February 11, 2010

UNIVERSITY: A MEMORY

When I was at the University of Dortmund, studying both journalism and American Cultural Studies, one of the professors at the American and English department once came up to me after class, and he wondered why I both had the Collected Works of Faulkner in my backpack... and then, innocently lying next to the thick volume of one of the best American writers, peeking out of the backpack, there were numerous comic books, and on top of that pile was the latest issue of DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR.

"You're one of the smartest people I have ever had in my classes," he told me, "why the hell are you reading this bullshit?"

"Because it tells you true things," I replied.

"A guy who puts on a costume and beats the shit out of people? Sounds a lot more like a childish fantasy to me."

"And that part is," I told him. "That part definitely is. It's silly and over the top and feeds into the notion of the powerless that if only you have some kind of power, you can make a difference, and when you are a kid, you have no power at all, so obviously, I am aware of the origin of such childish fantasies."

"Then why do you read it?"

"Because it tells you true things."

He looked at me, a Major in the Reserve, a Vietnam veteran who had a wicked sense of humour and such a sense of sadness, who just three months later would offer his services to the German Army to go and be sent into Bosnia after he had seen the concentration camps for the Muslim population, had seen their suffering on sanitised TV images that only hinted at the actual horror, and when I asked him why he would want to do that, this wasn't his war, he had done his bit for America already, and now that he was a German citizen, why the hell put himself on the line again? This time for his adopted country? That man, with his eyes that had seen too much and that covered up pain and guilt, he looked at me at that moment, three months prior, and said.

"Tell me."

And so I took out the comic book, and this is what I read him.
It's a wonder he isn't a villain. He's got every excuse. Born into poverty. A broken family. A childhood in a squalid slum. Hounded and taunted and beaten by schoolyard bullies. To top it all off he gets struck in the eyes by toxic waste and blinded for life.

Blinded. Bullied. Impoverished. Surrounded by calamity.

Role models? His mother. An enigma. long gone by the time he could walk. His father. A well-meaning loser who paid for his greatest moment of courgae when a bullet splattered his brains across a grimy alley wall. His teacher. A gruff, foul-mothed warrior who showed him the beauty in his dark world, then dismissed him as a wretched failure.

His love life? Nothing short of disastrous […]

And then there's that wicked temper of his. He's got every excuse in the world. And within him are the makings.

But Matt Murdock is no villain, and no victim. There is something strong inside him, passed from unknown mother and doomed father to son. Something tested by tragedy. Tempered by conscience. Honed by discipline. Something that holds back the bloodthirsty beast within and forces it to serve the cause of justice.

Most of the time, anyway.

Of course his quest is a tortured one, fraught with failure and guilt and pain. It has to be that way. Nothing ever comes easy for Matt Murdock. But every ordeal is another step in his crooked path from naughty little street kid to improbable champion.

A tortured quest. One that leaves him far from perfect.

He may never join the holy order his teacher hinted at.

But he will do the best he can, this hero.

He'll fight the bullies till the day he dies.

"Not Hemingway," my professor said, "definitely not Hemingway."

He adored Hemingway. Never understood why, myself, but he found solace in that writing, and for that, I am glad.

"No, it isn't."

"True things," he said, and he gave me a good look, and I couldn't match it. Nobody here knew where I had come from, and I had covered my own past very well, by never ever talking about it. And here was a man who somehow knew. Could see through me. And I didn't want him to. I should never have read this thing to him.

"Well, it's just a comic book," I said.

"Yeah. With a guy in a costume."

"Yeah. Silly stuff."

Later, when I met him as he was preparing to go on leave, to join the NATO command in Bosnia, I asked him why he went, and there was a little twinkle in his eye that tempered the sadness, that showed me what a man is, that told me what a measure of a man should be.

"Because somebody has to fight the bullies," he said.