“She can heat anything with her right hand and cool anything with her left! This makes her excellent at hand-to-hand combat, able to defeat any foe with just the touch of a finger. An enemy’s chest plate of armor? Melted straight through their skin. A tidal wave tumbling toward the city? No problem. Sea frozen solid. She needs no weapons or special adornments - just her own unique, powerful flesh. Nothing is impossible for Thermal!”
My heart smiles as I read the cover back of the first ever issue of “Thermal.” It originally belonged to my father, but he bequeathed it to me. That one comic book, those 28 colorful pages, became the first in a long series that I amassed throughout my earlier years.
My father was always a connoisseur of comic books, so it was no surprise that some of the earliest literature I was exposed to was in the form of graphic novels. (In fact, the first book I ever read on my own was a Thermal comic, Issue #4 of Thermal: Journey into the Hero Cave.) My mom hadn’t been thrilled that my dad read stories of what she considered unnecessary violence to a three-year-old as bedtime stories, but she was won over once she saw how I reveled in them and how much joy it gave my father to share them with me.
Thermal essentially defined my childhood. Brave. Witty. Vivacious. She was a heroine unlike any other. She was everything I always wished I had been and that I had aspired to. Even though I knew she was fiction, she was real to me. I knew absolutely everything about her. Or so I thought until I was 11.
Thermal played such a huge part in the formation of my childhood, so I suppose it was only fitting for Thermal to be the one to fracture, and then meld and restructure my adolescence and, really, my whole life.
So before I explain my story – how I came to know, un-know, and then re-know Thermal - it is relevant for me to tell hers. In a sense, her story is my story anyway. So, we’ll start from the beginning, the first issue I now hold in my hands.
One thing I adored about Thermal’s origin story was that hers was so plausible and similar to mine. Her birth name is Callie, mine is Clara. She grew up with her father and younger brother (on Earth) in a suburb in the South. Just like me. Her mother passed away like mine did. She had red hair like mine, but hers was cropped in a curly coif above her ears while mine was straight and spilled down past my shoulders. She gave me - a small, slight, quiet girl - confidence and hope. After all, we were so alike in many ways and she grew up to be an amazing, powerful, kick-ass. If she could become something so remarkable, so could I.
She was not born with her powers. Like many heroes or mutants, her abilities developed during her adolescence and she discovered them on accident. As it goes in the debut issue, on a camping trip one summer with her family when she was 16, her mischievous brother Frank decided to play a prank on her while she was sleeping...
“Man, that practical joke of putting someone’s hand in a bucket of ice water sounds really funny. I know! I’ll try it on Callie,” Frank’s thought bubble reads. The background shows the inside of a sea blue tent with shadows gently covering Callie’s sleeping figure in her fiery red sleeping bag and Frank’s forest green one. (Looking back, I can definitely appreciate the symbolism of the colors in the scene.)
In the next panel, Frank has snuck out of the tent, has a bucket in hand, and is opening the cooler, reaching for some ice. “This will be hilarious, heh heh.” Then Frank is shown chuckling quietly with Callie’s left hand submerged in the ice bucket, followed by his frustration as nothing happens.
“Dangit. Maybe it’s supposed to be boiling water instead?” he ponders. He grabs his canister of tea, the insulated water still piping hot, and pours it into an empty pot. “Not boiling, but still too hot to keep your hand in. Worth a try!”
As the narration panel says, “After dipping Callie’s right hand in the searing water and waiting a few minutes, fatigue overcomes Frank and he sinks into sleep.”
The next morning, Callie wakes to both hands submerged, her left in ice cold water and her right in searing hot water. To the astonishment of both siblings, the water’s temperatures remain as they were the night before.
They are both thoroughly freaked out and, naturally, Frank doesn’t want to alert their father because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. Besides, it must have been a fluke accident, a one-time occurrence, they tell themselves.
Unable to contain her curiosity, the next night, while her brother and father are asleep, Callie takes to the river to test the effects the water has on her. The cold stream water doesn’t turn her left hand numb no matter how long she keeps it underwater. Instead, her right hand turns blue and she is unable to move it after a short while.
She tries the same with the campfire, carefully and quietly reigniting it. Starting with the left hand again, she hovers it over the flame and snatches it away immediately with a sharp pain. She tries the right hand. She’s stunned as her hand glows in the fire, but no pain, no skin burning, nothing. So left hand: insensitive to water temperatures. Right hand: insensitive to fire heat, she determines.
Of course over time and after more covert experiments, she realized that it’s not just water and fire, that each hand was individually resistant to all materials of the different extreme temperatures. Her father soon found out about these strange traits and rushed her to the family physician. It turns out, after multiple tests, that Callie had an exceedingly rare genetic anomaly called acute bilateral thermal analgesia, ABTA. In fact, there were only two other recorded cases of the condition… one of which was her mother. She had kept her condition a secret and had never told anyone, not even her husband or either of her children.
During her spare time throughout her teen years, she pored over medical documents researching her “illness” and attempting to find out who the third reported case was, and testing her gift. Her interest in medicine grew and, by the time she had graduated high school, she was set to pursue a career in the medical field.
Yet, the summer before she was about to start college, an extension to her ability revealed itself. Not only was she numb to extreme heat and cold in her respective hands, but she could produce these temperatures! The strained relationship with her surly 14-year-old brother reached a boiling point one day…
“You’re such a stupid bi-!” Frank shouts at her, the sharp vertical lines drawn around his speech bubble hovering outside of his tense face, fists at his sides.
“DON’T you call me that!” Callie interrupts with shout lines of her own. “And just because I told your dumb little friends they couldn’t borrow my Blu-rays without asking?! It’s called boundaries, Frank.” Her teeth are gritted and she shoves an angry finger at her brother.
“Ugh. YOU wouldn’t understand. YOU don’t any friends.” Frank retorts, his hands thrown up in frustration. The panel background becomes more furious as the siblings’ anger grows.
The next panel is black with a close up of Frank’s grimacing, red face. “You know what? I can’t WAIT for you to leave for college. Things will be so much better around here once you’re gone! Actually, college isn’t even enough. Sometimes I wish you would just DIE!”
The next panels show Callie’s subsequent hurt then enraged face. Next, she irately grabs Frank by the shoulders and both are alarmed when one hand starts freezing one shoulder and the other hand starts searing his other.
The contentious events that followed broke my heart but ultimately are what turned Callie into Thermal. She decided to put her medical career on hold to explore her newfound powers, with her desire to find the mysterious third person with ABTA stronger than ever. Unfortunately, this was not the news that her father wanted to hear. The man who had always supported her now was ready to turn his back on her just because she wanted to investigate who she really was. So, with her brother now refusing to speak to her because and her father threatening to kick her out, she struck out on her own.
I liked the fact that, unlike other superheroes, she never set out to save the world or avenge anyone. Tracking down the only other person in the world who could understand her plight was her aim. The fact that she ended up in showdowns with villains of various kinds was entirely coincidental. In the process, she became known as Thermal. And, as Thermal, she achieved true greatness.
Now that I’ve covered Thermal’s early years, I can tell you more about mine.
I was a lonely kid. It sounds cliché, but my friends were my comic books. While other kids were whooping on the playground chasing each other, I was on the bench in the corner with my nose in a comic book. Other kids begged for the latest trinkets and toys for holidays and birthdays. I asked for the latest Thermal comic books. Even other kids who liked comic books, I couldn’t relate to. None of them knew my Thermal and, to me, their superheroes weren’t super at all.
My dad was always supportive of my hobby. He told me that his dream as a kid was to draw comic books. Instead, he channeled his drawing abilities into architecture. I similarly dreamt of becoming a cartoonist but then followed a more stable career path as a doctor. (Yes, like Thermal had planned.)
All in all, my dad handled his wife’s death extremely well, especially considering he was now a single father. The one change in him was that he became more rigid with solitude and boundaries. He started working from home, so he needed to draw clear lines between alone time and family time, work zone and fun zone. He made it clear to us both that 8 AM-5 PM was “Don’t bother Dad time,” and that, for whatever reason, his office was off limits at all times.
Neither of us really questioned this for years, until the summer when I was 11 and Tim was 8. Dad had recently started working in an office again, so we wondered why going in his office was still forbidden. So, one day while Dad was at work, our boredom and curiosity got the best of us. It was a day that changed my life.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.” Tim whined as he slammed his cards on the coffee table. “How ‘bout we play Truth or Dare?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “If you really want to.” I didn’t, but I was feeling guilty for not having mercy on him during Uno.
“Truth or dare,” he said triumphantly. Wanting to prove I was the brave, big sister who was above this childish game, I chose dare.
Wanting to prove himself as well, Tim went straight for “I dare you to go into Dad’s office!”
“Fine. Easy peasy,” I said, masking my apprehension. I strode down the hall with my brother in tow. Nervously, I eased the door open.
What I saw was a normal-looking office. A desk with stationery and an assortment of pencils, a swivel chair with a sweater on the back, shelves full of both books and comic books, and a drafting table for his blueprints.
I wanted to peek at the blueprints to get a better idea of exactly what it is that Dad did. I saw something tucked under a blueprint draft. I gently tugged it free. It was a Thermal comic book. But “Thermal” was a man on the cover. I flipped through the pages and she was a man there, too.
Something inside fluttered to the floor. It was a piece of paper. A fully illustrated comic book page. The panels matched exactly the first page of the Thermal comic book I was holding… with one key difference. Thermal was as she should be – a woman.
I frantically searched the comic books on the shelf. I took out the first Thermal issue and flipped through the pages. I very cautiously probed the corner of one page with my fingernail. It split into two layers. I delicately peeled the top layer from the bottom. Underneath the Thermal I knew and loved, was an almost identical Thermal, but a man.
Dazed, I left the room. I ignored Tim’s eager questions and glided like a zombie to my room. The more recent Thermal comics in my room were the same. My tiny brain was whirling. Was the male Thermal a reboot? Maybe an alternate version from another country? After some agonizing, I concluded that the only logical explanation was that my beloved Thermal - who I had grown up with, who I had carried with me (in every sense), who, in a way, raised me – had really been a man all along. And that my dad, for some reason, had been painstakingly, intricately tracing the relevant parts of the original Thermal comics, and very carefully inserting every single panel and dialogue that would transform Thermal into a woman.
The moment my dad walked in the door later, I launched a series of panicked questions between my sobs. “Is Thermal really a man? Have you been lying to me this whole time?! I don’t understand! Why, Daddy? Why?” My poor dad, trying to calm his hysteric daughter, ushered me to my room.
“Whoa, there. Calm down. Take a deep breath,” he said in a soothing, paternal tone. “Take a seat on the bed.” I did and he sat right down beside me. He repeated hushed reassurances and my sobs diminished to small hiccups and sighs.
“First of all,” he began, “I see that you’ve been in my office, which is a big no-no. But, since you’re upset and I’m to blame, I’ll let it slide. But don’t do it again. Okay?” I consented.
He sighed. “Yes, Thermal is a man. Yes, I’ve been redrawing the pages and pasting them into the comics before giving them to you.” I started to protest, but he cut me off with a finger.
He looked at the ceiling pensively and, after a moment said, “You’re a smart girl. I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of other comics have male superheroes...” I nodded, still pouting.
“And that, the female heroes there are don’t have a body like most real-life women? Unlike the Thermal you know, which is strong and doesn’t have huge- well, you know. Right?” I muttered an “I guess.”
“When I had a little baby girl,” he paused to smile and pat my little hands, “I realized that wasn’t the world I wanted my daughter to grow up in. So, that very first comic I read to you, I recreated Thermal as a woman. Mostly just to see if I could, since you were too young to really notice. Then you asked me to read you the next edition when it came out, so I did it again. As you grew more and more attached to female Thermal, so did I! I mean, for one thing, she’s awesome-“
“But she’s not real!” I burst out. I couldn’t contain my outrage. “And you lied! You told us always to tell the truth.” I looked at him pleadingly for an answer that would make it all okay.
“I know. I shouldn’t have lied,” he conceded. “But I want you to know that it was for a great reason. Not only was she a special, unique way for me to connect with you. Most importantly, she also taught you from an early age that little girls, that women, are fantastic and unstoppable! They don’t have to look a certain way. They don’t have to be saved by a man. They don’t have to be judged for being who they are. Because that was and still is very important to me that you know that. Even if you don’t fully understand it yet.”
I didn’t yet. I was starting to, as I was at the precipice of becoming a woman. But my dad’s actions still didn’t fully make sense to me.
Of course, it became more salient to me as I grew older.
And, oddly enough, I became more and more like my courageous, intelligent, fierce Thermal without even trying at that point. It’s like I was solidifying into a mold of the woman I was always destined to be. I think it's mostly due to my hard work, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think my dad had a hand in it. His superpower was caring for his daughter. And teaching me that "hero" has no gender. And I'm immensely proud of who I am. I like to think I'm a hero in my own right.
That night, as he was about to close the door behind him, he peeked back in and, in a conciliatory voice asked, “So, Thermal... Should she stay Callie? Or should she be Clarence?”
I made a disgusted face. I hadn’t even noticed that that was the male Thermal’s name. “Ew, gross. Um, let’s keep her- him... er, whatever as Callie. At least for now.”
My dad said nothing, just smiled at me for a long moment. Then, he nodded, turned, and quietly closed the door behind him.