The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
Just imagine—there I was, standing in line at the Shop-N-Go convenience store across from the country club where my parents played golf. My dad and I were running some errand that evening. Most likely, we were getting milk. We rarely bought groceries at the Shop-N-Go—they were cheaper at Kroger’s, but Kroger’s was farther away from our house. If I had to guess, I’d say my mother had discovered that we didn’t have enough milk for breakfast, and so my dad was sent on a quick trip to remedy this. I went with him because we had recently spent a long time apart—he had moved to West Virginia ahead of us, several months before the school year ended. I had missed him terribly and took any opportunity to be near him. This was the fall of 1987, and I was eleven years old.
But again, just imagine—as the in-house advertisements for the debut issue of Justice League of America advised kids to do fifteen years before I was born. There I stood beside my dad, waiting. I had noticed the comic books placed on the lowest level of the magazine rack before, but they didn’t really appeal to me. I had read comics—when my brother and I were very little, my father would occasionally buy us copies of The Incredible Hulk or Batman, hoping we might be inspired to learn to read the contents of the word balloons accompanying the images of super-heroic action. This plan worked pretty well—by the time I was in the fifth grade I had already moved on to the Hardy Boys and the cheesy Chip Hilton sports novels my father had loved when he was a boy. I had begun to think of comic books as “kids’ stuff,” despite the fact that I still watched Super Friends every afternoon after school. But when I saw the cover to issue 595 of Action Comics, I was hooked.
It did everything a comic book cover is supposed to do, capturing the potential reader’s attention by promising an adventure that seemed compelling yet altogether impossible. A ghoulish woman with a face like a skeleton stood above Superman’s prone body, cackling, “The Silver Banshee has won—Superman is DEAD!” But behind her, unseen, floating through the wall comes “Superman’s ghost,” declaring, “But not defeated!” What eleven-year-old boy could resist? So my father gave me the 75 cents to purchase that issue, probably assuming that a few hours later, having been read once, it would wind up in the trash or given to another kid in the neighborhood—just like all my other comics up until that point. But this one, I kept. Just as I kept the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Why start collecting comics with that comic book? I’m not really sure. Although if I really want to psychoanalyze myself, I might consider the fact that we had recently moved, and I was probably still feeling somewhat isolated from my new classmates and neighbors. There were other kids to play with, sure, but there wasn’t that sense of history, that sense of shared experience, that I’d had with the people who had been my friends since kindergarten or the first grade when we’d lived in California. On the other hand, I’d known Superman all my life. I’d seen the Christopher Reeve movies. Watched reruns of the George Reeves television show. Read some of the comics. Even eaten his peanut butter. I suppose, maybe, Superman seemed reassuringly stable, someone who would always be there for me (in fact, The Silver Banshee had not “won”—Superman wasn’t dead, and the “ghost” was actually the work of the Martian Manhunter’s shape-shifting ability. Oh, yeah: spoiler alert).
It might also be that I thought comics in general were just really, really entertaining. It could be that simple. I had learned to love reading through comic books, but now I was also learning to love comic books themselves. The way they felt in my hands. The smell of the newsprint. The advertisements for X-ray Specs and fake vomit. And most of all, the superheroes who could accomplish great things and triumph over unspeakable evil time and time again.
I’m not the first person to point out that part of the reason comic books appeal to a certain type of boy is that most of them revolve around a man who is—incorrectly—presumed to be inferior, but who secretly possesses great strength and power. Barry Allen seems clumsy and slow; Peter Parker can’t catch a break with girls; Clark Kent seems like a bumbling nerd. But there’s more to each of them than those surface-level weaknesses. In fact, Barry Allen is the fastest man alive; Peter Parker is our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; Clark Kent is the Man of Steel.
During my prime comic book reading years, I—like so many other young boys—identified with this idea that the character’s outward appearance and demeanor might be somewhat lackluster, but, deep down, there was something remarkable about this person. To the outside world, I may have appeared to be a chubby kid with bad skin and food perpetually caught in his braces, but deep down, I knew that I was secretly extraordinary. I had the potential for greatness as surely as Barry, Peter, and Clark did, even if this potential was kept secret from the world. I know now that just about everyone feels awkward and unloved during adolescence, but I certainly didn’t know it then, when I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was hopelessly different from the beautiful and cool people at school. It was a comfort to know that the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk also knew such stigmatization. Superheroes saved the world on a monthly basis, of course, but I submit that for most of us who grew up weird in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, they also provided a different, more private type of salvation.
These days, I don’t read too many contemporary superhero comic books—a few here and there, but I’m sort of turned off by the excessive violence and misogyny that I find in a lot of the stuff put out by the major publishers. However, I frequently revisit the collection of comics from my childhood. Sometimes, I’m just looking for light reading. Other times, though, I turn to these comics when I’m stressed out or depressed and feel the need for a comforting nostalgia. I imagine other people might turn to a favorite movie or record in similar situations. When I had cancer several years ago, I found escape and solace in the adventures of the Justice League International. When I was taking comprehensive exams and writing my dissertation for my Ph.D., I read several Batman comics every night. Recently, I’ve found that The Incredible Hulk has been good company when I feel overwhelmed by the world in which we live.
A seven-foot tall, 1,000 pound, green-skinned monster motivated by rage, the Incredible Hulk is the alter ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist caught in the blast of a nuclear bomb of his own design. Whereas you or I might expect severe radiation burns, malignant tumors, or instant death had we been exposed to a nuclear blast, Dr. Banner found himself transformed into a creature of pure id who has spent most of his life fighting and being pursued by the American military. Most think the Hulk an out-of-control beast who hates humanity; Marvel Comics readers, however, know that, deep down, the Hulk doesn’t mean any harm. Sure, he’s angry, but he’d mostly prefer to be left alone.
Unlike Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman, there really isn’t a sense of wish-fulfillment associated with the Hulk. He’s powerful, but he’s also destructive. He’s full of rage. His fellow Avengers are heroes that kids might aspire to be like, but nobody wants to be the hated and hunted Hulk. Yet he’s still one of the most iconic characters in superhero comics. His adventures have been chronicled not only in comic books, but also in Saturday morning cartoons, in a television show, a magazine, and several movies. Phrases like “Hulk smash!” and “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” are part of our pop-culture vocabulary.
Captain America appeals, I think, because he represents what we aspire to be. The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, is popular because he represents what we sometimes are. I think we’ve all felt unfairly maligned at times. Many of us occasionally find ourselves blinded by anger—either at someone who has wronged us personally or at forces in our culture that try to insist, for example, that women should be subservient, gay people are immoral, and African Americans are inferior. I have a feeling if I went online right now and looked at any news or commentary website, I could find something that would stir me to a Hulk-style rage.
More than that, though, I think we all know how it feels to be in the Hulk’s situation, in the sense that we have all, at some time, thought that the whole world was against us. For the Hulk, that’s literally true—the people of earth have tried to exile him from the planet on more than one occasion. But for kids, the world is ruled by adults who set seemingly arbitrary rules and then enforce them with draconian punishments. It seems so unfair—that you can’t eat candy for dinner, that you can’t chew gum or wear a baseball hat at school, that someone else gets to tell you to go to bed whether you’re tired or not.
The kid hopes that, upon growing up, he will find that the world has become a fairer place, but I think we all know that doesn’t happen. Adolescence sucks, and sometimes adulthood isn’t much better. Politicians let us down. Love affairs end bitterly. We work jobs we don’t like for bosses we don’t respect, because we need to pay off the credit card and student loan debt we accrued earlier. Our mortgage goes underwater. And just when it looks like things might be getting better, that you might be able to plan for a more hopeful future, the national economy collapses because of a few rich people’s greed. Or your cat knocks a glass of water onto your laptop, causing the loss of the most recent draft of your book. Or the pipes under your house burst. Or something else. In some other way, the world punches you with its own superhuman strength. And in these moments, I think it’s perfectly natural to want to respond like the Hulk—to want to voice your rage and smash something.
That’s how I feel sometimes. And I don’t think I’m alone.
But the thing about superhero comic books in general—and The Incredible Hulk is no exception—is that they ultimately provide us with reasons to be hopeful, to believe that a more just and noble world might be possible. While re-reading these thirty-year-old comic books, I’ve been struck by the fact that, sure, certain villains and misguided officials work very hard to keep the Hulk down, but they ultimately always fail. It may take him four, six, or twelve issues, but, with the help of his loyal friends, the Hulk always prevails against those who try to hurt him. By endeavoring to do what he believes to be the right thing, by fighting against the forces that would harm people, the Hulk triumphs. And giving in to the urge to smash things typically only makes things worse.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned there.
It occurs to me now, writing these words, that my personal sense of morality is probably informed more by superhero comic books than by any type of religious devotion. To be sure, neither comic books nor most denominations of the world’s Abrahamic religions really articulate a morality I’m comfortable with these days—so many of them seem to be infected with a pervasive Manichaeism that reduces complex human beings into reductive abstractions like hero and villain, moral crusader and infidel, good and evil. Such a belief system doesn’t really encourage loving thy neighbor, showing forgiveness, or speaking for justice—at least not for those who seem suspicious or foreign. But the world I live in doesn’t really operate in such extreme binaries.
The superhero comic books I grew up on—like the Catholic Church I was raised in—emphasized service to others and self-sacrifice. But they also emphasized a tolerance and respect for those who seem “other”—the alien, the mutant, the mysterious, the different. These are lessons I internalized as a kid, and they continue to inform the imperfect moral compass that guides me to this day. These are not values held by everyone, but, if you ask me, more people ought to be guided by these values, particularly those in positions of power. For as the good book says, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” And of course, by good book, I mean Amazing Fantasy 15, the first appearance of Spider-Man.
I know it seems silly, to some of my smart friends, that Aquaman and Firestorm and Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew still mean so much to me, now that I’m someone who reads and teaches works by Montaigne, Tolstoy, Baldwin, and Didion. Sometimes it seems silly to me, too. But it also seems to me that going back to revisit these characters and their adventures keeps me tethered to that eleven-year-old kid who was just beginning to develop a code of ethics that would guide him through his life—a code of ethics that encourages a selfless devotion to the well-being of others before all else. They tend to remind me of who I was, who I am, and who I would like to be. And I think, really, we might all do well occasionally to stop and ask ourselves, What Would Superman Do?
Just imagine the kind of world we’d live in if we did.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Panel Discussions: Just Imagine" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 6, Issue One