Michael Chabon is probably the closest thing that comic book culture has to a poet laureate. He not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. He doesn’t just know about comic books, he gets them. They’re in his blood stream just as surely as any geek that strolls the floors of the San Diego convention center on a hot day in July. He can rattle off the names, dates, places, secret identities, and casual facts that means you must accept him as part of the geek brotherhood. He can write novels about comics that turn the creators into heroes. And he can do it with grace and style, because his superpower is that he can write amazingly well.
So well, in fact, that his words are allowed to grace the pages of the New Yorker, the most literary magazine left in a world where literature is something that you learn about, but not necessarily study, in high school. And he is such an authority that he can publish an article that deconstructs comic book superhero costumes in a magazine where the closest they ever get to geek cred is printing cartoons involving dogs, mice, cats, business people, and/or urban couples making pithy and ironic observations about the human condition as it is believed to be by the population of on an overcrowded island just off the east coast of America.
But in this particular article he is talking about the clothes (or lack of) that the superheroes wear, and how they only really work in the printed pages of the comics:
Now the time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object. It cannot exist.
One may easily find suggestive evidence for this assertion at any large comic-book convention by studying the spectacle of the brave and bold convention attendees, those members of the general comics-fan public who show up in costume and go shpatziring around the ballrooms and exhibition halls dressed as Wolverine, say, or the Joker’s main squeeze, Harley Quinn. Without exception, even the most splendid of these getups is at best a disappointment. Every seam, every cobweb strand of duct-tape gum, every laddered fish-net stocking or visible ridge of underpants elastic—every stray mark, pulled thread, speck of dust—acts to spoil what is instantly revealed to have been, all along, an illusion.
The appearance of realism in a superhero costume made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off, and many such costumes do not even bother to simulate the presumable effect on the eye and the spirit of the beholder were Black Bolt to stride, trailing a positronic lace of Kirby crackle, into a ballroom of the Overland Park Marriott. This disappointing air of saggy trouser seats, bunchy underarms, and wobbly shoulder vanes may be the result of imaginative indolence, the sort that would permit a grown man to tell himself he will find gratification in walking the exhibition floor wearing a pair of Dockers, a Jägermeister hoodie, and a rubber Venom mask complete with punched-out eyeholes and flopping rubber bockwurst of a tongue.
There’s plenty more there. And it scratches an itch that’s been in the back of my head for a while, that there are some things that only comics can do well. And reading his memories of being a kid becoming a superhero on a summer day may make you ache a little for the fact that we can’t really appreciate magic while it’s happening, only once it has passed into memory.