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.


TS said...

Bless you, brother; change a few names, and my time and passion spent in search of comic books is similar in so many ways. Thanks for beautifully articulating that!

Anonymous said...

What a great story. I didn't escape from my small town (Spring Lake, MI) until I left for college - I am so envious of your tale.


Anonymous said...

I don't think that fans who grew up in the age of comic shops understand how much effort we "old folks" put into tracking down our favorite titles!

Great tale, Richard. I hope you've got a few more for us!

Richard said...

Thanks to all for the kind words!

Anonymous said...

Great story and well-writ, Richard.

As Vincent implies, it was indeed an adventure mapping out the verious smoky newstands, bustling gorceries, and tacky convenience stores for comics needs back in the day...

(And may I ask, as one who also landed in "Oz from Kansas" at about the same time - '76/'77 - which NYC Comics-only store WAS that first for you?)

I will say though, that half-a-century on visiting this mudball wes live on, I now consider myself blessed to have TWO hometowns:

Yes, I am a died-in-the-wool Noo Yawker; but smalltown America is more than just drawbacks. Defiance, Ohio hath its own strengths, that NYC knoweth not...

Happy New Year,
-Craig Wichman

Richard said...

Craig, my first comics shop was Village Comics, on Morton Street off Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

(A few years later, the proprietors moved to a new location on Sixth Avenue next to the Waverly Theater...then to further east on Bleecker...then to Sullivan Street...then to their current spot on Third Street. Keeping track of them over the years hasn't been quite as much fun as hunting comics...)

There were two other comic shops in New York that I visited circa 1975-6, but Village Comics was my local one.

Anonymous said...

I remember it well, Richard.

I think it may have been my first one in NYC - was Jerry Oehlinger part of that, before his BATCAVE down the street? I remember sitting on the stoop there, in the late August heat when I first came to NYU, reading the new MONSTER TIMES.

There was a visit or two, too, to SUPERSNIPE and COMIC ART MUSEUM (or somesuch name?), way Uptown.

But my usual haunts became Jerry's on Bleecker, and later a big store on Broadway below 8th St. that didn't last long. Then came the original NYC FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Today, it's mainly ROGER'S TIME MACHINE (highest marks!), with a little COSMIC, MIDTOWN, & JIM HANLEY'S on occasion.

Good memories - bring back Newsprint!

-Craig Wichman

Richard said...

Sorry to keep this thread going so long, but I just had to mention...that big shop on Broadway below Eighth Street was where I had my first job!

I do know all those places, though; the Batcave was my all-time favorite, and these days I really like Roger's Time Machine.