Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How Flash Gordon and Batman Saved My Life

What does one do on a rainy Memorial Day weekend?  Well, they spend it watching several hours of Flash Gordon all 13 episodes of the 1930’s serial.  So you might be wondering what was so compelling about this series to suck away so much of my precious time.

Was it the spaceships with sparklers in the exhaust? Was it the dragons created by adding horns to iguanas?  Or perhaps it was the highly technical terminology used in those episodes, like “spaceogram” (for Skype-ing).  Actually the reason that I found myself engrossed is for reasons of nostalgia, after all Flash Gordon saved my life but not just him, Batman too.

Before I get into that let me give you a bit of Flash Gordon background for those who are unfamiliar comics, movies or cartoons.  
Depending on the source the version might vary but the basic story is that the Planet Mongo traveling through space heading towards earth; the planet is ruled by the evil Ming the Merciless (Emperor of the Universe), who, like most evil villains, want to take over earth.  I suppose, if he is the Emperor of the Universe that would be within his rights.  Flash is a polo player or football player (two very interchangeable sports) but ends up getting caught up with genius (and slightly loony) Dr. Zarkov and reporter Dale Arden.  Long story short they hop into Zarkov's rocket to intercept the planet Mongo.  Once on Mongo they encounter the various kingdoms of Mongo (tree people, lion people, shark people, hawk people, etc) all of which are infighting due to Ming's plans to keep them under his thumb.  The storyline is riddled with internal conflicts (Flash loves Dale, Ming’s daughter loves Flash, Flash’s buddy Barin loves Ming’s Daughter, Ming loves Dale). Ok you're up to speed.

As a kid I a local TV station played this serial every Saturday morning.  I would watch the cartoon version “the New Adventures of Flash Gordon” and then flip over to the 1930’s serial starring Buster Crabbe (Olympic gold medalist in swimming and star of other cliffhanger serials such as Tarzan and Buck Rogers).  As a kid I thing the thing that enthralled me about Flash Gordon was that it was the wonderfully strange world that the hero was thrust into.   Mongo was a planet where old and modern meet…Medieval meets Art Deco.  And what a world it was, filled with  Sharkmen, Hawkmen, Lionmen , and Monkeymen; also a place strange kindoms like the ice kindom of Frigia, the forest world of Arboria, or the compass confusing Magnetic Mountains.  If you can think it, there is a good chance it happens on Mongo.  More than that, though, Flash was someone thrust into strange unfamiliar lands and managed to defeat every obstacle that came his way.

So how did this polo player turned galactic explorer come to save my life.  Well, basically you need to know that as a kid I was very shy and very reclusive.  Much of that had to do with the fact that my family moved around a fair bit and though I don’t think that that caused my shyness, it certainly exaggerated it as well as my insecurities.   My savior was my art and my parents for continually encouraging me to do art, but it is comic book characters like Flash Gordon and Batman that helped my subconscious navigate a world that I y felt out of place in.

Here was a mere earthling that took on the Emperor of the Universe. His obstacles were adventures…not tragedies.  In my mind Flash Gordon was my ideal self that could move from city to city, school to school and feel confident and secure.   It made recognize that perhaps, I too, could face whatever the universe hurled at me.

My affinity to the Batman, started much younger.  Of course the TV series was the initial introduction.  I watched the campy Batman “Kapow” and “Biff” all through my childhood.   Then came the comics, which were much darker and sinister.  The Batman was tragic soul surrounded by the haunting memories of his parents murder.  He is a villain the turned into a good guy.  A dark dude who finds a way to make his demons work for him; he did this by embracing them.  This is what the Dark Knight taught me.

While Flash Gordon gave me a sense of hope in my life, the Caped Crusader gave me a methodology to face my fears.  Instead of fleeing from my fears I would embrace them, and where I would embrace them was in my art.  The darker elements that you see in my art to this day are the product of my internal battles.  I have found a way to harness those dark thoughts and put them to good use.  Bear in mind that much of this was done without my knowledge.  I did not wake up one day and say “this is what I need to do”, rather through time I was able to look back and reflect to see what led me to where I am today.  Back then, as  child and teen, it seemed like aimless meanderings.  As I look back now, I see how those meanderings were really useful adaptive tools.

I bring these issues to light for two reasons.  First of all, I wanted to point out that even a comic book character can make a difference in a child’s life.  They are the contemporary brethren of King Arther, Odysseus, or the Zapotec princess Donaji.  They are what Joseph Campbell called “the hero of a thousand faces”. .  It is the same myth culture-to-culture, era-to-era.  An average “Joe” summoned to face trials and tribulations that will ultimately transform that person…hopefully for the better. 

The second reason I bring up this topic is to emphasize the importance of art in a child’s life.  Not just looking at art or listening to music, but creating it.  Not every child will gain from it to the degree that I did but all people will be enriched by it.  In my case the ability to have access to art supplies helped me through difficult times.  I see the current trends in school being a singular emphasis on “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” and a disregard for the value for art in the lives in children.  I often ponder what would have happened without my parents’ encouragement to use pencil and paper to battle my foes.  It seems to me that people will address their issues either creatively or destructively.   A paintbrush is a better solution than smashing car windows.   In my case, art allowed me my to address my “issues” in ways that don’t harm others and perhaps might even be considered a benefit.

Through the years I hav e seen how art literally saves lives.  A friend of mine is battling a very tenacious cancer; even as the disease slows her down, her art moves her forward.  It gives her strength, and it feeds her spirit.    I am also reminded of a project that an art therapist I know was involved with that focused on children directly affected by the hurricane, Katrina. It was called Through the Eyes of Children with the goal of using art therapy as a method for addressing and easing the psychological stresses associated with that catastrophe.

I’ve come across multitudes people who are faced with various tragedies of all sorts ranging from disease to disaster to divorce.   The thing that saved them, the thing that guided them through difficulty and despair was their art.  Some people don’t believe in superheroes.  I do.  I see them everyday.  I see people defying all odds, conquering universes, and doing miraculous things, all because they have a superhuman power called: creativity. 

Links that might interest you on the topic
Through the Eyes of Childrenhttp://www.katrinaexhibit.org/photoalbum/index.htm
VSA Arts: http://www.vsarts.org/
Living Arts of Montana: http://www.livingartofmontana.org/Home.asp
Art Saves: Jenny Doh's project: http://www.crescendoh.com/artsaves.shtml


Andrea Matus Saujani said...

So beautifully written, you literally brought tears to my eyes...such a heartfelt message and to the depths of my soul I couldn't agree with you more. I believe in superheroes, in fact I happen to have the privilege of spending time with one in particular quite often (although not as often as I would like...) You bring your generous spirit and creativity with you everywhere and share it with others freely. You have certainly inspired me profoundly along my own journey of creativity....and I thank you.

Anne Huskey-Lockard said...

Priceless Michael.
I grew up in the military, with comics and of COURSE, Batman as my *super-man*. He saved people (with a few laughs). I drew. Flash Gordon came later in reruns, Star Trek, you name it. I was the geek.
And I drew and drew and drew.
The influence of art with children is far more profound than most school systems can ever realize. It is a basic and necessary building block for a good life.
And it helps bring us out of our shell.
As this long blithering comment of mine is proof.

You are a voice to be listened to.

Anne~~no longer shy..... ;-)

katzenjammy said...

Great post, Michael.

Patty said...

Very moving post Michael. My younger brother was also encouraged to create art from the time he could hold a pencil. He teaches and works in the arts today. I was more musical and have only discovered my visual muse in the last few years. I love creating. I don't have the talent many of my art friends have, but I keep on truckin.

Elena said...

Awesome post...my heroes were Batman, HeMan and Wonder Woman. But knowing that I left my creative side behind, recently started dabbling again, and again left it behind left me feeling a bit sad after reading your post. Good timing. Great post.

Ronna Sarvas Weltman said...

I volunteer with teenagers, helping them write college essays. For some kids, art is salvation and what keeps them invested in school. Thank you so much, Michael, for helping explain this. I hope this helps shift more people into understanding the importance of arts funding for children.

Chrisy said...

Yes yes yes I am going now to drag out my paints...thank you...

Anonymous said...

Too bad every Department of Education in all the states won't read this post. When Art and Music are cut to balance the budget I want to scream and throw things. What do they think they are balancing?

Debs said...

Art was pure purgatory for me at school. I couldn't paint or draw no matter how hard I tried and the teacher would ridicule my work to the class.

ohhh how I dreamt that Judge Dred would come into the class and take him out! He just seemed the man for the job!

deMeng said...

Thanks for the nice comments everyone,
Needless to say it is something that I strongly believe in. How bleak the world would be if the Arts were to be allowed to fade away.

Jenny Doh said...

So much good in this piece. Thanks, Michael.

michelle ward said...

*looks around*
where's the like button?
no wait, where's my bullhorn?
i want to stand on the corner and shout to the school board
"read this post"

thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Thank -you. I loved this. We moved a lot too and my mom encouraged us in art and music which were comforting to our souls, to say the least. I now work in a school and there is very little money and time for art and it is sad and frustrating. Often, in the rare moments we do a craft or simple art project, children relax and unwind and we get to know them much better. I would say school boards do need to address this, but so do legislatures, who control the funding.