I think I know when my childhood ended. It was 1969. It started when Spider-man wrapped up one of the more peculiar and outlandish storylines of the Stan Lee/John Romita era – the Stone Tablet saga. It was everything late ‘60s/early ‘70s science fiction/fantasy was – rooted in the real world, sparked by human greed and frailty, and ultimately, it was irredeemably tragic. Spidey fought for several issues to unravel a mystery, which he did, but ultimately he couldn’t save the day in the sense that he couldn’t save a miserable angry man from destroying himself out of hubris. And I never really thought about it before a few days ago, but after Amazing Spider-man #75, my childhood began to grind to a halt. It wasn’t because of that story, but something happened.
I read comics for another year after Spidey watched Silvermane dissolve into nothingness, but the same thing that happened in all the comics I loved in pretty rapid succession. Captain America #119. Thor #171. Avengers #71. Daredevil #57. X-Men #63. Fantastic Four #94. All in 1969. All these were the last 4-color days of my childhood. I stopped buying comics in 1970 and didn’t read another one until I wandered back into the hobby around 1974. I read monthly comics off and on until the mid-1990s, and I still pick up new stuff occasionally and revisit old favorites. So those issues in 1969 certainly weren’t the last comics I loved, but in a way, they were they last comics I lived.
Comic books were the most formative creative part of my childhood. The depth of my love of Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, Cap and Thor, among others, is impossible to overestimate. Every issue of Spider-man I read up to #75 was like a newspaper to me. I don’t mean that in a lunatic way that I thought Peter Parker was a real guy, but he was real enough to me. I didn’t think of it as a book or a story. I was reading the events of his life. The same with Cap or DD or the Fantastic Four. Individual issues weren’t better or worse than others. They had to be what they were because that’s what was happening in Spidey’s life. And I was part of it. Month after month.
For some reason, though, after those benchmark issues, the books became just books. Fun books, some of them great, some not. There was art I liked and didn’t like. But suddenly I was just reading stories about these characters; I wasn’t experiencing their lives with them anymore.
It was, of course, pretty standard for 10-year olds to drift away from comic books and into other things. But those issues that marked the end of my breathless attention to these characters weren’t the end of my comic book life. I kept reading for more than a year after the shift occurred. I didn’t realize a change had occurred at the time. After all, none of those favorite books went through major upheavals after the issues I mentioned. From before to after, they had the same creative teams and same basic storylines.
I can look at the covers of those books and recall the years of transformative joy living through the previous issues, and the growing sense of distance reading the latter ones. As I got older, childhood joy was replaced by a more mature appreciation of the storytelling power of the medium and respect for the creators who produced the work. There were some legendary runs I read later that came close to replicating my childhood: Wolfman/Colan on Tomb of Dracula, Claremont’s X-Men, Miller’s Daredevil, Roger Stern’s Dr. Strange, Simonson’s Thor, Moore’s Swamp Thing. But even those indisputable classics still don’t hold up in my heart to what might now be considered just a mediocre issue of Spider-man or Thor from 1968.
I’m sure every comic book reader has the same story. No doubt every fan can name an era that is the most meaningful when those stories felt real to them and those characters were the most important things in their life. And I’m sure they’re right.
My life reading and even creating comics has its roots in a desire to recapture the power of being an 8-year old on a summer afternoon reading comics in the backyard. I would finish an issue and read it again. And then again. And then I’d ride my bike to the store to see if the next issue was there. But it wasn’t so I’d come home and read it again in case I missed something the first three times.