Modern Mythology at Superheroes for Hospice

I am not an altruistic person. I rarely open my wallet for charities.

But when I was asked if I was interested in getting involved in “Superheroes for Hospice” to support the Barnabas Health Center in West Orange, New Jersey, it wasn’t something I could easily reason my way out of and keep my Saturday to myself. Firstly, they were asking if I wanted to talk about superheroes, combing two things I do regularly- talking in front of people as a professor and writing about superheroes-which I do as a comics scholar. It was not an unlikely task for me.

Secondly, it was supporting a charity with my actions rather than my wallet and that seemed like a fair trade. Thirdly, I have to admit, there were going to be a lot of cheap comics there, A LOT. I was curious to dive into those long boxes for an hour or two. And if I parted with a few dollars along the way that was ok, too.

Despite my innate selfishness I said “yes” and, predictably, I ended up learning more about superheroes that day than the people who listened to me expound for an hour on “Why Superheroes Matter”. I learned what I learned by watching other people, how they interacted with each other, what they thought of the event, and what they took home with them. I learned a little more about why superheroes matter to other people, and some of what that can do in society.

During the lead-up to this event, quite a few people commented to me about what a great idea this was- to use comics and superheroes to bring people together for a good cause. I guess I’m amazed that hasn’t been done more often, or more often on the community level. We have the cons. We have the shows. We have our local shops and their events. We try to celebrate the artists and the writers of our favorite works. Why not turn some of that energy into a mutually beneficial direction? Because I’ll be my non-altruistic self and say that “Superheroes for Hospice” was a win-win event; it promoted comics as much as it promoted service in the community.

When I walked into the airy office building across the street from the hospital complex, I was greeted by comics creators tables in an orderly row. Steve Mannion of Fearless Dawn, Paul Castiglia of Archie, DC, Dark Horse, and TMNT, Tom Hall of R-13 and King!, and David Ryan of War of the Independents all spent their day chatting with fans, encouraging aspiring kids and generally contributing to the festive atmosphere. But I must confess, I wanted to see those boxes. Over three hundred filled a long rectangular room and extended along hallways. I immediately realized that there was something unique about this- not only were all these charitably donated comics present, but yes, I flipped through the first box I came to, they were actually in alphabetical order. This may not wow you the way it does me, but the room was massive, the stock was huge, and some very devoted and careful volunteers had actually bothered to make this a comic book collecting dream for patrons. These weren’t haphazard dollar bins- they were a LIBRARY waiting for your selection. But wait- there’s more. It gets better. The comics were not just arranged by publisher, itself a great service to perusers, they were arranged by imprint. You heard me: imprint. What I’m talking about are long boxes full of Wildstorm and an entire hallway of Vertigo. I felt vertigo right away, and being a big fan I was able to look through the entire stash in a half hour because of the encyclopedic arrangement. I hope I’m making you jealous that you weren’t there. It was that good. The prices were great- two dollars each until you got up in higher numbers where the price de-escalated to astonishing deals; buying twenty meant they were a dollar. Let me add that many many issues were in excellent condition.

The condition was particularly striking with graphic novels, both soft and hardback. Many of them really sparkled as if they had just come out of a stock room box. They probably had.  The price on trades was excellent, and really appealing for those of us who have a lot of reading to catch up on but can’t face the prohibitive prices of graphic novels we covet. For twenty bucks I got five. All this was donated, but it was high quality stuff, and a wide representation of interests. These were no cast-offs and they were certainly not unwanted. I benefitted from getting in early, but the comic browsing was never uncomfortably crowded. I only had an hour to get myself together, pick my jaw up off the floor, and head to the other unique feature of this charity event: panel discussions.

Spiro Ballas, the Senior Volunteer Coordinator for the event, had started planning far ahead to try to arrange a “Getting into Comics Lecture Series”. This was his particular vision for bringing in new comics readers and giving them a leg up to be part of the conversation about the future of comics. Three events were included: an autobiographical experience about comics and graphic design by Arlen Schumer, “My Comic Book Life”, a hands-on workshop “How to Create a Comic Book Character” by Rick Parker, and my lecture “Why Superheroes Matter: A Modern Mythology”, which brought some of the aspects of superheroes into a mythological context as well as discussing Marvel’s successful string of hero films.

I think there was a certain degree of the unknown involved for we three presenters. We weren’t sure who would attend the charity event, much less who would willingly listen to us expound on our obsessions for an hour at a time. We had no way to predict age groups, level of knowledge or area of interest. This was a feature of the diversity of comics fans within the superhero genre. I decided to aim my talk at an intelligent, comics-reading teenager and left speculation at that. When I sat down in the back of the conference room for Arlen’s talk, I bit my lip. There were a lot of younger kids and middle-schoolers along with every age of adult. This was a big mix. Would the youngsters even want to sit still that long?

But Arlen knocked it out of the park. He started off audaciously with scanned images of his earliest childhood drawings that had the kids riveted. It was a perfect start. And sure enough, the more complicated references to comics greats didn’t deter them. Those kids stayed poised in those seats and there wasn’t a single bathroom run. Arlen really opened the door on the process of becoming a designer using comics as inspiration, expressing the layers of work involved and the pop of the finished product. There was a strong sense of enthusiasm for the comics medium and for our own personal stories of readership by the end of the hour.

After a break, Rick gathered his crowd. When I came in to view the session underway I saw an even greater mix of people. I have to say, it was a rather moving thing to see every age of comics enthusiast sitting shoulder to shoulder from elementary school kid to senior scratching away quietly with number two pencils on white paper, all with a fairly identical look of devotion and concentration. Rick was no exception. His calm attitude was pervasive. Somehow when he outlined very typical visual mistakes for his audience, it wasn’t the least offensive for the unlearned. I don’t think you would have attracted a more serious crowd at a mega con or at a paid class event. Everyone seemed to feel very grateful and happy to be there, but a lot of that had to do with Rick’s giving attitude. No one would go away thinking “I can’t draw” that day.

My talk had fewer kids, which was a little bit of a relief, but quite a range of fans whose serious expressions were actually a little intimidating. I really hoped they weren’t going to quiz me on the finer points of Marvel continuity, which, as a relative newbie I find more cryptic than Sumerian tablets, but just as alluring in the end. So we started off with the most basic points of my reading experience that I could formulate, that we like superheroes for many, many reasons, some of them being: because they have back story we can get to know and care about, because they wear costumes which show confidence in their identity, and because they do “cool stuff” which challenges our impression of the possible and impossible, thereby empowering us just a little more than an ordinary life might otherwise suggest to us. I drew intentionally unlikely parallels between some superheroes and characters in ancient myths and talked about the success of the Marvel films. I should have known where the Q and A would go: lively critique of what’s going to happen in the Avenger’s film. This fan-fest conversation was just the kind of thing the event was supposed to promote: a sense of community. By the way, none of these talks wanted to “end” when they were supposed to end. They could have gone on and on, a good sign.

I walked around for another hour or so thinking about what I was looking at, and took up a position in the main comic box room to observe. The room still seemed like a serene showroom. This, I concluded, was the Platinum flying club experience. I half expected someone to glide over and offer me a cocktail with a little umbrella from a silver platter or perhaps a glass of rich red wine to pair with Hellboy a la Alan Moore’s suggestion. Despite its rewards, comics collecting can sometimes verge on dumpster diving. This was not one of those days. There was only one explanation for this: this was an event planned by comics fans for comics fans. They were thinking of all the little amenities and staging it all with grace. Maybe it was a feature of the dual passion: comics and raising money for a good cause.

When I had gotten over myself enough to look at the browsers, I was struck by some young girls rushing around in excitement, talking in loud whispers. That wasn’t something I would have seen when I was their age so I found it riveting. They were stacking up handfuls of old Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, barely containing squeals and touching the still punk-bright covers almost reverently. I have one word for that: awesome. That’s what I would have said when I was thirteen if I had seen them hunting through boxes as I methodically shoved my way through old Star Treks looking for the best covers too.

It was time for me to go but things were far from over. Savvy fans were packing up crates full of their good deals, cash in hand to help people struggling with long-term illness. Those pages were turning into a helping hand but they were also going to good homes where they’d, hopefully, keep comics moving into the next generation.

The people who came out for this event made a statement, whether they were aware or not, of the significance of comics to their lives. There was a degree of intention here, and a certain zest about it all because it was such a perfect pairing: contributing to the lives of others by supporting what has contributed to your own life. That’s about as esoteric as I’ll get on the subject, given that I’m no altruist.

I proved that by running back for some more of those Vertigos before hitting the parkway.

For more information on future Superheroes for Hospice events (and they are in the works), visit

http://www.barnabashealth.org/hospitals/hospice/comic/

or contact:

Spiro Ballas

Senior Volunteer Coordinator
Superheroes for Hospice
Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center
95 Old Short Hills Road
West Orange, New Jersey  07052
(973) 322-4866
sballas@barnabashealth.org

*And I am Hannah Menzies on FB and @Hannah Menzies on Twitter!