I was drawn to comics as a young kid. They were one of the first things I enjoyed reading on my own, and I enjoyed the larger than life characters, the colorful artwork, and the idea that anyone could save the world if they one day woke up with magical gifts. There were morals to a lot of the stories, Spider-Man was built on the motto of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” But they weren’t heavy-handed or forced, and the characters weren’t always painted with such specific sides of black and white. I also enjoyed my child’s picture book of the bible. Back then.
It too was a book full of fantastical stories, larger than life characters, huge morals. Slightly more outrageous. Definitely more heavy-handed. But I was lucky it was never positioned to me that the book I was reading was one-hundred percent fact. It was merely an engaging set of tales that would sometimes focus on a guy with super powers. It was no match for the comics though.
I tended to lean more to the team books: The X-Men, The Avengers, The Justice League of America. I liked the balance of characters, the shifting rosters, and how team dynamics could change the overall tone of a story. Not that I could verbalize that back when I was a kid.
One summer, when my brother was off at some day camp that I wasn’t yet old enough to attend, and my parents were busy working, I spent my days with a new babysitter. I honestly don’t remember her name. I’ll call her Diane, because it sounds old, and plausible. She was older. Probably early thirties, but she may as well have been in her early hundreds for all I knew. She had long, stringy dark hair, and round, wire glasses. She was married. Her husband seemed younger, wavy golden brown hair. He wore suits to work.
They were new parents, had a baby in the house because I remember holding her, but I think the kid mostly took naps while I was around. Sometimes I would play with the neighbor kids, Mickey and Tom, they were younger than I was, so it was usually hide and seek and tag. Mostly, I would draw on the floor, or play games with Diane. She let me run around the house, curious kid that I was, and one day I ended up playing in the attic.
It was filled with stuff, toys and old games and over in one corner I found, perhaps with sunlight shining down on it from the window, I saw the holy grail: a box of comic books. There was more than one box actually. Her husbands. I asked if I could look through them and she said, “sure,” he didn’t care about them anymore. I pulled out issues of Spider-Man and Batman, flipping through each. There was no order to them, so I only made a small dent in my exploration before time was up and I had to return home.
Every day, I would try and be good for Diane. I would help with the baby, playing with the girl as she lay on the floor, or cleaning up after myself, all so I could get a chance to go back to the attic, back to the comics. Even then I had ulterior motives.
One day, as I was flipping through the comics in one of the boxes, I saw it: Justice League #194. I loved the Justice League: Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman were the big guns, but I loved the second-tier characters like Black Canary, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Firestorm. And this was the satellite era Justice League, still the greatest iteration in my mind, and there was gorgeous cover art from George Perez, one of my all-time favorite artists, though I didn’t know many of these things at the time. All I knew was that this was an issue I hadn’t read. This was a comic, I didn’t own. And it was sitting here wasted in Diane’s attic. Once again, my time was cut short. I left before cracking that issue open, but I thought, maybe if I was really good and I asked really nice she would just give it to me, or at least let me take it home. But my mom was already downstairs and I didn’t want to ask her in front of my mom, not sure why, I just figured it would be easier for Diane to say yes, without my Mom trying to get me home for dinner.
The next day, I asked if I could go to the attic, but Diane said no. I don’t remember if I was being bad, or she simply wanted me to be outside or what, but I know that it was a Friday and that meant that I had to wait out the weekend before coming back and reading that comic. That’s like seventeen years in kid time, unfathomable. I threw a tantrum. I did that a lot, mostly for my parents, but Diane wasn’t used to it. She let me scream and wail, and when I was done she asked why I was so upset. I told her there was a comic that I wanted to read. She said I should play outside. I agreed, but then went for it, I asked if I could take the comic book home. I promised to bring it back on Monday. She asked which one and I told her, I even ran upstairs to bring it to her.
I remember the bluish cover, and that Zatanna and Black Canary were both on it. It was uncommon to get more than one female hero in a team back then and I liked a lot heroes, regardless of gender. Diane looked at the cover, it showed the Justice League-Superman, Flash, and a few others including the women I mentioned, surrounded by a group of tarot cards, the characters depicted coming to life and attacking the League. Fairly innocuous, the word “tarot” does not appear on the cover, but there is one devilish looking creature, red with horns and spiked wings.
“No,” Diane said and she put the comic far out of reach. I didn’t understand it. What had I done? I went outside to play, all the while wondering what happened, feeling like I missed an important clue, and feeling the dread that I had done something wrong. When I went back inside, I had calmed down and apologized to Diane for my earlier outburst. I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember very well her response.
“Do you know what evil is? True evil?” she asked. She had a steely look in her eyes and I stood there as she towered over me and her usual mild-mannered voice raised with intensity. She started talking about an old explorer and how he went looking for…something, I don’t remember that either, but I do recall the phrase “and the gates of hell opened up…” as she continued to wax poetically about satan’s minions, darkness, evil and some truly terrifying concepts for my child self. I didn’t even realize she was talking about the comic right away, it took her a while to make the connection, she talked about the evilness of tarot cards (initially lost on me because I hadn’t even read the issue and tarot wasn’t a word I was familiar with) until she eventually made reference to the cover imagery. I just wanted to read a Superman comic. She seemed to think I was attracted to the mythology of the supernatural, not the mythology of the superheroic.
My dad picked me up that day and I gathered up my stuff as I heard Diane talking to him about the occult and darkness and other big words that meant nothing to me. In the car, my dad pressed me for more info on Diane and I mentioned her comments on the gates of hell. Diane was no longer my babysitter after that day.
Fear sticks with you and months later when I found a copy of Justice League 194 at my comic shop, I got nervous buying it. I thought it was a test or that my dad was going to be on the lookout for it and I would be punished. When I finally read it, I was surprised it was nothing more than a standalone issue with characters that would never appear again. It would be years before I would ever hear of tarot cards again, around eighth grade, and while my friend’s tried to make it seem spooky and supernatural, I already had the fear Diane put in me. As I flipped through the deck, looking at the different characters on the faces of each card, I thought of Diane and all the crazy shit she said. She ascribed such meaning to my interest in a comic, and she was one of the first super creepy overly religious people I would encounter. She was not the last.
I’m glad my parent thought better of me spending more time at her house. If she got that bent over a comic book, I can only imagine what would happen if she caught wind of Skeletor or Thundercats.
Sure, there is real darkness in this world. And crazy people do crazy shit. Sometimes, there is a deeper meaning to our interests and investigation into things like the occult can lead someone down a dark path. And sometimes, a comic is just a comic.
Rosebud was just a fucking sled, you know?