Chicago. It’s early, cloudy, and the mist that can barely be called rain is trickling down on the hundreds of men, women, and children in their Spider-Man shirts, Thor helmets, Hulk gloves, Wolverine claws, Batman masks, and Superman capes. They’re all gathered for a celebration of all things ink and pencil for Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) 2012. This has been some weekend for the self-proclaimed nerds, with Friday May 4th kicking off the official Star Wars Day.

I make my way in and meet up with a man named Terry, who’s been attending since the event’s inception in 2002, making this the 10th anniversary. He’s a grizzled old vet, sporting a “heroes never die” Batman shirt, with a matching combo of beard and glasses that make him a man Kevin Smith would be proud to call brother. He tells me that everyone’s a comic book fan today, and gaining new readers for this fantastic industry should be the goal for any worshiper of caped crusaders.

Terry’s old school, the kind of guy who’ll walk you through each important arc in the Batman mythos with no judgment or snobbery. When new kids fresh from the latest Nolan movie want to know “where do I start?”, he’s the man you go to. He cares about Batman stories surviving like a man sharing stories about his grandfather in World War II. “It’s like pay it forward Dark Knight style” he says.

Far from an elitist, Terry’s a diehard.

Most of the people here are diehards, meeting up for more camaraderie and coffee than free comics, but they’ll take them anyway. They joke around, recreate iconic imagery, and have crossover battles with their homemade costumes and weapons. The pros give impassioned “why to read comics” pitches to the amateurs in the way military officers recruit soldiers for battle. These gatherings are nothing new for the comic book industry, which contains one of the most passionate fanbases in the kingdom of hobbies. Yankees and Red Sox break up families? Try asking if Batman or Superman stands as the greatest DC creation of all-time. I have to stand back in awe at the Oxford worthy debating that commences.

I browse the nearly endless list of free comics available, cruising by The Avengers and Batman when I spot Spider-Man: Season One. It’s another origin story for the newbies, but that’s okay, because the webhead and I have a storied history that dates back nearly 20 years. I can’t help but feel nostalgic as I flip through the pages and remember the first time I heard the story of Peter Parker.

It must have been 1992, sitting in a classroom with Todd McFarlane’Spider-Man #1. I still remember the wide-eyed gaze as I took in the art and the ensuing drama. Could this be? A frail young nerd just like me turning into a superhero from a radioactive spider? Could I find one myself? Should I start crawling under porches? Recess allowed the nimble among us to peruse the monkey bars to twist and turn like your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

It’s easy to understand the fixation that adults have to the medium. Who would give up such fond memories of their childhood because society says that it’s time to grow up and move on? Who doesn’t want to be a superhero, at least once? If there’s one piece of information to take away from this event, it’s that memories tied so closely to times in our lives that we cherished aren’t going to be abandoned anytime soon. I’ll have Marcel Proust say it for me.

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.”

This is a superhero story that I hope has many sequels.