In the autumn of 1988, DC released “Death in the Family,” running through issues #426-429 of Batman. Issue #426 was the first comic I ever bought, and that set me on a journey that’s 35 years in and shows no signs of stopping. I’ve written about my comics-reading journey before, but not since we moved over here to the Atomic Junk Shop and probably not since 2008, when it had only been 20 years since my first comic, so I figured it’s time to do it again!
Back in the fall of ’88, I was 17 years old and, I guess, a nerd (I know, shocking). I mean, I had plenty of friends, I was fairly outgoing (still am), and I was never bullied in my life (I worry that I bullied people, not through malice, but just through being a punk-ass teen boy, but whenever I ask old friends about it, they say I was fine, so … yay?), but I still read a lot and didn’t participate in sports too much (I played intramural soccer, but nothing at the high-school level) and I sang in the school choir (and church choir, back when my mother made us go to church) and I acted in school plays and musicals and I didn’t drink or smoke (I had zero interest in that). I rarely got in trouble – I was happy doing things that would not get me in trouble – and I had a nice life. Suburban Pennsylvania in the 1980s was a good place to grow up – you had access to Philadelphia but didn’t have to live there (it’s gotten better in the past 30 years, but in the 1980s it wasn’t great), and you could wander far and wide pretty much safely. We had one big private school in town – the Catholic school – and one public high school for two decent-sized townships (about 48,000 people in the 1980s), so you could make friends in elementary school and be almost guaranteed – as long as their families stayed around – that you’d know them through graduation. It was pretty nifty.
As I noted, I liked to read. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy (not as much as Greg Hatcher or some of the hardcore dudes who read this blog, but enough), a good deal of non-genre fiction, and sports book. Oh, I was a sports nerd. If you’re a dude and you live near Philadelphia (girls, too, but not quite as much back then), you’re inculcated from an early age to love Philly sports teams. The Eagles hold the highest spot, with the Phillies not too far behind, but the 76ers and Flyers have a large fan base, as well. Add to that that my entire immediate family – mother, father, aunts and uncles (not grandparents) – went to Penn State, and sports was a big part of my childhood. When I got back from Germany in May 1979, it was a great time to be a Philly sports fan, even though it had been rough for decades before that. In 1980, the Phillies won the World Series, and in that same fall, the Eagles were the best team in the NFL (although they lost the Super Bowl in January of 1981). The Phillies won another pennant in 1983, the 1982-83 76ers can lay a claim to the best single-season basketball team of all time (and they destroyed every team they faced in the playoffs), and the Flyers were going deep into the playoffs (although they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the 1970s). Penn State was always good, but after some near-misses in the late 1960s and 1970s (when I wasn’t alive or wasn’t yet a fan), the 1980s were their Golden Decade. They destroyed Heisman Trophy winners in bowl games – from Marcus Allen to Herschel Walker to Vinny Testaverde – and won the National Championship in 1982-83, played for it in 1985-86 (sadly, they couldn’t quite close the deal), and won it in 1986-87, when they beat the Miami Hurricanes at the Fiesta Bowl in January 1987 in what at the time was the most watched college football game ever and remains one of the best games I’ve ever watched, mainly because Miami is still in shock that they lost it (I would love it if the Fox dudes would pick on Jimmy Johnson about it on their pre-game show these days, because I bet he’s still mad, even though Penn State was a great team that year). Penn State has always been good, but most Philadelphia teams went into hibernation after those early 1980s glory days, but I was hooked, dang it!
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) May 2, 2020
Sports fans, I’ve often said, are just nerds who happen to dig something more socially acceptable and popular than, say, comic books, so while I was a big sports fan, it wasn’t too far a path to collecting comics. But, for some reason, I didn’t when I was a young lad. I knew of comics, of course. I owned some Asterix comics in Germany in the 1970s, and I once got a nice hardcover collection out of the Warminster Public Library which had the origins of a bunch of Golden Age/Silver Age DC characters (when I finally saw Joe Kubert’s Hawkman years later, I remembered it, because it was in that collection and, you know, it’s awesome). But I never got seriously into comics until the fall of 1988. I went to the Willow Grove Mall with my best friend Ken, who was into comics – his brother was some years older than he was and had collected for years, as did Ken, so he had some “older” – early 1980s comics – that I had actually read, so I had already read, for instance, the Dark Phoenix Saga – and while we were in the Waldenbooks at the mall, Ken pointed to the spinner rack and Batman #426 and told me that they were going to kill Robin in this story. For some reason, I thought that was cool, and I bought that issue. And the next. And the next. And the final chapter of “Death in the Family,” and that was that. I was hooked.
I’m still not sure why. I mean, I liked Batman, but not enough to find comics with him in them prior to this. Maybe I was a bit burned out on sports – by the time, the Phillies were back to being terrible, the Sixers weren’t great, and the Eagles were about to come out of their mid-1980s suckitude to be briefly relevant again under Buddy Ryan – but I don’t know. Something about those comics just resonated with me. Looking back, it couldn’t have been the actual writing – Starlin was never the best Batman writer – or the art – late 1980s Aparo was a far cry from peak Aparo – but it might just have been the fact that Robin was killed, and Batman had to deal with “real-world” stuff (as ridiculous as the Joker being an Iranian ambassador was, it was still a “real-world” scenario). I don’t know why, but in late December, when Batman #430 came out, I bought it. You could make the case that I just wanted to get the single story in Batman #426-429, but once I got #430 (another decent-but-not-great issue), I was a collector. Dang it!
In the winter of 1988/spring 1989, I began collecting in earnest, with Ken’s help. I liked Batman; I started buying Detective Comics. I’m not sure what my first issue was, but that was right around the time Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle were taking a break to ramp up to issue #600, which I know I bought when it came out (plus issues #598-599, the first two parts of the story). It feels like issue #594, which came out in early October, was probably my first, although I could be wrong. I love that issue – just a simple story about a drug-addled bomber, with a new character, Joe Potato, who is, frankly, awesome.
I liked other characters, too, of course, and soon began buying those comics. When I was younger, I used to watch Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (the Juggernaut episode was the bomb, yo!), and I liked the 1960s cartoon, too, where he swung from clouds and had that brilliant theme song. So why not buy Amazing Spider-Man? Luckily, also coming out in October (big month for comics!) was a certain issue of ASM drawn by someone you might have heard of:
I didn’t buy this when it came out; it was probably in November or December. Look at that thing. How can you not jump out of your seat to buy that sucker? I didn’t even know who the Hobgoblin was, but that cover rocked the shit out of my world, man. It’s dynamic, it’s exciting, it has that great cover copy (I know it’s unnecessary these days, but I do miss covers with words on them), and that artist … let’s see, a Mr. McFarlane, I wonder what happened to him? … is very good at posing the characters and maneuvering your eye over the page. I quickly (before their value went through the roof) bought the other McFarlane ASMs, back to issue #298, getting them for about 4-5 dollars a pop, which is a lot better than what they go for today, especially issue #300. It was just another series to get hooked on … until *shudder* Cardiac drove me away. (As I note below, that’s not quite true, but he’s still emblematic of the post-McFarlane Spidey, so he’s who I cite!)
And, of course, there was the many-tentacled monster at the center of Marvel, the X-Men. As I noted, I had read some older issues, and Ken had let me read some of the newer ones, but it seemed more daunting than Batman (solitary dude fights crime) and Spider-Man (bigger supporting cast, but still solitary dude fighting crime). But I quickly got past that, and I’m fairly certain the first X-Men comic I bought was this one, with that all-time cover:
The reason I’m not sure about it was because I know I had read several leading up to this one, but I’m pretty sure they were Ken’s. Of course, I went back and bought those back issues (and every back issue back to #130 or so!), but I think this was the first one I bought for myself. I was hooked! Even though I haven’t bought the X-Men regularly in years, they remain my favorite comics team and I actually do get depressed that Marvel has so utterly wrecked them. Yes, I’m yelling at a cloud. You leave me be!
So, there I was – a full-fledged comics reader. At that time, I didn’t really have a “regular” store, but my area had several places to buy comics, so Ken and I used to go around to those. There was one right near the Willow Grove Mall, right near where Easton Road and York Road come together and curve down toward Abington (sorry I’m being so parochial, but some of you might know where I’m talking about!), that was a cool place – I took a lunch break in 1990 from my summer job at the Sunoco on the corner of County Line and Warminster Road to drive down there and pick up my copies – yes, plural – of McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1. There was one in Feasterville, at the corner of Street Road and Bustleton Pike, which was still there about a decade ago (but might be gone now, for all I know) and which had a lot of cool back issues. There were a few down in the city that I went to once or twice a year, but generally, I stayed in my area. I would be years before I went to one store regularly and even longer before I had any kind of a pull list – I just showed up on Fridays (remember when new comics came out on Fridays?) and got what I thought would be cool.
I didn’t pay too much attention to creators back then, as I imagine is true of most new comics readers. It was 1989, so Bat-mania was … pretty crazy, if you remember, and so I bought a lot of Batman stuff, because Batman was awesome and the books were great (thinking back, DC did get a lot of good creators to work on their Bat-stuff, but, again, I wasn’t paying attention to that). One thing that bothers me about recent comics is their inaccessibility to new readers – not only the labyrinthine continuity, which, let’s face it, was already pretty bad back in the late 1980s, but the cost. Yes, I know about inflation and the economies of scale and how creators get paid more today (that final point, of course, is not something I object to), but when I started buying comics, single issues cost 75 cents, and while I know even at that time older readers were bitching about that price point, for a kid on a limited budget, that was something I could live with. I bought a lot of comics just on a “try-out” basis, because why not? Some I kept getting, and some I dropped, but the point is – I could afford to do it, because comics were relatively cheap. These days, I know kids make slightly more money at their jobs (my daughter currently makes more money hourly than I do), but wages haven’t kept up with inflation, so the price of comics seems far more daunting these days than they used to. I don’t even pick up a lot of new stuff simply to check it out – I usually know the creators or hear good things about it, but I don’t just go to my store, see a comic I know nothing about, and buy it just to give it a look. Who wants to waste 4-5 bucks if it’s garbage? On the other hand, I have the complete run of Xenobrood because I spent, what, 10-11 dollars total on it? (Bad example – Xenobrood RULES!!!!)
I went off to Penn State in the fall of 1989, where I found two nice comic book stores. One was on Calder Way, a nifty alley behind the main street through town, which is where I got Denny O’Neil to sign an issue of Moon Knight that he edited when he did a signing there for Legends of the Dark Knight #1 in late 1989 (he thought it was humorous that I brought that to sign, as most people were getting him to sign LotDK #1 or his Batman work). The other was The Comic Swap, which is on Fraser Street, and was always a terrific shop. They’re still there, and I managed to go back in 2019 when I visited the old campus:
Of course, I kept branching out. I was buying Moon Knight by this time (as you could tell from my previous paragraph), and the “bwah-ha-ha” Justice League, the reboot of Green Lantern (for a while), among others. Despite my devotion to Spider-Man and the X-Men, I was more of a DC guy at this time – I didn’t know it at the time, but DC was going through their post-Crisis Golden Age, and they were really firing on all cylinders. Ken and his brother had gotten some of the early Sandman issues, and I bought the trade of “The Doll’s House” (weirdly enough, DC released that before a trade of the first several issues, because this was back before trades were a thing and they had no idea what they were doing) and quickly became a fan of that series (and I still don’t have the single issues collected in that trade, although I have the single issues of the rest of the series, including the early ones that I had to find as back issues). I don’t know when I started collecting Morrison’s Doom Patrol, but I remember buying a lot of back issues at The Comic Swap, so around when I went off to college. Yes, college – where some people experiment with drugs and alcohol or even their sexuality, and I experimented with buying weirder comics. I got into the Big Guns of Vertigo – Gaiman, Morrison, Moore – but also some more independent stuff, although I never really got into the early Image stuff, and I’m not sure why. As I drifted further afield, I began to be more aware of creators, and while I was still a character guy, I began to pay attention if a writer I liked did something that I might not have bought a few years before because it wasn’t a character I dug. Characters are great and all, and I imagine it’s difficult to write a bad Batman story (although Tom King gives it the ol’ college try!), but a good writer can take a so-called “bad” character and make them fascinating (although it hasn’t happened yet for Gambit, so what’s up with that?), and I quickly figured that out, which made me more likely to try new things.
After I got out of college, we moved to Portland, Oregon, and I found my favorite comic book store, Excalibur (although my current store is pretty great, too). I didn’t find it right away – I went to Rocky Road on Burnside for a bit – but once I did, I fell in love. It’s a great store (it still was the last time I was there, in 2014), with a ton of back issues, neat olde-tymey sci-fi and pulp paperbacks that Greg Hatcher would rhapsodize about, and other excellent staff. It was the Excalibur staff that introduced me to the notion of a “pull list” – they noticed I liked Warren Ellis comics, and they suggested his new Strange Kiss series from Avatar, which was pretty cool of them. I didn’t know much about Previews back then, and the idea that you could order stuff that maybe the store wouldn’t order in large quantities so you might miss it if you just perused the shelves was a big deal. That led me to a lot more diverse comics – more indie stuff, of course, but also more non-superhero books. I had bought non-superhero books before, of course, but it was usually just luck that I saw them or even knew about them (mostly from reading Wizard, which – for all its obnoxious hype for “hot” writers and artists – had some good suggestions in the margins). I didn’t realize I could actually order them and have my retailer get them for me. That was cool.
It was during the mid-1990s that I discovered something else: I could stop buying a comic if it sucked. I know! I don’t mean to joke, but all of us have discussed this in the past, and it’s something that speaks to the addictive nature of serialized entertainment. How many of us have watched television shows long after they started sucking? How many of us keep hoping that the latest Star Wars movie will actually be good, even though evidence suggests otherwise? Comics fans are bad, but not the only ones, and it’s so hard to simply drop a series that you’ve invested so much money in. But, I would argue, it might be easier with comics, because there are always new writers and artists coming on board to put a new spin on a character. With a show like Lost, you get the same team, basically, but also, you get the vision for the entire show, and if you stop watching, it’s hard to go back and watch the earlier episodes without knowing that the show got lousy at the end. With a comic, you can read one creative team’s vision over and over and not worry that it started sucking, because usually it’s either a different team or the writer wraps things up with the particular arc before they start sucking. (For instance, D.G. Chichester’s story on Daredevil #292-300 is amazing and it doesn’t matter that his post-#300 work on the title is just awful, because he wraps up the arc in issue #300.) There’s also the allure of nostalgia, and this is where, I feel, I’m different from a lot of comics fans. Because I didn’t start reading until I was 17, I don’t have any childhood fondness for a particular character that drives me to purchase their comics. The closest thing, for me, is Moon Knight, but the weird thing about Moon Knight is that it’s actually kind of hard to find a long string of bad Moon Knight comics. But I don’t have an attachment to, say, Spider-Man, so I don’t feel the need to buy every Spider-Man book out there (which is good; there are a lot of them). Because of this, when Amazing Spider-Man started sucking in the 1990s, I dropped it. I like to say that Cardiac drove me off the book, but it was actually Carnage – I own his first appearance, but that story was not good, and I was sick of the whole Venom thing, so I stopped buying it. It was a revelation, because I didn’t miss it. That meant I could drop books whenever I felt like it, and as I began to know more and more creators, I could follow them instead of the character. If Grant Morrison wrote a long epic about Hal Jordan, a character I have never felt any fondness for whatsoever, I would buy it because I figured Morrison would do a good job with Jordan. If John Layman and Kelly Thompson wrote Gambit, I would buy them, even though Gambit is one of the worst characters ever created, because I figured those two writers might actually make me like him (they didn’t, but they were close!). Characters can be great, sure, but with bad writers, even good characters can suck. So why should I be “loyal” to a character? Now, I wasn’t completely cured. I stuck with the X-Men long after they started sucking, but the frustrating thing about the X-Men is that Marvel usually hired good creators, so I always had hope. I mean, in the late 1990s Alan Davis was writing and drawing them, and Alan Davis is awesome … but those comics were not, unfortunately. I’m certainly enticed by great characters, so I’m not immune, but I know I’m not as “bad” as some comic book readers. Dropping a book is incredibly liberating, and I’m glad I learned that relatively early on in my comics-reading life.
I moved to Arizona in 2001 and have been here ever since, and there was a comic book store almost across the street from where I lived for 12 years, so that’s my store even though I moved and live a bit farther away from it. Greg’s Comics (no relation) is a terrific store – one of the few around that still has back issues, and a fun clientele that talks comics a lot unless we’re talking football (the owner is a Cowboys fan and one of the regulars is a 49ers fan, so it’s always a good time during football season!). (I wrote about the store here, if you’re interested.) Every month I give them a pre-order list from Previews, and I barely even look at the new comics layout, because I have switched almost completely to trades and the few single issues I buy are already pulled for me. I think the price point of single issues is crazy, and trades are so much more economical and storage-friendly, but DC and Marvel rely on their readers’ desperation to be “up to date,” so the single issue market keeps chugging along. I have lost a lot of interest in superhero comics even if I like the person writing them, because I’ve been reading for so long that I’ve seen it all, so the “big plot” doesn’t interest me too much. I wish I liked superhero stuff more, because superheroes are awesome, but I’m not too bent out of shape about it. I still follow creators, and I’m always excited when I find new ones. I still buy a lot of comics, but I’m much selective than I used to be because I can’t afford to dive into things with no knowledge about them like I used to. I’m trying to sort through them to see which ones I’m going to get rid of now that I’m older and I don’t have as much space, but it’s a laborious process that’s taken me some years and will take more years to come. But I still love comics, and I’m a bit shocked more people don’t. When I taught “at-risk” high school students almost 20 years ago, I did Watchmen for one unit, because they weren’t big readers and I figured they’d like that, and they did. Some of them still bring it up occasionally (I’m friends with some of them on Facebook), and I think it’s pretty keen that they dug it so much, and I wonder why more teachers don’t try to get their students – no matter how old they are – to read more by promoting comics. I assume it’s because they don’t know anything about comics, and that’s too bad.
Anyway, it’s been 35 years, give or take, since I started reading comics. I’ve met a lot of cool people associated with comics, and I love going to conventions and meeting excellent creators and talking comics with them. I’ve become friends with a few of them, and that’s been very cool. I like the fact that Cronin found my blog years ago and offered me a spot at Comics Should Be Good, because that opened up more of the comics world to me, and I was able to get involved more in the on-line community, which has been very nifty. I enjoy dissecting comics, because I’m that kind of guy, and comics are endlessly dissectible. I look at my bookshelves and the incredible array of comics on them – the superhero stuff, the slice-of-life stuff, the crime dramas, the historical dramas, the foreign stuff, the horror stuff – and I appreciate that day in 1988 when Ken told me they were going to kill Robin. It’s been a fun ride, and I have no intention of stopping anytime soon!