Number One

Do you remember your first comic book?

Cover to Limited Collectors' Edition #C-41 © 1975 DC Comics.

My first 8 years, and many summers thereafter, were spent in Wildwood — or, technically, "The Wildwoods": North Wildwood, Wildwood proper, West Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, which share a five-mile barrier island with Diamond Beach right above Cape May, the southernmost point in New Jersey. The Wildwoods were a popular resort for families, as opposed to the more adult-oriented Atlantic City, and the population of the island could spike from 15,000 in year-round residents to 250,000 on a summer weekend. We lived in both the North and the Crest, and I worked at my grandparents' store in central Wildwood, so as much as any kid there the whole island was my backyard.

I was reading very young, thanks to my parents' awareness, encouragement, and genetics. They were both teachers, and my mother in particular says she noticed my natural aptitude while reading me the likes of Hop on Pop and Old Hat, New Hat. She doesn't remember whether I glommed onto my first comic book after basking in the four-color glory of a spinner rack at 7-Eleven or if she picked up on my outsize enthusiasm for Super Friends on TV and surprised me with the most amazing thing ever. Today I'd give my eyeteeth — or at least a back molar — to recall getting my very first comic books. Based on both memories and physical evidence I was collecting (or at least accumulating) them by the age of 4. And I wasn't just looking at the pictures, although that was a huge part of their appeal; in nursery school I "performed" for my friends' disbelieving parents by reading from the newspaper.

Left: Cover to Claw the Unconquered #3 © 1975 DC Comics.
Right: Cover to
Marvel Treasury Edition #7 © 1975 Marvel Comics.

Just about any comic book was still a comic book, even weird stuff like Charltons, but superheroes from the Big Two were best, with DC Comics, home of Superman, edging out Marvel, home of Spider-Man. Even when I tried a new genre, somehow it wasn't Marvel's now-classic Conan the Barbarian but DC's short-lived knockoff Claw the Unconquered that ended up in my hands. The preference was probably due to Marvels skewing older at the time, and tending much more than DC to continue stories from one issue to the next — although I vividly remember the Mr. Xavier storyline in Superman feeling strangely like a prime-time TV drama, and the more grown-up aura of Marvels could be intriguing at the same time it was alienating, like the T'Challa and Liberators stories in my Avengers treasury edition.

Cover to Superman #284 © 1974 DC Comics.

The very earliest issue I can establish having probably bought new is Superman #284, dated Feb. 1975 — which means it was actually released the year before. [I have memories from the same period of slightly older comics, but they were likely hand-me-downs, trades, or recent back issues from a flea market. Or my mom's right and I really was reading Marvel Team-Up at 2 years old...] I've only recently tried to identify the issue; all that's in my mind's eye is a thick comic with a story in which Superman meets a red-haired lug named Goober or (the winning answer) Geezer, in retrospect clearly done in the 1940s, and me, splayed on the living-room floor, paging through the book and cutting out the 'S' symbol from various panels because I couldn't yet draw it myself. After searching The Grand Comics Database and having the results corroborated on its chat list, I saw the cover for the first time in probably 35 years, and I'm almost afraid to search out an actual copy lest it somehow disappoint me.

Covers to Spidey Super Stories #9 and Marvel Team-Up #40 © 1975 Marvel Comics.

Besides an early issue of Spidey Super Stories (a title that tied into the web-slinger's appearances on PBS's The Electric Company) with my name scrawled on the cover in pen, my vividly remembered 1975 acquisitions include both Shazam! #19, featuring DC's revival of onetime rival Fawcett's original Captain Marvel, and Giant-Size Captain Marvel #1, spotlighting the newer hero of that name introduced by Marvel Comics after Fawcett's trademark had lapsed (hence the older Captain Marvel's comic book, like the Saturday-morning TV series that followed a few years later, being named after his magic word instead of the man himself when DC acquired him).

Left: Cover to Shazam! #19 © 1975 DC Comics.
Right: Cover to
Giant-Size Captain Marvel #1 © 1975 Marvel Comics.

I know I was buying comics off the racks at age 5 because DC titles cover-dated July 1976 shared a banner atop the cover reading "DC Comics Salutes the Bicentennial". At the time I didn't want all of them — Weird Western Tales had no appeal next to Justice League of America, and even if I'd been a completist I couldn't shell out a couple dozen quarters in one month — but I remember the thrill of first seeing the banner on Adventure Comics, starring Aquaman, among the coloring books in Murphy's (although today the cover looks terribly unwieldy). Murphy's didn't carry many comics, and the competing five-&-ten across the street, grand old Woolworth's, had even fewer, but it would soon become my main source of Star Wars bubblegum cards. Like most toy stores, which usually offered those infamous bagged triple packs, Murphy's stocked its comic books with activity and coloring books in wooden or particle-board "stadium seating" shelves.

Covers to Adventure Comics #446 and DC Super-Stars #5 © 1976 DC Comics.

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; we were walking to school or wandering 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 comic-book lovers how lucky I was to have spinner racks a few blocks from just about anywhere I was. The 7-Eleven near our townhouse in Anglesea, the tip of North Wildwood, was where kids regularly trekked for not just comics but Slurpees and Tastykakes (the local Philly version of Hostess or Little Debbie, but way better). My grandparents' house had a sundries shop two blocks away offering magazines, soda, and suntan lotion, a theme repeated throughout the shore. The family's clothing store on Pacific Ave. in the heart of Wildwood had a Rite Aid next door, those five-&-tens on the next block, and a block further, best of all, Bar-Val, an apparently Kryptonian storefront news-agent that also sold cigars and penny candy.

Covers to Marvel Two-in-One Annual #1 and Captain America's Bicentennial Battles © 1976 Marvel Comics.

All of these locations and similar drugstores, bookstores, and newsstands in surrounding towns stocked at least Marvels, DCs, and Archies; you usually found Harveys and Charltons too. I caught the tail end of the 25¢ standard comic book, and I remember well those "Still Only 25¢!" balloon bursts on Marvel covers, which gave way to 30¢, 35¢, and "Still Only 35¢!" in what felt even then like rapid succession. I gladly paid twice the price of a regular book for annuals, Giant-Size Marvels and DC's 100-Page Super Spectacular issues, chock full of fascinating reprints. For a whole dollar you got tabloid-sized treasury editions, most containing reprints focused on a single character or theme but occasionally featuring super-sized new stories; a beloved example of the former is Christmas with the Super-Heroes, 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, as well as essays on their history.

Covers to Limited Collectors' Edition #C-34 and Justice League of America #114 © 1974 DC Comics.

Three decades after my stint as a year-round resident of Wildwood ended, the town still hasn't recovered from the commercial slump it's been in for at least half that time. Bar-Val is no more, the five-&-tens got boarded up a while back, and on my latest 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, 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 even find them at dollar stores, which is a whole different lament, but it does seem like they're slowly picking up young readers again anyhow.

Covers to Super-Team Family #6 and Limited Collectors' Edition #C-39 © 1976, 1975 DC Comics.

The industry moved for good from newsstands and drugstores to dedicated comic-book shops about the same time I moved from Wildwood to the suburbs of Philadelphia. And just as I was luckier than many small-town kids 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. But we all know that supposed progress can spoil us. Even if I don't look up online what's expected in my local shop any given week, the staff has pulled issues for my subscription. Outside of my memory, I will never again open a door to the smell of tobacco and newsprint or the taste of air conditioning and know that a creaking, metal buffet of adventure awaits.


Arben said...

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.

Joan Crawford said...

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.

Blam said...

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

Joan Crawford said...

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.