My next-oldest brother’s name is Danny. He’s an athletic bad-ass; you can see him do crazy-athlons online, and if you’re into MMA, he devised the only sensible scoring system known. But back in 1970, he was a buck-toothed 12-year-old whose big brother called him “Toothpick,” with a hyper-imaginative six-year-old brother reading at his grade level, and one thing he could do to make me less obnoxious was to read comics with me. Later, when he got all jock-ish and grew up and stuff, he left the pile to me. It was a goldmine: mostly long runs on Marvel comics dating from mid-1967. I don’t know if he’d bought them all or inherited some from our older siblings and step-siblings, because in retrospect, it was a pretty choice sample of horror, science fiction, and the better superhero material. The Spider-Man run was superb: the first big showdown with the Green Goblin was in there – so too, many issues later, was Gwen Stacy’s death. The Incredible Hulk 55-56 was in there. Silver Surfer #11 was in there. The introduction of the Falcon and the Nomad stories in Captain America. The whole run of Ghost Rider in Marvel Spotlight (lots of stuff in that title in fact, Red Wolf, Spider-Woman, Deathlok, Son of Satan …). Tomb of Dracula including a lot of Blade. The brilliant first year of Hero for Hire. A fair amount of Thomas’ last days in the Avengers, with the climax of the Sentinels story, and quite a bit of Englehart’s run on that title, as well as in Dr. Strange. Jim Starlin in all his glory. The Conan the Barbarian issues included six of Barry Smith’s, and there was also this bar of solid gold for a soon-to-be fanatic Harlan Ellison reader:
I read every issue to pieces and knew every panel, every single word, by heart. I learned the writers, artists, and inkers the hard way, laying them out on the floor to figure out the styles. I read every letter and every reply, over and over, and the Stan Lee editorials – memorized every bit. I even knew every single page of ads, Sea Monkeys and all (my friend Robbie sent away for them). There was not a bit of print in those comics I did not know to the very placement of each word or thought balloon, let alone their contents, and the scuff marks and rips, too. As for buying more … well. I manfully suppress my old grey snarls for the easy-ass mall storefronts, and those sterile white boxes looking like morgue containers, sorted by title and number, carefully price-checked. which I associate with the continuity-checked maxi-crossover series and too-solid feeling white paper pages. Down, nostalgia! There were good and bad comics then and now, mustn’t get into generational maundering. How shall I explain. It was definitely a different era. I was just beginning to get an allowance, therefore could save enough for a couple 20-cent comics a week at the local little store. New comics weren’t sold in stores of their own in those days, but were stuffed tight with no organization into standing wire spin-racks, at some newsstands, at some gas stations, in some corner stores, in some department stores. You had to know where they were. The proprietor didn’t choose titles or pay any attention to which issue numbers they were or weren’t going to get; I don’t think any infrastructure for that even existed. If you didn’t get the latest issue in time, it would be gone and mulched so the guy could stuff in the next batch, so if you simply had to get the next Fantastic Four, you had to hit every venue, every week.
Collections? Don’t make me laugh. No one collected comics. No one cared about their condition, before or after the sale. “These things are worth money” was barely percolating in the public mind, and the legendary Comics and Comix store was only just opening in Berkeley – you found old comics in used bookstores or barbershops or hobby stores that kept a disorganized box of whatever near the door. They weren’t sorted by title or company or in any way whatsoever. There wouldn’t be a real comics store around, until my age was in double digits. No one even dreamed of bagging or protecting them. I held my sets of sequential issues together with scotch tape. At about age ten, you never saw a fiercer comics-seeker than me. Danny’s collection of Conan stopped at issue 42 or so; by the time I could ride a ten-speed and could amass a couple bucks in my pockets, the current issue on the stands was about in the mid 60s, I think. I set to work filling that bastard in, and as much of the other titles as I could – but with limited funds, I had to choose, and Conan was the primary target. By the end of high school, I would succeed. This was the era of the free-range kid, and if I hopped on the bike on Saturday morning and didn’t come back until 8 PM, no one thought twice about it. By age 13, with the carefully-saved sum of five bucks in my pants, I’d hit every fuckin’ bookstore and comics store on the Monterey Peninsula, which I might add meant pedaling over mountains to get anywhere, as well as coming back. There were no “bike paths,” as you call them, so I risked maiming and death every time. The area wasn’t as flashy as it became in the 80s; Fort Ord was still active, there was no Aquarium, no UC Monterey. I discovered roofs with unmonitored stairs and ladders, or the right comfy rocks at the shoreline, or hotel lobbies, where I could eat the orange I’d brought with me and read a comic or two, before pressing on. Weird little bookstores were everywhere. They knew me in each SF/fantasy section, weird old dudes with obscure accents, gentle Vietnam vets with waist-length hair, hard-eyed feminists with bobbed hair, whoever, and if I flopped on the patchouli-scented floor pillows for a rest and a read, that was cool.
What I didn’t buy, I read like a beast, all those bizarre old magazines, Eerie and Creepy and the whole spectrum of current fringe – again, no one cared a bit if a pre-teen or young teen perused National Lampoon (very filthy at that time) or even Swank. I loved Cheech Wizard and Deadbone Erotica. As a minor clarifier, I’d been reading the most egregious undergrounds like Zap Comix and its descendants for a long time anyway; they were scattered all over any number of domiciles I found myself in during the late 60 through the late 70s. With tax, a new paperback was $1.33, and the comics were emblazoned with an exploding star that said “still only 25 cents!” … well, for a while anyway. They hit 50 cents in short order – I knew all about inflation, just as much as the people waiting in line at the gas stations, thank you. At that moment, the solo hero titles were generally terrible. The big titles were Marvel Team-Up (much better than Spider-Man’s own title at that time), the Avengers, the Defenders (currently in the utterly loopy Gerber run), and the Fantastic Four, as well as something very odd starting up in the X-Men (I bought the origin of Phoenix issue out of one of those racks). The stands were full of short-lived freaky shit too, like Woodgod or Killraven or Adam Warlock, as well as the equally short-lived attempts at new heroes. I bought Black Goliath #1, Ms. Marvel #1, Tigra #1, Omega #1, Nova #1, Bloodstone, Skull the Slayer, The Inhumans, and what I thought was sure to be the greatest mag ever, Champions #1 …
By my last couple years in high school, I wasn’t buying superheroes any more, as the stories had generally tanked with very few exceptions, especially in comparison with the older issues I had, and I’d finally figured out that all those new titles, cancellations, the blatantly irregular release schedule, the frequent filler and reprint stories, and the absurd unpredictable switches of writers and artists meant that I wasn’t actually living in the new Marvel Age of Comics after all. I followed the credit mastheads carefully, and noted when Thomas stepped down. The shifts back and forth between 50 and 60 cents broke the comics value of the dollar for me, and the eventual change to 75 cents was clearly imminent. You could still get lunch for $1.50 back then – two of these low-grade comics weren’t worth going without lunch. I brought my hunting skills to new, still-related game. During ages 16-18, I was a veteran hitch-hiker and for a while, primary user of a beat-up little Toyota, and nowhere from Big Sur to Berkeley was safe. I’d disappear for a weekend, hang out in North Beach in San Francisco, stay with my Maoist stepsister and check out the stores in Berkeley, stay with Jesus freaks in Palo Alto or with bad girls in Monta Vista or peyote-growin’ friends in Santa Cruz – always returning with a handful of books and comics. For the rest of my life, until the little bookstores and odd corner-sells-whatever shops disappeared from the American landscape, if I was in an unfamiliar city or town, I could freak friends out by suddenly stopping in my tracks, saying, “It’s around here somewhere,” and turning corners and casting left and right until we ended up in front of some completely obscure shop filled with amazing stuff. I was now budgeting for more expensive stuff like Savage Sword of Conan and a surprising new hobby activity which back then we called “fantasy wargaming.” I still liked the superheroes, but the driving edge of those earlier issues I knew so well was now flatly absent, and I could see the disorganization rising from the pages, and smell the desperation in the ever-more hysterical hype. As always, too, money was scarce for me and I didn’t buy what I didn’t really and truly want. I liked what I’d seen in that year of Claremont-Cockrum X-Men, but it wasn’t enough. Superheroes took second place to cosmic trip-out, radical political SF, and older sword-and-sorcery, tastes I’d developed at the same time but now decided were my main thing, including the rapidly-intensifying Elfquest, which I’d first bought in Fantasy Quarterly. My choice had been made concrete already: sometime in early 1979, I sold the majority of my now-enormous comics pile to a local used bookstore for about $50 and some ongoing store credit. Before you cry too many salty tears, consider my pal Robbie of the Sea Monkeys, whose mother accepted Jesus Christ into her heart, who, once installed, apparently told her to throw Robbie’s collection into the trash. I’d be back to the world of skin-tight costumes in the summer of 1985, but as it turned out, I missed the transition into Claremont-Byrne’s X-Men, Miller’s Daredevil, Stern’s Spider-Man, and especially Byrne’s Fantastic Four. So some pretty big reading piles awaited me, but that’s another story.