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.
Posted on March 5, 2015, in Commerce, The 70s me and tagged Conan, Danny Edwards, Deadbone Erotica, Harlan Ellison, Jesus Christ, Oodles of titles, Sea Monkeys. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.
I came in just a few years before the first comic book store opened, so I caught the tail end of buying comics from the sketchy ice cream man, the five & dime and the other odd nooks and crannies in the New Jersey suburbs.
I remember the surreal issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (“My Blue Heaven”) I had in my hand when I ran after some kid who had stolen my dad’s bike. Thank goodness I didn’t catch him; I would have just gotten my ass kicked and watched my dad’s bike get stolen from the pavement. I picked up whichever issues I could of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing in a 7-11 near my house.
There was something really satisfying about those journeys around town to pick up issues of the Mutant Massacre or that store that only opened in the mall during the holiday season that sold unlicensed movie scripts of dubious authenticity (Lost Boys 2! Highlander 2!) and lots of cool comic books.
I have friends who see the ubiquity of our childhood super-heroes on the big screen as some kind of victory and I’ll freely admit a thrill at watching the Hulk smash but it is odd that they are essentially selling us cars for Walt Disney now.
“My Blue Heaven” was the first issue of Swamp Thing I bought after my return to reading comics in the summer of 1985. The cover date is January 1, 1987, but you know as well as me that puts the store/buying date anywhere a couple of months before or after. By summer of 1989, I’d amassed quite a few of the Swamp Thing run, and then they were stolen, along with the some other stuff in those boxes – including my entire run of 1970s Conan the Barbarian, the only thing I’d saved from the disastrous sale of 1979.
As far as stores were concerned, I was very lucky in the 70s. There was a very good one that opened in downtown Monterey, probably one of the very first after Comics & Comix in Berkeley, and that’s where I could finally rely on following titles (Savage Sword especially) during high school. I bought Fantasy Quarterly introducing Elfquest there, and I remember Cerebus #1 and lots of issues of the First Kingdom.
In the 80s, though, there wasn’t a comics store in Hyde Park, inexplicably, not even a stand at any of the amazing bookstores there. I shopped downtown at a very hidden, very anomalous store in a skyscraper, with no storefront at all, which my comics artists friends showed me. This was ages and ages before Chicago Comics or Graham Crackers; the only north side store was Hepcats, and then there was Larry’s … oh man, Larry’s is worth a whole post.
For me, the biggest shock of that 78/85 transition was the change in paper and the advertisements. I was so accustomed to the throwaway nature of the product in every possible way, from the paper stock to the absurdly low-rent nature of the ads, which I kid you not, were identical and even ordered on the exact same pages through the entire ten years of my comics run. The production quality of the Watchmen boggled me – and then in recently revisiting my issues, I was surprised at how crap-looking they seem now. I wonder what a comics teen today would think if he saw, say, what an issue of Adam Warlock looked and felt like, even fresh off the stand? Or that issue of Guardians of the Galaxy with the full-page spread of a big cosmic thing whose huge maw was white … in which the ad text on the opposing page was clearly visible, in reverse.
Well, I can say that when I first got my hands on a ORIGINAL American comic book (1982, it was one of the Miller-Janson Daredevil) I was surprised. I mean, I did know that American comic books were printed on crap paper, with color errors, etc etc, I had seen the pictures in the italian comics magazines. But I was not prepared for the flimsiness, the smell, the color of the paper, the… physicality of it. I wondered how the hell anybody could collect and save a copy of that without ruining it. (collecting comics in Italy was much more socially accepted – you could see house with comics collection in TV series and had actors reading comics in movies and TV, and even the publisher had “collect them all” ads for their comics).
But, at the same time, these flimsy comics had a certain endearing quality. I preferred them only to avoid the (awful) translations of the time (the early ’80s had seen a vertical drop in the quality of the translation, it was this that pushed me to search the original issues), but they did grow on you, and after a short time I didn’t even notice these problems anymore.
(with some exceptions: I still can’t look at a Tomb of Dracula American comics from the time without thinking about the big b/w magazine that published that series in Italy: it was gorgeous, Gene Colan’s art was incredibly valorized by b/w and a bigger format. I never got used on that comic book in the crap format….)
Reading about the problems in finding comics in the USA from a month to the next (and I have read a lot of people talking about it in the past), I am surprised that some people continued to read them. My problem with comic books was money (I could buy 3-4 comic book every month, not more, and around 1974 my family had money problems, and I could afford only a single comic book every month – and no, it wasn’t a marvel comic, at the end even if I was a total marvel fan, at the time Marvel could not compare with the sheer greatness that was the italian western “Tex Willer” in the early ’70s. Best western comic book of all time), but when I had the money… I had three newspaper stands in less than a mile from my home, and each one had every single comic book published, always (the Italian “newspaper stand”, or, in our language, “edicola”, is a specialized shop that only sold – at the time – newspapers, comics, magazines and periodical book series, on a returnable basis and with total exclusivity – other shops could not sell newspapers or comics. So they made their living on them and made damn sure that they got every issue. They even could get you back issues directly from the publisher!)
In the late ’70s I got rather fed up with marvel comics. I had read them practically from birth – as I was saying, anybody did read comics at the time, I could read comics at both my aunt’s houses, for example – and I had already a rather big collection (having searched and brought the issues I had to miss years before, after the money situation got better and I had money of my own), but apart from some series that did seems on the fringe, like Tomb of Dracula, Shang-Chi, Warlock – all the rest did seem very bland and repetitive. At the time Italian comics were full of more adult titles, with a lot of sex and violence (do you remember the “unknow” issue I gave to you at Lucca, Ron? If you had to choose between that and a late ’70s spider-man, what would you have chosen?) and the new “Metal Hurlant” french comics were more attactive, too.
I still did buy Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and the X-Men, but nothing else of value published in the USA was known in Italy at the time. the italian publisher that published Marvel comics had a big part of the staff leave and the the rest not only could not translate well but they didn’t know what they were selling, they had missed the boat on all the good stuff (they used X-Men as a filler, as back-up for other characters, believe it or not…), so after graduation when I went to study “in the big city” where you could find foreign comics, I went to buy some marvel comic book… and I was blown away realizing what was happening on the comic book scene in the early ’80s, that the italian publishers were totally missing (they went bankrupt after a while, obviously, and the translation rights went to a better publisher, but at that time I was already hooked on the direct american stuff): Simonson’s Thor, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, and Cerebus, Elfquest, and Love and Rockers, and Nexus… and Swamp Thing (from the fifth Moore issue, but I got all the back issues), and Miracleman, V for Vendetta, etc etc.
But, as I said… if I could not have been sure that I could get the following issues, I would not even have bothered. Even after I started buying comics directly from the USA, it was already the time of specialized shops, I had my monthly shipment from Mile High in a subscription service (it did cost much less than buying original american comics in the italian stores).
Every time I read about how comic books distibution worked in the ’60s and 70s in the USA, I wonder how could anybody continue to read comic books that way…
You’re not kidding about the smell.
I credit the experience with teaching me that anything securely packaged and labeled “collectible” “collector’s item” or “hot!!” definitely isn’t. This turned out to be more rare, culturally, than I would have thought. I watched the comics speculation boom in the 1990s with completely detached amazement.
(Meanwhile, on the other side of the country… and NOT so comics-inclined)
For me, it was a search for gaming stuff and fantasy novels. But I kept visiting those little shops I’d found to see what oddities they might have (I think that’s how I found High Fantasy, and definitely how I found Melanda) even after I discovered I could hop on Metro North and walk from Grand Central to the (for some reason, often disappointing) Compleat Strategist in NYC. That was an interesting walk in those days – as I remember I didn’t HAVE to go through Times Square, but … One time, I lost a fortune – 20 bucks! – thinking I was gonna outsmart the Three Card Monte guy. I wonder, if a 14ish years-old white kid tried to ride Metro North alone to today’s so-much-cleaner NYC, would someone call Child Protective Services? If so, maybe that’s a good thing – I honestly don’t know.
Your obscure accents and Vietnam vets reminded me of one store I’d visit (in White Plains, maybe?), run by an elderly immigrant couple (I want to say Eastern Europe), who’d bought/stocked it so their disabled Vietnam-vet son would have an income (they’d offer, as an explanation for why they knew so little about what was in the store). It was PACKED with stuff – more obscure/quirky board games than RPGs, but still heaven. But it was never busy, and I never saw their son. I bought a few things in my visits (pretty sure I got my “The Ythri” board game, based on Poul Anderson’s People of the Wind, there), but I mostly browsed. Thinking back, I expect the commercial/personal reality (not enough business and a son with drug/PTSD problems?) was way more tragic than my game-sensory-overload brain noticed.
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