As Dante gets older, his milestones start to overlap with my own childhood memories, sometimes so close that they nearly touch. So indulge me a story please — I’ll connect it soon. When I was six years old, I got a present. It was called The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book. It was your basic book of mazes, word games, puzzles, quizzes, etc., featuring Marvel superheroes. I knew nothing about these guys at the time, though I’d probably heard of Spider-Man and the Hulk. Trying to do the activities in the book showed me that there was a huge universe of Marvel characters, each one of which seemed to have its own compelling costume, superpower, personality, origin story, and so on.
I had to know more. I started pestering my mom and dad for Marvel stuff, and lucky for me, the company was in an expansive phase, publishing a variety of paperbacks (via Fireside Books) reprinting origin stories for various characters (most of whom emerged in the early 1960s) alongside more contemporary tales for some of those same characters. That was how I ended up with Origins of Marvel Comics, and its successors Son Of Origins, Bring On The Bad Guys, The Superhero Women, and so forth. There were character-centric collections too, and about 4 sequels to the original Fun Book.
These books became a cornerstone of my childhood. In fact, I was so fascinated with the Marvel universe that I methodically went through the Fun Book (my original talisman) page by page and devoted a week to every superhero it mentioned. I’d try to learn about the hero of the week, but it would also affect how I dressed, how I played, what decisions I’d make. (“What would Doctor Strange order from this restaurant menu?”) It went deep, and it went on for years. I still love Marvel today.
As I watched Dante approach that same age, I’d offer him the same kinds of things. But he seemed to have very little interest in activity books of any sort, and zero interest in comics and superheroes. In fact, even when I found a copy of Origins for a ridiculously low price at my local comic store and brought it home to him, he literally said, “No thank you,” and it was exiled to his bookshelf to collect dust. By the time he was seven, I’d pretty much concluded that I’d never share superhero stories with him.
Then, last summer, I happened across an online video game that had just launched, called Marvel Heroes. It’s a massively-multiplayer action role-playing game, where you get to choose somebody from a roster of superheroes, then romp through the Marvel universe gaining abilities, gear, levels, and so forth by beating up the bad guys. Oh man it is fun, and I’ve been addicted to it for the past 9 months or so, especially as its fantastic developer team continues to improve it on a weekly basis.
Dante likes to watch me play games sometimes, so he perched by my shoulder as The Thing ran around clobbering various evildoers. He was mesmerized, and started asking me all kinds of questions about the various heroes, as well as the plot points in the game’s story. That story is kind of a “Marvel’s greatest hits”, so I mentioned that the MacGuffin behind the first few chapters (called the Tablet of Life And Time) shows up in the comics, including a story that just happened to be on his bookshelf… in Origins Of Marvel Comics.
So he grabbed the book, and this time he devoured it, along with all my other Marvel Fireside books. He also asked if he could have his own account in the game, and I consented. He chose his account name (“Is ‘3-month-old kitten’ a good account name?”), picked The Thing as his hero, and off he went. My sister bought him a Marvel Encyclopedia, and he dove in, similar to how he’d done with Pokemon in the past. He lost interest after a while, but that didn’t matter to me. He’d learned Marvel, and given us a common vocabulary to talk about this thing I follow.
It occurs to me that Marvel Heroes is the 21st-century equivalent of the Fun Book that so ensnared me. Where 1970s kids had mazes and word games, 2010s kids have incredibly interactive and immersive environments to play in, but they both have that dazzling panoply of characters, costumes, superpowers, and stories. Now that I write it all down, in fact, I’m reminded that almost the same exact pattern happened with Star Wars. So now we play both Star Wars and Marvel games together (including the fabulous Lego variants of each), and in fact he’s recently undergone a Marvel Heroes renaissance, diving back into the game to explore all the stuff that got added after he left.
All I know is that I never get tired of hearing him say, “It’s clobberin’ time!”