Have a look at the first chapter of Unusual Events‘ novella: SUPER MODEL.
I just flat loved “Supermodel,” because it seems to be the very best explanation of superhero stories and superhero fan stories. Did you ever wonder why Superman didn’t just go smash the enemies of America? This story explains all that.
—”Papa Pat” Patterson
I was six when I first saw him. Not in person, no. That didn’t come until much later. The first time I saw him was on the television; our old, beat-up, projection TV. One of the big ones with the screen that made a fun zip noise if you pulled your fingernail across it? Nowadays such a large screen doesn’t seem like much, but at the time it was my father’s pride and joy.
Anyway, I was six when it happened. I was sitting in the living room of our small apartment, my toys scattered across the floor as I played with them. I was acting out a superhero rescue of some kind, saving of one of my toys from a burning building or a wrecked car or something else like that. Even as a young girl I was always fascinated by the idea of heroes.
That was when the news report my father was watching switched, and my world changed. At that age, a television was just so much mindless droning most of the time unless there was something I wanted to watch on it. But for once, for the first time in my little world, the newscaster had said something I’d wanted to hear. She’d said the word absolutely guaranteed to get my six-year old self’s attention.
Looking back, I don’t honestly remember much. I’ve seen the video dozens if not hundreds of times since that breaking story, memorized every frame and every detail. I can tell you exactly what was going on and what was stolen—or at least what the investigative reports concluded. But at the time, to my six-year old self? That didn’t matter. Words were words. Boring, grown-up stuff.
No, what mattered—and what I remember—was that shining grey figure striding across the street. I remember pressing my hands up to the screen in excitement, my father chiding me to get away from it before I ruined my eyes. I remember watching in awestruck amazement as this armored figure, this … superhero … took down a whole contingent of black marketeers. At the time, I didn’t even know what “black marketeers” meant, only that it had to be bad because a superhero—a genuine, honest, real superhero—was going up against them, right there in my home city. I watched with childlike glee, cheering as he casually took down each one of the “bad guys” with quick, almost-impossible-to-see strikes, bullets bouncing off of his armor—a fact that one of the newscasters kept coming back to.
I didn’t care. All I cared about was that our city—my city—was home to something amazing. An honest, genuine super hero.
I talked about it for days. Looking back, I’m fairly certain I must have driven my parents nearly mad with my constant babble. As a six-year old, I’d already been heavily invested in the global phenomena of superheroes: I had their posters, their action figures, even the little children’s books talking about who they were and what they did. I could already recite most of the origin stories from memory—or at least the ones we knew. I could tell you how many pounds-per-square-inch Acrobat’s fists could hit with, or how many annual crimes per year Magma was associated with stopping … not that I honestly understood what some of that meant at the time. But it was cool, and to a six-year old, when something is cool, it’s everything.
And all of the sudden, here was this new addition to the collection. There was a new superhero for me to be obsessed with. And he was in my city. My toys took on new identities, new personas, one of them always “The Hero in Grey,” as the city had started to call him (after a particularly lengthy civil lawsuit involving a newscaster’s poorly chosen temporary superhero moniker, news agencies had wisely decided to ask heroes what their names were rather than assigning them one, and so “Hero in Grey” was as close as we got for the next year or two).
My parents, bless them both, just rolled with it. I seem to recall there was some discussion about my newfound fascination, but it didn’t matter much to me at that age. Plus, I don’t think my parents saw any harm in it. The Hero in Grey had done something good, after all. He’d interrupted a heavily-armed heist of expensive, hard-to-find scientific equipment and helped capture most of the criminals involved, though some of them had still gotten away with a selection of valuable devices. But he’d done his best. He was a hero.
But to me, most of all, he was our hero. And even at a young age, I knew we needed it.
Life moved on, and eventually for most the furor died off. The news found new stories, new events of interest to fixate on. There was this thing called the internet that promised to be the next big step in business. There were cute animals to report on. Weather.
But every so often, our hero would show up again, and every time he did my little heart would soar.
It wasn’t until I was nine that things started to switch for me. Up until then, the Hero in Grey—or Wanderer, as he’d called himself during some lucky, five-second shot someone had gotten with a video camcorder—had just been a hero, someone I could look up to. Someone that was out there, trying to make our city a better place, even if we rarely saw him do it.
But I still remember that day vividly. I was in school when it happened—the almighty fourth grade—and my birthday had been the weekend prior, so I was wearing my new Wanderer t-shirt. I’d been so excited to get it for my birthday, and I’d known it had been a stretch. Looking back, my family was probably worse off than I remember it being. To me, a little girl, money was stuff that adults usually worried about. I knew that my father had been laid off, and that both he and my mother were working hard to make up for it, but I didn’t understand. Looking back, asking for an expensive, branded item like a Wanderer t-shirt had probably been rough on my parents, who were struggling to keep our rent up and keep food on the table.
But they’d done it anyway. I never found out how. Between the payments to the landlord, the utility companies, the “insurance,” and everything else, they still managed to save up enough money for me to have that t-shirt.
That t-shirt was what drove the whole switch.
It was lunch. I was sitting with a few of my friends, eating the meal I’d brought from home—jerk beef patties, one of my mother’s specialties—when one of the other girls came and stood next to my table. I don’t remember her name, but she was one of those girls who was always on top of everything. The kind that always had the newest shoes, the nicest hair, and her own little group of followers who supported her with everything.
We got tense immediately. We were young, but we weren’t stupid, and we could see that she’d come over to make trouble. She looked around the table, making sure that she’d gotten everyone’s attention before she spoke. Then she looked right at me.
“You’re wearing a Wanderer t-shirt?” she asked, a mocking tone in her voice. Had I been smart, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. This girl was the type who’d say anything just to get a rise out someone. She probably went into politics or talk radio later … I’ve honestly never checked. The conversation is what stuck with me.
“Yeah, so?” I asked, half a beef patty still in my hand. “He protects the city.”
“No he doesn’t,” the girl replied, giving me that matter-of-fact-you’re-an-idiot look that nine and ten year olds can manage so well. “He doesn’t do anything.”
“Yes he does,” I said, the patty still in my hands. “He saves people. Stops robberies.”
“Oh?” the girl asked, cocking her head to one side and twirling her long, brown hair around one finger. “Really? When was the last time he saved someone?”
She had me there. “I don’t know,” I muttered, taking a bite out of my patty.
“That’s because he doesn’t,” she said with a sneer. “He’s not a hero. He’s just some guy in a dumb suit.”
She’d touched a nerve. “No he’s not!” I said, speaking through a half-full mouth. “He came here because he wants to protect us!” At this point I should have sensed that the tables near us were starting to get quiet, the other kids sensing a powder-keg situation. “And his suit’s not dumb. It’s cool.”
“No, it’s stupid,” she said, making a face at me. “And so’s Wanderer. And so are you if you’re going to wear a t-shirt with—”
That was when I jumped up and hit her. Right in the mouth. Everything after that was just chaos and shouting teachers as I went after her.
I got suspended. Starting a fight is bullying, after all. Or so my teachers told me. Whatever-her-name-was played it for all she was worth, too, and I got into big trouble. She got off scot free. I remember wishing for few weeks afterwards that every time she gave me a smug look the real Wanderer would show up, just to tell her she was wrong.
My parents weren’t too happy with it either, though my mother at least admitted that it sounded like it had been a pretty good punch. They weren’t entirely unsympathetic to my version of events, so I at least had computer access while I was stuck at home, suspended.
I didn’t use it for what they expected me to, though. They handed me my homework and ran off to work, leaving me alone in the house with very specific instructions on what to do and what not to do. I was allowed to use the computer if I needed it for an assignment, but other than that, I was to read a book or watch television.
I didn’t do either. At least not the way they expected. Oh, I read my assignments and did all my work, but as soon as that was done, I moved to step two. I’d done a lot of thinking to myself about why I’d gotten in trouble, and the more I’d thought about it, the more it had all come down to one moment.
She’d asked me the last time Wanderer had saved someone, and I hadn’t known. I hadn’t been able to say anything, give any numbers, any evidence that I was right—and my nine-year-old mind knew I was! I just didn’t know.
That was the switch, the moment Wanderer stopped being someone that my young mind looked up to and started being someone I was curious about. I actually felt guilty, sitting there at home, all alone. Guilty that I couldn’t defend my hero. Wanderer was our city’s very own superhero, a figure who had cared enough about us that he wanted to protect us, but when the time had come, I hadn’t been able to defend him.
That changed after my suspension. While my parents were at work and I was home alone, I did my homework and then went right to learning everything I could about Wanderer. We didn’t have the internet, so I used the digital encyclopedia on my parent’s computer. When that failed to deliver, I switched to books. Newspapers. I got my mom to walk me to the library so I could look up research on superheroes, digging into every book I could find and quickly making my way to the adult section when it became clear I wouldn’t find anything more in the children’s.
Nine weeks later, I gave my first presentation to the class about Wanderer, and I got a smug sense of satisfaction directing several areas of my report at whatever her name was. She glowered at me through the whole speech. I think she moved not long after that.
I didn’t care. I’d made the jump from superhero fan to superhero geek. I was learning everything there was to know about Wanderer. The problem was … there wasn’t actually much to know. I hit a wall after about a year.
Two years after that, my father died.