Gaslights

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By Max Delgado

I first learned about Gotham by Gaslight through a “coming attractions” blurb in a mail-order comic catalog that got delivered to my house quarterly.  I’d been so geeked by the heavy-lined cover art Mignola had recently done for Dark Knight / Dark City (Batman #452-454) that when I read he was illustrating a parallel universe Batman-Fucks-Up-Jack-the-Ripper story, I might have actually squealed.

But don’t judge: I was in the 7th grade.

Best, Gotham by Gaslight was a one-shot.  For a kid with limited access to comic shops, one-shots were a blessing.  It was one ticket for one show, and I finally got that ticket on a random trip to Franklin Park Mall with my friend John back in 1991, when I found Gotham by Gaslight sitting on a magazine rack at Waldenbooks.  I didn’t even have the five bucks needed to buy it, but John did, and writing this now I wonder if I ever paid him back.

I’d met John at St. Mary’s, our little inner-city grade school planted off Cherry Street, just a few miles from downtown Toledo, and I would eventually follow him to St. John’s Jesuit, the preppy suburb-magnet high school off Airport Highway.  We were both Old West End kids, meaning we had roots in the eroding core of our hometown, where the decaying Victorians were both elegant and ugly and where at least one magnolia tree exploded pink on every street corner every spring.  John was my first best friend.  And he was four years older.

I was introduced to John through his sister, Kate, who was my age, and who picked up on my nerdy proclivities almost immediately when I first transferred to St. Mary’s.  After overhearing me gush about Fox’s new show “Werewolf” one day, she led me by the hand to meet John, who’d been on the other side of the playground shooting hoops.  She gestured to her brother, then me, and just said: “Talk.”

We did not have sports in common.  But we loved horror movies.

In that first year of knowing John, I slept over at his house maybe five times a month which meant I got to know every member of his large Irish family.  In the modest lower duplex of his house, he had three sisters, an older brother, and twin siblings on the way.  They were all tall, but Kate and her sister Anne -- the duo were in my grade -- were the only ones with red hair.  They all orbited each other with the skill and resignation of a basketball team used to sharing half-court.

It’s fair to say that my friendship with John was founded on bad action movies, and what I still hold to be beautiful horror films, all of which we watched between the hours of 10pm and 3am.  During one of our nightly sessions John had the ingenious idea to sneak his uncle’s VHS player down from the duplex upstairs.  He set up a mini-pirating station and over the course of many sleepovers we dubbed our favorite slasher run: Nightmare on Elm Street.  It took months.  We each wanted a copy, and back then you had to record in real-time, so we watched each movie twice, back-to-back, to get the job done.  I still associate the series with John, with his dimly lit living room at midnight, and with the strange comfort that comes from being tricked into believing that the scariest thing in life happens on a television screen.  For an anxious kid like me, this was the real treat of horror films.

We did not talk much about comics.  At first it was our only real gap of interest.

Yes, John loved Batman, but he didn’t really follow the series, and eventually his posters shifted from the Dark Knight to Scottie Pippen while I went the other way: I bought my first 100-pack of polybags that year; my first longbox a year later; and at thirteen I snagged an eight-point-font comic price guide from Toys-“R”-Us and read it at breakfast like the morning paper.

By the time John was a sophomore, I was in the 7th grader and suddenly our lives were very different.  John told me about going to a high school party, and how he’d enjoyed himself, which sort of exposed all my terrible fears about high school, and somehow, strangely, life in general.  I dreaded situations where too much had to be choreographed at once -- my clothes, my weight, my posture.  These were all things I juggled poorly.  I think John shared about the party during our trip to Franklin Park that spring -- the timing would make sense --- and if so, maybe this is why I associate Gotham by Gaslight with my first realization that our friendship was changing.

When I finally arrived at St. John’s two years later, we greeted each other in the hallways with the tempered love and mutual distance of cousins who had survived an awkward childhood together -- ones who knew that our connection was blood-deep, but on hiatus. This is all to say he didn’t ignore me in the halls, but I knew well enough to hang out with the freshmen.

A year later John went off to college, and I fully entered what would be my High School Experience.  Strangely enough, it involved a lot of Kate and Anne.  They attended an all-girls Catholic school across town and over the course of our four years in high school the shifting tectonic plates of our different social groups eventually collided.  A lot of our friends were gay is why, and the community of closeted teens in Toledo’s mid-90’s parochial schools was relatively tight and scrappy.  They kept each other’s secrets, and we did, too, by default.

By the time senior year arrived I saw a lot of Kate especially.  We never planned it and we never talked on the phone, but Kate and I would constantly run into each other.  Our long parallel history allowed us to quickly delve into heart-to-hearts.  I still saw John occasionally, and with him in college now, our hiatus-status dissipated a bit and it felt a little like the old days.  He’d gotten a job at the local theatre, and would extend quarterly invitations for me to attend special screenings.  John was never an uptight kid, but in the months before I graduated from high school he had a new carriage about him: he was quicker to laugh or recall some stupid adventure from when we were kids.  Something was different with him and it was good.

I, of course, was still twitching in my brain.  Everyone told me life was right ahead of me, usually in a tone of reassurance, but this prospect just scared the shit out of me.

My last summer before college I got a full-time job landscaping.  I showed up for my first day and Kate and Anne were there, planting marigolds. I had no idea that we’d all applied for the same job.  I went to college.  Kate was the only one I really stayed in touch with.  She visited me nearly annually, arriving early in the morning by car or bus, always smiling and squinting at the sunlight as it fell across the Bronx.  No matter what identity I was revolving through, she always had a way of penetrating past them with a single question.

“How’s your sister?”

“Are you happy?”

“Why are you so skinny right now?”

I was not always a good friend to her.  Prone to distraction, and born with the defect of needing to kill quiet space with loud dumb words, I’m sure I’ve given her a lot of terrible advice over the years.  When she called me after her boyfriend died I had no idea what to say, but I was smart enough to know I couldn’t fix it.  I just listened.  She returned the favor many years later when I called her and wondered aloud, through tears, if I had a drinking problem.

After college Kate lived in Cleveland and I lived in Oakland.  She began dating a guy from Minneapolis, a city I’d never heard much about.  We all met for coffee together around Christmas.  His name was Jonathan and he possessed such a natural balance of wit and sensitivity that I secretly hoped Kate would end up marrying him.  About six years later she did, and eventually they moved to Minnesota.  I started dating my wife Jen sometime later, who, in a strange parallel, was also Minnesotan -- specifically from St. Paul, the “better half” of the Twin Cities.

Twenty-two years after Gotham by Gaslight was published and everything is different: both for Mignola and for me.  Mignola hit his stride and finally garnered fame in 1993 with the creation of Hellboy, a lovable red-skinned demon beckoned into existence for nefarious purposes by the Nazis, but then snatched up by the Allied Forces who gave him a noble moral compass.  As for me, I entered my 30’s and shed a lot of the insecurities and addictions of my 20's and before, but none of the comics.  And even though I’ve loved much of what Mignola has done since Gaslight, nothing can compete with the emotional weight of that first book for me.

My wife and I finally moved to Minnesota in 2006; I landed a job a few blocks from the house where Jonathan grew up, and where he and Kate eventually moved into.  It’s wasn’t planned.  Like the summer after high school, I basically showed up and found them planting marigolds.  2013 now, and my four-year-old daughter has a strange infatuation with Kate’s hair, and loves Jonathan's silly voices.

But before Minnesota, and before marriage, there was still college.  And sometime during those years I went home for a break.  John called me.  We went to dinner.  We browsed at Media Play where I bought some comics.  And then we saw a movie together.  I don’t remember which movie.  What I do remember is the car ride afterwards, as we traveled down the black thread of Broadway in the Old South End which runs parallel the Maumee River. I remember the flickering beats of streetlight that ran over his face. I remember him pulling over. And I remember him telling me he was gay.  His voice was paper-thin; a mixture of courage and fear.  I want to tell you that I hugged him, or thanked him, or told him that I loved him, but I actually don’t remember what I said.  I felt all these things, and still do, but I didn’t have the language to express them yet.

But I do remember seeing Kate sometime afterwards.  We met at a coffee shop, and on her face was that same expression from the playground years ago, when she’d led me by the hand to meet her brother.  But back then I wasn’t expected to say anything, just follow.  But this time was different.  She sat there and waited patiently until I said, “We talked.”

Max Delgado is the founder and curator of The Longbox Project.  More than anything, he wants to read stories about your life.  Submit one here.