Hamill and somehow were able to meet the entire cast of Ash vs. Evil Dead on the same afternoon. This year we are hoping to get our picture snapped with Mark Ruffalo, a.k.a. Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk. Uma searches through the schedule of guests and panels on her iphone as I steer the car through a haze of exhaustion along the West Side Highway as the sun begins creeping up.
Our odds on a Mark Ruffalo meeting look good. I’ve also got something with Robert Kirkman, the creator of the Walking Dead on my schedule, as well as panels on underground comics in 1968, the Vertigo anti-hero Constantine, and a Sci-Fi talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Can everything be accomplished?
We park on a pier lot that extends out into the Hudson River. The air is crisp and cool and the first amber rays of sun are catching the small waves like glistening gemstones. I demand a selfie with my daughter, to which she reluctantly agrees. It feels like a profound moment, the quiet, the expectation of what’s to come and what it took to get here, the two of us here together despite all our crazy life stuff. This kid, she’s 16 now. How did it happen? She’s smarter, kinder and more present than I ever was at her age. Now, she’s moving into her own circles, becoming her own person. And me, I’m newly engaged, often traveling, often working. Life has swept us up and these moments where its just the two of us, they’re fewer and further between now. I am suddenly acutely aware of the passage of time. I recall our first trip together here. She was so much smaller and so awestruck and excited by the sheer spectacle of it all.
I had very few interests so directly connected to my own parents. Growing up in New England, our calendars were often scheduled around Red Sox and Patriots games and I remember the thrill of my dad taking me to Fenway Park for the first time on my 10th or 11th birthday, seeing the great outfield expanse, the Green Monster, and my favorite player, Jim Rice hitting an 8th inning homer after a significant rain delay. But like many kids, by the time I was 16 I had already done my best to sabotage whatever shared connections were there with these kind humans who had raised me up and loved me. I still loved baseball, but was determined to have little to do with my family and was routinely awful to them. I spent most of my teenage years either locked in my room or playing music with my friends.
But somehow Uma and I are here together in this moment, each of us older and ever-changing, our enthusiasm for nerd culture never waning, and I am overwhelmed and grateful and I tell her so. She laughs at my sentimentality and I’m happy that she finds me funny. She snaps the selfie as we hold up our badges.
We march arm in arm up to a deli on 42nd street for breakfast sandwiches and large coffees. From the windows there we can see there’s been a line established for many hours, beginning across the corner on 11th avenue and wrapping for blocks behind, a motley crew of bundled-up comic store nerds, t-shirt aficionados, and alternately overweight or undernourished Green Lanterns, Spidermen, Rick and Mortys, Gandalfs and assorted Manga characters, all ages, all races, all to be welcomed with open arms.
Comicon at Javits Center in New York City is a dizzying, wondrous, thunderous, absurd, beautiful crush of humanity. Attached by blood and by purpose, we snail our way throughcrazy costumed crowds, from showfloor shop to showfloor shop, event to event, artist to artist. Our legs ache. We sit whenever we can. We snap photos of the cosplayers, accumulate comics and illustrators’ autographs, devour terrible slices of convention center pizza. I’ve found a couple old but affordable Marvel comic book series from my youth in the early 80s, a short run of Thor as well as a six issue run of the Defenders featuring Dr. Strange. We read these in the longer queues, the images, the soft texture of the pages, and the writing styles transporting me back to my childhood bedroom, where I’d pour over single issues for hours at a time, carefully studying each element on every panel. The paper they use now is smoother and sturdier, but there’s a comfort inthe old texture to me. I mention this to Uma and she agrees. She’s good at humoring my occasional delusions.
We meet Mark Ruffalo, who turns out to be a sweetheart of a guy. When we shake hands, he asks if Uma is my daughter. I answer affirmatively and he responds, “Beautiful. You guys should do everything together.”
We live in a world where we believe in very little of what’s been passed down from the generations before us. There are some scholars who believe one of the great tragedies of modern Western Culture is that we don’t actually hold anything sacred aside from the material; what we can see and touch outside ourselves in the ephemeral world; information and ideas and concepts and objects which are entirely transient in nature. We’ve somehow lost touch with the stories, myths and traditions that our families and their families and their families before them once held with reverence, tales and traditions that bonded communities together, friends to friends, parents to children, children to grandparents. Myths that used to provide people with the foundations for rich inner lives, for contemplation, stories that could provide context for our very finite existences and our place within the great wonder of things. Myths and archetypes are important. Heroes are important and their journeys are important because their journeys are ultimately our own journeys.
Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.
The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novatis said, ‘The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.'”
While our modern myths may lack some of the depth and sophistication of historically and culturally important texts like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, or the Odyssey, our contemporary heroes might just be filling those incomparable stories’ roles in helping us along on our own paths. When we see Kamala Khan making tough, heroic and selfless decisions on the pages of a graphic novel, for example, that’s cause for celebration. Because her journey is my daughter’s. Because her journey is mine and all of ours.
This October ritual we have, the two of us (and now my fiance) plus 150,000 True Believers, it’s a strange pilgrimage for sure. But what we love binds us together. And there just off of the West Side Highway in a Giant Glass Convention Center, that’s where the celebration is, in full self-expression and reverence and irreverence and beauty, a weird-ass party where regular people, friends and families, creators and fans, fathers and daughters, all struggling through life, don the costumes of the heroes whose stories bring them joy and often inspire them to keep going. It’s special to us, maybe even a little bit sacred. So we’ll see you there next year and we’ll definitely be up early.