If there were a billboard advertising you, what would it say?” The final question of the Residential College Adviser application was the one I thought about the most, and I was actually rather proud of my answer. While the application was ultimately unsuccessful, I am glad I underwent the process, because a good friend of mine made a diorama of my billboard that now sits on my windowsill. The image he made became my profile picture for a couple months.
The foreground of my billboard is dominated by two things. One is a quote from my co-favorite novel, The Grapes of Wrath: “A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one… then I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.” The other is an image of my face, with half of a Spider-Man mask superimposed over it. Only later did I realize what I had done: I was representing who I am as the composite of two fictional characters. And I feel good about that.
Peter Parker and Jim Casy (although technically the above quote is from Tom Joad, he prefaces it with “Maybe like Casy says”; it’s an articulation of Casy’s ideas) are without doubt two of the most influential figures of my life, despite the fact that neither one exists. I was eight years old when Spider-Man came out, and it was pretty much the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Two years later, Spider-Man 2 somehow managed to be even better. I went to Barnes & Noble and splurged all of my limited funds on collections of old Spider-Man comics, which I have since read and reread countless times. It’s easy to see what my younger self found so identifiable: Peter Parker was a science nerd, smarter than everyone else, not the most socially adept but often quite funny, athletic and acrobatic, dedicating his life to helping others. In short, he was everything I wanted to be.
Those first two Spider-films are among the most-watched in my personal collection, and as I’ve grown older I’ve become conscious that there is more to my affinity than my own similarity to the character. Toward the beginning of the second film, Dr. Otto Octavius (shortly before plunging into villainy) tells Peter, “Intelligence is not a privilege; it’s a gift, to be used for the good of mankind.” It’s a variation on the running theme of “With great power comes great responsibility,” and it struck a chord with me: I had always known I was intelligent, but Spider-Man gave me a purpose for it. I had a gift, and I was to use it for the good of mankind. I don’t think that the impact this had on the development my personal code of ethics should be underestimated. My friends all know of my infatuation with Spider-Man, and regular Nass readers may have noticed I mention him in almost every other article, often where it might seem quite irrelevant. But this is not simply an attempt at humor (although I confess it often is partly that); I legitimately look at the world through the lens of the Spider-Man mythos.
My relationship with Jim Casy is only slightly shorter, but it took a while to get going. The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath was just after elementary school, and while I remember really liking it, I was not yet in a place where I was ready for Casy’s philosophy. That would have to wait until eleventh grade.
In tenth grade, I was confirmed in the Catholic Church. Throughout the confirmation process, I had been encouraged to think and reflect on my faith and my relationship with Christ. This was perhaps not the best strategy for keeping me in the religion: entering eleventh grade, I wasn’t quite sure what I believed in, but it certainly wasn’t Catholicism. Luckily, AP English III had a strong focus on various faith-influenced writings throughout American history: we began with the Puritans, moved into the deistic work of the founding fathers, delved into Walden and transcendentalism, and finally looked at Hemingway and the growing atheism of the 20th century. All of these schools of thought held a strong attraction for me, and at one point or another I identified with all of them (except maybe Puritanism), but it wasn’t until John Steinbeck and Jim Casy that things started to come into focus.
Jim Casy was a former preacher who lost his faith because he followed his thoughts. “Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible,” he explains to Tom Joad. He espoused a fiercely humanistic outlook, implying a doctrine of the transcendental Over-Soul—an energy shared by all humans. I hung on every word that came out of his mouth; as I would write a few months later in my Common App essay: “Reading this character opened my eyes, and something inside me that I had yet to understand finally clicked. He was to me at once a blueprint for living and an unattainable ideal.” (And then I basically just quoted Jim Casy for a few paragraphs and called it a college application.) You hear stories of people finding Jesus Christ, and their lives changing forever. Well, I found a different JC.
So there you have it: Spider-Man shaped my moral development and Jim Casy laid the philosophical groundwork for my transition into adulthood. Just last week, writing an article about running for charity, there were several passages where, while I wrote, I was very aware that my thoughts were strongly influenced by some combination of the two. I look to them sometimes when I struggle, because I find it easy and comforting to relate their lives to my own. They affect my life more than the overwhelming majority of the real, flesh-and-blood humans I have met. What I wanted to know was: is this weird?
“No,” Scot Tasker told me, puzzled and almost offended that I would even ask. He wore a “Disi-Fan” t-shirt, and his walls were adorned with a Ravenclaw banner and posters of Marvel characters and One Direction. “I feel very much identified by what I like, and what pop culture things I take seriously. Which is most things.”
Scot was one of three fellow fiction aficionados I sat down and talked with, all of whom had unique stories to tell. I was fascinated to hear about Scot’s relationship with Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods: to a nine-year-old boy struggling with being gay, she was a “reassurance that I could be feminine and be…that happy, perky, pink person, and still be successful.”
I also thoroughly enjoyed learning that Susannah Sharpless was convinced that she was magical. “People told me I was special a lot because I was smart and good at reading,” she explained. If she had learned anything from all that reading, it was that there are a lot of pre-pubescents who possess magic powers without knowing it, and it made sense that she would be one of them. “I’d look at pencils and think I can move this—think I could read people’s minds.”
And I was intrigued by Brian Reiser, who explained that whenever he “start[s] thinking of different approaches to life, different moral topics, moral frameworks, I may naturally think of Watchmen. I definitely identify with Rorschach, and not necessarily with his violence but with his commitment to principle above all else, which totally reflects my own ideology.”
We all had different stories of how the fictional had affected us. Each one was interesting in itself, but what I was most stricken by was the different ways we all tried to make sense of it.
I realized almost immediately that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I will not be able to fully explore all of the points brought up by Scot, Susannah, and Brian within this article. But I’ll do my best.
Susannah’s taste for the supernatural was tied to “the idea of an outcast, awkward, ostracized, sidelined child finding there’s a reason, and that reason is that she’s special.” It’s a trope that appears in countless children’s/young adult fantasy novels, and I’m sure it’s gotten many a kid through middle school. (Discovering magical powers also works well as a metaphor for puberty, Susannah suddenly realized at the beginning of our discussion.) Her favorite example of this was Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, which I had not even heard of. She thinks a lot of the appeal was in the protagonists: “Four girls [who] were really good, feminist, did everything on their own…They struggled, they were human just like me.” Susannah was the kind of girl that “did a lot of staring at older girls,” envisioning what her life would be like. In Circle of Magic, she found the perfect role models.
But perhaps there is an element of arbitrariness in it all. “Maybe it was just the first time I’d read a book like that,” she says about Pierce’s work. With regards to another childhood favorite—the Mediator series—she admits that she enjoyed it in large part because the main character was named Susannah, and “She was really pretty and boys really liked her and there was a hot ghost named Jessie who liked her.”
I mentioned this to Scot, who told me, “It depends a lot on where you’re at when you’re first exposed to a character. Take Elle Woods, when I was nine. Let’s say there’s some static core of me that contains positivity that Elle Woods is always going to speak to. But it’s even more so a product of where I was.” I had seen this in my relationship with Jim Casy: the first time I read him, I was not in the right place, and thus his influence was somewhat muted. To Scot, however, the character itself is less important than what that character represents.
Pop culture is a tool of self-expression. It has value in large part because everyone understands it: citing X-Men’s Jean Grey as an inspiration is not only true, but useful, because it automatically tells a large segment of the population information about you in a way that citing, say, your uncle wouldn’t do. Maybe we turn to fictional characters to portray ourselves not because they are the most accurate, but because they are the most efficient. For Scot’s association with the pop culture figures, “As much as it is genuine, it is a conscious adaptation of that character into the way I present myself.” I reflect upon my own obsession with Spider-Man; I do truly love the character, but I must confess I also love being “the Spider-Man guy.”
Brian Reiser has seen his own appreciation for fictional worlds feed itself. He talked to me of “Parks and Recreation”’s Ben Wyatt, “because he’s like a nerd, he’s a gigantic Star Wars fan, watches ‘Game of Thrones,’ plays all these board games, shares all of my interests and somehow manages to function in normal society…the conception of the socially adjusted nerd is not one that comes up that often successfully and accurately, and it does for him.” While I have never seen “Parks and Rec,” my heart is warmed to hear that the pop culture junkie—so often treated with derision on camera by the very people he loves—has been granted some measure of validity. Those who love nerdy things now have a guy who loves nerdy things as a character on another somewhat nerdy thing who they can relate to. We have won.
But Brian also sees value in fictional characters that we can’t relate to as much, but who satisfy some impulses in us that we can’t (acceptably) carry out in real life. He suggests the aforementioned Rorschach along with Danaerys Targaryen and even Emperor Palpatine as characters he finds “extremely attractive” but only at a distance. “I would not make the same decisions” as a Sith lord, he assures me.
Brian is the only one to bring up video games, which is a whole different dynamic. I learn from him that Link, the hero of the Legend of Zelda games, was given his name intentionally because “the developers attempt to make him an empty vessel in to which you can pour your own personality”—a ‘link’ between player and game. And it worked: throughout the various Zelda games Brian has come to feel a real attachment to the character, even though a lot of this is just his own projection of self. I haven’t played enough video games to comment intelligently on this phenomenon, but I think this is just a more explicit version of what happens in other forms of fiction. It’s quite possible that some of the traits I find most identifiable about Spider-Man are traits that I have assigned to him myself, that the creators did not necessarily intend for him to have. Bu he is a model close enough to me that all of my projections fit.
Susannah, Scot, and Brian had other interesting thoughts and anecdotes, and I will share one more from Scot. The first thing he brought up was One Direction, whom he loves unironically. (Their happy, upbeat music helped bring him out of a dark time.) “I only really know them as fictional characters,” he said. “They’re still being branded. They’re ridiculously photoshopped in…all of their pictures. Meeting them would be weird.” This brings up a number of questions about our celebrity culture that I don’t have room for here, but again, my thoughts returned to Spider-Man, and to my favorite comedian, Cracked.com writer Dan O’Brien.
Dan O’Brien (or “DOB”) writes most of his articles from the perspective of himself, and appears in many videos also as himself. He is sweaty, nerdy, socially awkward, and obsessed with pop culture generally, and Spider-Man specifically. He exploits these things to great comedic effect, and I’ve discussed with my friends how much we’d get along if we met in real life. Then, through lucky circumstance and the efforts of one of those friends, I talked with him on the phone for about a minute and a half a couple months ago.
“I hear you think we’d be best friends,” he began.
Dumbfounded, I started to stutter. “Yeah, well at least I would be with the fictionalized version of you presented on the site,” I responded stupidly. I didn’t understand entirely what I meant by that until I talked to Scot about One Direction. We can’t read people’s minds, and so everything we see is a projected persona. With family and friends we can get to know the person behind the persona, but most of the world we interact with is essentially fictional.
If everything is fiction, is fiction everything? Excuse my making such a large jump but, in a sense, Jim Casy and Spider-Man are just as real to me as Gandhi or Amelia Earhart or da Vinci or anyone else you want to idolize can be to you. There are those who would say that holy books are the prime example of literature having such influence—the objective truth of the books is immaterial compared to what they teach us about ourselves. I am hardly the first to recognize the connection between fiction and religion—to name just a few particularly prominent recent examples, the theme is explored to some extent or another in Book of Mormon, Life of Pi, and my friend from high school’s blog (it’s called “Story is God”). But this comparison sounds especially apt to my ears. My two favorite fictional worlds—Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and the Salinas Valley as presented in Steinbeck’s East of Eden—are directly modeled after the Bible.
So when the USG announced that the Garden Theater would be screening each Lord of the Rings film, one per night, a couple weekends ago, I knew I had to go. Yes, I had seen them before multiple times, and yes, I owned them on DVD, but the chance to immerse myself in a theater environment among fellow fans was one I couldn’t pass up. The experience was not quite everything I’d hoped for; there were some technical issues during Fellowship, I didn’t end up going to Two Towers, and the crowd at Return of the King was annoyingly into the Frodo-and-Sam-are-gay theory, but walking back from the first one everything still felt right. I reflected upon how lovingly and methodically the world is established, and how happy it still makes me feel.
There are those who would call going to those movies a wildly irresponsible waste of a Thursday and Saturday night, and I definitely lost a lot of sleep the next week because of it. But the self-contained world of Middle-Earth is what I use to gain insight into who people are and how they work. I can carry this knowledge into the more complex problems of reality. As Brian put it, “I think you’re thinking of a larger truth about fiction which is that it can somehow reveal reality in a way that reality cannot. We can improve our understanding through that simulation.”
Similarly, it can be difficult to truly find oneself. The human mind is an intricate creature that cannot completely comprehend itself. Maybe I like Spider-Man and Jim Casy because they show me who I am: I am who I like because who I like is me.