Popular Culture Collectibles Reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015

My Life With Comic Books

My love for comic books began in a hospital.  You'd never know to look at me now but when I was young I was a small and sickly child.  I was born prematurely, weighing in at just over five pounds.  I tended to get sick easily.

At five years old I developed a severe case of dehydration.  As a result I was put in the children's ward for two weeks at St. Joseph's Hospital in Pontiac, Michigan.

Children wards back in the 1950s usually consisted of about a half dozen small beds in a single room.  Children who were sick, for various reasons, shared the rooms.  The nursing staff would make frequent visits, checking on each child.

I remember my hospital visit vividly.  Those who were sick, but not operated on, were placed in rooms shared with children who had their tonsils or appendix out.  Back then a tonsillectomy required children to stay in a hospital for at least a week and their recovery was not always a pleasant one.  Children coughed, their throats bled and they seemed to constantly cry.

I was one of the fortunate ones in that my bed was tucked away in a corner.  I had very little contact with the other children except when I started to recover and was allowed to play in the hallway-usually wheelchair races!

My mother would faithfully visit me each day.  We lived 20 plus miles away in the small town of Milford, Michigan.  

Mom would hitch a ride with my older half-brother Dallas who worked at Pontiac Motors, who dropped her off at General Hospital in downtown Pontiac.  From there she would take a bus to St. Joseph's on the north end of town. 

In order to kill time before the bus would arrive she would stop at the local Salvation Army and Good Will stores to look through clothing and other items and to buy me some reading material-comic books!

Both stores had large vertical racks that were stuffed with hundreds of comic books dating back to the Golden Age.  My mom would buy me two dollars worth of comic books at two for five cents about twice a week.

Because she was unsure of what I liked she would purchase a hodgepodge of titles ranging from funny animals to superheroes comic books.  Little did she realize she created a whole new addiction for me-comic books.

My favorites were Harvey Comics with Casper The Friendly Ghost, Spooky, Wendy The Good Little Witch, Dot, Little Lulu, Baby Huey and the like.  Following close behind were Batman, Superman, Strange Tales and a smattering of war and monster comics. 

Occasionally a propaganda filled WWII comic book was thrown in for good measure.  Often they would depict the Japanese as fanged or buck tooth caricatures and the Nazi as savage, disfigured monsters.  

A Japanese grade school friend of mine, Ben, loved them for some reason-especially the funny-looking Japanese soldiers.  Go figure.

During the summer I would go with my mom twice a week back to the hospital for her allergy treatments.  We'd always stop at the Goodwill and Salvation army stores, she would shop, I would pick out a few comic books and we would be on our way.

While my mother got her treatment I would sit in the waiting room content to read my latest stash of comics.  Several months later I was back in the hospital, this time for tonsillitis.  I was one of the fortunate few who recovered quickly from the operation with little pain. 

Once again my family would supply me with a steady stream of comic books further feeding my addiction.  Once back home and in school I shared my hobby with other kids, swamping issues and regaling each other with the cool adventures in the various titles.

When summer rolled around, I fell back into the twice a week regiment of accompanying my mom to the hospital.  Only this time something happened that would radically affect the type of comic books I would read from then on.

It was 1961. I was eight. After shopping at the Salvation Army we were walking to the Goodwill store.   Along the way there was a magazine street vendor. Hanging on the side of his portable magazine kiosk was a rack containing comic books.  Needless to say, I had to take a look. 

On the lower part of the rack, tucked behind a DC title was a strange comic book.  On its cover was a quartet of people who obviously had super powers but they were not wearing costumes!

I was intrigued.  Even more startling was the fact that one of them appeared to be a large orange monster.  They were battling a large green creature which had broken through a city street.  The title, of course, was the Fantastic Four #1.  

Little did I realize at the time that that one comic book would profoundly affect me for the rest of my life.

Up until that point I had never bought a new comic book.  I was enamored with the Fantastic Four comic and dug a dime out of my pocket and paid the vendor.  I rolled up the comic and put it in my back pocket.  

Right about now comic book collectors are repressing a group chill.   Folding a comic book!?  Especially one as valuable as Fantastic Four #1!?  Were you nuts!?

You have to realize that back in the 1950s and early 1960s comic books were a disposable form of entertainment.  No one realized at the time that a simple comic book, priced at 10 cents, would become a valuable collectible.

We continued onto the Goodwill store when I bought a few more titles with my allowance.  But, my mind could not get off of the new comic book I had bought. 

We arrived at the hospital after taking the bus and as my mother received her treatments I unrolled the comic book and began to read it!

Wait a minute!  These so called heroes argued with each other!  In fact one of them resented having super powers!  It boggled my young mind.  Superheroes are supposed to like each other!  They never argue. And the Thing doesn't like being the Thing!?  What kind of comic book is this!?

I had to see more of this strange phenomenon.  And I did.  Over the following two years I began to pick up all of the fledgling Marvel Comics titles.  Still the Fantastic Four was my favorite, followed by Spider-Man.  For the next few years my stable of comic books consisted of mainly Marvel Comics, although I still enjoyed other titles. but not as much as Marvel's

During the summer my mother and I would visit my Aunt Esther's farm in Kentucky beginning when I was around eight years old.  

We would usually spend about a month at my Aunt's farm.  This went on until I was in my early teens. While on our Greyhound trip to visit my aunt we would stop off at my Aunt Dorothy's home in Dayton Ohio.  Down the street was a small grocery and, you guessed it, there were comic books!

Our trips from Michigan would start at the Greyhound station in Pontiac where my brother would drop us off on his way to work.  From there we would catch a bus to Detroit to the main Greyhound terminal.  Our stopover was usually two to three hours.

I would walk around the terminal and frequent the pay phones every few minutes.  There was a whole bank of them and by monitoring the callers I would check the phones just used and pick up any spare change left over from calls.

By the end of our stopover I would have in excess of $10 in dimes, which was a lot of money back then.  That would be my spending money while on vacation.  One guess as to what I would spend it on?

My aunt's farm was located a little over one mile from a small village.  A Rexall Drugstore was located there that also housed a soda fountain.  Once a day I would walk into the village, stop by the drugstore, buy a soda pop or milkshake, spin the comic book rack and select a few titles and head back to my aunt's.

The next day I would start the whole routine over again.  By the time our visit was over I had accumulated a large stack of comic books which I reread during our bus trip back home.

Back home I had started a paper route and with part of the money each week I would go to Foster's Rexall Drugstore on Thursdays and pick out the latest and greatest comic books-mostly Marvel.  Mr. Foster always made sure I saw the new comic books before anyone else. What a guy!

It was about that time that I began my long friendship with the man who would help fan my comic book collecting flame, the owner of The Shutter Shop, Mr. John Doliber.

Mr. Doliber was a comic book collector before there was such a thing.  His passion was Golden Age comics.  They were the books he grew up with and he was fanatical about collecting them.  In fact, almost his entire store's basement was stacked with comic books.

Occasionally he would sort through his stacks and sell me, at a reduced price, a key issue I was missing from my Fantastic Four collection.  Mr. Doliber was also a frustrated comic book artist and he would spend his free time recreating his favorite Golden Age comic book covers in pen and marker.

I too started drawing and to my surprise I discovered I was quite good at it.  I was no Neal Adams, but I could swing a pretty mean pencil-or so I thought.

During the  summer of 1970 Mr. Doliber asked me if I would like to attend a comic book convention being held in Detroit and help him with his booth.  I said yes, of course, and so I was off to my very first comic book convention--and what a convention it was!

I got to meet Jim Steranko, Berni Wrightson, Rich Buckler and a host of other famous and up and coming artists.  There was an art gallery there and it seemed like I looked at the art for hours.  Hard to believe, but most comic book pages sold for around $5!

I realized then that I wanted to become a comic book artist.  I submitted work to Marvel and while I didn't get to work from them then Marvel editor John Romita Sr. sent me a very nice letter encouraging me to keep trying.

During that same time period I made friends with a boy my age named Paul.  Paul's parents owned an auction house and my mother and I would stop by about once a week to visit and see what was up for sale.

Paul's dad kept a foot locker filled with old comics and he would let me go through them and pick out what I liked at 15 cents a piece.  A little steep for the time but I gladly paid the price for issues I was missing.

Then the unthinkable happened.  I discovered girls and lost interest in comic books.  They were too 'immature' for me.  I sold my collection to a friend and for the next few years I never touched a comic book.  I started college, got a girlfriend, worked and did the whole 'teenage' thing.  After two years of college I was ready for some time off.

In 1973, at the age of 20, I moved to Homestead, Florida to visit my brother who had moved there to work for Southern Bell.  I wound up staying while my brother and his family moved back to Michigan.  Mom decided to move to Florida and for a time we shared an apartment.

I worked at a local five and dime, got my own place and on my first trip to the local food store: Minor's, I stepped back into the world of comic books. 

Minors had a small wire rack with old comics selling at 15 cents each.  Over the next year I reacquired many of the old comic books I loved as a kid and began buying new ones at a local drug store.

After two years I received a scholarship from the University Of Miami and moved on campus in 1975, sans comic books.  Graduating in 1977 I moved back to Homestead, met my future wife, married in 1979 and moved to Grapevine, Texas where I was a staff illustrator for a Christian publishing house.

The job lasted only a year as the upper management and myself had a difference of opinion about editorial decisions.  It was also there that my manager, Mr. Ward, made it clear that superhero comics were an 'abomination to God'.  After all who ever heard of humans with super powers?  Although it seemed perfectly normal for animals to wear clothes and talk in 'normal' comic books to him.

Mr. Ward brought in some Golden Age comic books that his grandmother had left him and unceremoniously declared that he would be destroying the superhero comics but keeping the funny animal ones.  If what he told me what he had was true many a mint superhero comic book collection was destroyed.  It boggles the mind!

My wife and I lived in Texas for two years.  One day we stopped in at a local used book store and as fate would have it the store owner had just procured a box of comic books.

I was immediately drawn to the John Byrne X-Men and Frank Miller Daredevils.  I bought most of them.  My addiction to comic books had reasserted itself!

Not long thereafter I found a comic book shop not far from my new job with Homelite.  The shop, Remember When, had a weekly comic book pull service and I quickly signed up for The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans.  Each week I would buy two or three back issues, mostly the X-Men.

In 1981 we decided to move back to Homestead.  We owned a home there that we rented out.  We stopped by Jacksonville, Florida on the way to visit my wife's older sister Paula and her husband Sherwood.  We wound up staying with them and within a month I was working at an Ad Agency: Hal Davis and Associates.

Over the next nine years I learned a lot about advertising and graphic design-all the while buying new comic books each week at a local comic book shop: Xeno's.

Frank and Mary Xeno were the owners and through them I met with and associated with other comic book fans, some comic book professionals and even for a short period wound up doing freelance work for Frank's fledgling comic book publications through Bill Black's Americomics.  My work never saw print.  Frank and Bill went with some foreign artists in order to save money.  Both titles only lasted a few issues.

Occasionally I would find a stash of old comics at flea markets, used book stores and garage sales.  I traded some new titles to some friends who just wanted some reading materials for their Silver and Bronze Age comics.  A large percentage of my current collection consists of books traded during that time.

After leaving the ad agency I worked for Educational Community Credit Union in the marketing department.  The comic book speculator glut of the early 1990s was in full swing and in order to pay for my comic book addiction I worked one night a week at Xeno's, pricing old comic books.

Customers got in the habit of stopping by and asking me about old comics and back issues sales went up nearly 500%.  That was great.  The only problem was I wasn't getting my work done.  I asked the store manager if he would object to me writing a single-page "What's Hot and What's Not" newsletter for customers to read instead of taking up my time.  He agreed.

I had no way of knowing that that decision would profoundly affect my life from that point on.

After a few issues it became obvious that my newsletter (Comics' Corner) was catching on fast with fans.  What started out as a single page, one-side publication soon blossomed to a single-page, both sides to a two-page, both-sides, four-page, both-sides publication that all of Xeno's stores carried.  As the word got around other shops in the area wanted to carry the newsletter and before I knew it I had a sizable audience.

After roughly a year of publication one of Xeno's customers, Karl, approached me about doing a cable TV show about comics that we would both host.  After a couple of failed pilot episodes and discovering that 'public access' cable is not about really being free, it depends on whose palm you grease, my TV career hit a dead end.

Something far more important happened because of it.  While setting up our pilots I suggested to Karl that we contact some comic book companies for samples of their books to review and use as giveaways.  I made up some stationary and the first company I contacted was Valiant Comics.

Valiant was riding high on popularity and it just so happened they had created special issues (gold covers, etc.) as prizes for their readers who promoted their books.  It was a match made in heaven.  Soon Valiant Comics came streaming in.

After our failed attempt at a cable show, Karl had to bow out because his job required more time from him.   I carried on with Comics Corner.  I figure if Valiant Comics would supply review samples why not other comic book companies?  I sent out a bundle of letters and before long, boxes of review samples started showing up at my door.

This was before e-mail had become a common form of communication. 

I figured since comic book collectors usually collected more than comics I expanded my coverage to include toys, trading cards, books, etc.  More letters went out and soon boxes of review merchandise showed up almost every day of the week.  My newsletter continued to grow in readership and merchandise continued to arrive.

Much of the items I received I either gave away or had contests so readers could share in the goodies.  When the 100th issue of Collectors' Corner (I renamed it to better suite its purpose) I approached publishers and manufacturers about donating items for a massive giveaway.

They responded-boy, did they respond!  So much merchandise arrived that I not only had a Grand Prize but First, Second, Third and Fourth prizes!  The Fourth Prize winner went away with over a box filled with merchandise.  Imagine what the Grand Prize winner received!

Things went along smoothly through the 1990s.  The newsletter was doing well.  The comic book industry survived the speculator and black and white glut, Marvel barely avoided bankruptcy, the Dark Age of comics brought real life to comics, Vertigo Comics introduced 'mature' titles, comic book companies came and went and suddenly the internet hit like gangbusters.

Collectors' Corner survived because of ad money from retailers.  As paper and printing costs rose, I downsized the newsletter, mailed out electronic PDFS and eventually converted the entire publication over to a website and blog.

When Comics Corner was first born very few publications of its type existed.  It catered to a small demographic of people and did quite well.  As the age of the internet approached more and more collectors created basically 'fly-by-night' websites hoping to score review samples from companies.   

Most were found out and unfortunately those of us with legitimate websites and who had been publishing for years were clustered in with them.

Some websites claimed 'millions of readers per day' which is ludicrous.  I've discovered many of these so-called mega-sites count their readership from strikes of websites linked to their own.  

Collectors never really visit their sites but visitor counters count them as if they did.  Many sites have gone so far as to fake their numbers by using software that constantly hits on their sites so their numbers look far larger than they are.

It is getting more and more difficult to convince companies that Collectors' Corner is the perfect avenue by which they can contact collectors.  It seems everyone is interested in numbers over quality.  So it goes.

I've never claimed to have a huge readership.  But, those that do visit my sites are serious collectors and they buy collectible merchandise-lots of it.  Publishers and manufacturers need to take note of those facts.

Enough ranting.  While my week to week new comic book purchasing days are long gone since I retired, I still purchase a few titles now and then.  Honestly comic books are getting too expensive. 

I love looking through my old issues.  I encourage others to take up the hobby and I'm satisfied that I will have wonderful comic book memories until the day I die. 

I sure hope there are comic books in Heaven!