I learned how to read so I could read comic books. At the time, circa 1959, the comics that most appealed to me were the “Classics Illustrated” series featuring adaptations of literary classics like “Robin Hood” and “The Three Musketeers.” According to Wikipedia, the series was created by a Russian-born publisher who “believed he could use the new medium (of comics) to introduce young and reluctant readers to great literature.”

I was young, but I wasn’t reluctant. I ripped through them.

Two years later, in 1961, my reading investment paid off big time with the publication of “The Fantastic Four,” the beginning of what we now call the Marvel Universe. A year later, Marvel introduced Spider-Man, to my young mind, the greatest superhero ever created. He was a smart, geeky, lovesick teenager, insecure and hormonal, and thanks to the bite of a radioactive spider, had superhuman powers. And thanks to his science smarts, he could shoot chemical spiderwebs from wrist devices he created in his lab. Fan-freaking-tastic!

Within weeks, I was swinging from the backyard clothesline, dressed in red pajamas, the closest thing in my closet to a Spider-Man costume. But what was even more fun was the weekly ritual of going to the local drugstore to buy the newest issues. I’d typically go with my grandfather, who, unbeknownst to me, was making the trip to pick up a fifth of Jim Beam, which he secreted in the car glovebox, out of his wife’s sight.

I can still remember my horror when the price of comic books skyrocketed from 10 cents to 12 cents, thereby reducing my weekly stash of fresh reading material. Still, I immersed myself completely in the lives and dramas of The Hulk, Daredevil, Ironman and the entire panoply of Marvel superheroes. We weren’t a religious family, so these freaks of nature became my personal gods, and I worshiped them.

In the process I became a pretty good reader. So thank you, comic books. I owe you.

Today’s kids know the Marvel Universe through the hyperkinetic movies, of which I’ve seen my fair share, with mostly good reviews. I recently sat through the newest webslinger flick, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” with a couple of my grandkids. I fell asleep in the middle of it. Maybe because I’m old now and fall asleep easily in darkened environments, but I’d maintain the problem was deeper.

The movie had its charms (it was funny, and Tom Holland is a believable Spider-Man, despite being a Brit), but the experience was like being bludgeoned with Thor’s hammer. Too much action, too much noise. A completely different experience from quietly reading those well-crafted comic panels as a young, new reader in my own time, at my own speed, lying rapt on my bed or sitting silently on the back-porch steps.

It’s a different world now, and hard for me to tell my grandkids why I think they’re missing something important, watching not reading. But I try. Because with great power comes great responsibility.


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