By Max Delgado
Even at nine-years-old I’d moved a lot. Just three years earlier we’d crossed the border from Mexico and I’d sat in the front seat of our Ford and watched the dust collect along the windshield like yellow snow, my heart tightening with dread and curiosity and wonder. We drove to Ann Arbor, where I learned English, and forgot Spanish. Then came Dayton, where I hated my school but loved my friends. And now, late August, we were headed towards Toledo, but without my father. I felt proud at my toughness, that I could sit in the cab of the orange U-Haul truck, looking over the pavement, feeling nothing.
The cab door opened. A slight kid with narrow arms pulled himself inside, and told me that he’d miss me. His tone was both confession and apology at a time when I wasn’t used to hearing either. I don’t remember what I said back, but it was inadequate and he slowly lowered himself out and shut the door. As a 35-year-old man now, I can tell you that his name was Billy, that he lived in the apartment next to us, and that he was my best friend. Most everything else has faded except this: we crushed brightly colored Hot Wheels with the butt-end of a teeter-totter; we built a cardboard fort near the freeway where we’d drink warm Coca Colas; and we disassembled all our GI-JOE’s with screwdrivers.
We did not read comic books.
Toledo: We moved into my grandmother's house, tucked deep into the Old West End, near downtown. Back in ‘87 they were just starting to board up the old victorian mansions that didn’t sell, and the gang tags were popping up like billboards. Arriving, we divided rooms. I don’t know what the original arrangement was, but as the year went on my sister and mom slept upstairs and I slept in the den, on the couch -- a habit I wouldn’t fully shake until college. My sister and I enrolled in a tiny Catholic school less than a mile away. Housed in a drafty building near the projects, St. Mary’s was the diocese’s commitment to the central city. It was unusually progressive, disproportionately poor or working class, and largely brown.
Drew Shalvoy was white and middle-class, however; his family was an example of what made St. Mary’s so unique: they had some money, and at least two cars -- a formula that could have landed Drew at a more prestigious school elsewhere in the city, but he was here with us. He was a skater with long blonde hair and baggy clothes, and navigated middle school with a grace and confidence that would take me years to fake. He was, on the surface, everything I wasn’t -- thin to my fat, warm and confident at a time when my insides were made of cold spaghetti. He was also, generally, nice. Example: discovering I was a cartoonist, he brought in Madballs #7, and dropped it on my desk. He wanted me to draw the characters for him. I couldn’t. I wasn’t that good yet, but he gave me the comic as a reward for my attempt. I read it on the couch before dinner. The story sucked, but for better or worse it was my first comic book.
When I arrived at school the next day a group of kids had gathered around Drew’s desk --he’d brought in Amazing Spider-Man #294 this time -- part-five of the Kraven’s Last Hunt mini-series. On the cover, Kraven stalked through his trophy room bare-chested, rifle in hand. In the dark rafters above him hung Spider-Man in his black costume, inching out into the light. As a kid, my father had bought me palm-sized comic books from the colorful periodista stands near our apartment in Mexico City, but they’d been silly -- just cartoon animals and fart jokes. This was different: the tone dark, the violence surreal. Kraven took a punch to the mouth and simply laughed, spitting blood out.
I asked if I could have it. He laughed gently and said: “No, but you can borrow it.” I read it on the couch that night, over and over, feeling dread and curiosity and wonder.
The next day I asked Drew for it again. But he loved that comic, too. I don’t remember what I said next, but whatever argument I made came nowhere close to articulating the stakes as I know them now: with the move to Toledo my childhood went from the open to insular almost overnight -- there were few kids in my new neighborhood, and nobody played outside. Stranded in my own head, I needed something: a place to go and a vehicle to take me there. After listening for a few moments he shifted in his seat and offered to sell the comic for a dollar. As soon as the offer went out he braced for a moment, as though expecting me to balk.
But I didn’t. I would have paid two.