A Tale of the Marvel Universe
NOTE: Characters in this story are property of Marvel Comics. No money is being made from this story, no infringement is intended.
The old man stood and watched them come.
Two generations of his family arriving for Christmas Eve, 1999. The one he had sired, with the help of his wife, who still bustled about in the kitchen as wives did on this night throughout the century. The one his son and daughter had created, still young, still in grade school.
But old enough to be told the story.
He wore glasses, now. Not unlike the ones he'd worn as a boy, then abandoned, thinking he'd have no need of them for the rest of his life. Well, age has a way of disconvincing you of such conceits. He turned from his window to look in the dresser mirror. The hair was still there, he'd missed the curse of balding. But the white streaks weren't just in the temples anymore.
The clothes he wore, vest, white shirt, gray pants, they, too, reminded him of his youth. Such a strange, hellish, yet satisfying youth it had been, too. Even for the Sixties.
That was what he had to tell the young ones about tonight. Every generation had to hear the story. This would probably be the last to hear it from one of those who had really been there. Some matters were too important to leave to history books.
He smiled, briefly, and wondered if he'd rate more than a line or two in the textbooks of the 21st Century. Considering some of the things that had been written about him in the 20th, maybe that was for the better.
The doorbell rang. His wife called his name from the kitchen. "I'll get it, babe," he replied, and went to the door.
"Hi, Pop!" said his son George, dressed up in black Navy peacoat, still bedecked with some New York snow.
"Daddy!" said his daughter May, still looking as lovely as her mother had at her age, in a white-furred coat and pantsuit and boots. She had black hair. Nobody had figured out quite where that came from. But both his children managed to find a way to embrace him simultaneously. He grabbed one with either arm, and grinned as he hugged them.
"At ease, you two," he said. "Merry Christmas to you both. Where's the support troops?"
"Over here," said Andrea, his son's wife, crowding through the door with wrapped packages.
"And here," Frank, his daughter's husband, added, herding his son and Andrea's daughter before him. "Merry Christmas, and Happy Y2K. Sorry, no bottled water."
The old man's wife had come out of the kitchen, beaproned and still sweaty from the cooking. "It's almost done, you guys. You can blame him for keeping me too busy to be on schedule today. Anybody for apertifs beforehand?"
"Mom," said his son, handing out the second hug of the evening. "Great to see you as well."
"Ditto," added his daughter, managing to find a hand of his wife's to grasp. "Wish you could make it down more often."
"It's been twice since September," said his wife. "How often do you think Frank wants to see his mother-in-law?"
Frank gave a sheepish grin.
The old man cleared his throat. His son and daughter knew that cue all too well.
"If you would," he said, "I'd like to be alone with the kids for a little while. I'll try to be finished up by dinner."
The boy said, cautiously, "What's on, Grandpop? Not a Santa Claus thing, is it?"
"Oh, behave," said the girl, tiredly. "Granddad's cooler than that. We've been deClaused already."
"Come with me, you two," the old man said. "Don't worry, it won't hurt, it won't cost you anything, and it's not fattening."
The boy thought about making a cutting remark using the last bit, directed at the girl, then thought better of it. There were, after all, grownups present. He and the girl followed the old man into a back room den. The old man shut and locked the door.
The two of them looked at each other warily.
"I'm about to tell you the story," he said. "I told it to your parents a long time ago, when I figured they were able to keep a secret. I'll only tell it to you if you can do the same. No blabbing to your schoolmates, no talking about it to anyone. But it's an important story, and it has to be passed on. And you can pass it on to your kids, when you have some, and so on. So. Think you can keep your lips zipped?"
The boy looked at the girl. She said, "Affirmative, grandpa."
The old man looked at his grandson. "How's about you, brother? Unless you say 'yes', and mean it, I won't give you a word of it."
The boy sighed. "Yes, grandpop. I can keep a secret. How secret is it?"
"Going to tell you about the Fire."
"The Fire of '72," he said, quietly.
"Oh," said the boy. "We know about that. It's in the history books, grandpop."
"How'd you like to know," he said, "about the parts that aren't? Well?"
The girl said, "You know about the Fire, Granddad? Were you there?"
He said, "Yes. In a very important way, I was there. Do you want to hear?"
The boy shifted in his seat. "Yeah. I want to hear. I'll keep it a secret."
"Me, too," she confirmed.
The old man smiled. "Well, then. Let's get started. It starts about 29 years ago. About a year before I became a superhero."
Both of their jaws dropped.
He was proud of that reaction.
He began to tell the story.
It's been almost thirty years since the Sixties. You kids think you know about them, from reading a few books or listening to some old albums of your parents' or watching some movies. Just like us kids back then thought we knew about World War II from watching COMBAT or McHALE'S NAVY. Those were two old television programs.
We didn't. And you don't.
Well, then. The Sixties.
The Fifties didn't end with the Fifties. Eisenhower was still president in 1960. Did you know that? Fifteen years had passed since the end of World War II, by then. We were still basking in the afterglow of victory. We were still all-out opponents of Communism. We were still in the midst of postwar prosperity. We were still, as far as we were concerned, God's chosen nation.
It was a time of confidence, of unquestioned patriotism. A time in which it was not only all right to love America, but in which it was expected of you. And we did. We really loved America.
You were not there then. You cannot know how it was.
Well, we also had a war at that time. A cold one. With the Russians. They weren't quite like they are now, with Boris Yeltsin and the alliance and all that. They were our enemies, and they were led by a bald guy named Khruschev who liked to yell and pound his shoe a lot at the United Nations. Back then, he was as close as we got to a super-villain.
But it was a cold war. We weren't throwing nukes around, or directly attacking each other. That would have meant, as far as we knew, the end of the world. So we did other things instead. Like putting up spite fences. The Berlin Wall, which went up in '61, was one of those. It divided West Berlin, which was under our control, from East Berlin, which was controlled by the Russians. It was big and wide and meant to be just about impossible to cross. A few people managed to cross it, but not many.
We fought turf battles in other nations, using military advisors and weapons which we lent or gave or sold to the countries we were involved with. We slung a lot of angry words at each other. And we did other things to show the world, and ourselves, who was really boss.
Then, one day, above the Earth, the Russians showed us who was boss. In a way. That was the day they put Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut, in orbit around the Earth. That was the start of the space race. The real reason was to show up the other nation by getting into space and doing things first. We weren't so hot on that at first, because a lot of our rockets blew up on the launching pad. It was a good thing we didn't have manned tests at that time.
But we decided that if we could get to the Moon first, we'd put the Russians in their place by doing so. We thought we could make it there by the end of the decade.
Reed Richards thought we could make it there by the start of it.
You know who Reed Richards is? They've told you about him in school? Well, good. Let me tell you about that day in 1961 when the story really began.
He had a thing they called the Pocket Rocket. It had an experimental drive and fuel, much more efficient than what NASA was fooling with at Canaveral. But the government wouldn't let him take it into space, because they hadn't fully approved the design, and because Richards wanted to be the pilot himself. He was sure that, after a successful test flight into orbital space and back, his Pocket Rocket could make it all the way to the Moon.
Reed also knew about experimental rockets being created by a Russian named Ivan Kragoff, who predicted he could be on the moon within two years. The U. S. government didn't much like the sound of that. Reed liked it even less than they did.
So Reed convinced his girlfriend, Sue Storm, and his friend, Ben Grimm, who had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II, to come along with him on an unauthorized test flight. At first Ben didn't want to go up, because he didn't think Reed had installed heavy enough shielding on the rocket. He was worried about Van Allen Belt radiation. But Sue almost called him a coward, and Ben got mad enough to agree to Reed's plan. Johnny Storm, who was a teenager and Sue's kid brother, blackmailed his way onto the flight.
Reed and company bluffed their way into the rocket, saying they were just doing an inspection. Then they ignited it, and it took them into space. The government thought from the radar images that they were getting attacked by the Russians until Reed broke in on the radio and confirmed who he was. They ordered him to come down, but he didn't...not just then.
Don't fidget, youngster. We're getting to the good part. Trust me, okay?
Well. Ben Grimm was right about the radiation. Reed hadn't gotten them heavy enough shielding, and the rocket passed through what was called a cosmic storm. Not your normal kind of Van Allen Belt stuff. It incapacitated them, almost. They had to turn the ship around and crashland on some hilly ground upstate. Luckily enough, none of them were killed, or even hurt. But they found out, after they got out of the rocket, that they were different.
The cosmic storm had given them all powers.
Reed Richards had gained the power to stretch his entire body as if he were 180 pounds of elastic material...which, really, he was. Sue Storm found out that she could become invisible. Later, she learned she could project force fields, and turn other people or things invisible, as well. Yeah, I know you'd like to have that power! Johnny Storm could set his whole body ablaze and fly, just like the original Human Torch.
But Ben Grimm fared the worst, because he was transmuted into a monster. His whole body turned scaly and orange, and he gained the greatest strength anyone had seen in one man since the days of the Sub-Mariner. He was ugly, and was fated to stay that way. The only thing he could call himself was...well...the Thing.
They decided that they had to use their new powers to serve humanity, as corny as that may sound to you, to make up for the mistake they'd made in launching the rocket prematurely. There had been other super-teams years before, in the War...the Invaders, the Liberty Legion, the All-Winners Squad. Reed called their team the Fantastic Four.
For the most part, since 1955, the world had been without super-heroes. On that day in late 1961, the situation changed.
The Fantastic Four moved to New York, they rented a skyscraper called the Baxter Building, and they found themselves some villains to fight. They started out during my freshman year in high school. The Human Torch was just my age. I thought that was neat. I thought he was neater.
The debut of the FF was like the starting gun of a new age of heroes and villains. Early the next year, the Sub-Mariner came back. You know him, right? King of Atlantis, breathes air and water, stronger than anyone this side of the Hulk? He'd been on both sides of the hero / villain line. He continued to be. He fought the Fantastic Four again and again, in the early days.
Right after him, the world's deadliest villain turned up. He was a lot less ambiguous than Sub-Mariner. He wore a suit of solid steel armor, with deadly weapons built into just about every inch of it. His face had been terribly disfigured in an accident that he blamed on Reed Richards. He called himself Dr. Doom, and he wanted to destroy the Fantastic Four and conquer the world. He got pretty close to each goal, every time he appeared. And he appeared a lot.
Just before that, another scientist got caught in a snafu, by which we mean "situation normal, all fouled up". Only the situation was anything but normal. His name was Bruce Banner. He'd created a gamma bomb, which the military liked a lot because it put down a lot of "dirty" radiation. He was at the site where the Army was going to explode a prototype of the bomb. The problem was that he had to save a kid named Rick Jones, who'd wandered onto the test site. Don't ever do something stupid like that, kids, because what happens to you won't be what happened to Dr. Banner. Most likely, you'll die.
Dr. Banner caught the full blast of radiation from the bomb. It turned him into a big green galloot, a monster even scarier and stronger than the Thing. He was like some big child, mentally. But just about nothing could stop him, and when the soldiers saw him, one of them called him "the Hulk". The name stuck. The Hulk changed back to Banner, and nobody back then knew they were one and the same. But whenever Bruce got really stressed or excited, it triggered a reaction in him that would turn him into the Hulk, and whenever the Hulk either calmed down or got stressed beyond even his capacities, he turned into Bruce Banner. He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in real life, but he looked more like Frankenstein's monster.
Only he was stronger than Frankenstein's monster. He was just about the strongest thing on Earth. He wasn't really a villain, but nobody, including himself, could control him.
I met him several times. As strong as I was, I was nothing to him. The Hulk was one of the scariest creatures I ever ran across. Imagine yourself holding two big gallon jugs full of nitroglycerine, balancing on a barrel full of cobras, with some dude shooting a .357 Magnum at you at point-blank range, and the fires of Hell below you. The Hulk is scarier than that. For a time, whenever I had a nightmare, it was colored green.
Now, here's where I come into the picture.
I was born in 1946, just after the War. My parents, your great-grandparents, were Richard and Mary Parker. My dad was a secret agent of the United States government, but I didn't know that. All I knew then was that he was a businessman, and he and mom were gone a lot of the time. I got left with my aunt May and uncle Ben a lot. They were a lot older than my folks, but I loved them, too. Which was good, in a way, because when I was three years old, my parents died. They'd been infiltrating the spy ring of a Commie who was imitating the Red Skull, and he found out and had their plane sabotaged. I didn't learn all this till '69. I hardly knew any of it back then.
Does this sound weird to you? It's true. Every bit of it is true. Here. Let me show you.
Hah. Didn't think I still had it in me, did you? Don't try this yourselves. My powers didn't pass down to you or your parents. You can't stand on the ceiling in your sock feet.
Now then. I'm not as spry as I used to be, but I can still crawl a wall when I want to. Don't interrupt yet, youngster, unless you need to go to the john. You don't, do you? Okay. Let me go on with the story.
As a boy, I wasn't nearly the strongest guy in class...got picked on a lot, and not just because I wore glasses. I was the smartest kid in school, and I wasn't smart enough to keep it to myself. That meant I got beat up a lot after class, when I was young. By the time I'd gotten into high school, I didn't get beat up so much. They'd kinda gotten tired of it. But I didn't get any dates, and I managed to lose myself in the study of chemistry. I knew as much, or more, about that, than my teacher, Mr. Warren. I got good grades, and I was working on being valdectorian.
But I think I would have traded that in for just one day of being Flash Thompson.
He was the local quarterback, football hero, and all that. He had girls hanging off of him like he was James Bond crossed with Burt Lancaster. You don't know who Burt is? Trust me, he could get girls. Flash never beat me up too much, but he poked fun at me a lot. And I couldn't do a thing about it for a long time. Not if I wanted to keep wearing my face on the front of my head.
Anyway...let's skip all that. The most important day of my life happened when I was in my sophomore year, in 1962. I still remember it like it was flash-frozen in time. Flash...guess his name just keeps popping up in my mind.
I wanted to go to the General Dynamics science exhibit. I asked a girl if she'd go there with me, but she said no, and latched onto Flash as he passed by. I asked just about everybody within five feet, and their response was pretty much, "Get lost, bookworm." Just be prepared for high school. Nobody will like you unless you do sports, and nobody will like you afterward if you did them.
So I went by myself, lonesome as always. They were giving a demonstration of how radiation could be transmitted through space. I was standing really close...too close, as it turned out. Because when they turned on the juice and the alpha through gammas started travelling between the poles, that was the moment some big old spider chose to walk down from the ceiling, spinning a web in front of him. He got right in the path of the ray, and zap.
He fell right on my hand. This one here. See? Bit me. No, it wasn't a poisonous spider. But he had been irradiated. And now, in a way, so had I.
I was feeling strange, woozy. I stumbled out of the exhibit hall and tried to get some fresh air. It was like I had double vision for a few minutes. Some strange new elements were being downloaded into my bloodstream, and I didn't have any idea what I was about to become. I stepped off a curb, darn near in front of a car that was coming by. He honked the horn, I turned around and saw him, and I jumped.
I jumped a good twelve feet up in the air, and landed against the side of a building, and stuck there.
Like a human spider.
I couldn't believe it. If there'd been anybody on that side street at the time, I'd have probably been on the front page of the Post or the Times or the Daily Bugle. And I really didn't know what I was supposed to do. I mean, there I was, on the second story of a building wall, with my hands sticking to it like they were coated in super-glue. Didn't seem to be anything I could do except climb. So I did.
I climbed all the way to the top of the building. When I got to the roof, I reached out for a pipe to steady myself, and I bent it all to heck when I grabbed it. By that time, my head was pretty clear, so I knew this wasn't a dream. I'd been hoping it was. But sure enough, that spider had passed on its abilities to me, proportionately. I was strong. Stronger than any normal human. I could climb, using my feet and hands to stick to the surfaces of things. I could leap farther than an Olympics high- or broad-jumper. I was faster, too. On top of all that, I had a strange, sixth sense that'd start tingling whenever I was in danger, or when something just wasn't kosher. I called it my Spider Sense.
Now don't get ahead of me, son. You know who I was, now. But let me tell it my own way. All right? Good. Be polite like your sister, and listen.
I'd been studying polymers and adhesives, so I was able to rig up a couple of things I could put around my wrists and use to make a "spider's web". It was stickier than flypaper and strong as steel. In about an hour, it'd evaporate. I mean, I was a darned good chemist.
I was just about as good a costume designer, too, because I went out, bought some material, and whipped me up a uniform inside of a week. I put in one-way mirrors for eye lenses, and the thing covered my whole body. I made it with a web design all over the red parts. Then I went to a talent agent, showed him what I could do, and told him I was Spider-Man.
Inside of two weeks after that, I was on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Yeah, you know the bit. They show my stint every time they do one of those retrospectives. Ed was the one who gave me my tagline, when he said, "And now, on our stage, let's give a big welcome to...the amazing Spider-Man!" I think a couple of guys twirling discs on sticks or a singer came on after me, and I was hard to follow.
Back then, I didn't have any dreams of being a hero. I was going to be a performer. Be on TV, make a lot of money, help out aunt May and uncle Ben, and help me, too. I was booked for a few more TV appearances, and let me tell you, it was hard keeping it a secret from both of them!
Then something else happened.
A security guard in one of the buildings where I'd just taped a bit was chasing some guy down the hall towards the elevators. The guy passed right in front of me. I could've tripped him, could have caught him, but I didn't. I figured I didn't need to get involved. So the guy got to the elevators and managed to get the doors shut before the guard could get to him, and he got away. He had a few choice words for me, but I blew him off and left.
Not long after that, I came home, and there was a cop car in front of my house in Forest Hills. A policeman caught me before I could go in. He told me...he told me that my uncle Ben had been murdered. A burglar had gotten into our house. We didn't know it, but some gangster from the '30's was supposed to have stashed a lot of money inside before Elliot Ness took him down. That was what he was looking for, but he didn't find it. Uncle Ben surprised him.
He shot uncle Ben.
Right in front of aunt May. He shot him.
I didn't know what I was doing next. I just knew what I had to do. Once I heard the address of the warehouse that rat was holded up in, I ran upstairs, tore my clothes off, and changed...
The cops were outside the warehouse, trying to wait him out. He had a gun. I didn't much give a rap for that. I busted into the place through the roof, crawled down towards him head-first...don't think the sight of a guy in a costume coming at you like that doesn't scare you. It did him, and a lot of other hoods I've tried it on.
I gummed up his gun hand with my web, and then I hit him. It only took one hit. I pulled it some to keep from killing him, but I didn't pull it anymore than I had to. He went out like a sack of flour. I grabbed him by the coat to keep him from going to the floor, and that's when I finally got a good look at his face.
It was...it was the man who had been chased by the guard. The man who I didn't stop, a day before.
If I had, uncle Ben wouldn't have died like that. And I still would have been a TV star.
Instead, I decided to be a super-hero, like the Fantastic Four, if I could cut it. If I could take down other hoods before they could hurt people, like my uncle, or if I could at least catch 'em and hand 'em over to the cops, well, it might make up in some way for what I hadn't done. So that's what I did.
A day or two after that I stumbled on a quote from Thomas Jefferson. "With great power comes great responsibility." Yeah, that's the one you've seen carved on our mantelpiece. That's why I had it done. So now I had the power, and I had the responsibility. And it was my responsibility to use the power well.
What's that? You didn't know you were related to somebody that used to be famous? Don't worry. I didn't get paid much for it.
I could gas around all night about what I used to be, who I used to fight, all the other guys in the long underwear suits I met. I met a lot of 'em.
But I've got to tell you about those guys, so that you'll know something of what I'm talking about.
And then I've got to tell you about the Fire.
To be continued...