As I've written elsewhere in this blog series, most of my childhood is lost to me. But I do remember a box, cardboard, about the size of a trunk a sea-faring man might hoist on his shoulder. I can still see HOOVER printed over and over again on its sides, the heavy, brown letters moving in upward diagonal stripes as if compelled by the force of a powerful, atomic age suction.
The sweeper, as my mother called the vacuum cleaner, had long since disappeared, but as so often happens in households where money is scarce, the box had taken on a surprising new function. It had become a treasure chest, secreting a booty that made me feel as rich as any of the kids who lived in the big houses across town. Comic books. Hundreds of them.
As an adult, it’s almost impossible to replicate the thrill of lifting the lid of that box and meeting there the characters I loved so much. Little Lulu. Woody Woodpecker. Gyro Gearloose. And most of all, Donald’s fabulously wealthy uncle, Scrooge. Why Scrooge? For a poor child, a rich duck was mightily appealing, I suppose. If something with webbed feet and feathers could amass “five billion umtuplatillion multaplatillion impossibillion fantasticatrillion” dollars, then maybe one day I could, too.
This isn't the actual box, but for the smoothness of its flaps, it looks exactly like it. I can't help feeling that if only I could get inside that picture and pull up that lid, I'd find my old friends there. (But that carpet makes me feel unwell.)
Two Scrooge stories, both written and drawn by the incomparable Carl Barks, are still beloved to me. The first, “UNCLE SCROOGE in ‘Land Beneath the Ground’ ” told of strange, bowling-ball-shaped creatures, Terries and Firmies, that inhabited a vast cavern under the Earth’s crust.
One panel from the story showed groups of Terries arriving from all over the world in preparation for a day of Olympic-like games. Over each group, a speech balloon appeared and in each balloon, tiny non-Roman characters. Some looked vaguely Hindi, others Chinese, and still others, as if they had been lifted from the walls of Pharaoh’s tomb. The text read, “The Terries roll in for hours! From under the Andes, from Lapland, from the great hollows beneath the Sulu Sea.”
I very much fear that I am beginning to resemble a Fermie.
The Andes! Lapland! The Sulu Sea! The very names were like Sirens, luring me away from my lackluster Midwestern life, and exciting in me possibilities far beyond what I had hitherto imagined about the world and my place in it.
That simple comic aroused the first stirrings of a very particular longing, one that is still with me today. At the time, I couldn’t put a name to it, but later I came to know it as wanderlust. In my twenties and thirties, wanderlust carried me to Libya, Greece, Mexico, Israel, Palau and coincidentally (or not), an island in the Sulu Archipelago.
A Yakan boy. These are the people I lived with on Basilan, an island in the Sulu Sea. Unfortunately, I had a pair of those pants made and wore them almost daily when I returned to the States (with a matching bag.). Need I say why I had difficulty getting dates in my twenties and early thirties? Thank god I had the sense to forgo the makeup.
The other Scrooge story I treasured was a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts: “UNCLE SCROOGE in ‘The Golden Fleecing.’” Much later, when I read the original tale, I could not suppress the feeling that the Greeks had stolen it from Scrooge. Thanks in part to a cartoon duck, HMH will publish BULL next month, a YA retelling in verse of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. (So far, the book has received four starred reviews. Hooray!) Would I have written it without Scrooge? Who knows?
In his essay, “In Defense of Rubbish”, British novelist Peter Dickinson suggests that though we like to think otherwise, we cannot control what comes to children through their reading. We can give a child The Secret Garden, assured that in its pages she will be moved by its tale of redeeming friendship. But as much as it irritates us, she may set the book aside, gleaning in her own idiosyncratic way, the same values in Captain Underpants.
A reproduction of of my beloved comic. The Harpies, shown here, were called the Larkies in the Banks' version. I am just immature enough to still find this funny,
“The adult eye is not necessarily a perfect instrument for discerning certain sorts of values . . . ” Dickinson writes, adding that “ . . . the child’s eye . . . can acquire valuable stimuli from things which appear otherwise overgrown with a mass of weeds and nonsense.” Whatever a child is reading, comic book or classic, we must have faith that she may find value particular to her in its pages. To impose our values meets our needs, yes, but at the terrible cost of interfering with the mystery that is childhood and the fruits it may later bear.
After the people I love, I hold dear three things: travel, story, and nonsense. These three graces have brought a singular sense of meaning to my life. That they introduced themselves to me through the saturated colors and cheap, dog-eared newsprint of a comic book in no way tarnishes their transcendent powers. Rather, it makes them all the more numinous.
Numinous? Did he have to use such a fancy word?
Fight the good fight, friends. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.