A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Spider-Man
During the year that I wore a Spider-Man mask — to kindergarten, to the movie theater, to climb our neighbor’s red maple trees — there were only two photographs of me taken. I would blame this remarkably low number on shyness except that I’ve never been shy; instead the responsibility lies with my parents’ longing to believe that they had a brighter, more normal child, a boy who didn’t steal keys, or dance on the jukebox to Devo’s Whip It, or invite himself to strangers’ tables and start eating their dinner — “It’s okay, I brought my own fork.”
The first photograph is a standard pose: I’m standing beside my older sister, who is tall and rakish in a lime green Woodstock snowcap, and I’m glowering with a mix of heroic menace and a desire for ice cream. The second photograph, also with my sister, reveals us seated behind the wheel of my father’s pickup trick.
The picture should be titled “Luckily Spider-Man Isn’t Driving” — not only because I was just five years old, but because I could barely see. The mask was huge, adult-sized, with roomy eyeholes that continually slipped down my cheeks and blinded me. It wasn’t a mask so much as a big red hood, criss-crossed with spidery black lines and cut straight across the bottom. It looked as if I’d emptied a bag of doritos and placed my head inside.
As childhood oddities go, this might not have been so terrible, considering the local competition: Jason Rouleau was eating beetles, Brad Farnier was grabbing electrical fences, and Doug Koombis claimed to be sleeping with his mother. And then there was Mark Ellis, who actually did stuff a bag of doritos over his head once, but I don’t think that counts, because he was making fun of me.
Like most boys I was something between eager and stupid, but unlike Jason and Brad — let’s ignore Doug, as I hope his mother did when he snuggled with exceptional vigor — I didn’t wear the mask to get attention. I wore it because I was Spider-Man. How I was both Spider-Man and a tiny unathletic Greek boy never challenged my upbeat brand of logic. It perplexed my parents, however, two kind baffled immigrants who loved me despite my personality, the only kind of love I trust. Routinely, they asked me to take the mask off for church.
“People will know my secret identity!” I screamed.
“Oh they know who you are,” my mother said.
“Our son,” my father sighed.
“You’ll be in danger!” I warned. “They’ll use you to get at me. Like a hostages.”
“No one will hurt you,” my father said, and squeezed my shoulder.
“Dad, the vulture can fly. What are you gonna do against a flier?”
Today I regret this lack of confidence in my father, not only because the vulture is a fictional character, but even if he weren’t, my father could defeat the vulture simply by staying inside the house and watching television. Spider-Man was always dumb enough to venture outside when the vulture was around, and so he always ended up dangling from the vulture’s ankle in mid-air and being slammed into a billboard. It was Spider-Man’s magnificent lack of strategy that partly endeared him to me; he made the grossest, most ridiculous mistakes, and not only was he incapable of learning from them, but like me, it never occurred to him that perhaps he ought to.
It had been almost twenty years since I had stopped picking up spiders in the hopes that they would bite me and pass on super powers, since I had ceased wishing that my (imaginary yet reluctant) girlfriend would call me Tiger the way Spider-Man’s girlfriend Mary Jane did, nearly two decades after I had taken off my mask — the mask that might now finally fit my head — when I bought an adult-sized spandex Spider-Man costume. The excuse I offered myself was that I had a Halloween party to attend and I was bored of dressing as a vampire, or a priest, or zorro, but the truth is that I had been longing to buy the costume for years, and I had resisted the urge out of a combination of good taste and a begrudging respect for my psychological integrity.
As I unwrapped the clingy blue and red costume in my apartment, draping it against my chest and bare arms and posing in the full length mirror, I deliberated whether to wear it to the party after all. The pros were many: I could climb fire escapes, do handstands, jump on couches, and shout “thwip!” as I sprayed aerosol string in strangers’ faces. And physically I was a perfect match; Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and I were both five foot ten, with short brown hair, brown eyes, and a slender to wiry build. The cons to wearing the costume were simple but significant: acute genital exhibitionism, and it wouldn’t impress women. Women like Batman. Batman is handsome, suave, and passionately driven. Batman is also a millionaire.
You’d be lucky to get a six-dollar bottle of wine from Spider-Man. He is continually behind on his rent. He has no health insurance — an important asset for a vigilante. His boss, a splenetic newspaper editor, only pays Peter for photographs of Spider-Man being beaten up or causing public damage, since he has a personal vendetta against Spider-Man; thus if Spider-Man is triumphing, Peter is starving — a handsome formula for self-hatred. And the bad press Peter haplessly provides Spider-Man ensures that the police often shoot at him as he’s handing them a captured criminal. Behaviorally self-destructive, impoverished, misunderstood, rooming for years in his aunt May’s house, Spider-Man hardly seems worth admiring, let alone emulating at a Halloween party.
And yet along with his peerless wit — sarcasm is an alarmingly rare commodity among people who dress up in colorful spandex and give themselves names like Electro and Molecule Man — his unassuming qualities are precisely what account for his relentless popularity: the millions of comic books, the many cartoon series, the upcoming movie release, his presence on everything from underwear to boxes of lowfat cheez-its.
Even the way in which Spider-Man acquired his powers is defiantly unimpressive: not by being adventurous (like the Fantastic Four who voyaged into space), or by being heroic (like Daredevil, who pushed someone out of the way of a truck), or by being an alien (Superman is from Krypton, a planetary Westchester County where the residents dress like Abba), or even by any exciting birth defect (like the X-Men, mutants who discover they can shoot bolts out of their eyes or chew through steel while other teenagers are shoplifting Oxy-10), but by being a nerd. While attending a weekend science demonstration, Peter Parker is bitten by a dying spider that accidentally wandered into the radioactive beam. As its radioactive saliva enters his bloodstream, Peter is imbued with the proportional speed, strength, and agility of a spider, as well as some vaguely related other powers, like sticking to walls, and the nonsensical “spider-sense.”
Spider-Man’s response to discovering his powers is in equally refreshing contrast to standard superhero myth: he tries to profit from them. Even at the age of four, this made more sense to me than Superman’s inscrutable do-gooderism. Peter disguises his face (the prototypical Spider-Man mask looked like a convenience store robber’s pantyhose) and accepts a wrestling challenge against a bruiser named Crusher Hogan, trounces him easily, and wins the hundred dollar prize. A television producer in the audience invites him onto the Ed Sullivan show, where his sensational appearance makes him an overnight star. While waiting backstage after the performance, Spider-Man watches a burglar race down the hall, pursued by a policeman shouting for help. Spider-Man lets the burglar run by. The policeman catches up to Spider-Man and asks, “What’s with you mister? All you hadda do was trip him, or hold him just for a minute!”
“Sorry, pal, that’s your job. I’m thru being pushed around — by anyone. From now I just look out for Number One — that means — me!”
Unless you’re an Ayn Rand enthusiast, you’ll concede that this comment begs for dramatic retribution. Spider-Man gets it a week later, when his house is burglarized and his Uncle Ben is killed. Spider-Man chases down the murdering burglar, corners him in a warehouse, and discovers — you don’t have to be Joseph Campbell to see this coming — it’s the same man from the television studio! Amazingly, Spider-Man doesn’t kill him, he doesn’t even break his legs, he simply leaves him trussed up in webbing for the cops to find. As he strides away he realizes, ruefully, “with great power comes great responsibility,” or what would have been more accurate: “with great power comes great responsibility, a snug-fitting animal-based costume, and infrequent sex.”
Because although Spider-Man can do extraordinary things — balance on one finger, backflip indefinitely, outsmart a phD with eight metallic arms — his love life is fiercely ordinary. He spends as much time wrestling with girlfriends’ expectations as he does with Kraven the Hunter. Whenever shy but cute Peter Parker manages to secure a date, he invariably ruins it by sensing danger, and then sprinting away to fight crime. Naturally, Peter’s date is insulted by his disappearance, and when he apologizes the next day, it never works, chiefly because he can’t come up with a decent excuse. Bulimia, alcoholism, compulsive masturbation, any of these would work better than “I just can’t explain,” which Peter will whimper as the interior monologue laments: “If only I could tell her that I’m Spider-Man, then she’d understand!” As I grew older, I sympathized more and more with Peter’s tragic situation, since I too often vanished (emotionally) just as I was getting close to a girl, and when pressed to explain myself, I would long to blame it on an alter ego — “It’s Spider-Man’s fault!” Of course, it was always Peter’s fault. It always will be.
Spider-Man did fall in love eventually, a few times, he even got married to his longtime redhead sweetheart Mary Jane — a fact I flirtatiously passed along to a redhead dressed as a sunflower at the Halloween party. The redhead said she could barely hear me and asked me to remove the mask. I raised an eyebrow — uselessly, since facial expressions are invisible when you’re wearing a mask — and then tugged it off. Before she’d had a chance to do more than paw it with her long green evening gloves, a man dressed as Bret Favre came over.
“Let me try on the mask,” he said.
If I’d had spider-sense, I would have anticipated Bret’s arrival, and ducked away with the slim redheaded sunflower. Instead, I watched him place his drink on the fold-out table and reach to take the mask from her. She looked over at me expectantly. I wasn’t sure what kind of confidence I was projecting dressed in my mercilessly slinky costume. All I knew was that this scenario was suddenly too familiar; in my mojito-inspired bliss I’d forgotten the other side of wearing the mask, when every day on the schoolbus Evan Sweeney would yank the mask off of my head and crouch behind one of the seats, waiting for Charlie Cloud to board.
Charlie was a terrified albino who made beeping noises like a truck backing up when he was nervous, which was most of the time. As Charlie walked down the aisle with hesitant, horrified steps, Evan would lunge from behind a seat wearing the mask, causing Charlie to shriek and collapse on the floor. Although the same scenario played itself out every day, Evan hid behind different seats so that Charlie could never predict where he would come from, and mitigate the shock. Charlie sometimes looked over to me for help, but I had none to offer as I sat with my head down and quietly sang my theme song: “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, he’s got radioactive blood. Is he big? Is he small? He’s got radioactive blood.”
When Evan returned my Spider-Man mask to me, I never once objected, or pointed out that the mask was superfluous, that Evan could scare Charlie with a potato chip, I just gratefully slipped it back on. Children, more than anyone, understand power. And it’s Spider-Man’s powerlessness that I empathized with at the delusional age of five. He wasn’t saving the world, he wasn’t saving the country, he was barely saving himself. He was a small-time hero, a nuisance to criminals, his dayjob tortured him, his girlfriends found him exasperating, bullies laughed at him, the police hated him — and yet, despite all of this, he kept at it, cracking jokes while every supervillain in the universe easily shrugged free of his webbing. He was everything that Superman and Captain America, with their shiny rhetoric and untouchable beefcake bodies, were missing: weak. And because he was weak, he was loved. It’s the way of the heart, that stupid bleeding creature that defies logic, to love the foolish, the reckless, the hopeful, to love ourselves.
I watched the football player try on the mask. He put it on backwards. These are our small, vital rewards. We need them — the redhead had walked away.
Originally published as “Arachnophilia” in Tin House (2002), reprinted in Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Reader (2004).