Snapshot 05: The Way We Were (Comic Book-Wise) …

Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s retirement, but I have been having very warm, nostalgic feelings about comic books. Or maybe it’s the disconnection I feel from the comics of today. I still go to my local store every Wednesday and pick up at least a few books each time, but I find myself spending more time leafing through the back issue bins, looking for something charming and quirky, something that elicits a “Hey … I had that book!” from me. While we’re still in a seemingly-golden age of comics—there are some wonderful books out there, including those from alternative- and self-publishers, along with some very ambitious projects by DC (Marvel is a mess, though; in no ways as successful in storytelling as their big-screen counterpart, Marvel Studios)—I still find myself turning inward and backward to books I loved as a kid. The only Marvel comics I buy right now is their new series of Mighty Marvel Masterworks reissues, reprinting all the great early Marvels ten issues at a time, stories I’ve read and re-read countless times before. I’m a sucker for a new format.

On Saturday, I went to a small, local comic book show. It was about 15 minutes from my house, and I managed to find a few books that I felt were reasonably priced (even if two of them came with a lecture about “today’s market”). The experience just made me realize how much more fun it was buying these books as a kid, visiting my small town newsstands twice a week and snapping up the latest comics.

We had two newsstands in my hometown of Tamaqua, PA, Moser’s and Brady’s, which eventually became Miller’s. (Sadly, no information seems to exist online about these two businesses. It’s almost like they never existed.) As a really little kid, my family went to Moser’s on Swatara Street, back near the Citizen’s Fire Company. It was there, in its small, cramped interior that we bought comics and my mom got her magazines: Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, the occasional True Confessions and, of course, our weekly issue of TV Guide. My dad’s reading taste leaned more to the sleazy, a weekly tabloid “newspaper” called Midnight, kind of a cross between National Enquirer and a girlie magazine. It was a staple of my parents’ nightstand for many years (I should know; I sneaked a peek enough times). But my older brother and I reveled in the spectacular four-color display of comics, which changed every time we shopping, probably close to one hundred times each year.

The signature mark of the “Marvel Age of Comics”: the cornerbox which graced every cover from 1963 on.

The great thing about comics in those days was that you could look at a huge display and immediately tell which comics were from which companies. DC, Marvel, Dell, Gold Key, Archie, and Harvey all had very specific looks, what today is known as “trade dress,” and even though books were stacked on top of each other, you could tell what was what. When Marvel came up with the cornerbox format that branded their comics so perfectly, it was such a brilliant move. Not only could you instantly tell it was a Marvel comic, but also WHICH Marvel comic it was. There was the FF or Iron Man or Sgt. Fury or even Ant-Man right there in that corner box. It was sheer genius. You also immediately knew when a new company was present: I remember discovering a new line of comics from a new company, Gold Key in the early 1960s, with Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom and Magnus, Robot Fighter and how all the Dell books—Tarzan and Disney—suddenly came from this different company. And when there was a new publisher called Tower Comics on the stands in 1965 with a book called T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents, that was all-new and cost a quarter … a whole quarter! I could get TWO Marvels for that.

Moser’s had a kind of nook which was anchored by a huge, square candy display, with open boxes of all kinds of sweets along all four sides. Opposite that display, on the three walls facing it, were huge wooden racks featuring magazines and paperbacks, and one of them devoted to comics. Sometimes they got in comics they didn’t quite know what to do with … I remember discovering Superman Annual #1 in a different part of the store, in the back, past a couple of ice cream and soda coolers (the kind that opened from the top) and screaming for my brother to come and see. He thought I was being beaten up or something, but there it was, stacked apart from the “regular” comics, probably because it cost more than double. Even at the ripe old age of 5 years old, I loved the concept of the Superman Annual, if not the execution. The interior, made up of stale old Superman reprints (for the most part) from the 1950s, didn’t live up to the wonderful promise of that incredible Curt Swan cover. The layout of that cover was duplicated countless times with the DC Annuals, and we bought them all: Batman, Flash, Secret Origins, even Sgt. Rock. And when Marvel came out with their own annuals (also known as “King-Size Specials”) in 1963 with new material in them, my mind was officially blown. To this day, my favorite comics are Fantastic Four Annuals #1 through 6, the perfect combination of incredible storytelling and summertime memories. (The first Marvel Annual, Strange Tales, came out in 1962 and was all monster story reprints.)

The pinnacle of Marvel Comics’ first decade: The six Fantastic Four Annuals published from 1963 through 1968.

Eventually Moser’s moved out of that small space and into a larger one on Broad Street, Tamaqua’s main drag. If memory serves me right, that space used to be Keilman’s Shoe Store, which had some kind of family tie to the Meredith-side of my family. The new Moser’s was big and spacious, with added space for more candy, more magazines, more paperbacks, and—best of all—more comics. I still remember going in there and seeing the first issue of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko and being absolutely thrilled to buy it. This was the time period in the late 1960s when Marvel split up all their combo books: Tales of Suspense became Iron Man #1 and Captain America #100 (maintaining the ToS numbering); Strange Tales begat the above-mentioned Nick Fury #1 and Doctor Strange #169 (which kept the ST numbering): and Tales to Astonish became Incredible Hulk #102 (TtA numbering) and Sub-Mariner #1. It was the last big blast of the Marvel Age of Comics and probably the zenith of the entire line, right before Jack Kirby left to go to DC to start his Fourth World storyline. There would be other great Marvel books for years to come, but—for me, at least—there’s absolutely nothing to compare to that 1960s decade, when anything Marvel put out was worth reading and collecting. Maybe it was my impressionable age, maybe it was just the talent of the creators; either way it was pure magic.

At some point, we stopped going to Moser’s and moved over to Brady’s, over on Center Street, which was part of the Tamaqua portion of state route 309, which ran between the “big” cities of Allentown (to the south) and Wilkes Barre-Scranton (to the north). Brady’s was run by a nice little old couple and they liked me a lot. They’d save the comics for me to open when they were delivered each Tuesday and Thursday. I got to untwist the metal bands that held the stacks together and pick out the copies I wanted and then they put the rest up on the rack. For a small town, we got pretty much everything, comics-wise, very seldom missing anything. (I do remember having to hunt down a copy of Thor Annual #2 and being ecstatic when I found one at a used book shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk, even though it was coverless. Once again, I scared my brother shitless by yelling at the top of my lungs for him.) The Bradys eventually sold their store to the Millers, who were another, slightly-younger, nice old couple. They also let me open the comics bundles and pick through them first. I think it was Miller’s store that was the first place in Tamaqua that sold Pennsylvania Lottery tickets, quite a revolutionary idea at its time.

I grew up and out of Tamaqua. I went to art school in Pittsburgh and started making twice-weekly visits to National Record Mart and McCrory’s, across the street from NRM, for my comics fix. I may have been a starving art student, but I always had money (usually sent by my brother) for comics. Eventually, Eide’s comics shop opened up and started carrying new comics, and from around 1979-1998, that’s where I did my primary comics shopping, along with side trips to Phantom of the Attic in Oakland (the university district in Pittsburgh) and occasional visits to places like New Dimension Comics in Cranberry Township. When I moved to San Diego, I started with Comics Gallery on Balboa Ave. (no longer in existence), switched to Comics ’n Stuff in the Sports Arena area and then their downtown location in Horton Plaza (both stores no longer exist, although the chain still does), and then moved to their Mission Valley store. About a year and a half ago, I moved to Now or Never Comics in downtown San Diego, but I also regularly visit Southern California Comics (great for back issues) and Comikaze, both on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, north of Downtown San Diego.

None of those stores in Pittsburgh and San Diego compare to my memories of growing up in small town Tamaqua and visiting Moser’s and Brady’s/Miller’s after school or on warm summer days. If I had a time machine, that’s where I’d take it: Back to the summer of 1965 or so, to the days of the Marvel Annuals and sitting on my grandparent’s back porch with a stack of new comics and an ice-cold Coke, a pack of Tastykake Peanut Butter Kandy Cakes, a pile of Tom Sturgis pretzels, and all the time in the world to sit and read.

These days, I have a spinner rack in my living room, right next to my TV and I find myself looking longingly at it on a regular basis. It’s filled with comics from my youth, including a run of every Marvel comic cover-dated December 1965. Why that date? I don’t know, other than that’s the month Fantastic Four #45 came out, my favorite issue ever of Marvel’s flagship title. I also have every Marvel Annual from 1962-69 (minus the Millie and Patsy ones) and a row or two of DCs, plus other comics that strike my fancy, all of which I picked up for a reasonable price.

I guess that’s my time machine now, the thing that carries me back to when I first bought a book, when I first read it, and what it still means to me. You can keep all your professionally-graded, encapsulated 9.-whatever books. They do me no good. I can’t crack them open, I can’t ENJOY them. Give me a slightly beat-up, definitely-read comic book any day of the week, one that was loved and treasured by some kid way back when, and maybe even rolled up and put in a back-pocket. That’s my kind of comic book, the kind from my memory, the kind that makes me smile.


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