Life 101, by John Ostrander

John Ostrander

John Ostrander started his career as a professional writer as a playwright. His best known effort, Bloody Bess, was directed by Stuart Gordon, and starred Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, William J. Norris, Meshach Taylor and Joe Mantegna. He has written some of the most important influential comic books of the past 25 years, including Batman, The Spectre, Manhunter, Firestorm, Hawkman, Suicide Squad, Wasteland, X-Men, and The Punisher, as well as Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. New episodes of his creator-owned series, GrimJack, which was first published by First Comics in the 1980s, appear every week on ComicMix.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. Russ Rogers says:

    We are all a product of our times. My grandmother would neurotically hoard stuff. This was always explained by saying, "She lived through the Depression." I was born in '62. I can't imagine how many ways those times shaped me. My early exposure to the Beatles and to the "Batman" TV show, "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" and Funny Face Drink Mix shaped me in ways that I can't explain.When I tell my daughters that when I was a kid there were no microwave ovens or home computer or Internet, their eyes go big with wonder. They can hardly picture a world like that. It's like the way I think about a world without running water or electricity. It's hard for me to fully comprehend.When I started this comment it was going to be very short and sweet. I had eaten at a restaurant in Seattle called "The Iron Horse." It was a little diner with a Railroad theme and the food was delivered to the table on the flatbed of a model train. I was going to suggest John look it up the next time a Comic Convention or book tour took him near Seattle. But … it's gone. At least five years gone. The world moves on, and in some sense we become living anachronisms, people shaped in another time, living in an ever changing and forever changed world.Superman was born in 1938. (He had been gestating since 1932. Siegel and Shuster invented him in 1932, but he was first published June 1938.) He's shaped seventy years worth of history. But how has history shaped him? Our Heroes have become timeless. At one time comics tried to explain how characters who were tied to historical events like World War II could still be young. Captain America was kept young and fresh in a block of ice for twenty years. The Superman and Batman that fought in World War II were explained away as the Earth-2 (alternate universe) heroes. Then we had several Crisis that reset universes, or reset time lines. Fictional events that started the clock all over again.But each time a MAJOR event happens in the fictional world, each time the sky turns red or the moon breaks in half, and that event doesn't happen here, we are reminded that our heroes aren't shaped by our times, they aren't even shaped by their times. They are timeless. Icons. Platonic ideals. Boats that skim across the waters of time, but are never carried anywhere or changed by them.Are there even any events in a Superhero's fictional time line that aren't in danger of being redacted, retracted, reinterpreted or just ignored and forgotten? Death means nothing. Death is a joke. Losing your powers? Nah. The hero will get them back, generally within a year, and eventually forget they were ever lost. Superman lost his powers. So did Batman. Wonder Woman. The Thing. The Hulk. Marriage? Should a superhero have to get as super-divorce when their super-marriage becomes cumbersome? Nyet. Not when a demonic deal can ["poof"] reset the world and retract what otherwise might be a defining experience.Let's say Superman was (fictionally) twenty-one years old in 1938. That makes him 91 now. A golden oldie. Remember when his parents grew old? Remember how they became young again? Remember how sad it was when they grew old again and died? That was a touching story. I was touched by it. Superman wasn't. Remember how that story was forgotten? Actually, I forget how THAT was forgotten, but it was.It's a conundrum. I want my Superheroes to remain timeless and immortal. I want them to be larger than life. And yet, each time their writers choose to redact, retract, retell or forget the events that shaped their lives, I feel betrayed. Maybe it's because in some small way, the death of Ma and Pa Kent, the death of Supergirl, the death of Pa Kent (again, is he still dead?), the Marriage of Spider-man, the loss of Superman's powers, the merging of the multi-verses; those events shaped my life. And when all that is forgotten or rescinded or debased, part of me is denied.

    • John Ostrander says:

      Interesting points, Russ, but not entirely what I was talking about. It's not just how time shapes us or we shape time but how SHORT a time "long ago" really was. As a country, i sometimes think we have Attention Deficit Disorder; if it didn't happen within the last ten minutes then it doesn't matter. History isn't just something that's long past; it's directly wired into NOW.As for Superman — he and the others are ALWAYS re-imagined for the current time and SHOULD be. If by icons we mean they are engraved in granite and should stay unchanging, then let's not have them be icons. Fixed in one time is to encase them in cement and their storties become tombs. No, they need to reflect the times in which they are being written and SHOULD change. Like people.

      • Russ Rogers says:

        I agree. History is important. Long ago isn't that long ago, even when it seems that way. By your aunt's lifespan, Christ lived less than twenty lifetimes ago! Yeah, Attention Deficit about sums it up. We live in a time when our President is willing to forget the Constitution and people seem to just shrug. Oh we think he's a schmuck. We can now agree on his incompetence. But we just shrug at crimes that are far more demanding of our attention than the sexual harassment of an intern or the dirty tricks, burglaries or cover-ups of the Watergate era. What did we learn from the energy crisis of the '70s? Nothing. It's thirty years later and we are in another crisis. And I doubt that this is the Final Crisis.The reason "Final Crisis" comics sales are down is that NOBODY believes that this is the FINAL Crisis. We know the title is a LIE! This is only the final crisis before the next one. At least the title, "Infinite Crisis" wasn't a lie. It was just an oxymoron, because it was a mini-series.Look, I don't mind Superman being re-imagined for current times. I have no problem with Ma Kent corresponding with her boy via encrypted e-mails. I don't want to pin down Superheroes like butterflies under glass. I want them to fly. I don't want characters to be hog tied by their own continuity either. But I want the events in their lives to have some meaning to them. Because for some strange reason they have meaning in my life.I don't mind heroes shifting with the times, or being reinterpreted for the times. But I want the MAJOR events in Superheroes life to stay MAJOR. If somebody dies. Let them STAY dead. If all the kryptonite changes to lead, maybe it should just stay that way, even if that was a horrible idea. If Spider-man gets married… you can't just have the DEVIL have him and everyone in the world forget that he was married.If Hal Jordan goes insane, kills a bunch of other Green Lanterns, steals their power-rings and gets killed at the end of his story. Maybe his story should end there. Maybe he shouldn't come back to life. Maybe he should just stay dead. Even if that seems like a pointless waste.Barry Allen died. I actually cried when he died and I was in my twenties. What was that emotional investment for if Barry Allen can just pop back into existence? I hate the way Barbara Gordon was paralyzed. Bad idea. Crappy story. Out of character for Barbara Gordon and Batgirl. But I'm GLAD that Batgirl didn't just "regain her powers" and forget that she was ever paralyzed. One of the worst moments in DC continuity was shaped into one of the best characters. Silk purse from sows ear.Maybe Superheroes shouldn't grow old. But they should be allowed to be changed by their own history. Otherwise the meaning of their stories is just transitory. It's just fodder for a society with a possibly terminal case of Attention Deficit Disorder.Look, one of the BEST things about GrimJack is that he is a hero that is tortured by his past. Hell, he's a hero that is ready to be tortured by his present and his futures too. GrimJack has died, been cloned and reincarnated. He lost his hand and wandered around with a piece of cinder block attached to his wrist for a while. He's gone through the same types of story and reinvention that other characters have. But I have not felt cheated or betrayed by that. Not once. The story has established that there might always be a GrimJack. The incarnations of GrimJack extend into the past as well. Maybe there has always been a GrimJack! But, one thing is always clear. GrimJack doesn't forget his past. It HAUNTS him. He is forever changed and scarred and molded by the events have happened and the events that we see unfold. In comics that is a rare and cool quality!

  2. Mark Behar says:

    Nice article, John. Your aunt's life span seems even more remarkable when we consider some of the great leaps and bounds that occurred within her lifetime. I recall stories from my father (born in Istanbul), told to him by his grandfather, about the Turkish experience during World War I. It seems that many of the rough-and-tumble fighters of the Ottoman Army rode into battle on horseback with early British fighter planes (aeroplanes!) whizzing above their heads. A fact like this would probably seem remarkable even during the days of the Second World War. And, to think, your Aunt Helen was 7 years-old before WWI began!I really cherish the elderly and their wealth of experiences. I'm just a fool for nostalgia, I suppose. Makes me wish I had sat down with a World War I vet before it was too late. Canada only has one or two left now.

    • John Ostrander says:

      Thanks, Alan. My grandfather (Helen's father, who also lived to be 100) was a master plumber in Chicago, getting his certificate shortly after the turn of the century, I believe. He could remember sailing sailboats out of a lagoon where the Hancock Center is now. His lifespan embraced the first powered flight though our landing on the moon.

  3. Julie says:

    I think my wedding was the last Aunt Helen danced at. Crap. Now I feel all guilty.Nice article.

    • John Ostrander says:

      JulieI was one of the ones egging her on. And she enjoyed dancing! No reason to feel guilty. We all learn by doing and we learn what NOT to do by doing and that includes Helen.Just for the record, I'Ve given up the hokey-pokey and I'm nowhere near Helen's age!Unca John