My first task in taking on the (somewhat daunting) feat of staging Adam Szymkowicz‘s brilliantly crafted love-letter to comics, heroes, and love, was to figure out one question:
What the hell is Adam doing with this structure?
(This is where I freely admit that I did not grow up a comic book reader. I grew up with big screen and television versions of costumed heroes: Christopher Reeve’s Superman (and, thanks to my dad, George Reeves’ Superman, too). Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman (I still want a pair of Feminum cuffs). Michael Keaton’s Batman. Et cetera.
So, the tropes of comics have always been familiar to me, but not the finer points of the comic book consumption experience. And certainly not the vast back-catalogues of information that live in the brains of even the most casual of comic book readers).
I knew I needed to dig into research to figure out what it is that draws fans to spends their Wednesdays at their local comic store, loading up on the newest issues of their favorite stories week after week after week.
As I read, I asked myself: “What makes this mode of storytelling so special? Why comic books?”
And then it dawned on me: Comic books give the writer and artist room to tell a bigger story than they could in prose alone.
Comic books are stories of extremity: where the stakes are so high and the emotions so large they cannot be explored through the mundane reality we know.
And, for my purposes: to tell a comic book story, you need a world big enough to contain such raw emotion, such daring adventure, and such intense drama.
Hearts Like Fists is the story of the extremes to which we go to protect our hearts, and the heroics it takes to fight for love in the face of fear.
It’s a story where the danger of heartbreak is quite literally life-threatening. Where the stakes of love are truly big enough to warrant secret identities and death-defying feats.
It’s the story of a world where the enormity of love and the fear of hurt can only be understood through the lens of a comic-book world.
Hearts Like Fists frames an ache with which we all are familiar inside a world that makes us see it all anew:
A world where it is perfectly reasonable that…
… a man could be so heartbroken by his unrequited obsession that he becomes twisted with madness and a homicidal rage
… a group of workaday nurses could feel so powerless in their own quests for love that they invent new identities in which to fight back against the fear that holds us all back
… a man could be so terrified of his heart breaking that he’ll spend every waking minute perfecting an artificial heart that can protect him against hurt forever
… a woman can be so terrified of making herself vulnerable that she leaves a wake of heartbreak behind her before she ever lets herself feel the sting of love herself
…and so on.
The prototypical superhero–Superman–was created by a couple of immigrant youths who felt utterly powerless in this strange, unforgiving 20th century Rust Belt world.
Today’s Real Life Superhero movement (look up the HBO documentary Superheroes if you’re unfamiliar) is full of individuals who, in their everyday lives, feel disenfranchised, ignored, powerless.
There is something potent about putting on a mask, a costume. There is power in the act of erasing your ordinariness and taking on an invented identity that can give you confidence, authority, control.
Doctor X loses his mind with frustrated desire, and takes on an identity where he holds all the control. The Crimefighters, when in their everyday nurse identities, are full of anxieties, self-doubt, fear. Putting on the mask changes them. Putting on a mask erases their insecurities. It gives them the power to fight.
The temptation to hide behind the power of a mask is strong. Lisa feels it, and gives herself to it when she first feels the sting of heartache.
The temptation to hide behind your work is just as powerful. Doctor X and Peter both feel it: when they are working, they don’t have to think about their loneliness. They don’t have to fear.
This play ultimately is about the strength it takes to cast off your masks, come out from your hiding places, and trust.
It’s a lesson we all could use.
And, thanks to the genius of our intrepid playwright, it’s a lesson that unfolds with humor, grace, and skill–even as you’re swept up in the action of a no-holds-barred adventure of epic comic book proportions.
Come and see what happens when love and heartbreak can no longer be contained by our mundane, prosaic world: