Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spirit of '74

sg David C. Morefield - I can't even remember why I was being punished.

Most likely I'd manipulated my little brother into some dangerous situation or other, or shamed the family again with a poor showing at school. The point is I was in hot water with the folks and comics were strictly off-limits until my sentence was served.

The year was 1974. At nine years of age I was past the point where spankings were practical, so my folks had settled on a new form of punishment; taking away things I enjoyed. My most obvious passion, and therefore my primary Achilles' heel, was comics. This wasn't the last time I'd lose access to them for my misdeeds; the worst would come a couple of years later, when during another stretch in the "no comics" icebox, DC and Marvel would release Superman vs. Spider-Man, surely the greatest event in publishing since Gutenberg perfected movable type...and I was forbidden to buy it.

Even in the best of times, it took some effort to get my hands on a comic. I was living in the small town of Saluda, VA, which didn't rate a drug store or corner grocery, so the nearest source for four-color adventures was Marshall's Drug Store in the neighboring town of Urbana. I spent many an afternoon turning that creaky spindle rack, situated as it was between a lunch counter smelling of grilled cheese sandwiches and a magazine stand crammed with the latest issues of National Lampoon, Creem and Tiger Beat (the latter invariably featuring Bobby Goldsboro, Donny Osmond and/or the Jackson Five. Groovy!). It was there I would first encounter the manic energy of the Amazing Spider-Man, the "wow, everyone's in the same book" grandeur of the Justice League of America and the sublime awesomeness of the 100-Page Super-Spectacular.

But not on this day. For now, I'd have to make due with cap gun battles in the back yard, or maybe another Yeti hunt with my Adventure Team GI Joe (with "life-like hair!"...if you're a hedgehog). Or so I thought. Because to my enduring surprise, Dad returned home from his errands that day with a gift for me, a magazine with a colorful cover showing a man in a blue fedora and tattered blue suit standing atop a strange brick structure (A barbecue? A refrigerator-sized jail cell?) confronting a woman in a red dress. The magazine was called The Spirit, and inside were black and white comics unlike anything I'd seen before.

This was unprecedented; in the ongoing Cold War between parent and child, it was a development as momentous as Nixon's trip to China. By handing me this magazine before my sentence was up, it was like Dad was switching allegiances from Mom to me, if only for a moment. Remember, the ban was on comic books, and this publication, whatever it was, wasn't the typical comic. Magazine-sized, with black and white content and drawn in a "retro style" (I didn't know they were actually vintage stories) it was something new, something different.

I mean, who'd ever heard of "Warren Publishing"? On a fundamental level, of course, it was a comic, but by exploiting a seeming loophole, the warden himself had smuggled in contraband. If "no comics" was my prison, that magazine was my cake with a hacksaw baked inside.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, as Dad had been a comics fan himself growing up. More than once I wished I could've seen his collection of Golden Age books (his favorites were Captain Marvel and a character named Something-Eagle, or Eagle-Something, he could never remember and I've never been able to figure it out). Like so many readers of his generation, however, his comics were lost to time, in this case stored in a barrel in a shed and destroyed by mice(!).

I've never talked to Dad about it--I seriously doubt he'd remember that day anyway--but the whole "Spirit Magazine" episode only ever made sense as a "bonding" thing. Surely as a Methodist minister he wouldn't have bought me the magazine based on the content of the stories, which I'm convinced he never read.

sgI mean, on the very first page of the very first story, a man is brutally beaten (stomped!) to death by mob enforcers and abandoned on the sidewalk in a pool of blood. As the book progresses, another man is struck over the head with a heavy tool and dumped in a garbage truck bound for the city incinerator; a female prison guard gets a face full of scalding steam and lies clawing at her face in a silent scream; people are atomized by martian ray guns, and--most memorably--a beautiful woman doctor strips out of her surgical gown and changes to a dress (in one panel we see a shot of her bare back that, despite showing no "naughty bits," remains one of the sexiest images I've ever seen in a comic).

The fact that all this was drawn in a "cartoony" style somehow made it more shocking, not less. Weaned on DC and Disney comics, I couldn't help thinking, "Is it even legal to print this stuff?"

I pored over every page of the magazine repeatedly, and not just because it's the only comic I had for weeks. Even the ads in this thing were mesmerizing; original James Bond movie posters for $3.50 to $5.00 (today they'd go for hundreds and up), Mego superhero action figures (had to remember to look for those at the department stores!) and in the back pages, a veritable library of books collecting old comics; Superman and Batman From the 30s to the 70s (which I had and loved), Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake, Underground Comix (whatever those were), something called All in Color For A Dime and a paperback that promised to contain Green Lantern and Green Arrow stories drawn by Neal Adams (my hero! Did he really draw such books? Did Green Lantern really have his own title once?!).

In later years, I'd track down many of those volumes, but nothing could have lived up to the promise of those tantalizing ads. Even more fascinating, though, was the knowledge that I was reading Issue #2 of The Spirit. Thus Issue #1 took on an almost mythical status in my imagination. I knew from an ad that the cover had shown a giant Spirit looking down on a murder, but as the issue had come and gone a couple of months earlier, I might as well have missed it by 20 years. "Back issues" and "direct sales" were alien concepts to me then, and for years to come.

Later on, during another period of punishment (I must have been some rotten kid!), Dad would "bend the rules" again and get me DC's tabloid-sized Bible comic (it was an unusual size, and maybe I'd learn Bible stories, right?) but it didn't have the impact of The Spirit.

Eventually, of course, I'd figure out who Will Eisner was and where the comics in that magazine first saw life. I'd collect every "Spirit" story I came across, and most of the time I'd enjoy them. But nothing would ever match the impact of that first meeting with Denny Colt, Ellen Dolan, Powder, Bleak, Sparrow and the puberty-hastening Dr. Silken Floss.

I've held onto the magazine to this day while so many other artifacts of my youth have been lost to time. It's missing the covers, has holes where I cut out the James Bond poster images and now starts on page 7, but I've got it. And whenever I open it up, I'm nine years old again, ending my comics fast with a feast of powerful imagery and entering a fascinating, exciting, scary world far removed from the cozy confines of Metropolis, Riverdale and Duckburg, and offering a glimpse into still more worlds of adventure in those back-page ads that said, "There's enough of this stuff that you could read it for the rest of your life, kid."

And so I have. Thanks, Dad. I won't tell Mom if you don't.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Deliberate Error

sg Vincent Bartilucci - The last time Rob granted me the floor here at Hey Kids,! Comics! I wrote about my father, Shazam! #12, and a family trip to Scotland in 1974. I ended that piece on a bit of a cliffhanger. Here's a brief recap:

In the summer of '74, my family and I visited relatives in Scotland. Shortly before we returned home, my Uncle Albert purchased a copy of Shazam! #12 for me. That comic book was something of a milestone in my own personal comic-collecting history; it was my first encounter with the original Captain Marvel, who was one of my father's childhood favorites. Cap soon became a favorite of mine, as well. Almost 35 years later (yikes!) and I'm still fascinated by The World's Mightiest Mortal and his whimsical supporting cast.

But--and here's the cliffhanger part--as I mentioned in the first half of this tale, my Uncle Albert purchased two comic books for me on that fateful day in August of '74. Like Shazam! #12, this other comic book was my first issue of a series that I would follow for years to come, a series that would rival even The Brave and the Bold and Justice League of America for my affections.

At the time of the actual purchase however, this other comic book was barely on my radar. In fact, so intense was my focus on the cover of Shazam! #12 that I failed to notice so much as the title on the second comic that my uncle plucked from that wire rack in that Scottish pub (I swear, it was a pub!) we visited. And, since these comics were for me to read on the flight home a few days later, they both went into a bag and the bag went to my mother for safe keeping until our departure. We were airborne before I learned the identity of that other comic book.


Boring old Superman as a boring old kid. Ho-hum.

To be fair though, the cover to that other comic book, Superboy #201, did look kind of interesting, what with the unconscious form of the Teen of Steel lying in the foreground and some other super-hero squaring off with the issue's villain. I didn't recognize either of the combatants, or, for that matter, two additional characters that lay defeated in the background. Whoever they were, they all had neat costumes.

Despite the cover, however, I was still fairly certain that the story itself would be a dud because, as far as the Man of Steel concerned, the folks at DC were nothing but a pack of dirty cheats. Well, what would you call them? In the mid seventies, Superman and Action Comics boasted some of the most dynamic covers on the stands, exciting images that promised thrills and chills and adventure aplenty. Yet beneath those phenomenal front pieces lurked lackluster tales featuring goofy-looking aliens, monumentally outclassed super-villains, and a hero who was never, ever in any real danger. In my learned, seven-almost-eight year old opinion, Superman was dull with a capital D. I couldn't imagine how Superboy would be any different.

The fact is he wasn't any different. Superboy, the character, was just as boring as Superman. But Superboy, the comic book, was pretty darn exciting. Superboy, the comic book, had the Legion of Super-Heroes! And the Legion of Super-Heroes was…the Legion was…

I'm sorry but I just can't do it. I can't continue my tale without making an embarrassing confession. Do not judge me too harshly, fellow Legion fans but …

I originally read the logo of Superboy #201 as Superboy starring The Legend of Super-Heroes.

All these years later, I'm not exactly sure where "Legend" came from. Thanks to my comic book mania, I was a fairly strong reader with a vocabulary that was rather advanced for my age. Whenever I came across an unfamiliar word in the latest issue of Iron Man or The Flash or what have you I'd scramble to the dictionary to look it up. I knew what "invulnerable", "abomination", "supersonic", and a host of other words meant long before any of my classmates. I guess that's relatively common among young comic book fans.

In this case, however, I didn't investigate the unfamiliar word. Granted, I didn't have a dictionary with me on the transatlantic flight from Glasgow to New York. But I had better. I had my folks. I could've asked one of them what Legion meant. But I didn't. Instead, my brain just replaced Legion with a more familiar word. It was sheer laziness; the laziness that sometimes comes with being 'rather advanced' for your age.

I mean, the only alternative to laziness is that I glanced at the cover of Superboy #201 so quickly that I really believed the subtitle read Starring the Legend of Super-Heroes. But, if that was the case, if I had actually misread the logo, why the heck didn't I check it again when I discovered that the darn story took place in the future? I certainly don't recall ever thinking to myself, "hey, isn't a legend something that OCCURRED IN THE PAST?!?!?" Then, of course, there are all the times the words Legion or Legionnaire appeared in the issue. I just flipped thru a reader copy of this issue that I purchased recently and counted them up--19 in the main story, 12 in the back-up! 31 references to the Legion within the issue, averaging more than one a page, and I just sorta glossed over them all! Nope, I'm convinced it was laziness.

The really embarrassing part is that this went on for years. Even after I encountered and understood the word legion in other contexts--heck, even when I realized that the name of the group within the series itself was the Legion of Super-Heroes--I was STILL referring to the comic book as Superboy and the Legend of Super-Heroes. It became something that was willful, deliberate. I knew it wasn't right but I refused to correct myself.

And I guess that brings us back to my father and the tale I related last time. Captain Marvel was one of my dad's favorite characters and he filled me in on a lot of Shazam-lore before I ever set eyes on my first issue of Shazam! But somewhere along the line he had become convinced that Billy Batson, Cap's alter ego, was a crippled newspaper boy. Of course, it was Freddy Freeman, Captain Marvel Jr.'s secret identity, who was lame and hawked newspapers, but dad didn't remember it that way and he wouldn't be persuaded otherwise.

I don't believe for a minute that my father's error stemmed from any mental laziness on his part but I think I'm beginning to understand now why he stuck to his guns all those years. Sometimes what we remember is more important than the truth. Dad remembered Billy with a crutch and a stack of newspapers. I remembered reading Superboy starring The Legend of Super-Heroes. To correct those memories is to bring other, more important memories into question. And we derive too much joy from our memories to start tearing them down.

So, enjoy your memories. During glad times, revel in them. During sad, gain strength from them. Pull them all out and scatter them across the living room table like so many faded photo albums.

And, should you discover that a given memory isn't supported by historical fact, choose the memory. You'll be happier.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My First Comic Shop

sgRick Phillips I went to Phil's Records today perhaps for the last time. Oh I still like the place but it's just that they are moving. I heard about it a couple of weeks ago but I didn't hear the date. I just stop for one last visit and found out that today was the last day. So I bought a little bit more then I planned on.

You see they are moving to an area where I haven't been in about 10 years. So I may ever see the store again. Now why am I writing about a record store when the title is called my first comic shop? Well they also sold comic books. They didn't have a huge supply but I could always go there and find something if the regular store didn't have it and that was rare.

After I left I thought about the first comic book store that I found in my area. My cousin Randy and I saw an ad in the newspaper for Conner's Comics. It was near Industrial Road and both of us had our parents drive us over there to look for the store. My folks must have driven me up and down that road and the side roads at least a dozen times before they gave up hope of finding it.

About a week later Randy and I were going down Dixie Highway to the YMCA. We saw a small store across the street that had comic books in the window. We made a promise to each other to stop there on the way back. After a good time of swimming at the Y we headed home and stop there on the way back.

It was when I was looking at the books that I saw in the window from the street that I noticed something. It was laying flat so it wasn't viewable from the street. I picked it up with my eyes wide in amazement. I called to Randy and held up what I had just found. It was a wood sign and carved into it was the name of the store. It was Conner's Comics. It seems that it was near Industrial Road with the ad came out but soon moved to this location. We wound up finding the store when we quick looking for it.

The store was only at that location for less then a year but I had a lot of fun there and learned alot about my hobby. It was the first time I took a comic book to the store to sell to them. It was Justice League of America #129. Like any kid I folded it up and put it in my back pocket and made my way to the store. When I took it out and tried to sell it the counter person told me the crease made it worthless. That was how I learned to keep them in the best condition that I can.

I only saw one person at the store and when Randy and I talk to him he told us he knew nothing about comic books. He only collected baseball cards. When someone had a question about comic books he had to look it up. I was amazed at that revelation. Why hire someone who doesn't know anything about the hobby? Maybe he was the only one who applied.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Thank Heaven For 7-11"

sg Rob Kelly - Well, our first Hey Kids! poll is concluded, and the far away winner for where people would love to see comics sold again is...7-11!

Despite the fact that if comics were sold on a grand scale in big box stores like Target it would probably have a significantly positive effect on the comics industry, in the end most people who voted went for the place I bet most of them bought comics in the first place, the local 7-11 (or equivalent "Kwik-E-Mart"-esque chain).

I have to say that, while in my head I know that it makes the most sense for comics to be in the big-box stores (have you been to a Target during Christmas?), deep down I think I'd give my left arm to see them sold in 7-11s again--it would just make me feel good.

7-11s are the first store many kids can get to on their own, the place where they can spend their money without their parents approval (heck, from what I remember, most of the stuff you bought in 7-11 would be gone by the time you even got back to your house). At the 7-11 down the road from my house, kids still hang out outside, their bikes off to the side as they eat candy bars and smoke cigarettes. The more things change...

Back in 2007, Marvel tried a brief experiment and started putting together specially-made collections for 7-11 stores, and I was so excited I bought every copy I found. But to no avail; eventually the range of titles dwindled from half a dozen to pretty much just Spider-Man, and then even Spidey disappeared.

I guess sales just weren't there, which kind of confounds me, because at several 7-11s in my area, they regularly stock Wizard--Wizard!--a magazine about comics sells well enough to be in 7-11s, but the comics themselves don't. What's wrong with this picture? I'm not a fact and figures guy, but boy would I love the opportunity to dig into Marvel's 7-11 sales figures and see just what the hell went on.

Even though comics are gone--probably never, ever to return--I have to admit, every time I'm in a 7-11 (which is often) I find my head, more often than not, unconsciously turning towards the magazine racks, in some vain hope I'll see a huge selection of comics there again. It's like my own sad, four-color version of "Christina's World."
Oh well, at least they still have Slurpees.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"From The Sublime To The Ridiculous"

I get a particular thrill following up Richard Bensam's fantastic, moving piece (see previous post) for Hey Kids! with these: photos from a nudie film.

These screencaps were sent to me by Hey Kids! contributor Brian Heiler, who tells me: "
These are shots from the 1963 opus Goldilocks and the Three Bares (yeah, I like old-timey naked people movies) and that buldging comic rack gets featured for about five minutes (it's obviously a one-camera shot).

It looked better on my TV but I had to use VHS to catch it, so it lost some resolution, I could see the Batman logo on my TV."

Wow, what a catch, and what a bizarre place to spot some comics as props--a early 60s nudie film?!?

That's an odd-sized comic rack, it looks like it has two racks on two sides, and then one rack on the opposite side. Wherever this was shot, the kids in the area had a lot more comics to choose from than I ever did. (So not only did they have a porno being shot in their neighborhood, but they had Charltons, too!)

I can't make out the Batman logo, but am I crazy to think that I see Archie's Pep Comics six titles down on the left?

Friday, January 2, 2009

"A New Year"

Richard Bensam - 1974

Just over thirty-five years ago, my family moved from a small town in Pennsylvania to New York City. Both my parents were native New Yorkers returning home after an absence of many years, but my sister and I knew the city only from visits to our grandparents in Brooklyn, or our aunt and uncle in Queens. To actually live in Manhattan would be a radical change in every aspect of our lives.

Sayre, PA was an almost impossibly perfect manifestation of the ideal American small town. It was unbearably picturesque: the town in which Norman Rockwell paintings seem to take place. Fictional towns like Smallville or Riverdale would have seemed bustling and cosmopolitan by comparison. But the town was also narrow minded, parochial, conservative, economically depressed and oppressive, with little hope of escape for those born there. The television series The Prisoner never seemed like science fiction; I always felt as if I'd lived it. The year we moved away, the population of Sayre was under seven thousand people; the population of New York City at the same time was well over seven million.

There was only one building in town more than three stories tall: the local hospital, also the only building in town with an elevator. A whole city full of elevators and escalators and skyscrapers and subways and buses and taxicabs was some kind of crazy space age dream--yet we were moving to a city with heliports on the roof! A couple of years earlier, my family had visited Disneyland and I wanted to spend every moment of it in the Tomorrowland area. The prospect of moving to New York was like being invited to live in Tomorrowland.

Not every change seemed positive at the time. There was a real possibility I would be left behind from my age group and have to repeat a grade, because the curriculum in my former school system was well behind that of New York schools. That would have been humiliating; I only narrowly escaped it. As it was, I faced an uphill climb those first few months in the new school to catch up with my fellow students. (My first day there included a test on expressing fractions in decimal notation, and I had never even heard of a "decimal point" before. I got every question wrong.) This was the first time in my life schoolwork really challenged me, and somehow I managed to rise to the occasion.

(In fact, though I'm not sure how I managed this, I did well enough in the new environment that the following year I became one of only three students in the entire school chosen to learn how to use the school's computer--actually a dumb terminal hooked up via acoustic coupler modem to a mainframe at nearby New York University--writing simple math programs in BASIC. Understand that this was over three decades ago; grade schools then did not normally have computers, and certainly not one available to students, so this was an exceptional privilege. But that came later.)

I don't remember those early months in the city too clearly: mostly the sheer terror of my first day at the new school, followed by a blur of social awkwardness and discomfort over a period of months, combined with a steady stream of culture shock and new experiences. What I do remember vividly is visiting my new school for the first time before the new year began--or more specifically, visiting the combination stationery store/gift shop/newsstand across the street from the school and finding their rack of comics. That's when I saw this:

SHAZAM! #11 was the first comic book I bought in New York. The issue was dated March 1974, but it appeared on the racks considerably earlier. I remember thinking the theme of the cover was a good omen. 1974 was indeed going to be a new year for my family; yes, let's salute that.

Funnily enough, I'm pretty sure the second comic I bought at the same shop would have been this one:

When this turned up, I was profoundly relieved to discover I hadn't missed an issue of the ongoing story. At the time I loved both varieties of Captain Marvel equally, though in more recent years I've become more passionate about the Fawcett original whereas Marvel's version has aged considerably less well...but that's a whole other topic. What mattered was that I'd found a new place to buy comics.

As it happened, three blocks away from my new school (and this gift shop) was something I didn't even dream existed until I saw it for the first time, a few weeks later: an entire store that sold nothing but comic books. Every new comic. Old comics. Original art from comics.

Back in our former town, there were two newsstands on the same block that between them carried most of the latest comics. Both knew me as a regular customer, and I was scrupulous about dividing my purchases between the two out of fairness. At one of them, I was even allowed to go in the back and open the bundle of newly arrived comics to choose my purchases before they were put on the racks. That was how I first saw The Demon #1 by Jack Kirby...and even today, whenever I see that cover, it transports me back to Morley's News on Desmond Street in Sayre.

If by mischance both of those establishments ever missed a comic I wanted, I knew every other place that sold comics within driving distance--testing my father's patience on many occasions. If you had asked me about any town in northern Pennsylvania or southern New York State, I'd have described it as that's the town with the drug store with a huge comics display along the wall. Or that's the town with the smoke shop on the foot of a steep hill, where the comics spinner rack is next to the glass case full of pipes and tobacco. Individual comics were landmarks: That shopping mall in Elmira was where I got Superboy #147. In that poster shop outside Athens I found Avengers #63. Watkins Glen was the perplexing THUNDER Agents #20. My brain was a GPS system of comics vendors.

All this is by way of explaining that getting comics was of critical importance to me. I did not live for comics. I lived in comics. To find a store that specialized in comics changed everything. But I don't remember the first comic I bought there. What I remember is the first comic I bought in New York City, knowing that from now on I was going to be living here.