Escape Artists at the End of the World
Christmas 2021, and I was alone, doing time in quarantine after a Covid exposure at work. Feeling lonely and a little sorry for myself, I decided to cheer up by popping a frozen pizza in the oven, grabbing a beer, and watching the new limited series Hawkeye on Disney Plus. I knew almost nothing about this character—unlike the rest of America, I’d never seen an Avengers movie—but I quickly became absorbed in the adventures of the archers Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) and binged all six episodes in one sitting. Though I’m not a fan of Renner the man, whose alleged personal issues I find disturbing, I thought Renner the character emitted a warm glow of traumatized-superhero-turned-brutal-assassin-turned-full-time-dad energy that was utterly charming. I fell into an alcohol-induced sleep that night feeling comforted by the possibility of someone like Clint Barton keeping watch over the vast criminal underworld of my hometown of Hamden, Connecticut.
I woke up at 3:00 a.m. from a frightening dream that disintegrated moments after opening my eyes. The residue of fear lingered, but instead of doing what I usually do – reason with myself about the irrational nature of the fear – I got up and went to my desk. In a haze of the Klonopin I take to help me sleep, I wrote five single-spaced pages of a story, the words tumbling out of me uncensored, unedited. When I got up the next morning, feeling all the satisfaction that comes with having written, I read through the pages of a painfully earnest, cringe-inducing, plot-free tale of a distressed woman named Lisa, and Clint Barton, who comes out of nowhere to rescue her from the nebulous demonic forces bent on doing her harm. I spent an uncomfortable hour confused and embarrassed by my middle-aged, middle-of-the-night self who so easily eschewed her independence, her staunchly-held feminism, and her dignity for the sake of being saved by a taciturn archer in a purple costume.
Even though I was now an author of fan fiction, I’d never read any. I promptly went down the rabbit hole of Marvel Comic Universe fanfic and got lost in the thousands of stories there: storylines left incomplete in the films are finished; loose ends are tied up; backstories and origin stories are filled in; and there is a lot of superhero sex, often tender, sometimes violent: superheroes having sex with one another, superheroes having sex with ordinary people (often with the same name as the writer of the fic). Characters who were purveyors of evil and chaos in the films are, at times, redeemed; characters who die are resurrected. There are happy endings where none previously existed. In the alternate universe of an already alternate universe, it seems, fanfic writers are writing what they most need to read. And, while there are those who would (with humor and snark) police the space of fanfic for the rigor of faithful-to-the-Marvel-Comic-Universe worldbuilding and good grammar, the stories I found most compelling weren’t those that were perfectly researched and lyrically written; they were the ones that filled a void, that offered some small shred of repair to a grieving world reeling from two years of pandemic. I read one recently published fic where the entire 157-word story was simply two touch-starved superheroes hugging each other, a pandemic fantasy some of us can only dream of.
Through the course of my exploration, I learned that what I had written about the characters Lisa and Clint Barton falls into a subgenre called hurt/comfort, which is exactly what it sounds like: one character gets hurt (emotionally, spiritually, physically), and the other character provides comfort to the wounded one.
Genres and subgenres exist to provide predictable structures for otherwise unmanageable feelings. I think there is something about the deep psychic gashes left by this isolating time of grief and loss we’re living through that begs for a sturdy container (in my case, a fanfic about a superhero) into which I could pour unprocessed pain, fully experience it, and find resilience through connection with Clint Barton, who has been through his own grief, his own loss, and come out the other side scarred and changed but (nearly) whole and uncompromisingly good. In my fic there was no redemption, no resurrection, and no sex: there was only safety, or the promise of safety. The fic took care of the parts of me I was struggling to take care of on my own. It imposed a modicum of order onto the chaos of emotions I feel on a regular basis these days. Escapism? Maybe. But in the end, enveloped in the warm embrace of a purple spandex-clad superhero, I felt seen, cared for, and known.
Lisa Levy received an MFA in Fiction from the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program. She has published work in The Carolina Quarterly, The Potomac Review, Killing the Buddha, and Opium Magazine, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Lisa is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University. She works with people experiencing homelessness, severe mental illness, and addiction in New Haven, Connecticut, where she lives with her family of dogs and cats.