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By: Michael Uslan
The Big Bang that 13.7 billion years ago begat all life in the universe and, according to Justice League of America #21 and 22, a string of possibly endless parallel universes, had nothing to do with me, my life, or my very existence. For me, the only true Big Bang occurred when Krypton blew up in Action Comics #1, page 1, panel 1. That explosion not only rocketed baby Kal-El to earth, bequeathing our struggling planet its very first superhero, a veritable Superman, it also showered us in a stream of glowing green Kryptonite, rocky remnants of that once proud planet, and transformed a normal human boy into a super comic book fan whose character and story would be shaped forever by the all-powerful weekly doses of four-color fantasy illuminating his imagination. My name is Michael Uslan, and that’s me.
My mom may have given birth to me, but my comic books formed me and made me who I am. Published every Wednesday of my lifetime, they were always the next adventure lurking around the next corner of my mind, they provided new vocabulary to my literary arsenal at age eight . . . from “foe” to “origin” to “indestructible” to “invulnerable” . . . and they were the protective secret sanctum Bat Cave where I could escape from the real world and find friends, heroes, and damsels-in-distress who didn’t make fun of a boy who read comic books. They were a safe place to curl up, whether in a quiet, out of the way corner of the playground, up in our backyard treehouse, or under my blanket at night with my Cub Scout pocket flashlight. Who am I? I’m the little kid whose preconceived notions about high school and dating came from reading Archie Comics, Betty & Veronica, and Jughead. I’m the fella who, hearing the word “Kent,” thinks superhero not cigarette. I’m the lad who got the “A” on his Red Badge of Courage book report, never having read the book but only the “Classics Illustrated” comic book version. I’m the fan who scanned every panel of every story in every issue of every comic book looking for “boo-boos” I could write letters to the editors about and maybe even see my very own name in print in a comic book that has Bruce Wayne’s name printed in it near mine. Bruce Wayne? Alfred? Dick Grayson? The Joker? The Catwoman? The Penguin? Two-Face? The Riddler? Batwoman? I knew them all. Personally. I knew everything about them. I knew their secret origins (once I found out from my mom what “origins” were). I knew where the Batmobile was parked. I knew the name of the street where Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot and killed. I knew Commissioner Gordon’s first name and Alfred’s last name (both of Alfred’s last names; there were two— a boo-boo!). I knew every word Bruce Wayne said when, “As if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window . . . ” I knew every trophy in the Bat-Cave and the one real date on the giant penny. Why do I know all his and have a head stuffed with data, details, and delineations that don’t matter to you but were all that mattered to me growing up? Why, on the inside, did I never really, actually grow up? The answer is to know me. Yes, my name is Michael Uslan. But that’s not exactly who I am . . . really . . . in my secret identity.
I’m the Boy Who Loved Batman.
Wednesday! It was the best day of the week! Better than The Mickey Mouse Club’s Wednesday “Anything Can Happen Day.” Gimme a break! If you truly wanted to be somewhere on a Wednesday where “Anything Can Happen” it was at a candy store or drugstore on comic book day! Wednesday was the day each week the new comics went on sale all over America. For a kid born in Jersey City, New Jersey, living for three years in Bayonne, New Jersey, growing up first in Wanamassa, New Jersey, and then, starting in sixth grade in Deal Park, New Jersey, just north of the legendary Asbury Park, I found myself embroiled in layer after layer of New Jersey that made me feel like I would never be able to escape my Garden State if I ever needed to. For me the only true escape was to the sacred eight places that sold comic books in and around Wanamassa that were within a human boy’s leg power to pedal to on his bike: Wanamassa Pharmacy; Ricky’s; Deal Pharmacy; Deal Soda Shop; Allenhurst Pharmacy; Andy’s Soda Shop; Flo’s, next to the Asbury bus station; and, only as an absolute last resort when all the other places were sold out, that pit-of-terror candy and tobacco store ruled with an iron fist and a tongue of fire by the monstrous proprietor, Old Man Tepid. These were my eight temples to my superhero gods that I faithfully prayed in every Wednesday, poring over the next treasured issue of Fantastic Four, Challengers of the Unknown, Brave & Bold, and countless others.
Comic books were 10 cents. The summer I turned ten, I plucked off the “Hey, Kids! Comics!” rack at Wanamassa Pharmacy the new issues of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen; Action Comics; and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane; and handed Mr. Lieberman, the pharmacist who owned the place, a quarter and a nickel. He looked down at my three-prong purchase and said, “That will be thirty-SIX cents, son.” I smiled and said politely, no, the comic books are 10 cents. He turned the Jimmy Olsen around and pointed to a box at the top that made no sense to me. In fact, I could not . . . and totally refused . . . to believe it. The box that had always said either “10¢” or “Still 10¢” now said “12¢.” I stared hard at it, waiting for it to change back to “10¢”. It didn’t. At age ten, I had my first deflating lesson in a thing called “inflation” . . . something no kid should ever have to know about. I was forced to put back one comic book. I couldn’t! How could I leave behind any one of these three issues? I NEEDED them! Lois Lane #30 had a mermaid on the cover! In Jimmy Olsen #57, he was a human yo-yo for a Martian! A Superman monster made entirely out of Red Kryptonite* was right there on the cover of Action #283! Mr. Lieberman forced me to make Mikey’s Choice. I surrendered Lois Lane because she was a girl. That said, I hopped on my bike and zipped home. My mom, the pillar known as Lil Uslan, was there as she always was whenever I needed her, like Superman was for Jimmy Olsen, only Jimmy had a Superman Emergency Signal Watch and whenever he needed to summon his super pal, all he did was twist a button on it and it went “zeee-zeee-zeee” and Superman instantaneously stopped saving the sun from blowing out, or whatever he happened to be doing wherever he happened to be doing it at that moment, and showed up in the nick of time to save Jimmy. I had no “mommy Emergency Signal Watch” but I didn’t need it. She always just knew when something was wrong and always was just there when I needed her. Talk about a superhero! I told her what happened at Wanamassa Pharmacy and as she explained to me about this “worst-thingthan- anything-I-ever-heard-in-my-life” called “inflation,” she told me to get in the car and drove me back to Wanamassa Pharmacy before someone else bought Lois Lane. She gave Mr. Lieberman 12 cents for me plus an extra nickel for a package of Topps baseball cards with a hard pink slab of gum dusted with some sort of white powder I don’t ever want to know about.
My mom saved the day for me at Wanamassa Pharmacy. On the car ride home, I got to thinking about how parents/caregivers don’t make out as well as their kids do in comic books. Think about it:
Batman’s parents, Thomas and Martha Dead
Superman’s parents, Jor-El and Lara Dead
Superman’s foster parents, Jonathan and Martha Dead
Spider-Man’s uncle, Ben Dead
Aquaman’s Atlantis mother and Earth father Dead
Robin’s parents, John and Mary Grayson Dead
Daredevil’s dad, Jack Murdock Dead
Captain Marvel’s parents, C.C. and Marilyn Dead
Captain Marvel, Jr.’s grandfather, Jacob Dead
Tarzan’s parents, Lord & Lady Greystoke Dead
When I read the story “The Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent,” that showed Clark’s foster parents dying just at the time their son, Superboy, was moving from Smallville to Metropolis and changing his name to Superman, I really did cry. I cried for Superboyman because I didn’t know how he possibly would be able to live without his parents. And I cried for me because that one comic book story made me aware that one day my parents would die, too, and I didn’t know how I possibly would be able to live without them. Already, my mom had instilled in me the same life lesson that the comic book story of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman then reinforced—once you make a commitment, you honor it, even if it means having to walk through hell before coming out the other side. Already, my mother had made me the greatest deal in the history of comic book collecting! Unlike almost everyone else’s mom, who either refused to allow comic books in their house or threw them out or surrendered them to those paper drives left over from World War II, MY mom said that IF I kept them stacked neatly in my brother Paul’s and my bedroom, and IF I promised to read other things besides comic books (the specific list was books, newspapers, and magazines), I could keep them. The die was cast. Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The fait was accompli. And so, by the time I graduated high school, I had well over 30,000 comic books, dating back to 1936. No, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go on if my mom and my dad died. But while that’s what young Bruce Wayne thought, too, it was his parents’ death that made him vow to become a superhero. It made him Batman. I knew there was some lesson to be learned there, but for the life of me, I couldn’t grasp it at age ten.
Copyright 2011 by Michael E. Uslan.
This program aired on September 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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