My latest for the Door County Advocate:
I was a skinny, lanky kid who was traditionally one of the last kids picked to be on playground teams because I just wasn’t athletic – what you might call a dork, kind of like Peter Parker before the radioactive spider bit him.
Therefore, Spider-Man was my favorite superhero. He maintained his past dorkiness as a cover, but when he put that mask on, he was free to use his powers to right wrongs and defeat the bad guys. I didn’t do all of this self-analysis, of course; I just loved the stories.
I remember picking up Amazing Spider-Man No. 33 at the news depot in Morristown, N.J., because the cliffhanger to No. 32 was the best ever: With Aunt May near death from a serious illness, Spidey had battled Dr. Octopus to a standstill to retrieve the stolen serum that could save her life, only to have a gigantic piece of machinery crash down from the ceiling and pin him to the ground.
Did I mention this took place in Doc Ock’s lair under the Hudson River, and the roof was leaking and about to collapse?
When I saw that No. 33 had arrived, I could hardly wait to plunk down my 12 cents and see what happened next: The cover showed Spider-Man peering forlornly out from under the wreckage, clinging to the life-saving canister of serum as water streamed from above and pooled in front of him. The episode’s ominous title: “The Final Chapter.”
If the cliffhanger was the best ever, so was the payoff. After the obligatory recap for people so foolish to have missed issue 32, Spidey commenced to try pushing himself up from under the machinery.
At first he’s beaten: “I can’t! – so exhausted – after all that fighting – I – feel so weak –!” But then he starts to rally.
He remembers how Aunt May has stuck by him all these years, and how he failed his late Uncle Ben when it counted, and he vows, “No matter what the odds – no matter what the cost – I’ll get that serum to Aunt May!”
And so he starts pushing. And as he pushes with all his strength, the tons of machinery starts to rise. And as it rises, over the span of four pages, the size of the comic book panels starts to increase. The picture at the bottom of the penultimate page takes up two-thirds of the page, as he says, “It’s moving! Can’t stop now! Last chance! Must keep the momentum – more! Just a little more –!
We turn the page, and in an unprecedented full-page illustration, we see Spider-Man pushing the massive equipment back over his head, arms fully extended, shouting, “I did it! I’m free!”
He still has to get out of the big room before the roof collapses and the river rushes in, and then he has to fight his way through Dr. Octopus’ minions, and then he has to get the serum to Aunt May before it’s too late. But after that opening sequence, masterfully executed by the artist Steve Ditko, you know he’s going to do it.
Ask a longtime Spider-Man fan what their favorite story was, and more often than not the answer will be issue No. 33. It was the completion of Peter Parker’s transition from dork to superhero. From that moment on, he always seemed more confident, more sure he had what it takes to succeed.
I’ve lived to see an era where comic book superhero stories are among the most popular films and TV series, and this is why. OK, we don’t have the proportionate strength of a spider, but we’ve all had moments when the entire weight of the world is on our shoulders and we need to shrug it off. Spider-Man showed us how it’s done.
As long as we have heroes who teach us how to be heroes ourselves, there is hope.