Childhood passion for comic books
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(I've long intended to rewrite this but never have.)
I think I started buying comic books as soon as I learned to read. I don't know what principals dictated my earliest choices. I'd buy Wendy, The Good Little Witch as readily as the Fantastic Four or Superman. Actually I do know why I'd buy Wendy. In the early 60s Harvey Comics would publish these really thick comics for a quarter. The page count appealed to me when I was, say, six.
I bought most of them at the downtown Savannah newsstand. They had a small rack so there were other places that'd have titles I wouldn't see there. Tony Yatro's snack shop carried Charlton's. There I could buy Timmy the Timid Ghost, a choice that would baffle me when I was older. A drugstore near my optometrist would have DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. I tried to hoard them but my parents in their ignorance would through them away.
The most exciting comic to buy was always the Fantastic Four. Particularly issue number five introducing Doctor Doom. His cloak and armor, his combination of science and magic really won me. Even if the plot revolving around sending the Fantastic Four into the past to steal Blackbeard's treasure was pretty stupid. At that age I could accept anything.
Later I'd become a bit more earnest about it. I'd become what was then an unknown species, the comic book fan. It was through comics that I met my first best friend, Victor. There'd be much more to bind us as the years progressed but at first it was that we both loved comic books.
I learned the day and times comics were delivered to the racks and had my regular route. I hit two convenience market and three drugstores. Most of them would have some but not all of the DCs and Marvels. But one had the Tower Comics, another the Charltons or Gold Keys.
I kept them all organized and would read them again and again. I never worried about the shape they were in. Back then you collected for fun. There wasn't the foolish notion they'd be worth something. I'd even go to a junk shop that had coverless comics for a nickel. That was a racket for someone in the magazine distribution business. They'd return the comics logos and get a full refund. They'd sell the stripped comics and make a little extra change. One publisher back in the 50s, Lev Gleason, used to put huge warnings on the top of the front page warning readers that if this comic had any part of the cover gone to not buy it.
I was wholly wrapped up in this. Even to the point of subscribing to comic book fanzines. But that is how I met my other best friend, Gordon.
Eventually the joy faded. Maybe they were worse. Maybe I was just older. For me the change was signaled by three events: Lois Lane became was "Curious Black" and became a Negro for a day. Don Rickles appeared on the cover of Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal. And Spiderman grew eight arms.
Later I'd come back to comics. The original impulse was to buy the old issues of Herbie, The Fat Fury. Weird tales about an omnipotent fat kid whom even the Devil couldn't defeat. Jackie Kennedy and Liz Taylor lusted after him, President Johnson turned to him for help. Even Fidel Castro and Mao couldn't cope with the powers he got from lollipops.
But I had to have more. Gil Kane's Green Lantern, all the DC science fiction comics that meant so much to me. Their dorky titles like Cave Carson. But more than anything else Superman. The supreme hero of my childhood including his best friend, his girl friend (she hoped), his dog and all the silly rest.
I've often wondered if my young infatuation with Superman warped me. Gave me unrealistic idealism. Maybe I already had it and that is what drew me.
When we first expanded Books Do Furnish A Room room we nervously thought about adding new comic books. The new comics weren't any good. Hardly anyone would want them. We asked some of the folks who'd been buying back issues from us if they'd be interested. They would. We were skeptical. We were wrong.
"Comics aren't as good as they used to be" is a common bitch in our shop. A few of the complainers are older than us, some are about our age. Most of them are younger. Lamenting the decline of comics since the 70s, 80s, five years ago. The most exciting pop culture is always that of your youth. Dislike of the new is evidenced over and over again in popular music: people who knew that taste and beauty had been tossed out the window when Elvis, folk music with electric guitars, the Beatles, disco and rap appeared. A small group will come to enjoy earlier music or comics. But very few people will continue to enjoy fresh styles as they evolve. One of the dividing lines between low/middle and high culture.
But I do digress.
The midteen to mid-twenties guys who were the mass of comic buyers loved the new comics. We picked up many new customers and the income from new comics quickly exceeded that from the old. Fairly few comic book buyers by back-issues. Most of them buy something from the last few months that they missed when it came out. Very few comic buyers are collectors except that they don't sell their comics. Some because they want to reread them. Others because they are afraid to sell them.
They assume their comics will appreciate in value. Just because they are comics. People have the damnest notions about value. This has enabled baseball card makers, the Franklin Mint and even TV Guide to get people to buy things not because they enjoy them but because they think collectibility can be manufactured as readily as marshmallows and septic tanks.
This peaked with comics a few years ago. Learning from the Tops and the other baseball card companies Marvel, DC and the other commercial houses started printing 'Instant Collector's Items.' Comics would have five variant covers. Or special cover with metallic ink or a gatefold. Many baseball card speculators started buying comics as baseball card mania receded and the market deflated. This estranged many long time comic buyers. The publishers often forgot to make the books enjoyable while inflating them with bogus value. And the cost of buying comics increased. A large segment of the comics buying market left. Forever. Eventually the speculators moved on to Furbys or collectible toilet paper. The market fell to its knees where it remains.
There'd been a similar surge of tulip bulb mania a few years earlier. As a joke a couple of fans published a comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The printed a couple of thousand copies. The wire services sent out a story about the comic and demand flashed to an unbelievable high. Copies of the first issue started selling for lots of money. People even bootlegged the comic.
Lots of untalented people thought they could strike it rich by publishing a cheap black and white comic with an outrageous title. For a time comics shops were flooded with some of the worst comics ever published. My own favorite was Jontar a badly drawn comic published on construction paper. At the time I had a little moron customer who would buy any new black and white comic.
So many of these were coming out that even a shop like ours that bought them fairly conservatively were forced to take comics off the rack early to make room for new arrivals. The bubble burst. A measurable percentage of comics shops went bankrupt during this time. They didn't anticipate that the artificial demand for crap with vanish overnight.
Every now and then some forlorn speculator will call wanting to unload this old crap. It always gives me great pleasure to say no. Even to the dad and son who were almost in tears they were so desperate to sell the Pre-teen Dirty Gene Kung-fu Kangaroos. Quite manfully I didn't laugh until they left. Many parents, particularly dads, gladly gave their kids money for their 'investment.' The kids probably couldn't have gotten a dime for something they merely enjoyed.
The latest speculator boom and bust has left comics sales at an all time low. They've never sold as well as they did during World War II when millions of comics were sent to soldiers overseas. They dropped again when the Comics Code, eviscerating popular crime and horror comics, was established in the mid-50s. The sales dropped again when comics cover price finally went above a dime (for a long time publishers simply diminished page count). They recovered some with the 1960s Batman TV show. In the 1970s X-Men revival gave the industry a boost just as Michael Jackson would with flagging record sales.
It is a pity. Some really remarkable work is being done now. Fantagraphics Books publishes a number of worthwhile stuff, most notably Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library. Drawn and Quarterly publishes some lovely work. I just finished gay cartoonist's Maurice Vellekoop's Vellevision. Among the better known: Dan Clowes, Joe Matt, Peter Bagge, Seth, Los Bros Hernandez, Chester Brown.
A host of smaller, often one-person publishers with circulations best viewed with an electron microscope. Their position is similar to small press poetry. Much of the work is individual, idiosyncratic, some of it quite good. The goals are the same as those of serious writers and artists. None of it should be compared to the pop culture mainstream publishers. But since the publish in comic book format their work is invisible except to an numbering in the hundreds.