Do you read comic books or watch superhero movies? Do you notice how most main characters are single? In this episode, Peter McGraw and guest co-host Kym Terribile speak to William Kuskin, an expert on comic books, about why superheroes are so often single. They find out how the mission of the superhero creates singleness. They also discuss why you should direct the movie of your life rather than be the hero in the movie of your life, as well as William’s four rules for literature and life. This episode’s bonus material? Learn more out about a solo activity – riding motorcycles.
Listen to Episode #3 here:
Why Are Superheroes Single?
In this episode, my guest co-host and I speak to an expert on comic books about why superheroes are often single. We find out how the mission of the superhero creates singleness. We also discussed why you should direct the movie of your life rather than be the hero in the movie of your life. We learn about our guest’s four rules for literature and living. We’ll typically tape bonus material for people who sign up for the Solo Community. For now, I’m adding this bonus material at the end of the episode. We’ll be talking about a solo activity which is riding motorcycles. I hope you enjoy this. Let’s get started.
Our guest is William Kuskin. William is a tenured full professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research area is the history of the book. In 2013, he launched the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course called Comic Books and Graphic Novels, which has served 80,000 students. He’s written about medieval manuscript production, the emergence of printing, William Shakespeare and the modern comic book. He’s also served as the Chair of the English Department and as the University’s Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives. William is also a friend, confidant and inspiration to me. We’re joined by my special guest co-host, Kym Terribile. Kym is a writer, reiki practitioner and certified yoga teacher. She’s a graduate of the University of Hawaii with a degree in English Literature. She is 36, single and lives in Boulder, Colorado with her two dogs. Welcome, William. Welcome, Kym.
Thank you for that warm welcome. It’s great to be here.
My Humor Code co-author, Joel Warner, has appeared on my other podcast, I’m Not Joking. We talked about what he looks for when he profiles someone for a feature article. His goal is to find a magnificent-obsessive. That’s a term that he got from his mentor. William, since he’s written a wonderful feature on you in Westword, you qualify as a magnificent-obsessive. What makes you a magnificent-obsessive?
Joel didn’t tell me that. Now I’m thinking in my head, “I am obsessive. I like my things. My things are important. My comic books, my motorcycles, my Kung Fu weapons, all these things are important. What makes it not just magnificent, but obsessive is that I’m 54. As I’ve grown to learn how my mind works, I realized that I can’t keep a lot of variables straight. I have to focus in on maybe one or two qualities and think about them. It’s like a comic book. I don’t read all comic books, but the ones I focus on, I really focus on. That’s the obsessive quality.
This is a perfect segue. We’re going to talk about motorcycles in the bonus material for the community. We’re going to get back to that. There are two main reasons why you’re here. First of all, you’re not solo. You’re married. That works against you. I think you live a remarkable life, so I wanted to have you on here. The other one is because you are an expert in comic books. Not only are you an expert in comic books, but comic books have helped you change your life. I’m going to start with the tough questions and that is why are many superheroes single? Is that true of heroes more generally in books and movies?
It’s interesting because one answer is, “No, they always have sidekicks.” The sidekick is critical like Robin and Bucky. Villains like Catwoman can become a sidekick at any moment, but that’s averting or avoiding the main topic. I think you’re right that there is an isolationism to heroism, at least to superhero heroism. It’s interesting you all said I’m an expert. It’s funny how comic books for the first 100 years were the retreats of the illiterate, the semi-literate and the moron.
That explains why I liked them so much when I was eighteen.
There were only two superheroes. There is Superman who originated in 1938, and then there was Batman who originated the year after as a direct commercial response to Superman. If you think about these two heroes, Batman and Superman, they’re the same but diametrically opposed. Superman has all these powers. He doesn’t wear a costume. When he walks around, he doesn’t wear a disguise except his sunglasses. Becoming Superman from Clark Kent is ripping off his clothes. He rips off his clothes and he’s in his underwear and he feels great. Now he’s in his underwear and he’s more of himself and that’s just super. It’s super to be him. Being a superhero for Superman is to release. Being a superhero for Batman is the exact opposite. He doesn’t have superpowers and becoming Batman is a process of involution, of masking himself, of stopping being Bruce Wayne and covering it over. In turn, Superman goes up in the sky. He goes into the light. In some stories, the sun gives him his power. Batman goes into the night and he cloaks his body, but there’s no question that night figure is more true than Bruce Wayne.
Bruce Wayne is like a cardboard cutout. He’s not even drunk. He’s pretending to be drunk. He’s just there. Batman is the truth. Superman becomes more himself by appearing more genuine. Batman becomes more himself by appearing less genuine. He’s more of a burlesque or even a sadomasochistic version of himself. Superman’s goal is to go out and save airplanes and skyscrapers from tumbling. Batman’s goal is to go out at night and inflict violence. He never gets them all. Gotham apparently is inexhaustible. What is similar about these two notions of heroes? Before I get to that, any superhero you mentioned or you think about is either Superman or Batman or some mix of both. Iron Man is just Batman. He’s a rich guy who drinks a lot and puts on an outfit and then he has powers like Superman. Spider-Man is Batman because he blundered into his superpowers and he gets garbed up.
Wonder Woman is like Superman.
She’s very much a super woman. She’s very much that. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman who follows on pretty close, they’re all orphans by degree. This goes back to your central point. They are all orphans. Superman literally was like Moses put in this crate and sent to earth. He’s discovered and he’s adopted by some Kansas people. That’s nice, but he’s alone. His essential question is, “How do I fit in on this planet? If I French kiss someone, my tongue will destroy their mouth, let alone if we go further than that.” His journey is he’ll never fit in. He can’t fit in. Batman, his two parents are brutally killed in front of him and he can never get over that. He’s orphaned, but he’s very much spiritually orphaned. His question is how do I fit in the world? Because I think he’s accepted that he’ll never fit in. He’ll never just walk along. His question is, “How do I function effectively in a world in which my traumas are so painful?” Wonder Woman leaves her world because she’s driven. She’s driven to make a change in the world. If she stays on her island, she is lauded but she doesn’t feel she will make the change in the world. She has to orphan herself.
My question was not married and then what you’re saying is that these people are truly solo in the sense of the word.
If they do get married, they’re still solo. I think that hits an important sense of what is solo. What does it mean to be single, then what do you look for when you partner with someone for a short time or a long time? Is that partnership an attempt to fit in the world or is it more like Batman? Is it yet another compromise that one has to make to be effective in the world? To say, “I can’t wrestle with this my whole life, so I’m going to make some compromises that allow me a degree of functionality?” For me, superhero comics, as well as graphic novels that aren’t superhero themed, are essentially a meditation on the self. The thing about comic books is that they’re differently visual than just reading a novel or watching a show. Comic books invite a very strange cycle of reflection. They’re like books in that they ask you to turn pages and then turn back. They’re also like TV or movies in that you’re just looking. Comics walk this strange intellectual area, which I would argue is reflective on how you think about your own imagination.
Is there a difference between a comic book and a graphic novel?
That has been debated by endless obsessive fans but no, it’s all comic book. Increasingly, people argue that there is a difference and that graphic novels belong to a more high arch world and that they’re not superheroes, but that’s nonsense. Comic books have a derogatory beginning in that they begin in the funny papers. They originally were literally freebies the gas stations or Procter & Gamble would give away. They’ve since developed a real following over 100 or so years, but there’s no difference. It’s all pictures and words.Superman becomes more himself by appearing more genuine. Batman becomes more himself by appearing less genuine. Click To Tweet
Just to clear something up quickly because I am not a comic book reader. My experience was Google-stalking you and watching some of your YouTube videos. I feel it was my exposure to comic books. I know Superman had Lois Lane. Did Batman have a lady friend?
There have been lady friends across time. In one pivotal issue, he and Catwoman finally get together. It takes a long time. In one, I think it’s issue 1000, there’s a potential marriage but Batman is always alone.
First of all, thank you for showing me that I made the right choice. This idea that the nature of being a superhero, that idea of being different, being an outsider can be so profound that it makes it difficult to fit in with the regular population. That’s a neat idea in part because there are people in the world. They’re not real superheroes, but they are living remarkable lives that at the very least, marriage is inconvenient. It gets in the way. It’ll get in the way of a lot of interesting things that people feel compelled to do.
It’s just a compromise that doesn’t allow you to be effective. It’s a compromise that compromises something too fundamental to the mission.
I don’t think you’re going to want to go out and fight bad guys and you sit on the couch and Netflix and chill with your lady friends.
Peter Parker, who is Spider-Man, he’s another fascinating superhero. He’s the initial original misfit. He’s the nerd. He’s the kid that gets the flushies in high school and then he gains these powers at pretty much the same time his body is going through puberty. The powers involve a lot of stickiness and awkward limb-ness. It’s this allegory for puberty. He falls in love with this one stunning bombshell who was very cool.
I remember reading Spider-Man and Mary Jane.
At first, he falls in love with Gwen Stacy and she is killed in issue 121. This rocked the comic world because usually in comics none of the players die. It’s a franchise and if you kill off your franchise, you have nothing to sell. She is thrown from the Brooklyn bridge and Spider-Man leaps off the bridge and tries to web her. When he webs her, she’s falling so fast that her neck breaks and she dies. Peter Parker falls in love with Mary Jane afterwards. He repairs himself to the degree. Gwen Stacy dies in the initial comic. The rest of the hundreds and decades of Spider-Man is him negotiating how he’s the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but also chilling on the couch with Mary Jane, who later becomes Spider-Woman herself. The issue of being single and devoting yourself to some mission, for superheroes, the mission is made spectacular and involves beating people up, but we’re all on some mission. We may say, “I’m not on a mission. I just want to do my job, make my payments and raise my kids.”
That’s a mission in itself.
It is but there are levels of complexity of decision-making. It’s interesting that Superman movies don’t work anymore, even when you hire a muscular and handsome guy.
They’re a little too clean and tidy.
They try and make him dark and he can’t be dark. Batman movies work more than ever.
I am working on a movie project and I’m interested in the quality of films in their success. One day, I asked a grad student to create a figure for me. I plotted quality of film on the Y axis against a payout like box office on the X axis. There’s a single film that sits in the top right corner of that figure according to IMDB. This is thousands of people’s judgments which are highly correlated with critics. This is a very stable judgment of the goodness of a film. The box office stuff is well-documented. It’s The Dark Knight.
The first one?
No, there was Batman Begins. It’s The Dark Knight.
With Heath Ledger and the Joker. That’s an amazing movie. It was really dark.
It did incredibly well. Who was the director of that? Do you remember? He did the beach movie in World War II. The point is I offer that up as very strong evidence for the fact that Batman works for a broad audience, not just for fanboys of superhero movies.
This is an important point. When I first started teaching comics in 2005, I was teaching comics as comics and we got a lot of comics and read them. It occurs to me that since Marvel was bought out by Disney in 2009, comics have changed and they’re no longer married to books. Comics are a world culture. I was in Moscow and it was chilly. I went into a toy store. You walk into the toy store and the first display is Captain America. When I grew up, Captain America was fighting Commies. Now to a kid walking in there, that’s his or her culture. That’s shared ownership. I’m pretty sure those kids haven’t read any Jack Kirby, Stan Lee comic of Captain America, but they own Captain America. I went and watched the Endgame. I had some business in the UAE, so I was on the phone the next morning after I watched it with a guy from the UAE. He’d already watched Endgame twice and he was an Emirati.
The way comics have become truly global and speaking to the world is a real change. We are in this incredible economic, environmental, technological revolution right now. It’s a disruption. I don’t think anyone can say that it’s entirely positive or entirely negative, but everyone realizes that it’s impacting them in ways they never thought even ten years ago would. The art form that seems to be speaking to the planet right now is not theater. It’s a subset of film and television arts derived from giveaway comic books. We’re at an amazing moment where superhero art seems to be the art of our transitionary period. That is a wild thing.
I’m sitting here with these two very gracious people in my office and the pillow that is in my chair is Superman in an Arabic headscarf. It was a gift when I was in Dubai. Someone gave this to me. It’s a global culture that has elected through market forces to imagine individuals who are fundamentally isolated and devoted to a mission that may destroy them emotionally and physically. Yet they aspire to heroism within that confine. It’s an amazing point that this art in the early 20th century was again derided for less than literate has now captivated the globe.
I want to make sure that you’re on record saying that there’s an emerging global culture that is built on single people.
I think it is of the single hero. Even if you think about the Avengers, they’re such a loose knit group that they spend most of their time fighting one another or at least horribly humiliating one another. It’s not like the X-Men. The X-Men are mutant students who come to this. They too are often orphaned or alienated from their communities, but they come to a school and they find meaning in the community. This is different. As close as you get is the Black Widow and Hawkeye.
Do you think the themes that we’re dealing with in comic books are more relevant to society now? Have they grown and changed with the times?
I think it’s amazing. Comics have always belonged to the magnificent-obsessives. Endgame, it’s already made $2.7 billion in revenues. It’s clear that it speaks not to someone but to everyone. It strikes me that what Marvel Studios has done successfully is interlinked the stories it tells. There are 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what they’ve done wonderfully is serialized the movie format so that one movie is but a thread into the larger pattern of all the movies. That’s interesting because it goes back to this issue of singleness and soloness. Because though the movies depict individual heroes grappling with each other, each one has their own neuroses and anxieties and they have to work together.
What the warp and woof of the movie show us is continuity and network. That’s a large part. It’s not just the superheroes. It’s the continuity between the individuals. If I can push this a little bit, that goes to their singleness because being single, if it’s about being alone and a shut in, then it’s a torturous failure. If you’re single and you spend all your time chilling in front of Netflix by yourself, then there’s a painful misery about it. Being single is very much about balancing your network and your continuity with your singlehood identity. Essentially, that’s fundamentally what the movies are acting out for us. You’re looking to see Iron Man’s Tony Stark, the marvelous Robert Downey Jr’s relationship between all these different people and yet his singularity.
I’m loving this because the goal of this is a positive view of an unmarried life. What happens is when you talk about solo or being single, people go to that shut-in, that person who’s lonely and who can’t make it work. What you’re describing is on a global scale, there are these compelling stories that are built on people who are flawed, but people who are also doing remarkable things.
I want to back it up a little bit too and recognize that being married, let’s not pretend it’s the man in the gray flannel suit in 1950 and everyone’s delighted. Being married is the negotiation of your single identity and then your group identity. That too is similar than perhaps it initially appears. The single person is forced to monitor that network continually and work it through and keep it with electrical energy or else they do risk. Quite honestly, a lot of marriages fail because they’re not monitoring how that network has played out between the two people.
Kym would call that vibrations.
Energetic vibrations, attracting each other on the same level. To shift directions a little bit, Batman has this origin story where it’s very painful. He experienced this trauma in his life and he goes on and uses that in almost this positive way. Do you have any advice for people on how they can take their own pain in their life and shift it into something positive?
For me, Batman is ultimately the hero. That story of trauma re-channeled is the story of superheroes. It’s such a powerful story in one’s life. For a long time, I grappled with how persona relates to private.
You’re getting into something that it’ll help if we become a slightly more linear about. You have these four rules for literature and life. You’re about to talk about number three.
I haven’t been out of the classroom for years. I’ve been in this businessman role. The Kuskin rule, I haven’t gotten to truck them out enough.The way comics have become truly global and speaking to the world is a real change. Click To Tweet
The first one is break down the problem into its component parts.
That is circle the details.
The second one is synthesize the details.
Bring those parts together in your own way of thinking.
The third one is writing creates a persona. The allude to this idea is that each of us should have a superhero persona, which is where you’re headed with your story. The fourth one, which I like a lot but you can’t skip to it, is create a plan for success.
Those are the Kuskin rules and they’re important. As I said in the beginning, it takes me a long time to understand how my mind works. Four rules pretty much stretch my mind beyond one rule. One rule I can handle. It is interesting to think how much complexity people can tolerate and still be coherent. For me, it’s all about using something very simple to become complex. Those four rules to me are something that I teach. I don’t flatter myself to think that students are going to remember anything I taught them about a topic, but they might remember an approach to a topic because they could apply it later to something that matters.
You have even higher standards than I do. My goal is to create an emotion within my students. All I want them to remember is an emotion that is positive about the things that I’ve been teaching.
That’s pretty good. All analytics taught in the university system, in my mind, come down to the two first rules. Break it down and add it up. If you break something down, you have a chance of understanding a piece of it. Most things are too hard to understand in their totality. If you break it down, you can say, “What piece do I understand?” Adding it up is a way of understanding that you yourself are a mechanism for computation and you take those component parts and add something of yourself. That’s often termed creativity. Creativity is a daunting word. Writing is a fundamental skill. When I use the term writing, I’m referring to all kinds of composition, including public speaking.
What people forget is that presenting something is very frightening and that fear is overwhelming. If you believe that you’re putting yourself out there, that it’s little Willie Kuskin standing in front of the world, you quickly become overwhelmed by all the flaws of little Willie Kuskin that are now on display. This shows that I’m a Batman and not a Superman because Superman is one step away from ripping off his shirt and pants and leaping stark naked. He’s happy with who he is and why not? He can crush anyone in the universe. Batman needs to shroud himself to cover himself up, in part to protect that child that is fundamentally damaged and will never heal. I would suggest that when you write something, you’re not really putting yourself out there.
You could do an autobiographical piece, but even if you are going to do an autobiographical piece, you’re constructing it as much as Batman’s costume. You’re putting something out into the world that is deeply constructed and you want to shape your readers relationship to that. If you get a bad grade on it or someone criticizes it and says, “Kuskin’s article sucked and here’s all the problems with it,” it’s not me. It’s something else. It’s an object I created. I want to take this to one more level, which goes back to the question Kym asked about how does this help us and how does it help us get us through our own traumas? I want to emphasize that creating something, whether it’s a persona that you display on YouTube, whether it’s a painting, heaven forbid, whether it’s a comic book, creating something is generative.
It’s generative something bigger than you that is yet expressive of who you are. Art, and I use that term as loosely or as tightly as you want, is generative. It is generative something beyond you. It is generative something in your audience. To a certain extent you can control what your audience feels, but the art goes out. It goes away from you. People make of it what they will. It’s bigger than you. That creation of generative, it’s something deep inside us that we need to do. In that, it’s positive. More than that, it’s hopeful. What I come to with comics is that art is generative. There is always hope. We’re dealing with a plague of suicide in our society right now. That seems to be some message from the Joker that has crippled who we are. It’s an existential nihilism that we can’t understand. I would offer in the face of that, that we also have the power to create something that expresses us because beyond us and in that lies meaning and light. I would hold up art in this time of commerce and technology as a sucker in the darkest of our times.
You said something more eloquently than I can ever say, which is I’m always pressing people to create more than they consume. The idea is that it’s easy to consume and there’s lots of good stuff to consume. The idea is as you said, creating is generative. Consuming is not generative and creating forces you to grow. Regardless of what you create, the act of creating makes you a better person. I have a superhero persona for you that I think of. You’re like Tony Stark to me in many ways because of your personal story and because you have the Tony Stark charisma, which I find appealing both in the comic books and in my interactions with you. Also, the challenges that Tony Stark has and then the brains that he has. Do you agree or disagree with my assessment?
That’s incredibly flattering and how could I agree? Because that’d be like an act of hubris. I would say that in 2006, I discovered I had a congenital heart problem. It put me on my back heels. I had a test and I discovered that it was far worse. It progressed intensely. The doctor literally told me that I wasn’t going to make it to 60. In between 2006 and the present, I’d written an article called Iron Man’s Heart in which I did liken myself to Iron Man because he’s in Vietnam or in various tellings, he’s in Afghanistan. A shrapnel hits his chest and it wedges itself in there and he has to create the Iron Man suit, and particularly an energy source that he inserts into his chest to keep going.
Iron Man is like Batman in that there’s some inner flaw that he can’t eradicate. In the movies and in later comic books, he does eradicate it. In fact, in this heart thing, I have to get an MRI and I felt like Iron Man because they inject you with a paramagnetic metallic that they put into your bloodstream. Iron Man has all these nanite devices in his bloodstream now. I felt like Iron Man. The story is happy. After the MRI, it was discovered that the initial measurements that the technician did were 30% off. I have another lease on life past 60. For a long time, I identified with Batman in part because my parents went through a brutal divorce when I was young and that changed my relationship to both of them, but also how much trust I was willing to put in anyone. Now I have moved. You flatter me so much. Robert Downey Jr., what a guy. I suffer some heart troubles and I’m trying to compensate for them too. I’ve also decided I have a big Batman tattoo, so I think the next tattoo has to be a big Iron Man tattoo. The Batman tattoo is tucked in my inner bicep.
As an aside, you also have a Chaucer tattoo.
I do have a Chaucer tattoo. Another hero.
You went from medieval literature to comic books. Is there a correlation in themes between the two?
There certainly is. The realm of the fantastic, it belongs to the Middle Ages and they knew it belonged to them. The Middle Ages was a fantastical time, but they also wanted to tell stories of magic and of heroic deeds beyond and of gothicness. That’s all tied into superheroes. It wasn’t a huge jump for me to go from medieval. What was interesting is teaching Chaucer, medieval literature, is so wonderful because Chaucer in particular is a Robert Downey Jr. Everything comes out of his mouth with a smile and smirk and he’s asking you to think about the third entendre. It takes so long for students to understand what the heck is going on because the spelling is weird.
You need someone translating.
I can see you up there performing it.
Can you check this fact for me that Chaucer first used the word ‘bachelor’ in Canterbury Tales?
It would be hard to believe he’s the first.
Maybe in written word?
For a long time, like hundreds of years, people want to attribute everything in English to either Chaucer or Shakespeare, “He made it up.” He may have.
I don’t know if he captured it or whatnot.
I might be wrong.
I’ve been lazy. I thought you were an expert.
One of the problems with only being able to think about one thing is you can’t remember facts that well.
There’s something I want to talk about because it’s highly related to this idea of writing creates a persona. I do a thing at my very last class with my MBA students where sometimes I ask them three questions, sometimes ask them four questions. These are questions to answer over break. After the class is over, I want them to answer these questions.
Do you wait until they turn it in to grade them?
They never respond to me. It’s just I’d like you to think about these things. One of the questions is, are you the hero in the story of your life? I use that as a moment to teach them The Hero’s Journey. At least, I have my own version. Joseph Campbell might be pissed if he heard mine. The idea essentially is that in The Hero’s Journey, the protagonist, you, have a call to action and this call to action is not one that you welcome typically. It’s resisted and you can find this a lot. Kym’s on her own hero’s journey and she has been resisting her call, which is to dedicate herself as a writer. She is a writer first, not just because she writes it first in her bio, but in her heart and her actions. The thing that I love about The Hero’s Journey is it’s filled with challenges. No one wants to read a story or watch a movie about a hero that it’s easy. Even Superman, you have to find ways to make it hard for Superman. It’s part of the reason why Superman is hard to watch because he’s too good. Those challenges are both external and internal.
That’s an important thing for people to recognize. There are villains trying to stop you, but there is also your own internal dialogue, your emotions and the way you see the world. For someone to complete the journey, they often need other people along the way. They often need their enemies. They need the villains to do this. They have to overcome some physical obstacle and they have to overcome some emotional or psychological obstacle. Those things often are one in the same. They come together in some way. Seeing yourself on hero’s journey, first of all, makes it easier to understand how hard it can be. The bigger the mission, the harder it’s going to be.Motorcycles sales right now are crashing through the floor. Millennials don't want to ride motorcycles. Click To Tweet
The second thing is you have to recognize that you have to fundamentally change. You have to actually recognize that you’re holding yourself back as much as the villains of the world are holding themselves back. What I liked about your writing a creative persona is it’s connected to an idea that I’ve been developing that is particularly apt for Solo. It’s not, “Are you the hero of the story of your life?” It is, “Are you the director of the story of your life?” The story of your life is a heroic journey, but you’re not a passive person. You are the person creating the whole thing. Are you the director of your hero’s journey?
Everyone who’s reading this is reflecting on what you’ve said. They’re thinking about what ways they’ve abnegated the heroic relationship. Part of what you’re saying is if you’re not the hero of your journey, the hero of your life, who the heck is? Who’s it going to be? Your mother, your father, your brother? If you’re not taking charge of your life, then what life is lived? I take your point about the director because what you’re getting at there, the ultimate hero is Gilgamesh because he started us all out with the epic. His inheritor is Odysseus who is perhaps the greatest hero. Odysseus is a wonderful character because we think of him blinding the Cyclops and doing these things and shooting the arrow, but he really is a storyteller. He tells stories.
A good percentage of the Odyssey is him recounting it. Who the heck knows what happened? He tells a great story. Part of what you’re getting at with the director is that a life needs to be shaped and a story needs to be told. When stories are told, they take on proportion and meaning. If they’re just experienced, they’re incoherent. I wouldn’t give up hero. I’m flattered by your thinking about my ideas, but the original way you told it has all the drama that you intend. To lose that drama, what you’re giving your audience, your MBA students and us is the moment of recognition that if we don’t take intentional responsibility, no one will. That’s a powerful recognition.
For the Boulder people, what they’re saying is you have the power to manifest things in your life and call it in. That’s Boulder translation. Get your crystals on, ladies.
It’s interesting because the way the doctors described my heart is turbulent. The way the shape of my heart is, the blood doesn’t enter smoothly. It encounters narrows, which like narrows in a river creates all the rapids. What I’m grappling with right now is how my own turbulence is expressed as ambivalence and how that makes me an ambivalent hero in my own story. Batman at times is ambivalent. If faced with the Joker, he recognizes so much of the Joker in himself that he can’t simply kill the Joker. Batman has this oath that he’s never going to kill anybody, but that’s ridiculous. He beats people so badly and he unleashes various missiles and weaponry. He too has that ambivalence. Tony Stark is drunk so much of the time that I’m working on that too.
Kym, I want to give your best question.
I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s the most important. Where can I get your cutout action figure that was for your online course?
There were cut out action figures for the online course. That online course was great. It had its own comic book that went with it. I’m going to have to rebuild that. You’re going to have to sign up and they’ll have to be more cut out figures.
I’ll do it just for the action figures.
First of all, thank you. This is fantastic. When you sign your emails, you have a saying, “Onwards.” What is the origin of saying onwards?
My father had a little saying, “Attitude.” I thought attitude was pretty good, but I could do better. I came up with, “Onwards.” I have failed many times in my life. I have failed many efforts that at a certain point, I had to pick myself up off the floor and say, “This sucks. Now we’re going to move onwards.” Onwards is both acknowledgement that you’ve got knocked down and that you didn’t know where you were and you were blinking, but also that you’re going to go forward and no doubt get knocked down again. You’re going to continue and hopefully you’ll make it past 60. That’s what onwards is. It is an acknowledgement that if you try, you probably going to fail more than you succeed. If that’s not the ratio, maybe you should try more.
Thank you for that. If you people like this, I’m going to put in the exhibits, the Joe Warner feature for William that goes in a lot more detail about his life and about his four rules for literature in life.
Now we’re going to turn to what normally would be bonus material for people who sign up for the community but I’m adding it here. We’re going to talk about riding motorcycles. William, I wanted to talk about motorcycles with you. One is because you ride a motorcycle and I don’t. Kym doesn’t but wants to.
Kym, we’re going to get you on a motorcycle by the end of this.
You two will bond over this. I’m not interested in riding a motorcycle, I’ll be honest.
Yet, you’re going to California.
That’s the last place you want to ride a motorcycle. The reason to bring up motorcycles is it seems like the ultimate solo activity. Motorcycles are built for one person. You may put two people on them, but they’re made for one person. Why don’t we start with Kym and talk a little bit about why you want to ride a motorcycle?
I always wanted to ride a motorcycle because it was a defiant thing towards my parents. My dad was in a bad motorcycle accident in the ‘70s and that’s how he met my mom. He was a little rebellious teenager. She was his physical therapist in the hospital.
There’s a saying about when you fall in love with your nurse. It’s the Florence Nightingale effect.
My mom is Florence Nightingale all the way. I wanted to do it and I was forbidden to. The first time I was on a motorcycle was probably when I was 25. I was living in Hawaii and there was an ex-Marine riding around the islands. He was 45 and I got on the back of his motorcycle and it was so fun. I still think about that a lot.
Do you still text him?
No, I don’t. I don’t even think text messages was a thing back then. It was awesome. He had this whole pack of guys and we rode up to the top of the islands to a bar. It felt super dangerous and exhilarating.
You had this great experience. It was defiant and exhilarating. Did you think about translating that into your own experience of owning one?
Now, I’m afraid of everything. I won’t even go roller blading. I’m petrified.
She once rode to my house on the sidewalks.
That was because it would have taken a lot to cross 30th twice. I did and I had a giant helmet on. Safety first, people. I’m looking at your motorcycle. It’s on the back of your arm, but you showed us your motorcycle tattoo.
Tell us your motorcycle story. Convince Kym to ride.
I guess the first rule of motorcycling, because there are rules here too, is ride your own ride. That is the most important rule of motorcycling and of life.
What does that mean?
That means go at your own pace and make your own decision. Because the way you get hurt motorcycling is by following somebody who’s going real fast and who’s had six or seven beers and then they have some more beers and you feel like, “I’m riding with Pete, so I got to have some beers,” and that leads to ruin. It’s a rule to life. Ride your own ride. All I can say is motorcycles have saved my life. Motorcycles to me are such symbolic vehicles and they symbolize all that defiance Marlon Brando swagger.
This is the thought experiment. I like to do these thought experiments, which is if X didn’t exist now, would it be made those same way? For example, if the car hadn’t been invented yet and it was invented now, would we then all of a sudden start paving all these roads and make this thing the centerpiece of our transportation? The answer obviously is no. When you’re in Santa Monica and people are complaining about these little scooters, you’re just like, “Why are we complaining about these scooters? We should be complaining about these enormous cars that are the problem.” That thought experiment is if motorcycles were invented and people were like, “We’re going to let people ride around on these motorcycles with this piece of plastic on your head.” The government would be like, “No, you’re not.”
This thought experiment is near and dear to my heart. I’m giving a paper called Batman’s Motorcycle. It is a thought piece about the place of motorcycles in the next ten years. Motorcycles sales right now are crashing through the floor. Millennials don’t want to ride motorcycles.
Millennials don’t even want to have sex.Motorcycling is about having a sense of intentional control over your life and thinking through. Click To Tweet
Millennials can sit at home and play it on video. They can simulate the whole thing.
You can’t drink a latte and text and motorcycle.
I like Millennials. It was just a cheap joke. I couldn’t help myself.
Also, the world of motorcycles has passed. We’re moving into this world of ride sharing and electric vehicles and autonomous driving. The whole premise of the motorcycle is that no one knows where you are. The marine took you up to the bar in the mountain. No one knew where you were. Were you alive or dead? That’s not where we’re going. Where we’re going is a Tesla that you don’t drive, that Elon is watching on a screen and it’s got your heart rate monitored as well as your spending patterns.
He knows if you’re masturbating.
He does. The motorcycle is counter to all that. To me, what I love about motorcycling is that it’s all real. You’re right to be afraid of motorcycles because you could get killed. What it makes you do is focus your fear and conquer it with every ride. To me, that’s about the lifeblood of being human. Because if you’re riding a motorcycle, slowly or quickly, you better be in a state of awareness and of control. There’s a great book called Twist of the Wrist written by a motorcycle racer, Keith Code. He talks about fear reactions as being exactly counter to what you need to do. Your fear reaction says close the throttle, nail the brake, but doing that will upset the motorcycle horribly. Closing the throttle shifts all the way to the front upsets the rear, grabbing the brake makes the bike stand up or alternately slide. It’s exactly what you don’t want to do when you’re afraid because those things will make you more afraid.
In a nutshell, that’s another powerful metaphor for me for life. Because when you’re afraid or when you’re angry or when you’re overwhelmed, you often do things that are exactly what you shouldn’t be doing. You yell at your partner or you pull on the leash of the dog. These are things that if you thought it through, you’d never do. We talked about having a sense of intentional control over your life and thinking through. Motorcycling, you can plot about five minutes or maybe three minutes, 30 seconds ahead of what’s going on. It’s another way of thinking about intentionality, but it’s a much more visceral way of thinking about it.
I’d imagine you have to be incredibly present when you’re driving a motorcycle.
You better be present.
How did it save your life exactly?
In high school, I was a loner, a shut in and a pretty pudgy little guy. I bought my first motorcycle, I had it tattooed on my arm and it changed my life. I was not ready for babes, but they were ready to ride on the back of the motorcycle. Even in my completely self-destructive way, I couldn’t keep them off the back seat. That doesn’t mean I went home with anybody, but I sure shuttled them around.
When you’re at that age, that’s remarkable. Let’s get practical for a moment before we wrap this and say suppose someone’s like Kym and thinking about it. They’ve always been tempted to think about it, but they’re rational. They understand there’s risks and so on. What are the three things you need to do?
You got to go up to the Harley place and take the rider training course. Once they caught in that you’re going to spend some money, they’ll hook you up with that rider training course. The rider training course, motorcycling is not intuitive as Keith Code points out. If your fear takes over, you start making mistakes. You need to take a course that’s going to tell you how to manipulate the controls correctly. There are some basic rules to riding a motorcycle. Use the front brake. That’s your friend. Don’t drink and drive. Counter steer, which is you don’t lean into a curve. You do lean into a curve, but you manipulate the handlebars so it forces the motorcycle to lean over. They’ll teach you that. The second thing is you have to set aside some money because beginners often buy the shittiest motorcycles and then that sucks because they have a shitty experience. You need to set aside some money for some good protective gear, helmet, jacket and all that fun stuff. It’s cool. You get to buy boots and wear leather pants. They’re like, “This is legitimate.”
I have an ex who rides a motorcycle and I asked her how she gets her motorcycles. Kym, this is how you get your motorcycle, I think. She goes, “I always get them the same way. Go on Craigslist and I get a used motorcycle from some guy who just got engaged to be married.” He’s like, “Folks, it’s happened. I’m engaged and I got to get rid of the motorcycle.”
I am remarkably short. The challenge for me has always been to feel comfortable on motorcycle at low speeds. I have ridden all kinds of motorcycles. For a long time I had a love affair with Italian motorcycles, which was great, but I could never touch the floor. Now I’ve settled on Harley Davidson because you can plant your feet. Another thing I would say is Kym, go find a motorcycle whether used or new where you can plant your feet because you feel good in a parking lot. You can always put your feet down. You can walk around. It’s less threatening. Ride your own ride. Take the safety course, buy a good motorcycle, not a crummy motorcycle. Find one that you’re comfortable on.
Don’t let tall guys like Pete tell you, “It doesn’t matter if you can plant your feet. You’re driving. You’re riding. It doesn’t matter,” and then you fall over and you feel like a jerk. He’s standing there with his giant motorcycle saying, “What happened?” The greatest thing about motorcycles is when you go on an adventure and you’re like three nights out in some motel in Wyoming and you realize like this thing, this 200 to 500-pound thing has led you on this adventure and you’re out in the world. It’s an amazing head-clearing, solo experience. It’s great.
I think you convinced me.
You say the word and I’ll take you up to the Harley place. We’ll look at motorcycles together.
That was super fun. As good as I expected. Cheers. Thank you. Onwards.
- William Kuskin
- Humor Code
- I’m Not Joking episode with Joel Warner
- Westword article
- The Hero’s Journey
- Twist of the Wrist
- Iron Man’s Heart
About William Kuskin
William Kuskin s a tenured, full professor at the University of Colrorado Boulder. His research area is the history of the book. In 2013 he launched the MOOC, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” which has served eighty-thousand students.
He has written about medieval manuscript production, the emergence of printing, William Shakespeare, and the modern comic book. He has also served as the Chair of the English department and as the university’s Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives.
About Kym Terrible
Kym Terrible is a writer, Reiki practitioner, and certified yoga teacher. She is a graduate of the University of Hawaii, with a degree in English Literature.
She is 36 (or as she says thirty sex), single, and lives in Boulder, Colorado with her two dogs.