When I was 10, they called me The Batman Kid.
By “they” I primarily mean The Skater Guy who co-owned a comic book shop in my hometown. The Comic Connection was a cramped, yellow-bricked oasis of kick-ass candy, arcade games, and comics wedged into a patchwork of insurance offices, chiropracters, and Midwestern-kitch vendors that lined the street between my house and Center Elementary School. When the shop opened midway through my 5th-grade year, I got sucked in by window displays of Warheads and Creepy Crawlers, and quickly developed an addiction much more expensive than candy:
Batman was my gateway drug. I couldn’t get enough. Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Night — Batman in all available titles, renditions, and guest appearances. So I got serious. I got a paper route. I even got a comic book layaway — my own wooden cubby hole where they’d stash my weekly titles until I could scrounge up the cash to pay. I was a regular for the first time in my life, and entirely out of my league. Unlike most adults (or girls of any age) my 10-year-old brain could conceive of nothing cooler than guys who could both drive AND buy comics. They’d gang the counter from open until close, tall, glossy stacks under their arms, slinging character names and titles and hypothetical match-ups for hours on end.
And if this was the Royal Court of Cool, Alex Brown was their king. First of all, he was behind the counter. The comic book bartender, if you will. And unlike your typical comic shop guy, he had everything going for him. Long hair. Skateboard. Anti-establishment attitude. And most importantly — the ability to draw a spot-on Dr. Doom with colored chalk.
Yeah, you heard me.
Every Friday, Alex’s sketch on the blackboard changed to compliment the week’s new titles. One Friday, Dr. Doom. The next, Spider Man. Then the Punisher. And he was doing this with CHALK. This was a teacher’s tool — by day, the instrument of my enslavement at Center School — somehow re-purposed within the walls of the shop to create works of staggering beauty and terrible impermanence. One afternoon, Dr. Octopus would be flashing an Eisner-worthy grin from the lower left corner of the board; the next, he’d have vanished into a gray smear and a list of Infinity Gauntlet crossover titles.
One day while Alex was working, I mustered the confidence and asked: “Is it really you who draws those pictures?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Who else would do it?”
“I don’t know, man. But . . . they’re awesome.”
Ten years of courage spent, I quickly turned and walked over to play my daily game of Shinobi in the corner of the shop. While playing, I overheard one of the car-driving, fat-stack-buying regulars ask “Hey, Alex, do you know him?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “That’s The Batman Kid.”
And every endorphin in my 10-year-old brain went into hyperdrive. A name. I HAD A NAME. He was Alex the Skater and I was The Batman Kid. We suddenly sounded like a plausible duo. Almost peers. And if DC characters could occasionally cross into the Marvel Universe, surely The Batman Kid and Alex the Skater could have their own share of adventures. Maybe a series worth.
I started going to the shop more regularly, and even brought my own drawings. Horrible renderings of Spider Man and Green Lantern Alex couldn’t quite bring himself to compliment.
“You’re always telling me crazy stories, dude,” he said one afternoon. “You ever try writing any of those down?”
“Oh, yeah. I write all the time,” I lied.
“Yeah, me too,” he said, rummaging in one of the cubby-holes behind his register. “Check this out.”
He tossed what looked like a graphic novel on the counter, only it was missing pictures. Just words. I looked at it with requisite suspicion. It was a literary journal from a local college. Then he flopped it open to the table of contents and pointed out his name. There it was, black and white. Print, not chalk. Permanent.
Alex Brown. This guy was famous.
His story’s premise? Robocop happened upon the Punisher in the parking garage at a local community college. It ended badly. I read the story that afternoon in the comic shop, providing running commentary – whoa, dude — I can’t believe he totally — oh my God, he blew that up, too? I read it twice, then he let me take it home.
And writing became cool.
In the coming weeks, I worked on my own Punisher spin-off series. Not Robocop or parking garages, of course. Nothing so crassly derivative as that. I took it up a notch. Punisher vs. Freddy Krueger. Punisher vs. Jason. Punisher vs. Critters. Get me? I’d bring these gory little gems in for Alex’s approval, and — unlike with my drawings — he was encouraging. He’d read them over, float me some feedback, and turn me loose on the latest shipment of E.C. Comics.
In the years to come, Alex’s coolness only increased. He started work on his own comic book. He made contacts in the film industry. Alex got too cool for my hometown. The yellow brick shop was too small, the streets too narrow — so one day he rode into the golden sunset of my idolatry and landed in the most perfect possible place: Venice, California. He came looking for me the afternoon he left, and talked to my parents for two hours on the front lawn of our house. I was off with a friend and missed his goodbye. He left me a short note, and was gone.
Are you looking for the story where the hero ultimately disappoints? Where he turns out to use drugs or abuse someone or is just a garden variety asshole with hair extensions? Read the subject again. Did that happen to Yoda? Hell no. And it doesn’t happen here.
No. I’m afraid Alex Brown’s coolness continued to grow. In my eyes, he rode that ramp — probably on his skateboard — as high as it could go and vanished somewhere in the gray passage of time, leaving a handful of postcards with defunct addresses and the needling ghost of memory that catches up with you in your 30s, taps you on the shoulder and says: “Where did Alex go? Why did you lose touch?”
And you search Facebook and Google and ask around and realize a last name like “Brown” is a Cloak of Invisibility, a ninja’s smoke bomb, a Jedi mind trick. And you make peace with that. Because maybe that’s what Alex the Skater had in mind for The Batman Kid all along. Part of the plan. To be the mentor who leaves his mark, and poof — is gone. Just like a superhero.