It's Time to Hear the Truth After Growing Up Spidey
"Spider-Man No More", like other superhero stories of loss, are so universally true, so much about loss, responsibility, and guilt.
Marvel Tales (Starring Spider-Man) #190Publisher: Marvel
Length: 24 pages
Writer: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Publication date: 1986-08
There's a moving scene in the second issue of DC Comics' summer megaevent mini-series, Convergence. There are two Batmen. One is the Batman that we are all familiar with. His name is Bruce Wayne and he took up the mantle of the bat when he saw his father and mother gunned down before his eyes behind the Monarch Theatre in Crime Alley in Gotham City. The other is the Batman of another world, a world where history unfolded along a different path. This Batman is Thomas Wayne, an older man, a man who took up the mantle of the bat after he lost his son, Bruce, to senseless violence, to mayhem and murder.
The scene, by writer Jeff King and artists Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz, is powerfully rendered. When all else is forgotten about this series, when Convergence has been replaced by the next big event, I will remember this scene. While the rest of this issue is Technicolor bright, frantic and frenetic, this scene is dark as night, calm and cold. While other plot points in this series resolve themselves with remarkable speed and efficiency, what unfolds here does so slowly and with grace. It is not rushed.
The Dick Grayson of that other world is there to witness it. "A wounded father. And a wounded son," he thinks. "Coming to life from opposite ends of the same path. Facing the only person who could ever truly see them for who they are. When kids are young, you lie to protect them. But older, at the end of your life, you don't. It's the time you need to hear the truth."
From Convergence #2 by Jeff King and Carlo Pagulayan, published by DC.
It was my 16-year-old son who told me about this scene, who made me go back and read the issue again, deliberately this time. When I read it, I wondered what it would be like to face my own father, gone the same year that I graduated from college, gone too soon and too sadly, gone without justice or grace. I thought of how our parents shape us, build us, scar us, love us -- then leave us. What, in response, do we become?
This is an old story in comic storytelling. It was an old story in mythology and literature long before there was a Superman and a Jor-El, an Iron Man and a Howard Stark, a Batman and a Thomas Wayne, a Spider-Man and an Uncle Ben. The child who becomes a hero in response to the strengths and weaknesses, the life and the death, of the parent. The human story.
The human story, it unfortunately has to be said, is not just the story of fathers and sons. Mothers are also strong. Mothers also leave their children behind, gone too soon. Daughters also live in shadows, shadows cast by fathers and mothers. Daughters also grow strong and become heroes. It's just that these stories have not so often been told, are still waiting to be told, must now be told—at all cost and at any price.
For me, as a child, it was Spider-Man's story that seemed most poignant, his loss that was most real. Spider-Man, after all, was young, the most near in age to me, especially in those early tales by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, tales that I read in reprints that seemed like holy texts, recent enough to make sense to me, dated enough to seem ancient, primitive, true.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, way back in the summer of 1962, Spider-Man was just a boy. In the words of high school he-man Flash Thompson, Peter was a bookworm who "wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz!" To beauty queen Liz Allen he was "Midtown High's only professional wallflower!" He was just a little older than I was, and just as lost and afraid. Yet Peter became a hero. You could tell he would, too, right there on the very first page, where his timid stance cast a shadow in black and yellow of a character larger than life, mysterious, sure and strong.
From Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko published by Marvel.
But it wasn't the radioactive spider that made Peter a hero. It wasn’t the web-shooters that he strapped to his wrists. It took more than that. Peter, so the story goes, turned his back and allowed his beloved Uncle Ben to die, Uncle Ben who raised him as his own, who woke him in the mornings and squeezed his arms to marvel at how he'd grown, who encouraged him and fed him and kept him safe. Peter let the villain run on by, let the bad guy get away. Uncle Ben, his father in the truest sense of the word, died as a result.
Stan Lee, who seldom let a lesson go unspoken, spoke it here. That was good, that he hit us over the head with it. I was only a kid; I needed it to be pointed out to me, to be said loud and clear. "And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility!"
I can't tell you how that made me feel when I was 11 years old. Perhaps I don’t have to tell you. Perhaps you know.
I can't tell you how it made me feel when, still practically a child, I buried my father and when, just a few short years ago, I buried my mother, as old as the hills, beside him. I suddenly felt like an orphan at 40, wondering if I could bear the responsibility, if I could be the hero that they wanted me to be, that they deserved for me to be.
I probably don’t have to tell you that, either. Perhaps that, too, is something you already know.
I've been Spider-Man practically my whole life. No, that's not right. All my life I've wanted to be Spider-Man. At first I thought this meant a costume and superpowers. Then, only to be a hero, if also mortal and frail. Then, to be responsible was enough.
Batman's genesis, his motivation, first made sense to me a bit later, when I was a teenager. Before that, Batman made sense enough to me without an origin. He was a hero, pure and simple. An adult who fought for right over wrong.
Then I was leaving high school and going off to college and there was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. In 16 panels to the page, we watched the murder of Batman's parents, or rather we watched young Bruce react to that murder. We saw the father's hand on Bruce's shoulder, saw the finger squeeze the trigger, saw the shells leap from the gun, saw the father's hand clench and then relax, saw the mother's pearls stretch and snap and clatter to the ground.
Those pearls kept falling.
From The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, published by DC.
Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989, the year that I graduated from college, the year that my father died. Bruce and his parents leave the Monarch Theatre. The boy is still carrying his popcorn. Jack Napier appears, gun in hand. They all do their dance, their endless dance with the devil in the pale moonlight. Again the pearls fall, with the popcorn, in the rain.
I don’t know why these stories hit me so hard, don’t know why they are so compelling, don't know why they grab me by the scruff of the neck and make me sit up straight, except that they are so universally true, they are so much about loss and responsibility and guilt.
They make me want to be a superhero, to make my parents proud, to honor their memory, to avoid their mistakes. I want to be Batman when I grow up. I want to be Spider-Man.
So I stare at these pages in Convergence, not believing that something in this series has moved me. Then I do the math.
In two years, in the summer of 2017, I will turn 50. That same summer my wife and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. My oldest child, a son, will turn 18 and graduate from high school. My youngest child, a daughter, will become a teenager.
I do the math and I read the page again. I notice what the Dick Grayson who is not Robin has to say. He says, "It’s the time you need to hear the truth."
The truth. I think of a song by Staind, a song called "Fade" that goes: "Now I'm older and I feel like I could let some of this anger fade."
I realize this is the truth and that it is not just the anger that can fade, but also the guilt and the pain and the loss—the past. No longer looking back but, ironically enough here at mid-life, finally looking forward. Not just living in shadows, but casting shadows. No, better yet, casting light.
The truth. My children are much closer than I am to the age Peter Parker was when he was bitten by that spider, to the age Bruce Wayne was when the bat flew through that open window or crashed through that closed pane. It is their lives that hold the promise for heroism, more promise than my own does today, more promise, if truth be told, than mine ever did.
So while the anger fades with the grief and the guilt, the responsibility remains, a responsibility not to the past but to the future, to their future. This must be something that Uncle Ben, a parent, knew even better than Peter, a truth that he lived until he died. With great power comes great responsibility.
Then it hits me. The truth.
I don’t want to be Bruce Wayne. I want to be his father. I don't want to be Spider-Man. I want to be Uncle Ben.
The way that I read comic books may have just changed forever.