The Marvel Universe and I grew up together. I was there when Peter Parker got bit by that rogue radioactive spider. I was there when the Avengers found Captain America frozen in a block of ice. I was there during the very first Kree-Skrull War.

For me, the Marvel Universe — born in 1961 with the publication of "The Fantastic Four" No. 1 — isn't about the recently concluded 22-movie, multibillion-dollar cycle spun by Marvel Studios. But it is totally about childhood solace and salvation — at just 12 cents per comic book.

When I was in fourth grade in rural New Hampshire, in 1966-67, my 26-year-old mother broke down. There wasn't enough money. My father worked two, sometimes three jobs to try to make ends meet. And my mother, who had three children under 10 to care for, imploded. She constantly smoldered near tears.

As the oldest, only 9, it fell upon my shoulders to take care of her. I was a tiny nail asked to hold our rickety home together, so my dad could go to work and not worry about what my mother might do. I missed about half of school that year — and I hated that. I loved school.

And there were no questions, no concerns, from school. My teacher, Miss Gove — who tried to dress like Jackie Kennedy and drove a lipstick-red Corvette convertible — wrote just one comment on my report card that whole year: "Dana has missed a great deal of math instruction and this is reflected in his work."

Cut off from friends and deprived of school, books provided relief and freedom. What spellbound me most, helped keep me sane, was my well-worn stack of Marvel Comics: "Tales to Astonish," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Mighty Thor" and, yes, the now-famous Avengers.

So, I guess, this is my secret comic book origin. Steve Ditko's awkward but brilliant Peter Parker — aka the Neurotic Spider-Man — was the kind of sly kid I imagined myself to be. He had his sickly Aunt May to look after, too.

So I burrowed into those bold, incandescent comics for hours on end, keeping a wary and bitter eye on Mom and my 2-year-old brother, Tim, as I tried to imagine a future as some kind of artist, some kind of writer, maybe, even, some kind of mutant.

Like many working-class kids, I dreamed myself into being, had to invent an alter ego out of pencil, paper and books. But where the Fantastic Four had the futuristic Baxter Building I had the humble kitchen table — that all-purpose family altar — and the porch of summer.

That's where I read, drew and wrote, obsessively, trying to figure out how to create the self I sensed I was meant to be. I knew I couldn't depend on some glowing spider to transform my life. I had to do it myself. So I shut my eyes and imagined conjuring the same kind of comfort and bliss that the creations of Jack Kirby, Ditko and Stan Lee gave me.

Without knowing, my parents had imprisoned me in a bleak dungeon of family obligation. But my Marvel Comics offered me escape and, ultimately, a future where I would become a novelist, a memoirist and a newspaperman.

Our sleek Marvel movies are all well and good. But for me they can't hold a candle to the seduction of a simple spinner rack wobbling and squealing under the weight of the latest Lee-Kirby phantasmagorias, waiting for me at some country store way back in 1966.