Saturday, February 23, 2019

#1: How I Met My First Megahero!

My name’s Clarissa James—although you may know me better as Ms. Megaton Man, if you’ve ever heard of me at all. If you haven’t, that’s all right; I’m not one of the better-known megaheroes out there. But if you happen to have read the book Megasomething, you’re at least familiar with a highly-fictionalized version of me—and a few of my more sensational friends.
     Megasomething was on the bestseller list for the better part of a year, first in hardcover, then in paperback—and I never got a dime of royalties. It was written by someone who used to be my friend—not that I hate her now, exactly, because I knew she was writing a book all along, and I even gave her some background help on it. But she isn’t a megahero herself, and her book is filled with all kinds of distortions and exaggerations, reinforcing all the stereotypes and caricatures civilians already have about the megahero lifestyle. We’re just people, after all. Now I understand they’re turning Megasomething into some kind of TV series or movie or something, which I’m sure will be filled with even more inaccuracies and made-up stuff—none of which, needless to say, has my approval or endorsement.
     I shouldn’t keep mentioning the book’s name; Lord knows it doesn’t need any more publicity. Sure, it’s based on real people and events—there is some truth to it, in other words. But readers won’t know fact from fiction unless somebody sets the record straight—somebody like me who knows what it’s actually like being a megahero. I’m not even a main character in Megasomething, but I was there before the beginning and I saw everything, or most things. Which is why I have to tell you my story—not to give myself a bigger part in the narrative, but to offer a balanced perspective. Maybe my version will turn out to be even more embarrassing—or boring—than what my former friend wrote. I don’t know. But at least it will be the truth—my truth. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
     As I said, my name’s Clarissa, but my family calls me Sissy. My old boyfriend, Yarn Man, started calling me Missy, after I turned into Ms. Megaton Man—but that never caught on. Back in high school, my friends called me CJ, and I still answer to that. But most people just call me Clarissa. I’m not big on nicknames; I’m not all that big on secret identities, either, come to think of it. Maybe I should have been more secretive; honesty’s a tendency I’ve come to regret.
     Okay, so I’ve got a big mouth. But it’s not like I ever planned on being a Megahero. Quite the opposite; I didn’t think a Megahero was something you could want to be, least of all if you were a black girl growing up in Detroit, which is what I am or used to be. But I guess a Megahero is kinda what I am now—I’ve got the blue body suit, the yellow gloves and boots, and the red panties to prove it. Plus, the cute little red cape—which attaches at my collar bones with the cutest little shiny brass buttons—the cape I mean, not the panties. I suppose I should say trunks, not panties, since Megaton Man calls his trunks, and since my uniform is basically the same as his—except I look fit and sporty in mine, and he’s just an out-of-control mass of muscles. But they’re panties if you ask me, even when he wears them; there’s nothing trunk about them.
     I could never do a skirt—it would just blow around when I was flying around and show my panties. Oh, and I have an orange plastic visor, too, which is cool. It goes nice with my caramel-brown skin. How do you like that: caramel-brown. I dye my hair burgundy, too; it’s naturally straight to begin with, because my real father, whoever he is, was white. The man I call Daddy is white, too—he’s Cajun, from New Orleans—he may not be my real daddy, but he’s the only daddy I’ve ever known and the only one I’ll ever love. Like I was saying, the burgundy hair would probably give me away right off the bat, which is one reason I’ve never done much to hide the fact that Ms. Megaton Man is really Clarissa James. What was I supposed to do—wear a cowl like Megaton Man?
     All I did was stick “Ms.” in front of Megaton Man’s name, too, which shows you how seriously I took the whole Megahero thing, at least at the beginning. That drove my sister Avril nuts—not adding the “Ms.” but keeping the “Man”—she could get riled up about language and gender issues and such. Okay, you caught me—Avie’s my half-sister—’cause Mama’s both our mama, and Mama and Avie are both as precious to me as Daddy. But you’ll meet the family later. And we’ll talk more about the Megahero name-thing, too, ‘cause that whole girly issue is raised in Megasomething—and I’ve gotten a lot of grief from my feminist friends over it. My old beau Yarn Man never went for concealing his secret identity as Bing Gloom, either—but what else could he do? He was stuck inside a suit of wool full-time.
     I want you to know I like being a Megahero and everything; at least, I’ve gotten used to it. I can fly, plus I’m mighty strong and I can punch stuff. Not that I want you to think I’ve got an anger management problem, because I don’t—although I do have a temper. Which is almost the same thing. I may even be bulletproof, although that’s never been something I’ve been eager to put to the test, coming from the inner city. But as I say, I never planned on becoming a Megahero; I didn’t think it was something you could plan to be, like earning a degree. I mean, I enjoyed reading about them when I was a kid—the completely fictional ones that were in the funny papers and comic books and Saturday morning cartoons and so forth, or the real ones who occasionally made the news. There weren’t many Megaheroes in Detroit when I was growing up; that was more of a New York thing. Megaheroes in the Megatropolis—that’s what Megaton Man calls New York—occasionally made the national news, and I would read about them in The Detroit Day, our afternoon paper. But I never dreamed of becoming one or anything. I never showed any signs of becoming Ms. Megaton Man until I was already halfway through college.
     I was always a good student. I went to an excellent high school in Detroit, Boswick-Addison, where they made you wear a uniform sweater and a skirt—that’s why I hate skirts—and earned a full scholarship to Arbor State University in Ann Arbor. My freshman year was uneventful—African Americans were still a decided minority at Arbor State in those days, and we mostly hung out at Raeburn Hall, especially kids from inner-city Detroit. Everyone knew everyone else, but I didn’t socialize much in my freshman year, even with other black kids. I was highly studious, as I say; an introverted geek to be completely honest, so I mostly hung out in the undergraduate library all hours doing homework. I hardly even saw my roommate in South Quad—I can’t even remember if I had one. I made the Dean’s list my freshman year no problem—Mama and Daddy were so proud—and Honors Society too, although it was no big deal. At that point, becoming a Megahero was the furthest thing from my mind. I don’t think I even saw a comic book at all in those days, although I heard there was a comic shop on the second floor on State Street, near the McNichols Arcade. Like I said, it was an uneventful freshman year.
     Things changed at the beginning of my sophomore year, however. I had spent the summer back home in Detroit, and just got back to Ann Arbor in late August, before Labor Day. I was standing in the long registration line for classes—you had register with computer punch cards and the whole bit in those days—and there was this girl in line in front of me. A real tall, pretty girl, white and blonde, a bit older than the average student, maybe late twenties. She told me her name was Stella Starlight—which I didn’t believe at first, by the way—and she said she was registering as a freshman. This line we were in was like a mile long, so we got to talking. Turns out she had just arrived from New York and thought she would take some classes, since it happened to be a college town. I thought that was odd; I mean how many people come to Ann Arbor and say to themselves, “Say, this is a college town—I may as well take some classes while I’m at it?” But she said it was an afterthought; she just desperately wanted to get out of New York, and happened to be tagging along with somebody who was going to be a teacher at Arbor State semester.
     Well, it turns out the teacher was no less a light than Pamela Jointly, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about real-life Megaheroes for The Manhattan Project—all about the gender stereotypes they represented in popular culture, and their psycho-sexual hang-ups, and the political implications on U.S. foreign policy of having over-muscled guys like Megaton Man working for the federal government and all that. Pammy had gotten tired of writing about Megaheroes all the time in her controversial column—she had started out as a girl reporter getting kidnapped by crooks just for a scoop when Megaton Man would rescue her, and falling out of tenth-story windows just to be caught by Megaton Man, that sort of thing—and had accepted a gig as a guest lecturer in the journalism department instead. Which I guess would be a lot quieter and more relaxing, and less risky. Pamela Jointly was going to disappear into academia, as it were. When she decided to split New York City, Stella decided to make a break for it, too.

I didn’t have time to ask Stella how she knew a Pulitzer Prize-winning controversial columnist who wrote about Megaheroes for a New York newspaper, because by then we had made it through the long line and finally got to register for classes. Afterwards, I caught up with her out on the Diag; we walked across campus together to the bookstore to get our textbooks and stuff. It was August, as I say, and sill hot outside; we were both wearing shorts. And in the bright sunshine—as opposed to that dark auditorium where we had to register for classes—I realized everybody was looking at us, guys and gals. And they weren’t looking at runty me; they were looking at Stella, who was tall and blonde and beautiful. Like a statue, or a movie star. Or a statue of a movie star.
     I asked Stella how she had come to know a controversial columnist who wrote about Megaheroes. Then she laid it on me: She said she had actually been a Megahero in New York City herself—a factoid I was prepared to believe at this point, along with the name Stella Starlight, just based on the looks she was getting. But she said she’d gotten burned out on the whole thing. “No kidding!” I said. “Really? A Megahero? What character were you?”
     I remember she took some sunglasses out of her purse and put them on, like she didn’t want to be recognized. “I used to be the See-Thru Girl,” she said, kind or whispering. “I was the wallflower on a team of Megaheroes called the Megatropolis Quartet.”
     I tried to think if I had ever heard of them, but the name didn’t ring a bell.
     “But I was always the damsel in distress and that sort of thing,” said Stella. “My Megapowers, such as they were, were all but useless in a fight scene. The three guys in the group were more the macho take-charge types. That’s what Pammy and I had in common—we both had our fill of that whole male Megahero thing.”
     “I get it,” I said. “So, you were the eye-candy. But you must have some Megapowers.” I suddenly very curious. “What were they? Did you lose them? Could you become transparent like a living glass statue or something?”
     “No, I didn’t lose them,” said Stella. “I can turn naked with but a thought.”
     I asked her to explain, because I didn’t quite understand what “turning naked with but a thought”—a flowery phrase—necessarily entailed. But basically, Stella Starlight could make her clothes instantly disappear anytime she wanted too. And sometimes when she didn’t.
     Now, I didn’t know much about Megaheroics or anything, but turning naked with but a thought didn’t seem to me like much of a Megapower. Heck, even I could turn myself naked—all I had to do was take my clothes off. As if anybody wanted to see my scrawny little body.
     I wanted to ask her if her clothes came back afterward, but I was afraid the See-Thru Girl might actually demonstrate her Megapowers right there on the Diag—which would have been mortifying for me. I was the kind of person who was too shy to change in front of other girls in a locker room, with my flat chest and robust bottom, as my mama called it—let alone have someone as beautiful as Stella expose herself right there in the middle of campus.
     “The other guys in the group could turn to water,” she told me, “or become a nuclear chain-reaction; one was just a man made of yarn.” She thought these were exciting powers—more exciting than turning naked—which I failed to see. No wonder I never heard of them; the Megatropolis Quartet seldom made news outside of New York City tri-state area. A group of losers like that—even with a beautiful movie-star female who could turn naked with but a thought—wouldn’t make the family newspapers in Detroit, let alone the network news.
     So, I changed the subject: what did Stella Starlight plan on studying, now that she was in college? Quantum mechanics—I swear to God—she told me so, with a straight face. Turns out she had interned with the fellow who got all sloshy—whom she insisted was some brilliant scientist—as a junior, and had just never completed her college studies.
     Now, I should say that Stella was nice and all, but had struck me as bit of an airhead at first. Maybe it was because she was blonde and pretty, or maybe it was because she was a fish out of water. After all, she hadn’t left the skyscraper headquarters of the Megatropolis Quartet for a number of years, except to fight monsters and aliens and so forth. She didn’t have a very intellectual vocabulary, and she seemed confused that there were no Megaheroes crawling the walls or flying around Ann Arbor.
     But I was impressed that she had such lofty ambitions. It had to take a lot of guts to leave behind what you know and try something totally different.
     “Specifically, I’d like to study various theories of trans-dimensional realities,” she said. “Especially since I’ve actually visited a couple myself.” Turns out her adoptive father, who was quite a bit older than his wife, had ended his long, distinguished career as a scientist by teaching quantum mechanics at Arbor State before he retired. She had never visited or been to Ann Arbor, being a virtual prisoner all that time in New York, but had always heard what a good department they had.
     Now I was getting it; Ann Arbor hadn’t been a complete accident. Seymour Starlight had been big deal in the sciences—not that I would have ever heard of him—and Stella planned on using her family contacts to jumpstart, or resume, her college career. Or so I thought. But she said she had registered under the name Sternlicht—which seemed kinda German and Aryan and Master-Race-y, given she was a tall, blonde goddess—because she didn’t want to trade on the Starlight name. She hadn’t even told her aging parents, who were somewhere in Michigan, that she was even in the state yet. How she was going to transfer credits from her old school was a mystery—I guess she had been Stella Sternlicht there, too.
     So, we got our textbooks at Border Worlds Used and Slightly New Bookstore on State Street, which weighed a ton—and it was hot, and we were tired and thirsty. We stopped at an outdoor café along South University, which was in the direction of both South Quad where I lived, and the apartment the journalism department provided for Pammy where Stella lived. We had a couple of beers.
     Naturally I had to ask Stella all about her life as a Megahero—it’s amazing how you meet someone and right off the bat you start telling your whole life story. This headquarters of the Megatropolis Quartet must have been absolutely wild. Stella explained some of the crazy gizmos they had in their laboratory, which took up the whole top floor of some skyscraper somewhere in mid-town Manhattan. And this Liquid Man—like her father, some much older scientist whom she ended up marrying—had developed something called the Time Turntable, which could not only take trips through time, but also cross all sorts of dimensions. He and Yarn Man were pals from way back, and had put a lot of miles on this Time Turntable over the years, even before Stella interned for Mr. Sloshy-Britches. Rex and Bing were the mainstays; a number of secondary characters came and went from the Quartet over the years before Stella and her half-brother, the Human Meltdown, joined the group.
     We were on our third beers while she was telling me all this, about how Liquid Man—real name Rex Rigid—romanced her, and eventually they got married. And how Bing—that is, Yarn Man—was best man at the wedding, and how her younger brother Chuck Roast, the Human Meltdown—that’s another long story—worked his way through all the bridesmaids. They were mutant Megaheroines—boy, do I hate that word—and I guess this Chuck was kind of a good-looking, charming guy, quite the ladies’ man.
     There wasn’t very much I could say about my life—I had just been a studious student at a good high school in Detroit, had a younger sister with lighter skin who was studying drama at Warren Woodward University, and had never even left my own dimension. So, I just kept asking Stella about her life as a Megahero, and why she suddenly decided to give it all up.
     Turns out there was this fellow Megaton Man, who I’ve already mentioned, who had broken her heart. “Now wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you married the sloshy guy who could turn to liquid, the big-shot father-figure scientist.” Okay, I didn’t say the father-figure part, but I was thinking it.
     “I did,” said Stella. “I married Liquid Man, also known as Mister Waterballoon. But as you can imagine, we couldn’t consummate anything. He was kind of—what do you call—flaccid.”
     Now, you may not think black people can blush, but I sure was blushing when she told me that. I was still a virgin at the time, even though I was a freaking sophomore in college. I know, I’m something of a late bloomer—tell me about it. But the fact that Professor Rex Rigid couldn’t get it up was embarrassing, not to mention hysterical. I both blushed and almost died, trying not to laugh.
     “Not that that kind of thing was important to me,” said Stella. No, of course not. Why would physical intimacy be important to this statuesque Goddess of Love? “I was in love with his mind, or at least I thought I was. But then one day I met Megaton Man—and zing went the strings of my heart.”
     I was beginning to think all New Yorkers were named after corny old songs, and quoted corny old songs, but she was being sincere. She told me how Megaton Man came into her life back during the Bicentennial—all red, yellow, and blue and rippling with muscles. Actually, even I had heard something about Megaton Man, even in Detroit; he was supposed to be America’s Nuclear-Powered Hero of something.
     Turns out Stella met Megaton Man while the Quartet was flying around in their flying car near the Statue of Liberty—on Bicentennial Day, no less; the Quartet didn’t know at first whether the Man of Molecules was friend or foe. The Human Meltdown, who I guess also thought himself America’s Nuclear-Powered Hero because he could turn into a blobby mass of radioactive protoplasm and fly and everything, took him on. I guess he was thinking New York was only big enough for one Megahero who was an atomic disaster waiting to happen.
     It seems Megaton Man and the Human Meltdown went at it toe-to-toe, after which they decided each was pretty darned good with their fists and atoms and so forth, and decided to be friends. And sometime during the melee Megs got a good look at Stella, too, although not enough for the Human Meltdown to notice—that might have prolonged the fight—and I Megaton Man kinda liked what he saw, even though she was wearing clothes, or at least her Quartet uniform, at the time.
     So, Megaton Man started finding excuses to drop by the Megatropolis Quartet laboratory from time to time, more and more, every chance he got—to use the Time Turntable to go back in time, or to ask Rex Rigid technical advice about his goggles or brass buttons and so on. But it was all just a flimsy pretext to ogle the See-Thru Girl, who didn’t have to even turn naked with but a thought to be ogled, since Megaton Man could see with his very own scanner-vision goggles to his heart’s content. Before long, Megaton Man and Stella were secretly going “On Patrol” at night together, flitting about the skyline of Megatropolis, which was all lit up so romantically, well into the wee hours. And I guess before long things started getting physical, which is to say right off the bat—it was lust at first sight. Again, I blush to think about a couple of Megaheroes “doing it” on some rooftop, although it’s cool to think about losing it under a twinkling, celestial canopy. I know, I’m corny too.
     Well, I guess Megaton Man rocked her world, because Stella made up her mind she was going to leave Rex and the Quartet, right then and there.
     What happened next, from what Stella described, came as something of a shock to Megaton Man. The next day, the See-Thru Girl packed her bags and up and left the Quartet headquarters and tracked down the Man of Molecules, who was right in the middle of a fight scene. Well, needless to say, he balked at the whole idea—who can blame him, being caught off-guard like that. Fooling around was one thing, apparently, but a relationship was a big commitment to spring on a guy all of sudden—even virginal me knew that. But poor Stella was heartbroken –– and now she had to go crawling back to sloshy, old, flaccid Rex.
     Well, not long after that, Doctor Software threatened the fair city—including not only Megaton Man and the Megatropolis Quartet, but controversial columnist Pamela Jointly, whom he’d kidnapped—with some Contraptoid robot-thing he had built. After this Dr. Software was defeated, Stella and Pammy took one look at each other and decided they’d had enough. So, they commandeered the Megatropolis Quartet station wagon and drove all the way to Ann Arbor, hardly stopping on the Ohio Turnpike.
     And here I was, sitting in the Drowned Mug Café, with this beautiful blonde who just a few weeks earlier had been a glamorous Megahero in New York, who had given up that life of excitement for textbooks and term papers and sweatshirts silkscreened with the Arbor State Abyssinian Wolves mascot on the front.

Archival Images:

A 2019-2020 drawing reimagining a panel from Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, June 1985), featuring the first meeting of Clarissa James and Stella Starlight recounted in this chapter.

A 2019-2020 drawing reimagining a panel from Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, June 1985), featuring the first meeting of Clarissa James and Stella Starlight recounted in this chapter.

Spoiler alert: A big battle is in Clarissa's future!

Clarissa James, Ms. Megaton Man; sketchbook drawing, 2012.

Clarissa and Stella meet in Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1985).

Megaton Man and the Megatropolis Quartet with the Time Turntable in Megaton Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, December 1984).

Megaton Man and Stella Starlight on the cover of Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, June 1984).

Clarissa and Stella in a recolored panel from Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, April 1985).

All characters, character names, likenesses, words and pictures on this page are ™ and © Don Simpson 2019, all rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment