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Heroes of the Squared Circle

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What wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. . . . . In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.
--Roland Barthes, "The World of Wrestling"

Clark Kent was eight years old when he fell in love for the first time.

The Topeka Memorial Hall's floor was sticky under his feet as made his way to his seat, goggling at the people setting up the ring. He had never seen so many people in one place, and the low roar of more than three thousand voices rose and fell around him like a swelling tide. Next to him, Pete Ross was nearly shivering with anticipation: it was his birthday, and ever since he found out the DCW (the letters, he would explain to anyone who would listen, stood for "Dynamic Championship Wrestling") was coming to Topeka that day he had begged his father to take him there. Somehow Mr. Ross got tickets nearly at ringside, and the ring loomed above them, much larger than it had ever looked on their televisions on Saturday mornings. The announcer's table was just to the right, and as they set up Clark recognized the son of the owner of the DCW in his trademark neon-purple suit, an incongruously bald young man with a quick, wide smile that he bestowed on fans and road crew alike.

The show began.

Clark had read Pete's wrestling magazines, had watched some matches on television, but nothing had prepared him for the visceral thump when fireworks exploded around the stage, a shock wave of light and sound that electrified the crowd into a living entity.

When Solomon Grundy swaggered to the ring through the curls of smoke, Clark thought he could feel the arena shaking with his steps. He towered over the staring crowd, shaggy hair falling over a beetled brow, his lip curled in contempt. In the ring, he pushed the referee, grabbed the microphone and growled abuse about "hick towns in the middle of nowhere." Indignation choked Clark, a swelling wave of righteous anger; he glared at the monster and yearned for someone to make him eat his words.

As if he summoned them, dazzling spotlights glared and a figure in bold red and green ran into the ring, entering with a leap through the ropes: Mr. Terrific answered the challenge. Clark saw the "Fair Play" emblazoned on his shirt, and his heart leapt as Mr. Terrific dealt Solomon Grundy a mighty blow. But Grundy merely shook it off, his massive head lowering as he struck at Mr. Terrific in turn. The fight was on.

The battle raged for a long time, with many twists and turns and reversals. Mr. Terrific was knocked out with a clothesline and lay limp and helpless in the middle of the ring; EMTs hovered nearby with a stretcher prepared and Clark called out to Mr. Terrific to get up, to not give up. As if hearing Clark's small voice, the lone figure stirred himself to action, staggering to his feet to stand against the menacing giant. With a burst of energy he chopped his hand across the bulging chest, and Solomon Grundy reeled backwards in surprise. Like an enraged bull, he charged at Mr. Terrific--but his more nimble, quick-witted foe dodged out of the way and he crashed headlong into the turnbuckle, sprawling back into the middle of the ring, stunned.

Mr. Terrific climbed up onto the ropes and--as if buoyed upward by the frantic roar of the crowd--leapt out into the air. He seemed to hang forever, defying gravity, until he crashed down on the still form of Grundy, an irresistible blow. One hand on Grundy's shoulder, another hooked around his leg, and the referee counted the villain out. Mr. Terrific had triumphed over evil.

The crowd went mad with joy as the defeated Grundy staggered from the arena, and Clark heard himself cheering with them, his voice just one in the swelling chorus. He was more than half in love already.

The show was one of the DCW's best, everyone agreed on that later. Wildcat battled Eclipso, the Vengeance Demon, and Eclipso threw him into the announcer's table headfirst, leaving blood trickling down his face in a shocking scarlet stream that made Pete gasp and Clark want to cover his eyes, although he didn't. Black Canary's fishnets made Pete blush; her fireman's carry slam made Clark cheer.

It seemed the climax to a perfect evening when the Flying Graysons rappelled down from the rafters, soaring over the crowd, their sequin-spangled bodies lit by searching spotlights. Loiza and Magda Grayson and their son John landed in the ring simultaneously, just as their entrance music hit its high note. John--a handsome young man with a shock of unruly dark hair--grabbed the mic and introduced the newest member of the Flying Graysons--and his new bride. As if his words were an incantation, a fourth figure descended from above, an angel in white, landing with a pirouette in the ring. The crowd went wild as John kissed Mary in the ring, and when the members of the Injustice League ran to the ring to try and assault them the blushing bride got Per Degaton in a scorpion deathlock that made him scream for mercy.

And the main event was yet to come.

Clark was nearly exhausted by the time the final entrance music started, wrung out with excitement and vehemence, but when the first words of Green Lantern's theme rang out (...and I shall shed my light over dark evil...) Clark was on his feet again, cheers rasping his rough throat.

The Green Lantern strode through pools of emerald light, his purple cape swirling around him, golden head held high. Vandal Savage waited for him in the ring, wearing a massive bearskin cloak over his leopard-print loincloth: the self-proclaimed "last of the Neanderthals," rumored to be a cannibal (a friend of Pete's cousin swore he bit a man's ear off in Kansas City). The bell rang, and the two men circled the ring warily, their gazes locked as they tried to get the measure of their foe. As if they both heard some secret signal, they lunged toward each other simultaneously, locking up in the middle of the ring, their brawny shoulders straining against each other.

Green Lantern got the upper hand early, shoving Savage into the corner and delivering a series of mighty blows to his face and chest. Clark craned his neck, struggling to see--surely no one could withstand such an assault. But when Vandal Savage shoved his foe away, Clark's heart fell to realize that there was a feral smile on his face; he seemed entirely untouched by the beating he had just taken. The tables turned, and as they battled around the ring Green Lantern endured an agonizing amount of punishment. He was piledriven headfirst into the ring, punched so hard he flew over the ropes and landed on the concrete floor beyond, thrown into the turnbuckle so hard that his entire body flopped and spasmed. Clark's hands were balled into fists as he stared at Green Lantern's contorted, suffering face, willing him to find the strength to fight back.

As Vandal Savage stared in shock, Green Lantern rose to his knees and then staggered to his feet, indomitable and unbeaten. He brandished his hand with the mystical ring upon it and cried out "No evil shall escape my sight!" in a voice that cut through the screams of the crowd and directly into Clark's heart. Then he plunged back into the battle.

Clark knew then that good would triumph, that the mocking Neanderthal would be sent skulking back to his cave. His faith was complete and absolute, and when Vandal Savage managed to get Green Lantern in a facelock, Clark was sure that it wasn't over for the hero.

And then Vandal--his vast shoulders blocking the view of the hapless referee--deliberately and cooly gouged his thumb into Green Lantern's eye, grinning sadistically at the crowd as he did so.

The hero writhed in pain, throwing off his tormentor with a supreme effort and staggering to his feet once more. But he was half-blinded, unable to withstand the assault any longer, and soon Savage had him pinned in the center of the ring.

There was a heavy hand on Clark's shoulder, and he realized Mr. Ross was holding him back from throwing himself bodily into the ring to help the struggling Green Lantern. His heart pounding, he watched in helpless agony as Green Lantern finally passed out from the pain. The bell rang to end the match and Vandal Savage rose in all his cruel glory to place a contemptuous foot on his back, his head flung back in mocking laughter as the crowd howled at him. And just like that, the night was over.

"Green Lantern'll beat him next week at the big match in Gotham," Pete said, clapping a hand to his shoulder sympathetically. But tears of anger stung Clark's eyes as they trailed out into the crisp fall air--it wasn't fair! It wasn't right! If only he could somehow step into that ring and make it right again, make sure that justice won...

In that moment, in that desperate need to see good triumph, Clark Kent knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.

He spent that winter practicing elbow drops and backflips into the YMCA pool with Pete, trying to outdo each other in height and rotation. When the pool wasn't available, they set up mattresses in the basement and jumped off the couch onto them. When summer rolled around, Pete wheedled his parents into buying a trampoline, and they suplexed each other for hours on end, tossing and throwing each other in infinite variations. More than the high jumping and crazy moves on his own, Clark liked practicing moves that took teamwork: the satisfaction of pulling off a move that needed them both to time everything precisely, the dizzying moment where Pete trusted him to catch him, or to throw him safely into another move. Of course they watched matches, and read magazines, and collected action figures. They practiced cutting promos with a microphone in hand, honing their showmanship to emote anger and exhilaration.

When puberty set in, Pete's enthusiasm waned as he discovered girls and basketball. Clark spent more and more time practicing alone, delivering knee strikes and leg drops to thin air. But he never lost sight of his dream, never ceased pursuing his vision:

To one day fight in the ring for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.