There’s a superhero on the loose in Denver.
Usually, this guy is fighting crime in the Big Apple and hanging low with his aunt in Forest Hills. But for the past 10 years, he’s been swinging through the Highland neighborhood at the corner of Osage Street and West 36th Avenue.
Look out! And up! There goes the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
On the roof of the corner house, you’ll see a life-sized Spidey, looking out across the area, posed as if he’s about to shoot his web and fight crime.
So, why has Peter Parker’s alter ego set up shop atop the red and gray house? Maybe it’s a comic book store? An indie shop on a random neighborhood block?
One Denverite reader asked us, “What’s going on at the Spider-Man house?” So, we went to find out.
The house belongs to John Bonath, a photographer and artist who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1992.
He put Spider-Man up on the roof and decked out the front windows of his home with painted comic book-style panels of Black Panther, the Joker and other characters from the D.C. and Marvel universes.
No, he’s not running a comic book store. No, his art doesn’t revolve around comics or heroes. And no, he’s actually not even into comics.
Bonath is just a friendly neighbor, creating art for the neighborhood, collecting its stories and writing his own chapter into the history of Osage and West 36th.
“I’m not obsessed with superheroes or comic books like people might assume,” Bonath laughed. “I don’t relate to them as comic books, as much as I relate to them as pop art. They’re pop culture, specifically they’re pop American culture. I liked the way [the characters] looked and I liked what they represented. I just want people to smile.”
Bonath is originally from Ohio but connected with Colorado when he became an art professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He left Colorado to live in Japan for a few years but eventually returned, settling in Highland.
Since then, he’s become an unofficial historian of the neighborhood, which has seen its share of change. Bonath can recall the neighborhood’s Italian and Latino history. He remembers Pasty’s Italian Restaurant and Pagliacci’s. He remembers the days before big developers and coffee shops.
Bonath even started a blog to create a written history of the neighborhood, which he calls “Stories from the Hood.”
There’s a post on Father Felix Lepore, an Italian priest of Mount Carmel Church, who died in a shootout with an alleged mobster from Pittsburgh. There’s also a post on Frank Damascio, an Italian stonemason who laid the brickwork for the Brown Palace Hotel and the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
“The blog is something I’ve always wanted to do…writing down histories that were previously only oral,” Bonath said. “People just tell me stories. There’s a lot of history that is gone but that’s just inevitable. Change happens. I’ve lived here for so long. I’ve heard so many stories over the years from other people who have lived here… and there’s just such an incredible history to this corner, to this little block.”
Tears well in Bonath’s eyes when he recalls the story of the Vasquez family, who once shared the corner with him.
Corinne Vasquez, her boyfriend Raymond and her three sons, Phillipe, Willie and Eric, didn’t make a great first impression, according to Bonath. She was an alcoholic and her children were mini outlaws, who ran the neighborhood in small gangs. In his blog, Bonath describes Vasquez as a loud nuisance until their first encounter, where he accosted her regarding her children’s behavior.
“From that moment on, Corinne would yell across the street to me at the top of her lungs when I would come out of my house, ‘John, I love you so much. Baby Jesus in heaven blesses you. I love you John,'” Bonath wrote in his blog. “She was an abundantly colorful and vividly alive character.”
After that, Bonath said he and the Vasquez family became immersed in each other’s lives. Bonath created a cash lending system with Corrine and the kids, where he would lend them $10 and they’d have to give it back before being lent more money.
During a spat of family issues, Bonath almost adopted one of Vasquez’s sons, though the state ultimately denied the request.
Bonath said Vasquez always proclaimed her love for him loudly for all the neighbors to hear and eventually started calling him her superhero.
Then, Corrine Vasquez died from liver failure.
And the idea of Spider-Man was born.
“I wanted to dedicate [Spider-Man] to Corrine,” Bonath said. “It’s such an unfortunate tragic reality of our world as far as what happened to that family.”
In his blog, he writes, “I started to think about how these colorful and amazing characters were a part of this neighborhood’s history; a story soon to be forgotten, yet, worth remembering. I wanted to make my own monument to Corinne and her sons to honor their existence. I decided to create a sculpture of Spider-Man climbing up my house in a place where Corinne could have seen it every day.”
So, Bonath set off to create Spider-Man. The figure is a plaster, fiberglass and resin cast of Bonath’s body, created by him and local sculptor Nikki Pike.
Spider-Man wasn’t immediately erected. Bonath was battling cancer during its creation and “lost steam” in the project when he went into remission. Spidey sat on the shelf for 10 years, until Bonath randomly saw one of Vasquez’s sons.
Bonath said the two reconnected, discussing Corrine and the forgotten Spider-Man. After their emotional chat, Bonath got back to work.
“That was the moment where I decided, okay, I’ve got to finish this,” Bonath said. “Otherwise, I probably never would’ve gotten to him. It’s like the neighborhood came to me and I had to come back to it. So, I finally finished it.”
Bonath calls the piece “Matrixman” for copyright issues. In the dedication plaque to Corrine, Bonath writes Matrixman is “a reminder to stop at random moments to wonder and not take life too seriously.”
And that’s what everyone does when they pass the red and gray house on the corner of Osage and West 36th. They look up and stare at the reflective glass in Spider-Man’s eyes. They slowly turn the corner, taking in the comic book murals.
Bonath said the pre-school children up the block used to have “Spider-Man Fridays,” where the teachers would bring them to the house to look at the figure. Bonath said he could hear them cheering “Hi Spider-Man!” before he could see them.
“I just wanted to contribute something to this neighborhood,” Bonath said. “I’m part of this neighborhood. [Spider-Man] is a history of a place, this place and I’m part of that history. It always will be no matter what is torn down and built on top of it. This could become a skyscraper, an extension of downtown at some point. Who knows? But, it’s okay. This just holds its own place in its own time and that’s all that’s important.”
Bonath doesn’t have any plans to add to the comic murals or to put another superhero on the roof. But you never know, so just keep looking overhead.