When I think of my childhood, I think of all the trappings of the late 1980s and early ’90s—beatable video games, quick-melting Popsicles, dares and double-dares and double-dog-dares. But what was just as present as all these were the color-splashed covers of comic books, the thin periodicals trapped between plastic and cardboard, lined up in a box in my older brother’s room. A superhero Rolodex. My mother’s record collection was treated the same way he treated mine. Sacred. Special. These are treasured and revered just like jewels. They are ancient artifacts, to be looked at and conserved.
To be honest, they were never my personal. And because of that—because they were always at a distance—I thought of them as something to be careful with. They were something that was out of bounds for me. My brother, Allen, made it clear that they weren’t to be touched. As a good brother I obeyed. As a kid, I used to sneak in and grab a Amazing Spider-Man comic out of my sleeve. Then, I would flip through the panels, more interested in the images than the words. Spider-Man creating intricate web patterns on lampposts and walls. Spider-Man swinging and soaring from one building to the next. Spider-Man. . . winning.
But as I got older, Allen, whom I’d catch gingerly turning the pages of his comics, started to talk to me about what he was reading, started to give his little brother some insight about the words on those pages, specifically as they pertained to Peter Parker. Peter Parker was a normal kid, which is what made him different than all other superheroes. This was a big deal to me but an even bigger deal to my older brother—who thought of himself as so regular that he was irregular.
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Allen had challenges. He struggled in school due to a learning difference, and the resources to help back then weren’t nearly what they are now. A round kid with a heavy hand and a meek personality, he’d been teased and bullied most of his adolescent years. Because of the constant tormenting from real-life villains that sometimes played out in his life, he realized it was easier to live inside. It is safer to be in your shell. He wasn’t shy, he was introverted. He was scared. Fearful of other people. You are open to new experiences. Experiences that are new. Afraid he’d make a mistake and be laughed at. For me Spider-Man meant heroic victory. It meant shooting invisible webs at mom and trying to climb walls. But for Allen Peter Parker was about possibility. It was the victory of the underdog. He was referring to vindication of the outsider.
My brother told me that Peter Parker was the first super-teen to behave like a teenager. He was an orphan, raised by his uncle Ben and aunt May, which for us felt normal, not because we were orphans—we weren’t—but because it wasn’t uncommon for people in our family to be raised by extended members. Peter had a tendency to be awkward. He was uncomfortable with his surroundings. Later, my brother and I felt the same way. We begged our mom for brand-name, well-fitting clothes, trying to make ourselves fit. Peter felt insecure and lonely. This, too, was my brother’s story. Because so many had said otherwise, he struggled to believe that his life was worth anything.
Allen Parker was Peter Parker. Allen was Peter. Because of this familiarity, Allen was able to become Spider-Man. He—a boy who actually loved insects, especially spiders (I have stories!)—could mask up, and use the super powers he’d been given due to the toxic bite life had delivered.
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Spider-sense. Allen had the ability to sense bad intentions and villains.
He was a master at wall climbing. He understood how to escape. Anything. Everything.
Web photography. When Allen wasn’t running, he could connect things. His invisible tether was his personality, which he would draw you in once he let go of his inhibitions. It would stay.
And above all these super powers, Spider-Man also helped my brother—a struggling student—to read, which, to me, is the most important weapon of all.
I’ve spent my life believing the Amazing Spider-Man is in my corner, because he built up and fortified my personal superhero. Those pages brought power to my older brother’s life and showed him, showed us both, that a teenager could be more than a sidekick, and that a hero doesn’t have to be perfect. As a matter of fact, Peter Parker, the stumblebum from Queens, showed us that it’s how the imperfections are used that determines one’s heroism.
Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN will be published June 14, 2022, by Penguin Classics, an imprint Penguin Publishing Group, LLC. Foreword copyright © 2022 by Jason Reynolds.
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