He’s a grotesque in primary colors, as much David Cronenberg as Clark Kent. The cartoons and the movies and the coloring books—they usually forget that. The idea of Spider-Man is, at its core, revolting. When it is time to suit up, Superman bears his classically handsome mug. Batman, Captain America, and Green Lantern, at the very least, leave their chiseled jaws exposed. With Spider-Man, everything hides beneath his spandex. Should you be saved by him—hung up in his gangly, yet muscular arms as he swings you off to safety—you’d look into the face of your hero, and there’d be no reassuring grin or playful wink, but, instead, two pupil-less eyelets, teardrop-shaped and alien, staring hugely as if frozen in shock. It would take all you could muster not to scream.
When I happened upon a dog-eared issue of Amazing Spider-Man in my cousin’s basement, I was hooked immediately. At ten years old, I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most other kids. Far beyond bashful, I spent entire school years clammed up, perennially scooched far enough down a lunch table that the only thing I risked brushing elbows with was the applesauce skid along the wall. It was easy to see why I took to Marvel Comics’ resident nerdlinger. Though not yet privy to the exact details, I sensed something about me was off. And, like many kids whose social misfires had been blanketed by the label of “different,” I wanted to believe that my peculiarity was the shadow of some unknown, dormant greatness everyone else was too dense to see.
Just as Spider-Man had been bitten and mutated into something superhuman, I recognized my DNA as similarly scorched. The trouble was I couldn’t figure out what was making me this way—all antsy and shy. The truth of it all, now that I’ve begun to unpack it, is that my parents had been living with undiagnosed mental disorders and balanced out their mania with booze and painkillers. In short, my home life had all the stability of a powder keg. When I try to recall the specific instances of those turbulent years, my memory turns foggy. Paid professionals have explained to me that this is one of the brain’s coping mechanisms. To save you of the gory details, the brain will sometimes splice together long bouts of trauma into a single episode that acts as a prototype of everything that happened. A gruesome highlight package of sorts. If I allow myself to replay my own, I find myself ten years old, frantically dialing 911 on a red, curly-corded phone that my father has ripped out of the wall. Some of mom’s teeth have been knocked out and are sitting in the sink, waiting for her to collect them when this is all over. She is pinned down by my father’s arm, and every time I take a step forward to help, my jelly legs knock over one of the half-finished cans of Budweiser strewn about our living room. When I finally make my way over to them, I grip on to Dad’s forearm and he turns at me with a scowl on his face. He raises his other arm over his head. At this point, the sound kicks in, and I realize everyone is screaming. Dad’s fingers curl in to a white knuckled fist, and, in that moment, the memory gives out. Everything goes black.
Crazy as this sounds, for the longest time I couldn’t source these type of episodes as the origin of my anxiety. I lacked the context. In my shaky understanding of how families operated, this breed of violent episodes was par for the course. Regarding any guilt I could have put upon my parents, my ignorance absolved them. All I could recognize was that, in school, everything seemed to come harder for me than it did the other kids. Without transgressors to charge, my unprocessed feelings weighed on my shoulders like sad-boy barbells halted mid-squat and my guilt turned inward. The problem, I figured, was me. Real life, I’ve come to understand, is hardly kind enough to give the cause of all your problems eight legs and a radioactive glow to ensure your pitiful ass doesn’t miss it. When I started having weekly panic attacks in the fifth grade, the grownups made clear that this was the function of therapy—to waive the Geiger counter, to uncover the elusive cause.
Where Spider-Man factors into the rest of this, I’m sure you can surmise. Throughout everything, issues of Ultimate Spider-Man remained clutched in my hand. (I specify Ultimate Spider-Man as this series focused on teenage Peter Parker. The Amazing series, at the time, had the wallcrawler bumbling around as a thirty-something, teaching high school and rekindling romance with old girlfriends. While I couldn’t recognize the extent of my parents’ abuse of the time, I like to think that some subconscious part of me was aware enough to retool my feelings into a general aversion from anyone older than college age who claimed to be “getting their life together.”) One of my therapists once asked me to identify my role models. While I had yet to understand how problematic my parents’ behavior had been, labeling them a model anything felt like out-and-out fibbing. As I turned over his assignment, my middle and ring fingers instinctively curled inward to reflect Spidey’s web-shooting gesture. When he would later suggest that whatever emotional wound I was tending could be soothed by the presence of Christ, I looked into his ruddy face and quipped that, for his information, the webhead had also resurrected. Twice. Furthermore, I had my doubts the son of our Lord could split a motorcycle in two with his bare hands. Case closed.
I wasn’t this snarky at all of my sessions. In actuality, by the time my parents split up a few years later and my home life calmed down, I’d bought into the idea of the talking cure. Staying healthy all that time, I credit, in part—and I mean this sincerely—to Spider-Man. Not only did his adventures provide a world to escape into but also evidence that there was good to be done by us screwed-up kids. Spidey was a kid who was not particularly handsome or popular, who had a difficult home life, and who tried to always do right while also working his tail off to stay alive. I was happy to count the parallels between his living situation and my own, but I, nevertheless, had struggled initially to consider my own survival at home as something remarkable or even as deserving sympathy. Abused children have a knack for skirting credit that way. In this respect, I suppose, my adoration for the wallcrawler acted as a sort of practice in giving myself praise. Through Spidey, I was teeing up to love myself.
Something I’ve always felt mixed about was the need for a cliffhanger at the end of a comic book. I recognize the need to tantalize the reader, to give them a reason buy next month’s issue, but it always felt like a raw deal that just after Spider-Man had rescued the orphans from the burning building that the Green Goblin decided to break out of jail and start firebombing cars. I always wished for Spidey a day when the police scanner would go hush, and he’d get to perch beside his favorite gargoyle, with his sweaty masked flipped up over his mouth. He’d stay there enjoying the breeze, letting the sore muscles in his back de-clench. So, too, did I hope for a day when my therapist would unlock the door in my head that would let me move past all the trauma that’s now a decade old. I’d slip off the vinyl couch, wet-faced and tired, turning to him as I exited to mention that I’d run out of sad. But I’ve come to learn that the parts of you that have been singed by trauma are still—and forever will be—parts of you. I don’t need a spider sense to tell me that there are panic attacks in my future or that I still have a good amount of rough therapy sessions left in me. All that matters though is that I keep moving on to the next issue, to the next day.
David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Penn Review and RKVRY Quarterly. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his personal narrative “Going Places” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart. Also in 2018, Marchino served as Assistant Director of the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House. Currently, Marchino serves as a Citizen-Artist on behalf of ArtistYear, teaching a creative writing curriculum at Alexander Adaire Elementary in Philadelphia.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #24.