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.