Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Comic Book Collecting

All photos are from the Internet

Text by Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen

Comic books have moved in and out of my life for nearly as long as I remember.

It started in the early ‘60s when my grandfather was in a nursing home in the Bronx. The family would go and visit him, but we kids were not allowed up to the room. As this home was also a hospital and he was bedridden with a bad heart (something that would have been solved easily today with a pacemaker), no one under the age of 12 was allowed up (though I remember going a couple of times). While my parents visited him, my older (and only) brother Richie and I would stay in the lobby-level waiting area by ourselves, or run around the block (something that would be considered practically criminal these days, letting two preteen kids out on the street alone in a strange neighborhood…but I digress). Before we drove up there, my father would give us both a dollar, and we were to spend it on comic books. They were 10 cents each then, so we could each buy 10 of them. We’d sit in the waiting area and after we finished our own, we’d read each other’s (of course, we’d coordinate so we didn’t buy the same ones).

We had lots of them, including some I clearly remember, like the first Hulk, the first Spiderman, original Classics Illustrated, Charlton’s Konga movie adaptation, the first Fantastic Four, and many others of the Silver Age. We read them over and over and over again, at any chance we could. This included after “lights out.” As punishment for getting caught, my dad would rip up the comics. That’s what happened to all those I just mentioned, by the way. I’ll wait while the collective gasps settle.

The next bit of comics I clearly recall is when I went to sleepaway camp, for three weeks each summer from ages 8-15. Comics were 12-15 cents each, so my dad would give me $2-3, and I bought a stack to last me the duration. Usually, there were other kids who did the same, and we’d trade ‘em back and forth. We usually wrote our names in them, so we’d get them back at some point. Invariably, we’d come home with most of ours, and some of others.

One day at Lafayette High School, in Brooklyn, I was sitting in a class across an aisle from someone I didn’t like while reading a DC comic, and looked up and he was reading a Marvel. I’ve been brother-from-another-mother with Bernie Kugel since. I enjoyed narrative stories that were short (single or double issue at most) with the clear artwork of the likes of Wally Wood and Jack Davis (hence, the DC); Bernie was more into the genre as a whole. He appreciated the experimental artwork of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and the expansive arcs of stories (hence, the Marvel). It was easier for him though, as his father owned a stationary store, so he had a better chance to seeing stories from beginning to end.

Speaking of experimental, Lafayette, was trying to keep kids from dropping out in the early ‘70s, so they tested different ways by switching out the usual English classes. We took one course in Science Fiction, and another in Comic Books. This latter class was astounding. Phil Seuiling, who opened up the very first comic book retail store ever four short blocks from my house, taught it (it is a Russian liquor store now). Phil also was instrumental in starting the comic cons. He brought famous artists like Gray Morrow and Jim Steranko into the classroom. We went to DC Comics on 53 Street and watched books being drawn and created. At his home, we saw lots of Golden and Silver Age original artwork boards framed on his wall. He got angry, though, when someone knocked one of them off the wall and the frame broke, throwing us out of his apartment. Around that same time, Phil did the voice of one of the police officers (portrayed by a pig) in the Ralph Bakshi film Fritz the Cat (1972), which was rated X, so we could not yet see it. He was fired the next year or the year after for selling a underground comix to someone in the class who was legally underage (the student’s mother turned him in).

While I read comics sporadically after high school and through college, I was not as much into them as I was into the whole nascent CBGB/Max’s Kansas City scene, and spent my money on either buying vinyl, seeing shows, or on putting out my fanzine, FFanzeen.

In 1990, I started working for a Fortune 500 company on 53 Street and Lexington. Bernie, who had moved back from Buffalo with his family four years earlier, was working a couple of blocks away. Once a week, we’d meet at lunch, and rather than eat, we’d go to a comic store a few blocks away. We’d hit the store and get our fix. We even saw David Carradine and his wife there buying books once. It was a heady time for comics, and I had re-discovered my love for Richard Corben, who I had enjoyed in Creepy and Eerie and now his work in such books as Den, and for the crisp, bloodletting of Tim Vigil, especially his Faust series. There was also Batman’s Killing Joke, the Dark Knight series, Concrete, and of course, Watchmen.

On weekends, I would make excursions with the Kugel family to Staten Island where we would hit the mall, and then Jim Hanley’s Universe on New Dorp Lane. When the Universe opened at the Staten Island Mall, we would go to both. (As a sidebar, odds are we were coming in contact with Staten Island author, musician, comic lover, and Hanley Universe employee JD Glass without even knowing it!) When Hanley closed the store at the Mall, they had a massive sale there, and we went crazy buying comics and graphic novels for 90% off. I probably spent $50 that day and came home with a trunkful.

Other than superhero and horror short stories, some of my favorite comics were non-fiction, either serious ones like the original Classics Illustrated series, the Lower East Side tales by Will Eisner, Keiji Kakazawa’s autobiographical Barefoot Gen, Art Spiegelman’s two-part graphic novel, Maus, and the comical look at our past in Larry Gonick’s History of the Universe

These days, I don’t buy comics much anymore, but they remain close to my heart. Due to lack of room, I’m starting to liquidate some of my collection. Many of them are worthless other than enjoyment (i.e., 10 or more copies on sale on eBay for a dime each), and I’ve given quite a bunch away, and still am sorting through. By the end, I’ll probably get rid of a more than a third of them. The fun part is that I am re-reading many from the early ‘70s that I bought during the Phil Seuling years (he would get us discounts). For those who are shocked at this, note that I am not dissolving any of the ones that I keep close to my heart, like Batman, Superman, Faust, Shaloman, comix (Zap! , etc.), EC reprints, and many others. However, I am ditching some of my indie ones, like those by Innovation, Dark Horse, and some one-offs. What I’m saying is that I’ll keep the ones that mean something to me.

Though comic books may be passé to some, so many people I know still are strongly into it. We get together and see the latest film based on the comics, and then discuss. Our big recent debate is whether The Dark Knight or Iron Man (we all gave a collective whoop at the end, after the credits) is better, though it seems as though it is still a DC vs. Marvel issue. For me, they were both great films, and though I remain a Batmaner, I am fond of both cinematic extensions. And I look forward to the Watchman movie with both anticipation and the dread that they may ruin it, like they did 300. I’m keeping my cape and cowl crossed.

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