How to Train Your Jock (or Introducing Comics to Your Athletic Friend)
I have a friend named Gerry. Gerry likes football. Gerry plays sports. In high school, Gerry had cool friends, make the pretty girls laugh, and all in all, had a pretty good experience.
Come to think of it, why do I have this friend Gerry? I should hate Gerry. And in another life, probably, I would.
Because I'm not like Gerry. I didn't have attractive friends, I didn't fit into high school society, and the pretty girls laughed at me rather than with me.
I liked Star Wars. I played D&D. I read comics instead of following football. I was a geek before geek was chic, and I paid the price in the high school food chain.
But we all grow up, and it becomes painfully apparent that the points you earned in high school don't count for much in adult life. When I hit college, I learned to let go of the embarrassment I felt for my love of this unique storytelling medium and embrace comics again with renewed passion. I even found a circle of friends to share my passion with, and I did so publicly and without shame.
Once you make it to college, you realize that all the “dumb jocks” who tortured you in high school have settled into dead end jobs, and the student population is left concentrated, mostly with intellectual types with a penchant for the geeky.
But not all jocks are “dumb jocks”. In college, you also get guys like Gerry.
In college, Gerry had the privilege and misfortune of being surrounded by comic fanatics. It's a wonderful thing to discover comics, but nobody wants to look ignorant in the middle of a crowd of passionate monomaniacs. A few times, Gerry mentioned to me that he wished he had followed comics as a kid, and could be included when geeks like me derailed the conversation towards the shortfalls of Tim Burton's interpretation of Batman.
Not that you should pity Gerry, of course. I'm told he still takes several of our classmates to school in his fantasy football league.
Gerry and I would do this conversational dance, he talking about sports and I nodding politely, then I discussing my heart wrenching disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises and he nodding politely. We both had a moderate interest in what the other was saying, and enough respect for the other not to start screaming “DUMB JOCK” or “STUPID NERD” at each other.
This balance continued for four years and beyond, surviving our graduation.
Things changed with the arrival of tiny Blueberry, or Lil' Benito as he is known on the streets, AKA, Gerry's first child. Fatherhood struck Gerry with the urgent need to raise the boy right, and not more than a few weeks into the kid's life, Gerry asked if he and I could visit a comic store.
“Take you to a comic store? What do you need? Somebody to hold your hand?”
“Not 'hold', but...be close enough that I can grab it if I get scared...”
was the ironic banter we exchanged on our way to Ssalefish Comics here in Winston.
At the risk of seeming dramatic, I considered it a rare privilege and a pleasure to take one of the popular kids to the local comic shop (or LCS as Gerry would learn). Maybe on some level, I was looking forward to exacting my revenge on the cool kids, watching Gerry nervously flip through four different Avengers series, witnessing his panic at not knowing the difference between Batman and Detective Comics, and laughing uncontrollably as the geeks who worked the counter tore him apart for his ignorance.
More likely, I was just excited to share something I had loved for so long with one of my best friends.
We go into the store, and it's clear that, yes, Gerry is nervous. And no, he isn't grabbing for my hand in fear, but he is pulling me close to whisper questions he's worried will make him sound foolish. And yes, he asks me about the difference between Batman and Detective Comics.
I'm kind of thrown by this reaction. Comic shops have always been a safe place for me. No matter who you are or what makes you a geek, you have a home in a comic store. Tabletop gamers, action figure collectors, and of course fans of sequential art (be it indie or major, film adapted or not) are all welcome. There is no secret handshake to get into a comic store, and there never will be.
But Gerry doesn't know this. He only knows of the angry geeks who are far too sensitive to the lines society has drawn around them. He knows about the condescending comic store owners prevalent in Kevin Smith films and The Simpsons. And he knows guys like me, who will spontaneously spew their vitriolic rage against Sam Raimi for what he did to Spider-Man. And it frustrates me that he can’t see past that, to the beauty of comic stores that is so obvious to me.
During this first trip, I remember something. Sometime during my freshman year at college, Gerry invited me to come hang out with him and some friends of his from high school while they drafted their fantasy football teams. I was immediately mortified. Hang out with a bunch of jocks? Like they were people? While they talked SPORTS?
I almost couldn't handle the idea. But I decided to put myself out there, head into the belly of the beast, and see what it looked like.
I was nervous. I didn't know the difference between a fullrunner or a quarterstar, or if I had made those terms up on the spot. And I'm pretty sure I latched onto Gerry's hand out of fear.
Falling back on high school wallflower instincts, I shuffled over to the pool table and avoided eye contact with the popular jocks. Comfortably alone, and free from the terror of the sweater wearing pretty boys, I shot billard balls back and forth and waited for the night to end.
One of the guys at the draft took a break and asked if he could play a game of pool with me. So we played pool, chit chatted, he stepped away a few times to draft, then back to our game, and so on. Then he offered me a beer. So we played pool, drank beer, continued chit chatting.
And without me realizing it, something amazing happened. I had shared a beer and a game with one of my mortal enemies.
And Gerry looked at me, confused, probably frustrated, that I could not see the beauty of this safe place of his.
Without knowing, I had crossed the threshold in adulthood that blurs the lines between the factions we held so ardently to when we were in high school.
It should seem obvious when we hit this point, but it's not. We still end up influenced by these lines and definitions programmed into us during our teen years. It's not a simple flip of a switch to turn this off. It takes a little risk, a little faith, and the help of a good friend.
So happily I lead Gerry into the dungeons of comic fandom. But training your jock to do geek tricks isn't a simple task. It takes patience, it takes time, and it takes faith.
But above all else, it takes understanding.