Rather than dwell on some of the sordid elements of the park, such as time I happened upon an active crime scene containing an unfortunate gentleman who was fatally shot in the head on his front porch, let me ruminate on some positive memories from those halcyon, methy days. Specifically, a formative experience that occurred in 1991 at a magical place known as First Mart. First Mart, for those who are unaware (all of you) was a little convenience store at the mouth of the mobile home park, nestled in a tiny strip mall with a handful of other local businesses such as Pizza Broker and...that's all I remember. A haircut place, maybe?
But yes, First Mart. Truly living up to its name, First Mart was the first mart of any sort one would encounter upon exiting Mobileparks West, and also the site of an important milestone in my juvenile life: my first comic book. Well, let me rephrase that. I may, possibly, have read a comic book before that-some Gold Key Tom & Jerry deal or something along those lines-but I had never had any significant exposure to the genre most commonly associated with comics: superheroes. But one fateful afternoon, while trying to decide which cheap treats might best facilitate the early onset on diabetes, I happened to catch a glimpse of something that would change all that.
The image was so arresting that it stopped me in my tracks. What was that horrible thing with a long, slimy tongue and huge, ragged-looking eyes? Why was he snarkily referencing Shakespeare? And was Spider-Man...dead? How could this be? I simply had to know more. Lurid, suggestive imagery had certainly held my attention at First Mart before...the poster for Child's Play 2, the VHS box art of In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (bloodthirsty baboons were big business at the box office back then)...but this was something I could experience without parental approval or VCR access, for the low, low price of only one rumpled, Dr. Pepper-stained dollar. I grabbed it off the spinny rack like a hyena snatching up an unattended infant and rushed to the cashier to claim my bounty.
My adventurousness was rewarded with a suspenseful tale that held my rapt attention. It unfolds with a groggy Spider-Man awakening on a beach, disoriented due to events from the previous issue (which I had never read until sometime in late 2014, incidentally). As it happens, he is stranded on a deserted island with his arch-nemesis Venom (the long-tongued creature from the cover), who has brought him there for one final life or death battle. One thing is immediately apparent: this is no mere flight of fancy, but rather Serious Business. Only one of these guys is walking away. The stakes were high, and I was hooked.
The name of the game here is survival. Spider-Man is up against seemingly impossible odds, as Venom is essentially a more powerful version of him, who is more familiar with their current territory and who has the chameleonic ability to blend into his surroundings. Basically, it's the last act of Predator, if the Predator happened to be spouting insanely violent threats like this:
And much like Schwarzenegger in that legendary opus, ol' Web Head soon realizes that winning a face-to-face fight is out of the question. He is, quite simple, overmatched. As he narrowly evades Venom's savage attacks and stumbles through such eerie locales as an abandoned mining village and a crumbling cemetery, Spider-Man struggles with the fact that, more than likely, he's a dead man. He'll never see a friendly face again. He'll just die, brutally, agonizingly, on this island, all alone save for his deranged murderer. It is a bleak, hopeless sentiment far removed from Tom & Jerry's zany cartoon adventures, that's for sure. Well, except for this one.
Adding to the foreboding atmosphere are several brief asides the story takes focusing on Spider-Man's family and friends. As his wife, aunt and former lover try to go about their daily business, they find themselves consumed with dreadful thoughts regarding the whereabouts and fate of their mutual loved one, who has unexpectedly gone missing and who, frankly, is involved in a pretty hazardous line of work that more than justifies their concerns:
These scenes really show the devastation that the superhero lifestyle can cause, really making the gravity of the situation tangible and personal. But lest you think that nine year-old me was a razor blade and noose afficianado, the story isn't all doom and gloom. These vignettes of emotional torment help pave the way for one amazing panel, one singularly incredible showcase of perfect 90's-ness:
Aunt May's display of awe at a pre-fame Jennifer Lopez's booty gyrations on In Living Color is truly a thing of beauty. But back to the main plot here. After narrowly escaping Venom's numerous attempts to gruesomely murder and cannibalize him, Spider-Man comes to realize that his only hope of salvation lies in the most powerful muscle of all-his brain muscle. So he utilizes the tools at his disposal (a skeleton in a shallow grave and some combustible mine gas) to stage a seemingly fatal explosion, courtesy of Venom's attempt to hurl a truck at him. Ditching his clothes in order to give the feigned death that extra air of morbidity, a nude and exhausted Spider-Man manages to narrowly escape his pursuer, swimming to a cargo vessel which provides means for his return home. Back on the island, Venom gloats, his foe's demise finally putting him at peace.
I just sat there for a moment after I finished reading the comic, the experience leaving me wondering if I was perhaps suffering from awesomeness poisoning. Then I went back and read it again, and again, really savoring every panel of something I loved far more than I had ever expected. And with that, the fuse was lit. I went back to First Mart to get every Spider-Man comic they had, and my fascination just grew from there. My interest in Spider-Man begat my interest in the X-Men, which begat my interest in Ghost Rider and Darkhawk and so and and so forth, like a really dorky book of Genesis. Within months I was reading all sorts of comics, some of which were great and some of which were...not so much.
And while NFL SuperPro was the comics equivalent of CTE, it was in the minority, and I was soon salivating over each new issue of Wizard magazine to find out which new superpowered spectacles were on the horizon. A whole new world had opened up before me comprised of cheap paper, not quite enough different colors and RAPTUROUS ADVENTURE.
I'd be purchasing funny books from First Mart for years to come, even into puberty, when I was buying sexy Gen 13 comics there.
Ah, the mid-90s. But no comic, no matter how butt-cheeky the cover, would ever quite have the impact that Amazing Spider-Man #347 had on me. It started my love affair with superheroes, and cemented ol' Spidey as my undisputed favorite. There's no question that the titular hero's sardonic attitude and life of endless misfortune would have a huge influence on the development of my own Henry Garrison years later. All this from the same place where I used to buy Bazooka bubble gum with change I'd found hidden in the couch cushions. So hey, thanks, First Mart. For this comic book, for the legacy it has created, for the expansion of my own imagination that it inspired, and also for the numerous Pizza Rolls.
Joey Marsilio suggests you check out the superpowered adventures present in his own novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, although there's no lung-eating or Fly Girls to speak of.