Today, in an inspired blog twist, I not only wrote a long personal entry for the first time in forever (I’m getting back in the game, I swear), I also wrote it for the general public. Because I spend a lot of my life being worried about how much of myself I put onto the World Wide Web, especially being in a position where I’m currently looking for work, and being in a position where I have a professional platform and brand. But as I try to explain in this piece, I think it’s important not to hide from things that you struggle with, because in that way, you’re letting the negative parts of your brain win. This was a topic I wanted to write about anyway, and I figured if I was going to write it for here, I might as well take the steps to share it.
I’ve included the entire post, and as of now, it’s shared in article form on Medium as well.
As someone who grew up writing and devouring fantasy books, it’s not uncommon for me to find inspiration and connection in fictional characters.
In middle school and high school, it was Gillian Anderson and her portrayal of Dana Scully who motivated me and inspired me (so much so that I actually applied to college with the intention of being a pre-med major, before I realized that, unlike the hour-long cases on The X-Files, you actually have to do math and science to pursue a career in forensics). In college, it was LOST and James “Sawyer” Ford as portrayed by Josh Holloway — an actor who spent years working towards his dream of being successful, whose struggles and life lessons I latched onto when I graduated and spent months searching for my own dream job, in a city that I longed to live in and make a life in.
After that, it became about superheroes.
Black Widow was my inspiration when I realized I wanted to write about comics and geek things, and when I needed to fight against people who seemed to think I couldn’t contribute to or succeed in a field dominated by males. (Ask me if I was ever taken seriously when I said I read comics in a room of men). Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jr) was my inspiration when I was fighting my way through graduate school at Northwestern, because some people, when they turn 30, get promoted to senior editors. I turned 30, started my entire career over after almost nine years of living and working in New York, and went back to school to get my graduate degree among twenty year olds, just so I could work in the industry I so desperately dreamed of being in. Like Dana Scully and James “Sawyer” Ford, these characters are still my inspirations, and I still count them among those who have had an impact on me.
And then there was Hawkeye. Specifically, then there was the comic book written by Matt Fraction and drawn by David Aja, Annie Wu and others, that launched at Marvel after the success of The Avengers in 2012. Hawkeye is often jokingly referred to as the “forgotten” Avenger, the one most people don’t know the way they know Thor or Iron Man or Captain America. Still, the character’s superhero history is not something to be laughed at: he debuted in the 1960’s, is known to be a prominent member of The Avengers, has had important relationships with his teammates and has had a long and complex history as both an Avenger and a rogue superhero. So why did this comic resonate so much with me, when the superhero is one that’s been written and drawn for so many years? Because the 2012 Hawkeye series sets Clint Barton in the streets of today’s grungy, beat-up Brooklyn and paints the character as something that no other comic has been able to do: a human.
Because, see, Hawkeye lives in a building where on his off days, he grills on the roof for his tenants and watches his neighbors’ kids. Hawkeye makes amazing coffee (at least, the way I’d want to drink it). Hawkeye is GREAT at shooting a bow and arrow — there’s a reason he never misses. Hawkeye is super compassionate and cares about the people he considers important in his life. Hawkeye is only serious when he has to be and is unashamed about his thoughts and doesn’t bother to censor himself. And Hawkeye has no real superhero abilities, unless you count that awesome marksmanship. He doesn’t have super soldier strength, or a metal suit, or gifted abilities, and he doesn’t hail from a God’s royalty. He’s not destined to be a king or a leader. He didn’t come from a family who expected great things from him. (His family didn’t care about him at all). Hawkeye is all talent, muscle, luck, perseverance and heart, and he’d rather save the day and sit at home with his dog and eat pizza, rather than sit on the throne of Asgard.
The thing is, Hawkeye is great at being a superhero. Most of the time. But Clint Barton? He’s messed up his life. A lot. He’s screwed up relationships. He’s screwed up friendships. He’s said the wrong things and gotten so down on himself, he’s wondered if it’s even worth getting out of bed. He’s had moments where he can’t see past the fact that all he does is shoot a bow and arrow, and he wonders if the world even needs him when they have other people who save the world with more success. His stubbornness and coping mechanisms during bad days have caused strains and fights with close friends, lovers, and teammates, and there’s a reason why sometimes he’d rather just go back to bed then be reminded of the fact that today is his divorce anniversary. I can’t relate to being a superhero, I can’t relate to shooting a bow and arrow, but boy, can I relate to losing a job and questioning your place in an industry you desperately believe you belong in. I can relate to looking at your life and your experiences and wondering if you made the right choices. I can relate to screwing up relationships and doubting yourself. I can relate to that feeling of wanting to go back to bed, rather than having to face another day of nothing. I can relate to a friend slamming a door in your face when you won’t talk to them about your problems.
A few weeks ago, spurred by social media’s awareness, I picked up the bookLast Night, A Superhero Saved My Life. In addition to the obviously on-brand premise, I was lured by a collection of stories from some of my favorite authors, including Neil Gaiman and Jodi Picoult, as well as a story from a former colleague at Entertainment Weekly who served (and continues to serve) as a mentor in this strange, overwhelming industry. I knew what I was getting into when I started to read, but I don’t think I realized how much each story would affect me, or how much I would see myself reflected in these honest, earnest tales about people who felt truly attached to these characters in a very personal way. My superhero obsession isn’t a secret, but I often don’t tell people about my personal connections to them, or why they mean so much to me. And if I do tell people about my love for Hawkeye — a well-known aspect of my life among my friends or anyone that sees my apartment or work desk — I often pad it with the explanation of being a fan of Jeremy Renner, who portrays the character in the films. It’s not a lie, but it perpetuates the idea that most people think I like the characters I do because of their pretty faces, or because of their superhero physique. But would they believe me at all if I said it was because these characters saved my life? Or would they continue to roll their eyes at the admission?
We don’t talk about how we deal with our issues. The world has enough bad stuff going on, and so I don’t need to tell my friends or the general public about the medications I take, the self-harm I’ve inflicted, the journal writing I find solace in when I find myself crying about things that make me unsure of where I am and who I’ve chosen to love. Despite putting myself out there in my writing and profession, I remain wholly unconvinced I have anything to offer the world. (Self-confidence: it’s a bitch.) The past few months have put me in situations which have led me to struggle with old demons in ways that I feel unhealthily overwhelmed by. During one particularly tough afternoon, in an effort to distract myself from sitting around in depression, I found myself picking up my hardbound Hawkeye omnibus without thinking about it. I sat down on the couch, opened the book, and read straight through all twenty-two issues without stopping. I let myself cry at the panels I needed to cry at, I let myself feel connected to the panels I needed to allow myself to accept. It wasn’t my weekly hour of therapy, and I didn’t even have to pay a dime, but it worked. And in the same way I found solace in Clint Barton’s story while the comic was running, reading this series over and over became a coping mechanism that I desperately needed. When I felt depressed or anxious, I would open the comic and read a few pages, or a ton of pages, and I would find myself again. Like Hawkeye, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt inspired, empowered, on top of the world. Like Clint, I’ve been knocked down because I’ve fallen — oh how I’ve fallen. So what do I do? I get up. I keep fighting. Because what else am I supposed to do?
Because Clint Barton is a fighter. He came from a broken home where he was taught that he was essentially worthless, thanks to an alcoholic father and parents who died when he was young. He ran off to the circus, he tried to change his fate, and he was screwed over by people he thought wanted to help him. He struck out on his own after learning he couldn’t trust people who he put his faith in, and he made his own luck. But he used all those things to make himself a better person. He’s an archer not because he doesn’t want to be a more powerful superhero, but because this is what he’s trained in, and because this is what he has to offer the world. If he fails at the one thing he’s known for and proud of, he may not even bother to call himself an Avenger. And he knows that.
“You’re gonna miss each and every shot you can’t be bothered to take. That’s not living life — that’s just being a tourist. Take every shot, Kate. If it’s worth caring about, no matter how impossible you think it is — you take the shot.”
Clint Barton was depressed and he had a hard life, and he failed more than he succeeded. But he was also a superhero. And the fact that I could see myself so accurately reflected in the pages of a comic book, the fact that I knew he had all these doubts about his life, that he struggled with all these internal demons and he could still continue to put himself out there was mind-blowing. Because he never stops believing people can change. He never stops helping people, or trying to prove his worth. And because he won’t stop fighting, that means I shouldn’t stop fighting, either. Even if I have to accept help from outside sources. Even if I wake up some days thinking about how easy it would be to not get out of bed at all.
Dana Scully made me work harder in high school and James “Sawyer” Ford helped me not go down a deep dark road when I first stepped into the real world. But Black Widow inspired me to keep working against my obstacles and not care about what people were saying, and Iron Man guided me through the start of a second career when I wasn’t sure if I was making the right choice, and Hawkeye showed me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that I wasn’t alone even when I felt like I was.
Comics helped me. Comics saved me. As cliche as it sounds, a superhero saved my life. And like the people who put their own stories into my hands, who allowed me to realize I’m not alone, I’m not ashamed to say it out loud.