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      When Spider-Man Met The Montreal Expos
      April 8, 2015

      When Spider-Man Met The Montreal Expos

      It was a disorganized place, the used bookstore to which I'd taken my twin five-year-olds in a hunt for cheap old comics—slumping piles everywhere, Harlequin Romances lewdly jammed between books on religious studies beneath a handwritten sign that read CHILDREN. We came away with a decent stack, but not until we were home did I spot the prize. The inexplicable, bizarre, Marquis Grissom-augmented prize.

      It was dated as such: Vol. 1, No. 5, 1993. It featured Spider-Man, Larry Walker, and Youppi!. It was the inside of my brain at the age of 12, basically, and not strictly canon. Why would Peter Parker be in Montreal? Why would Moises Alou be helping Spidey thwart the Green Goblin? Why would a big-ticket US cultural export depict the Montreal Expos and not, say, the Dodgers? In short, where the hell did the comic book in which Spider-Man joins forces with the zenith-years Montreal Expos come from?

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      The answer to that question turned out to be stubbornly underwhelming, if also kind of wonderful: this was the work of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, as part of a bicycle safety campaign they sponsored called The Right Riders. But it also came from somewhere very specific—the early 1990s—and from someone uniquely qualified to bring it into existence: comic artist Jim Craig.

      When a Toronto-based organization called the Community Programs Group teamed up with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to put out a limited series of bike safety-themed comic books, they approached Marvel Comics' Custom Publishing Department, which existed to lend out Marvel's copyrighted properties to those willing to pay up. The Custom Publishing wing was responsible for mini-comics, posters, and other assorted promotional items for pizza chains and snack cakes featuring your favorite superheroes, as well as these sorts of PSA campaigns; they are, rather encouragingly, still at it.

      And so the bike safety people were given Spider-Man to help spread their message. After a couple of issues drawn by American artists, Craig was an obvious choice to step in. A Torontonian, he had worked on Spider-Man for Marvel Comics as far back as 1978, as well as animation storyboarding and ad work. He had, in fact, already done ads featured in the first installments of what would end up being a five-issue run.

      For issue three, "Hit and Run," Craig was handed a script that put Spidey in Toronto. The artist took a photo of his son riding a bike, slapped a Blue Jays t-shirt on him, and made it the cover. For the splash page, Craig drew the webslinger swooping over an open-roofed SkyDome.

      This all fits. It was 1993, and baseball was enjoying unparalleled popularity. Ken Griffey Jr. was at the height of his powers, Oriole Park was the most fawned-over city block in America, and baby boomers still had tears in their eyes from repeated theatrical viewings of Field of Dreams. Homer Simpson played softball with Junior, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Scioscia. Ken Burns was interviewing somber old white men—and Doris Kearns and Buck O'Neil—for Baseball, which aired on PBS the next fall.

      Meanwhile, in Canada, we were losing our goddamned minds. The Jays had won the Series in '92, and were on their way to repeating in thrilling fashion. That goofy logo was ubiquitous. More people left their homes wearing Jays caps than didn't. The minister at my family's church included a prayer for the team every Sunday. Collectively, we had the fever.

      More broadly, a great deal of nonsense made sense at the time. Wayne Gretzky, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan were the ProStars, on your TV and in your cereal bowl. Charles Barkley was posting up against Godzilla; Marvin the Martian was selling Air Jordans. In just a few years, Bugs Bunny and friends starred opposite Mike himself in a feature film. Star athletes walked alongside talking cartoon animals and superhumans in tights, and it seemed almost normal.

      This is a world in which police chiefs could commission a comic book in the service of teaching kids how to ride their bikes. The Calgary Stampede was featured in the series' fourth issue, and Spider-Man landed in Montreal for number five.

      Peter Parker is in town on an assignment for J. Jonah Jameson; trouble, in the form of the Green Goblin, has followed him north. Along the way our hero meets Larry Walker—"the local boy," the book says, although Walker's from Maple Ridge, BC, which is two time zones and 2200 miles away—Delino DeShields, and Marquis Grissom, and gets assists in his tussle with the Goblin from Moises and Felipe Alou, as well as a team of bike-riding kids. There's a glorious showdown in the middle of a packed Olympic Stadium, depicted in a beautiful two-page spread of Spidey and GG in the air over the Big O's day-glo turf. In the end, Spidey is victorious and the Goblin scampers away. Peter and MJ settle into their seats, and Walker expresses his gratitude with a first-pitch moonshot. Fini.

      This, in broad strokes, is the script that Craig was handed and asked to turn into images, and though he liked baseball, he wasn't necessarily familiar with his subject. He was given a list of players the Community Programs Group wanted in the issue, and provided with reference material, he says. "I don't know whether it was baseball cards or photographs of the players, and that's what I worked from, because I virtually knew nothing about the Expos." He was, naturally, a Blue Jays fan.

      Neither was the Torontonian all that knowledgeable when it came to his setting: the illustration on the splash page—of the masked hero swinging over downtown Montreal at night—was just the view from Craig's hotel window during a trip there. He drew The Big O by looking at a postcard of it; all of this reveals much about how those two parts of Canada see each other.

      The issue was distributed at an Expos' home game, as well as in schools across Canada. When a healthy secondary market for the book emerged stateside—it was, after all, a rare issue depicting a character (the Green Goblin) who'd been killed off in the regular Marvel series—Marvel reprinted and released it for US readers.

      But it was never really for American readers, and the shock of recognition is mostly why it fascinates. There is recognition of place: Canadians experience a peculiar feeling when some aspect of our country is reflected back to us in American media, a sense of pride commingled with a hard little nugget of huffy resentment exacerbated by the fact that Americans never get it quite right.

      And there is recognition of time, too: the squirrely early '90s, shiny and happy in their laughing-gas way. There's a hint of heartbreak to that last bit, too, of course—the story unfolds amid the giddy optimism of a team bound for success and a game at the height of its powers, both of which would soon break hard against the unthinkable disappointment of the 1994 strike and the loss of what should have been the Expos' greatest season. Everything drifted away after that.

      Larry Walker became more famous in Denver than he'd been in Montreal. Moises Alou became a star and then a Bartman-adjacent factoid with the Cubs. Felipe Alou fought gallantly on in the wake of the disastrous strike, getting absurdly overachieving returns from increasingly bare rosters, until he was replaced by Jeff Torborg in 2001. DeShields moved on to the Dodgers, then the Cards, Orioles, and Cubs; his son made the Rangers 25-man roster this year. Grissom was bound for Atlanta, and then Cleveland. Even Youppi!, an endearingly confusing Quebecois translation of the Phillie Phanatic, was claimed by the Canadiens. While it's great that Youppi!'s alive and well, that goofy orange dude belongs nowhere but the weird, now-empty ballpark that was his home.

      Spider-Man: Dead Ball is a strange baseball souvenir, and doesn't really have to be more than that. Old baseball stuff can inspire the kind of rich grief for childhood that makes adults spend vast sums of money in questionable ways. For those with the appropriate memories, it generates that weird, wordless hum that occurs in your brain when two or more of the symbols of your childhood meet in an unexpected space.

      It wasn't made to be a relic. It's just a comic book PSA about bike safety, and as such was inbuilt with supreme disposability. It's what has happened since that gives the book its sweet charm and sneaky Proustian melancholy. This will all be gone, sooner than anyone thought. And yet here they are. Printed on pages mute and inert, happily ignorant of all the change that's coming, the Expos do battle with the Green Goblin in beautiful color, expecting us to believe they'll always be there.

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