Many men connect to their sons through mutual heroes. While public figures like John Glenn or Colin Powell provide the nexus for some, sports stars like Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith link others. The bond between Max and me, though, is nurtured by a shared affection for a wall-crawling, web-swinging, anxiety-prone superhero. His name is Peter Parker, better-known as the Amazing Spider-Man.
As a kid 35 years ago, I was highly skeptical that anything approaching real life could ever be found in comics. Though their physical powers put them squarely on one side of the bright line between fantasy and reality, the emotional makeup of Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman and their cronies was even more removed from genuine human experience.
The passions of these aces flashed only primary colors; their inner lives were as flat as the pages on which they appeared. Superman may have held sway in Metropolis as Batman ruled Gotham City, but Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne were strictly from Dullsville.
The publisher of these worthies at DC Comics apparently believed their target audience was unfamiliar with Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe, Herman Melville and other storytellers who understood that readers are engaged by epic plots only if they cared about the person inside the cape or cowl.
By the mid-'60s, though, Marvel Comics introduced three-dimensional characters and changed forever the boredom-for-a-dime nature of the genre. Their flagship comic, "The Fantastic Four," for instance, featured the Thing, whose anguish at looking like a nectarine on steroids matched his limitless strength and courage. Another series, "The X-Men," gave birth to a passel of characters whose mutant powers made them the object of distrust and suspicion. Suddenly, superpowers meant super problems.
The bottomless pit of inner turmoil turned out to be Peter Parker, a bespectacled high school science major who developed fantastic powers when bitten by a radioactive spider. Valiant yet vulnerable, ardent but anxious, Parker epitomized the modern superhero, as riddled with guilt as he was with strength. His web-spangled costume and wisecracking persona concealed both his secret identity and his grand insecurities. As complex a champion as ever graced the comics, Spider-Man was a hero any kid could love. Especially me.
And especially (as it turned out) Max. Four years ago, when my then-6-year-old son broke his leg, he spent a great deal of time amusing himself. In between building entire Lego continents and reading 40,000 or 50,000 books, Max devised sagas for his comic book hero action figures. That summer, Batman was the champion du jour, and epics were spun about the exploits of the Caped Crusader, Robin, the Joker and Catwoman.
But Gotham City, despite the depth of its central character, was otherwise populated with too many lightweights to engage Max for long. So when he picked up a seminal issue of "Spider-Man," he was instantly hooked. Powerful yet conflicted, Peter Parker is possessed of an empathetic soul to go with his far-reaching intellect. Max found him hugely compelling.
Soon, his Joker and Penguin were retired in favor of the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. His walls, once the province of the shadowy Batman, were now decked with posters of his favorite web-slinger. Not being the silent type, Max began regaling us at the dinner table with the latest tribulations and triumphs of Parker and his mighty alter ego.
And a funny thing happened. Despite my having abandoned all interest in comic books decades ago, curiosity began to gnaw at me. What was this clone saga I kept hearing about? Who were these new villains, like Venom and Carnage? I peppered Max with questions. Slyly, one day he asked me to read an issue to him. We spread out on the floor of his bedroom, huddled over first one copy, then another, then another. As I read aloud and the story unfolded, Max's small hand rested softly on my arm.
Now, three years later, our weekly sessions poring over the latest exploits of the Amazing Spider-Man remain enormously gratifying for us both. On Wednesdays, when the new issue arrives, Max scans its contents, teasing me with "guess what happens" until we settle down together to examine it in detail.
Recently, Max asked me if I thought he'd still be reading comic books at my age. I told him to ask me again if he ever had a son. When he treated me to his infectious grin, I knew he had made the connection.