Friday, March 6, 2009

"You like comic books?!" - Part 1

A few of my earliest comic books

On a whim, driven to action by an invitation from my nephew Atom, I went to see a midnight showing of
Watchmen early this morning. While I'm a little tired, I have to admit the adrenaline rush has kept me going on only 3 hours of sleep. It's a cool film, capturing the essence of the original comic. Ironically, it's a book I didn't pick up when it came out in the 80s but have since read a number of times. As you might expect, the plotting is a little stiff but I love the stylistic approach and commitment to capturing the original intent. It's more colorful than the Frank Miller's 300 (which I loved) and the Spirit (based on Will Eisner's seminal work which I still have to see), even darker and bloodier than DC/Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight or Marvel's Iron-Man, Incredible Hulk and the X-Men movies,. It's even a little "campy" like the Superman and Spider-Man films. Should do well at the box office and hopefully generate a new wave of interest in those little paper treasures that I find so fascinating.

It seems like I've always had a thing for comic books. I really caught the bug during a summer vacation on the Rogue River in southeast Oregon. I'm not certain whether I was entering 3rd or 4th grade, but I know I was either 7 or 8 years old. The previous year my brothers and I had starting picking up bottle caps during a two-week stay at Samuel P. Taylor campground. Between the Junior Ranger outing and general tom-foolery of the three of us and the kids camped nearby we picked up the caps wherever we went. They were small, colorful, free and readily available - a perfect collectable for young boys with time on their hands. So proficient were we, that we amassed a rather garbage bag full of them by the end of our stay.

So between the fishing, hiking and sessions of pure adolescent mayhem at the Valley of the Rogue campground we quickly returned picking up bottle caps and added a new target: aluminum cans. The campground was a literal treasure trove with beer and soda caps and cans everywhere. But the really good news hit us later when we learned that each can could be redeemed for a nickel at any nearby store. California hadn't passed a redemption program at that time, so this was all new to us. Needless to say we redoubled our efforts and were sitting on what we thought was a mountain of cash after our first week. With a week to go and pockets full of cash we stood poised on the biggest consumer choice of our collective lives - which isn't saying too much because my brothers are 16 and 26 months younger than I am...

I know, you're now asking yourself what this has to do with comic books? We're almost there, but first...

I can't remember the first comic I ever saw, but in second grade I came down with Scarlet Fever and had to miss several months of school. I'm sure it was a frightening time for me in many ways, but I've misplaced most of my memories of this except for two things. The first were the stacks of homework that my teacher sent home for me to work on. In my memory, I envision several towers, each about 7 or 8 inches tall. In reality I'm sure they were significantly smaller, but I can still picture them today. The second, and certainly more impactful, was the tattered cardboard box that one of my parents friends dropped off one day. Inside were two stacks of old, thoroughly loved comics from the late 60s and early 70s. The covers were worn, torn or removed completely. Included in that treasure chest were war stories, westerns, classic cartoons, EC terror titles and the super-heroes that became my favorites. They were probably from a college student left them at home with his mom and she was finding them a new home and getting them out of her house as a bonus. To me they were pure gold. I don't remember home many times I read them or how much time I spent with them during my convalescence and afterwards, but I still remember many of the story-lines, artists, and the special feel of escape into the worlds presented within. Even with the boxes and boxes of comics I now have stored in my basement, I find myself trying to remember which of those old, now long-gone first comics. But I still wondered what happened to them.

Now back to being poised for consumerism... The local store where we turned in our cans had all the candy, Hostess treats, chips and soda we could possibly want. Unfortunately, the parental controls on such items where much tighter than our budget. We were still flush with loot and looking to buy. I'm not sure which one of us found it first, but I remember there was one of those spinning comic book display racks in the back. The allure of brightly colored covers pulled us in in much the same way that couch stuffing attracts my black lab, Ruby (oh, that's another story). With the memory of the tattered treasure chest fresh in my mind there was no doubt this was were I was going to spend my cut. Not to be outdone, or left out, my brothers quickly made the same decision. The little copycats! So we bought a few that first visit and devoured them that afternoon lying in the grass beside our campsite and later snug in our sleeping bags by flashlight. Every day that second week we made excuses to return for sugar, snacks, drinks and the requisite comic or two. By the end of our 15 day trip, we had each amassed a small collection. Needless to say, those small piles have grown over the years into what would rightly be called a collection.

So there it is, the start of an on-again, off-again passion for those little, brightly colored books with the great art. I look back with great affection at that initial stack of super-hero books. I'm not entirely sure which ones they were now, but I know they were heavily laden with Spider-Man, the Thing (from the Fantastic Four), The Avengers, Batman and the Justice League of America.

Logically, they were just small piles of paper and ink, but I can still feel the thrill of reading each one and the exhilaration of winding my way through the colorful panels. Today's kids may get a similar sensation at movies or while playing video games, but this was my first such real thrill-ride experience.

Hang around, I'm sure I'll be exploring this topic more in the future.

Cheers! - Jason

No comments: