Monday, December 22, 2008

"The Best Gift Ever"

sgGeorge Rears - The. Best. Gift. Ever.

I'm the last of five kids. Not only that, my four older siblings are within five years age of each other. Then, there is aseven-year gap. Then me.

My family moved to West Berlin, Germany, in the spring of 1974. All of us except my eldest sister. She was finishing her senior year in high school and was bound for Rutgers in the fall. She would never end up moving overseas with the rest of us, but would join us during the holiday seasons and the summer break.

For the rest of us, we lived off the army base in a small neighborhood filled with American families. Surprisingly, the experience growing up in this neighborhood was remarkably similar to that of anybody growing up in suburban America. Tons of kids in the neighborhood, always ready for a wiffleball game, bike race, or flashlight tag. I bought my first baseball cards while living there, and my first comics, too. But with two adults, four kids, and an over weight dog, the little rancher was a bit tight.

After one year, we moved to a much larger house. The new house was great--the basement had a bomb shelter, the back yard went on and on forever, and the attic had a few hidden rooms (To this day I'm convinced that people were hidden in these spaces during World War II). It was a great place for and eight-year old kid to explore and develop his imagination, which was important, since this house was not anywhere near the base or any American neighborhoods.

I think living far away from the rest of my friends fed my love of comics. I'd see friends at school and cub scouts, but most of my spare time at home became comic book time. Understandably, by 1976 I was buying most of the DC line.

One of my older brothers also bought comics, but being a sophomore in high school, the last thing he wanted to discuss with his third grade sibling was the logic of Batman teaming up with an elderly Sgt. Rock in one issue of Brave and the Bold, and then teaming up with a seemingly perpetually young World War II super hero Wildcat in another issue. Still, he lent me his comics, and gave me an appreciation for Jack Kirby, not a bad deal at all.
What I didn't know at the time was my eldest sister, Susan, also had enjoyed comics when she was younger. I would find out later that she used to sneak a flashlight up to her to read comics after "lights out" each evening. Being eleven years old, Susan and I weren't that close. The year I finished first grade in Berlin Germany, She graduated high school in New Jersey. We did have a lot in common, though. Obviously, we liked to read. We both took our studies very seriously and did well in school. Ironically we both ended up graduating from the same high school and university, although in different decades.

By Christmas of 1976 , I had been collecting comics for two and a half years. In Germany back issues were hard to come by, so my knowledge of comic book lore was limited to about 36 issues (or 18 for the bi-monthly titles) of story. It was devastating whenever a new creative team came aboard a title, because I just assumed the team that had been working on it when I started reading the book had been doing it forever, and would continue forever. For Christmas, I had asked for a bunch of Mego action figures, and if memory serves correctly, I think that year was the year I received the Wayne Foundation playset!

Yet the best gift I received that year, a gift I still have and treasure to this date, didn't come from my parents, didn't come from my comic collecting brother, or even Santa. That Christmas, my sister gave me a hardcopy cover of Superman from the 30's to the 70's. This book was a collection of Superman from his first appearance up until about 1971. It was mostly black and white, but every other decade section started over with a color insert featuring a collection of covers, and at least one story partially in color. I don't know how long it took me to read the 375 page book--but I remember re-reading it for most of 1977!

The book itself remains one of the greatest collections of Superman stories ever put together. From the first Superman story in Action Comics, to the most important 1970's Superman story (Kryponite Nevermore!), this book had it all. It featured the first appearance on the Superman/Batman team, the first Lori Lemaris story, the classic Golden Age imaginary story where Clark and Lois watch a Superman feature with Clark distracting Lois every time Superman switched identities. It has it all...did I mention Bizarro? The Luthor, Prankster, Toyman team? Superboy meeting President Roosevelt?

All of a sudden, I got to see this broad tapestry of Superman lore laid out in front of me. The super-vigilante from the Golden age, Super policeman from the 50's, the king of imaginary stories from the 60's, and the newer, relevant Superman from the 70's. This book opened up my eyes to the idea that various talents could interpret a character, and that each interpretation was not only valid, but each came with its own appeal.

The book also came with an introduction by Superman expert E. Nelson Bridwell, which gave me a behind the scenes look at the character, which I could never have imagined, such as the influence the radio show had on the comic book with the introduction of kryptonite (to let the voice actor of Superman take a vacation while not interrupting the show) and the introduction of the Superman/Batman team.

Throughout my childhood, this book remained one of my all-time favorites. I remember reading about a similar Batman book on the dust jacket, and then finding a copy at the Berlin American library (and more recently, on eBay). Reading that book led to a sixth grade debate about Bat-Hound: Can you believe children in the 70's knew nothing about a one-shot character, and a canine character, at that, from the fifties? All of a sudden, I was becoming the scholarly expert on super heroes.
This book still sits proudly on my bookshelf--right next to its modern descendents, the DC archive collections. Its nowhere near mint shape. In fact I still remember spilling chocolate pudding in it years ago. Reading it today, It looks as if I must have spilled some other things on a few pages, too. I would never think of replacing it, even if I found the book in mint condition, because this isn't just a comic book. This was the Best Gift Ever.


Steve said...

Really nice story about how the connections made by comics can transcend what people think of as the limitations of the medium.

Grears said...


I just really liked the book. Really cool of my sister to spend money on it as a poor college kid!


FCG said...

The Superman & Batman 30's to the 70's books meant a lot to me as a kid, too, and I still have my copies also. I just recently tracked down a copy of the Captain MArvel 40's to the 70's book to go with them.

Don't you think it's about time for a "80s through the, um, 00s" book for each of them as a follow up?

Grears said...

You know, I'm not sure how to do a new collection of these books. With so many stories being continued, it is hard to find good shoot stories for these collections. I imagine the John Byrne Lex Luthor - Waitree story would make it, and of course, "For the Man That Has Everything", and maybe the one from a few years back that introduced Manchester Black (was that his name?)... but so many of the "representative" stories are in continued: Doomdsday, Electric Superman, etc... I guiess you can't go home again.

Anonymous said...

Great story, as usual George.

I vaguely remember checking out this book from my local public library. I wonder if they still have it to lend ...

Anonymous said...

got both of these as Christmas presents back in the 70s and loved them.

Still have them on my bookshelf.

Scott Vizcarra said...

I remember a friend lending me his book in Jr H.S. and after I read it I begged him to sell it to me. That was 1977 and I finally picked up a copy 30 years later. My copy doen't have a cover on it and the Batman book I bought as well is missing a cover and has some water damage but they are still great reads. I just bought the Wonder Woman book, and will be on the lookout for Shazam from the 40s to the 70s too.