ALEANS AND DERBIS

 

 

by Ned Vizzini

 

 

Until I picked up X-Men, the coolest word I knew was fuck.

     I was nine and it was 1990--and youll be hard-pressed to cram more nines into a sentence legitimately, except if I were nine in 1999, which would make me more interesting too, darn--and comics had a kind of sweet inevitability for me. My older brother didnt turn me onto them because I didnt have an older brother. My Dad didnt turn me onto them because Dad at this point was in a hardcore Tetris phase. No, I just sort of knew about them.

When I saw my friends showing off Marvel cards, the characters were already familiar to me: Wolverine and Spider-Man and Cyclops, what they did and who their enemies were, their costumes and love interests and major universes they had been to. Somehow I knew. There werent any great movies or really poor TV shows, so some kind of cultural assimilation (word I learned from Uncanny X-Men, issue #282) got to me. There was no question I would pay money to read about these people. There was a store in my neighborhood named Comics Plus and one day I went in like Magneto was sucking my metal skeleton out of my body and bought Uncanny X-Men.

     Uncanny X-Men had better words than fuck. It didnt seem to need fuck.

     First of all, it had this word ultimatum. I was eight years removed from reading my days-of-future-past girlfriends copy of The Rules, which indicated that guys only respond to ultimatums (which is true), so I had no idea what this word meant. But I knew that ultimate was the best, so I figured that ultimatum was the noun form. The ultimatum. The best whatever.

     Since comic books are full of best whatevers--the Infinity Gauntlet, the ultimate (there it goes again) nullifier, kryptonite--this definition fit pretty well. I thought it was the coolest word Id ever seen and I used it with abandon in my pre-teen writings (He reached for the Doritos, which were totally the ultimatum) until I was outed by a teacher. Since I learned its real meaning I havent had much cause for it--if youre not writing romances or Tom Clancy, its tough to work ultimatum in.

     Then X-Men had this rockin word alien. Now I knew what aliens were; Id learned about them contemporaneously with Wolverine through the same cultural osmosis, but I thought that the word for alien was actually alean. Whenever someone said alien on TV I pictured alean in my head. This new word alien in print--well, I thought that was pronounced a-line and was a useful synonym for alean.

I used alien with my special pronunciation for exactly one day until I was called gay and stupid in school.

     Next up we had debris, a word that caused me so much trauma I could blame sexual difficulties on it. Debris is very popular in comic books (such as Uncanny X-Men #283) as a setting for battle; important confrontations are always taking place on piles of debris, whether it be nuclear, chemical or junkyard-variety. When I came across the word, I transposed the b and r to form derbis in my head, pronounced der-bis, and once again assumed a synonymous relationship between this new word and debree, which I thought was the proper spelling for debris. So now Im going around thinking there are two words for debris, debree and derbis, neither of which are spelled correctly or actually exist. This was pointed out to me in a horrific 7th grade earth science class where I announced that the moraine was the part of the glacier that pushed forward rocks and derbis; it took the teacher almost as long to sort out my confusion as it did my 11th grade American history teacher, years later, to explain that Walt Whitman (poet) and Charles Whitman (anarchist sniper) were two different people and that Walt Whitmans shooting spree in Austin was not the reason we had to remember the Alamo.

     But the point is not that Im stupid. The point is that comic books are very, very smart, written at an extremely high level. Theyre written with a vocabulary that is more expansive than the newspapers and magazines you read every week and is likely more dense than anything youll find in any collection of authors writing about comic books. Comic books are like their own little SAT test-prep guides, throwing words at you that youll never see or need anywhere else; they just happen to be the weird and wonderful words that balloon the English vocabulary to 60,000 and make it the most expressive, mutant language on Earth: renowned, empathy, decadent, telepathic, psyche (Before I peel your psyche like a ripe fruit! says the White Queen in X-Men #281), vigor, reinstate, severity, pedigree, inopportune, automaton, assessing, termination, bullroarer, teleportational (Im not even sure thats a word), materializing, countermeasure, resilience

These are the words that open up the real world to you. You might be a boy but youre immersed suddenly in the language of men, or a specialized subset of that language thats even better--the language of heroes, the language of gods, the language of smart people who hang out with girls with big breasts. In this world--notably in X-Men, which always had the most complex vocab of the Marvel books (although Spider-Man was always the wittiest)--you dont have to hide the fact that youre smart. Beast will say our aquatic fowl would be most thoroughly incinerated instead of our goose would be cooked just to impress his teammates, and his teammates will actually be impressed. Colossus will throw in some Russian (kavon, boshe moi, tovarish) or Wolverine will toss around Japanese when hes banging his Japanese chick in Japan, and no one will make fun of him. This is true escapism from the real world of being a ten-year-old, when you cant use sentence that has a beginning, a middle, an end without getting punched, and if you start speaking in French, youre Frenchy.

In X-Men in 1990, characters threw their words at me and I threw them right back; I was part of the team. And while I was figuring out just what gravitational flux was, I was also getting some basic lessons in narrative flow.

The genius of having a group of mutants stand in for every different person out there, for every dork, weirdo, fat kid, black kid in a white school or white kid in an Asian school, is something itll take forever to fully recognize in X-Men. We wont recognize it until its done, until all the comic books are over, and thats not going to happen anytime soon. For people who havent read the X-Tinction Agenda, the storyline that takes place on a renegade island called Genosha where mutants are being slaughtered based on their DNA, you couldnt find a better introduction to the Holocaust. Its better than Maus and it pre-dates it too. Similarly, the X-Ecutioners Song, a tale of children stolen and avenged, isnt a bad version of Medea or the Christ myth. The people who put these things together knew what they were doing. And the rule is this: a well-drawn, poorly written comic dies fast and horrible, whereas a poorly drawn one, well-written one becomes a classic.

So the language sucked me in. And then the stories sucked me in. And now its 1991 and Im far from the only one being sucked.

It was the early 90s Comic Book Glut, an underreported business phenomenon that foreshadowed both late-90s teen pop and the comic book movie craze in whose tendrils (X-Men #284) were currently entangled. The Glut was when Generation Y went out in droves and bought so many comics that Marvel went public and its top artists--Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, who is now more famous for having McGuires 70th home run ball than anything else--left in a show of extreme chutzpah to start their own short-lived, well-drawn, badly-written books such as Youngblood and Wetworks. (Only Spawn, which is occasionally brilliantly written, has survived.)

     The Comic Book Glut was a precise foil for the Golden (1930s and 40s) and Silver (1960s) Ages of Comic Books. This was a time of comic marketing genius, when each new #1 issue came with collectible trading cards, so you had to buy nine copies of the same comic to get all the cards, or with five different covers, a la new X-Men #1, which is now worth about five cents. This was when Marvel debuted exciting characters like Darkhawk and Deathlok and Spider-Man 2099 without the resources to keep them moving, with their sights set more on issue #1s, on more crossovers, more money. (Now, of course, Deathlok is being developed into a movie, so the strategy may have been more forward-thinking than originally assumed.) This was when the, uh, decadent production of venerable comic books approximated the pinnacle of emanations of prattling blasphemy with regard to our nationalistic zeal in Gulf War I! It was a traumatic ordeal, to be sure.

     But that vocab was there with the crass marketing, and that vocab excited me, just as the long names of rock bands woo some critics. It wasnt long after reading my first comic book that I felt the need to share this world with somebody, so Mom would tolerate me narrating Spider-Man 2099 to her in her bed, and pretty soon I realized that this desire to share comics was a sublimated desire to write them. This pretty much was my nature with all media--I played video games, I was convinced I could design a video game; I listened to Raffi, I was convinced I could start a band.

So I started off my comics career with this Lizard/Hulk type who had been designed by the government named Kimodo but I never got far with him; only later in high school would I have some success writing a comic book based on a Tibetan folk hero named Uncle Tumba, of which I sold 200 copies. Here, though, I broke the cardinal rule and used fuck instead of long, interesting words; my plotlines subsequently petered out. Now Im thinking about doing a comic called Dinosaurs vs. Aliens because no ones done it before and its too damn stupid not to try. Thats aliens pronounced the right way.