This piece was originally performed at the Jade Lounge in 2015, at an event called MindMeld with Mark Savage. Everything was green.
by Jason Squamata
My name is Jason S.
And I have a serious problem.
I’m a recovering accomplice. A belly-flashing beta dog. A compulsive sidekick.
It’s been three months and eighteen days since I last wore the tights, did the flips, threw kung-fu moves at deformed gangsters and their bumbling henchmen.
My fists no longer smash your screen in explosions of pop art onomatopeia.
I no longer instinctively leap into some kind of action when the corporate logo of my old mentor stains the sky like an angry omen.
It’s been four months, one week, and two days since I was last tortured by a maniac, which used to happen all the time, sometimes…consensually.
It’s been two years, eleven months, and twelve days since I last traveled through time and kissed a robot princess with silver feathers on the dark side of her moon.
I haven’t facilitated the saving of the world.
I haven’t punished the guilty to somehow save the soul of a city.
I haven’t piloted a giant robot with desperate finesse to rescue a dying god who called me friend.
I’ve just been getting by, mostly.
And let me tell you, after all my fetish-dipped mind-bending adventures, up past my bed-time in strange outfits with spooky older men, the quaintly constrictive physics of the quotidian day by day have shown me a different kind of wonder, a story as rich in its quiet way as the myths I used to live. This sober, adventure-free life is truly the last alien planet. That’s what I tell myself.
That’s what they tell us to tell ourselves, we who have the syndrome, but it isn’t really true, is it?
I’m barely a character, now, just a slice of life, but the slice is mine, and that sometimes seems to matter. It’s been three months and eighteen days since I last eclipsed my own essence with another man’s shadow. I am more and more the star of a spin-off strip that no one is reading, and I like the idea of liking it.
So I carry on as if I do.
The sickness first bit me in the twilight of my teens. By day, I was a cub reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper, dressed always in a checkerboard blazer and bowtie as if to deconstruct the tropes of the role I had chosen. Everyone called me Jay-Jay, whether I liked it or not. By night, I was vaguely bohemian, trying on masks, searching nightclubs and biographies for a real me to be. I was already living the supercreep life, or a nebulous sketch of it. I just didn’t have a gimmick, or a mission, or a driving force. I was waiting for something to happen, like you do at that age.
The magic word.
The flash of lightning.
The irradiated insect.
The sorrows of the world outside my demimonde seemed too big and amorphous to unpuzzle with facile charm and a punchy turn of phrase. So I fed my lazy latent heroism with small acts of kindness. Like buying a sandwich for a hobo informant. Like saving a cat from traffic though to touch one makes me sneeze. Like getting friendly with the new guy at work, a big-boned galumphing doofus from Kansas in an ill-fitting off the rack reporter suit and glasses so thickly framed that they deformed his beefy features. Everyone else at the paper found him hard to be around. He always seemed to be trying too hard, whether he was working on a story or blowing his nose. He seemed to knock something over every time he moved. Despite his unwieldy bigness, he looked to me like a wounded bird. So me, the nice guy, I took him with me everywhere, out on the town, hunting stories, stories to live and stories to document for our daily bread.
Our carousings were curiously chaste. He wasn’t much of a ladies’ man, and my own mojo seemed to wobble in proximity to him, but it didn’t seem to matter.
I only ever got lucky by accident, anyway, and it felt like a virtuous deed to pull that hulking farmboy out of his shell. One night, the cocktails and whatever else was metabolizing between us made our masks a little crooked. We were walking home from some throbbing nightspot, down valleys of strobing shadow, under a riot of stars.
Something about the starlight, I guess.
For the first time I noticed that unwavering electric blue gaze of his, behind the glasses.
I felt like he could see things in me that I couldn’t see myself, and had from the moment we met. Maybe he could see how scared I was of everything despite my chipper flippancy, my self-conscious cleverness. I felt naked and defenseless and cold out on the street, what with things getting real and yet utterly unreal like that out of nowhere.
Like I needed a blanket or a big cape to stop the shivering.
But my friend, he decided to get naked, too, in his way. That little lock of black hair uncurled from his coiff and the glasses came off and his posture changed and the pantomimes of a bumbling human were sloughed and my foolish friend, my ongoing act of charity was in fact an alien sun god from a doomed utopia, raised amongst country folk to do the right thing in the big cities and screaming arenas of a world in crisis. A musclebound Buddha of compassion with a space glyph branded on his burning heart chakra and the natural grace of a galaxy in motion.
Even the circus strongman panties that he wore outside his tights had a strange majesty. Maybe not so strange.
He made me his pal that night.
“So that’s what I am!” I screamed out loud, sure of it at last.
I would still be the quirky cool alpha friend at the office and he would continue his baffling performance as an all-too-human lummox. But when we ripped off our secret identities and stopped pretending to be boring, we made a shape-shifting fairy tale playground out of time and space and skin. Do you know what it’s like to be held by hands that can crush moons into dusty perfume?
I speak of it like it was a partnership, but it was mostly him wrestling giant monsters and beating back alien invasions and having airborne ballet skirmishes with mutant beauties from the future while I ran around at street level, chasing the fray, taking pictures, leaning in for a wisecrack in the last panel or getting captured to induce an urgent climax. I was at best bearing witness and at worst providing comic relief to the mythic labors of an impossible man. But those were golden times, despite the ambiguities. Things didn’t get very weird until he gave me the watch.
A signal watch it was, a chunk of red plastic on my wrist with his logo on its lid. When I pushed the button, he could hear its little shriek somehow, whether he was fighting dinosaurs at the center of the earth or milking black holes for their quasar juice out there in the silence of space. And he’d come racing to my rescue, come what may, he’d find a way. I used it sparingly, at first. I used it respectfully.
If my spastic journalistic investigations put me in a warehouse full of angry criminals.
If my shutterbugging put me on the uppermost needle of a skyscraper in search of the perfect shot and I lost my footing, careening into teeming grids of cityscape.
If I was feeling too real and too immersed in the grind of things and I needed a transfusion of the miraculous, sometimes just his presence, his air of dynamic leisure, like a slow motion mushroom cloud set to soothing music. The way he would sweat electrons when we wrestled. I could feel the way he had to flex his will to keep from twisting me into gory liquid by accident. I liked that he could destroy me at any time, that he could destroy all of us, or conquer us, or conquer me, but he didn’t want to. He only wanted me to be happy.
But happiness plateaus. Yesterday’s bliss is tomorrow’s routine. “In times of emergency” wasn’t enough. The complex desperations and indignities of a fleeting human life became unbearable to me, knowing always that a pushed button could summon all the wonder. We were seeing less of each other at the office as his secret life got stranger. When he was all alone in the world with his powers and his seventeen senses and his revolving atomic heart, when me and a few other humans were his only social options, life felt like a game me and the ubermensch were playing in the themeparks of eternity, popping into 3d space only once and so often for a quick snack or a disco nap.
But the laws of logic and nature got softer and more permissive the longer he spent on our wavelength.
Casually miraculous became the new normal..
The Cosmic Man was tasting strange pleasures with immortal teenagers on weekend bubble-rides to the 33rd century. He was negotiating truces and treaties between sentient diseases and planet-eating corporate organisms in prismatic desert temples under too many moons. He was finding more survivors from his shattered homeworld every day, most of them animals. Cosmic Chimps and Cosmic Dogs and Cosmic Cats and Cosmic Horses.
And a Cosmic Cousin, a perfect girl who dressed like him, but she had not grown up in Kansas and had no natural affinity for human thoughts and pheremones, so I think she thought I was his pet. And I was that, but less and less. I was increasingly a living symbol of the ordinary world he was leaving behind. I was a twitchy signal watch junkie, settling for his charity when I could not hope to ever have his respect.
Dear GodMan, a mermaid fell in love with me and now her deep sea surgeons are turning me into a fish. Help help help shrieks the signal watch.
Dear GodMan, an imp from the 5th dimension just turned me into a baby and I need to give a eulogy at the president's funeral. Help help help.
Dear GodMan, a mad tattoo artist has covered me with images of you in dynamic action poses. If I strip you can remove them with your laser gaze and make me clean again before my date gets here. Help help help.
Dear GodMan, the icecubes in my drink melted while I was telling slurred stories of our greatest adventures to a bar full of laughing strangers. Could you fly in through the window and blow on my glass with your minty arctic breath and show these mere mortals who your best pal is?
He always showed up, but it was all business. Friendly business, but the subtle distance made me perversely resentful of his loyalty and graciousness. Knowing him led me for a time into a life where we felt things in primary colors, but neglect had made my linework scratchy. My word bubbles were stuffed and hanging heavy with schizoid attempts at catch phrases that might go viral.
I was living in squalor, unable or at least deeply unwilling to solve even the simplest problems without abusing the infinite wishes granted by my push button genie. Some mail I opened five months too late told me that my parents had passed away while I was living some feverish fairy tale. I couldn't remember their faces. All I cared about was whether they had known who my best friend was, if they would have been proud, if they would have been jealous. Every feeling I had was felt through the prism of him. Something had to give.
He was taking a break from volcano containment to do my laundry when the axe finally fell. He broke it to me with a tenderness that I hate a little bit, in retrospect. On a mission to the edge of the known universe, he had been received by a court of cosmic metagods. Our cosmos was on the brink of dissolution, its narrative integrity strained by too many improbabilities and fractalizations. No one beyond the veil was reading him anymore. By meta-editorial mandate, his history was on the brink of a massive rewrite. In a matter of hours, my perfect friend would be experiencing a gritty reboot.
And there was no room in his harsh new tone for a needy civilian sidekick in a mustard-stained bowtie. He invited me to his arctic retreat for a party of sorts. All the power people and supporting characters and second stringers and rehabilitated villains would be gathering to pay tribute to the cartoon god of dawn before he donned the streamlined trappings of a realistic sunset. I let him take me there because I thought I could be alone with him for a moment or two, talk this through, maybe work out a way for me to be updated that wouldn't clash with his brutal new aesthetic. What happens exactly to the bystanders who get unwritten by a revamp or a retcon? Would I go on living without the wonders on tap, the watch just a painful weight on my wrist, its signal heard by no one in a dimmer world where the physics would be just a little too tight for such nonsense? Would my consciousness melt into a state of pure concept like ink running and puddling in gutters?
I was pondering these things in the trophy room, amongst the bottled cities and the time tunnels and the star-eating monsters howling in quantum cages. His life-sized diamond sculptures of all his friends, including me. His army of dormant robot duplicates. I seemed to be alone in there, slurping champagne and feeling spurned and pointless when the shadows whispered my name with a voice that was somewhere between the crunch of boots on autumn leaves and a spaghetti western eastwood hiss. "Jay-jay" the shadows said. "I heard about your parents. I know what you must be going through."
I knew who it was. A crimefighting colleague of my perfect mentor. Not a god, this one. Just a man with a heart full of tragedy and an iron will and limitless wealth and strange ideas about the nature of crime and justice. He was an equal to the cosmic god, and yet his antithesis. Dark angel of a much darker city without all the miracles. With ten times the danger. An adolescent fetishistic leather goth fever dream of a city that made my supertown seem childish.
I'd seen him lurking at some of the cross-overs. I could feel the midnight creep of his presence oozing through the room, his spindly contortions, the leather ghost of him and a hungry gaze that peeled you. They peeled you one way if you had done something wrong and he was already planning your punishment. They peeled you a different way if you were a teenage boy in trouble. I'd seen him in action with those acrobat orphans of his, always a different kid, the devil man pretending they were all the same sparrow. He trained them well, but he was fickle, I guess.
If you were a lost boy like he had been, under all the leather, then he found you forgivable. Add dead parents to the mix, and he found you irresistible. That is, he found me irresistible when i needed it most. He didn't want to see all my anger go to waste. He could train me to turn my body into a weapon and my mind into a palace. He could take me under his wing, adopt me if that isn't too presumptuous, treat me to luxuries known only to vendetta-driven billionaires and the bad men they hunt.
All the usual lines, I imagine. And I should have said no. I should have run away from super things for a little while. I should have taken a swim in lake Jay Jay in the hopes that my true self would be waiting for me at the bottom. But I went home with him, to his mansion. If my superpal could go dark, then I could go darker. I could adopt the moods and mannerisms of a more mature mythology. In the vast ancestral home of my new best friend, I immediately began a vicious regime of gymnastics and weight training. We sparred in the shower, the grim avenger and I. Our fighting styles were compatible. He sent his creepy butler to an already rebooted supertown to get my silly things.
I had another honeymoon season in those green sequined briefs and that domino mask and those ridiculous elf slippers and a bright yellow cape that screamed "shoot me". My mentor explained that my tacky colors made him darker and more dangerous by contrast, which made some kind of sense until the bullets and the daggers and the pumpkin bombs were flying, and my function seemed to be to draw all the fire while daddy struck ominous poses. But it was nice to be taken care of.
We listened to chamber music and pumped iron while the butler fed us spoonfuls of patee. The butler gave us massages while Daddy delivered grim lectures on the algebra of crime, at times almost explaining how the economic inequities and systemic corruption that created crime could be neutralized by our nightly practice of wearing tight outfits and beating up escaped mental patients in shadow-slashed sewers. The butler got a little tipsy sometimes and redesigned our costumes. Steel nipples, sometimes. Sometimes skulls on our codpieces. None of us knew anyone normal. I was inching into my twenties, despite my dark mentor's constant efforts to pharmaceutically prolong my puberty. And three grown men should not live together in a cave, no matter how romantic it might seem in the afterglow of pointless combat.
I gave up asking about the other sparrows after a while. He would mumble things about good soldiers and fallen comrades and pretend to shed a tear before going back to the silence of gadget-building and abstract criminology. I didn't ask about the memorial chamber, where the costumes of all those fallen robins hovered in dimly lit cylinders, worn by transparent child-sized mannequins. All the suits were slashed in similar ways. It didn't occur to me that the crazed clown daddy hated more than any other enemy might have killed them all. That it might be the clown's favorite thing. I was so happy to be living in a boy's adventure tale so long after my ordained expiration date that I was willing on some level to be the latest in a long line of sacrificial lambs. Or sparrows. Or robins. Or whatever.
When the kidnapping finally happened, it was almost just like the old days, but my tormentor wasn't some pudgy scientist in prison clothes who hated the sun god for making him bald. The henchmen weren't making dopey jokes. They weren't dressed up like playing cards or balloon animals and they didn't mind cutting me when I made too much noise. Worst of all, no signal watch... and a clown with a crowbar in the room with me and nothing but the deductive skills of a wealthy pervert standing between me and violent death. The crowbar stop hurting after the fifth time it hits you, but I don't blame the dark avenger for my damage. Fool me twice, shame on me. And just because he secretly considered his sidekicks expendable doesn't mean we weren't special, for a little while, until the clown came back to goose the sales and move some units.
I'm not speaking from the grave, obviously, not unless you're all dead with me. I came out of my coma in a luxurious upper crust intensive care ward, all expenses paid. There were other sidekicks there, in various states of repair. On the television I could see my mentor in action with a fresh orphan. I had already been replaced, another chemically shriveled teenage basket in those green sequined panties.
The butler maybe liked me a little bit more than he did the others. Maybe he had a thing for my first super pal and he could still smell the magic on me. Maybe he just liked my freckles. But I came to in the midst of the old creep giving me a passionate spongebath. He muttered something about reboots. I could come back as a villain, or I could facilitate his master's grim crusade as a wheelchair-bound hacker. Something about the suds, the sobbing butler, the moans and life support beeps of a ward full of broken sparrows. I knew I had a problem. I knew I had to kick the habit.
For a few months, I was spending most of my free time in support groups. Some of those meetings get chickenhawked by slumming super heroes though, and relapses ensue.
Relapse one: I played nursemaid to a sniveling scientist who turned into a hulking radioactive sex machine whenever I made him angry.
Relapse two: I apprenticed myself to a supervillain over one twisted weekend and backed out in mid-atrocity when I realized I just don't have that devilish temperament.
Relapse three: I got brutally rehabilitated by an Amazon goddess of discipline, bound for days on end in her magic lassos, her chains of truth, offering my everlasting bootlicking sidekick services to no avail as she squished my throbbing iniquities with the gloves of justice.
Fool me five times, shame on us all, as a species.
Now I'm back where I started, I suppose, a little the worse for wear, a little older, with hints of bitter wisdom in my beady little eyes. No major metropolitan newspaper would hire me after all my hijinks, but I observe the daily routines of an up and coming cub reporter nonetheless.
It's a small life, made mostly of scribbling, but it's mine, and the things I know belong to me. If any of you are suffering from sidekick syndrome, you have my sympathies and my deep understanding. I've been wherever you've been. I'm living proof that you can pull through and step out of those shadows and become the star of your own life story. If you know how to tell it.
If you don't, I could teach you maybe.
I could use a spry and lovely cohort around the laboratory, just to keep my index cards corked and my songlines tight. I'm thinking of taking up that whole master of the mystic arts thing, bug out on old grimoires, invest in a cape. Change up my genre.
The best way to get over sidekick syndrome is to kick it harder. Until it really hurts.
If you're ready to change come and see me. I'll dress you up in the textures of my vengeance. I'll give you this shiny whistle in case of emergency. Just don't tell anyone where my sanctum is. What we do there is secret. And don't ever call me "Jay-Jay".
I'll see the rest of you in the funny papers.