I’m 40 and I love comics.
When I was growing up, there was a stigma around those who read comics. This was usually fueled by the people that didn’t read comics. I guess you were either a comics-kid or you were “cool”. For some reason, you couldn’t be both. Which, now that I think of it, made no sense because I think I was pretty cool. Maybe not.
For many, comic books were only for summer camping or cottage vacations. You’d grab them off the spinning cart in the local convenience store. Sometimes, they would have these multi-packs…like, five comics in a bag. You’d see two of the comics on the outside but never knew what you were gonna get inside until you got back to wherever you were staying and ripped open that plastic. Usually they’d be shit books but every once in while you’d get a decent Spider-Man comic inside.
I liked comics from a young age. I grew up watching the Super Friends on TV; I remember Spider-Man on the Electric Company TV show in 5-minute cameo spot. I had Undroos underwear with all the heroes on them. Superman bed sheets that I still had when I was a teenager. Hey, nothing says “lets have sex!” when you bring your girlfriend home and she takes a look at your bed and wonders what the hell is she getting herself into.
I remember reading the Toronto Star when they ran Spider-Man comic strips in the Saturday and Sunday papers. When my parents split up, we would visit my dad on Tuesdays and he would grab a bucket of KFC and a stack of comics and he, my brother and I would sit down and read the comics, passing to the next person when we were done, while gnawing on a greasy drumstick. Needless to say, those books would never appreciate to any collector status, what with the greasy fingerprints and all. I still have some of those books in my basement. They’re the ones not in a plastic bag and board, but instead have the yellow-tinge gracing the pages, a sign of time (and grease) eating away at my childhood memories.
I had spent a good number of my formative years growing up in a small town. The local comic shop was located on the top of a John Deere Rent-All place. The building was old, wooden floors adorned the main level where all the equipment was on display. The owners son was a comic collector and seller and he let his son run a comic shop out the top of the place. I don’t remember this guy’s name, but he was in his 20’s…lets call him ‘John’. Anyway, no one would know a comic book store was up there as his dad wouldn’t let him advertise. But John would put a handwritten sign in the window that if you squinted enough, you could make out “comics here” written in black.
My dad had told me, at age 12, to get a job. This was unrealistic, especially in a small town where everything closed at 6pm. That summer he and my mom were going through their issues that eventually led to their breakup and I guess he didn’t want me around the house too much to witness the insanity. I don’t know. But I remember asking him where he thought I could get a job and who would hire a 12-year old??
He didn’t care and told me to figure it out. So one day I went to the comic shop as I did from time to time – I had to save my allowance to get anything, so I wasn’t a regular per se – and while browsing the bins, I asked John why he didn’t have any of his books in order? Either alphabetical or by hero or by company (Marvel or DC or Archie). John had no real good reason but it drove me nuts trying to find stuff. John said that he didn’t have the time to organize it all and he didn’t have anyone to help him, either.
Bing! This is the sound that the light in my head makes, just FYI.
I asked John if he wanted me to be the organizer of these fine, four-colour comics. He told me that he couldn’t afford to pay me, but it would be helpful. “Well, you can pay me in comics” I said to him. And with that, we came to an agreement. My first “job” in the summer of 1988.
I had my eye on a couple of comics: The Dark Knight Returns, which had come out two years earlier in 1986; John Byrne’s Man of Steel comic which also came out in 1986 and The Killing Joke, which was published in March of 1988.
When it came to the Man of Steel book, it was the cover that grabbed me. That iconic ‘S-shield’ on the cover. This was a reboot or realigning of Superman and his powers. The powers had gotten outta hand in the years before Man of Steel and Byrne came in and nailed down what powers Superman actually had: Flying. Heat vision. Bullet proof. Freeze breath. Super hearing. X-Ray vision. Bryne also set down the origin of Superman and how Krypton looked (which is still used now, 30+ years later) and….sorry, geeking out there a bit.
Anyway, that was my summer. Bryan Adams had his summer of ’69. I had my summer of ’88. Admittedly, I was a pretty crappy employee. I mean, I got the job done and it was done quite quickly. But I came in when I wanted and most times, once John left for a bit to help his dad, I would sit on the floor and just read comics. Lots and lots of comics.
I can still remember the feel of the wooden floors, how lop-sided they were and the dust that would fall like snow in the shine of the sun that came through the windows. The smell of the comics as I put them in the plastic bags. The look of them scattered on the ground as I tried to alphabetize them.
By the end of that summer, John was supposed to pay me in those three books. I mean, I had been “paid” with other books but those three, The Dark Knight Returns, Man of Steel and The Killing Joke, those were supposed to be mine. My compensation. But then John reneged. He said that he could get them sold for more than cover price and instead wanted to give me a stack of other comics that I really couldn’t care less for. I don’t remember what they were, I just remember they weren’t what I wanted. And that pissed me off. I remember looking at John and saying “fuck you” as I got on my bike to ride home.
I never did visit that store again. Looking back on it, I guess I should have put up a bigger fight for those books but at the same time I thought to myself how lucky I was to have read all those comics, for free, as often as I wanted. I spent a good portion of my summer reading comics, when I wasn’t playing war with my friends or watching old WWF wresting videos.
And maybe that’s where I gained an appreciating for the art of the comics. The stories that they wove. The absurdity of most of them and the holy-shit moments from the rest. It’s funny. As I write this out…I never did get the Dark Knight Returns or Killing Joke in my collection. Maybe I should grab the trades (short form for Trade Paperback) and add them to my collection.
I wish I was reading a comic right now. Fuck, I wish it was 1988 right now. Things were a lot easier back then.