Starting At Zero

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By Matthew Derman

My dad is the reason I care about comics at all.

I don’t know the details of how he fell in love with them (bad son!), but he’s been an off-and-on collector for most of his life and all of mine. He had boxes of them in the upstairs level of our garage, and digging through those are sincerely some of the happiest memories from my youth.

That garage had an amazing smell, musty and muddy and warm.

I liked being in there for literally any reason, but flipping through the bizarre and beautiful covers of my dad’s comic collection was the best activity by far. It should be noted, however, that initially I wasn’t looking for actual reading material. I liked the pictures and knew some of the characters, but I wasn’t investing in any of the stories yet. What I wanted were images of superheroes in awesome action poses that I could cut right out of the pages, glue onto cardboard, and use as homemade action figures.

Action figures were where it was at, as far as I was concerned. TV, movies, and collectible trading cards all had a place in my life as well, but the toys were my real love. Not in a serous collector, mint-in-box kind of way—at the time I found that attitude toward action figures quite baffling—but merely as a kid with a big imagination who wanted a bunch of tiny people with which he could tell the stories in his head. I’d watch the ­­X-Men or Batman cartoon shows and they would inspire whole original universes of my own superheroes, and the toys I owned stood in for the characters that I was inventing in my mind. I had plenty of legit, fully moveable, Mattel-made figures, but sometimes I got tired of having the same old things to play with all the time, so I used my dad’s comics as a source for new toys. He was cool enough as a father and casual enough as a reader to let me cut up his old issues, and though I didn’t do it often, that was nevertheless my first use for them.

Eventually, of course, I did start to read comics. I adored them immediately, but only because they were new stories featuring characters I already loved from TV, or had read about on the backs of trading cards (which, by the way, I also used as action figures, smashing them up against each other until they got too bent and folded to use).

The comics were, at first, the least important part of my superhero fandom. The “real” versions were on the TV, and the best versions were the ones I made up on my own, so even though I knew that comics technically came first, they still felt less significant. They were my dad’s things. Glad as I was that he let me explore them, without any ownership or control over them they weren’t as exciting to me as the bins full of plastic people that I could make do whatever I wanted.

Over time, that attitude shifted slightly, especially when a comic book store opened up a few blocks from my house, maybe four minutes away on foot. Lewisburg, PA was a small enough town to only ever have one such shop (and sometimes not even that) so when that lone location was down the street for a while we had to take advantage of it. It was a very different setting in which to browse comics than the dusty garage and softening cardboard boxes I was used to. In the store, there were shelves taller than me from which the comics’ covers could stare me in the face en masse. There were special rare issues hanging on the walls. There were posters and figurines.

Looking back, I can see it for the tiny, dirty, humble store it was, but as a kid it seemed like a magical place with an endless supply of superhero stuff. It had never really occurred to me before where my dad’s comics had come from (because at that age I didn’t think too hard about where my parents got any of the things they got), so walking into the shop was truly a revelation. It was also my first exposure to new comics, all a bit brighter and crisper than my dad’s stuff, most of which was at least as old as I was (only like seven, but still, old enough that I could see the difference right away). The comic book store was a whole new world of well-displayed, bright-and-shiny objects, and I was eager to bring some of them home with me. By then, Spider-Man had a cartoon show, too, and he was the top of the pops in my young heart, so that was where I started.

Still, I was only an occasional shopper, popping in maybe a couple times month with my dad to pick a random issue or two of one of the numerous Spider titles so he could buy it for me. This suited me just fine; I wasn’t concerned with reading full storylines or worried about gaps in my collection yet. I still had my TV programs and action figure fanfic if I was looking for continuity. As far as comics were concerned, I just wanted a new fix now and then, and any single issue would satisfy.

It wasn’t until 1996, right around the time I turned nine, that I ever even paid attention to the numbers on the covers of the comics I was reading. Because that was the year Marvel released Sensational Spider-Man #0.

I can’t recall for certain which came first -- being entranced by the actual physical comic book with its holographic cover (an image surrounded by a field of web-covered white), or finding out about the whole “Peter Parker is a clone of himself” madness and thinking it was just the coolest thing ever. I suspect the clone news preceded the issue itself; it was probably something my dad read about in the paper and thought might interest me. He was not wrong. The Clone Saga doesn’t have a very positive reputation these days, and I’m pretty sure there was a fairly strong backlash even at the time, but nine-year-old Matt ate it up hook, line, sinker, and pole.

It wasn’t just the gimmicky nature of the story that worked for me, though that played its part. At that age, the idea of rewriting such a popular character’s history seemed brave and exciting, as opposed to the foolhardy marketing stunt I suppose it really was. But whatever, for me the appeal had way more to do with the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new character’s story. Ben Reilly, supposedly the real Peter Parker who had been replaced by the clone version years before, was taking over as Spider-Man so that clone Peter could retire to domestic bliss with Mary Jane. That meant I could start at the beginning with Ben, instead of just reading arbitrarily-selected chapters from the middle of ongoing Spider stories like I’d been doing up to that point. A zero issue was a clear invitation to be a part of the start of something, and I accepted without giving it a second’s thought.

Revisiting the comic today, it’s not an especially strong read. But back in ’96 it was phenomenal, something to be poured over and soaked up. I’ve never forgotten Armada, the oh-so-90s super-villain introduced in the issue who would (deservedly) end up nothing more than a minor footnote in Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery. Even the woman who offered Ben Reilly a job at her diner has stuck with me these past 17 years. Because before I even opened the cover, I was already a fan of the issue, and I would’ve absorbed every detail of whatever story it told.

The narrative was immaterial; what I was excited about was the big #0 on the cover and everything it stood for. It had exactly the effect on me that I’m sure its publishers were going for: by providing such an overt jumping on point, they afflicted me with the bug of collectorism, and I’ve never fully recovered.

Of course, at the time I wasn’t self-aware enough to see Sensational Spider-Man #0 as the major turning point in my life it would become. When I got it, I hadn’t yet decided, at least not consciously, to make the switch from reading a few stray comics to collecting every issue of a specific title religiously. But that’s what happened—Ben began his new life as Spider-Man, and I began mine as a devoted collector of comics. It morphed my whole attitude about the medium, and changed the nature of my relationship with my dad as well.

Comics were no longer his thing that I was merely globbing onto. Now they were our thing, a shared interest that we could discuss with equal knowledge and appreciation. Instead of me only borrowing his issues, now we could swap, lending each other books in both directions. It felt like growing up, like I was reaching his level, at least in this area of our lives. Since then, I’ve become a diehard comicbook enthusiast, and he has remained a more laid back fan, but it’s always been a comfortable, happy common ground for us. A ground that sprang into existence beneath my feet unexpectedly when I picked up this particular zero issue.

I followed Sensational for only about a year before getting fed up with the fact that Marvel spread story arcs out over all of their Spider-Man books, so that when I reached the end of a given issue of Sensational, it would tell me that its current tale was going to be continued in Amazing or Spectacular or whatever other Spider-series they wanted me to spend my money on. I didn’t have deep enough pockets to keep up with all of those books, so before long I moved on to following other characters, but I never again saw comics as the less interesting, less important curios they’d always been before. I’ve long since abandoned the cartoons, cards, and action figures, but my comicbook collection has only continued to grow.

Thanks, Marvel. Thanks, Ben. And thank you ever so much, Dad.

Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.