Juandering Out Loud: Young Men Deserve Better

The author, Dallas senior Juan G. Rodriguez, and Associate Professor of English Nels Christensen rest their boots on a table alongside issues of the Marvel comic, Moon Knight, which the two have bonded over. Christensen often displays his pink leg warmers around his students, something he does to “mess with their expectations of me as a man” (Photo illustration by Juan G. Rodriguez).

Over the summer, I began immersing myself in the world of comic books. I’d spend days in pursuit of the most recent issues, as well as old back issues, in my beloved – and now departed – Toyota Corolla. Within a few months, I’d amassed a small collection; I’d return home from a day out with the passenger seat occupied by the comics I’d bought with my summer job’s paycheck.

Consistently though, I found myself returning home with one character’s comics: Moon Knight. Regardless of which creative team worked on a given issue, I always took home as many stories of his as I could carry in my arms. Those issues in my collection are my prized possessions; there was no way I’d leave them back home in Texas when the time came to start the fall semester – and I didn’t.

As the semester started, I found myself spending more time in the home of the English department, Vulgamore Hall’s fourth floor. It started with brief stops upstairs to see what snacks they had out on a given day. Steadily though, I began to linger in the lounge, enjoying the puzzles the department had left out for passersby to assemble. While puzzling, I found myself interacting with the folks up there more frequently, be it a subtle nod done as a greeting or an extensive conversation with anyone who had the time.

I’d been frequenting Vulgamore’s fourth floor for some time when I struck up a conversation with Nels Christensen, an associate English professor. Christensen, for the record, has been my professor in the past. I’ve taken a few of his courses and I’ve gotten the chance to get to know him in the past three years I’ve been here at Albion. 

Christensen and I have a rapport that sparks joy in me, one that makes me increasingly grateful for my decision to be an English major. 

It’s because of that rapport that we struck up a conversation about how the summer had gone for me. Excited at the thought of talking about my comic hunting, I began to tell Christensen that I’d been searching for Moon Knight comics back home. I didn’t expect much of a reaction; I figured that he would at least humor me and listen to me infodump about a character that had become a special interest of mine.

However, upon hearing me mention the character, Christensen began to tell me how he’d collected some of Moon Knight’s earliest issues growing up. For fun, he tested my trivia knowledge: “Where was Moon Knight’s first appearance?”

“Werewolf By Night,” I responded. I couldn’t remember the issue numbers, but that was okay; Christensen looked excited and then posed me another question:

“Who did the art for the early Moon Knight comics?”

“Bill Sienkiewicz,” I answered.

I was excited to hear that he and I shared an interest. That excitement grew further once he mentioned that he might still have some of his old Moon Knight comics at home. As cool as it was, I didn’t think anything else of it. All I could focus on was the fact that someone I respected shared a similar interest with me and was willing to talk about it. 

It got cooler though. 

Christensen eventually caught me in the English department’s lounge and asked me to come into his office. Inside, he showed me a tote bag which he’d placed all his Moon Knight comics in. 

He then put forth an agreement: I could borrow his issues of Moon Knight individually, beginning with “Werewolf By Night” issues 32 and 33. Anytime I finished an issue, I would return to his office and trade the old ones out for the next few installments. 

I didn’t hesitate to agree. 

Soon enough, I began lending him some of my comics as well. The Jed MacKay run on Moon Knight, the most recent storyline for the character, was a great departure from what Moon Knight had been in his first appearance in 1975. Still though, it’s been a delight to see the differences and similarities across the years.

One thing that’s become more prominent these last few years has been the theme of getting better; writer Jeff Lemire focused on this idea through the lens of mental health and Moon Knight’s dissociative identity disorder

Mackay follows up on Lemire’s work, as well as Jason Aaron’s characterization of Moon Knight in the “Age of Khonshu” event. This is the bit I want to focus on momentarily because it is crucial. This was the event where Moon Knight fought and defeated some of the strongest characters in comics, such as Thor and Doctor Strange.

It didn’t do anything for his popularity in-universe. Mackay makes it clear to readers that Marc Spector, the man beneath the mask, is under constant watch from the Avengers. Between the therapy sessions we see Spector attend and the reveal that a colleague of his has been spying on him for the Black Panther, it steadily becomes clear that the world around him is weary of his presence. 

Spector recognizes this. He makes it perfectly clear to a colleague of his in issue four of Mackay’s run:

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Done bad things to people. Mostly ones who deserved it, but also people who didn’t. The ones who loved me. Now they’re either dead or they hate me.”

Not everyone has been through Marc Spector’s experiences. Not everyone has carved moons into criminals’ faces, as is seen in writer Charlie Huston’s 2006 run on the character.

But we’ve all done things we’re not proud of. We’ve all hurt loved ones, people who didn’t deserve the pain they had to endure.

As fond as I am of Christensen, is he perfect? No, of course not. He is human, flesh and blood like any of us. He’s doing his best to make it to the end of the day with the hand he’s been given, same as you and me. 

I’ve told Christensen I look up to him; that I respect him greatly. When I did so, he cautioned me to be careful.

“I feel touched and honored that you think those things about me,” Christensen said. “And then a part of me is like, ‘Man if he really knew me he wouldn’t think these things.’”

I took that to heart. I don’t know Christensen the way he knows himself, history and all. 

And that’s okay. Being able to at least say the things I’ve said about him is more than enough for me. I don’t expect perfection out of Christensen; I do expect him to try and be better though. I feel confident holding him to that standard because that’s the one he set out for himself.

“It’s like constant vigilance of not sucking,” Nels said. “The only way to be a not-sucky white person is, every day, to work on not being a sucky white person.”

In turn, I trust Christensen to do the same, to hold me to a slightly edited version of that standard: The only way to be a “not-sucky” man is, every day, to work on not being a sucky man. I trust in Christensen, not only because he’s earned it, but because I’ve struggled to find male role models who exhibit positive masculinity for most of my life.

I’ve been conscious of the way masculinity is characterized throughout daily life. Men must be tough, aggressive and assertive in their desires. Men must be emotionally cut off, cold and frigid as they stare down the world. That’s the spiel I’ve been given. It’s an absolutely miserable way to live, quite frankly. I’d rather die of a bleeding heart rather than emotional hypothermia. Few men older than me feel similarly, though. 

I’m aware that I don’t meet the typical standards for masculinity, as much as I may dress like a knock-off toy soldier, I know I don’t embody the ruggedness that describes my grandfather when he’s out chopping brush.

And that’s okay.

I don’t have to do any of the things that society demands of men in order to be one. I’m comfortable identifying as a man because I know myself. I’m much happier accepting that masculinity is whatever a man does. 

For me, to be masculine means to have a kind heart, gentle hands and open arms. I expect men like Nels: Someone who fronts a typical sort of masculinity – tough and rugged – only to reveal a sincere and open love and admiration for the people in their lives. Masculinity is whatever I say it is; I’m a man and I have the right to determine that, by the sheer and simple fact that I identify as one.

That doesn’t mean that only men embody these traits. Masculinity and manhood are two distinct ideas. I’ve met enough women and folk outside the gender binary who embody these traits better than I ever could. Christensen feels similarly.

“I think it was women and gay men that made me understand most, that are like the best sort of male role models,” Christensen said.

Toxic masculinity would argue that these individuals are lesser. It would argue that the only way to be a man is to be born with the right set of genitals and to be attracted to women. If an individual doesn’t meet both criteria, then they’re not considered men.

Positive masculinity tells us that these men are normal. 

 “There’s a way to be strong and kick-ass without kicking ass,” Christensen said.

Men deserve better. Young men, especially, deserve to be cared for, to grow up surrounded by people who love and support them unconditionally and to have a safety net they can fall back on when they begin to fall. 

We’ve been robbed of that. We’ve been told that we have to look a certain way and act a certain way if we’re to be loved. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the only body worth pursuing is that of a dehydrated Hollywood millionaire and that the only personality we should be striving for is that of an arrogant Internet personality.

Guys, we don’t need to have six-packs or six figures in order to be loved. Intrinsically, we all deserve to be loved because it’s a part of living. A life without love is miserable, regardless of what kind it may be.

It can’t come at the expense of our loved ones though. If we’re taking more than we’re giving, then it falls to us to remedy the difference. Our loved ones already did their part; we have to hold up our end and be better than what we once were. If they’re gonna give unconditional love and support, then they are allowed to make demands of us, to set terms before us, if we wish to be a part of their lives.

“With someone like Jess (Roberts), like demanding that I express my feelings; it’s not okay not to,” Christensen said. “‘If you wanna be here, then you gotta do these things.’ Well, I wanna be here, so I guess I gotta do these things.”

As men, we have to be better if we want to be a part of our loved ones’ lives. To be better though, we need to find people who embody the elements we should strive for. It’s a process that requires us to do some self-reflection.

We, as men, need to evaluate the role models society tells us to admire and determine whether we genuinely want to be like them. If we find ourselves disgusted by what we’re being spoon-fed, then we must dump subpar men where they belong: 

In the trash.

We must actively choose our role models, the individuals we respect. So much of the way we are socialized – as men – pressures us to conform to toxic masculinty’s mold. We’re fed standards to look up to and look down on, men to idealize and men to despise.

We have to curate our palettes based on our experiences to figure out for ourselves what we can digest comfortably. It’s work that we’ll have to do for as long as we call ourselves men, simply because of the way men are expected to act.

“It’s just the daily work and it’ll be done when we’re dead,” Christensen said.

Our loved ones are asking for the bare minimum to facilitate a healthy emotional relationship. We must always be willing to work towards meeting them there.

I don’t have any hope of letting my loved ones down; I’ll do the work until the day I’m ash.

Can you say the same about yourself? Will you be able to live with yourself if you let your loved ones down?

For your sake, I hope so.

About Juan Rodriguez 41 Articles
Juan G. Rodriguez is a senior sharing his time between Dallas and East Texas. He is majoring in English and minoring in Political Science. As an individual with two pencil leads in his left knee, writing seems to be the only career that Juan is capable of. Contact Juan via jgr13@albion.edu.

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