“Life is full of choices," says punk rocker and activist Henry Rollins, "if you have the guts to go for it."
The thing about choices, though, is that we make them all the time without realizing it. The decisions that matter don't come as neat, freeze-framed challenges laid before us—they present themselves years after we've already made them, in the form of memories, regrets, and as tightening gooseflesh, synaptic trails lighting up the dark corners of experience.
On an evening warmed by the summer sun and the chaos of home, a few weeks before the start of 4th grade, I did something that didn't become a choice until years later. I grabbed a comic book from my brother.
It was one thing to be be permitted into Russell's inner sanctum; it was another thing entirely to be allowed to sit among his collection, all carefully spread out across his floor. The Amazing Spiderman and The Avengers by the dozen; covers featuring Judge Dredd, all the way from England. Touching the cover of J. M. DeMatteis's Moonshadow, I sang the Cat Stevens song with the same title, instinctively drawing the connection. Russell raised his eyebrow, and I stopped; best keep him happy if I didn't want to wear out my welcome.
"You can only borrow one," he said, as I leafed through the fanned-out books, all glossy covers and cheap newsprint. He was merely asserting the limited promise he'd struck with our mom, a bargain born from some typical, trivial childhood sharing dispute that both of us had already forgotten. Perhaps, in another world, another me delved deeper into Moonshadow or discovered Alan Moore early in the pages of Warrior or Swamp Thing. But what caught my eye—a 4th-grade female eye at the earliest threshold of maturity—was nothing like anything I'd ever seen before. A flaxen figure with ears pointed like those of the gigantic wolf at his side, angling a sword at an unseen threat, protecting others of his kind, crouched, their faces taut with fear, surrounded by an inferno. As male, muscular and intense as everything else in the pile—but different. Across the top, the title: ElfQuest.
“That's a first issue.”
Years earlier, my chubby two-year-old hands slayed his '73-vintage, first edition of “Ghost Rider”, and he was in no mood to cut slack with the good stuff. The boy hadn't forgiven me, and the U.S. Marine still hasn't.
But there's a certain look that a little sister can give an older brother, a look that breaks their willpower down like waves on sandcastles. I wouldn't know how I did it, but I did it all the same, and didn't need to say another word.
“Fine, take it.”.
Clutching the comic—now a symbol of familial trust—I scurried away. “But bring it back to me exactly as it leaves this room,” he called after me.
From that moment I was obssessed with this weird, winsome tale, so unlike anything else I'd seen. It was my first other world, one of those places that certain among us head to like a second home, a base camp on the hill of childhood self-discovery. I grew up loving the adventures of the Wolf-riders, their own fragile lives held between each thin page. Each mylared issue added to my collection was stored in a huge German cookie tin resembling a treasure chest, always tucked under my bed: if the house burned to the ground, that was the first thing I'd be grabbing.
Few friends took an interest in my comic-book lit fix, but this only made it more a part of my own fledgeling identity. I was a geek, and my geeky idée fix was ElfQuest.
Grown-ups tend to call this stuff escapism, and maybe it is. But fabulous, fantastic stories are about more than getting away from one's troubles. They're how mythology, the shared hallucinations exposing the nature and nuture of mankind, find a way into us. They're a trip, a door to other places, where ideas can inspire and dreams can instruct.
And yet, that's just the easy explanation, the Hallmark card answer to what's going on here. Here's the real secret, the true story that no bro can deny: the portals opened by these fables, by stories told with such deep and abiding love that they free us to revel in our invincible geekliness, don't really lead to other worlds. They lead to other people.
For older generations, the finding happened slowly, by mail and by meeting in the flesh. But times have changed, and now there's no hiding from them. On a spring afternoon, years later, one of my oldest friends and I were figuring out the Internet, meditating on the screeching Om of AOL's dial-up sequence. I don't remember if it was on Altavista or Magellan or WebCrawler, but I remember the first thing we typed into one of those little white boxes: E L F Q U E S T. Results appeared by the dozen. Chills. Not only was I was not alone, but there were many of us. We were legion.
We stumbled upon sites set up to honor favorite characters and clans from the story's rambling cast, where each mouse click brought forth a smile and a deluge of artwork and fiction by other fans. The crafter of one such site had a tiny picture of himself tucked on a back page, linking to a bio. Something about his simple and honest way of writing attracted me; and after weeks of agonizing, I listened to my gut and sent him some of my own.
5,000 miles away, an email sat in the inbox of a total stranger. Whatever relationship followed would be built on words, underpinned by a mutual love of a choice made years earlier. My fourth grade self could never have known it, but that accident set a trajectory to a husband and best friend.
Everyone's flavor of fable is a little different, and what tickles me might not tickle you. But they all do the same thing. They help you find the others.