Recently I was having a “shower moment;” you know, some fantasy of a past or future moment where you imagine some event that you’re involved in, something where you’re erudite and articulate and people are hanging on your every word. I think most people have these moments in the shower, when they’re imagining what they should have or would have liked to have said to their boss, or are opening for Springsteen in his final stadium tour of the U.S. Me? I think about being on panels at comic conventions …
The question was how did I discover comics, and I’m sure glad you asked that …
Comics were always part of my life. I can’t remember a time when there weren’t comics around. I was fond of saying I was going to print T-shirts that read “My Mom Didn’t Throw Mine Out,”(chalk up that fractured English to my Pennsylvania Dutch proximity while growing up with my German grandma). Because my mom didn’t: We kept all of our comics. (well, there was one issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland that got pitched because it gave me nightmares … it was #2). But I digress.
Sometime in the early 1960s, my older brother Rick and I were trying to figure out what our hobby was, because, you know … everyone had a hobby. I think he might have tried stamp collecting, and I flirted with coins, because my stationery shop-owning grandfather had these cool coin collector books (the ones with the dark blue hard covers) where you could slide in your collected coins and keep them all neat and orderly (and even ten, neat and orderly appealed to me). But then we realized that the hobby had chosen us: There were comic books all over the place. So why not collect comics?
We had two newsstands in our hometown of Tamaqua, PA, Moser’s and Brady’s. We mainly went to Moser’s during the 1960s, but switched our allegiance to Brady’s when they sold out to a husband and wife named Miller, who let me open the wire-wrapped new comics each week and get first crack at the new books. (Keep track of all these names … you never know when there might be a pop quiz.)
Comics were 10 cents each then, so you could buy 10 of them for one dollar. They soon went to 12 cents a book, a major catastrophe in the life of a pre-teen without an allowance per se, but you could still get 8 for a buck, 10 for $1.20. I remember going to the newsstand—weather permitting—twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, when new comics came out. Back then it was like a treasure hunt. Other than house ads showing what was coming out within the comics themselves, there wasn’t a lot of available information about new comics, so every trip featured something new. It was exciting.
We bought a lot of comics, or I should say my brother did. He had a “job” on my Uncle Bud’s bread truck, which drove around town and delivered bread, rolls, Tastykake cupcakes, and other items door-to-door, much like my dad the milkman. Uncle Bud was the bread-man and Rick worked for him on Saturdays and additional days in the summer. So he always had money to spend on comics. Me? I was a lazy bum. (In my defense, I was also 5-15 years old at that point).
Comics were different in the early 1960s … besides the price point, they were … well, odd. ™ & © DC
What did we buy? The majority of the DC comics at that point … the Superman and Batman families (Superman, Action, Adventure, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, World’s Finest, Batman, Detective), the other DC heroes (Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Atom, Hawkman, Justice League of America, Showcase, The Brave and the Bold), the “mystery” titles (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, the sci-fi themed Strange Adventures) and the occasional war title (Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, Star-Spangled War). We also bought the “monster” books: Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and the new one, Amazing Adventures aka Amazing Adult Fantasy aka Amazing Fantasy, plus a western book here and there: Kid Colt Outlaw, Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, from the company known as Atlas, formerly Timely, soon-to-be Marvel, but pretty much nameless in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
It was a lot of comic books on a monthly basis. A lot of dimes and pennies. Soon there were enough comic books to fill a small room, which we called the “Playroom,” a front room in our cozy little three-bedroom house on a steep hill.
And then something happened.
It was the summer of 1961, August, to be exact. I was six years old. My brother went to the newsstand on a very rainy day, and my mom wouldn’t allow me to go. I urged him to bring home something good, like a Jimmy Olsen or a Justice League. (My favorite “Jimmys:” Wolfman Jimmy and Turtleman Jimmy). After an intolerable amount of time, he came home, wet and a bit bedraggled, with a plain brown paper bag tucked within his rain jacket. In it was just one comic book, the first issue of a new series called Fantastic Four.
I know I didn’t say this, but my reaction was akin to WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?! It looked like another monster book from that company with the little MC in a box on their covers. I read the monster books only when there wasn’t a new superhero book to read. While I remember kids’ comics in my early years (I was fond of Richie Rich, Baby Huey, and had a definite unrequited crush on Little Dot), I always gravitated to the brightly-colored superhero books. I did also have a fondness for Dick Tracy. Harvey Comics in the 1960s was reprinting Chester Gould’s stuff from the late 1940s into the early-mid 1950s, and even though they were heavily censored, I loved them dearly, especially the Shoulders, Wormy, Oodles, and Flattop Jr. storylines.) DC’s books were clearly written for kids; they patiently explained everything that was going on. If the panel showed Superman flying out the window, the caption read something like, “Superman suddenly flew through the window!” With an exclamation point, because everyone in DC comics was excited and spoke in exclamations.
But there was no costumed superhero speaking in exclamations that rainy August afternoon, just one lonely book in that thin, flat, paper bag. It took a couple of issues for the Fantastic Four to grow on me. It remained just another monster book for issue #2, when the FF fought the Skrulls, alien shape-shifters from outer space. This small group of ragtag scientists/astronauts reminded me of that weird DC comic, Challengers of the Unknown, which I kind of didn’t like … little did I know why it reminded me.
My 7-year-old mind exploded when I saw these covers … © MARVEL
And then along came Fantastic Four issue #3 and I was hooked. “THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE!” exclaimed the cover and even at the ripe old age of 7 I thought that was a bit excessive, even if I didn’t quite know what excessive meant. (I was a precocious kid, no doubt fueled by my early reading abilities gleaned from comic books.) But it was true. In issue #3, the FF got costumes, a full-blown headquarters in the center of Manhattan, and a flying bathtub of a “Fantasti-Car,” and I loved every panel of it. When Sub-Mariner appeared running towards the reader, kidnapping Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, on the cover of #4, my world changed. Doctor Doom was next in #5, Sub-Mariner AND Dr. Doom TOGETHER in issue 6 and oh my God, where does this stop, never I hope!
Look for Part 2 of “My Life in Comics” coming soon …