August 23rd, 2008
BOY + ≠
Remember when you were going to be a superhero? I sure do. I was 9 years old and Amypoodle (who happens to be my brother) had decided to take up the mantle of the Spiderman. He had a spidersense that he could recharge by warming himself on our wall-mounted radiators, and he was going to marry the Black Cat, or do other stuff with her. Stuff that made him feel weird.
I didn’t have superpowers right at that moment, but I was going to develop my psychic abilities and then I was going to train all the other kids and we were gonna stop all the nuclear missiles! And we were going to have a party afterwards! And then we going to abolish all governments! With our powers! My Dad had agreed to help, in fact I suspect the idea had initially been his: he was into Eastern stuff and definitely knew how a middle class child from the shires could go about honing his telekinesis. Dad had watched a secret Russian film where a Polish fellow bent metal with his mind, which led him to assure us that “anything is possible”. By way of illustrating his point he’d already developed the first stage of a training regime – it involved feeling the world with your thoughts and imagining stuff as hard as you could. Particularly a white mist. White mists were essential, apparently. White mists and loads of imagination. You can do all sorts of things with imagination.
And if Dad’s techniques didn’t come through for us, what of it? Our Granddad worked in a car factory and, it followed, could build a machine capable of imbuing children with superheads and laserfists. Sometimes we’d talk to Granddad about it while he was slurping tea from his teacup and swearing at the football. “Wha’?” he’d say. “Wha’ you talkin’ abah?” When I ponder my relationship with my grandfather I have to wonder whether scenes like this mirror our failure to connect in a larger sense, although at the time I felt sure the message had been received loud and clear.
The third tier of strategy, to be implemented while waiting on our Father and Grandfather to make good on their individual projects, had Poodle and I seeking out other gifted youngsters. As good fortune would have it, our friend Denby Horn was also going to be Spiderman and also had a spidersense. In addition Denby possessed INCREDIBLE AGILITY, and was able to leap LITERALLY EVERYWHERE. Nicholas Orchin, another member of the gang, was going to be a Transformer. He practised transforming all the time and was getting really good at it, especially the sound effects. The rest of the team would have to be assembled from less intimate friends and acquaintances. In the first instance they would be vetted for moral worth – Bully Charman would not be getting a look in – then, if deemed suitably heroic, subtly and carefully questioned about the history of superpower manifestation within their families. Those without such a history would go on the reserves list, and await the construction of Granddad’s machine, the rest would be taken aside and invited to join our secret group. If, and only if, they were willing to sign up to the cause would a fuller explanation of their future role as planetary protector be given. That’s when they’d have to start imagining stuff really hard.
One such lucky hopeful was Alan Tanner. A surprising choice when you consider that Alan was nothing if not straightforward: studious in study, sport and spirit. On the face of it far from an ideal candidate for superhero training. But that was before I knew the secret guarded by the Tanner family for generations. I think it must have been Denby that put me onto its scent: the electric smell of superpowers. He’d known Alan since they were little, they’d come up together through playgroup and the Roger Daltrey Action Awards (yes, that Roger Daltrey). Denby claimed that Alan had demonstrated his uncanny abilities the last time he’d spent the night at the Tanner house, and that Alan’s older sisters had sworn him to secrecy. Denby wasn’t going to tell me what Alan could do – what his entire family could do – but he’d see if Alan was willing to open up the circle of trust, in return for a place at the big superhero party table.
At this point I must digress, because, you see, psychic powers weren’t what I aspired to. If anything they were low on the list of abilities I was looking to cultivate, unfortunately they were also the easiest to nurture. After all, I had the training regime given to me by my father, all that needed to be done was a little work on my behalf. But it was with a heavy heart that I crawled under the bed, scrunched up my eyes and imagined that all important white mist.
My dream, my obsession, which would only be realised upon the construction of Granddad’s machine, was somewhat different. Inspired by my copy of Days of Future Past, I was determined to become the Blob. Some might consider it a strange ambition, but as far as I was concerned the possibilities for adventure were quite simply endless. My favourite fantasy revolved around me developing terminal cancer and being given twenty four hours to live. The next day, however, I’d be at the school disco, and my on/off girlfriend Emma Maidstone would ask me how I’d recovered, and I wouldn’t answer, instead I’d grab her and snog her. Perhaps we’d do open mouthed kissing. As one would expect, throughout all this I’d be wearing my thrilling black leotard with yellow detailing, and looking my absolute best. That I would also be a supervillain, that I would be fat as all fuck, and that the Blob isn’t invulnerable to cancer didn’t enter into my head. Thanks to what I saw as his exquisite exoticism, the Blob represented a paradigm shift in how I understood superpowers, and if I was fascinated by him how could anyone fail to find me fascinating if I became him? At least that’s how I think the logic went. Now hold that thought. Back to Alan Tanner.
Taking someone aside to discuss their initiation into the mysteries of superheroism was always a delicate operation. There were other forces in the playground, forces that would have been hostile to our plans. Then there was the simple fact that many people felt uncomfortable discussing their special abilities. Even the ones that had willingly agreed to a meeting – like Alan Tanner – needed to be given time to find their way into the subject. Push too hard, reveal the mysteries of the Big Party too soon, and you could lose a candidate, and even make an enemy. Thankfully Alan Tanner knew what he wanted to say and how he was going to say it. We would perch behind the hopscotch grid, just in front of Hut 1, with the prancing girls who dominated the territory acting both as physical cover and sonic baffle. It was a good plan that impressed upon me the seriousness of Alan’s intent, while simultaneously revealing him to be something of a strategist – a useful skill in the days ahead, of that there was no doubt. Anyway.
“My sisters, they showed me,” said Alan
“Showed you what?” I asked
“What we can do”
“What can you do?”
Alan seemed nervous, “I put my finger through a candle flame”
I remember he looked at me as if he’d just been very bad. At the time I interpreted this as proof that he was revealing some age old family secret. In retrospect I think he knew on some level that this was not a superpower, and that to assume it was would have unforeseen and possibly very dangerous consequences. But let’s not get distracted, let’s get back to that moment, and the ineluctable logic that flooded my mind: Finger through flame? Check. Equals immunity to fire? Check. Equals ability to wield flame with one’s mind? Check. I knew all about it, all the facts, afterall I’d first encountered pyrokinesis just recently, in the very same comic that introduced me to the Blob.
Somewhere, deep within my psyche tumblers were clicking into place. If Alan could control flame then perhaps he would be Pyro, and if he would be Pyro then I was once step closer to achieving my dream. The brotherhood was being assembled and I was destined to take my place within their ranks. First of all, however, we would need to get Alan a flamethrower.This wouldn’t be a problem, Granddad had been in the Home Guard during the Second World War, and would know how to assemble one. It would probably be second nature to an engineer like himself (lest we forget, he worked in a car factory!). Yes, Alan would get his flamethrower and Granddad would get back to his real work with the superpower machine, and, as night follows day, I would become the Blob, don a leotard, and woo Emma Maidstone. No more dark spaces, meditation or white mists for me. I was very excited.
And funnily enough I can still feel ripples of that excitement today, despite the big party and my obese ambition having drifted into the far, far distance. I’m not sure when it was that my hopes were dashed. Worries about nuclear war almost certainly overcame my childish optimism that very same year, so out went Dad’s plan, and in came quaking fear. As for Alan, I didn’t see much of him after our clandestine meeting. Perhaps he avoided me, afraid that I’d try to set him on fire, or perhaps he just scampered back to the football pitch and stayed there. We weren’t really friends in the first place, and when you’re nine years old social groups can be as distant as continents. Whatever the truth of it, I also have vague memories of Denby, Kent Scott, and Orchin demonstrating their collective immunity to heat by recreating the Tanner miracle in my Mum’s kitchen, and Nanny Sandy’s insistence that “anybody can bloody well do that”, to which she quickly added, after remembering that I was her charge “but you bloody well better not”. After that Alan’s claims lost a lot of their initial appeal.
Ultimately, it seemed to me that Amy and the rest, despite keeping up with their own training regimes, never had my level of commitment. Denby kept on leaping, and Poodle kept gripping that radiator, and Kent dutifully took the piss out of everyone for being such a bunch of wankers, but they didn’t have a dream like mine to drive them. They could have been bullshitting me – play acting – for all I knew. Then there was the critical revelation that the Home Guard weren’t actually that great, and were a lot like those bumbling fellows on the TV. In the end I never asked my Granddad to build a flamethrower. I might have rationalised it by telling myself that his work on the machine was the more important of the two projects, but I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in the back of my mind lurked an image of Alan Tanner engulfed by flames and screaming for his mum.
Hey, I got to snog Emma anyway. Without putting on a leotard.
The real clincher, though, well came a few months later, in a small red and black box. Upon inspecting the contents it was immediately apparent that Granddad would have to be pulled off the machine and directed to start on his real work. He’d probably give me a frightened, quizzical look, and offer a confused smile before turning his attention back to safety of Blankety Blank, but I would persist and Poodle would back me. There was a silent war to fight and we must all play our part.
Orchin, what a fucking trailblazer.
But that’s another story.