A Hundred Thousand Worlds

By: Bob Proehl

PART ONE



The Golden Age



I’d be writing a story for Kirby, and Steve Ditko would walk in and say, “Hey, I need some work now.” And I’d say, “I can’t give it to you now, Steve, I’m finishing Kirby’s.” But we couldn’t afford to keep Steve waiting, because time is money, so I’d have to say, “Look Steve, I can’t write a script for you now, but here’s the plot we’ll use for the next Spider-Man. Go home and draw anything you want, as long as it’s something like this, and I’ll put the copy in later.” . . . Okay, it started out as a lazy man’s device . . . but we realized this was absolutely the best way to do a comic.


—STANLEY MARTIN LIEBER


If America gave anybody anything it is ambition. Bad things would come out of it because some guys are in a hurry, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil or anything, it just means they fall into bad grace somehow. It was hard to find work. A friend of mine was going to go out to get a job because his mother told him to get a job, so he said, I’ll go out and draw pictures and they’ll pay me for them. And his mother said, “No son of mine will become an artist. You’ll sit around with berets in Greenwich Village and talk to loose women.” Of course, mothers were very conventional, everything was very conventional.


—JACOB KURTZBERG





Travelogue



Alex Torrey, nine but small for his age, writes the names of the places on the exit signs in his notebook. Below each, he rewrites the name backwards. He reads them aloud, quietly, so his mother can’t hear him over the radio. Collections of random syllables. Impossible strings of consonants.

It’s tough work. But finding a magic word ought to be. There are useless abracadabras and hocus-poci lying around everywhere, but ones that still have magic in them, that haven’t had it all sucked out, are harder to find. Plucky kid reporter Brian Bryson spent days in the dim-lit archives of the Metro City Public Library, eyes bleeding tears behind thick glasses, before he stumbled upon the word that turned him into Captain Wonder, champion of six ancient gods.

“Excelsior!” Alex says. If it worked for Brian Bryson, it might still have a little magic in it. The word uttered, he is still a boy in the backseat of a Honda Civic. He hmmphs and returns to his list. Pronunciation and emphasis may be the key.

“Ac-aht-i.”

“Olaf-fub.”

“Alu-bath-sa.”

Nothing.

Most of central Pennsylvania had been dull, but occasionally there were Iroquois place names that sounded magical backward and forward. Alex chewed them like gum that refused to lose its flavor, then asterisked them in his notebook as worthy of further investigation.

Now and then, his mother checks the rearview and sees his lips forming odd shapes, but the sounds are drowned out by one sputtering NPR station after another. Alex cannot understand why she can’t bear him talking to her while she drives but she can stand the talk radio prattling on endlessly. As they pass from one station to the next, discussions are repeated, and Alex’s mother seems to take comfort in this. She laughs at the jokes again, nods with more insistent agreement at opinions she’s already heard.

Alex pages back through the notebook to what he wrote yesterday, about their visit to the Idea Man. The G train rocks back and forth like a real train, his notebook says. The Idea Man’s building is like a castle. And on a page otherwise blank, the thing he’d asked for, his parting gift. An idea. Alex feels special that this one was for him, that Louis didn’t write it into the Book like all the others, for anyone who can afford it to read.

There’s a boy. He wakes up in a cave, alone. He doesn’t know where he is or who he is. In the cave with him, there’s a robot, roughly the size and shape of a man. But it’s broken.

Alex tried to get more information, but the Idea Man clammed up.

“Does the boy know how to fix the robot?” Alex asked, and the Idea Man shrugged.

“I’m wondering that myself,” he said to Alex.

Now it’s Alex’s job to wonder, to ponder on it. Where there was nothing, now there is a boy, and a cave, and a broken robot. They form a still, quiet spot in the center of Alex’s mind, a blank made up of information he doesn’t have yet. Things he needs to fill in. Alex runs his finger along the words he wrote yesterday. They still feel carved into the page. Soon they’ll flatten out, but for now they are still paths across the page, still have depth and curvature.

Alex is aware that they’re moving west with some kind of intention, as if they’re checking off things on the way. It’s not simply a trip for the sake of a trip, but he can’t figure what the purpose is. He’s tried to glean as much information as he can—from her, from the Idea Man before they left—but it doesn’t amount to a full story. Something is missing: a motive, some reason.

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