Carlos is an intelligent, soft-spoken man. Well dressed, manicured and obviously educated. A teacher by trade and a family man. He’s got two kids, a boy and a girl. Diego attends Cal State Northridge University and is aiming for a Ph.D. someday. Pilar is still in high school and struggles with her grades. No matter who they’re developing into, he’s so very proud of them. His wife Elena is regal in her beauty and she wears her devotion to her family on her sleeve.
I call him “The Professor,” which amuses him greatly. Like many other men from his era, he lives his life vicariously through his growing children and tries his best to instill in them some of the joys he experienced in his youth. Some they respond to. Others they don’t.
I’ve watched his children grow. Shy and quiet to outgoing and headstrong. They’re good people and so welcome in my store. Diego loves Marvel and no matter how hard I try, he refuses to see the joys of DC. Pilar loves Fables, and could care less about super-people.
We experience so many who visit our store as a family unit. They make their random forays a communal adventure. Maybe it’s a Sunday when they’re out for brunch. Maybe they’ll stop in before heading to the mall to spend far too much money on Pilar at the Gap or Abercrombie.
Carlos is one of hundreds of comic-book fathers who represent a role model for their children, introducing them to the joys of comics and the positive influences of reading. He deals with many challenges as a husband and father. He does his best to be a wise influence and to ultimately be a better man than his father before him. But there’s one challenge that consistently nags at him. One that hasn’t stopped him from excelling in his professional life but still seems to cause a great deal of personal heartache when it comes to his passion for his childhood hobby.
Carlos is blind and has been since he was twelve years old. A degenerative ocular disorder skipped two generations and made its way into his blood stream. In a matter of just a few years, he went from glasses to bifocals to tunnel vision and then entered a life of darkness. And unlike the miracle that defines Matt Murdock in his beloved comic books of old, the real world of genetic blindness takes up residence in a normal human being and barring scientific breakthrough, stays for a lifetime.
Like myself (and most of you reading this column), Carlos was a manic comic-book aficionado. He would tear through every issue he could get his hands on and read them until they came apart at the staples. His comics were an escape from the far from euphoric life in his father’s home. We have much in common, the two of us. Other than the fact that Carlos is far more intelligent and educated than I, more wealthy than I ever hope to be and has more bravery and strength in his pinky than I have from head to toe, we’re exactly alike.
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for him. I insist.
At eight years old, Carlos lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother, father and three brothers. He slept in the living room beside his older, torturous brothers and experienced not one moment of privacy. Madre worked two jobs to put food on the table and Padre took what painting work he could find while resisting the temptation of the bottle. He rarely succeeded.
A small closet in the hallway and a hidden flashlight provided him a doorway into another world. Hours spent lost in the darkness, imagining what it would be like to live in Xavier’s mansion, to have a room of his own in the Baxter Building, to experience the freedom of flight. The darkness represented comfort. An escape from the light of his father’s kitchen. Within only a few years, that same darkness would prove itself a silent enemy.
When his eyesight began to fail, his parents struggled to pay for his glasses. They struggled to pay for the doctor bills and for the tests he sorely needed. They struggled with the fact that they’d never be able to afford the experimental treatments that might have prolonged his seeing life.
“I knew it was getting worse and worse,” he told me. “Even at that young age, something in me knew what I was in for. For four years, I read everything I could get my hands on. Didn’t matter what it was. Day and night, I read. If I was going to slip into the dark, I needed to cover as much ground as I could and time was short. I recall my mother crying constantly and wishing she would stop because I couldn’t concentrate and would lose my place on the page.
When the darkness finally took him, he had to learn how to read all over again. Not with his eyes, but with his fingers. “These days, Braille is something of an archaic skill” Carlos told me. “But back then, it was still on the cutting edge and one of the few ways children had to keep themselves literate.”
We all enjoy spending time in our local comic-book stores chatting about our memories, don’t we? Reminiscing about that first comic book we ever read. For Carlos, a different memory haunts him. Not the first comic he ever laid eyes on. The last.
“’Uncanny X-Men’ #50” said Carlos. “It was the first appearance of a gorgeous green superhero. I remember holding a magnifying glass over the cover, strangely excited by this floating woman. She was bathed in green light and seemed to be reaching out to me.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that very issue sat in the glass case in front of him, a glowing “Polaris” reaching for him still.
There are thousands of novels written in Braille. Scores of textbooks, biographies, fantasy and science fiction. An endless array of books read aloud on tape and CD. Machines that scan and speak text in robotic voices. All provide the blind ways to experience the joys of storytelling. A conduit for information and imagination.
Carlos has certainly read more than most. You don’t become a highly lauded professor without spending a majority of your life immersed in research and study. But there remains a form of literary entertainment that was taken from him. Cruelly stolen at a tender young age.
“There are no comic books for the blind” Carlos told me “Sure, there are novelizations in Braille and books on tape. But there’s just no way to show a person without sight the colors in comic panels. No way to follow the action with your fingers instead of your eyes.”
We spoke of the “Graphic Audio” series you can buy on CD or download on the internet. Carlos treasures them greatly.
“It’s wonderful listening to the actors speaking the dialogue and narrators describing the action. I can imagine the colors and the excitement of it. But I constantly wonder who many of the supporting characters are and where they fit into the universe. I’m still a bit confused by it all.” He laughed as I assured him that most of us sighted folk who read it on the page were as confused as he was.
Other than those Audio CDs, there are no other ways for the blind to enjoy our hobby the way sighted people do. Computer programs that vocalize printed matter and onscreen text fail miserably when images come into play. How does a program describe a page of Green Lanterns exploding from the panels?
Carlos and his family go to every comic-book movie at least twice and own every single one on DVD. You and I might spend our time dissecting all that’s wrong with every adaptation, analyzing each scene and scrap of dialogue. To Carlos, they’re all perfection. He’s listening to a comic book being acted out in front of him. While he can’t see every facial movement and static frame, his family helps him out and the sound effects do the rest.
“You take what you can when you’re in my situation” Carlos told me. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself as handicapped. I’m as capable as anyone with sight and I don’t impose any limits on what I can achieve. It’s just…”
His voice trailed off and he was lost in thought. This is a man who exudes nothing but positive confidence. He’s torn through life with vigor and tenacity. But for a brief moment in my humble store on the boulevard, there was a crack in his armor. He looked straight up, as if he were trying to feel the entirety of my store in one breath. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to come to your store every week and enjoy the adventure like the rest of you” he said. “I miss it.”
Elena put her head on his shoulder. She’d obviously heard this before. The square shouldered, mature air about them melted away for a moment and they became vulnerable. They stood inches from me and gave me a glimpse of their relationship behind closed doors. I felt both honored and embarrassed to be included.
These are the moments I experience in my comic-book store. Human beings shedding their skin and becoming their true selves, safe in the knowledge that none will judge and all four walls are safe. It never fails to take me by surprise. I bear witness to it all and feel great pride that a comic-book store can transform itself into sacred ground.
Carlos gathered himself, the little boy retreating and the strong man assuming control. “I feel blessed to have the memories of those old comic books. I can picture all of the superheroes on the movie screens. I can see the costumes when I listen to the narrated books. I can use my imagination and call on all of the panels I remember seeing as a boy. I had my sight for 12 years and have something to draw on. So many others have never seen Superman’s cape or Spider-Man’s webs. For them, description doesn’t do it justice.”
He’s a shining example of how adversity can become triumph. Were we all that strong and wise, our world would be a much greater place.
Every week, fifty-two per year, all of us comic-book aficionados flip through our funny books and voice our opinions. We criticize and play backseat driver with the stories, the art and the editorial. We threaten to “drop” this title or to “hate” that artist. We analyze and scrutinize and come up with all sorts of ways our comics could entertain, excite, and impress us more.
We take it all for granted is what we do. We imagine ourselves to be as invulnerable as the characters on the page. As if there’s no chance that anything could ever be taken away from us. And even if it were, we’d always have our comics to make us feel better.
Take a moment this week as you walk the new release racks. Stop for one brief second and really look at the books you’re buying. They’re colors and words on a page. You may see flaws and misspellings and anatomical errors. You may see annoying advertisements and marketing ploys and sleight of hand.
Regardless of your distaste for its asking price or your frustration over the direction the storyline is taking, those bright, colorful, precious pages are things to be savored, to be admired, to be seen.
Abre los ojos.