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The birth of a comic book geek, Part One

Mark Evanier recently pointed to an interesting column by KC Carlson at Westfield Comics’ website about comic collecting in the days looooong before the internet and comic shops, which then led to an interesting, similarly-veined tale over at perhapablog. All of this, of course, stirred up my own memories of comic-hunting as a young lad, and so all three of you reading this will have to suffer through a few tales from my fuzzy memories.

I don’t recall the moment I actually started actively “collecting” comic books. I just know they were always around. My first wallet–not sure if I picked it out or if my mom just got it for me–was a black, faux-leather fold-up with a classic Spider-Man printed on it. I think I might even still have it. If I do, I’ll post a pic. I know I had a Spider-Man thing going on early in my childhood, because there are pics of me somewhere with a Spidey ringer tee from age 3 or 4. So even if I wasn’t reading the books yet (it was possible … I started reading at a verrrry young age), I was definitely into the characters. I also remember watching reruns of the ’60s Batman TV series on the telly, something I enjoyed very much.

The first actual comics I recall seeing/reading were issues of DC Comics Presents, a Superman team-up series that ran until the mid-’80s. No idea where they came from. About the same time, I recall having one of those Radio Shack-presented Superman comics, featuring the “TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids,” a nifty ploy to sell more Tandy computers by inferring that they could help Superman save the world. Or whatever. Still, I cannot remember, in those early years, buying a whole lot of comics. I was more into Star Wars in my earlier years, begging my parents for as many of those damn Kenner toys as I could get my grubby white hands on.

However, after I moved back to Southern California (from Philadelphia) in 1985 (at age 9), things changed. I know I collected Cracked magazine, and probably for a while, Mad as well. But I also started picking up comic books–especially Marvel–on a regular basis. There was a used bookstore in a shopping center a few blocks from my townhouse that carried an awesome selection of old comics. Because the store specialized in books and not comics, the four-color fantasies were unbagged, often in ragged condition, and somewhat disorganized in boxes (maybe?) on shelves near the front of the store. To this day, the musty smell of old books reminds me specifically of that store, where I recall picking up a number of the dingy comics I still have, including a number of issues of Marvel Tales, which reprinted old Amazing Spider-Man stories.

It does seem to come back to Spider-Man often. But what was there to not like about Spidey? First, we all grew up with him. He appeared on Electric Company in the live-action “Spidey Super Stories,” and that show was of course required watching for schoolchildren of the early ’80s. He had a rad costume, awesome villains and, of course, like many of us comic readers, his alter ego was a puny nerd. I was Spider-Man for Halloween more times than I can remember, though most significantly I recall doing the “black” Spider-Man (with an awful, homemade costume that included a tied-back black t-shirt for a mask) when I was 10, and then a mask-less (painted-on Spidey makeup anyone?) red-and-blue SM a few years later, in a great-but-way-oversized costume.

I collected the Secret Wars toys, and might have picked up an issue or two of the original series close to its release, but I was still not getting anything consistently. I grabbed those multi-comic grab bags from Toys ‘R’ Us (itself a whole other blog topic). But about this time, my friends and I were way more into Transformers and G.I.Joe, though those also had accompanying comics put out by Marvel that were pretty good, and I grabbed those occasionally. Transformers toys were pretty collectible even at the time, and certain characters were in high-demand, which created an informal toy exchange program between my pals. That did lead to some drama with my mother, I recall, when I traded out one particularly expensive Transformer (don’t ask me which one) with a friend for a few smaller ones I did not have.

For new comics, I was pretty much restricted to whatever was available at grocery store spinner racks. But soon enough I discovered the mall (OK, so I actually started hanging out at malls in my early elementary school years, but again, this is another blog entry), a place of true joy for me. I put a lot of miles on my Huffy back in those days, including numerous regular trips to the Panorama City Mall, which was a good mile or two from my home (I think — distance is kinda relative when you’re 10 or 11). I liked buying things, and though I was never excessive in spending (kinda couldn’t, my family wasn’t exactly loaded, but I did have a job selling newspaper subscriptions for a while), I just enjoyed checking out places such as Spencer’s Gifts and, of course, whatever bookstore the mall featured (usually Waldenbooks or B. Dalton), as well as loading up on trans fats and cholesterol at McDonald’s (easily burned off by some romping in the Playland).

I discovered the comic book racks at the bookstores tended to have a much wider selection than their grocery store counterparts. But still, even at this stage in the game, I wasn’t really buying comics on a regular basis; however, I was obviously ingrained in the culture. I was already writing and drawing my own comics, featuring an amalgam of Marvel Comics characters and my own creations, something that would continue and develop through my early years of high school.

One thing that really stands out to me about that time in mid-’80s SoCal was that Marvel Productions–the film- and animation-producing branch of the company, headed up by former publisher/editor Stan Lee–was located just a short drive from where I lived (Panorama City, adjacent to Van Nuys, porn capital of the world). Oh, BTW, Wikipedia incorrectly has the studio based in Hollywood, but believe me, it was NOT Hollywood. Anyway, for some reason, I thought it was SO COOL that Stan “The Man” was working on the latest Marvel goodies within shouting distance. Every time my parents drove on the freeway past the building, I got a little tingly.

However, I do believe my first trip to a comic store proper was during my time there, though I remember very little about it. Back then, comic book stores did not have their own section in the Yellow Pages–it was under “Books, used,” I believe. So I vaguely recall looking for such places, though they barely existed then, especially on the West Coast. My mom took me to this place, which was in a tiny strip mall somewhere in Van Nuys … and that’s all I remember. I guess the place wasn’t that great.

But it was when my family up and moved to Las Vegas (the first time) that comics took a bigger part in my life. And we’ll discuss that in our next post. Hang tight, true believers!

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Between a rock and a … hard place?

OK, I know I shouldn’t be thinking about such things, but I did come to this question in a logical way:

Is The Thing (of Fantastic Four fame) anatomically correct?

I got to thinking about this in the wake of the potential continuity “fuck you” Marvel Comics may or may not be about to perpetrate on Spider-Man (ranted to death about here and many other places). About 12 or 13 years ago (I think), the powers-that-be did another lame (not as lame) retcon that The Thing’s ex-girlfriend, Alicia Masters, never really married teammate Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) during John Byrne’s classic run on the FF in the ’80s–it was actually a shape-shifting Skrull called Lyja who replaced Alicia and placed her in suspended animation and … UH HUH. Right.

Anyway, I was thinking about how much of an affront this retcon was to the great pathos Byrne created with this subplot–his stories allowed for great future drama concerning the Thing, the Torch, their relationships, the team dynamics, etc. And to have that all thrown out … well, it was plainly offensive to all those creators and intelligent readers.

So that brings us back to the issue of The Thing and his anatomy. Of course, thinking of him having relationships with women (and at one point, a She-Thing. Not kidding.), you have to wonder: Does he have a rocky penis? For that matter, what ARE the, um, post-digestive functions of a guy made out of orange rocks? Think about it: He eats, he drinks, he (until Joe Quesada banned it) smokes, so therefore he has to (sorry, kids) take a crap or hit the head every so often, right? I mean, presumably under the rocky exterior, he’s just squishy human organs, right?

I’m not sure any creator has addressed this. Not that they should, I guess–most mainstream comic writers don’t bother dealing with how their heroes take care of basic food and personal needs when, say, they’re in the midst of fighting aliens in outer space or whatever. But one particular story comes to mind, from an early issue of Marvel Fanfare in the early ’80s, illustrated by the great Barry Windsor Smith. In it, the Thing obviously has a bathroom (without an obviously oversized toilet or anything) and has a morning prep procedure (including brushing his teeth, which are apparently not rocks!). And see, that’s a good point right there — his teeth are not rocks, his eyes are still blue, so is the rocky exterior just that: a gamma-mutated skin? Maybe under those blue shorts he always wears, he his like a turtle … with some, um, exposed “soft parts” down below. But that would make Benjamin J. Grimm awfully vulnerable below the belt, wouldn’t you say?

Man, the things that come into my head. Feel free to weigh in if you have any thoughts on the matter, kids.