Someone once told me that children only become proper human beings when they realise that they are going to die someday. An awareness of our own mortality is a shattering moment, but it's a vital part of being human.
I don't remember that moment as a child, although I was always a morbid little shit. What I do remember, with remarkable clarity, is the exact moment when I realised superheroes weren't real.
I can remember the exact moment, and I know it was before I was six-years-old, because we moved out of the house where it happened in 1981. I can remember the absolute revelation that Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and The Hulk weren't real, and I was sitting at the bench of our kitchen on Tawa Street, somewhere around 1980.
I'm getting on a bit now, but I can also still remember the times before that, as a toddler when I did actually believe that superheroes were real, and lived in overseas places like New York and London and Gotham.
After all, the first five years of anybody's life is a deeply confusing experience, just figuring out how the world works. My primary memories of early childhood all revolve around bafflement – Why does Dad have to go away every day? Why.did that girl at playcentre put a staple in her finger? Who am I, anyway? (To be fair, this last one still troubles me today.)
And since there were always comics lying around – I honestly don't remember a time in my life when I wasn't reading comics – I put a lot of my toddler brainpower into the question of superheroes, and how I could meet them, or even become them.
I mean, there was always the sixties Batman show, and I also remember seeing Supermen episodes on television (which must have been the old George Reeves stuff, I guess). I was having a lot of trouble telling the difference between fact and fiction, and Batman seemed just as plausible as Abraham Lincoln in my little head.
Places like New York seemed so far away when you grow up on the arse end of the world, so there was every chance Spider-Man was really swinging around (and he was on the telly too). All I knew about America came from the movies and TV, and they had astronauts and movie stars, so why couldn't they have superheroes?
To add to this general confusion, there were real life celebrities who also seemed a little superhuman. All the actors that were too handsome or too beautiful for reality, or the crazy stuntmen like Evil Kenveial and his garish outfits. I remember thinking of the great sportspeople of that day as some kind of superheroes, with names like Kareem Abdul Jabar and Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali. People who could do extraordinary things, and often battled for social justice as well, who also seemed to show up in comics - Ali was even fighting Superman. I never got to read that comic as a kid – I just saw lots of ads – so he must've been a superhero too..
There were even real-life supervillains, like our Prime Minister at the time, a cackling gnome who once announced a general election while pissed out of his skull, and weird psycho killers with comicbook names like Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan
So of course superheroes were real. I'd even seen them for myself, and I don't just mean the guy in the disappointing Spider-Man costume who showed up at the Highfield supermarket, and was clearly using ropes to wallcrawl (I was four and even I could tell he was a phoney Spidey).
I also saw Batman and Superman walking along the street outside my house, their clean boots crunching on the gravel of the pavement. It was late at night, and I heard them walking along the street, and sat up in bed and looked out the window, and it was Batman and Superman, walking down the street, murmuring in quiet conversation.
They didn't look like real people, or like cartoon drawings, but something inbetween, like a strange digital effect in the age of the analogue. And they walked right past my house, and down the street.
It was almost certainly a dream, or maybe I saw some people off to a costume party and it exploded my young brain, but that memory is filed away there, right next to the day I saw the Loch Ness Monster.
And there I am, a five-year-old kid awash in a world of pop culture, far away from the rest of the civilised world, looking up into the blue sky for any sign of any flying men.
And then I'm sitting up at the kitchen bench, and my little sister is in her high chair, and Mum is cooking us some lunch and I'm reading some Curt Swan Superman and it all clicks and I suddenly realise this is all just bullshit.
Well, I don't use words like that at that age, but the sentiment is the same. I can't even remember what it was about that Superman story, but I suddenly realised that nobody can do the things Superman does. He's impossible. He's not real.
I ask my Mum if Superman is real, and she tells me that of course he is, and I know she's lying, because nobody can fly, nobody has heat vision, and nobody is invunerable. It's all made up.
The fact that I know that my mother is lying to me about it is troubling enough, but the sudden and sharp divide between fact and fiction becomes crystal clear, and it's scary as hell.
But only for a while, and even though the lines between fact and fiction do sometimes still get a bit blurred, I was glad to know the distinction.
I held out hope for a real Batman, mainly because Adam West seemed perfectly plausible, but that didn't last long either, and I stopped believing in him too.
The same ruthless logic was soon applied to Santa Claus – nobody could get round the whole world in one night – but I pretended to believe in him for years so I could get the extra presents.
But the line between fact and fiction was drawn, and there would be no erasing of it.
I've always like superheroes, and I probably always will. But sometimes I think I can never love them as much as I did when I really believed in them.
I did so see the Loch Ness monster.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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