Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Geek Memories: Comics In My Youth!

At my age, it's pretty much impossible for me to know exactly what my first comic book was.

I do know that I was an early reader... my mom's told me the story multiple times about how my Uncle Gary, when I was but two years old, would often read billboards out loud to me when we would be driving around with him, and I started recognizing them as well, although my mom figured that I was just recognizing the pictures or logos. Later, when she'd take me grocery shopping, I'd often point out familiar products, such as Campbell's Soup, but again, she figured I was recognizing colors or packaging. One day, however, she decided to put this to the test, and wrote down the names of these products at home, and apparently I was able to read them. I know this is remarkable, probably unbelievable, but from all appearances, it's true.

In kindergarten, my reading level was already way beyond my fellow students, most of whom probably hadn't started to learn to read at all. We used to get My Weekly Reader every Friday (or maybe it was Monday), and because of my ability to read, I would get chosen to read one article out of each issue out loud to the class.

I'm sure my first comic books had to have been purchased around that time. Let's see, I was born in 1962, so I started in kindergarten in 1968, which was a banner year for superheroes on Saturday mornings! I know I was watching the Superman cartoons by Filmation, as well as the Batman cartoons, plus Spiderman (spelled without the hyphen) and Fantastic Four cartoons on ABC. It's likely that my first comic book was a Superman comic, but it didn't take long for me to become well-versed in both the DC and Marvel universes, at least on a basic level.

My best friend in kindergarten (as I may have mentioned before) was a black boy named Curt Phair. We used to play together in this small wooded lot near his house, and often what we'd play was Captain America and the Falcon (this is one of those things that doesn't seem to match up timewise, as I'm pretty sure the Falcon wasn't introduced until the 1970s, yet I specifically remember using a round piece of cardboard as my shield when we'd play).

I remember in first grade, I wrote a story (my first prose work) based on a dream I had that at one point involved Cap and the Falcon battling the Grey Gargoyle (this occurred in an issue of Cap that I had). Another specific comic I recall seeing was an issue of Justice League of America that had the JLA being led by a Pied Piper-type villain (although not the Flash's Piper).

Back in those days, older comics, like from the past ten years, could be had easily, and cheap! My mom got me introduced to garage sales at an early age, and I'd buy comics there when I could find them. Another source for older comics was the annual sixth graders' "junk sale," which was used to raise money for a week of camp in the spring. The junk sale took place in the basement of the school during recess and lunch time, and each kid had their own space to sell stuff. I must've bought a lot of comics there, especially 80-Page Giants that introduced me to the Legion of Super-Heroes (although I mispronounced Chameleon Boy's name in my head, as I didn't connect the word "chameleon" with the color-changing lizard for some reason). I read about the formation of the LSH, as well as the Death of Lightning Lad saga and his eventual revival. Other books gave me the lowdown on Supergirl, and I'm sure I bought and read other books at the same time about other characters. There was one day I remember getting an issue of The Atom and Hawkman, but since I spent my lunch money on that, I hid it in my school locker, afraid to take it home for some reason.

The 1970s was a glorious time to be into comic books... not only were there all these DC and Marvel comics with their new stories, but it was also the days of the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars, as well as other reprint books. DC's reprint titles were more anthologies, each had its own theme. They brought back the concept of Secret Origins, reprinting the original origin stories of various characters, plus they had Wanted: The World's Greatest Villains, which reprinted selected stories about various villains. The variety was greater in the Super-Specs. Marvel, for its part, had titles that had continued from the Silver Age, such as Marvel's Greatest Comics, Marvel Tales, and Marvel Super-Heroes, plus the newly-started Marvel Triple Action. With these books, I was able to catch up on earlier stories of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, and the Avengers. X-Men, the western titles, and Sgt. Fury were pretty much reprints at this stage (although I understand Fury had the occasional new story), but I didn't really get into those at that time.

It's funny, but at the time, I didn't realize that the Marvel books had reprints, while DC's books did... probably because it took a while for Marvel to start indicating which books the stories were reprinted in.

I was mostly a Marvelite at this time. There were occasional DC books I'd buy, usually Justice League of America, with a Batman title here and there, but mainly, it was Make Mine Marvel.  The Incredible Hulk was a favorite of mine (as you may have guessed), and it was probably the only title I was buying every month for a long time. I got into The Defenders early on, and was able to enjoy the Avengers-Defenders War as it happened. I also got into Nova from the first issue, and was a fan of The Invaders.

My biggest comics purchases tended to happen just before my family would go on vacation to the Dakotas to visit relatives. My parents would pick up a number of comics for me to read in the car, and I'd read them cover to cover multiple times during the trip. One trip included the JLA issues that not only teamed them with the JSA, but also the Seven Soldiers of Victory. I never had a problem reconciling DC's multiple earths by this time (I do recall being confused earlier, when I saw a JLA issue with the Earth-2 Superman, wondering why his temples were grey like Reed Richards).

Like a lot of kids did back in the day, I created my own comic books as well. Honestly, none of my characters were that original... the heroes were all men, and their team was the Justice Men of the World, and its members included such characters as Super-Duper Man, Magic Man, Tornado Man, and others of their ilk. Every member's name ended with "Man." I drew these, wrote in the balloons, and sometimes would sell them to other kids in my neighborhood. You can imagine my delight when, later on, I purchased The Great Comic Book Heroes and found that Jules Feiffer did the same in his youth!

Sometimes -- horrors! -- I'd make up my own comic books by cutting pictures out of comics and pasting them on paper to make new stories. Almost as bad, the next door neighbor's oldest son got me and other kids into the idea of making tracings from comic books. We'd find a character pose we liked, and place a sheet of typing paper and carbon paper behind the page, and use pen to trace over the character drawing, following it up by coloring the tracing with colored pencil. Sometimes I'm not sure what was worse, doing these tracings or cutting out Marvel Value Stamps!

Of course, another aspect of the 1970s was all the superhero toys and other products out there at the time, made by companies like Mego and AHI. Kmart was one of my favorite stores to go to, just because of all the superhero merchandise to be found there (including some that I never saw anywhere else). But I've written about some of these before, haven't I?

Kids don't have any idea these days how easy it was to find comic books back in the day. Just walking home from school, I'd pass a drugstore that had two spinner racks of comics, plus the 7-Eleven with its two racks (plus, for a few glorious summers, Slurpee cups with superheroes on them!). Even some grocery stores had comics in them, as well as some variety stores!

I'm sure I've told the story before about how I once got the first of a two-part Imaginary Story in Action Comics that presented Superman as an old man in a wheelchair, his powers mostly gone, feeling like he wasn't needed any more, and how my mom drove me all over town trying to find the next issue (something I couldn't manage to find until I was an adult). I'm pretty sure that I didn't talk before about one day when one of the neighbors (who worked for an airline) came over and dropped off a box of comics that had been collecting for a few months, comics that had been left on the plane (that may have been where that Action issue came from).

I was so into comic books that when my family went to visit another family one day, and I learned they had some comics in a box, I spent the entire visit sitting in their garage, reading through those comic books, even though it was mostly issues of Supergirl and Lois Lane, which I wouldn't have been caught dead buying in the store! I don't remember anything else from that day.

To me, it's no wonder that I remain a comics fan to this day, given what I had access to while growing up. If anything, what amazes me more is that so few other people my age aren't! I guess I was lucky that I was reading at that early age, and comics became a regular part of my reading. Thanks to comics, I gained words in my vocabulary that other kids my age didn't have (when my fourth grade teacher asked the class if anyone knew what a google was, I was the only one who did, thanks to comics), and that expanded vocabulary let me read books that were beyond my grade level, expanding that even more. They fueled my imagination, which in turn gave me the courage and impetus to use my creativity and explore artistic expressions that I might not have considered before. Everything started connecting together, interest-wise, as if my own hobbies were some kind of personal shared universe. The comic books I loved turned up in movies as props (like in the Beatles' second movie, Help!, where they were on the organ of the Beatles' pad in place of sheet music), and the characters would be mentioned in songs (Sunshine Superman comes immediately to mind). That interest in comics got me to read about their history, and what inspired them, which led me to try out other things, such as Doc Savage, that I might not have tried without it.

I think it's safe to say that comic books have had an impact on me in aspects of my life that to this day I'm not aware of!

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