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.


Plaidstallions said...

Wonderful story, I first discovered the Spirit around the same age and it had similiar impact, felt like I was reading something "very adult" and taboo.

Vincent Paul Bartilucci said...

Great story, David!

Once more I'm struck by the universality of certain experiences. I (and I'm sure many others) can relate to your "no comics" punishment. I know that our host Rob has already written his own piece on the subject of the parent imposed comics ban. In my case, I was denied comics for an entire summer and I remember EXACTLY what I did wrong. I suppose that means that the punishment did its job well.

As for the Spirit, I only caught a few issues of the Kitchen Sink magazine series near the end of its run. When the same company started its comic-sized reprinting of Eisner's ground-breaking work however, I bought every issue. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Warren gave me the gift of Eisner, too.

Bought this one faithfully; loved the day-glo occasional color. Still have an ish or two, I think.

Thanks for the reminder, David.

-Craig W.

P.S.- If you're a holiday fan, THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT collection is a great one - with a moving intro by its Jewish creator.

Mike said...

I actually had that issue signed by Mr Eisner at a comic convention here in Orlando. Ah yes my first Spirit was the Harvey reprint in teh 60's since I am a bit older than you (57). I knew then it was not your ordinary comic or hero. When the Kitchen Sink Spirits came out I managed to get all of those before grad school ruined my finances.
Too bad the Spirit movie is NOTHING like the comic, eh?

Booksteve said...

A lovely memoir! Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Your dad's other favorite comic character sounds like Phantom Eagle, a fighter pilot hero who appeared in Wow Comics in the 1940's. It was published by Fawcett, who also published Captain Marvel.

Anonymous said...

Warren was able to bypass the Comics Code Authority by publishing comics in black & white and magazine size. They were exploiting the same loophole that your dad did.