It was in 3rd grade that I discovered both comic books and girls. If I had a comic book before my 3rd grade year, I don’t remember it. There may have been a couple that found there way into my house, but I never really cared or thought about comic books before then. However, by the time I entered 3rd grade in the later half of 1990, they became an obsession in my young mind.
It began with Marvel Universe Cards-Series One. That was the gateway drug into a world of comic books I had previously been unexposed to. I had dabbled in collecting baseball cards, so when the boys in my class began to be fascinated with these new comic cards I quickly jumped on board. The cards themselves were merely made up of various Marvel superheroes, villains, events, etc…, but collecting them opened up this entire fictional universe I never knew existed. It let my 10 year old brain wander into this new and varied fantasy realm, and I became fascinated.
I loved reading the backs of the cards, and seeing the short bios of the various characters. Spider-Man was instantly my favorite, based partly on the fact he was the most popular Marvel superhero, and partly on the fact he started out as just a young kid trying to navigate school, similar to myself. At the time, Spider-Man had three separate cards in the set: regular Spider-Man, Black Costume Spider-Man, and Cosmic Spider-Man. Cosmic Spider-Man was my favorite card, as it was Spider-Man with cosmic strength, which seemed the coolest of cool to a young kid.
After a few weeks of seeing all my friends cards, I realized I had to go out and buy some packs for myself. At the time one could buy things such as baseball and comic cards at convenience stores. There was a small one a few blocks from my house and I got my mom to take me there one day. They had the Marvel cards, but I also noticed they had a spinning rack filled with actual comic books. I remember spinning it around and thinking how much bigger and more colorful the actual comics seemed to merely the cards. I quickly snapped up an issue of the Amazing Spider-Man.
Amazing Spider-Man became my go to comic, and I would buy almost every issue for the next few years. At the time, Marvel also had other Spider-Man comics, including Spectacular Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man, but I never cared for those as much and concentrated on the main Amazing series. Spider-Man at this time was married and probably in his 30’s, a far cry from the young high schooler he had started out with in the early 1960’s, but I found the comics utterly awesome and could not get enough.
As the months went on, comic cards and comics themselves continued to grow in popularity in my 3rd grade class amongst the boys. Cards were freely passed around and traded before class began, and discussion abounded about certain superheroes and villains. I remember distinctly a debate about how one actually pronounced Magneto. The most popular characters at the time, along with the aforementioned Spider-Man, were the new Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and Gambit.
At a certain point a friend and I were so into comics we decided we would create a comic of our own. We first thought of creating an entirely new character, something greater than any superhero that had ever come before. However, we soon realized that was too daunting and settled on an established Marvel creation, the Silver Surfer. Silver Surfer was another very popular character at the time, and him being a silver alien that rode around space on a surf board was just too cool for a 10 year old. I remember we created an entire cover sketch, complete with Marvel logo and a price. We had long discussions on the playground about the story, and both were certain it would be the greatest comic ever created, bar none. Yet, being 3rd graders, we quickly become preoccupied with other things and never were able to finish even the first page of the comic. We hadn’t realized drawing things the way they look in actual comics was very difficult, and our talent was severely lacking.
Amongst this comic frenzy that had taken over my life at the time came another awakening, girls. But not just girls in general, one very specific girl became the object of my affection, Vanessa. She was petite, had jet black, curly hair and a pale, freckled face. By the later half of my 3rd grade year my mind had two pillars, Spider-Man on one side, and Vanessa on the other. I had trouble thinking of anything else.
I had known Vanessa before 3rd grade and remember simply thinking of her as just another girl in my class, not unlike all the other girls. Before 3rd grade girls were simply pals who I had fun hanging out with and never thought much different from boys. I’m not sure what happened in 3rd grade that changed that, but its as if a veil was lifted from my mind and I realized girls were different, and I didn’t simply want to be friends with them, I wanted one as a girlfriend. Vanessa became the beacon of those feelings, and I projected everything onto her.
Why I choose Vanessa escapes me, although in my life I’ve continued to be attracted to petite, dark haired girls. Whatever the reason, it soon became real, and an overpowering force. It felt peaceful in some way, and also extremely frustrating in others. At this point there was no sex involved in my fantasies, only an innocent affection. I didn’t really even know what I wanted to happen, maybe we would kiss, or hold hands. I think my developing brain simply wanted some female companionship, and set its sights on Vanessa.
Some of these new emotions of being attracted to a girl, of wanting to have a girlfriend, pushed back into my world of comics. Specifically, I remember hearing the story of Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man. Now, at the time I was reading Spider-Man he had already been married to Mary Jane for years, so Gwen Stacy was never a part of the current comics I read. However, either a friend of mine told me, or I read a reprint somewhere, but I became aware of this back story of Spider-Man where he had a girlfriend named Gwen Stacy.
The story of Gwen Stacy lasted from issues #31-121 of the Amazing Spider-Man. Slowly over the course of those issues Peter Parker falls in love with a beautiful girl named Gwen Stacy, and they eventually become a couple. Being comics, there are of course various dramas involved in their relationship, including Gwen’s father accidently dying during a battle Spider-Man has with Doctor Octopus. However, by issue #121 readers assumed Peter and Gwen were in a fairly stable relationship and not expecting anything too dramatic to happen, they were wrong. In one of the most shocking events in comic history, Gwen Stacy is captured by the Green Goblin and killed when he throws her over the George Washington Bridge. While Spider-Man wraps her in his webs before she hits the ground, he is too late and she is already dead.
Hearing the story of Gwen Stacy was very shocking for my 10 year old brain. Not only did Peter Parker have a girlfriend before Mary Jane, but she was killed. Not only killed, but murdered by Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis the Green Goblin. It all seemed so dramatic in my mind, and a lot more interesting than most of the current stories of Spider-Man I was reading. As a kid I had never really thought Peter Parker being married was very interesting, as married life seemed like a boring adult thing. But hearing he used to have a love back when he was young that tragically died was a watershed moment in my comic life. It grew to a sort of tragic myth of lost love. I let that seep through my mind and connected it in some vague way to the feelings I had towards Vanessa.
Maybe she was my Gwen Stacy, the true love of my life. Crazy thoughts like that went through my mind, and my obsession with Vanessa grew steadily throughout the year. I never expressed my feelings to her, as I was a usually rather quiet kid, and didn’t really know what I would say to her. My love remained firmly planted in the unrequited variety.
By spring a friend of mine at the time also had begun to have a crush on a girl. He would often talk to me about her, and how he wanted her to be his girlfriend. I, in turn, opened up to him and revealed my crush on Vanessa. I remember we would many times hang on the jungle gym at recess and stare over at our crushes. However, telling my friend was a mistake, because soon word of my crush began to trickle out to others.
I remember distinctly being on the playground one day and a particularly annoying kid named Bruce coming up to me and telling me he knew I liked Vanessa and was going to tell her. I at first objected, because I didn’t know how I would handle having her finally know my true feelings. He was adamant he was going to go tell her, and at that moment I had a revelation, maybe the first in my life — I would tell her myself, it was the only way to prevent this idiot from ruining things for me. So I did, I went over that day and told Vanessa I ‘liked’ her. Being 3rd grade, saying “I like you” was akin to “I love you.”
The strange thing now is I don’t remember how she responded. My memory fails me. She might have laughed and continued playing, thinking not much of it. She might have stood there confused. She might have said she didn’t like me. She might have said she did like me. I don’t remember. I only remember telling her, and then life in the 3rd grade continued on after that.
I still had feelings for Vanessa after my declaration, but what our relationship was after that is unclear. What are anyone’s relationship in 3rd grade? Mostly kids at that age merely exist, and don’t put any labels on how they interact with others. We certainly weren’t boyfriend or girlfriend, but I do remember continuing to talk to her on occasion. We were friends to some degree, even though maybe my declaration left a shade of something else over us.
Slowly the school year wound down and comics were not the ‘in thing’ amongst the boys in my class anymore. The long discussions about whether the Hulk could beat the Thing, or whether Wolverine’s claws could cut through Captain America’s shield stopped. Fads for kids never last, and soon they are replaced by the next cool thing that comes along. I still continue to read comics now as an adult, but they don’t quite give me the same sense of unbounded joy I felt from discovering them for the first time.
By the last few weeks of school, bad news came, Vanessa was moving to a new school in different town the next year. I felt some sense of loss, some pang of heartache. I would never see her again after that, she would be gone to me. The myth of Gwen Stacy came back to my mind, the remnants of comic lore and lost true love. Peter Parker lost Gwen, as I would lose Vanessa. Of course she wasn’t dying, but moving to a different school in a different town was akin to dying for a 3rd grader. Once kids switch schools you never see them again, they are lost forever.
The last memory I have of Vanessa was talking to her during one of the last classes before summer break. She was talking to me about her move to a different school the next year and I said to her, “Will you remember me?” It seemed an important question in my mind, that she remember me, that she keep my memory with her into the future. I thought that even if I lost her, if my memory remained with her, the feelings I felt might continue to be meaningful.
“Of course I will remember you,” she replied, shining an innocent smile.
I never saw Vanessa again.