I gave in and bought the Marvel Unlimited subscription I was telling you about a few days ago and the first thing I read was a six-issue “event” series involving the Avengers, from 1991, called The Infinity Gauntlet, which is clearly a model for the past couple Avengers movies although the cast here seems way larger and stranger and the story isn’t as interesting.
But otherwise it was great!
I was thrilled by it, more so than I expected, because this Infinity Gauntlet event thing clearly embodies, from its first few pages, exactly the sorta thing that tends to scare me away from comic books, particularly Marvel stories, which is that the cast is enormous, everyone’s got a backstory, and the backstories vary depending on the writer.
Begs to reason, though, that if kids all over the world for the past seventy years have been picking up these event series, and making perfect sense of them, that I (a pretty literate person in my thirties) should have no trouble.
And that’s what turned out to be the case.
Stan Lee, the Marvel figurehead who died just a couple years ago (remaining fairly spry, nomadic, and verbose into his nineties), famously told his stable of writers that every comic book issue was some kid’s first, and that the issues needed to be written accordingly, with characters addressing one another by their full names, and solitary characters referring to themselves in the third-person, if necessary, so that nobody, not even a child, should stumble on a panel without knowing exactly who’s who and what they’re aiming for.
A testament to that writerly tradition: There wasn’t a single page of the six-issue event where I felt disoriented.
So that’s good.
Also some of the cosmic characters were new to me and strikingly imaginative (I’m thinking mainly of an eerie guy named Watcher, whose responsibility is to just watch everything in the universe), which got my gears turning, and in looking up from the screen two or three times per issue to consider some new idea, some new image, and feeling it bounce like a pinball against different receptors in my own imagination, I can see how breaking away from my heavier reading and sprinting through a few comics each week might become a nice and diversifying sort of creative buffer.
But there’s another thing that compelled me toward the comics when I showed up feeling vulnerable and dumb, and it’s kinda personal and digressive, but here it is:
There’s a guy who pops up at my job every couple days, in the podcast I call him “Gorgonzola” because he’s a smug guy with an amalgamated European accent whose name, if I told it to you, would seem like a crude stereotype of Euro-pretension.
So I’m going with the more caricaturish Gorgonzola.
Gorgonzola is a delivery driver for all the different courier outlets simultaneously, Doordash and Postmates and Uber Eats and so on; if you’re a driver, as I know from experience, these platforms tend to only feed you three or four opportunities per hour. That way, if you need to make ends meet, you won’t turn any options down, and they can ensure that, if someone ordered food from the restaurant with terrible parking, they’ll still get their food. The drivers aren’t gonna just abandon it.
Because of this, cleverly, Gorgonzola opens all of the apps at once so that, the moment he finishes one delivery, there’s always another one waiting for him.
He comes to the restaurant where I work and picks up food so often that we’ve gotten to know him.
One night he came in after his workday, sat at the bar, and after telling me a bit ruefully that he’d earned just $100 in eight hours of driving, he proceeded to eat and drink $50 worth of product and to leave me a $25 tip–all this after telling me, as he drank a full bottle of wine on his own, about the lavish income he enjoyed while working for a car company in Europe (his mom is French, and his dad is German, and both of them, after moving to Syria when he was a kid, spoke their native languages in the house).
He’s very pompous. Wears expensive clothes despite a grim financial situation and hastens, after pouring his third glass of wine, to pull out his phone and draw up photos of himself in even finer clothes, driving luxury cars, when he lived, alas, in Europe.
It was also in that third glass that he told me about a divorce from a few years back and the two kids he never sees and seldom hears from because their mother says venomous dishonest things about him.
This is his version of his life.
But he also, while picking up food from the window, makes lecherous remarks from the corner of his mouth about my colleagues and the guests. Then laughs in a honking chauvinistic way suggesting that he doesn’t actually believe in the joke he just made, he’s only making it because he wants to be friends.
My colleagues and I don’t really know how to handle him because he occupies a strange middle ground: is he a colleague, someone transporting food to whom we needn’t accord any more decorum than we’d show a colleague, or is he a guest since, on occasion, he comes to the bar and spends $75.
That night when he came in as a customer and bought so much food, and tipped so egregiously, I wanted to tell him that it was too much money. That this was literally three quarters of what he’d just earned in an eight-hour workday and he oughta pinch his pennies.
But obviously you can’t say that to somebody. If this is what he wants to do with his money, what’s it to me?
Fast forward to the night I came to hate him.
It’s ten minutes before closing and Gorgonzola comes into the restaurant not through the takeout entrance, but through the front door, sighing and bouncing his eyebrows in a pointed way, hoisting his shoulders and then letting them plummet to show that he was tired.
Working as a cook tonight was a guy who normally works the takeout desk. In that capacity as The Takeout Guy, he engages with Gorgonzola pretty often, espousing a friendly vibe and thereby giving the wrong impression.
So Gorgonzola goes right up to him, crossing the restaurant floor and heading straight to the kitchen, to ask if the guy could make him a pizza.
The implication being, “Make me a pizza for free.”
Cornered, not being confrontational, the cook agrees.
Then Gorgonzola comes and sits at the bar, where I’m cleaning up because, don’t forget, we’re closing in ten minutes. It’s a Tuesday night. I’m tired and I’ve got work at the college in the morning.
I know that he’s waiting for his pizza so I ask if he wants a beer and he says yeah, a Stella, so I go and pour him a Stella and the moment I set the cup down on the counter he starts drinking it in gulps, talking about how tired he is and how he only made $100 today, and I’m glad because it seems that he’ll finish this glass, get his pizza, and bounce.
One thing leads to another, it’s a long story that’s only interesting to my colleagues and self because we’re the ones who know the guy and suffer him, but Gorgonzola ends up asking me to open up a bottle of wine for him.
I open it, and the cork breaks in half, which is troubling but I wield some magic and get the second half of the cork out. Gorgonzola, however, wants no part of it. He walks behind the bar, which is about as invasive as a person can get with me at work, and he points to the specific bottle he wants, whereupon I tell him, “Hey no, can’t do that,” chuckling as I beckon him back to his stool.
He sits. Moody. I get the bottle he’s asking for, open it, and pour him a glass.
Few minutes later he’s done with the glass, his free pizza has just been served to him directly from the cook, and now he snaps his fingers to get my attention.
I turn around, wide eyed cuz I’ve heard of a certain genus of asshole that does this but never met one personally, only to find him exacerbating the offense by smacking a forefinger on the rim of his cup and commencing with his pizza.
He looks at me slowly from the pizza on his plate, as though I’m trying his patience, and smacks his finger on the cup again. “More.”
Then a woman joins him, his “girlfriend” apparently, and they have a hushed conversation two feet away from me about how angry he gets, how unloved he feels, when he texts her something affectionate and then spends the whole day awaiting her response.
It was a bit vindicating to know that a woman is treating Gorgonzola the way he treats me, especially in light of how he generally talks about women, but it was also kinda depressing to know that his rudeness with me is probably a byproduct of feeling unloved and ruined.
OK, long story short, he stays there about forty minutes past closing time, with me just standing there drinking a beer at this point, since I’ve been clocked out for a while and all my sidework is done, waiting for him to get the fuck out so I can leave.
My manager was there in the bar when Gorgonzola asked me (again rudely) for his check. And I thought, for a moment, “I should charge him for the pizza.” That would put his bill up to $70 and consume the near-entirety of his day’s earnings.
It would’ve been a fit revenge.
But I didn’t. I charged him just for the beer and the wine and he paid me a dismal tip and left with his arm in lecherous embrace of the companion who seems, from what I overheard, to take advantage of his neediness.
Couple nights later I’m still seething about the encounter and I’m telling this to my romantic interest at the new Tobacco Road.
My rhetoric is lofty and insincere and I tell her that, next time he comes in, I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind, gonna tell him his behavior was unacceptable, gonna tell him this and that and something else.
She says, “Why’re you so eager to confront him if you think he’s so pathetic?”
“Because he was an asshole.”
“Lotsa people are assholes with you and you don’t talk about it like this days later.”
I said, “Yeah but he’s in there all the time so I’ve gotta let him know.”
“So he doesn’t do it again.”
“Why would it be so terrible if he behaves that way again?”
“Cuz it ruins my night!”
“Why does it ruin your night?”
“Cuz he’s an asshole!”
“Why is his being an asshole worse than someone else?”
“Cuz he’s gonna think he can be that way with me all the time.”
What it came down to and what I knew it would come down to is that I’m really sensitive about my intelligence and my status in society as a bartender. I love bartenders and I love bars and I’m head-over-heels about the hospitality industry but somewhere deep in my chest I feel, about myself, some measure of the disappointment that I imagine my parents feel to know that their college-educated son isn’t doing anything with his college education.
I wanna yell at Gorgonzola cuz I wanna yell at myself, is what I guess a person with a PhD and an armchair would tell me.
Which brings me back to the comic books.
I mentioned, earlier, that what’d kept me from deep-diving into comic books for a long time, even when anyone would’ve told me I was old enough to understand them, is a conviction that, given the enormity of the cast and the galactic reach of its plotlines, I actually wouldn’t understand it. Wouldn’t be capable.
And so the accessibility of The Infinity Gauntlet felt like an embrace. Like someone who I’d always imagined as a kind of intellectual taunt had proven to be a friend when I needed it. When I was pathetic because of the pathetic behavior of a pathetic person–a person who’s pathetic not because of his situation, but because of his posturing, and because he allows his feelings of smallness to foster bad behavior.
Anyway. So spake Thanos.