In the parking lot of the Children’s Hospital of Nevada at University Medical Center, Jason Golden is clutching the handle of a wooden cart filled with about 600 comic books, chatting with the Flash, Captain America, Starfire, and Lady Thor as they all await Batman. What mission prompted this unlikely group of heroes to join forces? To transport sick children out of their hospital beds and into the world of superheroes, if only for 28 pages.
In the six years since Golden founded Critical Care Comics, a nonprofit group that delivers comic books to sick children in hospitals — while dressed as superheroes — the team has grown from four to 40 members.
Golden is familiar with the bleak, sterile atmosphere of a hospital ward. At 15, he was diagnosed with acute nonlymphocytic leukemia, and spent more than a year in a hospital bed, receiving high doses of chemo as part of a clinical study. All the while, his mother would drop off stacks of comics to keep his mind off the intensive treatments.
“My first dose of chemo, I know what I was reading. Bone marrow, spinal tap, all that — it’s all here,” Golden says, gesturing to his brain. “I was getting my treatment, but mentally, I’m hanging out with Spidey and Batman.”
Years later, when Golden found himself in a hospital waiting room — with the same old magazines and mind-numbingly dull TV he remembered — he wanted nothing more than a few comics to keep his mind occupied. Suddenly, he was struck with the idea of bringing comic books to patients in critical conditions. Critical Care Comics was born.
Starting with his own collection, Golden began collecting donations from other comic book nerds, encouraging them to part ways with their beloved books in a meaningful way: by passing them on to kids in dire need of an escape.
Though Golden’s personal area of interest is the comic books, he wanted to create an experience. And who better to deliver a stack of comics than the superheroes themselves? Thirty of the nonprofit’s team members are in costume, cosplaying as characters from across Marvel, D.C., and any other comic book universe; all are equipped with knowledge of their characters so as to maintain the integrity of the heroes they’re portraying.
“I wanna suspend the belief,” Golden says. “I want those kids without a shadow of a doubt knowing that that is Batman, that that’s Spider-man, that is Captain America. It helps pull them out.
“At the same time, we vet everyone who wants to get involved, that it’s not like, happy fun-time dress-up hour. You never know what situation you might walk into.”
Golden confesses that when he started, he wasn’t prepared for the weight of what some hospital visits would entail, or the heavy memories of his own illness that would resurface.
“I was just a nerd who wanted to hand out comic books. ... It turned into something much, much more than that. I didn’t realize how much a lot of things would affect me, going back into that environment again.”
As we make the rounds, the very presence of the superheroes creates a buzz throughout the pediatric wing. Cheyenne Wise, the cosplayer portraying Starfire, wears a magenta wig and reflective purple skirt and top set, and enters each patient’s room with a bright, animated enthusiasm that matches her vivid exterior.
“Do you like superheroes?” Wise asks a patient, who nods in agreement. She clutches her chest and lets out a huge sigh of relief: “Good! I don’t know what I would’ve done if you had said no!”
As the heroes make conversation with patients, Golden is outside in the hallway, listening and curating a selection of comic books for the patient based on their interests and favorite characters. As the heroes wrap up their conversation, Golden gingerly makes his way in and passes the personalized stack of comics to one of the heroes, who then hands them to the patient.
“Holy moly ... thank you so much!” one young boy says.
When another patient mentions that his dad is a fan of Deadpool, Golden takes note. He leans into the room and hands a three-inch stack of Deadpool comics to the patient’s mom. “These are for Dad,” he whispers.
The organization maintains a consistent influx of books with the help of local comic book shops, including Cosmic, Celestial, Cheeseboy, and other local businesses such as Grouchy John’s, all of which act as drop-off locations for comic book donations.
“My director of marketing is heading to California this weekend to pick up 60 long boxes of comic books,” Golden says. That’s enough for nearly an entire year’s worth of visits. “If there’s one book in the huge stack that I give them that is the one that pulls them out of where they’re at, I did good.”
As we make our way down the hall, Golden spots a patient reading, already immersed in one of the comic books.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “That right there is the goal.”
For more: criticalcarecomics.vegas