Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Game Changers

I’ve seen this graphic floating around social media for the last month or so…

Now, I don’t know about you all, but in my case, this is absolutely true. That feeling is not confined to Scholastic Book Fairs, certainly (though I have very fond memories of those.) No, just that rush of finding some new book or comic or something that absolutely blew me out of my chair. That feeling of discovery, of falling swooningly in love with a piece of pop culture heretofore unknown to you… I’ll level with you. That’s always the goal. Every time I pick up a book or a comic or whatever… I’m rooting for it to be awesome. There are a great many people in fandom who seem predisposed to hate things on sight, or even before seeing them at all; but I’m not one of them. I’m always hoping for the thrill of finding that new thing I’m going to love.

I’ve written about a number of them in this space over the years. The DC comics of the late 1960s and early 70s. The crime fiction of Max Collins, starting with Ms. Tree. Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. And so on.

But looking at that photo and thinking back, I remembered a whole bunch of others that I haven’t really talked about much here and I thought it would be fun to go down the list, in more or less chronological order. Especially given what I find to be the frankly depressing state of current comics and book publishing, I thought I’d cheer myself up by talking about a few of the times when I was blown away by that fabled Book Fair high.

***

Marvel Comics. Without question, when it came to comics and superheroes, it was the Adam West Batman that opened the floodgates. But that was by no means the only gateway drug.

No, in 1967 there were also Saturday morning cartoons. That was where I first learned about the Fantastic Four.

And you can bet I glomped on to that line in the credits about Marvel Comics Magazine. Something I could have in my hands to read whenever I wanted? Tell me more.

I was mostly about the DC Giants back then, the 25-cent monsters. But Marvel had something equivalent with the ongoing reprint titles Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest, and on a family vacation to the coast I took a chance on one. I think it was a consolation prize from Mom to make up for the fact that it had been sheeting rain for the whole weekend. She should have known that I much preferred staying in and reading to walking on the beach, and thus no consoling was necessary… but Mom had odd blind spots sometimes.

This particular comic was an amazing sampler package. I’d happened across it purely by chance, but I daresay you couldn’t have designed a better intro to the wonders of the Marvel Universe for a kid my age. The lead story, the FF and Sub-Mariner versus the hordes of Attuma, was pure joyous Kirby mayhem, and never mind about how lunatic the oxy-spray-whatever device was that allowed the Torch to flame on underwater.

But then you also got Iron Man, who was completely new to me but this bout with Count Nefaria (trying to give himself a makeover as “the Dream Maker”) was a nice introduction.

Then there was Captain America’s first solo outing, beating the crap out of an army of thugs determined to invade Avengers mansion, speaking of joyous Kirby mayhem…

And you also had Dr. Strange, from Steve Ditko in his prime.

The only thing that kept me from being a complete Marvel convert was that the Dr. Strange story was continued. This made me somewhat reluctant to pick up Marvel titles over DC ones for the next few years, because the odds of me being able to keep up with succeeding issues were nearly zero; but as far as the characters and the whole vibe was concerned, I was on board from that day on. I can still remember lying sprawled on the hotel carpet, with the rain slashing at the sliding doors to the balcony, utterly captivated by that book.

****

The Oz Books.
Television led me to a lot of things but it wasn’t the only entry point. There was also the public library.

This is another one of those vivid childhood moments for me; my first time visiting our local branch when I was eight years old or so…and the first book I checked out with my brand-new library card was this one.

It came as a huge, wonderful shock that there were other Oz books besides the original Wizard. This one concerns a young lady named Trot and her (grandfather? uncle? I forget) Cap’n Bill, who find themselves in Oz after a series of increasingly bizarre adventures. Unfortunately, the part of Oz they land in is a little offshoot called Jinxland, currently under the rule of the evil King Krewl. The good news is that Glinda the Good Witch is aware that Jinxland is in need of a shakeup and she has dispatched the Scarecrow as her agent to set things right. The bad news is that he’s not very good at it.

Mayhem and misadventures ensue. But eventually it all gets worked out and Krewl is deposed. It’s all a great time and it actually has a little bit of romance and a swashbuckling feel to it, much more so than the Wizard. I was to check that book out again and again over the years, along with all the other Oz books our branch had. Today I have my own copy, one of about half a dozen Oz books we’ve acquired in our bookscouting travels. My wife was as thrilled in her mid-forties as I had been at age eight to discover there were Oz books, plural. As for me, I love them still, particularly this one.

*****

Swingin’ Spy-Fi. In the mid-sixties, when I was a kid, it is impossible to overstate the pop-culture impact of James Bond. Super-spies were everywhere. Even Mr. Ed— a sitcom starring a talking horse– did a Bond spoof, “Coldfinger.”

I came to it a bit late– it was the ABC airing of Goldfinger that converted me– but once I’d had a taste, I wanted more. But at the age of nine, mostly for me it was forbidden fruit, ‘adult’ reading and viewing. Mom took a dim view of my interest in the stuff– not quite as much as she hated how much I loved comics. but it was close.

But then I found Christopher Cool, aimed directly at kids like me.

Basically, it was James Bond for the Hardy Boys set. A juvenile series for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, same basic format as the Hardys and Nancy Drew.

I got the second one, Mission: Moonfire, at a visit to K-Mart and oh my God, that book owned me. I made it my business to track down the others. The first three were easy to find; the second three (there were only six in all) I wasn’t able to find until about a decade ago. But I’m happy to have them here and they hold up pretty well, even to my jaded adult eyes.

Eventually I was able to persuade my mother that if Ian Fleming was in the library he couldn’t be THAT bad, and I was granted special dispensation to check out a Bond novel from the adult section of our little branch library.

That was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it’s still my favorite of the Fleming Bonds.

Today we have roughly a wall-high bookshelf’s worth of the stuff, what with James Bond and Matt Helm and UNCLE and the Avengers and John Drake and Derek Flint and so on. More if you include the comics and DVDs.

… but Christopher Cool was my first, and he holds a special place in my affections because of it.

****

1970s Marvel. I know I already mentioned Marvel; but the transition from the 60s to the 70s was so profound, it was almost a different publisher.

Now, fans are notoriously resistant to change and I was no exception. Once I had become used to Stan Lee’s bombastic writing style, that rhythm and way of speaking was the essence of Marvel for me. Anything else just felt….off.

What changed my mind? Two comics. The first being Amazing Adventures featuring the Beast.

This was one of a few comics I’d acquired from a neighbor kid and pretty much from the opening confrontation with Iron Man I was all in. Tom Sutton’s weirdly elastic anatomy and Steve Englehart’s palpitating soap opera script just got me. It wasn’t Stan… but it was FUN.

That got me over my suspicions of anything that wasn’t one of my trusted reprint titles. But the real tipping point came a little later, with Defenders #21.

This was, as it happens, a one-off story without a lot of action. The whole thing is essentially a bunch of character vignettes showcasing each of the Defenders and how they get along as friends. Being kind of a lonely weird kid myself, seeing Marvel’s misfit heroes struggling to figure out their role in the world and the clumsy awkward way they supported one another was so amazingly parallel to me and my own little nerd posse that it hit me right between the eyes. Gerber as a writer had the rep for being crazy weird– after all, he gave us the cult of Bozos, Howard the Duck, and the Elf with a Gun– but it was the character moments in between where he really shone.

From that point on I tried never to miss a Defenders, and eventually I branched out to other Marvel books. This was greatly helped when the local grocery store added a comics rack, and I spent most of my high school career wallowing in the Marvel books.

****

This is getting a little long, so I think we’ll table it for now and I’ll be back next time with a few more. In the meantime, feel free to share a few of your own personal Book Fair highs in the comments.

Hatcher Health Update: Because people always ask. I’m getting used to the new normal. Bumbling around with a walker, slowly– glacially so– getting stronger. No idea how much of my old self I’m going to get back and doctors aren’t sure either. This is frustrating. Things like walking from the bedroom to the kitchen and back are hugely challenging. But on the bright side I’ve been cleared for real food again. Julie and I have sworn that if I can get improved to where this is possible, we are going on a tour of the Pacific Northwest’s finest cheeseburgers. Some days that promise is the only thing that keeps me going. But anyway, it’s mostly just putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing, one day at a time, etc., etc.

12 Comments

  1. Eric van Schaik

    Nice to see you get better, bit by bit. Just take your time.

    I’m more a music man. I liked The Sweet and Mud as a kid in Holland. I discovered that I liked heavier stuff than most of the other kids. When I discovered hard rock live albums like Kiss Alive 1 and 2, Judas Priests Unleashed in the East and specially the mother of all live albums (IMO) On Your Feet Or On Your Knees by Blue Oyster Cult I knew I was a MF metal head. So what the other kids didn’t like it. It blew my mind!!! I was lucky that my dad was prepared to drive me to concerthals all around Holland. Those evenings were the best of that time in life.
    I still get a warm feeling when I discover new music. Sometimes its going to a concert because the name of a band intrigues me and I enjoyed it quiet a lot.
    I try to educate other Greg but sometimes I fear it’s a hopeless cause πŸ˜‰

    It was Asterix and Lucky Luke as a european that got most of my money. Years later I found there were small collections of US comics translated in dutch. There I discovered Conan by BWS. Later on I found the first part of a story starring mutants: X-Man # 25. It was so much different of everything else that I was reading and I was hooked. It phase ended eventually.
    It was a cover of Fall of the Mutants that pulled me back in. I never stopped, but Marvel lost me a few years ago.

    I liked the cinema but it was Star Wars that made me want to see a movie more than 1 time (I stopped counting years ago πŸ˜‰ ). My love for SF started there.

    Thank you for letting me take this small walk through memory lane. πŸ™‚

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Funny enough, i’ve been listening to more British Glam Rock recently. The Sweet got some play hear; but I didn’t hear the earlier stuff until later, usually covers by someone else. Looking at some of their other songs on Youtube led me to Mud and the awesome video of them doing Tiger Feet, in Top of the Pops or some similar show, with full choreographer and go-go guy dancers (their roadies)!

      For BOC and driving, I prefer the live albums, like Some Enchanted Evening or ETI Live. I’m more into stuff rom Agents of Fortune and Fire of Unknown Origin, but I have the catalog. Love Imaginos, just for the sheer epic sound.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    First things first: *love* the cover art on Mission: Moonfire.

    My own game changers?
    The first would be when I got my hands on an issue of Marvel Tales (#59); it was my first comic book, and my first encounter with Spider-man, who then became my favorite superhero. I had been aware of both Superman and Batman before that, from cartoons and reruns of the ’60s TV show, but this was something different altogether. I was just captivated with the whole idea of comic books – and the fact that they could be found in most grocery, convenience and drug stores – and that’s all she wrote.

    Another game changer was the Saturday morning Tarzan cartoon produced by Filmation. Before that, I thought Tarzan was kind of hokey – I associated him with either the Ron Ely TV show or the old b&w “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies. The guy in the cartoon was different, kind of like a superhero. So I sought out the comics, being published by Marvel at the time, and really liked them. That led me to the books, and then other stuff by Burroughs, esp. the Barsoomian books, and that in turn led me to seek out similar reading material.

    I’d also count as a game changer a day a few years later, when I was at home from school, sick, and I came across some show on the local PBS affiliate aimed at getting kids interested in reading; the book being highlighted was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I immediately sought out that book, then the others in what was then still only a trilogy. I realized that there was other (and, in many cases, better) fantasy out there besides Tolkien. It also made me a lifelong fan of Le Guin, who I would say is my favorite author.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        They are indeed awesome. I’m now so officially interested in these (they’ve got a double-whammy going for them in my book: great cover art and your recommendation).

        Too bad they’re not credited. The artwork does look familiar, though, like it was done by one of those guys who were doing tons of magazine and ad illustrations in the 1950s and ’60s – someone like, say, Austin Biggs or Bernie Fuchs.

  3. Tim Rifenburg

    The Game Changers for me were very similar to yours (though less spy oriented).
    Comics: The 25 cent DC 80 page giants and the 25 cent Marvel Anthology reprints got me into the comics and wanting to know more about certain characters. It was Not Brand Ecch that got me into knowing more about creators, the creative process and comics history. It was the DC 100 page Spectaculars that made me a collector and cemented my love of comics.
    Master of Kung Fu with Doug Moench writing was the
    title that made me realize comics could be about more than just hero fighting villain.

    Books : Hardy Boys got me started and led me through other Juvenile series like Nancy Drew, Power Boys, Danny Dunn, Trixie Belden and The Three Investigators . It was the Three Investigators and late 60’s / Early 70’s Batman that got me into the mystery suspense books and things like Perry Mason, Travis Mcgee and more adult oriented series.

    TV: The NBC Mystery Movie rotating wheel of shows (Cool Million, Madigan, Columbo, Banacek and all the rest were must watch for me and made me appreciate other Detective shows that came up in the 70;s. through today.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    For books, it was Drummer Hoff, from Barbara and Ed Emberly. We didn’t have a public library, but a bookmobile came out from Decatur, the nearest city, once a week and my dad always took us down there. To me, it was the magic bus, as you would step onboard and see shelves filled with books. I saw drummer Hoff and started flipping through it as, you see this cannon assembled and then the order to fire progress down the ranks, until Drummer Hoff fires it off. That led me to Dr Seuss and from there to other great children’s writers and inllustrators, like Robert McCloskey, Virgina Lee Burton, Maurice Sendak, HA Rey, Jean de Brunhoff, Ludwig Bemelmens and Stan & Jan Berenstain. That ed to hold worlds of wonders and a love affair with books, to writers like EB White and Barbara Cleary, Road Dahl, Astrid Lindgren and on to writers of adult fiction, history and books on art, architecture and design. It also led to 20 years as a bookseller (before the corporate types pushed us all out for cheaper labor).

    For comics, it was Shazam #10. It was the first comic I got to pick out myself and my first adventure with Captain Marvel. Aunt Minerva features as the villain, Mary Marvel gets a story and Denny O’Neil has a bizarre one about sentient vegetables. There was just something about that Big Red Cheese that spoke to me, more than even my beloved Superman, That really got me hooked as a comic book reader, though I had to do it through friends and relatives, for several years.

    A chance encounter with the cover of Kim Newman’s The Man from the Diogenes Club, which we were about to return to the publisher, led me to buy it and fall in love with Newman’s writing and more Diogenes Club books, the Anno Dracula series, The Angels of Musik, and even his horror books and I am not a horror guy. I’ve read two Stephen King books in my life and they were Firestarter and The Running Man. Newman, though, has a way of mixing pop culture, literary, film and tv influences, with the eye of the historian and critic (which he is) plus a wonderful ability with character and what made those 60s UK adventure series and films so much fun.

    The Saturday Superstar Movie episode,”Popeye Meets The Man Who Hated Laughter” introduced me to The Phantom and made me a fan from then on, collecting his comic book adventures, comic strip reprints and the novel series, as well as the various film ventures.

  5. Donmilliken

    Great article. I can really relate to that idea of wanting things to be good, as opposed to the miserable trolls ever-present in fandom who just can’t wait to tell you why that thing you like actually sucks, but don’t actually seem to like anything themselves, or at least never talk about it. For me I think it’s a little more resigned though, not so much, “Rooting for things to be awesome,” as, “Being open to the possibility that things CAN be awesome.”

    Anyway, my thing is video games. I got so carried away writing about them that my comment reached article-length itself and apparently that’s way more than the comment system will actually let me post, so I had to delete most of it. Maybe I’ll post it on Facebook where a much larger audience can ignore it? πŸ˜›

  6. bretsector

    Glad to hear you are healing; best of luck on getting your health back.

    All of your game changer examples resonate with me…it was FF169 which took my hand and led me into the Land of Marvel.

    I discovered the Oz books as a Waldenbooks employee back in the day and loved sharing them with my daughter as bedtime stories. Lotsa fun!

    I always get excited when you post a new column, no matter the subject…thanks so much!

  7. I loved that issue of the Defenders. I was feeling very lonely at the time so Val and Bruce having a dark night of the soul connected with me strongly.
    If you liked Scarecrow, I recommend the two Trot/Cap’n Bill (not a relative, just a kindly caregiver) books, Sea Fairies and Sky Island β€” the latter is just brilliant. Baum couldn’t make the series sell so he brought them to Oz (forgetting Trot has a mom who’ll presumably be freaking out) and adapted the plot of one of the Oz movies he made in the 19teens to provide the story. The romance is fun because Baum (not a fan of romance in kids books) parodies the cliches (“I shall die if I cannot have him.” “Oh, he’s nothing special, you can find someone just as nice.”).
    My biggest game changers was JLA 30 when I was six. Then probably my first adult mystery, Perry Mason in “Case of the Duplicate Daughter,” which I snuck out of my Aunt May’s suitcase to read late at night. Probably my first adult fiction of any sort.

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