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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Wonder Years

It’s either a Tuesday or a Thursday, whichever is first in the month, 1965. If during the school year, it would be afternoon.  The place: Brooklyn, the local candy store. The occasion?  The day the comics come out.

I might arrive before they’ve been put up. If so, they’re in a stack, maybe a foot high, wrapped by wire on four sides like Christmas ribbon.  I’d ask Mr. Z, the Jewish proprietor, to pleeeez open them up. No need to look for a scissor, just unwind the wire. I can do it! Don’t delay!

And there they were!  Maybe three or four of the first batch of this month’s titles. Perhaps Tales of Suspense or Tales to Astonish. Perhaps a Sgt. Fury.  Hopefully at least one of the major titles: Fantastic Four, Thor, Spider-Man. Gold.

Those stunning Jack Kirby covers, jumping out at me, demanding to be lovingly picked up and oh-so carefully opened. Or a Steve Ditko Spider-Man or Strange Tales.  Beautiful also, though in a distinctly different way.

This was the ritual that dominated my youth at ages eleven, twelve, and thirteen. If I remember correctly, the comics would come out as early as the first Tuesday or Thursday in the month. It might take two weeks of Tuesdays and Thursdays for the full complement of the month’s Marvels to come out.  Then would come the unbearable two week-or-so wait for next month’s issues.

Kirby spoke about the importance of the covers. It was a business, after all, and the cover was the sizzle that sold the steak. Those covers had to leap out at you and demand ownership!  This was why Kirby drew most of the covers regardless of who drew the stories inside (except for Steve Ditko’s, the lesser giant).

My first Marvel was Thor #114. It’s not hard to see why it grabbed my attention and compelled me to part with 12 cents—which was probably a lot of money to me back then.

You could buy 2 candy bars and have enough left over to buy two Tootsie-rolls or 2 Bazooka Joes with 12 cents.

Who can remember that far back?  My weekly allowance—if I had any—might’ve been 25 cents. Possibly a buck?

Look at this image!  Imagine seeing it through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The noble hero combating an escaped convict. Kirby is the acknowledged 'King' of the medium, and this picture illustrates why. That hammer is hitting that ball and chain! Like, really! The motion of the arm and the body twisting in concert; the surefooted stance from which derives the upper-body strength. The brutal ferocity of the “Absorbing Man,” seemingly equal in power to the noble Thunder God.

They were a revelation.  Where have you been all my life?  Within a couple of months I became a collector of every single Marvel title. I read them and re-read them, in the most delicate fashion. Fingertips only. Never—ever!—bending back. No one was allowed to touch them, let alone read them. Not even my brother. They were safely stored in a box; unfortunately, not in bags with boards.

As these moments defined my life at this time, I naturally sought companionship to share this with. I made friends with the other kid in the neighborhood who understood. He was a Puerto Rican kid from across the street.

After buying the new comics we didn’t take them home to read them—we read them immediately. Wherever we were. We’d find a stoop to squat on, or just stand on the sidewalk. First the awesome splash page, almost as good as the cover. As we looked at the panels, at the action in those panels, we were those characters! We became Captain America jiu-jitsuing Batroc the Leaper. This was the power—no, the magic!—of Jack Kirby’s art.  He had an ability to capture motion, not just fighting motion, but just normal movement of the body, in a naturalistic way that no other artist came close to approximating.

And Kirby’s figures lived within frames of exquisite composition and masterful design, often with stunning background detail.

After discovering Marvel comics, we began a daily routine. Every afternoon, as soon as we got home from school, we went on our pilgrimage to track down past issues. Some stores did a business in buying and selling used comics. I don’t recall what they sold them for—it might’ve been a dime.  There was no premium on older issues.  Perhaps the storekeepers bought them for a nickel.

Perhaps they were just taken for free off the hands of some mom who was sick of her son reading “those comic books.” An alternative to throwing them into the garbage—which was the common final resting place for most comics.

When we first discovered this trick, we of course bought every single old Marvel around. There were maybe three or four merchants in the neighborhood who sold used comics. They kept them in boxes behind the counter, so you had to ask for them. These were places that did a brisk trade in 15-cent egg-creams and nickel bags of Wise potato chips.

So our daily routine was to hit these stores and see if someone had brought in any Marvels since the last time we checked. In a way, this was almost as exciting as the thrill of seeing the brand new comics, because you never knew what might turn up.  This was before there were any reprints. We had no idea what previous issues contained. Who the FF fought in some random previous issue. Earlier costumes. We didn’t know that a few months prior “Thor” was titled “Journey into Mystery.”  A Tales of Suspense with no Captain America feature? Imagine the thrill of finding one of those!

These excursions were for us, literally treasure hunts. Any old Marvels that we found were, indeed, treasure to us. There is nothing—nothing!—we wanted more. Treasure.

We were relentless in pursuit of the older issues. We researched leads. We traded with each other. My goal in life was to get every single Fantastic Four and Thor. We wanted them all.
What actually happened is that these ‘behind the counter used comic books’ sources eventually dried up.

And then I moved. From the ghetto that was Williamsburg to a better neighborhood: Bay Ridge. I continued collecting Marvels... for a few years. My Puerto Rican friend’s family returned to Puerto Rico. We wrote a few times. I eventually made new friends who collected Marvels.

But it was Junior High now, and I was discovering new interests. Music (after all, it was the mid-sixties). Girls.  I kept collecting for awhile, but the magic incrementally disappeared.  In fact, it wasn’t just growing up—the magic really had gone!  With hindsight, it’s clear that there was a peak period for Marvel comics, roughly spanning the years 1964 through 1967. When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee fed on each other’s creativity like Lennon and McCartney.

Jack Kirby eventually left Marvel, but the decline began some years before. Some of the titles began simply reprinting older issues. That seemed like outright theft to me.

It’s hard to be completely objective, but looking back it really does appear as if latched on just in the nick of time. Very lucky, I guess.

Here’s to you, Jack Kirby, and to my Puerto Rican buddy from Williamsburg, wherever you are. Thank you. And yes, I still have my comics.

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Jack Kirby Gallery
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  1. That was a pleasure to read over my morning coffee, thanks.

    I can identify with your feelings so much -- except with video games instead of comic books -- the way that in the eyes of a young boy, nothing in the world could be more spectacular, and despite how primitive they may seem in comparison to today's standard of entertainment, at the time no such thought would've ever occurred to us, as our imaginations filled in all the gaps. But then with time we simply began to outgrow them. And it wasn't just due to our maturation; as the names who revolutionized the industry began to recede, so did the "magic." Their ideas that were once revolutionary became common industry formulas -- templates, practically, that quickly turned cliche. However, we were fortunate enough to experience the source of those cliches. I also truly believe that I was very fortunate to be at the right age at the right time, catching the tail-end of the "wonder years of video games": the late 90s. Today, I keep the video games that were special to me as a boy safely up on the top shelf of a bookcase in my room (ensuring not to let dust collect!) for whenever I'm feeling nostalgic, similar to the bags with boards you keep your comics in.

    It really is hard to remain objective about memories from pre-adolescence. If you'd been born ten years later, would you have been just as in awe of Kirby's successors at Marvel instead? Likewise, if I'd been born ten years later, would I be an innocent kid in awe of modern games with no appreciation for their roots?...Very well maybe, but I'm thankful that we weren't, and we got to experience what we did when we did. In fact, I honestly feel bad for kids these days: they're seriously missing out!

    1. Nice comparison with video games! "...our imaginations filled in all the gaps." So true!

      With regards to my objectivity with Kirby's art, I can definitively say that had I been 10 years younger and exposed to comics at a later time -- no, there are no artists that I would have preferred to Kirby.

      Kirby is sometimes criticized for the cartooney-ness of his anatomy... "You call those knees?!"
      And sure, there are comic book artists with a more developed sense of anatomical detail -- but when you consider the totality of the images --whether covers, splash pages, or panels -- no artist can match Kirby. The action, the motion, background detail, the composition and the design. No artist was superior in all of these aspects combined.

      The artists of note that were contemporary and within a decade that I recall were Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Barry Smith (and others). Each of these may have been more accomplished in one of the aspects (eg Neal Adams in anatomical detail) but none were superior when the art is considered in toto. IMO.

  2. A great reminiscence. My first comics experiences predate yours but there are many similarities. This really takes me back.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Kevin. I'm glad you enjoyed my walk thru memory lane.

  4. How very similar your experience was to mine, except I was a little slower to pick up on comics, and my first NEW comic was FF #55 off the spinner rack. But I scored some kid's earlier collection at a school carnival sale for a nickle an issue.

  5. My second Marvel was FF 38. (My first was Thor 114). I consider myself really lucky to have made the discovery at that relatively early point. I like to think I made it "just in time". That's great that you were able to quickly fill in the past issues in one move for practically nothing (5 cents each). What issues did you score in that collection?