59, by John Ostrander
Numbers represent. They don’t really mean.
Any meaning associated with numbers – or words for that matter – are what we assign to them. My social security number identifies me to the government but it’s not who I am. It has importance, yes, and if unscrupulous people get a hold of it, it can have a terrible impact on my life. It is not, however, my life. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The road map is not itself the road.
I turned 59 last Sunday and I’ve asked myself “What does that mean? Am I different in any essential way than I was on Saturday?” No. “Do birthdays have meanings?” If we give them some – yes. I like to celebrate the birthdays of those close to me more than I like to celebrate my own. I celebrate the fact that they were born, that they entered this world, and I get to be a part of their lives. I don’t dislike my birthday; I don’t have a problem with having one. I am thankful for the thoughts and good wishes expressed and any excuse to have a double chocolate cake is a good one.
The real use to me of my birthday these days is a bit more meditative. The number 59 has meaning in context with numbers 1 to 58. They are mileposts in my journey thus far. Milepost thirty-three – my first published comic book work. I remember that because I was pleased to be a rookie at anything at 33. Milepost thirty-eight – I married Kim Yale. Talk about being a rookie! Milepost forty-seven – Kim died and the world collapsed only to begin again a few mileposts later with Mary Mitchell. Life goes on. Death gives way to new life.
The events aren’t who I am, either, but they help shape me into who I am. Good times, bad times, in-between times. The milestones, the years, the numbers help to clarify them.
I sometimes free associate my thoughts with such things as numbers. I am 59. In the year 1959, I turned ten years old. Ten years old is the start of that short number of years, 10-12 when I was a kid, when as a male you really had it together. I had relative freedom of movement back then. Girls hadn’t yet become a part of my life; they were, in fact, icky although kind of mysterious and interesting – unless they were your sisters and then they were just pains. You had guy friends and they were your best buddies.
Eisenhower was president back in 1959. Sputnik had been launched in October of 1957, the first American satellite was launched in January of 1958, and NASA had been established in July of that year. I am definitely a child of the space race.
I was also very much a child of pop culture in all forms. My comic book explorations were limited by the fact that my mother read (and believed) Frederic Wertham’s Seduction Of The Innocent. Superman, Batman, et al were forbidden to me by my mother which, of course, made them all the more tantalizing.
From this I learned that:
2) Mom is often happier not knowing exactly what I’m doing.
I don’t think the latter bit of wisdom is unique to me. Most of us know that one, I think.
Perhaps my fascination with Zorro came out of all this as well. My first exposure to the character was the Disney series starring Guy Madison. Don Diego was faced with an oppressive authority against which open defiance would have been suicidal; he had to use his wits as well as his blade. So he invented Zorro. Oh, and he didn’t tell his parent what he was really doing. I didn’t create an alternate personality but I did have a Zorro playset. It’s remarkable I didn’t put out my eye nor anyone else’s with it but at least I got to play Zorro.
That influence still lies with me even at the 59th milepost. I like masked heroes, the interaction between the secret identity and the public one, and a hero who is smart.
The comics I read most of the time were DCs that either my friends had or that were buried among the reading material at the local barber shop amidst magazines that I think might have gotten me into more trouble. I wasn’t interested in those; so far as I knew, comics were the true forbidden fruit. The two from this time that stand out in my memory, oddly enough, are issues of Blackhawk. In one, the team was deemed irrelevant and dissolved. In the follow up issue, they all came together again but this time with new costumes and codenames – such as Dr. Hands, M’sieu Machine, The Listener, the Leaper and so on – and thus the Blackhawks were reborn as a vaguely superhero team.
Among the comics that I was allowed to read were those from Dell, Harvey and Gold Key and there I came across series that would influence me later. The first was actually far more subversive than the pretty innocuous stuff DC was putting out at the time. It was a comic based on the TV show Rocky and his Friends (which is what the show was called before Bullwinkle horned in and took it over). The show was wonderful, created by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, and watched with a clearer religious devotion by myself, my brother, and my younger sister than we gave to our church across the street. Well, a clearer religious devotion from me.
The comic was twenty-five cents and that was big money in those days. Regular comics started as a dime, then later twelve cents, still later fifteen. When they hit a quarter, I was very nearly out of there.Rocky however gave you a lot of comic for the money. It was a “giant” which meant, I think, sixty pages of new material. It had everybody – Mr. Peabody, the little one page throwaways, even Fractured Fairytalesif I remember aright. This may sound strange but there’s a touch of Fractured Fairytales in Wasteland.
For some people, Mad magazine warped and shaped their creative DNA. Rocky/Bullwinkle – in comics or on TV – shaped mine.
Harvey introduced me to The Spirit in two over-sized twenty-five cent issues. They were different, they were strange, but I never had the sense at the time that they were reprints. I had no idea that the stories I was reading were probably older than I was at that point. They also became part of my creative DNA, showing me how much story, characterization, humor, and life could be put into eight pages. That is still part of me.
Gold Key, if the haze of memory parts and lets me remember true, brought me Dr. Solar, Man of the Atomand Magnus, Robot Fighter. To be honest, I loved the concept of Dr. Solar more although Russ Manning’s art on Magnus was clearly superior. Even as a kid I knew that although I wasn’t into the miniskirt and go-go boots look on Magnus. Mileposts later, when I would wind up writing Magnus for Valiant, I tried getting us away from that look, with some success.
My stint on Magnus was tied to the boom in comics going on at the time. I got a mammoth amount of royalties at one point, tied to one or two specific issues of Magnus. I didn’t forget what Russ Manning had done. Bob Layton suggested, and I agreed, that a portion of those royalties go to Manning’s widow and family.
Comics weren’t the only influence on me. Certainly there was TV. I was never into Howdy Doody which always struck me as a little creepy. Soupy Sales, on the other hand, was very much me and I can still do a pretty fair imitation of his puppet “dogs” – White Fang and Black Tooth. There was a slap-happy (literally) sense of anarchy that I remember and enjoy.
Of course, there were the reruns of the Three Stooges that I watched like most males of my generation. Eventually, I would graduate to the Marx Brothers but my youth was spent with Moe, Larry, and – preferably – Curly. Shemp, Curly Joe – eh. That wasn’t the real stuff. It had to have “nyuck nyuck” in it to be true Stooges.
There were also the old Saturday Morning Serials that were broadcast on TV and that’s where I first made my acquaintance with Flash Gordon, Tim Tyler, and other movie pulp heroes, and didn’t they sear my little mind! Especially the first Flash Gordon serial which abounded in sexy. I didn’t know what those feelings were exactly but they really made me want to see what happened next.
Other milestones, other association – 59/59th Street Bridge Song/Simon and Garfunkel/the music that has shaped me. With the Beatles about to hit, when the Beach Boys where singing “I Get Around,” what was I listening to when I was on the brink of puberty? Mantovani. Burt Kaemphert and his Orchestra. Ladeez and Germs, I was so square I was cubed.
I disliked the Beatles when they first showed up. Milestone 15 – it was hard to get the attention of any girl, or so it seemed, because they were all going nuts over the Beatles. The “John” they were all crazy about was “John Lennon” not “John O.” Trying to get the attention of a girl I was very interested in, I auditioned for my first play at the all-girl’s Catholic High School she attended. Marywood Needed Men. I didn’t get her attention, or really that of any of the other girls I met, but I discovered something else – I could act and I liked being on stage.
That same milestone year, I finally made “peace” with the Beatles when I went to see A Hard Day’s Nightwith, of all people, my mother. You could barely hear the film through all the girls screaming through it. Then and now, I couldn’t make sense of them doing that – it’s a film, I thought, they can’t hear you. I’ve come to realize all that was beside the point. It was the release that mattered. Release or explode.
Both I and my Mom, however, somehow walked out of the theater with a new liking for the Beatles. The music, what I had managed to actually hear, was great. Milestone 15 would be a big change for me – the theater and my new acceptance of the Beatles (and all the music of the time) would change me and open me up, knock some of the corners off my cube, create a new world for me. There are still bits of that very conservative boy inside of me but – it’s not who I am.
I’m 59 years old. It’s not who I am. This column is not who I am but is a part of me as all of my writing is. Hopefully, there are things in some of these milestones I’ve mentioned that we share. It may not be the specific events so much as the concept of transition from one self to another. Something will have influenced you as my events have influenced and shaped me. Having changed, I know what change feels like. That is something we have in common so that we can finally, and truthfully say to one another, “I know you.” At last to some degree.
Meaning is something that we share.
John Ostrander authors GrimJack, Munden’s Bar, Star Wars: Trinity, and all sorts of other comics.