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.

As 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.

In 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.)

So, 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.)

A 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.)

Once 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…