Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: You'll Never Guess

Fair warning: I'm going to be a shameless '80s nerd in this one.

Everyone in comics is asked, sooner or later, who their favorite superhero is. It's a valid question, even for the people who want nothing to do with the capes and tights set. But perhaps a more interesting question, one that might reveal much about how they came to the hobby, even, well, for the people who want nothing to do with the capes and tights set.

The question: "Who was your *first* superhero?"

I've documented my first infatuation with Spider-Man, my formative years among the Barks ducks and Dave Manak's ALF. But I haven't yet answered that particular question. It's one that requires a specific knowledge of late '80s kidvid to truly understand. My first superhero, you see, was Ultra Man.

If anyone ever bothers to write the history of Jerry O'Connell's career, they'll likely focus heavily on his debut alongside Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix in "Stand By Me." It's kind of unfair to Jerry; he got to bang Sarah Michelle Gellar, fercryinoutloud, and he'll still always be remembered as the fat kid from an adaptation of a Stephen King novella. Ultra Man will get, at best, a paragraph. Such is the injustice of history.

The allusion to O'Connell may now be stirring neurons within your brain, so I'll get right to the meat of it: From 1988 to 1991, O'Connell starred as Andrew Clemens, aka Ultra Man, in the (for me, anyway) Saturday morning live-action drama "My Secret Identity." Owing much to the previous decade's "Greatest American Hero," "My Secret Identity" was fairly standard teen superheroism in the slightly Spider-Man vein: Young nerd Andrew was struck with a gamma ray beam while visiting his eccentric physicist neighbor (it could happen), and, instead of contracting leukemia, developed superpowers. To keep him from infringing on Superman's schitck too much, he gained only invulnerability, superspeed, and a hovering ability he could only convert to directed flight through the use of aerosol spray cans. (The post-Captain Planet viewer in me recoils at the thought.) With the scientist, "Dr. J," as his only confidante, he attempted to fight crime and right wrongs in his suburban stamping grounds, screwing up quite a bit on the way, and never really getting the glory or the girl, but learning a bit more about being a man each week.

At least, that's how I understand it. Truth be told, I didn't watch the show much. I caught a few episodes here and there (including a later-season episode where a second dose of radiation added super-strength to his powerset), but didn’t latch onto it; it was a combination of my disdain for any non-animated kidvid and standard pre-adolescent antsiness preventing me from staying in front of the TV long enough to catch its 10:30 AM timeslot. Instead, what caught me was the young readers novelization of the pilot.

I was an unabashed book nerd. Betty's Books (across from the Eastman 4 movie theater in the small strip mall that would later contain the two most important stores of my adolescence, Mega Movies and Time Warp Comics) was a must-stop anytime my mother took me shopping. Beverly Cleary, Bunnicula, Encyclopedia Brown, Bruce Coville: this was my crack. And among the racks, or possibly in the monthly Scholastic fliers that ate up so much of my parents' income that we might as well have listed the company as a dependent, I must have seen the book, made the connection with the TV show, and thought, "That might be fun to read."

"My Secret Identity (based on the pilot episode of the television series" was not the most-read book in my collection, nor the most-loved. But it was the earliest crystallization of my oncoming angst at the world in front of me. I was not the happiest of kids: sensitive, moody, in trouble more often than not at school, at once idolizing and despising my more popular, athletic older brother. And from all I could tell, adolescence would be no kinder; the addition of girls and dating, the pressure of beginning to choose a path for myself, seemed to be only more complications. And that was if I was lucky enough for it to be normal; boarding school and military academies were not un-discussed in the search for a remedy to my constant behavior problems.

Meanwhile, here was Andrew, at once an object of identification and envy. His life wasn't easy (his father had either skipped town or died, I don't recall, but he suffered a beleaguered single mother and demanding younger sister), but it was in ways better than mine; he had a steady circle of friends, one of whom was even willing to trade comics with him,* and at least he didn't wear quarter-inch-thick glasses. He even had the courage to approach the cute girl moving in across the street, something I couldn't even fathom doing.

But still, he was unsure about himself, about his life and his future. Here was, for the first time, a character as angsty as myself. But not as damn depressed about it. Trouble seemed to roll off him. Gaining his powers was a dream come true for him; Andrew immediately saw the upside of this new development. He could be a superhero, and to him, that was pretty cool. Dr. J's reservations notwithstanding, he imagined joining the ranks of his heroes. Andrew was a Marvel Zombie, it should be noted, and in a passage that had a profound effect on me, he wondered half-aloud why X-Men Nightcrawler and Wolverine never sat around the X-Mansion saying, "Hey, this gig is pretty cool." I didn’t know who the hell Nightcrawler and Wolverine were**, but I got the idea: that growing up wasn't something I had to be afraid of.

Of course, Andrew's bubble burst when that cute girl was abducted by mobsters (turned out her father was in the Witness Protection Program), and he used his powers to save her, only to have her leave again now that her cover was broken. But still, Ultra Man faced forward, confident that the new day would bring something good.

It was just this shot of optimism I needed. I didn't fall in love immediately with superheroes, nor did I take to experimenting with aerosol cans to see which would lift me off the ground (fortunately for the portion of the ozone layer directly above northeastern Oklahoma), but Ultra Man did teach me an important lesson: that the way to go through life and be happy was to imagine the good that would come from each new development, not the bad. Eighteen years later, it's still a lesson that serves me well, and one that I, every so often, need to have reinforced.

Who would have guessed?

*In a scene I rather enjoyed, Andrew refuses to trade his prized Journey Into Mystery 82 for an original Carl Barks Donald Duck issue. Being the Duck geek I was at the time, I didn't quite get why he did that. Nor do I still today, for that matter.

**I didn't know what a Wolverine was, and Nightcrawlers were what my grandfather had a farm of in a box in his basement. Grandpa's worm farm was an endless fascination for me, less for the observational aspect than the fact that I wasn't allowed to track so much as a speck of dirt into the house, but he got to keep a whole box of the stuff, and worms, in the basement. The lesson was clear: at some point, the rules stop applying. I would test the location of this point many times during my youth.

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