I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. Sure, I’d seen all the movies and knew through conventional wisdom that being a nerd wasn’t exactly the gateway to popularity as a young buck. Whatever famous quote there is about knowledge not equating to experience is true. There’s a very specific kind of pain when the things you like—and the worlds you choose to inhabit—are deemed to be “weird” and “stupid.”
As a result, during the school year especially, I spent many weekends in my room. I’d play a game of Mario Party against nobody but the computer-controlled Waluigi who always managed to steal my stars. Looking back, I’m thankful that Ultimate Spider-Man (2000) comic by Brian Michael Bendis with artwork by Stuart Immonen and Mark Bagley—which remains my favorite fictional story across any medium to this day—became my friend when I needed one the most.
My early childhood wasn’t awful; however, there was plenty of loneliness and self-consciousness in it. Were video games some terrible thing? Was there something wrong with enjoying that old Sonic the Hedgehog movie? Was it bad that I loved Yu-Gi-Oh! and collecting Bionicle LEGO figures? I thought I was a nice and friendly kid, but was I actually a jerk?
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but part of the ostracization from kids partially came from being at a small private middle school with predominately white kids. But on the other side of things, being around my fellow Hispanic brethren was just a different kind of pain. I still remember the times people would mock me for “not really being Spanish” because I fancied a weekend of playing Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal over playing soccer.
That’s where Ultimate Spider-Man—which had an iconic run from September 2000 to June 2011—comes into my life. I certainly loved Spider-Man before this comic run after first meeting the character through Sam Raimi’s films. But this was another thing entirely. My discovery of this comic series was totally accidental. My mom bought me a textbook for school with art that I didn’t recognize. I thought,” Wait, why does it say Ultimate? I want to be Ultimate!” And the rest is, as the cool kids say, history.
There was something about the look of Ultimate Spider-Man that immediately felt more relatable. He really was a teenager, which I couldn’t exactly saying for Tobey Maguire. So, whenever I felt alone, I simply viewed Ultimate Spider-Man as one of my best friends. In middle school, I loved his silly, cocky attitude, like the time he insulted the big mean bully Kingpin—a figure that my unpopular-self knew all too well. Spidey literally whipped out flash cards with jokes on them to get his point across.
I also loved when he met up with other heroes. The story was showing me a warmth and a hope that, like Spider-Man, I’d eventually stumble into “different” people like me. His many interactions with the X-Men, when the Human Torch came to Spidey’s high school and they all went down to the beach together, and even when Spidey and Wolverine temporarily switched bodies were such precious moments. Every issue felt like preparation for a fun hangout.
When I got into high school, I began to connect with the character on a deeper level than just quirky jokes and other superhero cameos. It was the Peter Parker side—the vulnerable, anxiety-ridden mess. The guy who was constantly unsure and having inconveniences that seem enormous at that age alongside genuine tragedy. His many girl troubles, class attendance worries, and even his job at the Daily Bugle struck a chord with me. I worried about girls too and I struggled with school! And I wondered, constantly, about what the heck my career would entail!
The deeper things with Peter always hit too, even beyond Uncle Ben. Sometimes, they weren’t treated in some epic, self-aggrandizing way. Peter’s frustration with how the Kingpin’s constant vindication by an unjust system, and particularly the death of Gwen Stacy by the symbiote Carnage, rang true. It seemingly came out of nowhere—almost as if the series was simply saying “s**t happens,” for a lack of a better term.
There was even a small moment, when he and the X-Men are captured by Deadpool to compete on a life-or-death game show for mutant-hating viewers. Kitty Pryde—who shares a brief but wholesome and adorable relationship with Peter—points out how hate gets affects us after a while. This sentiment didn’t bang me over the head, because it didn’t need much explanation. It just was.
It’s often forgotten, thanks to his plucky attitude, how dark Spider-Man stories can be. And despite all of that, Peter just keeps going. Not because he has some grand ideas about saving the world. But just because he has to try. Is it possible that it’s all pointless? Is the hate in the world too much? Probably. But we still try anyway. Even in the final moments of his life when a sniper shot from the Punisher left him bleeding, he still does everything he can to protect the people who he cares about the most. Not to save the world, just to save his family.
I don’t want to make some dramatic statement about how Ultimate Spider-Man “saved” me from the world. I still had a couple of friends. And my unbelievably supportive parents gave me a rather privileged upbringing. Rather, it was just something that was there for me. It was a safe space. In an age where—for better and worse—superheroes have become the main fixture of pop culture, I think some of their defining messages can get lost in translation. I think, fundamentally, one of the most important takeaways is that being different is okay.
Ultimate Spider-Man helped me realize this fact as a guiding force when folks around me ravaged the things I enjoyed. I realized that I, too, can be cool. There will be rough patches, and tragedies will come my way, but it’s okay. That’s just part of growing up. And I did indeed meet plenty of fellow super-nerds who are there for me.
At this stage of my life, I’ve come to believe that we are, indeed, likely doomed. But I try anyway, and I think anyone who reads this should, too. Because even if there’s the slightest atomical chance for a better existence, we owe it to those less fortunate than us to try. We all have great power, in our unique ways, and a great responsibility. Ultimate Spider-Man echoed this sentiment the best, and I’m glad my curious younger self discovered it.