When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance Day

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On Friday, May 25, 1984,  in a small town of 1200 people, in a small grocery store on the highway not too far from cornfields, at the golden age of 14, I became a comic book collector.

What set me on this path that has led me  >choke<  27 years later to be a comics missionary, spreading the four-color gospel far and wide?  Well, I blame Morgan Freeman and Jim Shooter.

SSS4 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DayAs a child of the Seventies, I would watch Sesame Street, and immediately after that, The Electric Company.  During the 1974-75 season, TEC started showing episodes of “Spidey Super Stories”.  These were comicbook/live action hybrids, mixing live action with drawn panels.  Spidey usually had to thwart some crazy villain, and never spoke, except in silent word balloons which had to be read by the viewer.  (My favorite villain: The Can Crusher, who, while visiting a tomato canning factory as a child, loses his pet frog in a kettle.  Thus he spends his adult life crushing open tomato cans in supermarkets, searching in vain for his beloved croaker.  *sniff*  Such pathos.)

I was just learning to read, as well as going through the “superhero phase” most young boys experience.  So I got hooked on Spider-Man, and my mom actually bought me the first comic book I ever read!  (Thanks, Ma!)  As you can see on the cover, the Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman) gives his seal of approval, stating “This comic book is easy to read!”  (The Comics Code approved it as well, but they’re as square as their seal.)

I would continue to enjoy Spider-Man throughout my childhood, taking my Spider-Man vitamins every day, and reading the daily comic strip whenever I had access to the Des Moines Register during my summers.  (Their comics were much better than those in the Omaha World-Herald.  The Register ran Star Trek, Asterix (!), Bloom County… and on Sundays we’d get the smaller market Sioux City Journal with the comics never seen in bookstores (Eek and Meek, Born Loser, Berry’s World).)  But I never really bought comics as a kid.  From 1979 until 1982, I was a fan of Mad Magazine, buying back issues and passionately learning all I could, pre-Internet, about The Usual Gang of Idiots.  From 1982 until 1984, my passion was video games.  While my family owned nothing more advanced than an old Coleco Telstar 6040 playing variations of Pong, that didn’t keep me from haunting arcades, searching for the new and unusual, and buying almost every videogame magazine I could find.

Of course, like most kids across the country, I read comic strips, bought the occasional strip collection, watched the CBS specials, and looked at any comic or cartoon (including the ones in my older brothers’ National Lampoons).  I even glommed onto an old graphic novel from the 1950s… the first Pogo reprint from Simon and Schuster.  When I was sick, I would read Richie Rich comics (the superhero covers at the pharmacy just made me sicker).  But it was just part of the multimedia background collage of my life, with older interests constantly being covered by newer distractions.

So, given all this, what caused me to become a comics fan?  What brought comics into the foreground, eclipsing my other interests?  Junior High and Mattel toys.

MSHSW4 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DayIn the Spring of 1984, a classmate handed me a copy of Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars during study hall.  Earlier that year, we had talked about comics, how we could get rich quick with comics, and I had even lent him my old Pocket Books reprints of the early Lee/Ditko stories.

My 14-year-old mind was gobsmacked at this story, which featured Marvel’s most powerful heroes buried underneath a mountain!  (Please realize that I was a neophyte to the Mighty Marvel Manner of storytelling, having only read the occasional Marvel comic as a kid, and was mostly a fan of Mad Magazine.  I became jaded a few years later, but in 1984, everything was Amazing, Uncanny, and Fantastic.)

But I wasn’t seduced completely with this issue.  I didn’t immediately hike to the nearest 7-Eleven to see What Happens Next.  I just filed it away, and continued with my main passion at the time: video games.  (Oh, and girls, but there were no strategy guides for them, so much of that was of the “Game Over” variety, my ego wilting like a dead Pac-Man.)

ASM254 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DaySo, what changed?

My mother stopped for milk.

Since 1978, my family has spent our summers (and the occasional weekend) at our summer cabin located two hours northeast from Omaha, on a glacier lake in Sac County, Iowa.  (The glacier is long gone, but it left a big hole which became known as Blackhawk Lake.)  Since milk and other perishables don’t travel well over two hours, and take up space in the cooler, we would always stop at Bromley’s Foodland, located out on Highway 71 across from the high school.  Bromley’s was a large supermarket, probably built in the 1950s.  Unlike the other two grocery stores in town, it had a large two-tier magazine rack, including special pockets for comics located at eye level.  While my mother shopped, I distracted myself by perusing the magazines.  There, front and center amongst what had to be every comic published that month by DC and Marvel, was a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #254.  Spider-Man was wearing a black costume, fighting an anonymous foe.  (Fanboys would have assumed it was the Hobgoblin, but I had no assumptions.  I hadn’t read Spider-Man regularly since the days of the Grizzly and the Jackal.)  I had always known Spider-Man by his red-and-blue costume, and here he was in a new costume!  A quick scan of the issue showed just what his new union suit could do, so I was hooked!  Later that weekend, I discovered Marvel Tales had been reprinting the old Lee/Ditko stories, and What If? had a special Spider-Man issue.  (BOY!  Lookit that amazing Ditko cover!  Spider-Man in silhouette/outline, the Molten Man glowing like a golden golem!  Here’s the original.)

MT166 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DayWI46 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DayA combination of the old (Marvel Tales), the new (Spidey’s new suit), and a bit of “what if” hooked my imagination.  Soon I was hiking a mile to the local shopping center, picking up my copies at B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks, and eventually getting hooked on the Fantastic Four (Reed finds his long-lost father) and the Uncanny X-Men.  By January 1985, I was hiking a mile (uphill! both ways! in the snow and humidity!) in the opposite direction to Dragon’s Lair Comics.  What I did not realize on my first visit was that the Direct Market received their comics three weeks before the newsstand dealers, so I left with a huge stack of comics!  (I would later exploit that delay when hot titles sold out.  Halfway on my trek was a convenience store which had a spinner rack.  I’d always stop, either to refill my soda bottle  or to warm up before trekking onward.  I bought a copy of Robin #1 there for cover price, back when that was the hot comic.)

Omaha1 When Memorial Day Becomes Remembrance DayOnce I became a habitual comics fan at my local comics shop, it was quite easy to become seduced by the Direct Market.  Eclipse, Dark Horse, Eagle, even DC once they rebooted the DCU…  I used a gift certificate won at a science fair and purchased Maus at a local bookshop.  I discovered Matt Groening when he was just another alternative weekly cartoonist.  I became nomadic in my collecting, searching out used-bookstores and comics shops in other cities and states.  (I had to smuggle XXXenophile across state lines.)  After years of wishing over Great Eastern Con ads in Marvel Mart, I finally made it to New York for the Coliseum Show of 1996… and found it shut down by the Fire Marshall.  But there were other shows, other comics, and always something new to catch my eye, just like that crazy black costume created by Jim Shooter for a mini-series originally designed to sell toys for Mattel.

I’m stuck in New York this Memorial Day Weekend, but I know for a fact that my eight-year-old niece is at the lake, reading the Showcase copies of Wonder Woman I bought her at C2E2 last March.  She’ll probably discover other interests when she becomes a teenager, but there’s a lot of manga she hasn’t read yet…

Comments

  1. Great story. Torsten. Thinking back, I was drawn back into comics by Secret Wars covers I saw at a 7 Eleven. I hadn’t read comics in years, but there was something enticing about them.

  2. stuck in nyc? i love nyc during a holiday weekend. it becomes something of a ghost town, very quiet with actual room to breathe. liked the “how i got into comics” story. comics really did explode in the 80’s, they seemed to be a whole lot more fun back then. just about everyone that’s into this hobby has a story to tell about how they got into comics, got out of comics and then back in again. guess it’s just part of the process to becoming a life long fan (for some of us anyway).

  3. Al™ says:

    Great reading, Torsten. I love comic reader “origin” stories!

  4. Steey Dan says:

    I was also enticed into the world of comix by Spider-Man’s black costume (I forget the issue, but it was 1984, he fought the Puma, and it was drawn by Ron Frenz, for my money still the best Spider-Man artist). I was eleven and I remember thinking that costume was sooooo cool and just wanting to learn more.

  5. Synsidar says:

    Interesting piece, Torsten. I guess you had eclectic tastes as a comics reader early on. I’ve read a wide variety of prose works, but the only comics genre that I have an abiding interest in is superhero fiction.

    You didn’t mention a budget, or whether you dropped some titles in favor of others. It’s unfortunate that one can’t revisit starting points. I was fortunate in starting to read Marvel comics (as series) in ’73, during the company’s artistic high point. Knowing what good writers could do with the characters kept me reading during the down decades which followed. The content and the marketing strategies of Marvel and DC are so much different from what they were in the ’70s and ’80s that it’s difficult to imagine that people starting now can have comparable experiences.

    SRS

  6. Thanks for sharing! Lot of fun to read! And yay Mom for buying you your first comic. My mom actually bought superhero comics to read for herself and me. (Those crazy hippies actually thought comics were cool. lol)
    And can’t believe the Des Moines ran Asterix -amazing! Hard to imagine Asterix in a newspaper, much less a US one.

  7. Torsten Adair says:

    Yeah… since my mother was German, I was well versed on Asterix. I don’t know the exact reason for it, but it was probably produced for the Commonwealth markets, and the DMR was enlightened enough to run it. I believe it was just one story. I don’t know if there were Sundays.

    As an early comics collector, I was a Marvel Zombie, but only Spider-Man, FF, X-Men. I was selective, adding some titles as my budget increased, but not many. Eventually, my limited budget and widened tastes required that I drop most Marvels by 1990.

    Those first few years, I probably purchased fewer than ten titles a month.

    The summer of `84, I did buy one DC comic: Superman #400, still one of the best anniversary comics ever produced! (It had a time travel aspect to it, which appealed to my science fiction interests.) Around `87, I added JLI to my list (strong sense of humor via MAD), and the new Superman line. At about the same time, I also began reading Concrete and Tales of the Beanworld.

    As a kid, I read whatever comics I could get my hands on. With three older brothers, we had lots of books lying around, including the old Fawcett Peanuts collections. Decades before eBay, it was easy to find mass market collections at garage sales or used bookstores for twenty-five cents or less. (A new MAD paperback cost 75-95 cents at the time.) The Omaha World-Herald did not have an editorial cartoonist in the 1980s, so they syndicated the best of the national strips, and ran Doonesbury on the Op-Ed pages (along with Mike Royko).

    Omaha was a perfect storm for collecting. Small enough that there wasn’t much competition, but large enough to guarantee a good supply (like hardcover Pogo collections, or a first printing of Bone).

  8. fun read! thank God for moms that bought kids their first comics–including yours and mine, torsten! comic burner moms always get all the attention! mine actually got me a subscription to walt disney’s comics and stories. those awesome carl barks’ duck stories hooked me for life!

  9. Torsten Adair says:

    Comic burner moms? I know of toss-it-to-the-curb moms, but not many who heated the home with comics! (And why don’t we ever hear of a garbage man who got rich off the numerous comics moms threw away?)

    My mother disapproved of my reading MAD, but I think it she did it just so I would think I was reading something illicit. But then, she tolerated my Playboy collection as well.

    We had periodical bedroom cleanings, but I think we made the decisions of what to keep, not mom. Now most of those toys are being passed on to grandkids, but I’m having a hard time giving up my Legos…

  10. Synsidar says:

    I didn’t have a budget, fortunately, nor did I have a mom who censored. I bought what I wanted, or thought I should read, and dropped titles when I lost interest or the writing became bad. I went to a weekly comics writing workshop in 1977 taught by Larry Lieber because I wanted to write stories as good as those I”d read in the past few years. Unfortunately, I found out that writing the heroes as SF/fantasy characters didn’t sell well, and I’d probably overestimated my writing skills at the age of 20.

    I’ve taken a literary approach toward the characters ever since, because that results in demonstrably better stories than alternate approaches do, and the existing universe saves a writer the trouble of having to create a universe and characters from scratch for the sake of a single story. At this point, the fact that DC and Marvel characters exist within defined universes is probably the best thing about them. Producing good stories is simply a matter of letting writers use them well, within very general guidelines, and preventing them from making mistakes.

    SRS

  11. The Dragon’s Lair on Blondo? I used to go there all the time, and during the period you are writing about. Small world.

  12. Torsten Adair says:

    Yup. Chris Ware was a customer as well, according to his Comics Journal interview. I was a customer from 1985-1994.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Towel Day marks thirty years of my actively reading, collecting, studying, proselytizing comics.  May 25, 1984, I walked into a grocery store, and was instantly seduced by a black-suited Spider-Man.It’s the day I became a nerd/geek.  Sure, there were things before which I geeked about, like […]

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