They Are Here: The Neighbors #5

They Are Here: The Neighbors #5
Every single one of these Miguel Mercado covers has been great but this one really just blows me away.

And now it's over: The last issue of The Neighbors, my comic with the wonderful and deservedly famous Letizia Cadonici, is on sale today. Go grab an issue at your local comic shop, or buy an e-reader version on Comixology and Google Play.

This is the last issue, so there are spoilers for the whole series here – please read the issue first – but, in a first for this newsletter, I've decided to write an essay that is almost entirely about my feelings. Enjoy!

The Neighbors always felt like a vulnerable thing to send out into the world. Maw, my first comic, was about anger, and anger can feel like power. It can look like power to others. Everyone loves a charismatic yeller, even if he’s shortening his own lifespan and blocking his arteries and shredding his nervous system every time he screams.

I have been a charismatic yeller, in the past, and I have been proud of it. Something changed in the past few years. I want to trace it to my transition — I got the right hormones in my system, I achieved inner peace, everything is better now, etc. — but that’s not it. It happened while I was giving birth to my daughter.

I have told parts of this story before — that the hospital used a dirty tool on me, and I got  an infection and a high fever; that the baby’s heart rate was spiking, so they cut her out of me. What I didn’t mention was that they tried making me push.

I mean: I was delirious. I had been awake and having contractions for at least 24 hours. I was numb from the epidural. I kept slipping in and out of reality. Sometimes I was in the hospital. Sometimes I was on a dark beach with no sky, with a red ocean lapping at my ankles, calling out for my daughter, who didn’t answer.

But they had to get her out fast, because she’d die otherwise, so they needed me to cooperate. I remember the doctor leaning over me and shouting “get angry at it, get really angry,” thinking anger would make me stronger, or make me push harder. It felt like one of those moments when everything snaps into place. It was like the culminating scene of a biopic, the moment when all the narrative threads converge and the significance of the protagonist’s life is revealed: Of course! I was angry! My whole life, I had been angry. I had made a career out of being angry. From the day I entered this world, people had told me to be less angry, and now, my anger was going to save my baby’s life.

It was just such a neat resolution for my character arc. Admittedly, it was the same resolution that the Hulk got in the first Avengers movie, but that made it all the more apt. It was going to work; it couldn’t not work; it was the obvious solution. So I pushed, and I pushed, and I got angry, and I got angrier, and…

And nothing. I couldn’t push hard enough. I wasn’t physically strong enough to do it. I was barely alive. I was barely conscious. My anger meant nothing to me or anyone else. The doctor told me to stop, and turned his head to the nurse to discuss options, and for a second, I knew — didn’t think, didn’t fear, just knew — that my baby was going to die, and so was I, and I had not saved her.

Well: They wheeled me into the operating room, and I came out with a kid, and both of us are alive today. Still, that moment never left me. Anger was not enough. In the moment I most needed strength, anger had not made me stronger. I had not died in that particular hospital bed, on that particular day, but one day, death was going to come back, and getting angry would not stop it. My anger would not save me. My anger could not save anyone or anything I loved.

In the circles I moved in, anger often seemed like the only acceptable way to respond to the world’s problems. If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, you just don’t care, went a song all my activist friends knew in college. Activists still say this, or some version of it, though they don’t know the song any more.

But if anger is not going to save you — if anger is, at best, the desire for salvation, or the ache of not being saved — then isn’t it beside the point? Couldn’t you just work for the things that you really need — things like joy, or liberation, or fairness — without anger being involved? I don’t claim to have the answers for everybody. If anger is your fuel, and it works, then you should keep using it. All I know is that I couldn’t believe in my own anger any more.

Maw was written while I still expected rage to bring catharsis. The Neighbors was written from a place that is deeper and more delicate. It’s written from the pain you can feel when anger stops.

Anger protects you. It doesn’t make you strong, but it makes you feel stronger. Anger is the shot of whiskey you knock back before a bar fight; it doesn’t make you a better fighter, but it makes you louder, and more impulsive, and stupider, so you can forget that it’s going to hurt when you get punched. Without that anger in your bloodstream, there is only the cold reality of the fight, and your impending injuries. Without anger, you have to deal with fear.

You will not find any of this in the fifth issue of The Neighbors. It feels crass to try to explain what the comic is about, at this juncture — if you can’t get the message from the comic itself, then writing a blog post after the fact won’t help. But you can see some trace of the new person I became in this comic, and in its ending, and it’s that I want to discuss.

Marion in Maw and Oliver in Neighbors are both deeply damaged people who have retreated into themselves to escape a hostile world. It’s misogyny and rape culture for Marion, transphobia and racism for Oliver, but both of them are at a heavy social disadvantage, and both of them have, at some point, lost the ability to cope.

Marion explodes outward. She becomes a monster. She becomes violent. It hopefully feels cathartic and vengeful and punitive; it felt that way for me, writing it, and I’m glad I was able to be exactly as bitter and angry as I wanted. That emotion is real. It’s an honest reaction. It deserves to be heard.

Oliver, though, collapses inward. He is defined, not by anger, but by powerlessness. He is never not conscious of his own overwhelming vulnerability. He is never not thinking of his baby, and how he might lose her. He can no longer go outside, because he is too aware of every awful thing that might happen.

The horror in The Neighbors is less direct (but, I think, more oppressive) than Maw, because that kind of fear doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t achieve catharsis. It just is. Everybody lives, because everybody has to live, forever, in a world full of monsters, where everyone they see and meet is fundamentally hostile to their existence, where something terrible could happen at any moment, where they cannot save their children, where children are not safe.

Condemned to live: Like you, like me, like everyone else in the world, because once you get beyond anger, there is something worse than anger. There is the reality of where we are.

Giving birth made me conscious of death — my own, others’ — as something more than an abstraction. Having a baby turned me into someone whose baby could be taken away. I think that’s a fairly universal story, even if my gender identity makes it hard for some people to wrap their heads around it; what else was Stephen King thinking of when he wrote Pet Sematary?

So all of the characters in The Neighbors share a sense of un-belonging: In their family (their parents are not their parents or their siblings are not their siblings or their children are not their children) or in the world at large (because they’re not white, not straight, not cis, not “normal”). They experience dissonance with the outside world or each other or both. One reason Oliver is able to clock the changeling Casey is that he recognizes himself in her: He knows what it is to be a stranger in someone else’s world, to not quite fit in the place you’re given. It’s not fun to be Casey. It hurts to be somebody’s changeling.

Yet being subsumed into the world, absorbed by the Neighbors' grinning perfection, "belonging" because you've lost any claim to an interior life, is not the right outcome either. You live with the fear, because the other option is not to live, or not to live as yourself.

That’s true of you, too, isn’t it? You don’t really belong here. This is not your place. These are not your people. I don’t know you, but I know this, because the place we all think we really belong, where we are always accepted and appreciated, where we understand everybody and everybody understands us, where everything is seamless, with no sense of being out of place, no struggle — that is not a place anyone reaches in this lifetime. We do not and cannot live in that fantasy. We live here: With each other, for better or worse.

That's it. Thank you so, so much for reading the series, if you did – I loved writing it and it felt special to be able to put something this personal out into the world. I hope you'll recommend it to a friend, if you enjoyed it, but even if you don't: I'm deeply grateful for your readership and your support, and I hope I deserve the faith you've given me. Thanks.