Friday, July 30, 2004

Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It? (Part III)

Story 2 of 3 (continued): The Magazine Trading Post: The Marvel Group
After being “raised” on Superman and the rest of the DC line-up of comic book characters, somewhere around 1966, I became aware of a second publisher, offering a different set of superhero crimefighters. These heroes were different. They didn’t live in imaginary cities like Metropolis, Gotham City or Central City. Instead, this entire group of characters lived and worked right in Manhattan. New York City.

New York City?

Yep. As if saving the local population from the likes of The Green Goblin, Kingpin and the Red Skull, these guys had to deal with all the other crazies in the “Big Apple” while they were at it. And if that wasn’t even more difficult, the writers threw in a still more formidable opponent for each of these characters to deal with: themselves.

Stan the Man
This was the Marvel Comics Group, home of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The X-Men, and Daredevil. These and several others were all the brainchildren of one man: the incomparable Stan Lee.

Lee, his writers and illustrators combined to produce a revolutionary concept the in superhero comic book genre: characters who you could believe were real people. People with real conflict, heartache, and personal demons. People who not only had to struggle against evil, but who also had to struggle to “get the girl” in the civilian lives. It was part action story, part soap-opera, and totally amazing to a ten year-old boy who was just beginning to have genuine crushes on girls and was already beginning to be able to empathize with some of the personal struggles with which the characters dealt.

Because of the recent spate of motion pictures based on Marvel comic book characters, most everyone is well aware of who Spiderman is. But back in the 60s, especially when I discovered him, the general public hadn’t caught on yet. I had no preconceived notion of who he or any of the other Marvel characters were, only that they were different and totally fascinating to me. On my weekly pilgrimages to the Trading Post I began to buy Spiderman and Fantastic Four more and more often. I bought Superman and Batman less and less.

As DC comics, which I still collected, had done before, reading Marvel comic books taught me things that I just wasn’t gleaning from my school teachers. Things like loyalty, dedication, and sacrifice for the greater good. And oh yeah, did I mention New York slang? I suppose there was one drawback.

Benjamin Grimm a.k.a. “The Thing” is a character in The Fantastic Four. He is for lack of a better word, a monster. In his former life he was a street tough from the Lower East Side, who by accidental exposure to cosmic rays was changed into a rocky orange humanoid. He was hideous to behold but possessed superhuman strength. Ben joined with his friends Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, and The Human Torch, to form The Fantastic Four, fighting crime and any evil supervillian who would attempt to wreak havoc on New York City. The great thing about The Thing was that trying to figure out what he was saying was every bit as much fun for me as watching him beat up the bad guys. Wonderful new literary euphemisms like “It's clobberin' time!,” “I dunno,” “mebe,” and “shut yer fat yap,” quickly became part of my vocabulary. I really have to make a conscious effort to correctly spell the word, through, and not spell it thru, as was the habit of nearly all Marvel writers. That and shortening ever word ending in ing to in’ are bad habits that haunt me to this very day, but ones that I wouldn’t trade for all the java in the Big City.
If you aren’t all too familiar with The Fantastic Four now, just wait a year, you will. Like Spiderman, The Fantastic Four movie is now in production, and is scheduled for release on the 4th of July next year. As good as the two Spiderman films have been, I’m really intrigued about this one. It’s something I never thought I’d see done, but with the magic of CGI, I suppose the sky is the limit.

And if you’re reading this, Michael, I figure you already know this, but The Shield’s Michael Chiklis is staring in the role of The Thing. It should be very interesting!

Needless to say, comic books ruled my life from about age eight through twelve. And though I bought an awful lot of my collection from The Trading Post, I was concurrently collecting new issues of both DC and Marvel titles every month as they came out.

Supporting my habit
Y’know, I was thinking about it the other day in preparation for writing this blog story, and I had to stop and think, “How the heck did I come up with the money for this stuff?” I spent every dime I could get my hands on to buy comic books and later, baseball cards, which I started collecting in 1969 — but that’s an entirely different story. Where did it all come from. Well I mentioned the siphoning off of the lunch money, which I don’t completely remember, but I do think is highly probable for the time in question. But doing some additional straining of my frontal lobes I was able to come up with a few possible scenarios.

Two of my primary income sources were my Dad, and collecting empty pop bottles.

I remember accosting my Dad constantly for spare change, sometimes on a daily basis. He was always a soft touch though, and never refused to empty his pockets for me, despite his protests.

Another of the many places that Cousin E and I frequented via our bicycles were the roadsides in and around Middletown, particularly the stretch near the local golf course. These were always a rich source for discarded empty glass soft drink bottles, which carried a bounty of five cents per at the grocery store where we took them to cash in on the deposit. I looked at it as a comic book or a pack of baseball cards for every bottle I found along the rural, overgrown parkways we perused.

Finally, if pickins were slim on both the Dad and pop bottle fronts, there was always the tried and true petty larceny option to fall back on. Having older brothers and a few older cousins whose home I frequently visited, there was always an abundance of change on top of their bedroom chest-of-drawers. After excusing myself to go upstairs to use the bathroom, a quick glance here to make sure no one was lookin, followed by a quick swipe there, and I was a buck twenty richer. That was often enough to last me a week or more.


I’ve been carrying that secret around with me for the past 35 years. It feels so good to get it off my chest! Jack, David, TK, and Big Jim, I apologize. You weren’t that drunk after all. That money really did just disappear.

Sleeping with the fishes…and the rats
At its peak, my comic book collection numbered well over 500. That’s five hundred what are now classic comic books. The two mags I held up for display in the photo booth that day in 1968 were two of my earliest versions of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four, but I had some previously purchased DC titles that were much older. I had at least three mid-1950s Captain Marvel comic books that would be extremely valuable if I they were still around today.

Yes, I did say if.

Unfortunately, due to the extreme weight of the box, which housed my entire collection, shipping it to California when we moved in September 1969 was pretty much out of the question. We sold our house and everything in it, including furniture, so all that remained, personal items and clothing that we couldn’t fit into my Dad’s red 1966 Ford Fairlaine, had to be shipped, and as you know, weight is money in the shipping biz. So against my protests, it was decided that we couldn’t afford to ship my comics box. I was heartbroken, but my Dad assured me it was only a temporary circumstance and that once we got on our feet out in California, we would have the box shipped out to my waiting arms. In the meantime, Brother Jack would keep them, along with some other items also deemed too expensive to ship and thereby expendable in our journey to the brave new world. I grabbed between fifteen and twenty assorted comic books for the long trip and off we went. Had I known then what I would find out later, I would have taken more — a lot more.

Jack at that time was living in “the green house” as we always referred to it — our original house in Anderson, which my Dad still owned, and had previously been renting out. But now my brother would be living there and my pulp treasures would be living with him. I wasn’t worried. I should have been.

The green house had a basement. It was a dark, damp, creepy place of which I have only memories of fear and foreboding. I don’t believe I ever went down there on more than two or three occasions in all the time we lived in that house, which for me was from birth to age six.

Did I mention that it was damp down there? The basement, according to my Dad, used to flood regularly. So sometime in the 1950s he installed a sump pump which automatically came on when water in the sump pit reached a certain level. Now I don’t claim to know a single thing about sump pumps and what needs to be done to maintain them. Apparently Jack shared my lack of knowledge in this area.

My comics box was kept in the basement, along with the other things we couldn’t take with us. Jack didn’t do whatever he was supposed to have to have done to keep the pump working. Onr night it rained — a lot, but the sump pump never kicked on. Jack was apparently oblivious to what was going on, because by the time he knew that it was flooding, the water was up to the basement's ceiling.

My comics disintegrated. Everything that was in that basement was ruined. And the worst part was that it happened just a few months after we left, but Jack didn’t tell anyone about it for two years. And all that time I was under the assumption that my precious comics were safe and dry, just waiting for me to retrieve them.

I was devastated.

If you’re wondering, I forgave my brother for his sin of omission long ago, although it still hurts to think about it. I can’t really say how much money was turned into mush that fateful night, but I can say with reasonable certainty, that by today’s standards, that collection could have put both of my kids through college. I would never in a million years have sold them, but the fact that a wonderful legacy which could have been handed down to my kids and grandkids was lost forever — and needlessly so — is pretty hard to take.

However all the rain in the clouds in the sky couldn’t wash away the memories and the things I learned; the wonder and adventure; the peacefulness and excitement I felt simultaneously when I had a new comic book opened before my eyes for the first time. The 60s were part of what is now referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics,” but I like to think of it as the “Golden AJ of Comics” instead.

Next: Story 3 of 3: "The Cool Ones"
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