Fortresses of Soli­tude

Hello Mr. Magazine - - FORTRESSES OF SOLTITUDE - Text by Paul Dalla Rosa Illustration by Levi Hast­ings

There’s a scene in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Soli­tude that makes me cringe, not out of aver­sion, but recog­ni­tion. The two pro­tag­o­nists, Dy­lan and Min­gus, both age twelve, are in one of their bed­rooms: hand-me-down Play­boy and Pen­t­house mag­a­zines lit­ter the floor, cen­ter­folds ripped out and stained, amongst sim­i­larly tat­tered is­sues of Mar­vel comic books. Dy­lan is a lot like I was: a kind of self-aware nerd who des­per­ately wishes he weren’t one, who seeks to dis­tance him­self from the only other white boy in his neigh­bor­hood, who plays chess on his brown­stone’s stoop, fakes asthma at­tacks, and keeps his comic col­lec­tion in or­dered plas­tic pock­ets. His best friend, Min­gus, is ev­ery­thing Dy­lan and I weren’t – un­selfish, strong, self-as­sured, and pop­u­lar. To a twelve-year-old he’s as cool as Car­raway’s Gatsby. So they’re in this bed­room and a page spread of the su­per­heroine Valkyrie is sin­gled out, de­scribed ‘in her blue sleeve­less ar­mor, her chain mail brassiere.’ Crum­pled up Kleenexes lie scat­tered all over. With the win­dow shut and a rolled up towel block­ing the crack be­tween the bed­room door and floor, the smells of weed, sweat, and musk be­come al­most pal­pa­ble. It’s in this place, where ev­ery­thing is charged with imag­i­nary acts, that the two wank each other off, with their eyes closed. In the book it’s said that this “wasn’t a faggot thing” and to be hon­est I kind of get that.

As I reread old comics dug out from my closet, I can’t stop think­ing about this scene and how these comics, like the ones Lethem de­scribed, are at once in­no­cent and charged with la­tent sex­u­al­ity, la­tent lust. In his novel, the boys ogle ink-shaded women. How­ever, grow­ing up I was al­ways un­know­ingly star­ing at the guys be­side them. That made a dif­fer­ence.

I re­mem­ber when I went to a friend’s birth­day party in grade six. It started with us go-kart­ing, then eat­ing pizza at a place that had Street Fighter and NASCAR ar­cade ma­chines. At night we all went back to his house, what you’d call here a McMan­sion–TVs in ev­ery room, the house built so big that its walls pressed up against their back and

side fences and seemed ready to burst over their mail­box at the front. There was a group of about twelve of us, all boys. We were in the cin­ema room, all spread out so the four-seater couch only sat two and ev­ery­one on the car­pet at least a me­ter apart. We watched Eyes Wide Shut and a shak­ily filmed, boot­leg copy of the then just-re­leased thriller Tak­ing Lives, both movies stolen from the birth­day boy’s dad’s DVD col­lec­tion. They re­wound and re­played the mo­ment when Angelina Jolie’s naked chest fills the screen, again and again. Weeks later at camp, I was in a room filled with a group of the same guys. As we all lay down on bunk beds, I was on the bot­tom, and the guy sleep­ing above me bragged about girls he’d kissed at un­der­age blue-light dis­cos and that in his bag he’d brought with him a whole, ex­tra large tub of Vase­line.

I’m not mak­ing this shit up. On some level I rec­og­nize that these cir­cum­stances are the sort that pop­u­late erotic fan fic­tion, on­line gay teen fo­rum boards, and porn filmed with un­nat­u­rally hair­less eigh­teen year olds, but in re­al­ity I was twelve and this shit was fucked up and ter­ri­fy­ing. I didn’t know if it was some­thing most guys lived through but I wanted to get away. The next night, I moved into an­other room, even though that one was al­ready at peak ca­pac­ity and I had to sleep, still grate­ful, with my sleep­ing bag on the cold, hard, con­crete floor. Later, I dis­tanced my­self from those boys. In fact, through­out high school you could say I dis­tanced my­self from most guys as close friends, al­ways re­main­ing on good terms but never ap­proach­ing best friend territory.

Years later, I can see that this was part of a process those guys had to go through in or­der to leave ado­les­cence and slowly en­ter a world of adult sex­u­al­ity, even if, as for Lethem’s Dy­lan and Min­gus, it was in a mostly in­tel­lec­tu­al­ized way. Lethem de­scribes this process tak­ing place in the most pri­vate of hide­aways, be­hind closed doors so that the boys can ex­plore in a place de­lin­eated from their daily lives, a place like Reed Richard’s Neg­a­tive Zone, Bruce Wayne’s Bat­cave, or Wolver­ine’s des­o­late wilder­ness. Lethem de­scribes the boy’s bed­room as a “sanc­tum,” as a world “un­der wa­ter,” sub­ject to an­other at­mos­phere. I don’t know if I can agree. For me these other worlds were not ones of safety but ones, if not hos­tile, that were some­how Other: phan­tom zones, for­eign plan­ets, places I could only ever ex­pe­ri­ence as an alien, some­one on the pe­riph­ery, some­one pass­ing through.

For a long time I thought I was asex­ual. Comics helped me re­al­ize I wasn’t. I’ve loved the X-Men since I was lit­tle. At the age of five, I rented the same 90s X-Men: The An­i­mated Se­ries VHS from the video store al­most ev­ery week. Back then, each VHS only had a sin­gle twenty-minute episode on it. I didn’t care. I was a fan­boy be­fore I knew what fanboys were. From about ten on­wards I read comics, lots of comics, and I’m not talk­ing about queer comics or un­der­ground ones; I’m talk­ing main­stream DC and Mar­vel, span­dex and su­per­heroes. I’d read them alone ly­ing down on my stom­ach against my bed­room floor­boards, my head propped up by my el­bows. No­body I knew read comics, or if they did we never spoke about them. They weren’t cool then. I didn’t have the money for them and even if I had, I would’ve had nowhere to buy them from out on the out­skirts of Mel­bourne. In­stead I used the li­brary. It had A small col­lec­tion of Ul­ti­mate X-Men trade pa­per­backs, as well as is­sues of Spi­der­man, Su­per­man, and Dare­devil.

These comics were ex­tremely geeky, sure, but they weren’t gay. At the time that wasn’t some­thing I was even think­ing about. But slowly, as the li­brary’s cat­a­log ex­panded and I made the effort to com­mute and join new li­braries sub­urbs over, I came more and more in contact with gay char­ac­ters. Granted, these were fuck­ing rare. Dur­ing the 2000s, only four come im­me­di­ately to mind, and in each in­stance these char­ac­ters were al­ways pe­riph­eral to their re­spec­tive plots. They al­ways or­bited the main nar­ra­tive, some­times sur­fac­ing at cru­cial mo­ments, other times fad­ing into the back­ground. These char­ac­ters were the first openly gay teen su­per­hero cou­ple, Hulk­ling and Wic­can, from Al­lan Hein­berg’s Young Avengers, Colos­sus in Brian Michael Bendis’ reimag­in­ing of

X-Men con­ti­nu­ity Ul­ti­mate X-Men, and An­gel in Neil Gaiman’s Graphic Novel 1602, which trans­posed Mar­vel char­ac­ters into ver­sions of them­selves in the early 17th cen­tury. Over the span of a few years, I found my­self reread­ing these comics, fo­cus­ing on their sto­ries, some­times just read­ing the pan­els these char­ac­ters ap­peared in and noth­ing else.

To the teenage me who didn’t know any­one that was gay or ques­tion­ing their sex­u­al­ity, these char­ac­ters were im­por­tant. This was at a time when the only other gays I could be ex­posed to were from late night tele­vi­sion, from re­runs of Sex in the City, Queer as Folk, or Dante’s Cove. None of these char­ac­ters were any­thing like me, and for me to stay up late, wait­ing for ev­ery­one else to go to sleep just so I could watch them, would be too stark an ad­mis­sion to my­self. Read­ing comics was safe. I got to read about su­per­heroes, but su­per­heroes who were my age, who liked what I liked, and who were ei­ther openly gay or in the process of com­ing out. I could open an is­sue of Young Avengers or Ul­ti­mate X-Men and it was like en­ter­ing one of Lethem’s par­al­lel worlds, only, for once, it was a world I felt at home in.

At six­teen, I got over it. I came out, ended my self-im­posed ex­ile, and never re­ally looked back un­til now. But it’s funny. It took me years to re­al­ize I was gay, years in which I em­ployed sub­terfuge, real cloak-and-dag­ger shit, to­wards oth­ers and, more im­por­tantly, to­wards my­self. And all the while it was al­ways so fuck­ing ob­vi­ous. Grow­ing up, my fa­vorite char­ac­ter was Ice­man, though at thir­teen for a then-in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son I ut­terly loathed his clas­sic 60s ap­pear­ance. Back then, in­stead of turn­ing into ice (a power that to this day has him drawn top­less, show­ing off lean, ice-cut mus­cles), he gen­er­ated body ar­mor out of com­pacted snow, which in ef­fect made him look like an ut­terly unerotic snow­man. In Ul­ti­mate X-Men, the books I re­ally hunted for, not only was he pure ice but he of­ten wore noth­ing other than an X-lo­goed ban­dana.

My fa­vorite comic arc of all time was a late 80s New Mu­tants story, “Home is Where the Heart Is.” I re­mem­ber the plot hazily, some­thing about Loki kid­nap­ping Storm and turn­ing her into the new God of Thun­der so that she could sup­plant Thor. Her stu­dents, the teenage New Mu­tants, pur­sue them into the Nine Realms to save her. It’s a fun story, if not par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable. Rather, it’s the art that burnt it­self into my con­scious­ness. The comic starts with the New Mu­tants at the beach on a Greek is­land. Arthur Adams, the pen­ciller, draws the team loung­ing on the sand and then fight­ing mon­sters in noth­ing more than Speedos and un­der­wear. The guys’ bod­ies are smooth and toned like Olympic swim­mers, and when they go to As­gard their mus­cles flex through chain­mail ar­mor, tu­nics, and their iconic span­dex body­suits.

I’ve re­al­ized that my ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t all too dis­sim­i­lar to Lethem’s char­ac­ters, or the boys I es­caped from at camp. We were all un­der­go­ing a process, all com­ing of age, but for me, my fortress of soli­tude was just more soli­tary. Straight guys get to dis­cover their sex­u­al­ity to­gether, even if it does court the ho­mo­erotic, whereas gays of­ten need to stum­ble, alone in the dark for years just to un­der­stand them­selves. It’s what’s so iso­lat­ing and in­su­lar about grow­ing up and be­ing gay. For me comics weren’t just en­ter­tain­ment or pre­cur­sors to porn. They gave me, corny as it sounds, friends that I could re­late to. They made me un­der­stand that I wasn’t alone.

Nowa­days, there are more LGBT char­ac­ters in comics than ever be­fore, and DC and Mar­vel are ac­tu­ally giv­ing these char­ac­ters a much greater fo­cus. I still read Young Avengers; Kieron Gillen’s bril­liant re-launch of the se­ries in 2013 which makes Hulk­ling and Wic­can’s re­la­tion­ship the se­ries’ core, but in my twen­ties the emo­tional dra­mas of two six­teen-year-olds no longer re­ally re­lates to my life. But they no longer need to. They’re for a new gen­er­a­tion. They’ll be some­one else’s fortress.

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