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The current pandemic is certainly taking its toll on everyone — adults and children alike. Over the last three months, there have been initiatives to teach developing minds about the global health crisis, including a town hall collaboration between CNN and Sesame Street.
It's important to educate children about the pandemic, but it's also essential to keep their spirits high and maintain a positive outlook. We've seen families recreate Disney rides and The Simpsons couch gag, while filmmakers are crafting unique short films while quarantined.
In New Berlin, Wisconsin, freelance artist and graphic designer Mike Justman (that surname couldn't be more appropriate) is dressing up as Spider-Man for drive-by birthday parties and other community appearances aimed at youngsters. What is now known as "Spidey in a Civic" began in late March with a social distancing car parade.
"On my daughter's soccer team that I help coach, one of her teammates has a little brother that was turning 2 on the last weekend of March," Justman tells SYFY WIRE. "The family was organizing a car parade for the little guy, so we figured we'd participate and spread the joy. While making signs at our table, I looked at my wife and said, 'Think it'd be a good idea to dress as Spider-Man?' She said, 'Yeah, why not?'"
The red-and-blue costume was already on hand, as he and his daughter, Mia, dressed as Peter Parker and Spider-Gwen (from Into the Spider-Verse) last Halloween. He then posted a selfie to the New Berlin community Facebook page with the following message: "If anyone needs a friendly wave from Spider-Man, let me know." What happened next, defied his wildest expectations.
"I checked my phone and the post exploded with responses," he remembers. "We got a lot of 'My son would FREAK out if you stopped just for a moment' or 'My daughter loves Spider-Man, can you please swing by?' We drove around trying to keep up with the rapid responses to the post all over the city. When we eventually got home, they kept coming throughout the evening."
Requests were so abundant that an entire Facebook page had to be created, "so we could be more organized and book visits better," Justman explains. The day after the parade, he had about a dozen more bookings, "so we mapped out our route and drove around for a few hours before I had to work my second shift job."
Justman never started Spidey in a Civic to make money, but soon after it began, unsolicited donations began to come his way. He decided to funnel them into a small business that was struggling as a result of the pandemic lockdown. He settled on Jester Fun Entertainment, a shop in neighboring Muskego that specializes in balloon displays and face painting.
"We began this whole thing [as a way] to spread joy to kids, and families during these difficult times," the artist says. "Since they're unfortunately not booking birthday visits for kids due to the pandemic, we decided that we'd help them out with purchasing custom Spider-Man balloons for the kids that are celebrating birthdays on our routes. We love their quality and the kids we visit do too, so it's been a really good partnership."
The only gain Justman wants out of the whole experience is seeing kids' faces light up when the world famous wall-crawler appears in front of their homes. And it's not just residential visits, either.
"Some of these kids are too little too understand what's been going on the last few months during the pandemic. But when their favorite superhero comes to visit them at their house, it's a big boost of positivity for them that we're honored to be a part of," Justman adds. "We've had some more serious visits [like] meeting kids before or after some major surgeries, which can be very difficult. But we give them a special experience and remind them how brave they are. They absolutely love it and I am sincerely honored to be the superhero that visits and reminds them to stay super."
Following a story by Yahoo!, word of Justman's web-based exploits has spread all across the internet. Naturally, he had no idea how big his small act of community outreach would become.
"It's been incredibly surreal to see something that started as a simple gesture for a 2-year-old kid has blown up to be as big as it has," he admits. "I'm very humbled to be featured on so many different websites, news channels, and local papers for something positive during the pandemic."
Justman is simply leaning into the Marvel character's ability to inspire hope in others, a train of thought echoed by New York citizens donning Spidey costumes for Black Lives Matter protests.
"I love that everyone knows him. They know he's a superhero that always saves the day, and he's a reminder that, 'Hey, things are going to be OK and if we stay positive and strong, we'll make it through,'" he says. "I've always tried my best to embrace the role best as I can and give them as much positivity as I can. A lot of kids ask those burning questions they've always wanted to ask Spider-Man, which is always fun. The parents really love having Spider-Man swing by, because so many of them were doing homeschooling, which, for some kids, isn't that fun but when a superhero comes by riding on top of a car, the kids love it and I love making them happy."
Once the pandemic ends (the race for a vaccine is yielding positive results), Justman doesn't plan to retire his heroic alter ego. Just like Peter Parker, he'll always be around to help those in need.
"If the need is still there, you bet I'll continue doing it," he concludes. "We still get several requests for weekend visits, so the need certainly hasn't slowed down. Sometimes, we get video requests from kids outside the state or country, so I'll record little personal messages as well. They really enjoy that as well because I hear they rewatch it several times in a row. If I keep getting birthday requests, Spider-Man will definitely be there."