The summer after my second year in college, I moved to a small town in upstate New York to work as a teacher for children with dyslexia. It was part of my interest in doing archetypes types of jobs : teacher at a boarding school, inner city school teacher, university researcher, physician. It was my first summer away from home.
I was there for eight weeks, and decided to take the train down to New York City. I made it to grand central station, and decided to walk to ground zero. This was in 2002, and 9/11 was still fresh.
I had visited NYC before, with my dad, but this was my first time on my own. The city had figured large in my mental Marvel comics universe, with the Xavier school for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester, the Avengers mansion in midtown, and Spider-man’s Aunt May in the Bronx. JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was huge to me, and I had invested a lot of meditative practice in Franny and Zooey prayer of Jesus. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve looked back at Salinger’s themes, and I can see some of what I continue to struggle with, questions of what’s real, what’s authentic, and what’s the point of it all.
I was on a religious/spiritual kick then, which would eventually lead to my pursuing the episcopal priesthood the following summer. This didn’t work out, mostly because the priest I interned for was mean as hell, and didn’t want me around. Without the aura of friendliness and good feelings that usually characterized my time at the church, I saw it a little differently: a building for people once a week to get together, and do community activities the rest of the week. The priest was like a specialized actor or actress, who gave a twenty minute monologue every week. It was fine, as something to do, but it really didn’t seem that important, in terms of changing people’s lives.
But I was walking the straight and narrow. I was twenty, and led a campus Bible study. I didn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs. I had my first serious girlfriend, Concetta, and while we had spent the night together, we hadn’t gone any further than making out.
For further qualification, I should tell you that I lost my virginity in high school with a friend’s older sister. I smoked cigarettes every day (up to a half pack), drank a bunch of booze. I pledged a fraternity, and my first blackout drinking came on Animal House night, when they locked us in a room to drink a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. I smoked pot on occasion. Once I joined up with a group of conservative Christians, I quit smoking and drinking, and dumped my porn.
I walked out of Grand Central station, and someone stopped me to ask if I needed directions. There were a lot of panhandlers there in the city. I tried to give them all money, and then I had to stop because I was running out of cash. There was a woman dressed in a garbage bag on the sidewalk, and there was a crowd of concerned looking fully dressed women around her, presumably trying to help her in some way.
On one street I bumped a guy, and he showed me his broken glasses, like he had dropped them because of me. He told me he had no money to fix them, and I said that I was sorry, but I had no money, I was a teacher. He said it was OK, and moved on. Looking back, I think it was meant to be a scam, and I was supposed to throw money at him because I was scared. Instead, I felt like we made a brief connection, or maybe he just gave up.
I have this habit when I walk, whenever I pass newsstands or bookstores. I look at all the covers. It’s probably the whole idea of the display. What I’m looking for is either a) women, or b) comics. I stop by a news shop on the walk and skim through. Here’s the cover that catches my eye:
A man in an iron mask, levitating in lotus position, wearing an x-uniform and contemplating a cheeseburger? This caught my attention. It’s like, “how is he going to eat it?”
This issue was narrated by Xorn in the style of the Tao Te Ching. It’s set in Mutant-town, a ghetto for mutants, and opens with him trying to heal a dead horse. He says,
He summarizes my goals in life completely. The story goes on to show him trying to find a mutant boy who had grown into a giant, and was eating neighborhood pets.
His mother has been protecting him, but overdoses on pills while Xorn is with them, and the boy breaks out of the apartment to try and get his mother help, to be gunned down by police.
Xorn’s heartbrokenness at the stupidity and brutality of the world, the waste of life and goodness and potential, mirrors my own. I still find this story so poignant, twenty years later.
Grant Morrison was really my anchor back into the world of comics. He has such a knack for bringing in multi-layered storytelling with complex arcs.
Here’s my take on Xorn. I didn’t learn for years about how his storyline concluded, in which he was revealed to be Magneto in disguise, controlled by Sublime. This was later retconned as Xorn disguised himself as Magneto, and there were twin Xorns . . . I prefer to stick with Morrison’s version, that he was always Magneto, even here. He had made his disguise too well, and his method acting submerged his own personality. Xorn represented his goodness, the part of him that would protect his people and make a nation for them, and his sadness at their death, while split from Magneto’s rage and violence.
Back in the city, I made it to Ground Zero. At the center of all of these buildings, was this huge empty hole, with people circling it, some in tears. It looked a lot like this photo:
What came to my mind was the passage from Matthew about “The Abomination of Desolation.”
And while I had never fully understood what the Abomination of Desolation was, this felt like it. It has a flavor similar to Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain, which Morrison describes as one of his favorite artworks in an interview, and Cassandra Nova names it in his Here Comes Tomorrow story.
Like Morrison’s work on Animal Man, one of my first ethical outrages as a boy (eight years old) was over animal cruelty, animal testing, oil spills and the death of the whales. I had a phase in the third grade where I would draw a seascape with whales and fish on the chalkboard every indoor recess. I drew hundreds of gorillas, and had real anxiety about the extinction of the mountain gorilla. I took nearly an entire roll of film of the gorillas at the Columbus zoo.