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10 March 2011
This is something I wrote a while ago, almost 11 years ago, actually, when I was managing the comics-related content for a soon-to-fail dot com. It's mainly about discovering comic books in the dusty old days of the 1970s, but reading it now, I'm struck by how different my experience growing up must be from a young kid finding his way in the world today. There are so many great things about technology, but I don't think digitizing our entire culture is one of them. Looking back, I made so many random discoveries, met so many people, made so many friendships, simply by being out in the world. I'm not sure how much of that can be re-created online. Maybe I'm just coming down with a bad case of old, but I think a story like this one is a bit more interesting than, "I found (blank) on the Internet."
Anyway, this was the first installment of what was intended to be a regular column called "You Don't Know What You're Missing." I think I completed a two or three of of them before the company I was working for closed its doors. After that, I started my own comics Website, SpinnerRack.com, with a couple friends I'd met at that poor doomed dot com, and I continued the column there, writing eight or nine of them in all...
The Sound of the Spinner Rack
I can still hear it, some twenty-five years on: that nagging screech, that slow, mournful whine that inevitably accompanied even the most careful turning of a metal comic book spinner rack. It was a sound I became used to as a seven year-old taking his first tentative steps into the world of comic books, and it was something I hated at first. I used to try to turn the rack just so, or if there was just enough space, I'd shimmy around the whole blamed thing while I looked...anything to avoid that ungodly sound.
After a while, though, I realized that not all spinner racks were created equally. Some squealed more than others, some not at all. And I discovered that the racks that emitted the most piercing shrieks were frequently the ones with the best comics, the most comics...the ones packed with all manner of four-color treasures, sometimes two or three consecutive issues of a single title! And that totally changed the way I perceived that sound forever more...
This was the mid-70s, of course, 1975 to be exact. My dad was in the Air Force, and we were being transferred to McChord Air Force Base, out near Tacoma, Washington, when I first stumbled upon comics. Now, I'd seen comics before – mostly DC stuff or Gold Key reprints of things like Turok, Son of Stone that my grandparents regularly tried to pacify me with – but they never made much of an impact on me. I watched reruns of the old Adam West Batman show on TV, and I liked the Spider-Man cartoon that was on at the time, but I never saw comic books, and there was never any kind of indication on the shows themselves that they were anything other than TV shows.
My parents must have been paying attention to their parents' attempts to mollify me, though, because my Mom and Dad never bought comic books for me. I think they realized, and quite rightly so, that buying comics was pretty much like taking fifty or twenty-five cents (because comics were only a quarter back then, don'tcha know!) and safely disposing of it in the trash. Because that's where pretty much all of the comics my grandparents bought me wound up.
On this particular occasion, though, my folks must have been desperate to shut me up. I can't remember exactly what had happened to set me off, but we had just pulled into Tacoma, and I was not in a good mood. Maybe it was a fight with my sister, maybe I was just pulling that whole "Are we there yet? Can I have something? When are we going to eat? I'm bored! Are we there yet?" bit for the umpteenth time. Whatever it was, my Dad couldn't wait until we actually got on base to settle down for the night. So he pulled over at a 7-11, grabbed a couple of Cokes for me and sis (hey, it was the '70s, we drank Coca Cola like it was water!), some candy bars and – what's this? A copy of The Incredible Hulk.
I could have claimed that I was starving for all I know or dying of thirst, but all of the sudden, that didn't seem to matter anymore. Something about this Hulk comic, which my Dad described as one of the comics he used to read, made an immediate impression on me. I set the Coke and the candy aside, and as we set off on the last leg of our journey, I flipped through the pages of this amazing comic book over and over again. I'd never seen anything even remotely like it. And what's more, the Hulk wasn't the only comic published by – as the cover banner proclaimed – Marvel Comics. There was an interior ad for merchandise from the 1975 Marvel Comic Con, key among it a poster featuring a couple dozen other Marvel characters. I recognized Spider-Man, but...who were all these strange-looking characters? To my young mind, this was nothing short of a written invitation to another world.
As it turned out, though, it was a world my parents weren't in anywhere near as much of a hurry to explore as I was. I basically had The Incredible Hulk #192 and that Marvel Comic Con ad to feed my imagination for a solid two months. Why? Who knows, but it wasn't until we'd settled into an apartment in Tacoma and I'd started school that I got another comic. I came home from my first day of school and there it was: Captain America # 193. "Madbomb: It Can Destroy the World!" claimed the cover copy, along with "King Kirby is back—and greater than ever!" I was intrigued. And not just by the story. As with the Hulk comic, this one had another ad that fired my curiosity, an ad for a paperback book called Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.
The cover of the book featured another group of heroes, some of whom I recognized from that Comic Con ad, some new, and it promised stories about the Silver Surfer, Iron Man and the X-Men. My head was spinning with possibilities, and "Can we go to 7-11 and get some comics?" immediately became my mantra.
My pleading was in vain, though, because my parents were notorious penny-pinchers at that time. Luckily, though, one of the first friends I made, while not an avid comics reader, had a small stack of comics that he was willing to share with me. One of them was Marvel's Greatest Comics #57, featuring the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer! I'd seen The Thing in various ads in the two comics I had, and I was completely fascinated with this bizarre man made entirely of orange rocks, so that was the first of my friends' comics that I took home.
After that, practically all I could think about for days was the Fantastic Four. Despite the fact that the story in Marvel's Greatest Comics #57 was actually older than I was (it was a reprint of FF #75, the FF immediately became my favorite Marvel heroes. And this time, I knew that I had to get my hands on some more comics of my own.
And, finally, one day, it happened. My Dad was going to the laundromat. He said I could come along and – if I promised to behave – he'd let me pick out a couple comic books at the 7-11 next door. Now, I would have promised to find a solution to the energy crisis that was plaguing the nation back then in return for a comic or two, so simply sitting in the laundromat and keeping quiet was definitely not a problem. It never even occurred to me that I would actually get to pick out my comics while we were waiting for the clothes to wash and dry!
But that's what happened. My Dad put the clothes in to wash and next thing I knew, we were next door at the 7-11. He said I could get two comics and some candy. I approached the spinner rack, my heart pounding with anticipation. I'd never seen so many comics in my life. I reached out and gently nudged the rack.
I stepped back, my face a little flushed from embarrassment. I was a shy kid, and the last thing I wanted to do was attract unwanted attention by making inordinate amounts of noise. I looked around the store and, sure enough, the guy at the counter was looking at me, craning his neck to see what I was doing. My Dad just laughed and mussed my hair; he told me the rack just needed to be oiled and that I should hurry up and pick out a couple comics. I turned back to the rack and saw a comic featuring The Thing and Spider-Man. That seemed a little weird, I thought, and I gave the rack another spin.
My embarrassment was lessened this time by what I thought was one hell of a find: Fantastic Four #172! The Thing fighting some big metal guy on an asteroid? I couldn't have asked for anything more! It wasn't called Marvel's Greatest Comics, which momentarily caused me a bit of concern – was this the same Fantastic Four? – but ultimately, all that mattered was that it was another FF comic I hadn't read.
I grabbed the copy of Marvel Two-In-One #17 and told my Dad I was ready. He handed them to the guy at the counter and made some comment about how expensive comics were. They both noted that it was amazing that comics cost a quarter, because they'd both grown up on the twelve-cent books. As they spoke, I returned my attention to the comics rack. I couldn't believe everything that was on the rack.
I saw Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Archie...and there were lots of characters I didn't even recognize. Taking it all in, I decided 7-11 was just about the greatest place on Earth.That was an opinion that stuck in my mind for quite a few years after that, prompting me to spring to life in the back seat of my Dad's red Beetle like some kind of demented Jack-in-the-box every time we so much as passed a 7-11. My parents were still penny pinchers, but I eventually wound up getting comics on a fairly regular basis. The Fantastic Four. Marvel's Greatest Comics. The Avengers. Marvel Tales. I had the bug, and my folks knew it. Hardly a week went by that I didn't make at least one trip to some 7-11 or another and before too very long, the nagging squeal of the spinner rack that had annoyed me so much first time out, seemed like the best sound in the world...