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Cottone at Sensationally Sweet in Patchogue which was helping to promote the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk. Photo from Nic Cottone

LI Spidey-Guy shows the real compassion of a hero.

When heroes don their masks, who do they become?

In the main Marvel Comics book series Spider-Man, it’s Peter Parker who’s behind the facade. But as recent films like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” put it, can anybody wear the mask? Can anybody embody those simple ideals of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, helping people because one has the capacity to do so?

Port Jefferson Station native Nic Cottone puts on the mask and becomes Spider-Man, not in the way that he flings webs and swings around New York City, but that he uses the mask to make people’s days a little brighter. He said the mask does something to a person, makes them fit into the person they most want to be.

“It’s because of the mask, nobody sees who you are, even if you’re scared nobody can see it,” Cottone said.

Cottone, 24, is a cosplayer, one who dresses as a fictional character from all sorts of media, from television to movies and, of course, comic books. Cosplaying is often displayed at “nerdy” events like conventions, where those dressed up will sometimes act in character, often to the pleasure of those in attendance. The young man got his start at cosplaying when he was in eighth-grade, though he started focusing on comic book characters in 2011, and 2012 at the tail end of his time in high school.

Nic Cottone during Gaming Night for Autism Awareness hosted by Game On in Miller Place. Photo from Nic Cottone

Since then, along with the nonprofit group of fellow cosplayers, the East Coast Avengers, Cottone has traveled throughout Long Island and far beyond, attending as Spider-Man for charity events and fundraisers. He assisted in events like Kids Comic Con at Bronx Community College, looking to give kids a creative outlet along with others closer to home such as Miller Place video game shop Game On’s annual events that help children with autism. He’s attended functions with hospitals and has even professionally gone to children’s birthday parties, who often can’t contain their excitement in seeing Spider-Man in the flesh.

The Port Jefferson Station resident, who professionally as Spider-Man goes as LI Spider-Guy, is unassuming, a young man who speaks in subdued tones that rise in pitch whenever he has the opportunity to speak about his passions. Most of those passions take the form of helping his fellow man.

“It’s just incredible, I guess,” Cottone said. “It’s the feeling you get when you can make people happy, when you can make people smile.”

Cottone started out in superhero cosplay portraying Captain America sidekick Bucky Barnes, at first likening the character to an almost-parody of American exceptionalism, but as he grew into it, he found that he saw the rational side of the hero, one who embodies the pinnacle of the American dream, one that centers around helping those who can’t help themselves.

But in his heart, he’s always liked the character of Spider-Man, the story of a young man from Queens, an unlikely hero in the first place. He’s a shy young man, smart, but socially awkward. Though even after he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, it takes a tragedy, the death of his father figure, for him to come to terms with the need to help people, simply because he has the power to do so.

“When I started in 2012, I wanted to inspire others to be their own heroes,” he said. “In high school, I struggled with confidence, I struggled with my drive. I struggled with finding a direction. When I realized I had the power, anybody could have the power to inspire others, that’s when I dedicated myself to being the best I could be for myself and for other people.”

It’s become a lifestyle. He’s done extensive online research on the physique of Spider-Man. And though he’s been exercising since high school, he’s tailored his diet to fit the look. For a year, Cottone has been taking his coffee black to excise as much sugar from his diet as he can.

The first spidery outfit Cottone bought came right after the release of the movie “Captain America: Civil War.” Upon first seeing the character, portrayed by Tom Holland, the Port Jeff Station native, and several of his friends, all thought the actor and character resembled him, in more ways than one. But those close to him know the comparison goes beyond the superficial. Fellow East Coast Avenger and friend Rafael “Captain” Pedragon said the Port Jeff Station native is, in many ways, better than the character of Peter Parker ever was.

“Peter Parker took a long time to realize his destiny, but Nic just knows,” Pedragon said. “He believes in his journey, he believes in what he does. Even when things are going rough with him I do see that he just pushes forward. In my eyes I think he’s better. That’s how I see him. Personality-wise he’s stronger mentally than Peter Parker ever was in the comic books.” 

The first suit he bought was from a company called Zentaizone, but when Joshua Darbee, the owner of Red Shirt Comics in Port Jefferson, asked him to attend free comic book day in May 2017, Cottone decided to go all out and buy a suit from RPC Studios, which many in the cosplay community see as some of the highest quality, movie prop level quality spidery suits. He now owns several suits, all different variations of the same character from movies, video games and the comics. It’s a commitment in both time and money, but the 24-year-old said it’s worth it to be the most authentic superhero he can be.

Nic Cottone at Public School 48’s Read Aloud Day in Brooklyn. Photo from Nic Cottone

Since it opened in 2017, Cottone had become a regular in Red Shirt Comics. Darbee bonded with the young man over comics and days of conventions gone by. It’s also how the store owner learned about the young man’s compunction to use superhero costumes to help people.

“The best story I have about Nic, the day he earned his CPR certification, he came in and he just wanted to share it, he was so proud and so happy,” Darbee said. “It was characters like Spider-Man and Captain America who were always so willing to go that extra mile for their fellow man, that he wanted to at least in some small way to be able to be there for somebody else, so he went out of his way to get that CPR certification, so if there was an emergency, he could be there for someone.”

Cottone graduated from Suffolk County Community College with a degree in psychology before moving on to Queens College looking at elementary education. First, he intended to become a high school teacher, but later he moved onto elementary, seeing it as a way to better help people develop in their formative years. He became disillusioned with the larger education system, saying it emphasized learning to the curriculum rather than developing as a person. 

After graduating from Queens College, Cottone returned to Long Island where he spent a year as a teaching assistant at the Maryhaven facility in Port Jeff, where he assisted children with developmental disabilities. Now he’s looking for full-time work while doing tutoring and working with children with autism.

To hear him say it, all the best things that have come to him recently have been because of Spider-Man. He met his girlfriend because of his love of the character and of comics in general. 

Better still, he doesn’t think he will stop any time soon.

“Ultimately we are alive for a very small amount of time, to be able to enjoy the things you’re passionate about is something very important to me,” he said. “It’s another aspect of life imitating art.

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

Jack Soldano can’t fly or shoot webs out of his wrists. And despite his spot-on Batman impression, he doesn’t spend nights jumping off buildings fighting crime.

But this past summer, the 13-year-old North Country Road Middle School student was inspired by all the comic books he reads to do some saving of his own, and in the process, he earned the title of hero in his hometown of Miller Place.

Every week in July and August, Jack, who was 12 at the time, set up a table at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park and sold 1,000 of his own comic books, as well as pins, magnets and bottle openers he made out of the vibrant panels in extra issues he had. The booming business he dubbed Comics for a Cause — a magnet for Marvel and DC comics lovers of all ages from the area — collected a total $1,220, but Jack didn’t keep a cent.

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

Instead, he gave it all to the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society to help the nonprofit fund roof repairs on its main headquarters, the nearly 300-year-old William Miller House at 75 North Country Road. The night Jack presented the check to historical society members, he sold a few more comic books and contributed an additional $10.

“I was bitten by a radioactive altruistic person,” Jack quipped when asked what made him want to aid in the nonprofit’s effort.

In actuality, Jack, currently in eighth grade, said that he felt compelled to help when he saw in The Village Beacon Record in May that the historical society was in desperate need to renovate the collapsing roof on the structure, the oldest existing house in Miller Place, built circa 1720. While he didn’t know any members of the nonprofit personally, Jack said he had a strong connection to the town landmark, as he and his family were regulars at its annual Postman Pete and Spooky Lantern Tour events.

“I figured, I like helping people, I have these comics — way too many of these comics — and people need help,” said Jack, who inherited the large collection from his grandfather, the former owner of a hobby shop in Port Washington. “And also, smiles are contagious, so it makes me happy that I can make others happy.”

When they heard what the young entrepreneur planned to do for them, members of the historical society, who rely heavily on the generosity of others to function, were stunned. With an initial goal of $18,300 to fix the roof, Jack’s contribution had brought the repair fund to $7,500. As of Dec. 20, the nonprofit had reached its goal to be able to start the project.

A brick in his honor — reading “Jack Soldano Our Comic Book Hero 2017” — was recently installed on the walkway around the historic house. Jack was also named an honorary member.

“That boy is a diamond in the rough,” said Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society Vice President Antoinette Donato. “We sometimes have to send out an appeal to the public when we need to raise money, but we certainly did not expect a 12-year-old boy to respond to us the way he did.”

Donato said Jack is not just a role model to other young people but to adults too.

“I think he motivates everyone to think about giving back to the community — giving to a good cause and caring about the world around us,” she said. “He’s truly an inspiration.”

The historical society’s president, Peter Mott, was equally impressed with Jack, who he referred to as a friend.

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

“This young man displayed an uncommon and incredible sense of responsibility and concern for his local community,” Mott said. “We seasoned adults were in awe of his energy and spirit. Jack is, and we predict will continue to be, an amazing person who will benefit his local and larger community for many years to come.”

But for those who know Jack best, this generosity wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“He’s always doing stuff like this,” said his friend, Cory Gardner, 14, who helped out during the comic book sales. “The levels of things he did, and does, for the community blows my mind. If he’s not a hero, I don’t know who is.”

Cristin Mansfield, Jack’s mom, said her son often helps the elderly on their block by moving their newspaper from the edge of the driveway to where he or she can reach it, and shovels when it snows.

“Jack’s always been an enthusiastic helper, from a very early age,” Mansfield said. “I think he just really feels good helping people out and making them smile.”

A member of his school’s track and wrestling teams and National Junior Honor Society, Jack is a frequent volunteer at Parent-Teacher Association events, including a reading club where he once dressed as Cat in the Hat and read to kids.

“Whatever is put before him, he always jumps in with both feet and takes it to the next level,” said Matthew Clark, principal at North Country Road Middle School. “And the fruits of his labor have created a contagious environment here. He stands out in such a positive way.”

In the midst of the comic book project over the summer, Jack began volunteering at Great Strides Long Island’s Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island, helping developmentally disabled children ride horses and even set up his table at the organization’s annual Evening Under the Stars fundraiser. He made 25 customized magnets and bottle openers and raised $100 for the event that benefits community therapeutic riding and veterans programs.

Of his own accord, he also made special magnets for a “swab drive” Nov. 30 that sought to find a bone marrow donor for a Sound Beach resident diagnosed with AML leukemia, the father of one of his friends.

“Jack’s just one of those kids who’s always thinking of things like that to do for other people,” said Kim Daley, whose husband was the focus of that event and has known Jack since he was in preschool. “He’s always been the boy that goes out of his way to make sure no one sits alone at lunch, and confirms everyone gets a chance at an activity  … He’s observant and sensitive to others. I could go on and on about Jack and what a big heart he has.”

Jack hopes he can inspire more people his age to get involved in any way they can.

“With a great ‘blank’ comes great responsibility,” he said, paraphrasing a quote from Spider-Man. “Go fill in the blank.”

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