By Steve Englehart, Marvel Comics and DC Comics writer
I wrote comic books for many years — pretty much everybody you’ve heard of, like Captain America, Star-Lord, the Avengers, Batman, the Justice League, the Green Lantern Corps, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Dr. Strange…you get the idea. And while I was doing that, I rarely thought about the sheer number of people on the receiving end of my mass-marketed ideas. But I’ve since come to understand that each one of those numbers had his or her own life, and did what he or she did with it…and so now I run into people doing things like providing kids with proton therapy who say, “I’m a fan.” Which is humbling since the reason I’m meeting them is, I’m a fan of theirs, and of the kids they’re treating.
This all started because another of those unknown readers was Mike Jaszewski, a graphic designer who happened to be life-long friends with Bill Hansen, the director of proton therapy marketing at Varian. Mike and Bill had been talking for years about doing a comic for kids receiving proton therapy, but knew they couldn’t make that happen by themselves. Well, Mike’s girlfriend is Amber Carroll, who’s currently running a program for seniors that my wife Terry created — and so the connection was made.
Now I, as you might expect, knew nothing about proton therapy, so we flew to the San Diego Proton Therapy center and met with Dr. Andrew Chang, who walked Mike and me through the process. I was fascinated by what I was seeing, and what it could accomplish, but part of my brain was also translating it into superhero terms. It seemed to me that simply doing a story about a proton-related hero was fine, but a kid would get more out of a story that took him or her through the actual process he or she would soon be experiencing. Out of that came PROTON-MAN #1, in which a young girl’s doctor becomes the energy that rockets into her body to fight King Crab.
The book’s grand unveiling came at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Mike, Bill and myself were there, along with Tanja Sattler, Varian’s proton therapy marketing coordinator, and Proton-Man himself. Yes, Varian had hired an actor and created a very legit-looking costume based on Mike’s design. The five of us went out to the cancer center, and it could not possibly have gone better. The kids loved Proton-Man, and they loved the comic, and they loved the fact that some of their caregivers thought I was worth being excited about, too. This is what I was talking about when I said you never know who’s on the other end of a pop culture endeavor. But on my end, I was meeting the readers of my latest opus in-person, and my readers were kids with cancer. Those are people many of you meet every day, but it was a new experience for me, and as you might suppose, it was a transcendent one. I had sat in a room by myself writing about an imaginary child who was sick; now I was in a hospital signing comics for real kids.
So, I wrote comics for years, and these days, they’re making movies out of a lot of them…but my weekend in Cincy has to rank right up there with any of that. I thank Varian for having the vision to come up with this project, I thank the kids who get to meet Proton-Man in person or on the page, I thank the doctors who take care of them — and I thank my lucky stars that I wrote PROTON-MAN #1. Now just wait for #2…