Iron Man and me: How super heroes help foster a love of reading

May 3, 2013

As a kid, my weekends started with hours of reading.

Every Saturday, following pit stops at a 7-Eleven and a comic book shop, my mother and I would spend half the morning enjoying a quiet breakfast. She’d peruse the newspaper or a magazine over coffee and a muffin. I’d rifle through the latest issues of popular comic book titles, from “The Amazing Spider-Man” to “The Uncanny X-Men.”

It’s a tradition I’m trying to pass down to my sons, ages 9 and 5. They have a passionate interest in superheroes yet don’t quite comprehend the cornucopia of comic creativity that’s currently at their fingertips.

Admittedly, my inner geek is perturbed that my sons recognize Spider-Man, Captain America, Batman and Thor from superhero movies, and not from the comic books on which these blockbusters are based. Perhaps my kids are oddities, but they recognize Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Bale instead of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne.

We rectified this pop-culture blasphemy with a series of trips to our local comic book shop, where I fanned the flames of their superhero fascination while also opening them up to an expanded world of reading opportunities.

“It’s the next logical step,” says John Romita Jr., an iconic artist whose comic-book credits over the years range from “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” to “Daredevil” and “Wolverine.”

“When you enjoy a movie based on a classic novel, you’ll often go back and read that novel. The same often happens for comic books.”

For two boys raised on Marvel’s recent crop of blockbuster superhero movies, the comic shop threatens sensory overload. Public libraries usually corral kid-friendly materials into an unusually small space, while the majority of the shelves in a comic-book store burst with attractive titles for children of all ages. You’ve heard of the proverbial kid in a candy shop? Turn that same kid loose in a comic store and watch the fireworks.

Instead of having to wait years for the next installment of a popular film franchise, my sons realized they could peruse hundreds of fresh Thor, Spider-Man and X-Men stories found in the pages of Marvel titles.

Everywhere they looked, they saw new adventures starring heroes they’d grown to love. Our oldest son thumbed through graphic novels that collected classic story arcs into one book. Our youngest was entranced by the explosively colorful comic covers that greeted him in the “Young Readers” section of the store. The hardest part was regulating the number of books we could buy. Parents quickly will learn that comic collecting — while a fantastic stimulant to a child’s imagination and desire to read — can be an expensive habit to maintain.

Not every day, though.

Free Comic Book Day is an annual celebration of all things comics. This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday and coincides with the release of “Iron Man 3,” the first comic-book movie of the summer season. Participating stores around the District, Maryland and Virginia are expected to hand out copies of “Superman,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Archie,” “Adventure Time,” “Disney Fairies,” “Judge Dredd” and more.

My sons attended their first Free Comic Book Day two years ago. Though they had to endure long lines formed by excited crowds, they left with free copies of “Avengers,” “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man” books that they still read to this day. They also got to pose next to a replica of the Ghostbusters’ official automobile, the Ecto-1. Needless to say, Free Comic Book Day now an annual family tradition.

Greg Bennett, co-owner of the local Big Planet Comics chain, says the impact of an event like Free Comic Book Day is huge. He expects to see big crowds outside of his stores in Bethesda, Georgetown, College Park and Vienna on Saturday as interest in comic books from readers of all ages continues to grow.

“Last year, when I opened the door to the shop, there was more than 100 people in a line that was going down the block,” he said. “It was pretty nuts.”

Exposure to comics has made a world of difference, at least for my sons. Issues of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” are now permanent fixtures on their nightstands. Our youngest asks to read before breakfast in the morning. And they’re finally seeing comic book movies in a different light.

Last summer, we took the boys to see Marc Webb’s 3D film “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It was the first Spider-Man movie they were going to see in theaters, and we spent the majority of the drive going over scenes we were excited to see on the big screen.

“Just know, Brendan, that Peter’s Uncle Ben is going to die in the story,” our oldest, P.J., warned his little brother. “That’s what happens in the comic books.”

On that day, my parental spider-sense tingled with pride.

O'Connell is a freelance writer.

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