Fiend, dare not mock my words!

How comic books taught me how to speak. And how not to.

Three men occupy a drawing room. One gazes gravely, arms crossed, out a many-paned window. The second hunches at an end table, fists clenched, mouth in a line. The third sits stiffly in an overstuffed chair, attention fixed on an open newspaper.

"A twelve-letter word meaning 'producing sweat'?" says the brooding man at the end table. "I should know that one but I'll be hanged if I can remember it."

The gentleman by the window, without movement or change of expression murmurs, "The word you are looking for is sudoriferous!"

"What would I ever do without you, Panther," says the man in the chair. "You've completed my crossword!"

This scene, no doubt, raises questions. How could a 12-letter word be the last unsolved clue in a crossword puzzle? How can you murmur a sentence ending in an exclamation point? And how likely is it that a man acquainted with the adjective sudoriferous be named Panther? Once the scene's origin is revealed to be page 1, issue no. 168 of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, these questions fade. In the world of Marvel Comics, plot regularly runs roughshod over logic, people routinely name themselves after predatory beasts, and every sentence ends in an exclamation point. For many years this world was my classroom, and the men in the tableau—Black Panther, Captain America, Iron Man, and their supercolleagues—were my tutors. Their instruction resembled the ranting of a brilliant schizophrenic—wholly fascinating, half-true.

Sudoriferous was just one of the million polysyllabic vocabulary padders that flowed every month from the lips of Dr. Strange, Thor, the X-men, and other costumed polymaths. Most were synonyms for either "big" or "bad." A cumulative list reads like a thesaurus for doomsday pamphleteers. The first few entries in the "C" section of this hypothetical reference manual—carnage, cataclysm, catastrophe—demonstrate its size. But using the words in conversation was a risky proposition for a number of reasons.

The first problem was one of precision. I gleaned meanings from the text, but often with incomplete results. Leviathan, for example, could describe either a great hovering being from the fifth dimension or a sea urchin grown to the size of Hawaii by rogue government scientists. I knew it went in the "big" column, not much else. Pronunciation was another gray area. APocalypse rhymed with EPoch lips. CaTAClysm sounded like atTACK cries him. HoLOcaust became whole LOcust. I still think twice at the word Armageddon—arm MEGaton—and consistently mispronounce the words satin and Satan, making it sound like half the world's lingerie is manufactured from the body of the fallen angel while Hell is ruled by a silky fabric.

The greatest challenge came, as it so often does, in distinguishing fact from fantasy—telling which Marvel-supplied words and concepts were real, which were made up. My fact-checking method was to proclaim, within earshot of an older person, the item in question, then pray. It's the same technique Steven Glass employed in journalism, but with much higher stakes. He never got called a dick-nosed moron, for one thing.

But from the soil of suffering the tree of knowledge grows. Here's just a sampling of the fruit off mine. Krakatoa was a real island that did blow up, but the Great White Ape of Wakanda is not the largest land-dwelling mammal, and in fact does not even exist. Gamma rays: real. The element adamantum: not. And hurling oneself forward headfirst, arms pinned to sides like a human missile, dazzles the crowd but fails to scatter one's opponents like bowling pins. This last item illustrates a particularly insidious but widespread manifestation of comic-book schizophrenia—the attributing of fantastic properties to real objects, phenomena, or in the above case, acrobatic maneuvers. Call it the leaky toxic-waste canister syndrome.

The leaky toxic-waste canister created more than half the superheroes and supervillains at Marvel. On the lucky, it conferred the power of flight or clairvoyance, the less fortunate it mutated into mole people. For years, I roamed factory lots and industrial corridors in search of a manufacturing spill to give me superstrength. I'd fallen for Marvel's capricious borrowing from reality. Both the actual and the comic worlds contained industrial effluents, but in issue no. 1 of Daredevil they gave you radar vision, in real life they gave you pancreatic cancer. The leaky canister syndrome applied to comic-book language as well.

Consider the phrase "I'll be hanged," spit out by the somber Captain America. It exists in both the comic and real worlds, but in the former it elicits grim nods of assertion, in the latter, barely suppressed laughter. The phrase that to my boyish ears seemed the perfect expression of vexation for the square-jawed man of action, could only be uttered convincingly it turned out, by Southern grandparents and fictional Victorian seamen.

Comic books were actually object lessons in how not to be cool. The frequency with which the terms "everloving," "hotshot," and "yours truly" graced the repartee of Marvel crime fighters should have been clue enough. Just try using them to further your advancement up the social hierarchy. "Hey hotshot, how about lettin' yours truly have a hit off that everloving bong." Not even the chess club would admit someone who said that. Ditto for the anachronistic military terms—"flyboy" and "natch"; histrionic exclamations—"Sweet Christmas" and "Holy Mother of Mercy"; and complex witticisms casually dropped while plunging through a skylight to disrupt a criminal gathering—"The only thing you'll be be taking care of is the manufacture of license plates at a New York prison." Even the actual, common-usage, multisyllable words that tripped so authentically from the lips of superheroes somehow sounded dorky when you said them out loud.

It's no surprise really. Dorks consume comic books, dorks produce them, and the muscles and thick necks notwithstanding, dorks populate them. Captains of football teams weren't accidentally transformed into superheroes by late-night science projects gone awry or magic amulets discovered in attics. Outcasts, bookworms, and nerds were. Comic books composed a fantasy world in which we, the dorks, were the smashers, not the smashees. And as long as we were fantasizing, why not show off a little? In comic books a fight might begin with, "Pathetic miscreant, do you think your boyish bravado and vaunted disruptor rays can help you now?" In real life it starts, "Bitch, you want some of this?!" Not only did we take revenge on all the bullies who ever broke our glasses and crumpled our physics homework, we finally got to use all the big words we knew.

I haven't read comic books since I was 12. Over the years, I've rid myself of their misinformation on many issues—the clear delineation between good and evil, the number of weeks required to invent a time machine, the tensile strength of city flagpoles. But as my dorkiness comes into vogue, my former heroes' flair with words, their insistence on going the extra syllable, making the more convoluted verbal repartee, acquires an air of prophecy. A facility with language, they implied, is necessary for successfully meeting life's challenges, and the implication is correct. Words are the weapons with which most adult battles are fought, the tools with which most adult projects completed. Much of what we do—be it arguing a case in court, selling a brand of detergent, or putting the romance back in our marriage—comes down to finding new ways of saying "big" and "bad."

And "good" and "love," not to mention "more than you want to pay." I'm not saying you should style your next denunciation of a corporate rival after the language of Doctor Doom—"Black-hearted rogue, do you not know I am impervious to your conniving machinations?!" The broader point suffices. Contrary to the assurances of countless supervillains, words can help us now.

 
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