Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: All Roads Lead To Spider-Man

People say that exposure in outside media is not going to bring new readers, and especially young readers, to comics. People say that kids have no interest in the characters, that the continuity is too much of an obstacle, and that

People say a lot of stupid things. You want to know the things that got me into superhero comics, which led thereby to the wonderful richness of the full medium I enjoy to this day?

Game Boy and trading cards. True story.

Let's flash back very quickly to the summer of 1990. Batman had dominated theaters the year before, and while I enjoyed that movie, the character himself didn't speak to me enough to get me to seek out the comics. I was always more text-oriented, and the ideas behind the character didn't leap to me off of the screen the way they would have off of the page. So, as yet, I was content with my ALFs and my Disneys, and my Hardy Boys novels. I was still a hair's breadth away from ditching it all for the next thing that might come along. The seeds of geekdom had been sown, but had not yet germinated.

The local library was a frequent stop for me, as I perused not only the Juvenile fiction section, but also the Calvin and Hobbes collections, and the books about games. You see, in late 1989, Nintendo unleashed that two-color electronic crack, the Game Boy, upon the world. And, like any dutiful 8-year-old consumer, I wanted one. Convincing my parents that the purchase would be wise was not hard; essentially, all I had to do was point out that it would shut my brother and me up on vacations, long car trips, etc. And so we each received shiny new bleeping gadgets on the occasion of our semi-annual weeklong vacation to Florida. Tetris and Super Mario Land did their jobs well, and by the time we returned, I was interested in what other games were out there. And also in how to beat them.

Enter a long-since forgotten tome called "How To Win At Game Boy Games." It contained strategies (usually consisting of little more than endless repetitions of "go here and kill this person," still the preferred format at www.gamefaqs.com) on several dozen games. Let me reiterate that at this point, I owned a grand total of two. Nevertheless, I read every damn entry in that book. And one, fairly close to the beginning, spoke to me: The Amazing Spider-Man.

The entry itself was fairly pedestrian; the game was a side-scroller in which the player either walked from left to right or crawled up a building, punching and webbing crooks on the way. But what grabbed me was a snippet of text at the beginning that explained Spider-Man's origin.

Superman and Batman, I had known of for years, but they had always eluded me. I couldn't quite grasp why Superman fought crime, and while I knew about Batman's tragic loss of his parents, I didn't understand very well why it specifically drove him to dress in a costume and punch the Joker, as opposed to, say, donate money to the annual policeman's ball. Superman was powerful, Batman was rich; why did they care about people?

But this Spider-Man guy… he got powers, tried to cash in on them, screwed up, and got his uncle killed. And every time he put on his suit, he was trying to make up for that mistake. At the age of eight, I got that instinctively. Some of it, no doubt, has to do with the fact that I got in trouble a lot at school, and had even cost myself some friendships with my behavior, and knew what it felt like to wish you could take something back, and be willing to do anything to make it right. And I got this from something like ten lines of text in a book about how to beat video games.

Let's now skip forward, to fall of the following year, and the start once again of school. My fascination with Spider-Man had yet only extended to the newspaper strip; comics were slowly vanishing from the It seemed like each year brought some new interest to the schoolyard, something to sweep through our young, impressionable minds the way the cold and flu viruses would through our bodies a few months later. That year, it was the second series of Marvel Universe trading cards, published by Impel. Cards which, by astonishing chance, they sold at the grocery store, and Quiktrip, and a bevy of other places. And this Spider-Man character was on several of them; there was even a specific card for his web-shooters.

And what information was on these cards! Beyond the name and origin, there were power levels, height, weight, hair color, group affiliations, and first appearances. This was indeed a universe; Spider-Man was an Avenger, a group that included such impressive figures as Captain America (he's got a red-white-and-blue shield; cool!) and Iron Man (I had a toy of him; always wondered where he came from). And there were villains, and grudges, and long-disappeared or dead characters, and "rookies." And every card seemed to hint at a story, if it didn't outright tell one (like the "New Fantastic Four" card, which said that the real FF had been presumed dead once, and Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine and Ghost Rider had teamed up to solve their murder -- how could I not want to read that story?). The members of X-Factor were all the original X-Men? Interesting. Rogue stole the powers and memories from someone named Ms. Marvel? Go on. There were two Ghost Riders? I'm intrigued. Red Skull killed Spider-Man's parents? I hope Peter kicked his ass but good!

Digression: This was, as I mentioned, Series II. While the cards were popular, they were dwarfed by the mythic quality of Series I, which you couldn't even buy in stores anymore. Owning even one of these cards was a one-way ticket to fame beyond a nine-year-old's wildest dreams, and the lucky few who owned a large number, or *gasp* an entire set, were looked upon with the mixture of reverence and hatred only children, or Mets fans, can feel.

And that, my friends, is what got me into that wacky modern mythology that is superhero comics. And superheroes begat weekly trips to the comic store, and the comic store begat Wizard, and Wizard begat Sandman and Watchmen and Bone and Understanding Comics, and really, it's a wonder I lost my virginity at all.

And the beauty of it is, it can happen to anyone. All it takes is the right connectionm the right piquing of a child's personal zeitgeist. Get them to try it once, and they're hooked for life.

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