By Mick Martin
My parents introduced my brother and I to religion later than most.
I was baptized into the Catholic Church, I think, at 9 or 10. It was around the time that kids' faces started showing up on milk cartons, and since then my mother confessed something kind of morbid. Religion was never particularly important to her or my father, but with what she thought was the increased threat that my brother or I might be kidnapped, raped, and left headless in a field somewhere, she thought it was important we were on good terms with the Great Beyond.
We were given our choice of religions, but what the hell did I know about religion? I knew there was Christianity and Judaism (and I didn't even know the word “Judaism;” if pressed I likely wouldn't have been able to come up with anything more than “being Jewish”). And I had no idea there were other Christian religions beyond Catholicism. All I really cared about was that Christmas seemed way better than Hanukkah.
For a while, my parents brought my brother and I to St. Theresa's in Albany, New York every Sunday. I was an altar boy and usually my brother and I did service together. I loved all the robes. They made me feel special; rich. We had rope belts and they made me think of colored belts people got when they learned martial arts. I remember holding the gold disc under chins when people got communion. I never understood why, given the choice of taking the wafer in their hands or on their tongues, so many would choose their tongues. That just seemed gross. My most enduring memory is serving mass with my brother and letting out a big yawn that turned, involuntarily, into a belch. My brother and I giggled, but afterward I wondered if I had imagined it. No one else reacted. Nothing but lowered heads and horrible silence.
After Church we would go for bagels. We walked down New Scotland Ave. past my grade school, PS #19, and past some two-family houses to a block of small businesses. The exterior of Bagel Baron wasn't particularly appealing. The outer walls were a deep brown and from the outside the interior always looked dark. Without the sign stenciled in the front window, you might think it was a bar. My favorite part of the sign was the picture of a plane – the old kind, the kind Snoopy flew in his dreams – doing loop-de-loops through the hole of a giant bagel.
Next to Bagel Baron was a gift shop and they had a spinner rack of comics. Usually, either before my family went into Bagel Baron or while they were eating, I was allowed to go to the gift shop to grab a few issues.
I remember the dark, fat thumbs of the guy who used to serve us at Bagel Baron. He was a bigger guy, loud, and not thin. He always wore striped, collared shirts, not quite long enough to keep his belly in. His hair was shiny, black, and always looked like the youngest thing about him. When he asked me what I wanted I was always scared. There was no “Good afternoon” or “Welcome to Bagel Baron, may I take your order?” It was a bark. It was a demand. “Whaddaya want?”
Usually it was an onion bagel with butter. The bagel was soft and smoking warm, never toasted. The helping of butter was generous and there were the delicious little puddles where the melted butter filled holes in the dough. Every now and then instead of butter, I'd get salami, and the salami was a bigger portion of deli meat than any other grown up would ever give me; like six fat billfolds one on top of the other. I washed it down with a can of either Black Cherry or Cream soda. I sat with my family, I ate, and more often than not I flipped through my fresh issue of Incredible Hulk. I'm sure I let the occasional dollop of melted butter hit a page corner or too. As long as they were readable, I didn't care. To be honest, I still don't.
A particular Incredible Hulk storyline accounts for my memory that our time at church didn’t last long. The storyline lasted a year and it was called The Crossroads. Every issue of Incredible Hulk I read at a Bagel Baron was a Crossroads story.
Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme and the Hulk's ally in the Defenders, exiled the Hulk to the Crossroads after his rampages grew too violent. A tree whose branches were all alien limbs stood in the center of the Crossroads and leading away from it were paths to countless portals. The portals led to dangerous worlds. The design of each portal usually hinted at the world's nature. The portal to a world of perpetual, global fire would be wreathed in flame. A portal to a world that was covered in ocean might look like a puddle.
The stories were bleak and the Hulk enjoyed few victories. The Hulk had been rendered almost completely mindless, so that even the rudimentary “Hulk Smash” kind of speech was beyond him. He grunted and howled. Although the increased savagery had lent him even more physical power on Earth, in the Crossroads the added strength meant nothing. The denizens of the alien worlds Hulk visited were more than a match for him. In one issue, a red-skinned child laid him low. In another, the Hulk plowed into an army of animated skeletons only to be defeated by the merest scratch of a poisoned spear. Hulk often made friends on the worlds he visited and usually the friends would either be dead by the end of the issue or they would betray the Hulk, like the bizarre Puffball Collective who spent a half dozen issues winning the Hulk's trust only to set loose a swarm of demons upon him.
The Hulk remained in the Crossroads for over a year, constantly defeated and sad, and severed from the greater Marvel narrative.
I want there to be a connection; a nifty literary parallel between the emerald beast lost in that weird place, and my younger self struggling with the concept of religion. I could sling some bull about roads and paths and doors, but there's nothing there, man. It's vapor. The only connection is where and when I was as I read the stories. It isn't thinking about church and its golden candlesticks and Father Gordon's great jokes that remind of The Crossroads; it's the Crossroads that made me remember I ever cared about church. It is perhaps the most memorable comic book story of my youth. It wasn't and isn't my favorite. It wasn't and isn't the most inspiring. But it was the first comic to make me feel things I didn't think comics could or would make me feel. It was the first comic book story to hurt me, to make me sad, and to make me angry. If old age brings dementia and steals my memory, The Crossroads has the best chance of any funnybook I've read to remain stamped in my mind. And when I think of the Crossroads, I think of the small tables in Bagel Baron, where I ate butter-dripping bagels and read comics by the sunlight pushing through the front window.
I don't remember exactly why we stopped going to church. I believe it was my parents who stopped it without any prodding from me or my brother. I dressed in my nice clothes one hot Sunday, dreading the uphill walk to New Scotland Avenue in the shoes that never fit right, and was relieved when my parents said they didn't want to go. But my older brother stubbornly dragged me with him. That may have been the last time we went to Church when it was light out. I don't know for sure. But I know eventually the number of the lazy Sundays outnumbered the others. We started going only on holiday nights like Easter and Christmas Eve, and eventually not at all. Church left my life with a whimper and a sigh.
Religion never took hold. After grade school, I went to a Christian/military junior high and high school and when my teenage rebellion came, religion was one of its favorite targets. My only religion was punk rock and angry poetry. When mass was held in the school gym, I went with the non-Christian students to the one classroom reserved for us, while an angry track coach gave us the stink eye and told us to shut up and study.
Any kind of overt spirituality returned to my life only within the last few months. And really, I shouldn't say “returned,” because it was never there in the first place. I never cared about spirituality or God when I went to church as a child. God was just someone to beg for favors, to forget once the favors were given, and to blame when they were withheld.
I don’t think anything was denied me. I wasn’t ready for a higher power. Now, at the footstep of middle age, I no longer believe in coincidence. I don’t know if my God will ever have a name. I love life and I believe I’m here because the universe wants me here. Everything else is noise.
Mick Martin is a writer living in Schenectady, New York. He's written about comics and geek culture for over a decade. His blog is Superheroes, Etc.