And That's Why It's Called Cape May

Drugstores, newsagents, and five-&-tens were my main sources of comic books as a kid in South Jersey, as I wrote in an early installment of Empaneled. But I could only learn so much about their history from reprints and editorial pages. Luckily, a bevy of books on comic books awaited at the good old Cape May County Library, where surveys of my favorite four-color fantasies and their forebears could be found in (mostly) cold, hard black and white.

The one I checked out most often was a 1973 tome aptly titled The Comic-Book Book, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. I read it (and kept it past its due date) with such fervor and frequency that my dad finally bought it for me — the actual library copy. Whether he felt bad that its sturdy hardcover spine was breaking or the staff figured that mine was the only name ever on the circulation card so we might as well skip the formalities, I don't know, but it remains a prized possession and is even more of a collector's item now than it would otherwise be for reasons I'll reveal later. At some point I also got my hands on a mass-market paperback of 1970's All in Color for a Dime, the collection of essays from Lupoff's fanzine Xero to which TCBB was a sequel; I sucked in its tales of the early days of superheroes and the industry that spawned them until the book was left a brittle, coverless husk.

Also in the small section of the stacks devoted to my growing passion, devoured time and again by me, were Les Daniels' 1971 The Comix: An Illustrated History, Jules Feiffer's 1965 The Great Comic-Book Heroes, and one or more of the Crown-family books dedicated to DC characters. Daniels' book was a collection of articles on various facets of comic-book history, like The Comic-Book Book, while Feiffer's was more of a memoir, covering the author's boyhood adoration of the medium's costumed crimefighters; its prose half was too adult-oriented for me in the single digits of age — I had no idea at the time that Feiffer had worked alongside the legendary Will Eisner on The Spirit or that he had become a celebrated author and cartoonist in his own right — but the back half of the book was made up of color comic-book reprints, many of which I'd never seen before, featuring Quality's Plastic Man, Timely/Marvel's Human Torch and Captain America, and others.

The Superman and Batman entries in The Great Comic-Book Heroes weren't as thrilling as those of less widely known characters, because the big guys' archives were regularly mined in DC's tabloid-sized comics and plumbed for posterity in the aforementioned Crown/Harmony/Bonanza books. I'm sure that the library had at least the first of those books, 1971's Superman: From the Thirties to the Seventies, but I eventually received as gifts it and further volumes covering Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Captain Marvel family (originally published by Fawcett but by then licensed, and later purchased outright, by DC — which, deep breath now, had to market the characters under the family's magic word, Shazam!, since the trademark on the name Captain Marvel lapsed a decade before DC's revival of the characters and was picked up by, appropriately if frustratingly for fans of the original, rival comic-book publisher Marvel). Unlike the other anthologies, edited with notes by DC historian E. Nelson Bridwell and covering the title characters from their origins to contemporary adventures, the 1972 Wonder Woman book had no subtitle, limited its reprints to the Golden Age, and featured sociopolitical essays from Gloria Steinem and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.

While the bygone tales of familiar DC superheroes were fascinating and just plain fun, there was a whole different excitement to The Comic-Book Book. I learned of series, creators, and characters much older and often farther afield than anything I'd experienced first-hand; some were seriously obscure, others known to and beloved by fans many years my senior — in either case, nothing I likely had any hope of seeing outside of small, grayscaled reproductions in my conglomeration of loaned and owned comic-book texts, which also included The Overstreet Comic-Book Price Guide. The breadth of genres popular in previous eras, from horror to science fiction to romance, was of interest even as I paid little attention to to anything beyond superheroes on the spinner racks. But there were certainly superheroes here too, many of whom I drew based purely on their descriptions in prose, as if recreating a baseball game from box scores.

No entry for The Comic-Book Book turns up in the library's online catalog, so the copy my dad bought for me may never have been replaced. I should rectify that, since new trade-paperback editions of TCCB and All in Color for a Dime were released about a dozen years ago by Krause, the publisher of Comics Buyer's Guide, and they deserve to be there far more than my own efforts. While CBG is now a slick monthly magazine, for quite some time after Krause acquired it from originator Alan Light it remained a weekly newspaper — co-edited by Don Thompson, who assembled AICFAD and TCCB with Dick Lupoff, and his wife Maggie Thompson, who contributed an article on The Spirit to TCCB and still edits Buyer's Guide today. I sold my first article to CBG in college and saw Don at a number of Roger Price's Mid-Ohio Cons around that time, not star-struck exactly but amazed that I could be standing next to one of the men responsible for such a vital piece of my childhood. During my time in the comic-book industry I was fortunate enough to pay respects to, interview, work with, and even befriend many men and women who wrote and drew treasured tales in my collection or were seminal figures in the medium's history, from Will Eisner to Julius Schwartz to Ramona Fradon to Stan Goldberg to John Byrne, naming just a few folks from memorable moments that flash to mind. Though I don't really get the appeal of autographs for their own sake, I've enjoyed having people personalize something for me after meeting them, and one year it finally dawned on me to bring my original copy of The Comic-Book Book to a convention for Maggie to sign (though Don had, sadly, passed away some years before). I can't dig out the book right now to share what she wrote, but it's of interest to anyone who's ever read her article and, indeed, I believe she adds the same thing to every copy of TCBB that's presented to her. How I went from poring over the Thompsons' handiwork as a kid in small-town New Jersey to writing for them, and even catching a ride with Don and Bob Ingersoll in the Krause van from our hotel to the convention hall one Ohio morning, I'm still not sure, but I know it had a lot to do with following my dreams. I hope that yours have led you to similarly welcome surprises.

All cover art, logos, and characters property of their respective trademark and copyright holders.


Arben said...

Great post, Blam. I love your TV reviews and fun little posts, but I'd be very happy to see more like this.

Arben said...

I just realized how that sounded, since I know that you've been trying to do more like this and dealing with all sorts of other stuff, so let me clarify that I look forward to as many more comics-related posts as you can manage whenever you can manage 'em. Plus I promise to buy the book. We cool? : )

Blam said...

No farm, no howl, Arb. The compliments are much appreciated.

Teebore said...

When I first got into comics, I had a similar experience to you: the half dozen or so books on comic books (if I remember by Dewey Decimal System correctly, I believe the books on comic books were in the 720s) were an invaluable and oft read resource, and did much to expand my growing knowledge and love of comics.