Number Ones


Do you remember your first comic book?

I read at a young age thanks to my parents’ awareness, encouragement, and possibly genetics. Both were teachers. Mom in particular noticed my natural aptitude while reading me Hop on Pop and Old Hat, New Hat. She doesn’t recall whether I glommed onto my first comic book after basking in the four-color glory of a spinner rack at
7-Eleven or she picked up on my outsize enthusiasm for Super Friends on TV and surprised me with the most amazing thing ever; I’m sorry that, despite having some very strong memories from very early on, I don’t recall either.

Based on those memories and physical evidence, I was collecting — well, more like accumulating — comics by 4 years old. And not just to look at the pictures, mind you, although that was a huge part of their pull. I remember a friend having me read from the newspaper to his disbelieving parents back in nursery school.


My first 8 years of life and many summers thereafter were spent in Wildwood — or (most of) “The Wildwoods”: North Wildwood, Wildwood proper, and Wildwood Crest, which share a fairly small barrier island with Diamond Beach right above Cape May,
the southernmost point in New Jersey. The Wildwoods long were a popular family resort, their population ballooning from 15,000 in permanent residents to 250,000 on a summer weekend. We lived in both the North and the Crest at different times, and I was often at my grandparents’ store in downtown Wildwood, so the whole island was my backyard. It had a bountiful array of shops where my comic-book habit could be fed.


Although just about any comic book was enticing to me, even such off-kilter
alternatives as Charltons, superheroes from the Big Two were the best. DC edged out Marvel. I would hardly turn up my nose at Spider-Man if a new Superman or Batman adventure wasn’t available, but the lure of “The Line of DC Super-Stars” was strong. How else to explain my introduction to the sword-&-sorcery genre being DC’s obscure Claw the Unconquered #3 rather than an issue of Marvel’s pioneering Conan the Barbarian?

Chances are that preference was due to Marvels skewing to an older readership at the time and tending much more than DC to explicitly continue stories from one issue to the next — yet I vividly remember the Mr. Xavier saga in Superman having the feel of a grown-up, prime-time television drama, while the weighty sociopolitical airs of stuff like the Black Panther and Lady Liberators tales in my Avengers Treasury Edition
could be as intriguing as they were disconcerting.



Cover to Superman #273 © 1974 DC Comics.

The earliest issue I can establish as having probably bought new (for and not by me, surely) is Superman #273, dated March 1974. I hold and cherish memories circa that period of slightly older comics, but they were likely hand-me-downs or recent back issues obtained at a flea market — unless my mom’s right and I really was reading Marvel Team-Up at 20 months. Those older comics include Superman #264, which for years remained in a stash at my grandparents’ Florida condo; meanwhile, the slightly later Superman #284 is a candidate that got either lost or tossed long ago whose identity was only recently verified after I described what I recalled of its contents on
the Grand Comics Database chat list, and I’m kind-of nervous to search out an actual copy lest it somehow disappoint me.


Apart from an early issue of Spidey Super Stories (which spun out of the web-slinger’s appearances on PBS’s The Electric Company) that I personalized in ballpoint pen, my fave 1975 acquisitions include both Shazam! #19, featuring DC’s relaunch of its onetime rival Fawcett’s original Captain Marvel, and Giant-Size Captain Marvel #1, spotlighting the newer character of that name introduced by Marvel Comics after Fawcett’s trademark had lapsed (hence DC’s Captain Marvel series, like the Saturday-morning
TV show that followed his print revival, being named for his magic word instead of the man himself).


I know that I was buying comics off the racks at 5 years old because of the “DC
Comics Salutes the Bicentennial” promotional banner that popped up on the covers of titles in April 1976. While at the time I didn’t care to collect all of them — war, gun-slinger, and supernatural titles like G.I. Combat, Weird Western Tales, and House of Mystery carried no appeal for me next to Justice League of America; besides, I couldn’t shell out a couple dozen quarters in one month — I well remember seeing the banner on Adventure Comics #442, with Aquaman hoisting a giant flag astride his giant seahorse in a terribly busy yet awfully compelling tableau, as Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” played on the PA system in Murphy’s. Like toy stores, which usually offered those infamous bagged triple packs of comics, Murphy’s stocked its comic books with coloring and puzzle books in tiered wooden or particle-board shelving. Murphy’s didn’t carry many comics, and the competing five-&-ten across the street, Woolworth’s, had even fewer, but it would soon become my main source of Star Wars bubblegum cards.


You can walk pretty much anywhere when you live on an island five miles long and
less than half as wide between the ocean and the bay — once your parents let you, that is, but this was a small town over 30 years ago; kids walked to school and wandered the neighborhood to play kickball or build snowmen by first grade. So when I say that my half-dozen regular comic-book haunts were in walking distance, it’s not that surprising, yet I’ve learned from talking to other fans how lucky I was to have such vendors within a few blocks of wherever I spent my time. The 7-Eleven near our townhouse in the very tip of North Wildwood, Anglesea, was the place we regularly trekked for Slurpees and Tastykakes (Philly’s regional version of Hostess or Little Debbie, except way better) as well as comics. My grandparents’ home was two blocks from a sundries shop offering magazines, ice cream, and suntan lotion, a theme repeated throughout the shore. Saner’s, their clothing store on Pacific Ave. in the heart of Wildwood, had a Rite Aid next door, those five-&-tens on the next block, and on the block beyond that a storefront newsagent called Bar-Val that also sold cigars and penny candy.


All of these locations and similar drugstores, newsstands, and bookstores in surrounding towns stocked at least Marvels and DCs, and usually Archies, Harveys,
and Charltons too. I caught the tail end of the 25¢ standard comic book, as those “Still Only 25¢!” bursts on Marvel covers gave way to 30¢, 35¢, and “Still Only 35¢!” in what felt even then like rapid succession. Annuals, Giant-Size Marvels, and DC’s 100-Page Super Spectacular editions were easily worth twice the price of a regular issue, chock full of fascinating reprints. For a whole dollar you got tabloid-sized comics (dubbed treasury editions by Marvel), which most often contained reprints focused on a single character or theme but occasionally featured extra-length new stories; beloved examples of the former are Christmas with the Super-Heroes and Secret Origins of Super-Villains, whereas the latter included the surprisingly freaky Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles. Soon I discovered that the Cape May County library carried big, hardcover collections of classic comic-book tales, alongside essays on their history.


Bar-Val is no more, the five-&-tens got boarded up a while back, and on my latest
shore visit I saw that the sundries shop at 17th and Central had been razed in favor of something new. Anglesea’s 7-Eleven went out years ago, in one of the first and most poignant shots to my nostalgia-laden heart. You can’t get comic books at toy stores anymore; heck, you can’t find them at dollar stores, a whole different lament, but it does seem like they’re slowly picking up young readers again.

The industry shifted for good from drugstores to dedicated comic-book shops not long after I moved from Wildwood to the suburbs of Philadelphia. And just as I was lucky to live on an island dotted with spinner racks, it was fortunate that my new home provided relatively easy access to comics’ future. Many fans of my generation live in areas with few to no specialty shops even today.

We all know that supposed progress can spoil us. Although the staff at my local shop pulls issues for my subscription each week, nary an installment to be missed, the bittersweet trade is that outside of memory I will never again open a door to the smell of tobacco and newsprint heralding a squeaky metal buffet of fantasy mere steps away.



Related: Off Color DC in ’76 X Libris
Comics of March Shelf Obsession

4 comments:

  1. I'm so glad to see this back up, Brian. You know your experiences mirror mine a great deal, but you express them so much better. I look forward to many future chapters in the story.

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  2. Weird Western Tales - I find this very appealing. What were they about, I wonder? What made them weird? Look at Aquaman on his seahorse! Lucky! This was an enjoyable read.

    By the way, back in the 70's the average roaming space for a 9 year old boy was 7 square miles. Nowadays...more like 9 square feet. Sad, really-really sad.

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  3. The early issues had a supernatural Western hero called El Diablo, but it mostly featured a loner gunslinger named Jonah Hex (soon to be a major motion picture) and, later, an adopted Kiowa born of a white man called Scalphunter. Now, Weird War Tales, that was weird. Check out the cover galleries at The Grand Comics Database and click on a cover to see an index of the issue's contents (if you like):
    Weird Western Tales
    Weird War Tales

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  4. Yay! I didn't think you'd know I'd posted a comment on this. The Weird War Tales...creepy. A lot of evil skeletons running around. And hahahah! the Scalphunter (when I first read that, I honestly had no idea what that word was. Scal-hunter? Sc-alp-hunter? I am not so bright) issue where he is arm wrestling Abe Lincoln. I'd get that as a print for the living room.

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