The Power of Pop Culture Amazes Me. Truly, at times it can mean more to us than family, friends or even our lives.
You ever had an experience that made you stop and think? No, I don't mean once a year, or even once every month or so, but one that becomes a yardstick for how you measure your life? This is one I had, one I still think about often, even though it’s been almost 20 years gone. I think about my friend Justin, a bright, energetic ten year old, who had to be the biggest Spider-Man fan I have ever seen. Spider-Man is credited by me and by his parents with keeping Justin alive.
I first met Justin’s parents when they came into the video store where I was working. The store was just a couple blocks from Children's Hospital in Seattle, so we would get a lot of parents and kids coming in, looking for movies to pass the time. Pat and Diane came in and asked me if we had any Spider-Man movies. We didn't, (this was way before the Tobey Maguire/Andrew Garfield blockbusters) but I knew there collections of the old TV series, both animated and live, so I said I'd check around. They then asked me if I knew of any comic stores in the area. They had a sick son, and wanted to get him something special, like the first appearance of Spider-Man. I recommended a shop I knew, told them that the first Spider-Man might cost several thousand dollars, but they could get a reprint. They thanked me and said they would take a look at the comic store.
I didn't see them again for several months. By then I’d left the video store and was now working at very the comic shop I'd recommended when Pat and Diane walked in with their two boys. That was when I finally met Justin, or Jus' as he liked me to call him.
Justin had cancer. He was smaller than boys his age, thin and pale with his bald head hidden under a baseball cap. His legs were encased in metal braces, the scars of past operations visible under the straps. He’d spent months at Children’s Hospital, undergoing treatments; his parents watching him grow smaller and sicker each day. The doctors thought Jus' might have it beaten, everyone was holding on to hope. He was due to go home soon, but he would still have to make a five-hour weekly drive each way for his chemo treatments. He wanted to set up a pull box so he wouldn't miss any comics. He hated missing out on things.
The highlight of his week, after the treatments, was coming into the store and getting his Spidey comics. He loved comics. Loved them. Loved everything about them, Spider-Man most of all. He could quote the corniest dialog, tell you which ads were in which issues, and who wrote the most letters to Marvel Comics that month. He read every page, then read them all over again. He'd look at the racks, ask me what was best this week, and then grab the stack from his hold box. He immediately started the sorting. He put each comic into little piles. His dad Pat told me the three stacks Jus' made were: 1) comics to start reading now, right now! 2) Comics that he would get to on the ride home, 3) Comics he'd let his little brother read while Jus read, "the good ones." His parents were letting him use what would have been his college money to buy back issues, and as many new ones as he could read. It keep him distracted, kept his mind away from the cancer and the chemo, the interminable trips, the poking and prodding, not seeing his friends, and facing at best an uncertain future. Like I said, he loved comics, it was his better world.
He reminded me of when I was ten. The fun of summer, the feel of cheap newsprint, the taste of the grape Slurpee I’d buy to wash down Batman’s adventures. I got on some of the comic forums, requesting old Spider-Man comics for Justin. I hoped other people remembered how fun comics could be to a kid. The response I got was fantastic. Several boxes came in from people all over America, with as few as a couple comics, to large boxes of a couple hundred. All people who knew what it was like to have a four-color friend. Justin wrote a thank you note for each stack he got in. He couldn't believe there were that many people who cared and took the time. For weeks there was a box waiting for him every time he came in. He'd tear into each one, and set aside any that he already had. These he'd take back to the hospital to give to the other kids, (This is something the store owner would suggest to people who brought in comics we didn't want to buy, to donate them to the kids, it was a tax write off, and could make you feel good as well) a lot of my old comics ended up there.
The Clone Wars
Each week he'd ask for more news of the current storyline in Spidey, forcing me to read each one, so I could discuss it with him. I never read Spider-Man, not even as a kid, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I even started collecting old issues and reprints. We would discuss the merits of each Spidey comic as it came out. At this time in Spider-Man’s history, Peter Parker was replaced by a clone (or was he a clone?) who called himself Ben Reilly. It was a big stink among the Spidey fans, but Justin was hooked. He couldn't wait until the next week, the next issue, the next adventure. He needed to know what was going to happen.
When Justin finally got the braces off, he just wanted to run again. Well, that wasn’t happening, but he was walking with a cane and looking better than I'd ever seen him. He whipped off his cap to show me the stubble that started to grow back, and gave me instructions to keep his usual comics (and anything else that 'looked cool'). He was going on a week-long trip to Disneyland. He wanted to make sure he wouldn't miss a thing.
I didn't see Justin for about a month. I worried; it wasn't like him not to come in every week, arguing with me about the merits of 'real' Spidey vs. 'clone' Spidey. The Spider-clone story was still going along, still causing turbulence in fan world and winding up or down towards an ending. Jus’ and I had several good debates over the merits of the Spidey-Clone Saga. Me, the traditionalist was in the ‘abomination’ camp, Justin, the newbie 10yr old, loved Ben Reilly, the clone and found meaning and hope in his story. His sheer enthusiasm was winning me over.
I saved his comics, and kept up on the new Spider-Man for him, and kept looking up, waiting for him to walk in the door. When Jus' finally came in, he had his hated braces on again. He looked tired. He smiled, grabbed his comics, but this his little brother had to help him carry them to the table. While Jus’ went through his comics, putting them in order for the trip home, Pat told me the doctors had found several more tumors... they had given Justin six weeks.
Justin and I went through the books, talking about the storyline, and what would happen to Ben Reilly. I still saw Jus’ each week, looking smaller, paler each time. He kept it up for a lot longer than the doctors thought possible. It was no mystery to me. Justin wanted to know what would happen to Peter Parker and Ben Reilly. He didn't want to miss out.
Jus' made it through Thanksgiving, weak, able to eat only a little, but still picking up his comics each week. Until the first week of December. Pat picked up Justin’s' books and said that Justin wouldn't be in anymore. He was too weak to make the trip, but Pat would make the drive to pick them up alone. He shook his head, cradling the comics gently, "I love him, he's my son, I hold him, tell him that it's ok, he doesn't have to fight, not for me or his Mom. But he wants to, he wants to live every second that's coming to him."
When the last issues came out, Justin could no longer read because he could hardly see. His liver had shut down and he was bed ridden, not able to move for himself. We would mail Justin’s' comics to him, to save Pat the time away from his son. Pat would read each story to him. The doctor's said it would be a miracle if he lived till Christmas. His dad told me it was no miracle, it was Spider-Man.
Justin continued to hang in there, just like the clone Ben. He wanted to know what would happen.
Justin out lived Ben Reilly, the Spidey-Clone by two weeks. He was eleven when he died. We got the news by letter, Pat thanking us for helping out his son. I took the last box of comics that arrived from a generous donor to the children’s hospital, telling the nurses if was a gift from Justin.
I love comics, and have been reading them, with a couple falling off periods, since about 1972-73. But I will never love comics as much as my friend Justin. Not nearly as much.
Not enough to keep me alive.