The special February double-issue of The New Yorker (on stands now) contains a short-story from the only author to have won both the Hugo Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Michael Chabon. Though much could be written about Chabon’s genre-bending career, and love of science fiction, fantasy and its related subjects, this piece of short fiction is brand new and quite poignant. In “Citizen Conn” Chabon explores the notions of old friendships forged out of the love of the fantastic, and how those creators effect the lives of fans, and even people who’ve never heard of them.
“Citizen Conn” is told from the perspective of Rabbi Teplitz, a woman working at an assisted living facility in California. The story opens with a mystery: when Rabbi Teplitz decides to check in on the recently admitted Mort Feather, another older gentleman is mysteriously lurking outside the door. This man slides an envelope into Feather’s room before slinking away. Rabbi Teplitz enters the room, meets Mort Feather, who rips up a gigantic royalty check from his old business partner Artie Conn. At this point, Teplitz and the reader are confronted with the main thrust of the story—why won’t Mort Feather make up with his old partner Artie Conn?
In a smart move, Chabon renders Rabbi Teplitz’s husband, David as a massive comic book fan, someone who is astounded that his wife has met a childhood hero, and is also embroiled in one of the oldest-running controversies of the comic book industry. In a recent interview about the writing of this story, Chabon acknowledged the obvious parallels between the Mort Feather and Artie Conn and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. This isn’t the first time Chabon has used comic book industry history as a basis for fiction—the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are at times analagous to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But unlike that novel, this short story tells the story through the lens of how the average lay-person would percieve such industry politics and machinations. Rabbi Teplitz can’t really be bothered with trying to figure out who created which character or what the “The Impossible Zone” even means. Her job is to figure out how to do right by the people under her care, which means trying to maybe, if she can, resolve this dispute between Conn and Feather.
But the story is subtle, and really gestures at a larger world in which even those who have never entered fantastic fandom are influenced by it. The specifics aren’t important as to which comic book character did what, what’s relevant is how much this “trash” changes the world, one fan at a time. The story illustrates this best through a few sketches we’re given of David, Teplitz’s adult man-child super fan. In reference to Conn and Feather’s falling out, Chabon gives us this from David:
“It was the saddest day of my life, when I heard,” David said, trying to sound self-mocking, but unable to conceal the nerdly paint of it. “Way sadder than when the Beatles broke up. And now I can’t believe that one day soon you’re going to come home from work and tell me that Mort Feather is dead.”
The Lennon/McCartney comparison is an obvious specter that pervades much of the story, as is the notion of whose name appears in the credits and how much royalties they receive is central to a lot of what goes on. Depending on who you ask in the real world, either McCartney or Lennon, was a major villain in dividing up that particular flaming pie. In reality, each is to blame on some level. But that famous partnership isn’t the only feud eluded to in “Citizen Conn,” there’s also very deft Hemingway references strewn throughout, which call to mind that author’s infamous spats with Scott Fitzgerald. Mort Feather owns copies of Hemingway books, and he never misses a screening of The Killers in the common area at the home. These kinds of layers help to heighten the reality of the conflict between Feather and Conn, but also help to create a kind of non-reality too. This is after all, a story, one that is designed to move us, and not necessarily depict extremely realistic characters, nor a fully realized world.
I think this is accomplished best in one of the final scenes of the story when Rabbi Teplitz and her husband are attending the funeral of Mort Feather. The story almost side-steps its main story and gives genre fans a little love letter:
The service was the best attended that I was to ever hold at Zion Pointe—more than three hundred comic-book fans and professionals, from all over the world, turned up to mourn the loss along with the over-grown, serious boy I had chosen to marry, that sober, reticent nebbish whose mind contained the residuum of positronic nebulae and atom-powered gods.
And this, to me, is the purpose of writing about genre fiction. It may seem frivolous, and perhaps even petty and sometimes overly-complicated. But these sorts of adventures mold us into the adults we become, who all in turn, shape the world. And as Chabon continues to remind us, comic books and superheroes are very, very serious stuff.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.