Winning is Everything

Several years ago, some friends of mine were involved with running the school’s annual Relay For Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society through pledges and donations. I looked forward to the event each year, though not for any particularly altruistic reasons; I just enjoyed the feel of the gymnasium, the camaraderie of the wee hours of the morning when most people were sleeping and we were still going strong in our circles. I enjoyed the sunrise I would otherwise never see. In the back of my mind I figured I also enjoyed feeling like I’d done something unselfish, but that wasn’t entirely true.

This particular year, my friends were also selling t-shirts, and one design caught my eye. In large letters, the thing most people see first, it said “WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING.” But above and below were more words, and the complete phrase on the shirt was actually “Whoever says “winning isn’t everything” obviously isn’t fighting cancer.”

At the time, cancer had touched my life but vaguely. I’d seen it, but not in a way which had ever caused me to stop and think about it. I just thought it was a clever shirt, and I ordered one, and later on I wore it and felt clever, but that was the extent of things.

When I came home from college, our church was in the process of beginning a thing called “Life Groups,” which was a new way of doing something so old that it is part of my earliest memories of home life: small church-driven Bible studies in folks’ homes, which facilitated both a deeper area understanding and a more personal, lasting relationship-building outlet for members and their families.

For the better part of a year, I attended a Life Group at the home of a family friend. It was a fairly small group, rarely exceeding eight members, but it was cozy and affirming and a great way to spend an evening each week. I’ve always been terrible with names and faces, and it took me a while to make sure I hadn’t accidentally mixed people up, but one person whose name I immediately remembered, whose charisma and quiet intelligence struck me from the first time he contributed to our discussion, was Chris Ryff.

It wasn’t long after having met Chris that I found out what everyone else in the room (and most people in the church, who hadn’t just returned from school) already knew: Chris was suffering from a particularly nasty form of cancer, and was already in the final battles of that particular war. It shocked me a little to hear, because although (as I said) he was quiet, there was a daunting life force behind his eyes. Yet I was told this man was dying.

I don’t think think I believed it then. I still don’t really believe it now. Chris’ pain — physical, emotional, psychological — would have crippled most people, but in all the time I’ve known him I never saw a hint of that. In time, it would manifest itself in a sort of unspoken sadness, but never anger, never resentment, never pity.

There was a break between Life Group sessions and last year, when sessions resumed, Chris was notably absent. At the church picnic I almost asked him where he’d been, wanted to tell him we’d missed him, but for reasons I cannot remember I procrastinated that conversation, got distracted, and it never happened. I never saw Chris at Life Group again, and my own attendance floundered and then failed, so I don’t know if he ever went back. I don’t think even now I can properly grapple with that thought, that a year ago Chris left “life group.” Perhaps had it been called something different…

What I do know is that life got harder, and that Chris’s was the sort of cancer where they throw things at the wall to see what sticks; the sort where all the proven methods have failed and they try the experimental ones, hoping for a breakthrough that will advance their understanding of the disease and save your life in the process. Despite its extraordinary potential to advance the medical field, such treatment is actually quite expensive to undergo, and the financial burden became more immediately apparent. Our church, Chris’s friends, and many who knew him rallied to raise the money that would make trying to save Chris’s life not come at the expense of Chris having a future livelihood.

We attended a benefit banquet near the tail end of that fundraising push, where lifelong friends, coworkers, bosses, and relatives spoke to Chris’s character and confirmed what anyone who met him immediately, wordlessly understood: he was an exception. And through this all he had carried the inexplicable burden of dying for no good reason with a humility and grace which few of us manifest in the face of far lesser trials. With wife and child by his side, he thanked everyone, and in that moment, even though he was standing there and even though we were all praying that he might be the breakthrough patient, there was still an uncanny sense that we had just attended a funeral. As joyous a funeral as one could have — after all, most of the folks in the room believed in heaven, and Chris was about as saintly as one could hope to be, quite clearly having put his fate in Christ’s hands long ago. But a funeral nonetheless.

After that, to my great regret, I have not seen Chris very much. He frequently was said to be undergoing treatment in a variety of places, and through the grapevine all I heard was that his condition was deteriorating. When I heard, while living in Massachusetts, that two other members of our congregation had recently lost their battles with cancer, my thoughts turned to Chris, and I wondered whether his story would be different.

For the last several weeks I’ve seen updates from Chris on Facebook, keeping us updated with his treatment, when he’d be in which hospital, for how long, when people might visit. He wanted people there with him. He routinely expressed this, and I can only hope that people went. For several weeks, I saw it, but there was always some hollow excuse not to go. The hollowest, the one which sticks in my mind now, was that I didn’t really know Chris; that our paths hadn’t crossed for terribly long, and I wasn’t the sort of person he hoped to see.

I realize now that that’s a chicken and egg scenario of the worst kind, because while I tried to judge my tendency to visit on the strength of my relationship, the strength of my relationship would have been increased with a visit; the only reason I wasn’t the right kind of visitor was because I wasn’t a visitor.

Yesterday, my mother told me that she hoped we, as a family, might visit him this weekend, before he went home in care of hospice. I didn’t really know how to internalize that, because despite the frequent hospital updates I still, in my head, believed that Chris was going to pull through. Hospice is such an innocuous word, it doesn’t really convey what it is, and if you don’t (as I didn’t) really think about it, you don’t have to deal with what it means.

And yet, last night, there it was: hospice.
Chris will be going home this weekend.

This morning, my mother knocked on my door to inform me that Chris had died.
Chris is home.

My mind reeled a bit, and as I pondered the various ways I wanted to react, it occurred to me that they were all a form of denial, coping mechanisms, a desire to channel the unthinkable into something I could control, something I had power over. But wearing a t-shirt, donating to a charity, heck, writing a blog about it — none of those things actually do anything. They do not explain cancer. They do not change Chris’s fate. They do not make it easier to rationalize how the outwardly smiling young man I saw a few weeks ago in passing, whose Facebook posts I read and “liked,” and went on with my life after “liking,” was hanging by a thread internally. They do not help me understand how I will never see that man again.

Those things don’t help, but we do them, I do them anyway. Today I am writing because writing is what I do, writing is how I cope. I am wearing my Relay for Life shirt today because it reminds me of a truth I never properly grasped, except in a flimsy and abstract way, but have been proclaiming with my clothing for years. I don’t feel clever. I feel empty. But I also feel a glimmer of something else: resolve. Because today I feel, I know, something I didn’t when I woke up. I know how it feels to lose.

That when it comes to cancer…

Winning is everything.

Chris, you have been loved by many, and now, after years of pain I cannot comprehend, your suffering is over. And your long-suffering, your dignity, your strength, and the compassion I saw every time I looked in your eyes, live on, to be remembered, to be celebrated, to inspire.

requiescat in pace


Uncanny Marvel NO.

The House of Ideas is overflowing, not with creativity, but with blood.

That’s the image I had in my mind as I stepped timorously through its doors four months ago, and the image I haven’t been able to shake during my visit. It’s an outsider’s view, the sort that frankly I think is hard to convey to anyone who has spent too long living inside that house. Some will argue that inexperience precludes passing judgment. I’d argue ingrained bias precludes rejecting the judgment I pass. Put simply, I had nothing to lose coming into this, and I’ve still managed to lose it.

I continue to meditate on the concept of superheroes. On justice. On hope. On the great responsibility that people who have great power are supposed to exercise.

That was the advice I was given through Peter Parker’s eyes.
But Peter Parker is dead. And Axel Alonso’s looking a lot more like the Kingpin than Uncle Ben.

A well-meaning friend heard about my decision to, for all intents and purposes, sever all ties with Marvel comics, and wrote this blog in an attempt to counter my position. It is the proverbial “don’t let a few bad eggs ruin Easter” argument combined with the notion that the company must offer something worth sticking around for, or they wouldn’t be the top dog after all these years.

I’m going to begin by addressing Avengers Arena directly, more specifically my friend’s comments, because I don’t think he properly understands the extent and the reasoning behind my vitriol. His language makes light of the situation, including Arena as one of several “titles that quite a few fans don’t favor or approve of.” Later, he points out an impending death and notes “I can see why this would make some fans angry” before likening that death of my favorite character to a major change made to one of his favorite characters.

I’ve pointed out a great many unlikable things about Avengers Arena but the one which has infuriated me like no other, and the one which nullifies every pacifying remark anyone has ever attempted to sling at me, is the solicit for the book within the pages of Avengers #1, which explicitly pitched the book to people who believed Marvel had too many teen characters and who hated characters like the Runaways and the Academy kids. This solicit promised that group — of people who do not want to see those kids around — that they would be pleased by Arena.

This is not, my friend, merely a matter of me being annoyed by the book. It is not a matter of my approval or favor. It is not even a matter of fearing for this character or that’s well-being.

It is about a company which, right in front of me and my proverbial “I love X-23” t-shirt and collection of Runaways books, says to the guy who hates my guts “pst, wait’ll you get a load of this.” It is a company which actively promoted its book to non-fans in such a way as to implicitly (but no less clearly) state “if you have invested time, money, and emotion into these characters, you’re about to be really upset.”

It is about a company which has no respect for its readers or their dedication, telling me that they would rather take the favorite characters of a guy who has spent literally hundreds of dollars across many years and many series investing in them and feature them in a slaughterhouse designed to royally piss me off on the off-chance that there are enough haters or ambivalent casual readers to sell a single ongoing title.

This isn’t just a book where Marvel said “well, some of the fans may not like the direction we take this, but it’s interesting and for the best.” This is a book where Marvel said “screw the fans, those characters are disposable.” And I’m sorry, but I don’t actually think anyone else really has a fair comparison. An unpopular narrative decision with your favorite character’s motivations hardly compares to this. At least he was still alive. At least his change had a chance to be redeemed. But what redemption is there for death?

The longevity of comic fan commitment is, if I’m honest, only as intimidating as it is baffling. For in the face of my worries that characters I love would die, the resounding response I got (beyond “who cares”) was “don’t worry, they won’t stay dead forever. Give it five, ten years, and they’ll be back.”

Never before have I encountered such nonchalance towards waiting for a decade or two for something to happen. And yet there it is. Five years ago I was a freshman in college. Five years before that and I was still on the bottom of the high school food chain. A tremendous amount of life happens in five years. It’s a long freaking time. And perhaps if you’ve spent your entire life being indoctrinated into the cult of comic groupthink, then that’s a reasonable period of time to wait to see if the things you loathed are retconned or redeemed.

But I’m an outsider. I’m trying to find excuses to stay in an industry I didn’t grow up in — to decide if this is something I want to make a permanent fixture in my life. And if waiting five or ten years is what it takes for Marvel to finally apologize for something that really hurts me today, then that’s about five or ten years too long. And when I see that something like “One More Day,” perhaps the most mind-numbingly awful event in comic history of which I’ve yet been made aware, which outright ruined decades of character development for one of the most iconic couples in American comic history, has gone six years without being retconned, what hope do I have that the deaths of a few obscure teenagers are going to get the makeover treatment any sooner?

And you see, that’s the irony of it all. In trying to tell me “this isn’t so bad,” what my friend actually said was “heck, we’ve all had our favorite characters butchered and destroyed; everyone who invests time and money and emotion into Marvel ends up getting screwed over and angry.”

To quote my friend, “But did they survive? Yes.”

Sadomasochism, it seems, is an acquired taste. Despite the inevitability of suffering, people choose to persevere.

And so to the numbers game. My friend points out that 31,000 people are enjoying Avengers Arena.

I’d point out that at its last issue, 22,000 people were enjoying Avengers Academy, the book which directly preceded Arena, and had one of the main characters of that book quite literally blown to shreds in the very first issue of the book he had been used to promote to them. I’d also point out that in less than four months, Arena has lost over 50% of its readership, so a lot less people are enjoying it than thought they would…and I imagine most of those Academy readers — you know, people who bought the book because it had characters they knew and liked in it –are part of the 33,000 people who have stopped reading it.

So yes, people are enjoying it. But more people have decided they don’t enjoy it than have decided they do.

I accuse Marvel of being a bloodbath. Let’s look at some of the other books which are enjoying success right now (as my friend pointed out).

Age of Ultron — a series in which everything is terrible, a lot of people are dead, and all signs point to at least some significant deaths being permanent (or at least “wait five or ten years” permanent).

Superior Spider-Man — a series whose whole premise depends on the headline-grabbing death of Peter Parker, and whose readership largely agrees that its chief purposes are to make life hard for the inevitable return of Parker and to once more make sure that he never gets back together with the woman who was — six years ago — his wife.

Wolverine‘s first issue — as with many first issues — sold well, but released to mediocre reviews. Not that it matters, because plans have already been revealed from Marvel that next year they are killing Wolverine.

Guardians of the Galaxy has sold well but has infuriated almost all pre-existing fans of the series and the cosmic universe in general; even the most accepting among them are having difficulty truly embracing the book. So here again is a series that Marvel banked on attracting new fans with even if it meant completely disregarding all the ones they already had. Besides, there’s a movie coming out soon, and that’s clearly all that actually matters.

And what’s on the horizon, aside from the “shocking” conclusion of Age of Ultron, the death of Wolverine, the continuation of Avengers Arena (along with Hopeless’, as of today, promise that most kids will be dead by the end of the arc)? Thumbing through the solicits, one finds Thanos Rising, “the book so blood-soaked you’ll be glad it’s a mini-series.” No, really.

Marvel NOW is new, and as a new thing it is going to have inflated sales. Just ask the people at DC, who have already had to cancel a variety of underperforming New 52 books and who don’t seem to even be agreed on whether or not they’re actually making substantially more money than before (nevermind the fans who are livid over how many of their favorite characters were either retconned out of existence or distorted so terribly as to defy recognition).

There’s no reason to believe that this moment of prosperity is anything beyond artificial; Marvel knew how to make a lot of money right now, but when the dust settles and all the new fans with no established devotion to the company peter off in pursuit of something new, will Marvel have been wise to have alienated hundreds of thousands of fans across the various corners of its readership? I sincerely doubt it.

This isn’t a matter of whether Marvel has talented people working for them. It’s not a matter of whether they have a rich history filled with incredible, lovable characters. X-23 is still my favorite, even if I refuse to buy the book she’s in.

This is a matter of a toxic, abusive relationship.

Yes, my friend. Marvel’s a talented guy. He makes you feel good. He buys great gifts. He knows how to cheer you up. You’re right, friend, he does “know how to make you smile.”

But he also knows how to beat the crap out of you because it fits his mood. He knows how to take you for granted and ignore you for months or years at a time.

He knows how to never actually apologize, because he knows that you’ll come crawling back to him no matter how badly he treats you. He promises to do better, that it won’t be like the other times.

But of course it will, and you both know it. You both know that it’s impossible to be a fan of Marvel without having your heart ripped out and dribbled up and down the proverbial court like a useless piece of rubber rather than your real emotional core. Yes, you’re right, there are books that I can read right now and love, and that will put a smile on my face.

But you know what? I bought every issue of The Runaways because that book put a smile on my face and made me happy. I loved that series and those characters. And do you know what some of my favorite characters, whose adventures made me happy, are up to right now? Fighting for their lives in a death arena because someone thought that’d be neat.

You know what else put a smile on my face and came from Marvel? Seeing Laura Kinney, the girl who never had a life of her own and was always being used by other people for their violent ends, finally getting to explore her humanity, to make friends, to pursue romance, to stop being a cold killing machine and start having real heart. And do you know where she is now? Fighting for her life in a death arena where someone is trying to use her to kill her friends and has a chemical which can make her do that… because someone thought that’d be neat.

So here’s the lesson I’ve learned: every time I invest myself into getting to know a character or group of characters because they make me happy, I run the extremely real risk that Marvel will kill them off, forget about them, or ruin their character so badly that the name is the only thing that character still has in common with what I had enjoyed.

I get why people need to defend their cognitive dissonance, to delude themselves into avoiding the reality of the situation. But I’m new to the game, and I haven’t put on the blinders yet. My decision here is probably the last chance I’ll have — because if I can get through this series this early into my relationship with Marvel, then they’ll own me for life. I won’t be able to say “no” because I’ll look back and I’ll say “hey, it sucks, but it’s not as bad as the time they took my favorite character and a whole bunch of other kids I really loved and murdered them because The Hunger Games was doing well at the time,” and no matter who dies or what terrible excuse there is for superheroes to fight each other instead of fighting evil, injustice, and (eyes up front, class) greed, I’ll just say “I want more.”

So I’m sorry, my friend, but this isn’t “just one silly book.”

This is Peter Parker being dead, and those with power being completely irresponsible.

This is the House of Ideas, overflowing.

And whether you see it or not, it is overflowing with blood.