Heroes Never Rust #74 by Sean Ironman
Ms. Marvel finishes out its first story arc with the fifth issue. Kamala Khan finally gains confidence and control over her superpowers and no longer shifts her body to look like Carol Danvers. She becomes her own superhero and storms back into the villain’s lair and kicks ass. It took five issues, but Kamala learned that she’s perfect just the way she is. Her father tells her, “You don’t have to be someone else to impress anybody.” At first, I was disappointed in the ending. Kamala coming into her own. It seemed too simple. Yah! Kamala figured out who she was. Yah! But, I was also comforted by the ending. It may have been a bit simple and straightforward, but I felt happy and at peace with seeing Kamala learn who she is. I was torn between wanting something that was more complicated, more real, and getting something that made me feel good.
And, I thought, Who am I?
Sean Ironman. A New Yorker, who grew up in Florida and lives in central Arkansas. A reader. A writer. An artist. A man who says he hates people, and yet spends his time working in a field communicating with others and works on putting on community events. A man who says he loves dogs but has none. A college professor who tells his students to drop out of college and that academics suck. An essayist who wants to be a fiction writer and screenwriter, but in his spare time, only works on essays. A non-religious man who fears God. A man who came to Starbucks to write on Christmas Eve to escape family and who can’t keep his eyes off the beautiful barista.
It’s the end of the year now, and I feel like I am lesser that what I was at the beginning of the year, even though I have accomplished so much more. Perhaps the holiday season has depressed me. Perhaps. But, as I grow older, I believe that I have no idea who I am, who I was, or what I want (other than the barista).
The other day, I went drinking with my brother and sister. We are not close, but we get along well enough to make me wonder why we are not close. My brother hates Christmas, and my sister and I have searched for new traditions since our parents divorced, and we discovered this year that my brother is more than happy to make a holiday trip to a bar our new tradition. They said that I was an angry child, that our parents were afraid I would go to jail. For what, I do not know. Assault, perhaps. This revelation shocked me. When I think of my childhood, I am alone, or with my boxer, Jade. I am playing with G.I. Joes or reading comics. I preferred solitary activities. Even when friends wanted to play, I would decline to be by myself. My family remembers me as an agitator, someone who could not be controlled, someone who would not listen to reason. A couple years ago, my father said that among his children, I was the one he could not bribe. If I didn’t want to do something, I just wouldn’t. I was also the one to be spanked the most, punished the most. I remember so little of this that it scares me as a memoirist that I may be lying without realizing it. I think of myself as an easy-going man, a man who helps his family and friends, but perhaps that is only the dream version of me and I am something else entirely. Are we who we think we are or are we what others think of us?
Yesterday, I sat in the wrestling room at my old high school as the team practiced. My father, uncle, and brother are wrestling coaches. I wrestled for seven years and quit my junior year of high school. A couple of people who were around back when I was on the team spoke about what they considered to be my greatest match. It was against our rival, St. Thomas, and with the stands filled with screaming spectators, I went out onto the mat first and pinned my opponent and changed the feel of the night for the crowd.
No one seems to remember what I consider to be my greatest match. It was my first as varsity and I was knocked unconscious for a few seconds—something the ref didn’t notice—and I woke and came back and won in the final seconds of the match. That is the match worth remembering, but only I view it that way.
After practice, I went to Target with my dad and we ran into two of my friends from high school, Joe and Meryn. I haven’t seem them in over a decade. They started dating in the final weeks of high school—I had a crush on Meryn at the time—and now they are married with three children. Joe looked tired and beaten, like a horrifying ghost of what I could have been. Perhaps it was just Christmas shopping with three kids (one of whom ran off down the store, which ended our brief reunion) that made him resemble an extra from The Walking Dead, but perhaps that’s just his look now. Before his daughter escaped towards the toys, Joe patted my arm and said I looked twice as big as when he last saw me. I said nothing, not knowing what to say, and it probably came off as if I had no interest in catching up with my old friend.
In high school, I wrestled in the 103 weight class. If I wrestled today, I would be in the heavyweight class. Although I could afford to lose a few pounds (or thirty), I’m taller and more muscular than I once was. My father was surprised anyone could recognize me from high school. But, I don’t think of myself as being a big man. Never. I grew up small and I still think of myself as a small person. A woman recently texted me (as part of a longer conversation) that I was a big, strong man, and at first, I thought she was making fun of me, but I realized I am a big guy and she was most likely just pointing out the obvious.
As I get older, I find that I have none of the values that I had as a child, or a teenager, or even from my early twenties. Hell, even from January. In the fifth grade, I remember sitting in class, staring at a cute girl, and not understanding how men could be mean to women. I heard how men mistreated their girlfriends and wives, and I just didn’t get it. I decided that I would never be like that. I set values for dating, for women. Yet, now I look back on my relationships as an adult and I’ve been deliberately cruel to each girlfriend. I knew at the time I was treating them wrong and I still did it. I became the asshole that I never thought I could become.
I don’t say that to be hard on myself or out of some kind of penance for a regret. I say that because I understand that I was and that anyone could be. We tend to think of ourselves as better that we truly are, I think. Even the beliefs I once held that weren’t really about being a good person have long been forgotten. For example, sex. I always figured I would have sex before marriage, but I always believed I would have sex only with women who I would be dating at the time. A week ago, I made out with a woman at a strip club (not a stripper). I never thought I’d be the type of guy who’d go to a strip club, much less make out with a woman at one. After the club, I spent the night with the woman, and in the morning, she woke sober and regretted what she had done. And although my self-confidence was damaged, I just kind of shrugged and went about my day.
I believe I have finally given up on trying to hold onto a view of myself. I find that I am a man of contradictions. A man who is seen differently than he feels. And I think that’s normal. I think that’s what is going on with everyone. The beliefs I have today will change or just be forgotten. I don’t regret losing the values and beliefs that I once had. It’s a natural part of life.
I don’t think it’s change, though. I don’t think I’ve changed. Can we ever really change, meaningfully change? I used to view myself as one man, and I discovered I was a different one. Every year, that’s what I go through. I don’t change. I just discover new things about myself, about the world. I no longer think of myself as a fully realized individual. Instead, I believe I am just this mass, this body of water in which things flow into and out of.
I no longer think it’s possible to ever truly know ourselves. Countless times throughout my life, I’ve done things that shocked me. And I’m not just talking about bad things. A month ago, I won my first writing contest, but in the sixth grade I got a D in English. I wasn’t a writer when I was growing up, but I am now. Will I be in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I think of myself as a funny, goofy person, but many of my friends make comments about me saying that I’m depressed or dark or angry.
Maybe I write nonfiction to discover myself. Maybe that’s why I’ll always write nonfiction—I’ll never know myself. Maybe that’s why I like comics like Ms. Marvel, why I find comfort in the fifth issue even though I find the issue too simplistic. Maybe that’s why we all get attached to these origin stories of superheroes coming into their own. Spider-Man. Superman. Batman. Ms. Marvel. It’s a kind of wish fulfillment. Life is too complicated—we are too complicated—to ever truly understand completely. We’ll never know our friends, our lovers, ourselves. But, I can be placed in Ms. Marvel’s shoes and see the world as she sees it. I can feel her self-confidence in who she is. Knowing what she is capable of and what she will never do. Perhaps that accomplishment is the most fictional aspect of the superhero tale. These fictional characters can have a set identity. Writers can change them, to an extent, but Peter Parker will remain Peter Parker. Kamala Khan will forever be Kamala Khan. And readers can find some peace from the confusion of their lives and identities in these fictions.
Photo by John King
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.