For me, the beginning starts the first time I opened up a comic book and knew I wanted to have that, be that, get in that somehow.
But for you, it starts the day I first met Caleb. The day ten guys with knives chased me down the street. My skinny legs burned; my lungs wheezed as sweat popped across my forehead. Bitter voices shouted curses about my dad. Crap, does that mean—I took a second to turn my head for a better look.
Bad move. My grey sneakers skidded across the pavement. I tried to catch my balance—my knee impacted the unfinished, gravel-strewn sidewalk. I rolled over, scrambling on my butt as my fastest attacker stumbled into me. His creepy gangsta-fied Looneytunes t-shirt loomed over me, and then fell on top of me, suffocating me with a cotton smirk as Bugs Bunny twirled his bling around his finger: “What’s up, doc? You thought you could outrun us?” I gagged as a hand landed on my neck.
“Hey Jerome,” I choked to the one person I recognized, my pissed-off classmate standing a few feet behind the mass of human on my throat. “Who’s the Colossus?”
The Colossus didn’t take the compliment. “Jerome don’t answer to you, he answers to me.” He lifted me by the throat. Not a sensation I particularly enjoyed. “And he told me who your Daddy is.”
“Hahaha well you sure you believe Jerome?” I normally avoided the sass—sass was a one-way ticket to the ville where they serve up your butt on silver platters—but I had to talk them away from my dad, and if it meant a beating from Jerome tomorrow that was a heck of a lot better than a stabbing from his boss today. “You know Jerome’s lied to you about how much product he pushes at school, right?” Is that what they called it? ‘Product’? I really didn’t know anything about that whole crowd.
“No he hasn’t.”
“Okay, but he’s lying about my dad. I don’t even have one of those. What’s a Dad, even?” Yup, too far. They all stared at me for a second.
“You trying to get smart with me?” The grip of the Colossus tightened on my neck, and my eyes bulged with the oh-gosh-where’s-the-air-at—
“No, no, I really am that dumb,” I wheezed. “I have issues with Dads.”
The Colossus smirked. “I’m not your shrink, kid. I can be your surgeon if you want, though.” He drew his knife again. From the looks of it, he was the only one whose mamma told him not to run with sharp pointy things—everyone else had theirs out already. “We’re gonna write a little message to your old man, and you get to be the postcard.”
I bit down, hard, to hold my mouth shut. The writing was on the wall—and soon to be on my skin—so if this had to happen, I wouldn’t make it fun for them. Please don’t whine please don’t cry please don’t say any freaking thing…
“You got anything else to say, smart guy?”
Nope. Nothing. I ground my teeth as they held me down, and all I could think about was Jerome, this guy standing right here, holding his blade right over my arm, like—this guy was in my class! We’d grown up in the same neighborhood, almost the same street, I thought, so like what chain of events ended with him becoming that guy and me becoming this guy, at these different ends of the knife?
The first blade nicked my forearm. I didn’t scream.
Enter the hurricane.
It wasn’t much of a meeting: more a series of bone-crushing splinter-sounds and screams as I watched in crystal HD clarity while a ripped Asian-American kid tore Bugs Bunny off me and hurled him into the others.
Colossus never had a chance to get back up. The new kid pounced, Batman backpack swinging on his shoulders with the intensity of the back and forth from his punches. He whirled to take out two or three sets of knees behind him with one nasty roundhouse kick, and leapt like a bolt of lightning from person to person, jerking someone’s joints the wrong way each time he left them.
Colossus’ wallet peeped out of his pocket, daring me. ID is the key, Dad would say in his corny way. He wasn’t wrong. I scrambled forward, yanked it out, and dashed back, pocketing the leather bulge with my heart pounding and my breath held. I knew I looked as suspicious as a four-year-old alone in the candy aisle, but thankfully no one cared about me. Someone pissed their pants—you could smell it—and someone else screamed a threat before getting the newcomer’s foot in his face. A few knives zinged through the air to twang against the nearest telephone pole.
Then I blinked, and we were alone. New Guy stood over me hand outstretched, reeking of banana peels and park benches.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Caleb.”
“Hey Caleb,” I said. “I’m Jace.”
“Jace, like Jason?”
“Yeah, but spelled like in the Expanded StarWars Universe, not like second Robin.”
He was the first person I’d met outside of the comics shop who got the reference. “The son of a rogue, instead of the rogue son.” The wicked grin he’d worn while fighting softened. “You okay?” He glanced down at my forearm.
I didn’t think I was frightened by blood. It wasn’t even much—just a scratch—just—just—the dizziness swept my forehead, and my whole body felt weak. Holy crap they almost flayed me they almost because of Dad they almost they almost…I opened my mouth to say it, but it just didn’t come out.
“Is that a no?” he asked.
I swallowed. I. Wouldn’t. Make. It. Fun. For. Them. If I wasn’t scared, they couldn’t scare my dad, and they lost.
But—but I wanted them to scare Dad! I wanted to get out of here. Of this stupid neighborhood and this stupid high school where my stupid teacher who I trusted let slip in class that I even had a Dad and stupid Jerome, and stupid everyone else who said I wasn’t “black enough” because I was a nerd, as if the math in my brain released neurotoxins that killed my melanin because that made sense oh wait no it didn’t I—
“I’m fine. It’s just a scratch.” I broke my gaze away from it to look Caleb in the face, noticing now for the first time the industrial bar piercing his right ear. “Are you hungry? Because after that I could eat a bookshelf.”
“Yeah—uh, yeah, sure, I haven’t eaten in a while.” His face colored a little, and I guessed he meant a very long while. He wasn’t from around here, and he wasn’t dressed well enough to be a lost tourist, so I pegged him as a runaway easily. From where, I wondered? “Why a bookshelf?” he asked.
“I like books.” I shrugged, and pulled up my hoodie against his inquiring stare, and against the frigid wind tickling my hot cheeks. “Come on, I’ll—I have stuff at home.”
And that’s how I chose to bring a violent stranger into my house.
My breathing slowed, and the chill began to evaporate my sweat as we passed the dingy brush littered with trash, the dead bushes crowded against the alleyway walls, the yellowing grass clinging to the cracks in the unkept whitish half-paved gravel…we turned onto another street, past the big abandoned red brick building on the corner, and for a second I didn’t hate West Baltimore. I always don’t hate West Baltimore when I pass red brick. There’s a lot of it there: the big factory-looking thing, with its lone chimney jutting into the grey sky like a bold, unmoving middle finger thrown up against all the struggle and change and turmoil; the rows of brick apartments huddled side by side like tall thin soldiers shoulder to shoulder against the cold, some of them rounded in the front with feminine bulges and towers and buttresses…all old, old buildings. Sometimes a new mural will go up, or street art that actually means something. That day a black phoenix rose against one of the grey-walled buildings, framed in purple fire.
We’d almost reached my dad’s apartment when we passed a different strain of graffiti, this tag about cops and cop killers, and my shoulders sagged again. I caught Caleb watching my reaction.
“What?” he and I asked at the same time.
He laughed. I sighed.
“You got opinions about that,” he nodded back towards the angry wall-scars. “Mind if I ask what they are?”
“Man, I don’t even know,” I said. “My first day out in driving class I got a DWB—” I paused to see if he’d ask me to explain a “Driving While Black,” but he didn’t, so I continued. “With my teacher in the car, with the car marked Student, and they still made us get out while they patted us down and yelled at me and searched the seats for drugs because I ‘fit a description.’ That guy you just whupped, Jerome? His older brother was shot by cops who broke into the wrong apartment for a drug bust.” I paused, and wondered if I should tell Caleb the root of Jerome’s hatred for me. Caleb was listening so intently, and so openly, that I had to. “My dad’s a police officer.”
“Ah. So you’re caught in the crossfire.”
“No. I’m just minding my own business.” And I didn’t say anything else about that.
My dad and I lived in one of the grey buildings, not a red brick one. Mottled grey outside, greying warped beige stairs, grey stained carpeting that scratched like fingernails on chalkboard against the splintering bottom of our apartment’s door as I opened it. The mildew even smelled grey to me.
“I like your couch,” Caleb said right away. He sounded…a little more passionate than necessary? I looked at him, and back at the orange and yellow plaid ratty sofa that held memories of my Mom, and his expression just made me smile.
“Yeah, it’s ugly isn’t it?” I said. “It reminds me of this comic I read.”
“Yeah, uh…me too.”
We stood there for a second, just staring at the couch, before it became awkward.
“Hey, uh, lemme grab—food—stuff.” I practically ran to the kitchen. I snatched the off-brand not-Oreos off the counter, wrapped my arm around two glasses, and yanked the milk jug out of the fridge.
As I came back into the main room, I found Caleb sitting at the table in the corner of the room, scribbling…with my math book in front of him.
“Oh crap! That’s not—it’s—” I almost dropped the milk on the floor to stop him. Other guys at school took it like a personal offense that I dared to be smarter, or study harder, or whatever it is I did—or, if they were nice, they acted like I had to have some kind of horrible deficit to make up for it. “I bet his Mom ties his shoes…” My school didn’t even offer Calc, so I had to sneak into an independent study period for a correspondence course with the local college just to keep progressing, and I made sure everyone thought I was taking art. My math level was my third most closely guarded secret, after my dad’s job, and now I’d given away two secrets in one day? I knew I shouldn’t care but come on! “Hey, Caleb, that’s not—”
Caleb slid a sheet of loose-leaf across the table.
Hey. Hey, he was like me!
“Yeah, there’s somethin’ calming about Calc, right?” he said. “Like it’s the key to another reality or somethin’.”
I spoke carefully. “Well, relationships between all matter run on differentials of various functions. Math’s the underpinning of the way the world works.”
“Or it’s our way of describing it, and the world doesn’t work on anything.” He lowered his head, and a dark glare glittered under the hair falling over his face.
I swallowed, and looked away from him to pour a glass of milk. Who was this guy, anyway? Weirdo, liking my couch, and beating up my classmate, and doing my math homework—crap, he could probably kill me with this glass, like the Joker in the Dark Knight Returns—
“Hey, I have to study,” I said, trying to indicate that stranger-meeting-time was over now. “Whole bunch of problem sets I have to finish. So…”
Caleb flipped like a coin. It was like the glare never existed; now he grinned like a little boy freshly declaring war on the girls’ treehouse.
“Race you,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “See who can finish your problem sets first. If I win, you gotta tell me why you stole that guy’s wallet.”
No, man, maybe some other time, I really need to concentrate and stuff, it’s been cool but—all the words that could’ve come out of my mouth milled around somewhere between my brain and my sinuses. He was just so happy about my homework. It was easy to get caught up in his excitement.
Then again, I’d learned the hard way to play it safe.
Man, but looking at this guy’s torn jeans—torn because he’d worn them too long, not because he bought them that way—and the mud on the Batman backpack he still hadn’t taken off, and the bruise forming over his cheekbone where it looked like one of Jerome’s buddies had managed to land one—who knew what this kid’s life was like? He probably had a reason for feeling like the world didn’t work on logic. And now I was gonna kick him out?
I couldn’t imagine God smiling down on that.
“Sure,” I said.
And that’s how I chose to befriend the violent stranger. Solving simple differentials became solving substitution equations, which became volume calculation functions, which became paging through the textbook to find harder challenges, and he finished before me every time. He made basic mistakes, like swapping out a minus for a plus, or forgetting to put +C after an integration—mistakes I chalked up to his terrible handwriting that even he couldn’t really read. It wasn’t just chicken-scratch, it was velociraptor-footprint! I teased him about it, and he teased me about always finishing twelve seconds behind him, and in that teasing we drank through three hours, two gallons of milk, and a packet and a half of off-brand Oreos. Evening found us sitting on the couch, my homework complete and Colossus’s wallet long forgotten on the table.
“…Really? No one’s ever told you you look like a comic book character?” I asked.
“I think that’s just you being racist against Asians,” he smirked. “We’re not all alike.”
“Oh shut up, see, now I don’t believe that you read comics. You gotta know who I’m talking about.”
“I mean, I haven’t read one in a while…”
“Hold that thought,” I said, standing. “I’ll be right back.”
I was just gone for a few seconds. Our apartment was small: my room, like my dad’s room and the bathroom, opened up right into the living-slash-dining-room, with no hallways in between. When I returned, arms full of $2 issues, I found Caleb transformed again, hunched over, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. When they talk about people carrying the world on their shoulders, they talk about people who look like that.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’m just…figuring out where Imma stay tonight.”
“I bet my dad will be cool with you crashing here.”
“That might be cool.” He popped another cookie in his mouth. “Whatcha got there?”
I handed him Issue #34. “Dude’s my favorite superhero.”
The transformation, again, was total. Caleb choked, and then coughed, and chugged milk and then put it down and then almost spilled, and he would’ve looked pretty funny if he didn’t look so horrified.
“Holy crap!” He almost knocked me over, grabbing the comic from me in his suddenly clumsy flailing. “Holy…”
Skye: A Walk Through Dymensia #34. It was an older edition, so the aquamarine letters kind of clashed against the dark blue background—they hadn’t quite nailed down a good design yet back then. The superhero, Skye, wore a costume of yet another shade of blue, with a lighter lightning bolt blazing down the back across his shoulders. An electric surge wreathed his ebony gloves, and his boots leapt across empty air. His square face bore that determination you see on all American superheroes, but the softer edges of his chin gave him a younger Japanese look—the original artist had worked as the animator for a popular anime. Skye’s jet-black hair swooshed across his forehead in the wind.
Caleb fluttered through the pages so fast he almost tore them. “Holy crap, it’s a book! It’s all in here, it’s a comic, it’s…”
“What?” I asked. “What’s—” Wrong? Was there something wrong? I—what—“Yeah, uh, it’s a book alright!”
“Is this why they’re not in the news?” he stammered, staring now at a picture of Skye’s teammates, the graceful Black Butterfly and ill-named team leader Robot-man. He flipped the page again. “This is why they’re not in the news! Why they’re not anywhere.”
I had no idea what he meant. “Uh—sometimes the writer’s in, like, entertainment news…”
“They’re not re…” He held his breath, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say the next word, and then he didn’t say it.
They’re not what? Not all bio-mutant-powered like in the later issues? Not drawn by the same guy who did Issue #1? And I thought I got too excited about first editions. Was he— “Hey man, are you okay?”
He fell back against the couch, listless, and let the comic fall open beside him. He didn’t seem to know I was there anymore. One hand clutched his forehead—he breathed fast. “I’m living in a nightmare,” he whispered.
He closed his eyes, grinding his fists against his face now. “No—no, I was living in a nightmare. Now I’m not. Now they’re somewhere. At least they’re not nowhere. They’re in this book.” He breathed. “It’s progress.” He whirled on me. “You said there’s a writer.”
Uh…“All comics have writers.” I swallowed. “You gonna explain yourself?”
He blinked, and stared at me for a second, and opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Then he made a decision. I didn’t know what it was. But I saw his jaw tighten as he forced himself to transform again into the collected, fun guy he’d been for the last hour.
“Sorry—sorry, that was weird, wasn’t it?” he laughed. His laugh was free, and breezy, without a hint of strain in it. Kind of scary how fast he changed. “Sorry. This just reminded me of home.” He was clearly picking his words carefully. “And it’s crazy, you’re right, that guy does look like me. Kind of freaks me out. That’s all that was.”
“Well, okay, but are you—”
The door opened.
Caleb startled, fell off the couch, and rolled to his feet with the coffee-table in his hands like a shield. Cookies flew everywhere. A glass shattered in a spray of milk.
A cop stood in the doorway, cow-juice dripping off his uniform.
Inside the Comic: Skye
Yeah, so what Skye met Thunder by dropping a spaceship on her head? The important thing was that he met her.
Starships screamed in battle around him. The crying crowds below streamed in and out of falling buildings like ants do when you stir up their nests. The crab-shaped ships of the Magnate swooped low over them–
Except the one Skye shocked and dropped. It came sailing and sparking back up to meet him as a girl about his age raised her fists, thin black braids flying around her face like a mane. She roared; sound streamed from her fingers, shoving back against the falling crab. Her green suit sparkled in the shadow of the ship like one of those neon signs you see when you’re out too late on patrol, the ones you shouldn’t look at but can’t help it.
Skye literally tumbled head over heels for her to get out of the way of the broken ship flying back up at him; the heat of its burning engine seared past his face with a blast of rubber-smell. Puff!—he threw wind to land the ship on the roof of a nearby skyscraper. It screeched and sparked as it slid to a stop.
“Go, people, go!” yelled the girl, waving the civilians down towards the subway.
She looked over her shoulder—eyes like lasers focused back at Skye.
Full novel comes out 2017! Stay updated with the webcomic, and see Skye’s world up close and personal, at http://becominghero.ninja/!