Vincent Bartilucci Like most of the folks who visit this and Rob Kelly's other fine blogs, comic books were a huge part of my childhood. No big shock, right? But for me, comics also served as an important signifier of the end of that childhood. Or, at least, a certain part of it.
I guess the best place to start this tale is with my birthday. As a kid, I loved my birthday. Again, no big shock. A party, cake, presents; what’s not to love? But little Vinnie had a few other reasons to believe his birthday was extra-special. For one thing, I was born on November 1st.
All the good Catholics out there will recognize that date as All Saint's Day, a holy day of obligation. For grades 1 thru 8, I attended Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School. Y'see where I'm going with this, don't you? OLM, like all Catholic schools, was closed on All Saint's Day so I always had off on my birthday! Sure, I had to go to church in the morning but, c'mon--an hour in mass or seven hours in class? Which would you prefer?
And the extra-specialness doesn't end there.Thanks to the 1976 DC Calendar, I discovered that I shared a birthday with an actual DC hero! Yep, November 1st is also the birthday of Roy Harper aka Speedy, young ward of Green Arrow! Sure, it would've been even cooler if I shared the day with Aquaman or one of his extended family but it was still pretty neat. I looked at all the blank squares on that calendar--days when nothing "important" happened--and I felt really lucky to share my special day with a "real" super-hero.
Being just shy of two months before Christmas, my birthday was also a decent indication of what goodies might show up under the tree on the morning of December 25th. For example, one birthday I received action figures of Cornelius and the Soldier Ape from Mego's Planet of the Apes line. That Christmas, Santa brought me Zira, Dr. Zaius, and the PotA Treehouse playset. Another year, the Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk Megos were my birthday gift while on Christmas Scotty, McCoy, Uhura, the Klingon, and the Enterprise bridge playset arrived!
My birthdays (and Christmases) were about Megos, GI Joes (the 12 inch guy with fuzzy hair and Kung Fu grip), Power Records, and the like. But, we all grow older and, sometime between my twelfth and thirteenth birthday, things changed.
Y'see, 1979 was the year of the great purge. I was twelve years old. I'd be a full-fledged teenager before the end of the year. My parents decided that I no longer needed my Megos and Joes and Power Records and other "childish things." Oh, don't get me wrong. My toys weren't savagely ripped from my clutches and tossed in an incinerator while my folks laughed evilly and I wailed in despair. Nope, most of my stuff was given away to a younger cousin and, to be honest, I was kind of okay with it.
I mentioned on Rob's Power Records site how I hid the Werewolf by Night book and record set amongst my comics so I could keep it. I guess I would have liked to hold on to more of those book and record sets I owned but I didn't mind too much. I knew Kirk, Cornelius, and all the rest were going to a good home. And, thankfully, my comic books were not a part of the bargain.
But the whole process left me wondering about my birthday. Specifically, what should I ask for? Heck, what did I even want now that "childish things" were no longer an option? I've never been a big sports fan so sports related gear, usually a good all-ages choice of gift for a boy, was out. It would be a few more years before books and music became my standard birthday requests. I was stumped. Then I remembered that my comic books had survived the great purge. Maybe I could ask for a subscription to one of my favorite comic books.
As I recall, I was a little nervous bringing up the idea with my parents. Just because my comic books hadn't been given away didn’t necessarily mean my folks didn't consider them "childish things." Maybe they only let me keep my collection because they thought it might be worth something one day. (As opposed to my Megos, Joes, etc. - oh, if they only knew!) Maybe the mere act of asking for a subscription to a comic book would remind them of these "childish things" that had survived the purge and I'd be forbidden to "bring another comic book into this house!" Okay, my parents weren’t like that...but did I really want to chance it?
When my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I put her off--I told her I wasn't sure and that I'd think about it. And I kept putting her off and putting her off while I screwed up my courage to ask for that subscription. Finally, about a week before the big day, I broached the subject with my mother. She gave me one of her "are you sure that’s what you want?" looks, the same look she gave me years before when I chose the Mego Aquaman over the Superman for my "Good Report Card" reward. I assured her that a subscription to one of my favorite comic book series was the only present that I wanted for my birthday, honest and for true.
After considering the cost involved, she decided that my birthday present would be two subscriptions. How cool was mom?!?!? Ah, but what titles did I want "delivered flat in a protective wrapper right to my door"? I quickly decided that both of the subscriptions would be for Marvel comics. Not that I liked Marvel more than DC, mind you. If anything, I've always considered myself more of a DC guy. It just seemed at the time that the DC series I collected showed up with more frequency at Clearview Stationary Store, my comic emporium of choice, than some of the Marvel ones.
Sure, DC's Justice League of America and Marvel's Fantastic Four were equally easy to come by. But when I did miss an issue of a series I collected it was, almost invariably, a Marvel title. I figured I should use the subscriptions for those scarcer series from Marvel that I just couldn't bear to miss.
One of my favorite Marvel comics at the time was The Uncanny X-Men, with its ensemble cast of flawed characters. Years before it became the sales juggernaut it is today (no pun intended), The Uncanny X-Men was a series that I had a devil of a time finding at the newsstands. Even scarcer was Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. I'm not even certain how I became hooked on that series it was so difficult to track down. But it seemed sophisticated and mature and I loved it. I'm sure I wasn't aware of it at the time but thinking on it now I may have chosen those two titles for my subscriptions because they were so "grown-up". Considering the circumstances, it would have made sense.
Anyway, those were my choices; The Uncanny X-Men and Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. I photocopied a subscription ad from one of my Marvel comics, my mom made out a check, and we mailed 'em off.
And I waited.
If memory serves, I didn't receive the first issue of either of my subscriptions before January or February of the following year. Checking the dates, the first X-Men of my sub was probably #132 while my first Shang Chi was most likely #87. By that time Christmas had come and gone, a "grown-up" Christmas marked by an absence of Megos and Power Records.
Things were most assuredly different. Things were different in the comic book world, too. My X-Men subscription encompassed the Dark Phoenix Saga. I remember buying The Uncanny X-Men #137 on the newsstand because I didn't know if my sub would include double-sized issues. I can recall reading that issue in my backyard on a bright summer day and being completely devastated. When my subscription copy arrived I read it again and was devastated all over again--it was that good.
Shang Chi was its usual brilliant, heady stuff. But, near the end of my sub, Doug Moench, Mike Zeck, and Gene Day really outdid themselves. Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu #98 was a stand-alone issue about a martial artist who comes to town to challenge "the great Shang Chi". It's also, in a way, a rumination on the price of fame. It's one of my absolute favorite comic stories, definitely top 20 material. Maybe top 10.
Those two titles, The Uncanny X-Men and Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, are, in my mind, forever linked to the bittersweet feeling of growing up. Yep, after November 1st, 1979, my birthdays were different because, well, I was different.
I wasn't a kid anymore but, obviously, I wasn't an adult either. I was in that confusing purgatory called the teen years--a long stretch of road where you're not sure who you are or where you're going. And that rapidly growing dot on the horizon? You don't know whether to rush to greet it or run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
'80 and '81 brought much more difficult trials than a mere Mego-less birthday. And more of my childhood slipped away. I discovered that running as fast as I can in the opposite direction wasn't really an option, after all. And it all started with my thirteenth birthday and my first comic book subscriptions.