A Boy Called "Spider-Man"

When I was in high school, one of the Long Island Railroad train conductors would often call me “Spider-Man”. The nickname was not derived from the fact that I bore any resemblance to Tobey Maguire, or spun webs, or had an unhealthy obsession with insects. And he certainly could not have known about my Secret Origin, how I scarred my face for life as boy while emulating my favorite superhero. Don't blame the cartoons; blame my own stupidity in sliding face first down a tree stump, and blame whatever teenagers left broken beer bottles in the underbrush at the base of that stump. My mom kept me away from comic book cartoons for as long as she could, but I'd always sneak a few when she wasn't looking, reruns of those bad ‘70s Marvel shows where they'd just use art from the comics and add slight animation, kind of the predecessor of motion comics. And of course Spider was on The Electric Company, one of those shows my mom did approve.

After years of public school, my folks decided to send me to an all-boys Catholic High School, for a better education and to assuage their fears that I'd become a drug addict or worse. I guess the constant nagging worked since I never did try drugs, but I wonder if I really would have if they weren't constantly asking me if that's why I acted so weird. In any event, while I grew up with a love of comic books, I mostly read them in supermarkets while shopping with my parents. The phrase “This ain't a library!” was well-known to me. Thanks to ‘80s cartoons, I didn't need to read to know who many characters were, and thanks to my favorite, The Transformers, I came full circle from cartoons back to comics when a Transformers comic book featured the wall-crawler. I began buying comic books on a weekly basis thanks to my change in schools. It was several towns away and I had to take the train. I could either rush to leave at the end of the day, with only 20 minutes to make the mile or so to the station from the school, or I could stay over an hour later and catch the next train. Since band was my last period, and local public school toughs would harass students cutting through the park, I was never in a hurry. Once two chased me laughing maniacally, kicking my Baritone Horn case so it kept making my arm swing up in the air. Soon I was taking the long way to the station, which led me to a nearby comic book store, and a place to spend my afternoons while waiting for my train.

And so, every week I'd have a stack of new comics to read on the train. I didn't have a job, but I'd buy smaller lunches and use what was left of the money my mom gave me to work on my collection. Since I always had a comic book in my hand, I was usually greeted with a “How ya doin', Spider-Man?” when the conductor came to get my ticket. A stack at home grew into two stacks, then four, and eight years later I had a bagged collection numbering well over 4,000 issues. When I graduated college and finally got a real job, I also got a real girlfriend, and started spending my money on her instead. There was a pattern to comic book stories, and I had read them long enough to realize the status quo, that there was never any lasting change. It was a perpetual soap opera. A character could be killed off and brought back, someone could be wounded and healed, and any major change would eventually revert to something familiar and old.

I never regretted stopping my hobby any more than I regretted starting it. Comic books inspired me to draw and create, and led to my becoming an art major in college. Good professors steered me away from that dream to the more stable field of graphic design, and I might not be doing ads on a computer today if not for the path I was set upon by my hobby. I made some of the best friends I'd ever make in college, kindred spirits with the same love of the geeky stuff a lonely high school boy buried himself in. We'd go on road trips to conventions and museums, or just sit around drawing and listening to music. Even as an adult, I kept links to comics through blogs and comic book inspired movies. The NY ComicCon has become an annual tradition for me now, and this year it seems a ton of people from my office are going there as well. I know this is a crazy weekend with two gigs and my parents' anniversary, but I'll be at the convention for as long as I can.

I don't wear a costume any other day than Halloween, but I enjoy seeing people dress up, from the professional to the homemade. Of course, you don't have to wear a costume to wear a costume. Maybe going to these conventions in my normal clothing is my way of wearing a costume, of saying I'm “normal” and “ordinary” when there was a time in my life I could recall the plot of various comics by issue number. Just because I don't collect these books anymore doesn't mean I don't maintain an awareness of what's going on in the industry, both professionally and within the stories. And the thing about that old nickname was that I had something in common with Peter Parker. Sure I was a high school kid in a suit, mocked by “cool” kids and keeping to myself. But Spider-Man wasn't a man yet at all; he himself was a teenager. He was still a boy. That's the real brilliance of Stan Lee's creation, that he didn't make this kid a sidekick like every other teen hero. When Peter put on that mask, he became a man. And it was more than a full costume hiding the fact that he was a Spider-Boy. It was what he did with his powers, how he learned to take responsibility and use his gifts to make a difference in the world. Maybe I couldn't stick to walls, or jump high, or lift a car over my head. How many of us can? But we all have gifts. Some of us are good at sports. Some can write or draw. Some are good at math, or talented musicians. Some people write until there's nothing left to write about, and then write some more. I wasn't Spider-Man, and I didn't put on a costume. But I did go on to put on my own face, and go out in the world, and get a job. For as many hours a week I spent on that train with my face buried in four color adventures, eventually that train arrived at my stop, and I had to go out in the real world. The real world wasn't always as colorful, but it had its share of heroes and villains. It was great to read about adventures. It must be fun to write about them. And living them? Well that has to be Amazing....



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