Given the choice I wouldn’t have been up before noon on a Saturday that early June of 1989. But it was the day for Senior Class Photos, for the yearbook and all. My father, taking time from his birthday, drove me there, to one of a hundred identical New Jersey towns, the ones one or two layers of municipality in from the Shore. I don’t know why that was the high school’s designated photo studio, but it was, and there we went.
Somehow there was extra time, and a comic shop nearby, that I had never been to before nor would ever visit again. I picked up the Marvel Age promotional comic, and got a rare bit of news. I had been a reader of the New Universe comic books. This was a series that Marvel Comics started in 1986 as protection against some incomprehensible creators-rights problem happening. The books ran, unloved except by me, for two years before the problem evaporated and all the titles were cancelled. It was supposed to turn into a series of graphic novels, advancing the whole world, but I only ever saw one of them. The issue said that a new four-part graphic novel had been published, though, and in the current issue the New Universe Earth had a nuclear war.
I would never see the books, and I gather that the story more complicated than that. But the slug line promised that it was a stunning and realistic-for-superhero-comics depiction of global thermonuclear war. I’d liked the setting and had to conclude that it was unrecognizably gone, now. It would come back, of course, as some writers slipped it into the mainline Marvel continuity. And even do a reboot of the premise. But how would I know that at my young age? All I could know is that a fictional world I’d had a strange fondness for had burned itself up, for what (best I could gather) were stupid reasons.
And along the way — I forget whether driving there or driving home — came a breaking story on the news radio. We always listened to in the car. It was a dividend of my growing up in the last decade of Cold War, afraid there’d be a nuclear war I wouldn’t hear about ten minutes ahead of the event. The Chinese government had enough of the peaceful gatherings in Tiananmen Square, and was sending in troops to terrorize its people into compliance. It crushed the hopes for democratic reforms for a country that sorely needed them. It was a moment of needless misery and horror, out of all place in a year of liberations.
And it felt personal. I felt outraged that my father’s birthday was ruined, by this disaster. This sense of personal offense at a global outrage is part of our family’s heritage. My father’s father was born on the 1st of September, and for the last five decades of his life felt a personal grudge against Hitler for invading Poland that of all days. (No great epoch-making disaster has happened on my birthday yet, but it has at least once been too close.) History has given my father a break, recording the crackdown and terror as happening the day after; by local time, it was. But for me living it, it was all these terrible things, some petty and personal, some obviously of world important, and all arriving on a day that deserved to be reserved for small pleasantnesses and thoughts about someone I love.
Happy birthday, Dad. I’m sorry that the times suck.