Kurt J. Kolka
FINDING HEROES IN TOUGH TIMES
Who's your hero?
Is he or she real or fictitious? Alive or passed on? And why did he or she become a hero to you?
Seems like we all grow up with heroes who inspire us. Some heroes may be relatives or ordinary people who triumphed over adversity. Other may be sports heroes.
Back when I was in early elementary school, I met Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who visited Grayling for a promotional event. He signed a photo, which I have kept to this day. I had a connection with Bill Freehan through that photo and he is one of the reasons I still watch the Tigers today.
As a collector of comic books for many years, I also had many fictional heroes as a kid. Batman, the incredible Hulk, the original Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!), Aquaman and the astonishing Ant-man. "Wait," you say, "who's that last one? I've never heard of him." That's not surprising.
Ant-man is a lesser known creation of Marvel's Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber in the early '60s. He was in reality Dr. Hank Pym, a scientist who invented a shrinking serum and a cybernetic helmet to communicate with insects. While at the size of an ant, Ant-man still retained the strength of his full stature, so he could punch and toss criminals around with full effect, as easily as any other crimefighter. Plus, his insect size made him virtually invisible to criminals. He could also order insects, usually ants, to bite or sting the bad guys. He battled Russian spies and other criminals too big for police to handle, sometimes even working with the FBI.
Preposterous, you say? Absolutely! But then all superheroes are when it comes right down to it. In real life, could a super character lift a building without it collapsing, shoot a power beam from his eyes without breaking his neck, wear a pair of glasses to mask their superhero identity? Of course not. But, human beings are willing to set aside common sense for a good fantasy story. Think about the various mythological characters and American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan, who entertained audiences long before superheroes
entered the picture.
Other comic fans often ask me what attracted me to that little-known character. Well, I first came to know Ant-man at a time when I came down with a serious and potentially deadly illness.
This disease began affecting me in fifth-grade, but really hit hard that following summer. I couldn't keep food down. The first week of sixth-grade, I spent in the hospital being put through medical tests no child of that age ever imagines even exist. My family doctor thought he knew what the problem was, but couldn't locate it on x-rays with the equipment available to him.
The problem seemed to go away, but then came back. My doctor sent me on to other doctors in Traverse City, but they could not find the cause either. Most of sixth-grade was spent either at home or in hospitals. I was a little kid suffering from a problem too big for even doctors to cure.
I can't remember exactly how many times I was hospitalized during the course of that year. It was at least five. Being as sick as I was, I didn't feel up to doing much and TVs weren't available in every hospital room back then. So, I carried a small cache of comic books to read and some drawing paper, whenever I might be admitted. This was how I passed the time.
Unlike today, there were no support groups or Facebook pages to encourage those suffering from serious illness. I knew of no one else going through what I was going through. So, I took a hero from the only place I could find one, a comic book.
During the course of this year of illness, Ant-man, who had been making guest appearances in other comics since his own feature had been cancelled years before, received his own mini series. And this time, he had to battle a big problem himself. While trying to save a kidnap victim, Ant-man contracted a virus which trapped him at ant-size permanently. Then, his laboratory was destroyed in a fire! How could he find a cure for the virus he had? (Gasp!)
Our lives had suddenly become parallel -- this tiny superhero and I. We were both struggling to survive. While I had seen superheroes battle serious illnesses before, it usually only lasted for an issue or two. Ant-man's struggle was ongoing throughout the 7-issue mini-series, which only published once every two months.
He kept me company during the long hours of hospital stays and I cheered him on as he battled Egghead, the Whirlwind, the Creature from Kosmos and other assorted baddies while he was trapped at ant-size.
Eventually, near the end of sixth-grade, I was sent on to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I left my mark along the roadway leading there, still unable to keep food down, hugging my comic books. Finally, the better equipment at this clinic helped doctors there to diagnose the problem, Crohn's disease, an illness which causes the intestine to close off.
Ant-man stayed there with me in Minnesota during my surgery and recuperation. He would continue to be with me for a short time beyond that, into seventh-grade gym class where I faced gigantic eighth-graders who made me feel like an ant-man. And he reminded me that you don't have to be the big guy to triumph over what you face in life. Oh, and eventually, Ant-man was cured also.
As time went on, other heroes came along who would replace Ant-man, real life heroes. Although Ant-man seems quite small compared to them, he still has a place of honor on my bookshelf of favorite reading material in the graphic novel section.
In summer 2015, Ant-man will finally get his day as a major motion picture starring Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. Many comic fans aren't impressed, because he's not as powerful as Thor or the Hulk. As for me, I will sit back and enjoy every second of that movie, and cheer on the world's tiniest hero. "Go, Ant-man!"
To me, heroes don't have to be big and spectacular. They just need to be someone who gets you through those tough times.
So, who's your hero?