As a kid I had a super power. It was reading comics. And I read lots. I mean lots. I mean like every one ever printed up until that time. And that was a lot. Moreover I read each one many, many times. Not online, but actual ink imprinted upon actual paper. They were best savored at 2 a.m. on a school night under the covers with a flashlight.
During grade school in the 60’s, my friend Mike and I were mentored in superhero comportment by George Reeves in Superman reruns from the 50’s. From our super-secret base in Mike’s garage, we protected South-side Milwaukee from super-villains who were only detectable by means of our super-vision. Equipped with dramatically flowing capes fabricated from advanced bed sheet technology, we tracked them using our super-computer cleverly disguised as an old hub cap and leapt into action to foil their diabolical plans that always seemed to unfold in Mike’s back yard.
Other than George Reeves, superheroes pretty much only lived in comics and in our imaginations. At that time, new comics only appeared on drug store racks every Thursday. I’d make the rounds every week before the new stock even made it to the rack, ready with my 12 cents per copy that I mostly earned by collecting newspapers door-to-door for recycling; old boring paper out, new exciting paper in. I was hit hard by the big financial disaster of ’69 when comic prices jumped to 15 cents.
There was no real “comic collecting” back then. In fact, comics were almost universally seen as even less valuable than old newspapers. Not even suitable for parakeet cage liners. There were no dedicated stores, no conventions, no fan magazines, no web sites, no price guides, no Comic Book Men TV show, nothing. The entire industry around comic collection is a relatively recent invention.
Back then I procured my old comics from Mary’s second-hand store. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall with all kinds of useless junk and even in that setting Mary didn’t feel that comics deserved to be placed out in public view. She acquired them when she could buy them dirt cheap and tossed them into a box under her cluttered desk that she dragged out for me each Saturday.
Gradually, week by week, my collection expanded organically. I rescued many of the virtually discarded comics from Mary’s box under the desk like they were abandoned kittens, sheltering them in my bedroom where their number grew steadily. To be clear, I never had any intent to collect. My only goal was to discover these precious comics so I could read them over and over and fill in the gaps as I read episodes of mostly forgotten old story lines in random order.
When I started my paper delivery route (again my fortunes were tied to the newspaper industry), I became flush with actual dollar bills every week. I quickly exhausted Mary’s relatively meager supply and discovered the “Old Town” vintage store in downtown Milwaukee. Although ostensibly a “collectable” store, it was really pretty much just an upgraded version of Mary’s second-hand junk store. But they did value comics and had a whole section in back with boxes bulging with them. It was the mother-load of those flat, rectangular gems!
So my Saturdays throughout the 60’s and 70’s routinely entailed trekking west out to Mary’s and then east back across the viaduct to Old Town to spend my paper route money or earnings from subsequent jobs. My collection gradually grew into many thousands of issues. Let’s be clear, my mother was not enthusiastic about this. Every time she ventured into my bedroom she would direct me to “get rid of all this crap.” Somehow I never got around to it. Each one was too valuable to part with. Not because of their monetary value but because they were innately precious. They told long lost stories that needed to be protected. Parting with even one issue in a series would be to leave a hole in a puzzle; a missing page in a larger book.
In 7th grade I augmented my paper route money with a second job as a bus boy at a Vera’s restaurant. That same 7th grade summer Mike and I took a roadtrip to central Manhattan where we visited DC comics where we appeared unannounced and talked ourselves into a personal tour from Carmine Infantino. A waitress at the restaurant introduced me to her son Greg, twice my age, who had also amassed a large comic empire. I became friends with him and he introduced me to a larger world of collecting, buying, and even selling. At that time there was not yet any formal comic market. It was just enthusiasts who mostly knew each other and communicated by letters or phone calls. There were new “fanzines” that were very crudely “published” advertisements from individuals to buy and sell comics between each other.
So, in order to satisfy my comic appetite quicker, I started to buy and sell too. I would sell duplicate issues for comics I needed to fill out my series. That entailed road trips to get together with other collectors to swap directly or typing out ads to publish in a fanzine, describing each item’s individual condition in meticulous detail. As a kid with no adult supervision whatsoever I was engaged in mail-order commerce, fulfilling daily orders for comics, carefully packaging them, and hauling them down to the post office. One had to be scrupulous in all these regards as in this small community one misrepresentation could destroy ones credibility.
Eventually my mom started to realize that these comics were actually worth real money. Suddenly the attitudes about my now barely tolerated collection, then well over 10,000, changed dramatically. Now suddenly it was respectable, even valued. My family quickly subsidized my passion with bookcases and wall-shelving for my bedroom to store all these suddenly precious comics. But I always found this distasteful. To me their worth was purely in their stories, never in their monetary value. I felt scorn for those who only started caring about comics after they became it became popular and lucrative and geeky-sheek to do so.
In fact, as the entire nation woke up to the “value” of comics, as more and more people started to buy them mostly because of their rapidly inflating monetary value, I inverse-proportionately lost interest. After I left home and it became logistically unfeasible to haul around my collection, I finally sold it all off. Collecting is best suited to sedentary types, not college students barely living in one dorm room very long, let alone in any one country.
When Greg bought up the remainder of my collection in one big bulk purchase, my puzzle was virtually complete with every issue, from #1 onwards, of every series printed up to that time. My DC collection went way back to a 1938 issue of Adventure comics and included series that went back as far as Action #10 and Batman #5. At one point I held in my very own hands a “good” copy of Action #1, agonizing over buying it, but I decided to put the $500 that was being asked into other issues. In the relatively recent Marvel world I had every single issue – right back to multiple copies of Spiderman #1, Fantastic Four #1 and the rest.
When I sold off my collection it was just at the start of the skyrocketing price curve. So I didn’t make a fortune my any stretch. But I did make enough profit to help see me through college. Do I regret selling off what would today be an immensely valuable collection? A bit but not really. The thing about collecting is that there is never a good time to sell. If you hold on it will always eventually get more valuable, if not for you for your children.
But making or losing money didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was not the short-term profit my efforts yielded, but the priceless and undying experiences those comics gave me. They instilled me with a “comic book” sensibility and a heroic world-view that I proudly retain to this day.
Back when Mike and I ran around zapping villains in his yard, we dreamed of an impossible future when we might see our heroes portrayed in the movies. We specifically speculated about the possibility of a day when Green Lantern might come to life in a live-action movie, showing off the full capability of his amazing Power Ring. What amazes me is that we lived to see that impossible dream come to life pushing 50 years later. I have to think that comics were instrumental in giving us the imagination to dream that crazy dream and the enduring spirit to remain “true believers” until it became reality.