I fell in love with comic books in the summer of 1970.
It started casually; I would buy an Archie comic here, an Uncle Scrooge comic there.
But then my allowance went up.
From the time I was 6 years old, my father had given me a monthly allowance, and it would double every year, on my birthday. So what started out at 25 cents had become 5 dollars by the time I turned 10, and when I turned 11 it shot up to an amazing $10!!
I was rich, for the first time in my life…rich!
The first thing I bought with my newfound wealth was a huge stack of comic books.
$10 was enough for a lot of comics, which were then 15 cents each.
There were also the double size comics, with more than twice as many pages of story – 50, more or less, for only 25 cents – and the digest size comics, with about 160 pages of story for 50 cents.
I liked those, since I had a real appreciation for a good deal.
I had already begun buying a few comic books that summer, mostly from Gold Key, who were reprinting old Uncle Scrooges, as well as Little Lulu stories, and many others.
One comic that fascinated me was Uncle Scrooge #87, in which Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck & the nephews traveled down to Antarctica in search of the legendary Flying Dutchman…
Before this, I’d been a voracious reader, but not of comic books. The previous summer I’d reread Lord of the Rings 3 times, and during the school year had gotten into the Danny Dunn books (Danny Dunn & The Homework Machine is the one I remember.)
But something shifted, and all I really wanted to read that summer were comics.
I spent most of that hot summer (this was southern California) in the house I grew up in, which our family called The Date Street House; a messy, rambling place with a long backyard, in a neighborhood that was becoming scary – racial tensions building, the local bad kids becoming teens.
My father still lived there, and my best friend David lived next door. (My mother lived in a little house in an orange grove, about a mile away. I’d spent the previous school year with her, and would have spent the next, except… but that’s for later.)
I usually had the the old radio on – Spill That Wine by Eric Burdon & War, In The Summertime by Mungo Jerry, Ride, Captain, Ride by Blues Image… these songs still bring back memories of that summer, playing with David, reading comics…
I read Archie Comics , Harvey Comics, Fawcett’s Dennis The Menace, and the occasional oddity, like Charlton’s Barney Google & Snuffy Smith. Harvey Comics published Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Little Lotta (the extremely fat girl,) and Little Dot (the girl who was obsessed with dots,)
They were actually quite childish, but I was desperate for anything cartoony, so I read them all.
The Gold Key comics were better, with the various duck characters, and the more obscure characters reprinted in Golden Comics Digest, which is where I first encountered Mary Jane & Sniffles. Mary Jane was a little girl who would incant “Magic words of poof, poof, piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles!” and she’d shrink down to the size of Sniffles the Mouse; and they’d have an adventure.
Anyway, with my new windfall, I bought about every comic on the stands that appealed to me.
This included two of a genre that I had not read before. They were horror comics of a sort, in those tame “Approved By The Comics Code Authority” times. This was before they loosened the rules to allow vampires, zombies and werewolves, which led to the horror comics explosion about two years later.
These comics were Tower of Shadows #7 and Chamber of Darkness #7.
After the ToS cover story, featuring “Titano! The monster that time forgot!!” there was a story by Wally Wood titled “Of Swords And Sorcery!” – essentially a fairy tale, which was the type of story I most loved at the time.
The CoD cover was titled Night Of The Gargoyle, and showed a strange creature grasping a horrified man by the arm, saying “At the twelfth stroke of midnight – you die!” Something about the story grabbed me, but I didn’t really know what it was. It was only years later that I knew why – it was drawn by was Bernie Wrightson, whose art I grew to love, and who later became a major influence on me.
He was just starting out then, it was well before his Swamp Thing fame, but the art still had that certain something.
Those two comics were the first I ever bought from Marvel, but were by no means the last.
Looking back, I’m puzzled that I apparently didn’t even notice any of the Marvel superhero comics that must have been on the stands then. Only a month and a half later … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So I had a huge pile of comics, which I eagerly read, but was not passionate about. I even cut up two of them, rearranging panels and characters, gluing them to a comic I made with blank paper. I added some words, and voila – I’d created my first comic book! My two-years-later self would have recoiled in horror at so vandalizing even a (*Snort!*) Harvey comic.
As the summer neared its end, my mother abruptly had to go rescue my sister Becky in New Mexico, and then hitchhiked with her to New York… which is a whole other story. So instead of going back to stay with Mother for the school year, it was decided that I would go up to Berkeley to stay with my brother Huck and his wife, Sandy, who were living in an apartment on College Avenue with their one-year-old son.
I was mostly bored for the next few weeks, just turned eleven years old, in a city I didn’t know. My brother was working, and otherwise distracted, so I was mostly left to amuse myself. I’d watch Sesame Street on their black and white TV, in a perpetual state of disappointment over the paucity of cartoons.
I missed comic books, which I had so recently begun to love, and one day walked down to Telegraph Avenue. On the east corner was Shakespeare Books, and I looked through the store, trying to find something comic-book-like. The closest thing I could find was a couple of Peanuts books, and not even the ones that reprinted the comic strips from the newspaper. Those would have at least offered an hour or two of reading.
These books were called Love Is Walking Hand In Hand and Happiness Is A Warm Puppy. They were a series of single panel cartoons that were, at best, cute. Not funny or interesting – insipid, really – they left me more unsatisfied than ever.
Huck & Sandy had a lease for the summer, which was up in mid-September, so they had to find a new place to live.
We ended up staying in a small cottage behind a large house in which lived a guy named Fred, who was a friend of Huck’s. As one opened the door to this cottage, on either side of the short hallway there were shelves, and stacked on those shelves was something that even now, with thirst and awe and a little wonder, I remember…
When I was quite young I had a recurring dream. There was a hallway in the Date Street House, and a closet opened from it. There was a high shelf above where the clothes would hang, which I could never see into. I imagined it as a doorway to another place, and in my dream I would go up into the small space, wriggle through and drop down into another hallway, this one lined with many doors. I would creep along the hallway a bit, perhaps approach a door… and then the dream would invariably end.
There was also, in the living room of that same house, a large mirror above a deep shelf formed by a built-in cupboard. When I got tall enough to see into it I would imagine that just beyond the edges, if I could just see a little more over to the right, there would be an entirely different place, a whole other world. I once had a dream about going through that mirror, though I only ended up inside the mysterious old house up on the corner.
I’d read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and was obscurely disappointed that he didn’t take it more seriously. His world beyond the mirror was silly and flat, while mine, though vague and insubstantial, was huge, deep, and full of promise.
That feeling, those dreams – not so much where I would end up, but that feeling of infinite possibilities – was how that short hallway felt.
The shelves were stacked with old Marvel comic books… they seemed ancient, though they were only about 5 years old.
I had encountered some of the Marvel characters before, but they hadn’t seemed special, not like Lord Of The Rings, for instance, did.
I had seen one Fantastic Four cartoon on television; an adaptation of issue #19, where the FF go back in time to ancient Egypt to battle Pharaoh Rama Tut, who was actually Kang The Conqueror in disguise. I didn’t even remember it until much later, when I read the comic book, and realized that I’d encountered that story before.
I had also seen a Spiderman cartoon or two, but they didn’t seem any more noteworthy than Kimba the White Lion or Space Ghost, two cartoons I also watched occasionally. Certainly not up to Bugs Bunny or Road Runner level.
The only Marvel superhero comic book that I’m aware of seeing before that summer was an old issue of Tales to Astonish with the Hulk. We were on a trip through Berkeley and stayed overnight at a friend of my brother’s. I was sleepy, but before falling asleep I saw a comic starring The Incredible Hulk. It made me think of my brother Huck, and something about the Hulk’s pose on the cover struck me – it looked like he was doing the hula. The people at Marvel must have liked the pose, though, because afterwards they put it on the masthead, up in the upper left, of every Hulk cover.
I vaguely remembered that comic, but it had seemed just a comic book, not even as engaging as a Mickey Mouse comic featuring the villainous Black Pete.
These comics, however…
Fred had about a year and a half’s worth of several titles: Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, Thor… and for the next three days I would grab a stack of one title, go to a nearby park and read them right through.
I was only there for about three days, but they were utterly blissful days…
I can still remember the feeling, almost like a taste way back in my mouth – sweet, and very complicated.
These included the entire Green Goblin saga, with his true identity concealed in shadows as he plotted behind the scenes to destroy Spiderman, until he was finally revealed as – *Gasp!* – Norman Osborn, the father of Peter Parker’s best friend! This was in the classic two-parter in #s 39-40, in which the Green Goblin discovered Spiderman’s true identity. Compelling reading!
And then there were Fantastic Four #s 43 through 60, which still stand as one of the most important runs in comic book history. These issues introduced first the Inhumans, then Galactus and his herald the Silver Surfer, next came the Black Panther, and the whole run finished up with an epic four parter in which Doctor Doom stole the Silver Surfer’s cosmic powers, threatening to rule the earth, until the FF saved the day.
Strange Tales was another, starting with #137… Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, fighting against the villainous Hordes of Hydra (“Hail Hydra! Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place!”), and Doctor Strange, battling the evil Baron Mordo and the Dread Dormammu, with the mysterious Eternity finally emerging in the cataclysmic issue #146…
In those three days I also read a run of Tales to Astonish, with the Submariner & The Incredible Hulk… The Hulk’s main foe in those issues was the Leader (a classic villain for the Hulk); a skinny green mutated villain with a monstrously huge brain vs. the huge, green, muscular but not very bright Hulk.
What could be better?
Oh, and there was The Mighty Thor, like the Norse myths I used to enjoy, but happening now.
I had never read anything like these extended fantastical stories, which combined elements of science fiction and fantasy, but seemed grounded in reality… largely because the heroes were all headquartered in New York City. At this very moment my mother was in New York… so I knew it was a real place, perhaps a wondrous place, and so the stories seemed more real.
The feeling I had was that the hallway, with those stacks of comics, opened into a whole new vast world, that each of these comics was a separate doorway through which I could step and visit it.
I lived in that world for three days, and when it was time to go down to visit my friend Ray in Santa Cruz, I was disappointed to be leaving it (though I was eager to see Ray.) So I was delighted to find that Ray had separately discovered that same world, and was eager to share the experience with me! That night I excitedly read the latest issues of the same comics I’d just been reading.
Wow, the latest issue of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, continuity from four years after the last ones I’d read! This new universe continued to open, and promised so much more.
One comic I read that first night at Ray’s was Avengers #82.
It began with New York City being invaded by undersea villains very early on the morning of September 22nd, and… Hey, that was the very next morning! New York was going to be invaded tomorrow morning, in just hours! The immediacy of this thrilled me.
And the comic guest-starred Daredevil, the blind superhero, who had his own comic. The various characters would regularly pop up in each other’s titles, knitting together this parallel world of Marvel, making it seem more real and vast than our own, in some ways. At least to my eleven year old self.
On Tuesday we walked down to the Cigar Store and bought the latest issues that had just come in; Avengers #83, featuring the Valkyrie – secretly the Enchantress in disguise, Spiderman #92, with Iceman, Hulk # 135, with the Phantom Eagle, and many more.
I’d read one memorable issue of Dennis the Menace earlier in the summer, where Dennis stuck springs on the soles of his shoes, and could then jump as high as the hedge. This fascinated me, and seemed entirely plausible. If I’d had some springs around I might have tried it myself…
But now there was this whole panoply of grand abilities to consider. Spiderman would swing around the city on a line of webbing, Thor had a magical hammer, which he could use to fly, and which, when thrown, would return to his hand like a boomerang. The Hulk could leap vast distances, and could pick up entire buildings… and there were so many more.
And the adventures! Not confined to a single location, or even a single world. There would be stories set entirely in Manhattan, but then the Fantastic Four would venture off to Atlantis or Latveria, Thor would go to Asgard or some world in outer space, the Hulk would travel back in time or to somewhere in Europe, Doctor Strange would go to another dimension… the possibilities were endless!
I would open up a new comic not knowing where it would take me. And reopen one I’d already read eager to revisit that world…
They gave me a feeling of excitement and warmth, of wonder and satisfaction.
The new comics were dated Jan 1971, which (I learned later) was a marketing gimmick developed in the 1940s so that the stores would keep them on the shelves a few months longer. To me, though, it made them seem almost futuristic. I was reading comics from the mythical year of 1971, the year yet to come, which might contain untold wonders! The year 1971 still has a special flavor for me as I roll it around on my tongue.
So this is how it all started…
(I would like to thank all the wonderful contributors to the Grand Comics Database for the images that I have used in this post. An invaluable resource…)