Travis Hedge Coke
My grandpa isn’t three feet away from me, at the Norman VA, dying and I am writing about comics. I don’t know what else to do. My grandfather distracting me with the funnies is probably my first memory, or an aggregate memory, of comics. He used to clip out the best ones and save them. Sometimes he would grid one out and reproduce it at a larger size square by square.
A lifelong and second-generation comics reader, Robert L Hedgecoke could tell you the history of the medium as if it was autobiography. It was something he lived through. My awareness of author-existence, my dislike for true fairytale conceits, talking about fiction and treating it as if it actually happened, as if characters have agency and events have solid causality in entertainment comes straight from him. He liked Pogo and Transmetropolitan, Jack Kirby’s Black Panther and Michael Larkin’s The Little Sister. But, he was never series-loyal or company-loyal when it came to comics, or any entertainment or art.
He didn’t say, “Marvel’s so and so,” but “Jack Kirby’s ____.” “_____ by Wally Wood.” He would always try to name the artist or the writer, when talking about a run or an issue. He didn’t particularly care about their lives. He might not have been interested in reading a Lee Falk or Stan Lee biography, but he would make sure to credit, even if it was back in the day when credits weren’t spread around. So, I know not only did he make the effort to namecheck, but he paid attention enough to find who inked a 60s JLA if that was information he came across.
My grandpa cared about credit. Some of his work for the EPA, some chemistry papers, do have his name on them. Others, well, the boss has his name on them, or somebody’s nephew who needed a promotion. Maybe, that drove him to credit others. I think, more than that, it was just part of his very sincere, very strong sense of social justice. Of fairness.
My grandpa talked about his favorite cousin, Gillespie Wilson, and him, and their friends, working through the NAACP in Amarillo, Texas, will make the same effort to be fair. To be just. Some people see a crime like the Red Light Rapist or Charles Manson and his cult, and they say, “I don’t want to live in a world that…” But, my grandpa saw these things and more, and decided he did live in that world, but that it didn’t have to be a world that just shut up about hardship and injustice. My grandpa believed in at least trying to make things better and, to be reductive about it, not let the bad guys get away.
I think, as a kid, I assumed that a lifetime of reading comics made people into my grandpa. Superhero comics, for sure. How could it not? How do you read a lifetime of Captain America and Fantastic Four and come out going, “We should bury our heads in the sand”? How do you read a lifetime of Dick Tracy strips and come out pessimistic and hating justice or change? Let’s not forget, that while for the general populace, Dick Tracy is locked in an era and simply a 30s dick chasing down funny-faced mobsters, the comic embraced the future faster than real life could. Two-way wrist radios were not the height of Dick Tracy tech, they were the opening gambit.
My grandpa was a cotton-picker, an EPA scientist, a soldier, father, a singer, a writer, old country philosopher, grandfather, great grandfather, and just the best guy to sit at the table with over a pot of coffee and talk to.
He was a proud Indian, and that was not common enough in his generation. I know it wasn’t easy.
As an adult, lighter than him, living in a supposedly more enlightened time, I’ve been called “youngun” and “son” and been told, “let the adults handle this,” today by otherwise good people, and I start to feel a little of what his life must have been like, as a med student and physical therapist who spent each day in a hospital being called “boy” and expected to do additional menial tasks, from janitorial to being censured for not offering to carry the groceries of a doctor’s wife. But, y’know, I’m not going to kid myself that I have, sincerely, any idea at all what that was like.
I’ve watched the chaplain who has, kindly, sat here for hours, be condescending to the staff, belittle my mom, and I’m keeping my mouth shut, because it’s best if we quietly get through this. But, I know, were my grandpa responsive right now, he’d say something about it. He would have no patience for this man’s condescending misogyny or his quiet mockery of the Dylan Thomas being read over the radio. The smart-mouthed thing he just said about the very very gay comic I had open on my Kindle. My grandpa, like my mom, enjoyed outing bigots and poking at them wherever they were weakest. They’ll even poke them where they are strongest. They’ve got no fear, this way, or at least, don’t let their fear hold them down.
The chaplain is a kind, well-meaning man, I have no doubt, and a bigot. My grandpa was neither a loud nor forceful man, but he never gave up on justice and he never feared change. I kept my mouth shut and sat down, because I was afraid of disrupting the situation. My grandpa never feared disruption, especially the disruption of cruelty or bigoted behavior.
He never had anything appraised, my grandfather. He donated old books, old comics. He gave things away to kids. To friends. He resold and secondhand shops. But, he never sought the value of things, according to book or top dollar. We gave away most of the comics that were in his trailer when we moved him out, last year. Maybe we could have made some dough off it as a lot or with a few of the issues that have aged very well, but he didn’t like that, and by proxy, I can’t. He always wanted people to actually read things.
He used to say, of jazz, that the reason more people didn’t listen to jazz - because jazz is often amazing - was that people wouldn’t listen to jazz. The reason more people don’t read comics, is just that reading comics is seen as embarrassing and people don’t like to feel embarrassed. It’s a cautiousness I never actually saw my grandpa take to. He was, proudly, himself, and he never stopped trying new things. When he finally went blind, he still wanted to hold a Calvin and Hobbes collection and feel like he was reading it, from memory. He wanted me to try to read some of the Convergence two-parters to him, but that didn’t work. For new comics, he had to see them, or it wasn’t working.
I’m not as strong as he was. I’m not as good as him. But, I can try to be worthy, in my part, of his memory. So, I’m going to ask you all to consider giving up some comics. Give them to a kid. To a thrift shop. To a Veteran’s Center near you. Two different resident patients here have asked me a few times, now, to bring some comics and leave them out, which I have, and to encourage people to donate them here, so they can read. Fair enough. I’d want comics to. I do want comics.
I’ve been seeing some of the amazing staff here (Elizabeth, Desirae, you are amazing!), and the hospice staff who came in, say how they wished they had wings or could teleport to go room to room easier. Someone quoted “With great power, comes great responsibility,” to me. One of the resident patients exhorted all of us to be more like Captain America and compared my grandpa to him. This is how comics, I think, have touched us, and can inspire us. I know my grandpa, who once lectured child-me on how important it was that Falcon was both a superhero and a social worker, and how good it was that Black Panther was both a superhero and an honorable king, I know that he was inspired.
So, be like Captain America, and spread some comics love. Give away some comics.
You don’t have to be big about it. It doesn’t have to be new, expensive hardcovers you love to pieces. You can donate the comics you don’t read any more, or won’t probably reread in the next ten years. Or, you can lend your friend a comic you do love, but if they don’t return it, just don’t bother asking them about it. Buy yourself another copy, if you love it that much. Let’s keep things moving.
Oklahoma Veterans Center
1776 E Robinson St, Norman, OK 73071
Oklahoma Dept of Veterans Affairs
2311 N Central Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73105