Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Through the Looking Glass

Thinking about Jim’s piece a few days ago regarding generations and defining events, and measuring my own life experience against it, I realized that almost all of my memories that I think of as ‘defining events’ are about books, comics, and most especially, bookstores. There was one bookstore in particular… sadly, long gone now, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Regular readers may recall when I wrote about how my inner collector was unleashed when I was in my early teens. But there were still many things that were tantalizingly out of reach.

Now, you need some background for this. To understand why this event I am talking about was so HUGE, you have to understand what the fandom landscape looked like back then.

First of all, in those bygone days of 1974-75, there was no Amazon– hell, there was no internet. Nor were there comic-book shops. There were damn few conventions and the ones that looked like fun always seemed to be in New York or Los Angeles (the San Diego Con was still a scruffy affair held at an equally scruffy hotel.)

In my part of the country, which is to say a suburb about nine miles south of Portland, Oregon, if your jam was superhero comics and pulp paperbacks and other such things, you basically had two options. There were regular bookstores (two in our town– both small, I exhausted the possibilities there in a month) or the spinner racks at the local drugstore or supermarket. I was limited by the fact that I had to get there by bicycle or on foot. Once in a great while I’d be able to get a ride out to the mall where there was a B. Dalton’s, which was bigger, but not MUCH bigger, than the two bookstores I could walk to from my home. All of these were very much hit-and-miss with the books they carried.

Ordering direct was not really a thing; certainly, it wasn’t the streamlined process it is today. (You young folks out there who just pull Amazon up on your phones, tap a couple of times, and have books and comics come straight to your home a week later have NO idea how miraculous that still seems to me.) There were about a dozen different distributors alongside Diamond and they were invisible to consumers–all of them only dealt with the local magazine distributors, who would then get the goods to the various retail stores. Finding a local drugstore or book-and-magazine place that carried the stuff I was interested in was strictly a trial-and-error process, and at age fourteen, it was also a hugely frustrating one. Even after I learned to take the bus into downtown Portland (always secretly–my mother’s paranoia about hippies, ‘stranger danger,’ and what might lurk in public restrooms was pathological. The irony of her never objecting to my drunken father and the actual danger he presented to her children whenever he took us somewhere by car, always with a six-pack of Blitz handy, never seemed to occur to her.)

You have to remember, there was no such thing as Yelp or Google. To find out what a bookstore actually had available meant an in-person visit. There was only ONE place that was listed in the Yellow Pages (look it up, kids) as carrying old comics: the Armchair Paperback Exchange over in east Portland. It was frankly a little sketchy. There was a roomful of Marvel back issues, each one wrapped in Saran Wrap with the price scrawled on the wrap in marker, but the bulk of his ‘magazine’ sales were Playboy and Penthouse, along with other off-brand softcore stuff like Oui and Genesis.

Even though the only things I bought there were back issues of Rampaging Hulk, Savage Sword, and Marvel Preview, I was as furtive as any trenchcoated pervert about my visits there. I lived in a (somewhat irrational) fear that one of my mother’s friends would see me going in to the place and mention it to Mom. Never mind that it was essentially a porn emporium– next to a theater advertising “Deep Throat in its FIFTH SENSATIONAL YEAR,” no less– just being spotted unaccompanied at age fourteen, in one of the skankier parts of east Portland, would have been enough to ignite a firestorm.

But as it turned out, finding a source for back issues only added to my growing frustration at missing out on other books and posters and stuff.

See, the comics, particularly the magazine-sized ones, had ads that showed me there was a whole secondary layer of even more awesome books and posters and so on coming out that I would never get to see.

This kind of thing was never going to find its way to my local Sentry Market or even B. Dalton’s at the mall. The only real option was mail-order.

And that wasn’t going to happen for me. Apart from the hurdle of not having a checking account, the order form required the reader to cut it out of the magazine, or the back page of the book. Cutting up a comic often meant cutting out a hunk of the actual story printed on the back side of the ad. Tearing a page out of the back of a paperback seemed almost as blasphemous, and if it was one of those damnable ads bound into the middle of the book (like the old Science Fiction Book Club come-ons) you could easily end up also tearing the binding of the adjacent pages or even, in extreme cases, accidentally splitting the actual spine of the book.

Why didn’t I just make copies of the order forms and cut those up instead? Because back then photocopying was also in its infancy. Copiers were not common; you might see a coin-operated one at the supermarket, and your dime got you a dim, gray sheet that came out wet and smelling vaguely of turpentine. Mostly people used carbons or ditto machines when they needed to make copies of documents (early fanzines were usually ditto’d as well.)

So as far as I was concerned, I felt like I was living in the wilderness. Genre specialty bookstores like Forbidden Planet or A Change of Hobbit were as mythical to me as the Land of Oz, only existing as rumor and anecdote. As for me ever getting to a convention with a dealer’s room, that was so utterly out of reach that I’d get depressed just thinking about it.

Hell, I wasn’t even connected with other fans. Of my high school posse, I was the expert… well, except for Joe, who knew about all the cool bands first. But for movies, books, and comics, usually I was the connection for the others.

Such was the state of affairs for me until late 1977. Then came the event that indelibly imprinted on me in that life-defining way that Jim wrote about here.

It started when my friend Joe, the oldest of us, got his driver’s license. Saturdays, he would often go into Portland to look at guitars or visit record stores and he would occasionally ask me if I wanted to ride along. I was always so desperate to get away from my dysfunctional household that I said yes instantly. (I’d have said yes even if it was a grocery run. Joe says today, “Picking up Greg at home always felt like driving the getaway car.”)

I was perfectly content just to ride along wherever, but more often than not, Joe would throw me a bone by including a bookstore on the itinerary. For whatever reason, one of the first ones we happened across was Looking Glass Books on SW Taylor, just down from the Greyhound station.

The innocuous look of the front was deceptive. A little online research tells me that it was bought out in 2001 and moved out of downtown Portland to the Sellwood neighborhood, where it became a respectable family bookstore.

But in 1977, it was a head shop as much or more than a bookshop and it was stocked accordingly. Lots of psychedelia — Vaughn Bodé posters and so on– as well as dope paraphernalia. And that sensibility carried over to the books they had in stock.

That first visit, I didn’t even get past the magazine rack in the front, perpendicular to the glass case with the pipes and papers and bongs. Because that wall-high rack had a great many of the things I recognized from Marvel magazine ads or other sources. Stuff I’d thought was utterly unattainable.

Specifically, I was all about Weird Heroes and pulp reprints at the time, particularly the work of Jim Steranko. I knew he’d worked at Marvel but I’d never seen the stuff (no reprint trade paperbacks back then) so my primary experience of his work was as a paperback illustrator.

Well, right there on that rack was the graphic novel I’d seen advertised in Weird HeroesChandler. The big one.

And next to it was something even more amazing– Steranko’s Mediascene. (When Joe told my wife this story a couple of years ago, he said I actually blurted out the word “Steranko” in kind of an awed whisper. I have no memory of this but I have no doubt it’s true.)

There were a couple of the Mediascene tabloids there, the most recent ones.

The Chandler was way out of reach at the staggering sum of $4.95 but Mediascene I could afford. I bought one of them and it practically became a shopping list. Later I went back for the other one and it was rare for me to miss an issue for the next couple of years.

Joe added Looking Glass to the rotation on our Saturday excursions and it became the default bookstore selection. I found so many other things there… usually the lead came from ads in Mediascene.

(The ads themselves were spectacularly designed, as was everything else. It was Steranko, after all.)

It wasn’t just Steranko, by any means. Here are some of the other things I found on that magazine rack over the next couple of years…

…the other, final, issue of Fiction IllustratedSon of Sherlock Holmes.

Star*Reach and all the other ‘ground-level’ comics from Mike Friedrich and friends…

I loved all of those books but I was particularly invested in The Sacred and the Profane, Dean Motter and Ken Steacy’s serialized epic about the first Catholic mission to the stars.

Later they redid it and that became the color graphic novel from Eclipse, but the original black-and-white version is the one I like best.

Then there were the true undergrounds. It was my first time seeing things like the work from Crumb and Shelton, but honestly my favorite was Frank Stack’s New Adventures of Jesus.

There were also fanzines like The Comics Journal

I have to admit, the interviews with the Marvel creators I idolized came as a shock. The myth of the happy-go-lucky Bullpen I’d grown up believing in was pretty well shattered.

I was also really getting into Robert E. Howard then, and I was blown away by REH: Lone Star Fictioneer.

A couple of weeks back I was talking about lesser-known Howard heroes like El Borak, and Lone Star Fictioneer was the first place I saw “Three-Bladed Doom.”

Illustrated by none other than the aforementioned Jim Steranko, even.

There was also the wonderful anthology series Ariel: The Book of Fantasy.

These were gorgeous tabloid-sized books that featured a lot of SF and comics people I admired, sort of a cross between Heavy Metal and prose SF anthologies like New Worlds. There were four of them in all and they were stunning.

I did eventually find my way back to the actual bookshelves, of course. That’s where I got my first Conan and Lone Ranger paperbacks…

…along with my first prose Solomon Kane — the really cool edition from Centaur Press with the Jeff Jones cover and the interior illos by David Wenzel.

It’s also where I discovered Patti Smith was a writer as well as a musician.

Unexpected pleasures, as well… like finding out there were more Weird Heroes books to be had beyond the original eight. They didn’t have the imprint, but it’s what they were.

I was especially delighted to find a re-imagined version of my favorite short story from volume one — Guts, from Byron Preiss himself…

…though I was bitterly disappointed to find it ended on a cliffhanger.

I even found the elusive Dragonflame, from Don McGregor.

The illustrations from Paul Gulacy really sold it to me, but once I read it I became a fan of Mr. McGregor as well. (To this day I enjoy his prose more than his comics.)

I could go on and on. But by now I suspect some of you are saying, Well, so what? You found a cool bookstore. Why was that so life-changing?

Because it was one of the things that crystallized my ambitions.

Looking Glass Books was a big goddamn deal for me because it was a gateway. Seeing how the comics professionals from DC and Marvel had embarked on small-press things like Star*Reach and Dragonflame and Lone Star Fictioneer, especially, made me want to be not just a writer and artist but a writer and artist that did stuff like THIS.

And I did, too. In 1979 Joe and I put out our own zine, Visions, that owed a LOT to the design sense of Mediascene and Weird Heroes, in particular.

And truthfully, I’m still working that same pulp-influenced, small-press turf today, forty years later.

It literally did not occur to me until writing this reminiscence how much the ‘new pulp’ scene of today resembles the ground-level scene of the seventies. I suspect a lot of us in the current small-press genre community share the influence of that stuff.

And without Looking Glass Books, I’d never have found it. (Well, I might have gotten there eventually, but certainly not in high school when I really needed it.)

That’s what made it a life-changing moment.

Back next week with something cool.

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  1. Joe

    I think you got StarReach the first time we went to Looking Glass. At the time, my favorite record store was Bird’s Suite in Old Town, where you’d go down a rickety staircase into a dark basement, where there were orange crates full of records, and Leon Redbone was perpetually playing in the background. The walls were covered with posters of M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali and Roger Dean, who did the covers for Yes and Osibisa (flying elephants). Somebody (there?) told me that there was a Roger Dean book called “Views,” that was available at Looking Glass….and Greg and I drove (or took the bus) downtown, and the rest is history…

    1. I had completely forgotten about Bird’s Suite Records! I do remember Roger Dean– and Rodney Matthews– and I’m annoyed at myself for leaving those two out of the column…. I had the Matthews Elric poster on my wall for years, it was one of the things that survived all the way to college.

      I know I MUST have told you this, but Julie and I got to meet Roger Dean at our first San Diego Con together; older but looking very energetic and engaged, rocking the silver fox thing. I was telling Julie and Mr. Dean in a somewhat starstruck, breathless way about all of this high school stuff. He was very pleasant and gentlemanly about my fannish awkwardness and Julie ended up getting something for her brother Wayne, who was a big YES guy.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Oh, man. I love when you do posts like these. Just scrolling over the images makes me so happy.
    I have to say, though, that I always find it amusing when you talk about how isolated you felt living 9 miles south of Portland (with *two* bookstores within walking distance). I lived 30 m south of Oregon’s metropolis – and 3 miles from the nearest town (which at least had two mom & pop corner shops with spinner racks). Even Woodburn (5 miles away) didn’t have any bookstores back then – not that I remember anyway. So until I got my driver’s license, I was dependent on my parents – or older siblings letting me tag along – when they went to Salem, where there was a few decent bookstores at least, and a better selection of comics and magazines at Fred Meyer or PayLess. Trips to downtown Portland were like almost like going to Disneyland. From my childhood perspective, you were living in the big city…

  3. As someone slightly older than you, I think you captured the pre-Internet challenges to finding stufff perfectly. Living in the Florida Panhandle, I was, like Edo, a lot worse off: one bookstore, two newsstands with somewhat larger paperback collections, and 7-11 spinner racks.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    You should try living in a farm town, 20 miles from the nearest decent-sized city or town, with no book or comic spinners. My access to comics was via friends, who were luckier, and the rare Whitman 3-pack or birthday gift, until much later. I discovered a bookstore (Book Emporium) in mid/late 70s; but, again, 20 miles away. Book were strictly the bookmobile and school library, though the bookmobile brought a few treasures (the Nostalgia Press Flash Gordon and The World Encyclopedia of Comics). 1979 was kind of my watershed year, as I was earning money and could buy stuff, when I had access. By then, our town tiny grocery store had a impulse rack with some Whitman 3-packs (all DC and Western/Gold Key material) and I could bike 5 miles to the next town, which had a magazine newsstand and comic rack. I started mowing lawns in the nearby city and had regular access to the mall bookstore, which led to Burroughs and Fritz Leiber; and, soon, Mack Bolan.

    College both introduced me to a comic shop and a used bookstore with a great sci-fi and comics room, where I found all of the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser collections, Moorcock and things like histories of Weird Tales (not to mention a copy of the novel that inspired the Richard Burton movie The Wild Geese). It grew from there.

    Late in my high school days, an old auction barn, just north of Decatur, was purchased and turned into a used bookstore and antique shop, called The Old Book Barn. When it first opened, it was mostly National Geographics, romance novels and one small display rack of fantasy novels. I at least got the Lancer edition of The Dreaming City, my first Elric. My dad made out much better, with a stack of aviation adventure novels and a couple of medieval romance/adventures. The store got better, over the years, and I would find all kinds of cool stuff there, from nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes novels to The Great Gold Steal, an early prose Captain America novel (along with Avengers: Earth Wrecker). They are still going and a got something, via the internet, from them just last year.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    ps. Those Steranko El Borak illustrations helped inspire the look of Indiana Jones. Lucas saw them and hired Steranko to do some conceptual paintings, including one of Indy, in the foreground, and a truck in the background. Indy is wearing an Army web belt, in that one though, vs what he would carry in Raiders. Otherwise, they didn’t change much.

  6. BB

    Greg, I love, love, love these types of posts, and you are so right about the “where” component of what makes the overall experience. Although I didn’t have quite the same experiences because I never had a local bookstore which was that cool, I do remember where I was when I found particular books. Man, B. Dalton…that brings back memories! I have some very fond memories of my local Borders, R.I.P. I was lucky enough to have purchased four of their pleather lounge chairs when the local store went out of business. I still have them in my library/listening area. I still think about the books and music I discovered there in my young 20s.

    I do this with music a lot, too. I have vivid memories of where I was when I first heard a number of my favorite songs, or at least when it first resonated the feeling that I remember. It’s probably a combination of the song and the life experience happening around it.

    The psychology of this stuff is really cool. I know it’s different now, but I hope the path is the same. The internet makes it easier to get anything, but arguably harder to swim through the Kool-Aid they want you to be drinking. There have to be avenues for kids to discover things beneath the mainstream. Thanks for posting!

    1. Right there with you on the music thing, though that was always at Joe’s house. He had the amazing record collection, the staggeringly awesome component stereo system from Bang and Olufsen, and the cool mom. Our ritual was to gather at his home on Saturdays where we would gossip and listen to music followed by Monty Python on the local PBS affiliate at eleven, then switching to Saturday Night Live (in its SECOND season! That’s how long ago it was) at eleven-thirty.

    2. Terence Stewart

      Longtime reader, first time poster here.

      Your mention of the Armchair Paperback Exchange reminded me of a chain of shops here in the UK, in London, during the 70s called the Book and Magazine Exchange (?).

      My Dad would take me into them to buy comics (American), and that was my first exposure to porn, all easily visible. Well, apart from the second hand book stall across the road from us that my Dad would let me pick a comic from on the way to the barbers. I very vividly remember picking a copy of Teen Titans #2 from amongst the boxes of Hustler and Forum.

      Very different times then. Thanks Greg, I always enjoy reading your columns.

  7. jccalhoun

    I’m a bit younger but I can certainly relate. I grew up in rural Indiana in the 1980s and mail order places that advertised in the back of comics were my only gateway to anything beyond Marvel and DC.

    Luckily, my mom was a receptionist for a doctor’s office and one of the doctors was leaving to move across country. He gave my mom a bunch of Warren magazines and 70s Marvel and DC comics to give to me. That included comic book versions of Conan, John Carter, and The Shadow. Those really had a huge impact on my interests and I never would have ran into them without that guy that I don’t know that I ever even met.

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