Comics, Coltrane, and Cthulhu: The vital importance of pop-culture mentors

Comics, Coltrane, and Cthulhu: The vital importance of pop-culture mentors

My Uncle Mike was an asshole. He was loud, crude, and pushy, and he ate the most disgusting food I’ve ever seen a human consume: sandwiches of baked beans and mayonnaise on Wonder Bread. He was, in two words, white trash. During the last few years of his life, he found his calling: driving a big rig. That is, until he got in a fistfight at a truck-stop bar one afternoon and wound up stabbed to death. 

Asshole though he was, I loved Uncle Mike. He was my godfather, for whatever that was worth in my lazily secular family. My mom even gave me the middle name Michael in his honor. I never cared about that, though. I loved Uncle Mike because he was larger than life, a boisterous lunatic with a Burt Reynolds mustache and a tiger tattoo. Also, he was family. But when I got older, I came to love him for something else. He turned me on to two things that would forever alter the course of my life: comic books and science fiction/fantasy.

When I was a kid, we were poor. Not underprivileged or lower middle-class—dirt-ass fucking poor. I never had an allowance or an Atari or even decent school clothes half the time. Government cheese was a regular item on my childhood menu. The idea of spending disposable income on things like comic books was as impossible as, well, the idea of disposable income. 

One day in 1980, when I was 8, I was staying the weekend at my grandparents’ house. Uncle Mike kept a room there as his own, but since he was away so often, my brother and I slept in it when we stayed over. That particular weekend, Uncle Mike was on his way out of the house as we were on our way in. In his room, he opened his dresser, took out a stack of something, and slapped it down in the bed.

“Here,” he told me. “I’m done reading these. I thought you might like ’em.”

It was a small stack of crumpled old comics and a dog-eared paperback: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson.

Even when I was 8, it was established in my family that I was a weirdo. To them, being a “wallflower” and spending all day “with your nose in a book” was all it took to be diagnosed a deviant. My family was the kind that picked on each other all the time. You know, like the ones in sitcoms. When you’re a kid, though, it’s not so funny. I was already introverted enough, and the constant chiding just made me bury my nose even deeper. So when Uncle Mike encouraged my bookishness rather than mocked it, I was stunned.

But it was more than just his encouragement that impacted me. Up to that point, I assumed I was the only one in the family—not counting my grandmother, who cherished her antique edition of the collected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson—who actually read. I assumed they all knew how to read. Then again, few of them had graduated high school, and none had attended college. Universal literacy within my family might not have been the safest assumption to make. Yet here was Uncle Mike—by my reckoning, the dumbest relative I had—revealing himself to me as a reader.

That weekend, I must have read those comics of his a dozen times each. I can’t remember exactly what they all were, but I recall they were DC, and that one of them was Legion Of Super-Heroes. It kind of reminded me of my favorite cartoon, Super Friends, only I had no idea who the hell everyone was.

The comic of Uncle Mike’s that made the deepest impression was an issue of Superman’s Action Comics—issue #340, published in 1966. Unlike the character from Super Friends—or even the Christopher Reeve movie that had come out two years before, which I loved—this Superman was… bizarre. The comic starred a villain named The Parasite who was horrifically faceless. He beat the shit out of Superman with his bare hands, sapping his super-strength as he did so. He also taunted the Man Of Steel mercilessly. It might be a little too pat to say I related to the ridicule The Parasite gave Superman, but yeah, I probably did. At the same time, Uncle Mike was doing the opposite: In his own way, he was giving more strength than he'd ever know.

Silver Age comics have gotten a mostly justified rap for being goofy. The ’60s were, after all, when DC Comics tried to sync much of its line with the offbeat, pop-art tone of the Batman TV show. But there was nothing lighthearted about the way The Parasite maliciously pummeled Superman into near oblivion. Nor was The Parasite like any villain I’d ever seen. His lack of a face was chilling, and his sneering hatred seemed to ooze from the yellowed, brittle pages.

The Parasite was Casper The Friendly Ghost compared to Thomas Covenant of Lord Foul’s Bane. It took me a couple weeks after Uncle Mike gave me the 1977 fantasy classic before I got around to reading it. It wasn’t easy, and not just because the novel is long and complicated for even the most precocious 8-year-old. Covenant is not a nice man, and his actions push the notion of the anti-hero to its breaking point. I was too young to process all that; this was the same year I’d discovered far lighter fantasy fare such as Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles Of Prydain. But the dark, brain-frying scope of Lord Foul’s Bane made me hungry for more, and kids’ books were no longer going to do the trick.

From there I dove into science fiction, fantasy, comics—and, naturally enough, Dungeons & Dragons. The iconic role-playing game was just gaining mainstream traction in the early ’80s—often in a negative way, thanks to Religious Right hysteria regarding its supposed Satanic undertones—but I had no real concept of that. Hell, the game could have been called Satan & Sadism and my mom wouldn’t have cared. All I did know was that D&D let me be creatively involved in the kinds of settings, characters, and concepts I’d been absorbing from my favorite books.

Uncle Mike didn’t play D&D; paintball battles in the Everglades were more his thing. But for the next few years he kept passing along books he’d finished, including 1984’s Dragons Of Autumn Twilight. The first installment of the D&D-based Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it’s by no means a classic in the genre. But it helped solidify my devotion to what would eventually be called geek culture. Back then, the term would have been meaningless to me. And it would have made my macho Uncle Mike laugh his ass off.

The year Dragons Of Autumn Twilight came out, I moved to Denver with my brother and mom. Uncle Mike, my pop-culture mentor, was now half a continent away. I’d see him a few more times before he died, but as I got further into my teens, he and I no longer bonded as much. We continued to share certain tastes; he was still pretty much an asshole, though. And in any case, I began developing new passions: TV, movies, music. Sometimes even girls.

My first real girlfriend in high school, though, led me to another pop-culture mentor. Her best friend had a boyfriend, Frank. He had a bleached-blond mohawk and a leather jacket and was maybe the nicest, kindest dude I’d ever met. I was already getting into The Cure and The Smiths, but Frank—probably without even realizing it—began steering me toward other, stranger stuff. Louder stuff. I’d already gotten into punk, inasmuch as having a couple Clash tapes counts as being into punk. Emboldened by Frank’s restless curiosity, I was soon diving deeper. And I liked what I heard. In the same way comic books and science fiction had earlier, punk resonated with me. Only this time I’d found an entire second family. One as dysfunctional as my real family, but still.

Punk wasn’t all I learned from Frank. He was into D&D too, and soon I was playing with him and a couple other friends. Frank didn’t stop at D&D, though. Also a huge comics fan, he got us hooked on the game DC Heroes, which brought things beautifully full-circle for me. But the most profound game Frank introduced me to was Call Of Cthulhu. Based on the metaphysical, archetypal horror mythos of writer H. P. Lovecraft, Call Of Cthulhu opened doors in my brain I didn’t even know existed. I never got into drugs when I was a kid. Why bother? I’d seen what they had done to my mom, and it wasn’t pretty. And besides, I doubted they could do what Lovecraft did to me.

Keeping up with this pop culture meant I needed money. I got my first job when I was 16, in a comic-book warehouse. I worked there for two summers and on occasional weeknights after school. For the first time in my life, I had spending money. I didn’t buy a car. I didn’t buy new clothes. I blew it all on comics, RPGs, novels, and music. (Granted, when I got caught shoplifting at the record store in the mall when I was 16, it helped me realize that I’d better procure my entertainment on the straight-and-narrow.) My coworker John was older by six years, but he wasn’t above hanging out with an utterly clueless kid like me. Even better: John was generous with his opinions about, well, everything. Not just comics, but music, movies, and so many of the other things I was getting into. When I dropped out of high school halfway through my senior year, John and I became roommates. Soon after that, we started a punk band.

I always knew John and I were friends—just as Frank and I were—but in reality, I felt more like a protégé. And I was fine with that. John’s knowledge of music was staggering, and his record collection was insane. Before the Internet, I didn’t have instant access to practically every piece of music that existed. To hear something, you had to physically find it, so I absorbed everything from his collection that I could. At the same time, I kept striking out in my own directions. I frequently clashed with John over our tastes in music. I wasn’t just a blind follower. But so much of the framework I used to view pop culture came from those discussions. Or just sitting around and spinning John’s old vinyl copy of The Stooges for the hundredth time.

One day Frank invited me over to his apartment. He had something he wanted to play me: Star Time, a new box set by James Brown. I didn’t know what to think. I knew Brown from oldies radio, of course, not to mention his turn as a cartoonish revival preacher in The Blues Brothers. But why the heck did Frank want to play me four entire CDs of his music? Star Time, it turned out, was a revelation. From the roaring R&B of Brown’s early days in the ’50s to his funk architecture of the ’70s, the set blew my mind. I’d already gotten into hip-hop; there was a golden age going on. But I had no idea that so many of the beats I knew from Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions albums came from Brown.

From there, Frank got me into jazz. It was the musical equivalent of Lovecraft. I thought I knew what jazz was, but I’d been totally clueless. Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy: I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A staggering new dimension of music had presented itself to me, and these legendary musicians may as well have been Lovecraftian Elder Gods. Chief among them was John Coltrane. Frank loved John Coltrane, and he made damn sure I did too. It wasn’t a hard sell. I sensed in Coltrane’s music an unfathomable curiosity, and a restless quest for release. It was also, in its own way, the most punk thing I’d ever heard.

I’m not sure if we place enough importance on pop-culture mentors. Not to use the Internet as a whipping boy, but something’s changed in the past few years. With the history of pop culture more or less at our fingertips, we think we know it all. The democratization of pop culture is a good thing, right? Who needs filters or gatekeepers? Isn’t it better to experience music and movies and books without any critical middleman, and then discuss them in an egalitarian fashion, with no one’s opinion counting more than anyone else’s?

Yes and no. As a kid—and especially a cash-starved one—I would’ve killed for the Internet and all the access to pop culture it provides. But it all would’ve been a big bowl of information soup without mentors like Frank, John, and even Uncle Mike. The blogosphere is rife with rants and cheap lists; websites of all quality levels continue to crank out analysis of what we see, hear, and play. None of them, though, can entirely substitute for someone there to help put things in context. Someone to relate to personally. To set the norm, even if you choose not to adhere to it. 

This last Mother’s Day, I took my mom to lunch. While we were eating and reminiscing about the old days—bittersweetly, as my family tends to do now that we’ve straightened ourselves out a bit—she dropped a little bombshell on me. When she was a teenager, she told me, she wanted desperately to be a rock ’n’ roll singer.

This was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her hero had been Janis Joplin, and my mom—who loved singing in her high school music class—seriously considered how she might go about starting a band. But she never got the chance to follow through on her dream of being the next Janis Joplin. Joplin died suddenly of an overdose in October of 1970; seven months later, at the age of 16, my mom got pregnant with me. 

With that one-two punch, my mom’s dream of becoming a singer all but died. Her love of music never did. We didn’t have a lot of material things growing up, but we always had music. I almost didn’t notice it. It was just on, everywhere in the house, all the time, like oxygen. If it wasn’t the radio playing country music, it was the record player spinning Queen. She passed that along to me. Sure, I resisted some of her music preferences when I was a rebellious adolescent. But by the time I was in my 20s, I loved—if not worshipped—almost everything my mom had subjected my brother and me to: Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even Janis Joplin.

One thing that was never an option for me was not being a music fan. It was inconceivable. And that’s where mentors are maybe most important: when you don’t even realize they’re there. My biggest pop-culture mentor, my mom, was hiding under my nose all along. She never recommended anything to me. We never talked about music. But she set that norm that I needed. In my family, there was never a question of whether you were going to like music or not. There was only a question of what kind. In that regard, music might as well have been food. And if that meant I had to eat a few helpings of what was, in essence, musical government cheese, I’m still grateful for it.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be a pop-culture mentor. I’m getting married soon, but my fiancée and I aren’t in any kind of hurry to have kids. I do, however, have a niece. Her name is Hazel, and she turns 8 this year, the same age I was when Uncle Mike handed me that stack of life-altering pulp. Hazel is approximately twice as smart and three times as mature as I was at 8, so she might not need my advice. And she has the Internet, that bottomless pit of pop culture that she couldn’t hope to fully plumb in a thousand lifetimes.

But I am thinking of giving her some comic books. Just a few, left without comment on her dresser. Or sent to her inbox, I suppose. Whatever I do, I hope I'm not pushy. I’d love to be a mentor, but I don’t want to be an asshole.

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