Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paper Men

Today I watched the movie Paper Man, starring Jeff Daniels and Emma Stone as a pair of somewhat unusual friends in a small community. Ryan Reynolds is also featured as the imaginary Captain Excellent.

Daniels' character, Richard Dunn, is something of a failed writer, whose insecurities manifest themselves to him as a superhero. His wife is a successful surgeon, and is away frequently, further straining the relationship. In an awkward and rather inept attempt at reaching out, Richard meets 17-year-old Abby and the two establish a close, if unconventional, friendship. The story is of their summer together, and how each is ultimately able to help the other without exactly knowing how or why.

Personally, I've never been very good at or comfortable with social interactions. Not exactly in the stereotypical shy, wallflower manner and not exactly in the also-stereotypical socially clueless manner either. But in way not altogether removed from what's seen in the film, thus making it easy to put myself in Richard's shoes. I never went as far as creating an imaginary friend for myself, but I did sometimes wonder about my sanity.

That's partly where my interest in comics comes from. By absorbing myself into a world full of superheroes and dragons and aliens and cowboys, I could escape those awkward social moments. I could step into a world where Green Lantern saves the day. And the serial format meant it would always be there, growing and evolving. Next month, I could open the next issue and there'd be a new window to look in on this amazing world. And it was world that didn't care if I was actually comfortable dealing with other people because I didn't have to deal with them anyway. I was a constant spectator, sitting just off the edges of the panel borders.

As I got older, comics continued to act as a coping mechanism. I was still socially awkward (though somewhat less so than earlier) but I could use what I'd learned in comics as a bridge. I could talk about continuity and discuss why a hero's powers didn't work under certain conditions and understand why a creator left a title, and all of that encouraged self-validation. I was an okay guy; I had relevance because of comics. It only worked within comic book circles, of course, but better to have relevance in one small circle than no relevance in any.

Comics carried me through life up until a couple years into college. I don't recall that sense of self-worth really sneaking up on me, but I do remember one incident when it dawned on me that I had been okay for a little while. I was walking through a nearby park and, on a whim, tried climbing a tree. I used to do that a fair amount as a child, but hadn't had much time or opportunity in high school and college. I got seven or eight feet up a good sized tree, when the branch I was supporting myself on snapped. I fell and landed square on my back. I didn't get any physical injuries and, more significantly, I got up without being upset. No feelings of inadequacy for grabbing the wrong branch or misjudging its load-bearing capacity. No feelings of embarrassment or discontent or disappointment. I was fine. I was fine with what had happened because I was fine with myself.

This post is for everyone out there who might not feel altogether comfortable with themselves. Whether you have a Captain Excellent by your side or just find solace in a four-color world of superheroes every Wednesday. I'm not here to tell you it gets better. It did for me. It did for Richard. But you have to want to like yourself first. You have to be happy with who you are before you can move forward.
Richard regarded his solitude as something sacred. As a well-earned badge of honor. A cloak to be worn to ward off life. As his safety. Solitude is who he was. This caused those in his life to view him with a barely veiled contempt. Richard was certain that he was not liked. Which is hard on a man. Maybe it was because he gave nothing that he received nothing in return. In any case, his situation had become intolerable. The closest things he had to friends were either imaginary or extinct. And Richard had reached a point of life where this was no longer enough.
Go forward into the world. It's a frightening place and there's a lot of assholes out there you have to deal with, but retreating into your own head without really experiencing it? No. You don't want to go through life like Richard, decade after decade barely able to function in society. You have to tell Captain Excellent that he needs to go. Even if he doesn't like it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I feel better.