Peter Parker was molested as a boy. FACT. I got misty-eyed reading this. FACT. – Spider-Man and Power Pack
I’ve referenced this comic on multiple occasions, and I figured it was time the Spider-Man/Power Pack sexual abuse comic was highlighted here on the blog. It’s definitely one of the most important and venerable of the many free PSA comics that have been put out over the years, and for a long time I thought I had read it. Turns out I never have, and I’m sure of that. Why am I so sure? Because an event happens in this thin little tome that is UNFORGETTABLE, and mind-numbing in a sad, searing way. One that would be burned into my consciousness had I ever flipped through these pages in the days of yore. Yes, as alluded to in this post’s title, young Peter Parker, the skinny bullied boy with the big spectacles, whose sweaters and ironed pants were like catnip for schoolyard book-dumpers, was molested. And he was molested by someone he trusted, someone who brought a little bit of light into his nerdy, bleak, lonely, orphaned, library-dwelling childhood. Someone who for a little while made him feel like he belonged.
This may ruin your day. You have been warned.
This comic is broken up into two different sections, one centered on Spider-Man, the other around Power Pack, and each talking about a different kind of sexual abuse and the challenges a kid would face in trying to deal with it. I don’t want to belittle the Pack half, because it’s equally well done, but it’s not the show-stealer. That distinction goes to the Parker portion, for the aforementioned reason.
The instigator for the heart-rending Peter flashback is a confrontation Spider-Man overhears in a neighboring apartment, one between a babysitter (Judy) and her charge (Tony), which is prompted by these events:
Spider-Man breaks things up after Judy threatens Tony with violence if he ever tells. And this is when our hero — and Tony’s hero — opens up to the kid, with an “A Boy I Know” flashback:
Coud Peter look any sweeter? And any more unaware of what’s about to fall on his head?
Skip and “Einstein” become best pals, hanging out, doing projects together, and in general giving poor Peter a slightly older friend he so desperately needs. And then:
We never see what was done to Peter. We only know that something was done. A bad something, and, as always, our imaginations are fearsome things when it comes to filling in blanks. I’m imagining bad stuff, and I don’t think I’m off base at all. THERE IS NO LIGHT, THERE IS NO JUSTICE.
Peter told his Aunt and Uncle about this, and when Spider-Man finishes his story, he tells Tony that this kid was him. Now empowered, Tony’s webslung to his parents, and things feel a little righter.
More on all this in one moment.
The Power Pack segment is just as (if not more) harrowing, as the kids come upon a runaway in an alley, a little girl with good reason to have fled her home:
Jesus, you know? Just Jesus. What more can you say?
Back to Peter. I’m man enough to confess that reading about his rough patch brought a few tears to my eyes. Seriously. The tears may not have broken the eye barrier and streamed down my cheek, but the eyes weren’t dry, that’s for sure. The story — stories, actually — are so, SO well put together. (Here’s the talent list: John Byrne, June Brigman, Bon Wiacek – Cover/Nancy Allen, Jim Salicrup, Jim Mooney, Mike Esposito — Spider-Man/Louise Simonson, Brigman, Mary Wilshire, Wiacek – Power Pack.) On the inside front cover there’s a long list of professionals who advised in the making of the book, and in this case there’s no whiff of having to many cooks in the kitchen. Whatever editorial input they had went into honing the message to children, and to that end the job was done masterfully. The story educates without condescension. But it grabs (no pun intended — GOOD GOD no pun intended) on an adult level, too. The art in both stories captures the pain that only a child can experience, that sense of not knowing what’s happening to them and whether they’ve done something wrong to bring it upon themselves. Art is supposed to make you feel. This book made me feel. That the ostracized kid who found a little bit of happiness could have it snatched away so grotesquely speaks to the bullied in all of us. There but for the Grace of God… Peter’s flashback made me want to wrap my arm around him and tell him it was going to be all right. Look at him up there in that panel where he says “Um, hi, Skip!” That’s what got me. There’s young hope in those eyes. Put this together with what comes after, and you want to cry, punch a wall and hang yourself all at the same time. (I only did a little of one of those. The other impulses were there, though, I assure you.)
This comic makes dopey books that clumsily try to encourage reading and interest in the sciences seem horribly glib by comparison. Trite. It operates on another level entirely. Seeing something so terrible happen to the whole-world-in-front-of-him Peter hits home because we know him. The other two victims in this book, though fictional, matter too, but Peter Parker/Spider-Man is a part of our lives. He’s a national myth, hence there’s a reality to him, and that elevates his story into something that truly matters. It’s all just statistics and campfire ghost stories until it happens to someone you know. Peter is part of all our blocks, all our cul-de-sacs.
In that vein, good for Marvel for letting Spider-Man, their flagship, their biggest icon, be a victim of the abuse upon which the comic is trying to shine a light. Nothing could better drive home that this could happen to anyone, and that having it happen to you doesn’t make you a bad person, quite like a real genuine superhero going through the same thing. There was probably a suit somewhere that cautioned against this choice, arguing that doing something like this would damage the almighty brand. Maybe not. But the fact is, Spider-Man is presented here as a victim of sexual abuse in his youth, and he made it through. That’s a powerful message to the people with single-digit ages that make up the target audience, and a good one. (And editorial balls like this makes the artificiality of DC’s OMG WE’RE HAVING A CHARACTER COME OUT OF THE CLOSET LOOK HOW GREAT WE ARE OH AND BY THE WAY WE’RE DOING INSULTING WATCHMEN PREQUELS TOO feel even more off-putting.)
The inside of the back cover has some follow-up on the contents, as well as outdated contact information. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that the epilogues to the two stories are a bit too sunny. (Actually, two complaints: The “MEET THE SENSATIONAL POWER PACK!” blurb on the front is jarring in a serious work like this one.) I guess you need a ray of optimism here and there in life, and kids would need a bit of encouragement if put in similar situations:
No word on what happened to Steven “Skip” Westcott, his Steve Martin hair, his stacks of dirty magazines and his genital-fondling hands. Maybe Uncle Ben beat him to death with a tire iron. Maybe he got some totally ineffectual treatment. Or maybe be grew up, changed his name and became a long-time Defensive Coordinator at Penn State. CHEERY OPTIONS ALL.
Anyway. This book was published in 1984, but its message still has force today. Kids should read it. Adults should read it. The cap is belatedly tipped to all who put it together. This is quality, even if its subject is dark as a moonless night. Excelsior.