On a rooftop, a burglar holds a gun to Mary Jane’s head because, duh, rooftops are normal hangout spots for burglars and hostages. Spider-Man takes a cautionary step forward. The burglar is shaking and I can see the sweat coming out of his ski mask; my face flattens against the television screen. The wall crawler tells him to take it easy. He takes another step then the bad guy throws Mary Jane off the skyscraper. Using his spider-reflexes and spider-strength, our hero takes two running steps, POW!, punches the burglar in his tummy and knocks the wind out of crime. Then he dives, a red and blue bullet after his other manufactured half. THWIP! He swoops MJ in the knick of time before she splats on the pavement. On the nearest safe rooftop without loitering burglars, his speech bubble reads, “I have you.”
“Please,” reads hers. “I fell on purpose. I have you.”
I peel my face from the glass. I grab my limited edition Spider-Man and Mary Jane action figures and reenact the scene on top of the TV. I make G.I. Joe the burglar because Gumby is too much of a wiener to pull a heist like that. There’s the threat, the throw, the super-punch, the dive, and the save. The pair swings to their happy ending like all the times in the comics and on TV, where the commercials say they are a pair made for each other, sold separately, for a limited time only.
The front door shuts. Dad plops on the sofa. Mom leans on the doorframe under her speech bubble, “Hey, tiger.”
A bubble pops over his sinking body, “Does he really have to watch all that TV?”
“He’s a kid, Peter.” She walks over and straddles his chest and tugs at his uniform. Her power ring flutters in iridescent hues. “Want to get a sitter tonight?”
“Ah, hun.” His chest deflates. Mom’s shoulders collapse. Another speech bubble appears, blocks out the light from the front window, “I’ve been saving the city all day. I can be tired, right?”
Credits file up on the screen. I mash Spider-Man’s and Mary Jane’s plastic faces together and make smooching noises like they should on TV.
I’m six with terrible motor skills and a profound love for pancakes and I spill syrup all over the panels. Preserved under an amber coat, Mary Jane and Spider-Man are doing that trademark upside-down kiss where she rolls off his mask halfway and my cheeks get uncomfortable hot like ugh-yuck-this-is-mega-barf but I can’t stop looking. I yell for Mom. I wait then yell for her again, then yell for Dad. I’m sucking on my sticky fingers down the hall when I see a speech bubble poking out of the bathroom. Moving closer, now sucking on my thumb, it reads, “You’re never around.”
It belongs to Mary Jane. She is on one side of the sink and Spider-Man is on the other, a sea of porcelain between them.
“I’m here now,” reads his. “Why is that not good enough for you?”
“Don’t make it sound like I’m needy,” she volleys. She points to her power ring, a gold band with a diamond, forged from the light of a foreign star that Spider-Man web-wrangled from the sky. Spider-Man has a matching gold one that binds them, though it doesn’t have a power gem. She continues, “It feels like we’re falling apart.”
They go on. Speech bubbles rise and congregate on the ceiling. Their sentences are getting shorter, some words are in big letters, and lots of exclamation points are populating the bubbles. Spider-Man’s spider-sense goes off and he sees me, three fingers in my mouth—my record is four—and he uses a small bubble with really small words. Mary Jane nods and says, “Sweetie, why don’t you run off and play?”
“You guys are my favorite things to play with,” reads my speech bubble. I ask them what’s happening and they both say the same thing so fast their bubbles collide, “Nothing.”
“It’s adult things,” says Spider-Man.
“It’s grown-up stuff,” says Mary Jane. Their bubbles rise into the mass like a school of jellyfish. She snaps. They disappear and then it’s just the one, “It’s just a few words, tiger.”
At Christmas, half the Sinister Six jailbreak from wrapping paper and kidnap Mary Jane. Spider-Man wrestles the Rhino and cages the Vulture before he tangles strings with the Scorpion. All the best Spider-Man villains are animal based and I’m not allowed to have the Green Goblin yet because he said the B-word in a movie once. THUMP! Spider-Man pins his arachnid counterpart to the bookshelf.
“This is not the last time we’ll meet, Spider-Man,” bellows the villain. “Then you will feel the true sting of the Scorpion!”
And THWOK! A huge spider-uppercut sends the bad guy into the hamper of my dirty tighty-whiteys.
THUMP! The big red letters pop from my parents’ wall. Mom and Dad are yelling bad words that put quarters in the swear jar and soap in my mouth. I sit Indian-style and flip open a comic, Mary Jane and Spider-Man in the cradle of my legs. In the panels, Spider-Man throws Scorpion against the wall and the villain delivers his punny one-liner. THWOK! reads the spider-uppercut as it puts the bad guy in the big house.
“Spiders always snare scorpions, chump,” reads Spider-Man’s speech bubble. The web-slinger turns to a crying Mary Jane. Instead of asking if she’s alright or even saying that he loves her, his speech bubble reads, “I’m busting my a** days and nights for this?”
“You think I like coming home from twelve-hour ER shifts to this nosediving marriage? It’s better at work with incontinent patients.”
“Whatever.” He throws up his hands. “I don’t need this.”
“Oh, f*** you.”
In the next panel, his spider-sense goes off. CRASH! A vase explodes on a wall, he takes two running spider-reflex steps, and with one SMACK! Mary Jane crumples to the floor with a soft thump. The Amazing Spider-Man looked at his hands, better made for nabbing her from the throes of danger instead of plunging her into it. He bends to help but she emits a speech bubble in small feeble font, “Don’t,” on a full page spread. Spider-Man hangs his head. Mary Jane pools on the floor. Their figures blacken and their silhouettes drift. The final panels of the issue are vacant of words because sometimes illustrations fill the square spaces better than the dialogue of their characters.
Mom cooks pancakes the next day, which is freaking awesome. It’s Wednesday, not my birthday or even my half-birthday, which is a little weird. The three of us sit in silence except for my bovine chewing of ambitious bites. Weird+weird: Dad drives me to school instead of Mom. He’s in his police uniform and his face is not the normal I-am-dog-tired-from-fighting-crime face or like the I-am-disappointed-because-you-keep-coloring-on-the-walls one, but somewhere in between. Weird+weird+weird: he takes me to the comic store to get Spider-Man comics and then lets me watch Spider-Man episodes on TV instead of doing homework. I spend most of my afternoons smashing the plastic of my action figures and making prolonged sound effects under rather incoherent plot structures. Mom comes home, Dad on the sofa, both watching me ram the pair together, spit flying everywhere.
One day, as Spider-Man is doing the dishes—a healthy regimen of crime and chores—Mary Jane wraps her arms around his waist and burrows her face into his back. The speech bubble above her head reads, “How about you show me how that web-shooter works?”
They fall, not so suddenly. It is not clear how it starts—unlike the finite splat below—but what matters is that they are falling a body length apart and reaching after each other. There’s the Sinister Six, the tooth-gnashing Venom, and the insidious Green Goblin, but the greatest threat is gravity. The most natural of forces. The most surreptitious. The attraction between people or the schism that rips them apart. Gravity accelerates them in freefall. Gravity blurs the world around them. Drawn together but illustrated apart, my heroes reach after each other on the entropic and final pages in last month’s issue.
I check under my pillow, in the hamper through my undies, and even under my bed—the super villain lair—to see if he is being held hostage, but there is no sign of the red and blue. It isn’t the wall-crawler’s style to take vacations because crime is always afoot. I ask Mom if she’s seen him and her speech bubble reads, “Go play with the toys you have. Don’t you have enough?”
“Nuh-uh. They’re a set, duh.”
She stops wearing her power ring and I speculate the worst. But she whips up pancakes and copious amounts of syrup. She takes me to and from school. Her face is hard and plastic at all times, like the day she stepped out of the packaging. I cannot read her thought bubbles. I think I hear her at night sometimes and when I get out of bed to check, she tells me, her voice cracking, Get some sleep, tiger. Don’t you worry about me.
I play with my other toys. Scorpion, Rhino, Vulture, G.I. Joe, Gumby, and Mary Jane. We sit down to pancakes every day, sometimes with strawberries and blueberries inside. All my toys corralled in my arms, we run through decent, but typical plot structures. But let me tell you, that wiener Gumby makes a terrible Spider-Man.
One day a toy appears. He’s big and muscley like Spider-Man. He has terrific posture like Spider-Man. He’s even red and blue like Spider-Man, but his suit is blue, his cape is red, and he wears red tighty-whiteys on the outside, which is just plain weird. But I’m six, and starving for any kind of fun. He introduces himself, says, “Pleased to meet you, big guy.” There’s a butt-chin on a jaw that eats bad guys like cupcakes. He has lots of powers, too: super strength and super speed like Spider-Man, but also X-Ray vision, heat vision, super sight, super hearing, cold breath, and at night, Mary Jane makes funny noises through the wall, which means super stamina. He’s the Swiss Army knife of superheroes with a different power in the folds of his cape to solve all problems.
Above all, Superman can fly. Instead of THWIP!, it’s WHOOSH! and the Man of Steel is there, Mary Jane in his arms, faster and stronger and better than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Their interlocking hands fit well together even though they weren’t crafted to, and I hate that. I hate it more that he fits well in my hand.
“There’s good to be done in the grocery store, on the playground, and even taking out the trash,” reads his speech bubble. The new action figure also has other powers not in the comics, like making mean spaghetti and doing times tables at the speed of light. “I’m not trying to replace your original action figure. Spider-Man is still super cool,” he says, brushing the curl out of his face. “But maybe we could go on patrol some time, like some superhero team-up, some justice league of sorts, big guy.” I hate that I like being called that. Another speech bubble appears, “Even playing pretend should be the stuff of heroes.”
Besides calling them hot cakes, which was super lame, there was something off, like he hurled from a foreign planet, from another set of comic panels to ours. CRASH! into our lives. POW! WHAM! PUM! and down goes Metallo, Brainiac, and Doomsday, the latter who made me pee my bed a little. WHOOSH! and he saves Mary Jane and the crowd goes wild. He teaches journalism at a university and when Mary Jane gets home in her scrubs, he meets her at the door. Even Mary Jane starts to glow and radiate like she has powers or an incandescent star inside of her. She glides besides the Kryptonian, gravity no longer a problem, and Mary Jane’s feet never touch the ground.
Peter Parker swings by sometimes, in a blue Subaru. He gives a timid knock, shakes the Man of Steel’s fortuitous hand, and gives Mary Jane a peck on the cheek, hands on her hips like some spider-muscle-memory from his crime fighting days. Superman’s eyes are lit to incinerate the retired web-slinger.
“Let’s go,” reads speech bubble today. Today he’s still in his police uniform. He smiles at me, as far as the plastic will permit, but I know it’s the this-is-killing-me kind. From the front step, Mary Jane tells us to have fun.
Superman’s speech bubble floats from the house, “Be good out there, big guy.”
“Be good? Big guy? What’s that crap about?” His speech bubble crams in the backseat. Peter Parker’s power ring rests dull on the steering wheel. His jaw is knotted like he’s mad as H-E-double-hockey-sticks. I want to tell him about Superman’s powers. At the door, Superman’s now tender hand gives Mary Jane’s butt a little pinch as they head inside. I certainly don’t tell him about the super-stamina. He continues, “Forget it. That nerd. What should we do today?”
“We can go to the comic store and get a bunch of issues or we can go to the theater. There’s a new superhero movie out.”
“I’ve already seen it,” I say. It’s a lie, but I know how it ends anyway.
We end up at the playground, in a light drizzle, and everybody is leaving. We try the zoo, but it’s closed on Sundays. Animals need a day of rest too, I guess. We end up at the pancake house with buzzing tube lights and old men sleeping in the booths. Peter Parker’s face is scrunched up in that I-should-tell-you-something way but there are no speech or thought bubbles I can read.
“You still like pancakes?”
“Yuh-huh. Pancakes rock,” I say. “And make the civilian waiter man bring another bottle of syrup.”
Two large stacks arrive, warm and fluffy. The butter trickles into the pores. Mine come with blue and red sprinkles. Peter Parker threads a syrup web on his stack. When he hands it to me, I fumble it between the three characters, and the bottle tumbles over itself. CRASH! and it splats on the restaurant floor, shards of glass caught in syrupy stasis.
“Gravity’s a b****,” reads my overhead speech bubble.
Peter Parker’s eyes get as big as the buttermilk stack. His thought bubble says, “Mary Jane is going to kill me,” but his speech bubble reads, “Where did you hear that?”
I look at the syrup seeping through my fingers. In my hands, my action figures are doused in sweet tar and splayed against each other in impossible positions.
My speech bubble appears, “Spider-Man.”
“Spider-Man’s not a thing,” reads his.
“Yeah he is. Green Goblin actually said it.”
Peter Parker’s face runs slack under a thought bubble, “Great power, great irresponsibility…”
The bubbles float above our heads in the booth, keeping us dark. Peter Parker grabs napkins but they catch and shred on the figures. “Which one do you want me to take?”
The next panel shows Superman, Mary Jane, and Spider-Man coated in syrup, tangled in stringy white paper. My hands feel too big for the action figures. There is a tugging at Spider-Man away from the frame. I feel the pages thinning in my fingers, afraid to turn to the next one. I don’t want the story to end. I don’t want to slip it in a plastic sleeve, under piling motes of dust, and my favorite story between these two protagonists to become last month’s issue.
“The story arc is ending,” he says. He is looking up at my thought bubble and pointing to the end of the issue. A few pages left. An incandescence emerges from his pocket and Mary Jane’s power ring sears and crackles on a full-page spread. The tube lights flicker and they sway toward the light. The sleeping men stir. The glass rises in stalagmites from the mess below. It floats and Peter Parker’s fingers hover as delicate, longing satellites around the miniature singularity. The pancake house restores when he stows it away. “But the greatest stories aren’t limited series.”
Michael J. Shymanski is a Polish-American born in San Francisco. He studied creative writing at the University of San Francisco and his writing has been featured in Forth Magazine and Broke-Ass Stuart. He writes, ghostwrites, and currently lives in Madrid, where he is an editor of bilingual literary magazine, Frontera.