Tag Archive for comics

Friday Fun Links: Got Those Escaped-Dog Blues…

No, this is not my dog Romeo making good his escape...

No, this is not my dog Romeo making good his escape…

Feeling rather bummed out today. My dog, Romeo, an 85-lb fox hound, dumb as a box of bricks (but lovable), got out of the house three times yesterday. I caught him after his second escape when I pulled up to the house from the train station and found him loping towards me up the driveway. I put him back inside and slapped the invisible fence collar on him – the one that gives him a big ZAP! when he goes more than fifty feet away from the house. I’ve been trying to train him that, when the ZAP! collar is on him, he will get ZAPPED! When the ZAP! collar is NOT on him, and I have him on his regular leash, he will not get ZAPPED! The problem is, after a training session, he is terrified to go outside… whether the collar is on him or not. After about three days of being terrified, he forgets all about being ZAPPED! and is eager to escape again.

Well, wouldn’t you know it; the kids came home shortly after I got the collar on him and let him out of the house again. That big dummy loves tracking the scent of deer so much, he took off like a Saturn V rocket – and ran right through the electric fence, ZAP!-be-damned. He stayed away all night, when the temperatures were dropping close to freezing. Didn’t show up this morning. Hasn’t shown up during the first half of my workday.

What does this have to do with Superheroes-as-Manatees?

Absolutely nothing. But I came across the work of Joel Micah Harris while bumming around on the Internet and figured sharing my favorite mystery-manatee heroes with you might help alleviate my bummed-outedness. So here they are!



Thor Manatee

Thor Manatee

Wonder Womanatee

Wonder Womanatee



Hawkeye Manatee

Hawkeye Manatee

Captain Amanatee

Captain Amanatee


If you’d like to see all the X-Manatees together, go here.

And here is Joel Micah Harris’ gallery on DeviantART, with lots more mystery-manatee heroes and plenty of other fun stuff.

UPDATE: According to Dara, Romeo has returned, safe and sound. So the mystery-manatee heroes have served their noble purpose.

So Long, Marty Mermaid Man

I can’t honestly say that there are that many performers out there whose passing makes me feel a pang of loneliness and regret. Ernest Borgnine, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was one of them.

I liked the man. It’s as simple as that. He was someone I was always happy to invite into my home via my TV set and spend a couple of hours or a brief thirty minutes with. I especially liked the fact that, late in his career, he decided to insinuate himself into my children’s lives through one of their favorite cartoon programs. He was never less than watchable, whether in his earliest, pre-Marty roles or in his very last projects.

My earliest memory of Borgnine was most likely seeing him in Willard, a 1971 a horror movie. He played Al Martin, the cruel boss of a shy young man, Willard Stiles; Willard achieves his revenge by setting his pack of trained rats on Martin. This role was a throwback to some of Borgnine’s earliest film roles, in which he’d played memorable heavies in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953) (in which he beat Frank Sinatra to death) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) (in which he bedeviled heroic, one-armed Spencer Tracey).

But my most memorable impression of Borgnine came, as it did for so many of his fans, from his Academy Award-winning portrayal of lovable Bronx loser Marty in the 1955 film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1953 teleplay, which had starred Rod Steiger. I’ve watched both versions, and to my mind, Borgnine is the definitive Marty. You felt sorry for Steiger as Marty, but you fell in love with Borgnine’s Marty.

In later years, I was always pleasantly surprised whenever I’d see Borgnine show up in movies such as The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, The Poseidon Adventure, The Black Hole, and Escape From New York. But he remained on the periphery of my consciousness until 2009, when my family and I moved to Northern Virginia, to an area where reception of broadcast TV was sketchy, and we signed up for satellite TV. From that point on, my three young sons became enormous fans of SpongeBob SquarePants.

I’d heard some pretty negative things about SpongeBob from some fellow parents, who considered it way too irreverent for the kiddies. But, out of curiosity, I sat down with my boys and watched a few episodes. And really, really liked them. Not too long thereafter, I watched an episode from the show’s 1999 first season, “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy,” which portrayed SpongeBob’s and Patrick’s first visit to the Shady Shoals Rest Home, refuge for two elderly, retired costumed crimefighters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, obvious stand-ins for DC’s Silver Age Aquaman and Aqualad. As soon as the semi-senile Mermaid Man uttered a word, I shouted to my wife, “Hey, that’s Ernest Borgnine! That’s brilliant! They got Ernest Borgnine to play a senile superhero!”

I soon learned that Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (voiced by veteran movie and TV comedian Tim Conway, who’d been one of Borgnine’s costars in the TV series McHale’s Navy [1962-66]) had become two of the most popular “guest characters” on the show and that they had reappeared in many subsequent episodes. I bought my kids a DVD compilation of the best of the SpongeBob episodes guest-starring Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. Having been a superhero comics fan ever since I’d been my boys’ ages, I “got” all the jokes, even more so because my favorite DC stories had been the Silver Age Justice Society “return from retirement” stories (whose narrator, usually Gardner Fox, regularly referred to the Earth-Two Superman as “the gray-haired guardian” and had Hour-Man and the Atom kvetching to each other about how rusty their fighting skills had become during their rescinded retirements, and artist Mike Sekowsky generally drew the Golden Age Wonder Woman as a grandmotherly matron who looked a good bit older than her Justice Society teammates, which even as a kid I thought was horribly unfair). Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy could also be thought to be paying a “tip of the hat” to Frank Miller’s reconceptualization of Batman as an embittered senior citizen in The Dark Knight Returns; but their whimsical portrayals of superheroic decrepitude owe a lot more in tone to the fond, semi-humorous portrayals of DC’s Golden Age heroes in their frequent team-ups with their younger Earth-One counterparts, the Justice League, in the 1960s and early 1970s. I could certainly picture Gardner Fox’s and Mike Sekowski’s Hour-Man doing Earth-Two TV commercials touting an arthritis relief pill that provides full relief from pain in “much less than an hour!”

The high quality of the show’s writing aside, Ernest Borgnine’s vocal characterization was simply spot-on. I can’t imagine any other actor doing the voice of Mermaid Man. I’m afraid the creators of SpongeBob SquarePants will have to retire the old superhero for good. Either that, or they can take a leaf from DC’s book and have younger protégé Barnacle Boy step into the saggy old uniform of Mermaid Man and take up the role. Were he still alive, Tim Conway’s old costar from The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Corman, could become the new Barnacle Boy. But how about Carol Burnett as a new Barnacle Girl? She’s done some fun animation voice-over work recently (notably in The Secret World of Arrietty [2012]).

Here’s a parting quote from Borgnine, concerning his several-weeks marriage to singer Ethel Merman (and note the eerie similarity of her surname to the title of one of his greatest characters):

“Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney.”

That’s the spirit!

Seduction of the Innocent, Indeed…

Here’s a Batman and Robin cover image you can be sure kept Dr. Fredric Wertham up late at night… and, gee, what could Lois possibly be whispering to Superman about?

(h/t: James Lileks)

Farewell to Joe Simon, American

One of the last remaining creators of comic books’ Golden Age left us this past Wednesday. Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) died at the age of 98 on December 14, 2011. Best known as the co-creator, with his partner Jack Kirby, of Captain America – Joe drew the very first sketch of the character – his career in comics contained many “firsts” and milestones that stretched throughout the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics.

Born in 1913 in Rochester, New York (his father, Harry Simon, was an immigrant tailor from England), Joe’s career in comics began in the late 1930s when he went to work as an artist for Funnies, Inc., one of the earliest packagers of comic books. Shortly thereafter, Martin Goodman, publisher of Timely Comics, asked Joe to create a new superhero similar to Timely’s first hit character, the Human Torch; Joe’s first super-heroic creation was the Fiery Mask. Joe then became the first official editor of Timely Comics. Not long afterward, he met Jack Kirby, and the two formed an artistic partnership that would last until 1955, when political attacks on the comic book industry led Joe to turn his efforts to commercial art.

Joe’s and Jack’s most significant shared creation was Captain America, whom they portrayed punching Adolf Hitler in the kisser on the cover of his very first issue, released in December, 1940, a year prior to America’s entry into World War Two. Captain America was far from the only patriotic hero the artistic duo created, however. In 1942, they launched the Boy Commandos for National (later DC) Comics, which became the company’s third best-selling title, after Superman and Batman. They paired that success with another hit, the Newsboy Legion, a home front kid gang action team led by an adult costumed superhero named the Guardian, who wielded a bulletproof shield much like Captain America’s. During the Korean War, Simon and Kirby co-created the Fighting American to pick up where Captain America had (temporarily) left off.

In the late forties, Joe and Jack created the subgenre of romance comics with their Young Romance, which inspired dozens of imitators, and were pioneers in the subgenre of horror comics with Black Magic. In the late fifties, the pair briefly reunited to create a line of superhero comics for Archie Comics, and Joe created the character the Fly, which some comics historians consider a precursor to Spider-Man. In 1960, Joe created a competitor to Mad Magazine, called Sick, which he drew and wrote material for and edited through the early 1970s. In 1966, Joe and Jack briefly reteamed again to create a line of superheroes for Harvey Comics. His final work in the comics realm came during the Silver Age, when he and Jack revamped for DC a Gardner Fox character they had first revamped in the 1940s, the Sandman. On his own, Joe created two unusual properties for DC – Brother Power, the Geek, about a living mannequin who joins the hippy movement, and Prez, about a teenaged president of the United States.

Joe’s name returned to the headlines of the comic book news media in 1999 when, following a legal ruling that the heirs of Jerry Siegel were entitled to a share of the United States copyright of the character Superman, Joe sued Marvel Comics, the successor to Timely Comics, for copyright to Captain America. The two parties settled out of court in 2003. In recent years, a wealth of material about Joe’s career has been made available. His memoir of his career in the comics, The Comic Book Makers, was reissued, joined by a companion volume, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics: the Illustrated Autobiography of Joe Simon. Several coffee table books of his art have been released, including the very handsome The Best of Simon and Kirby, compiled by my friend Steve Saffel.

In my several decades of following the comic book press, both fan and professional, I have never come across a single negative word said about Joe Simon. The comics press (and associated fan discussion) is often catty and backbiting; virtually no major figures in the industry have avoided being savaged from time to time by rumor, innuendo, or personal attacks. That Joe Simon is such a figure speaks volumes about him.

If there is one figure in American arts and letters who most strongly reminds me of Joe Simon, it is composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline). Both lived very long lives; Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101. Both came from Jewish immigrant families (Berlin’s from Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire) and spent the bulk of their working lives in New York City. Both achieved their most enduring successes during the World War Two era – Joe Simon with Captain America, the Newsboy Legion, and the Young Commandoes; Irving Berlin with his most beloved and ubiquitous songs, “God Bless America” (1938), “White Christmas” (1942), and “This is the Army” (1943). Both sought to create popular art for the average American. I think Joe would have enthusiastically nodded his head at this quote from Berlin: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country.”

Both men felt in their kiskas what it meant to be an American. Although it would not be fashionable for them to do so now, not in this age of multiculturalism and widespread disdain among the artistic classes for the notion of a shared national identity, both men chose not to emphasize the particularities of their own ethnic and religious backgrounds in creating their greatest works. Rather, each tried to reflect what they saw as the finest characteristics of that broad group they considered “average Americans.” Irving Berlin often gave credit to his mother for inspiring the lyrics of his most famous song. During his growing up years on New York City’s Lower East Side, his mother would frequently say “God bless America,” her way of expressing gratitude to a country which had taken in her and her family and provided them refuge from the pograms which had destroyed their home in Russia. Joe Simon would approve. In September, 2001, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he recreated the iconic cover of Captain America Comics No. 1, substituting Osama bin Laden for Hitler as Captain America’s punching bag. His quote? “I did it out of anger. Adolf got his. Osama will too.”

Joe Simon lived long enough to see bin Laden get his. He also lived long enough to enjoy, at last, a successful and reverent big-screen adaptation of his most famous character, Captain America: the First Avenger, which he enthusiastically endorsed. Joe, may your red, white, and blue shield never lose its luster. I’ll miss you.

(My appreciation of what the character of Captain America has meant to me over the years can be found here.)

Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Case Study

My gateway to the heroes of comics' Golden Age, courtesy of my stepdad and Jules Feiffer

Any culture that fails to train its young in its traditions is doomed to extinction. The culture of science fiction geekdom is no exception. Many SF geeks have come into their geekhood entirely on their own, sometimes in clear opposition to their parents’ preferences (most of the Futurians, for example, needed to get away from their families in order to come into their full geekhood). Yet many others (myself included) have benefitted from the support and encouragement of a geek (or partial geek, or proto-geek) parent. SF geek culture has now been with us long enough that grandparents can share it with their grandchildren (especially if it is Flash Gordon serials or Astounding Science Fiction pulps or EC horror comics that are the artifacts being passed on).

My stepdad was my initial mentor in geekdom, although I’m sure he didn’t think about in those terms (my training in geekhood began in the late 1960s, but the term “geek” did not begin taking on anything approaching a positive connotation until fairly recently, sometime during Bill Clinton’s term in office). He is a movie lover and for many years was an amateur movie maker (in the old days of Super-8 equipment; he never made the transition to digital media). During his twenties, he had nursed an ambition to go to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers as an animator. He ended up a salesman instead, a very successful one, first of shoes and later of folding cardboard boxes. He and my mother both enjoyed science fiction and horror movies, so my earliest movie-going experiences were outings to the drive-in to see pictures including Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). (Come to think of it, we saw an awful lot of movies at the drive-in in 1971.) He was a huge fan of old-time film actors, so the bookshelf in our living room was stocked with oversized volumes on the history of movies serials, classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age (including the Universal monster movie cycle), and silent film comedy stars such as Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields. He also amassed a pretty big collection of Super-8 film shorts to show on his collapsible movie screen, including shorts by Chaplin, the Our Gang kids, and Laurel and Hardy, as well as compilations of coming attractions from Japanese kaiju giant monster films and 1950s Hollywood giant insect movies.

The book on his shelf that probably had the biggest impact on me, though, was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). I still have numerous passages virtually memorized (most especially Feiffer’s remembered glee as a young man when he read that psychologist Fredric Wertham had written in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin, in their civilian identities as Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, could be said to be experiencing “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together;” Feiffer always hated Robin, so anyone who muddied Robin’s rep was okay by him). I passed hundreds of hours on my living room sofa with that book open on my lap. Feiffer presented a very personal memoir of what each of the classic characters of the Golden Age of Comic Books had meant to him during his childhood and teen years. His book generously provided me with origin stories or very early adventures of such figures as Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Spectre, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Spirit, in nearly all cases (with the exceptions of Superman and Batman) my very first exposure to the characters. My stepdad, noting my enthusiasm, followed up by taking me to my very first comic book and nostalgia convention, held in the Coconut Grove library, where I got to see a couple of chapters from Monogram’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial and page through a mimeographed reproduction of the famous Human Torch-Sub-Mariner epic battle from Marvel Mystery Comics.

The fact that my stepdad loved old monster movies and old comic book heroes made me want to love them, too; not that I needed too much encouragement in that direction, since I had discovered my love of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, and Greek and Norse mythology all on my own. One thing led to another. Novelizations of the Planet of the Apes films and TV shows proved to be my “entry drugs” to original science fiction novels and story collections by H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg. A fondness for atomic apocalypse movies led to my picking up books on worldwide catastrophe by J. G. Ballard and John Christopher. The movie versions of The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend made me hunt down the original books by Richard Matheson. The same kid at summer camp who let me look at his dog-earred Iron Man comics also lent me a truly magical novel, The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney.

And thus was my career as a science fiction geek well and truly launched by the time I turned eight. That year I wrote my first short story, “Tyrann!”, a tale about a lonely little boy, his scientist father, the mechanical Tyrannosaurus the father builds as a companion for his son, and the gangsters who have evil plans for the scientist and his robot creation. The boys at school loved it, and I got the idea that writing stories and entertaining my peers was kind of fun.

One thing my stepdad didn’t do was pass on any relics of his own proto-geek childhood. Hardly anybody from his generation saved their comic books and pulp magazines (unless they were extremely obsessed with them). This, of course, is what makes those artifacts of the 1930s and 1940s so valuable – scarcity. Oh, the daydreams I had, though, as a child – “If only Dad had saved his Captain America comics!” I resolved at a very young age that I would save everything: all my comics, all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, all my copies of Eerie and Creepy, and all of my science fiction paperbacks. No future son (or daughter) of mine would ever have to pine for the childhood stuff I had thrown away. I also considered the potential monetary value of the collectibles I would be passing on, figuring I would be doing my future children a great fiduciary favor.

Judah "Iron Man" Fox, celebrating his fifth birthday

Unfortunately, I proved to have an odd talent for buying comics which would never go up in value and for passing up those comics which would someday be worth real money. I distinctly recall seeing all the early issues of The All-New, All-Different X-Men on the carousel wire racks at my local convenience stores (Little General and 7-11) and turning up my nose at them, because the characters on the covers looked “too weird” (why I felt that way about the New X-Men I cannot currently fathom; after all, I eagerly purchased other comics with stranger heroes, such as Jack Kirby’s The Demon and Marv Wolfman’s The Tomb of Dracula, but I remember having a powerful aversion to the costumes worn by the New X-Men in their early adventures). Instead, I bought reprint comics like Marvel Triple Action, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Monsters on the Prowl, and Creatures on the Loose; the adventures of short-run, failed characters like It! the Living Colossus, the Living Mummy, Man-Thing, Brother Voodoo, the Defenders (a bit more successful than the others on this list), the Invaders, the Golem, and Werewolf by Night; and a fairly full set of The Invincible Iron Man during the character’s worst run ever (excepting, perhaps, the much later Teen Tony issues), from about issue 35 to issue 90 or so. So I ended up with an accumulation of essentially worthless comics, boxes and boxes of them, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Worthless, that is, except for the reading pleasure they might provide a young person.

Over the past eight years, I’ve been blessed with three sons. How should I divide my childhood collection among the three of them, I’ve often wondered? Have them draw lots? Let them sort out the materials among themselves, according to their preferences, with me serving as referee? As things have turned out, this will not be an issue, surprisingly; two of the three appear to have very little interest in my old stuff.

Levi, my oldest, is a voracious reader, but he generally avoids comic books. He showed a mild interest in Silver Age Superman stories for a time, but that didn’t last. After I took him and his brothers to see Captain America: the First Avenger, we went to the comic book store next to the theater, and I offered to buy him any Captain America or Avengers comic he wanted. He wouldn’t bite; instead, he insisted I buy him the latest Wimpy Kid chapter book. The only comics or graphic novels he seems to be interested in are the Bone books. He is very interested in science, but blasé about dinosaurs. He shows very little interest in my collection of old horror movie videos. However, he is fascinated by astronomy and outer space, and most of the chapter books he likes to read (such as the Magic Treehouse and the Captain Underpants books) are essentially fantasy. So I have hopes that I’ll be able to steer him toward science fiction. Within the next year (he is currently in second grade) I plan to introduce him to the Heinlein juveniles, the Rick Riordan books, and eventually Ender’s Game. We’ll see how he takes to those. He is very opinionated and particular regarding what books he chooses to read, so I know I will only be able to suggest (and gently suggest, at that). The potential for an SF geek resides within him (“The Force is strong in this one…”). We shall see.

Asher, my middle child, on the other hand, appears to have little or no geek potential. His interests are decidedly mainstream American boy – he likes sports, race cars, and monster trucks. He enjoys superhero and science fiction movies and TV shows, but he mainly appreciates them for their action. He likes watching things explode and seeing giant robots beat on each other. He thought the last twenty minutes of X-Men: First Class were “awesome,” and he simply loved Real Steel. His favorite toys are his large collection of Hot Wheels cars. He is a pretty strong reader, but he won’t go out of his way to pick up a book. He gets bored when I try to read him Silver Age Superman stories (which Levi enjoys to an extent). His preferred books to look at are illustrated editions of The Guinness Book of World Records and any books on monster trucks.

So, I was at two strikes and one ball to go, so far as passing along my old comics and monster magazines to one of my offspring. Perhaps Judah, my youngest, sensed an opportunity, an unclaimed niche, a chance to beat out his brothers at snuggling up close to Daddy. Or maybe it’s all in the genes (could there be a specific geek chromosome)? In any case, with my final opportunity to reproduce myself as a young geek, I finally struck geek gold in Judah. Several years back, I bought a whole collection of plush Godzilla figures for Levi and Asher as Hanukkah gifts; on eBay, I found Godzilla, Minya, Rodan, Anguillis, Gigan, young Godzilla, Hedorah, King Kong, and Destroyah. These were gorgeous toys. Had they been available when I was a young boy, I would have wet my pants with excitement. But neither Levi nor Asher took to them. They sat on the edge of the boys’ bed for years, unplayed with, gathering dust and cat hair.

Judah with "The Deadly Mantis"

Then Judah decided he liked Godzilla movies. In fact, he loved Godzilla movies. Better still was to watch a Godzilla movie with toys that matched the monsters on screen. He expanded his palate to include a fondness for Gamera movies, too (and I happened to have a few Gamera toys lying around). He will watch any monster movie with his daddy, and he has a particular liking for giant insect movies. Like me, he can watch Tarantula over and over again. When I took him and his brothers to Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, one of the statues there was of a ten-foot-tall praying mantis. I took a picture of the boys standing beneath its claws, and I posted the picture on my website, next to a photo from the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis. Judah took a look at that photo and declared he simply had to have a Deadly Mantis toy. After looking far and wide, I managed to find a really nice praying mantis figurine at Le Jouet Toys down in New Orleans, and I bought it as a birthday gift for Judah. One event marking his fifth birthday celebration was a family viewing of The Deadly Mantis (a clean DVD print obtained from Netflix). Judah sat in bed between me and his brothers with his brand-new mantis toy in his fist, watching Craig Stevens, William Hopper, and Alix Talton deal with their bug problem. He is very disappointed that there has never been a Tarantula vs. the Deadly Mantis movie, or, even better, a Tarantula vs. Godzilla film. He has asked multiple times for me to buy him a Deadly Mantis costume to wear, and I’ve endeavored to explain that no one is likely to make a costume based on a giant bug movie from 1957 that hardly anyone remembers.

It’s not just monsters. He loves dinosaurs and superheroes, too. His favorite dinosaur (for the past few weeks, anyway) is Ankylosaurus, an armored dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period. When I told him that Anguillus from the Godzilla movies is an Ankylosaurus, he went and got his plastic figurine of the monster and asked why Anguillus doesn’t have a knob of bone at the end of his tail like a real Ankylosaurus would. The only reply I could come up with was “artistic license.” So he went and found a small, hollow rubber ball that he was able to insert on the end of Anguillus’ tail. Thus far, he doesn’t seem to have a favorite superhero. Between his dad’s old toys and action figures he has gotten as gifts or collected from McDonald’s or Burger King, he has amassed a pretty impressive set of Justice Society, Justice League, X-Men, and Avengers figures. His affection and loyalty shifts between characters and figures, depending on his mood and which toy happens to catch his eye. One day his favorite will be Banshee from the X-Men, and the next day it might be Captain America or Iron Man, and the day after that either Batman or the Golden Age Flash will have captured his fancy.

Scene from "The Deadly Mantis 2: Mantis in Manassas"

He’s still too young to pass along to him my old comics and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland (I shudder to think what shape he would leave them in after tearing through them). I’ll probably wait until he turns eight. But that kid has a tremendous bequest coming his way. I can hardly wait to see his face on the day I pull out box after box after box of my old stuff from the basement.

For the time being, I’m as delighted as any proud Little League parent to have him sitting next to me and watching Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster or Tarantula, a rapt look of enjoyment on his face. I glance down at him, squirming with excitement while nestled in the nook of my arm, and think to myself with a glow of satisfaction, “That’s my boy!”

Friday Fun Links: When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield…

my first Cap comic, Captain America and the Falcon #142

This past Saturday was Captain America Day in my household. The day I finally got around to taking my three boys to see Captain America: the First Avenger. Why did I wait so long? Because I’m cheap. A skin-flint. I just happen to feel that taking my three kids to see a Saturday movie matinee shouldn’t cost approximately twice what it takes to feed them lunch at a mid-priced restaurant. So we waited until the Cap movie came to the second-run movie theater a half-hour’s drive away.

I made a big deal of it with the boys. I told them that if they were good, they’d get to pick out a Captain America toy or comic book of their choice after the movie. (Considering the prices of toys and comic books nowadays, maybe I’m not such a cheapskate.) I really wanted them to like the movie and to like Cap. I remember falling in love with Captain America as a kid. He wasn’t my first favorite superhero; that would be Iron Man. But I fell in love with Cap because my dad told me he’d loved Captain America comics when he’d been a kid, when Cap had just been created by Simon and Kirby, and because he took me to a comic books show and pointed out some of the old issues he’d read, and because I saw a Mego Bend ‘n Flex Captain America at a toy store that I dearly wanted. But, most importantly, I fell in love with Cap because I then read a ton of Captain America comics written by Stan Lee and Steve Englehart, drawn by Jack Kirby and Gene Colan and John Romita and Sal Buscema, and those comics made me want to be Captain America. So I wanted my boys to love Cap, too, because I’d come to think passing down a love of Captain America from father to son was a family tradition I wanted to continue.

the comic that made me fall in love with Cap

My first Cap comic was Captain America and the Falcon #142, where Cap and the Falcon finished their showdown with the Grey Gargoyle, drawn by the great John Romita (who, true to his roots in romance comics, drew Sharon Carter like nobody else). But the comic that truly made me fall head over heels for Cap didn’t come out for another year — Marvel Triple Action #5, which reprinted The Avengers #10, a story called “The Avengers Split Up!” I bought the comic because Iron Man was in it. But I ended up reading it over and over because of Cap. Cap was portrayed as the heart and soul of the Avengers, despite being their physically weakest member (well, maybe not weaker than the Wasp). Immortus (in his first appearance) manages to alienate Cap from the Avengers temporarily, and in Cap’s absence, Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil pretty much kick the remaining Avengers’ asses. But then Cap shows up and reunites the team, causing the tides of battle to rapidly turn and the Masters of Evil to run with their tails between their legs. It was thrilling and inspiring to see how even Thor respected the heck out of Cap (whom he could thwack across Manhattan with his thumb and forefinger).

My favorite Cap artist ever? I think that would have to be Gene “the Dean” Colan. He didn’t draw all that many issues of Cap, but the ones he drew were terrific. My favorite of the Colan lot is Captain America #131, which features the appearance of a robot Bucky. The reason I love this issue so much is that Gene got to draw Cap having an absolute blast on the beach riding his motorcycle. Those panels of Cap cutting loose with acrobatic joy made a huge impression on me and cemented my determination to become Captain America when I grew up. Here’s a reproduction of those panels (I just wish I could’ve found a bigger scan):

Gene Colan art from Captain America #131; my favorite sequence

So what did I think of the new movie? I’ll admit I had my trepidations going in. Having seen the 1992 Captain America movie will do that to you, as will any familiarity at all with the two 1979 made-for-TV movies. I only knew Chris Evans’ work from the first Fantastic Four movie. I enjoyed him as the cocky, none-too-mature Johnny Storm/Human Torch, but I had a hard time picturing him making the transition from Johnny Storm to Steve Rogers, a much different sort of character.

Well, I must say he sold me. I completely bought Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, and I’m looking forward to him reprising the role in The Avengers next year. In all my years of following Steve Rogers’ adventures, whether as Captain America, Nomad, The Captain, a beat cop, a struggling comic book artist(!), or as the head of SHIELD, the qualities that always remained consistent were a bedrock sense of decency and fair play, a grounded sense of modesty regarding his own importance in the big scheme of things (probably due to his modest background and original scrawny stature), and a refusal to ever quit once he’d decided on a course of action. Chris Evans captured all of that. I thought the best line of the film was when, in the middle of his climactic battle with the Red Skull, after the Skull taunts him by pointing to their shared status as super-humans, Cap says, “I’m just a guy from Brooklyn.” Bull’s-eye, and bravo to the script writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely).

As good as Chris Evans was, my favorite character in the film was Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, creator of the super soldier serum. Erskine never got much development in the Captain America comics. Originally, he only appeared in a few panels of 1940’s Captain America Comics #1 before being killed by a Nazi spy. His story got slightly expanded in subsequent retellings of Cap’s origins, but the good doctor always got the short end of the stick. Not so in the film. Tucci makes the most of his few moments of screen time. The relationship between him and Steve Rogers is, I think, the most touching and heartfelt relationship in the movie; I could’ve watched a full ninety minutes of nothing but Dr. Erskine and Steve getting to know each other. The only little reservation I have about the movie’s retconning of Erskine’s story is that it has him injecting, unwillingly and under duress, an earlier version of his super soldier serum into the man who becomes the Red Skull. I assume from his name that Abraham Erskine was Jewish; would the Nazi Red Skull have really permitted himself to be subjected to mongrel Jewish science?

I enjoyed the film for many of the same reasons as this guy did. But it wasn’t an ideal film, by any means. I agree with a number of critics who complained that the wartime action sequences felt repetitive and were unimaginatively staged. My favorite of the action scenes in Europe lasted only a half a minute; this was Cap dropping a grenade down the hatch of an immense German super-tank, a monster war machine I would’ve enjoyed seeing more than a few seconds of. The most effective action sequence in the film is the earliest one, when Steve Rogers chases down the Nazi spy who shot Dr. Erskine. This sequence was considerably expanded from its comics counterpart, and it is thrilling, particularly in showing us Steve’s discovery of the extent of his new abilities, as well as his initial awkwardness in making use of his newfound speed. Loved that scene of him careening through the window of a dress shop because he’d turned a corner too fast.

In any case, this picture so immeasurably improved upon its most recent forebears, the 1992 Captain America movie (which I remember seeing a coming attraction for in 1990 at a screening of Dick Tracy, but ended up being so bad it was never theatrically released in the U.S.) and the two made-for-TV movies from 1979, that it earns considerable bonus points from grading on a curve. In my humble opinion, the 1944 Republic serial was no great shakes, either, with its protagonist having nothing in common with the comic book character other than portions of the costume (it was a pretty decent adventure serial, but a pretty lousy Captain America serial), but some viewers are willing to show it more love than I have.

So what did the boys think of the film? Levi, my oldest, thought parts of it dragged (the non-action scenes) and complained that he was bored; he said he’d enjoyed X-Men: First Class much better. Asher, my middle son, enjoyed it and said he liked Captain America: the First Avenger and the X-Men film from earlier in the summer about the same. Judah, my four year-old, was the most enthusiastic about Cap. He also insisted that we hurry to a K-Mart so he could pick out his Captain America toy.

Mego Captain America Bend 'n Flex figure, circa 1973; the one that got away

Right after the movie, I took the boys to a comic book store in the same shopping mall. I asked Levi to pick out any Captain America comics or youth-oriented graphic novel he wanted (within reason). Couldn’t get him to bite; he insisted I buy him the latest Wimpy Kid book instead. Then I took the boys to a K-Mart so my other two sons could pick out a Captain America toy. Asher loves cars and trucks, so he gravitated to the Heroes vs. Villains custom cars sets. I asked him if he’d like me to get him the Captain America vs. the Red Skull set. No sale; he picked the Wolverine vs. Sabertooth set instead. Come on, kids, you’re killing your old pop! Can’t you see I’m begging you to let me buy you Captain America stuff? Only Judah, my littlest guy, picked out a Cap action figure. Now I know who will be inheriting my collection of Bronze Age comics…

Well, here are some fun Cap links for you all to chew on–

Someone probably put more time into compiling this Wikipedia article on the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon shows of the mid-1960s than the filmmakers put into making the cartoons themselves. Scary.

This 1990s Captain America cartoon series would have had much better production values, but it never got beyond the drawing board stage.

A nice little portrait of Reb Brown, the actor who portrayed Cap in two 1979 made-for-TV movies. A month after giving this interview, though, he seemed mighty pissed off that he hadn’t been given a cameo in the new film.

If you thought nothing could look worse in Captain America-land than Reb Brown in that motorcycle helmet, try taking a gander at this.

If that last image really lit your cigar, you might want to bid on Reb Brown’s costume from Captain America: Death Too Soon. Shame it doesn’t come with the famous motorcycle helmet, though…

A really cool DIY Captain America shield.

Mego 8" Captain America; the one that hung out with my Mego Planet of the Apes figures

A helpful history of the many, many characters who have taken up the mantle of Captain America over the years.

The same history, but edited down to eight comics panels.

A bit of nifty what-if on who might’ve been cast as Captain America had a big-screen movie been filmed in earlier decades.

A visual history of the Mego Captain America toys of the 1970s.

Fifty-six pieces of great Captain America swag I wish I could’ve had as a kid.

An appreciation of Gene Colan’s “groovy” late 1960s and early 1970s Captain America work.

A drinking game you can play while watching your DVD copy of the 1992 Captain America movie.

For your aesthetic pleasure, here’s a marvelous page of Gene Colan’s art from Captain America #131:

Gene Colan art from Captain America #131

And let us close with these inspiring lyrics from the 1960s Captain America cartoon show:

When Captain America throws his mighty shield
All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield
If he’s lead to a fight and a duel is due,
Then the red and white and the blue’ll come through
When Captain America throws his mighty shield…

And remember — Let’s rap with Cap!

Gladiator in the Light of Subsequent Super-Men and Superheroes

I just finished reading Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator. I’d heard about the book for years, both as one of the earliest speculative fiction novels on the subject of a super-human (appearing five years prior to Olaf Stapleton’s Odd John and ten years before A. E. van Vogt’s Slan was serialized in Astounding) and as the purported inspiration for the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938.

On the surface, certain parallels between Hugo Danner, protagonist of Gladiator, and the original version of Superman are striking. Their power sets were virtually identical; Danner could run as fast as a locomotive, leap forty feet straight into the air or hurl a church steeple with a running start, lift up to five tons, and had skin impenetrable by anything short of an exploding artillery shell. Also, Danner spends part of the book attempting to root out corrupt politicians and industrialists from their center of power in Washington, DC, a pursuit echoed by a decidedly populist Superman in many pre-war issues of Action Comics and Superman (in Metropolis, rather than Washington). However, according to Gregory Feeley, who has looked into all the relevant sources, Gladiator may not have had anything to do with the inspiration for Superman. The novel initially found very few readers, selling less than 2,600 copies in its first hardcover printing from Alfred Knopf. During interviews they granted late in life, both Siegel and Shuster acknowledged several inspirations for their character, including the pulp action hero Doc Savage, but do not mention Wylie’s Gladiator. Sam Moskowitz’s claim of the link between the 1930 novel and the 1938 Action Comics character, published in his 1963 book of portraits of SF writers, Explorers of the Infinite, was based upon a single interview with Wylie. Gregory Feeley points out that the differences between Hugo Danner and Clark Kent/Superman are more notable, perhaps, than the similarities. Danner received his powers as the result of an experiment his chemist father carried out on Danner’s mother while she was pregnant, not as the result of coming from another planet; and Danner never puts on a costume, adopts a secret identity, or battles criminals as a vigilante, although following one of his frequent failures to achieve his ambitions, he fantasizes about doing the latter (or, alternatively, about becoming what we today would call a super-villain).

A friend of mine located for me a paperback reprint of the novel, published by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Press in 2004. Having just spent weeks laboring through Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (more on that in my next post), I decided I needed a palate cleanser, something less challenging and a much quicker read. Gladiator seemed to fit the bill. I mainly picked up the book out of archeological interest, wanting to determine for myself any linkages between what I figured would be an antiquated, eighty year-old relic of the pulp era and the subsequent development of the super-hero in comics and films. What I discovered to my surprise was a novel centered on a sophisticated and sometimes subtle characterization of a believable, conflicted, and very three-dimensional protagonist, a book that could bear favorable comparisons, not only with its more renowned contemporaries like Odd John, but also with far more recent novels on similar themes, such as Robert Silverberg’s classic Dying Inside (1972).

As a reader in 2011 who has been marinated in forty years’ worth of super-hero comic books and films, I came to Gladiator with a considerably different set of preconceived notions and penumbras of earlier reading experiences than the novel’s original readers would have had back in 1930. I’ve had the benefit of having read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Miracleman, Peter David’s Hulk, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme. A familiarity with these comics and graphic novels enormously enriches one’s experience of Gladiator, because one can easily see reflections of Hugo Danner’s travails in all of those later works, whether the influence was direct (as it possibly was in the case of Moore, who visually “quoted” Gladiator in Watchmen) or indirect.

To me, a far more interesting question than whether or not Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster read Gladiator in the 1930s is if Stan Lee read Gladiator in the early 1960s. The novel’s portrait of a man more cursed than blessed by his super-human strength and abilities is strongly echoed by Lee’s characterizations of Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Silver Surfer (and Lee’s pioneering work in the 1960s led to those deeper examinations of the dilemmas and conundrums of being super-human that I list above). Hugo Danner spends his entire adolescent and adult life searching for a purpose toward which to apply his enormous strength, and the varied purposes he pursues and ends up abandoning encompass almost the entire range of plots utilized by writers of super-hero stories since 1938. In order of attempt, Danner seeks personal glory through excelling at collegiate athletics; accumulation of wealth (or just making enough dough for a meal) through use of his physical strength; satisfaction through saving lives in danger; being able to “cut loose” during wartime and seek vengeance for the deaths of friends in battle; he tries to live up to a parental figure’s hopes; temporarily turns his back on his abilities in an effort to find normalcy and serenity; tries to root out corruption in government and the justice system; seeks to use his strength in the service of scientific exploration; and finally contemplates founding a utopia in the jungle and populating it with children having abilities like his. The tragedy of the novel — and it is a tragedy — is that Danner, despite his pure intentions, despite the rigid control he mostly maintains over his use of his abilities, either is foiled in each of these pursuits by the ignorance, fear, or venality of his fellow men, or he has rueful second thoughts about goals for which he was initially wild with enthusiasm, realizing that his dreams are unrealistic, given human nature. The book ends with Danner considering himself a failure, even though the reader will recognize that he has won many small victories throughout the novel, albeit victories on a far smaller scale than those for which Danner had yearned.

In many respects, Hugo Danner more closely resembles Peter Parker/Spider-Man than he does Clark Kent/Superman. Danner’s scientist father’s goal is to find a way to increase the efficiency of human muscle mass to that of the muscles of ants and grasshoppers, and he succeeds with his infant son (after first succeeding, far more horrifically, with a kitten he comes to name Samson). Danner ends up with the proportional strength of an ant and the proportional leaping ability and speed of a grasshopper, whereas Peter Parker ends up, far more famously, with the proportional strength and speed of a spider. The famous scene from Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first Spider-Man movie of Peter Parker, under an assumed identity, entering a ring with a professional wrestler in order to win a cash prize was foreshadowed decades earlier by an almost identical scene in Gladiator, wherein Hugo Danner uses a false name to win a hundred dollars by knocking out a professional boxer a foot taller and eighty pounds heavier than he is (in another Peter Parker-like touch, the reason Danner does this is to raise cash for a bus ticket back to Webster College after having been seduced, then robbed by a call girl in New York City). Danner’s foray into heroism and service to others, like Peter Parker’s, is preceded by a tragic death caused, in part, by a personal failing on the part of the protagonist. In Peter Parker’s case, his selfish refusal to interfere with a robber’s escape leads to the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben at the hands of that same robber. In Hugo Danner’s case, his anger on the football field at a personal snub from the jealous captain of his team leads Danner to momentarily let go of his self-control and hit an opposing player too hard in the process of scoring a touchdown, snapping the young man’s neck in three places. The big difference between the two characters? Peter Parker, meant almost from the start to be a character in a recurring series of stories, utilizes his shame and self-recrimination to forge a philosophy of “With great power comes great responsibility” and then embarks upon a career as Spider-Man which has now lasted nearly a half century. Hugo Danner, the protagonist of a single novel, struggles mightily to find a purpose for his power and never succeeds, or at least never manages to live up to the Olympian standard he sets for himself.

Danner also resembles another Stan Lee creation, the Incredible Hulk. Danner’s scientist father experiments on a pregnant cat before experimenting on his own wife. The result is a kitten with the strength of an ox. In a series of horrific scenes, among the most effective in the book, the super-kitten nearly destroys the Danners’ home and savagely kills several sheep and cattle. A farmer’s rifle bullet fails to kill it. Danner is forced to poison the creature when it returns to his house for a saucer of milk and a plate of meat. After this experience, Danner and his neurotically religious wife take special care to condition Hugo, once the baby shows signs of his super-human strength, against any expression of anger, use of violence, or open display of his prowess. They are mostly successful in this, although both as an infant and as a child, Hugo occasionally lets signs of his abnormality show, which results in his being ostracized by most of the other children in his town and by their parents. Throughout the book, Danner worries about his potential for losing control and struggles against incitements and temptations to give his anger (and his inhuman strength) free reign. His college career as a star football player is ended when Danner, goaded by a jealous teammate, momentarily forgets to self-limit himself to one-fifth of his abilities on the playing field and accidentally kills an opposing player. Danner’s potential as a killer is shown in full during his service with the French Foreign Legion during World War One, when, in the bloody aftermath of the death of his best friend from German artillery fire, Danner plows into the German trenches and kills a thousand soldiers with his bare hands. Another parallel with an early Hulk story (in this case, The Avengers #1)? Seeking refuge and peace, the Hulk “hides in open sight” by joining a circus and performing as a super-strong robot. In Danner’s case, when he suddenly learns that his parents will be unable to pay for his second year at Webster College, he raises money for his education by getting a job as a strong man on the Coney Island midway, trusting in audiences’ assumption of some form of fakery to mask the extent of his natural abilities.

Another theme of the novel is Danner’s continual search for acceptance, friendship, and love. The ordinary people who surround him can sense his difference, even when he is completely successful at hiding his abnormal strength. This sense of difference leads to distrust, fear, and often to hatred. Danner, after taking a job as a farm hand, finds love with the farmer’s neglected wife, only to see her love turn to horror after Danner is forced to kill a marauding bull by breaking its skull with his fist. In one key scene, Danner rescues a bank coworker who has become trapped in a bank vault and is close to suffocation. All conventional efforts to open the jammed vault have failed. Danner offers to rescue the man, but only if all other persons will leave the basement and will not inquire into his method. He then rips off the vault’s door with his bare hands. The bank’s president questions Danner, suspecting that he has devised a new method of safe cracking that he means to use criminally in the future. When Danner refuses to answer his boss’s questions, the executive has Danner arrested by a corrupt police chief, who then attempts to torture an answer out of Danner. Stan Lee utilized this pattern of a protagonist’s good deed leading to social condemnation and ostracism regularly, particularly in stories involving Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, or the Silver Surfer. Of all these, Hugo Danner is perhaps the most similar, personality-wise, to the Silver Surfer, one of Lee’s personal favorites. Both characters are portrayed as lonely introverts, frequently soliloquizing on the short-sighted foolishnesses of humanity, yet yearning all the same for human companionship and acceptance, trying to help those in need and sometimes succeeding, but never achieving any recognition. No issue of the classic Stan Lee-John Buscema run of The Silver Surfer was complete without the Surfer retreating to an isolated mountaintop and ruing his exile on Earth and the shortcomings of humanity. Gladiator ends the same way, with Hugo Danner on a mountaintop in Mexico, remonstrating with God.

As a reader conditioned by the “Dark and Gritty” era of super-hero storytelling that followed the publications of The Dark Knight Returns, Miracleman, and Watchmen in the mid-1980s, I kept waiting for Hugo Danner to truly lose it. In an early scene set during his time at Webster College, Danner gets drunk for the first time in his life, at a party attended by his fraternity brothers and a horde of showgirls. Intimations of Alan Moore’s Miracleman led me on, making me anticipate a horrific consequence on the scale of one of Young Nastyman’s drunken binges in the South Seas or Young Miracleman’s nihilistic destruction of part of London. But the worst that happens is that Danner goes home with one of the young women, passes out after having sex, and awakens the next morning with his wallet gone. Danner does let his anger and grief take over in 1918 in France after the Germans kill his best friend, but the Young Miracleman-like slaughter he inflicts on the German troops is camouflaged by the far more massive carnage taking place all along the Western Front; even a man who can kill a thousand enemies in a single night is overshadowed by a war in which a single battle could result in half a million casualties. In his civilian life back in America, the one time that Danner would have been fully justified in cutting loose and dismembering his foes, following his torture at the hands of corrupt police after he has freed a man trapped in a bank vault, he manages to retain control, limiting himself to an intimidating display of his abilities. I thought I might be disappointed by the author’s choice not to have his protagonist engage in vengeance which (most) modern super-characters would have allowed themselves. But Wylie is so successful in illuminating Hugo Danner’s character, his upbringing, and his sense of ethics that I fully “bought” Danner’s decision to be merciful, not feeling that it was a cop-out on the writer’s part.

Fans of the best work of Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, and Frank Miller exploring what it means to be super-human owe it to themselves to find a copy of Gladiator and read it, not as a historical curiosity, but as an engaging and enlightening novel. Philip Wylie covered their territory first, decades before most of them began their careers in comics. And he did so with a deftness, craftsmanship, and powers of extrapolation that make his book just as readable as it was upon its first publication in 1930. In fact, perhaps even a better fit for today’s comics-savvy audience than it was for those 2,568 readers who bought copies of the first edition from Alfred Knopf during the early years of the Great Depression.

Buying Books in the 1970s, pt. 3

a great find from Starship Enterprises

Here’s the third part of my mini-memoir of buying books as a kid in the 1970s in North Miami and North Miami Beach (to go to part one, click here, and to go to part two, click here). Thus far, we’ve taken little memory trips to Burdine’s Department Store, an unnamed cigar shop, Worldwide News and Books, the Arts and Sciences Bookshop, and one of the two binary stars my young reading life orbited around, A&M Comics and Books (fondly remembered as Arnold’s). Today, we’ll visit Starship Enterprises and the other binary star, the Walden’s Books (not WaldenBooks–the corporate bigwigs hadn’t renamed the chain yet) at the 163rd Street Shopping Center.

Starship Enterprises: This was a comic book store located on the opposite side of 163rd Street from Worldwide News and Books and a block or two east, closer to the railroad tracks. There’s still a comics shop in the same location — Villains Comics and Games, which replaced Starship Enterprises (or possibly yet another comic shop) in 1984. Starship Enterprises was the diametric opposite of Arnold’s. Whereas Arnold shoved his new comics into old wire racks at the front of his store and let other comics fade in the sun that streamed in through his bay window, the owner of Starship Enterprises (a neatnik hippy with a carefully coiffed ponytail) arranged his new comics in a handbuilt, honeycomb-like wooden shrine that took up most of one wall of the long, narrow store. Whereas Arnold’s was stuffed to overflowing with stuff, Starship Enterprises always seemed to have perilously little in stock, apart from their selection of new comics. But what little they did had was carefully selected, artfully arranged, and displayed like an exhibit in a fine handicrafts museum.

I never felt all that comfortable being in Starship Enterprises. I usually felt as though I were trespassing in a private club. However, if you were looking for something in particular, it was much, much easier to find it there than it would be at Arnold’s. When I was eleven and going through a several weeks long infatuation with Jack Kirby’s rendition of the Inhuman’s Medusa (oh, that long red hair; oh, that skintight purple jumpsuit…), I went looking for my back issues of Marvel’s Greatest Comics at Starship Enterprises, not in the various boxes lying all over the floor at Arnold’s.

The store had a tiny selection of used paperbacks, but what they had was choice. Unlike Arnold, who didn’t seem to care what sort of condition the books he bought were in, the small selection of books at Starship Enterprises was invariably mint and handsomely vintage. They always had a nice batch of old Ballantine paperbacks on hand. My best finds were several editions of Frederik Pohl’s pioneering original science fiction anthologies of the 1950s, Star Science Fiction. Still have ’em.

a thing of beauty

The Walden’s Books at the 163rd Street Shopping Center: If Arnold’s was my main source of used books, this was my primary source of new books. It was where I’d drag my parents every Hanukkah and every birthday to point out the presents I wanted. It also happened to be the place I fell in love for the first time.

Walden’s Books was a terrific source for inexpensive illustrated books of all kinds. My local store’s sale tables (the 163rd Street Shopping Center was only a twelve block bike ride from my house, even closer than Arnold’s) were piled high with publishers’ close-outs on all sorts of subjects beloved by young boys: battleships, submarines, airplanes, tanks, World War 2, the Civil War, dinosaurs, dragons, astrology, muscle cars, trains, horror movies… and science fiction. Oh, they carried some wonderful illustrated tomes on science fiction.

another thing of beauty

I already mentioned buying The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction at Walden’s, which quickly became my SF bible. They also carried both of David Kyle’s gorgeous volumes on the artwork, writers, and themes of the prior hundred years’ worth of science fiction, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. Both books were chock full of reproductions of lurid pulp covers, particularly from the Gernsback magazines, Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Air Wonder Stories. Even more fascinating to me were the illustrations from the popular magazines of an even earlier time, the Victorian and Edwarian decades, with their super-battleships, flying battleships, and bizarre, pre-Wright Brothers winged contraptions of all sorts.

As an adult, I got to meet David Kyle at a convention after he presented a slide show taken from his two books. I told him how much the first book had meant to me (I received the first one from my mother as a twelfth birthday present; but the second book I didn’t get around to buying until after talking with David, when I found it on eBay). He told me they had been works of love, and his one regret had been that their cover color schemes and fonts had been so similar to each other that many potential buyers ended up mistaking the second book for the first and never picking up Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. I may have made the same mistake myself as a young man. One of my favorite features of David’s first book was its division of various decades in the development of science fiction into “ages”: the Iron Age, the Steel Age, the Silver Age, the Golden Age, the Plastic Age, etc. His fun dedications page gave shout-outs to many of my favorite fictional characters, including Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

I fell in love with two Anne M’s at that Walden’s Books. The first was Anne McCaffrey. I bought the first five Dragonriders of Pern books there, including The White Dragon in hardback, a splurge. I formed an Anne McCaffrey fan club and sent letters to her in Ireland (she always answered me, and this in the days before email). The second Anne M was named Annie Marsh. She was a sales clerk at the bookstore. I thought she looked like a young Jane Seymour. I was smitten from the first moment I talked with her. Twelve years old, I acted like a big-shot, know-it-all science fiction fan that first afternoon; I tried horning in on recommendations Annie was attempting to give to some teenaged customers in the science fiction and fantasy section, showing her and them how smart and well-read I was.

Annie was a regal nineteen, seven years older than I was. Within a day or two of meeting her, she was all I could think about. I found excuses to make trips to Walden’s Books every opportunity I could. Sometimes she’d let me sit in the stock room and office in the back with her and talk, or I’d just watch her work. When I couldn’t think of an excuse to go inside the store, or if I’d seen her too recently and it might weird her out to go see her again, so soon, I’d pedal my bike to the mall and park myself in a corner near the edge of the store’s display window, where I could watch the sales counter. I’d wait for her to come out of the office and help someone at the counter. I’d just look at her, drink in the sight of her, pray she didn’t spot me standing outside, and estimate the next time it would be kind of socially acceptable to talk with her again.

I carried a torch for Annie all through junior high school, from the time I was twelve to the time I was fourteen. Then she told me she would have to quit her job at the store because she would be attending college out of town. Either she gave me her home phone number or I looked it up, because I remember talking with her parents at least a couple of times after she stopped working at Walden’s Books. The last time I spoke with them, they told me she was engaged to be married. I’d known all along that I didn’t have a chance with her, of course. But my heart still broke, very painfully.

Strange to think she’s fifty-three now, possibly a grandmother.

Buying Books in the 1970s, pt. 2

the book that launched my search for a thousand other books

This is the second part of my mini-memoir of buying books as a kid in the 1970s in North Miami and North Miami Beach (to go to part one, click here). With the immanent closure of 400 Borders Books stores, which will change the book buying habits of tens of thousands of readers around the country, I felt like a little memory journey to the bookstores and newsstands of my childhood might be in order.

In yesterday’s post, I described the motley collection of places I bought some of my earliest science fiction books and books about science fiction — a Burdine’s Department Store, a cigar shop, a newsstand, and an independent bookstore. In today’s post, I’ll talk about a place where I went hog wild, where I spent the bulk of my weekly allowance, and where I blew goodly chunks of my bar mitvah gift money. What follows are the places where I went from being a reader of science fiction to a science fiction fan — as in fanatic.

A&M Comics and Books: If there was a geographical center to my childhood (apart from my bedroom), this was it. I probably made more trips to A&M, or Arnold’s, as I called it (that’s what the A stood for, the owner’s first name; the M stood for the name of his wife, I believe) than I did to all my other bookstores and comic shops combined. The place opened in 1974, when I was nine, at the corner of South Dixie Highway and 12th Avenue, about a thirteen block bike ride from my house. It’s still in business (although relocated to Bird Road in Miami and now run by a guy named Jorge, who hired on with Arnold around the time I graduated high school in 1982) and claims to be the second oldest continuously operating comic book store in America. Arnold, a retiree from New Jersey, was the owner-operator, a crusty, irritable, Sam Moskowitz-kind of guy who decided to run a comics shop and used bookstore as a second career. The comics were displayed on freestanding wire racks at the front of the store. The other four-fifths of the place were taken up by a barely organized menage of used books, a good portion of them science fiction paperbacks. Arnold wasn’t into neat, nor was he into mint; his stock was stacked haphazardly on shelves, the tops of chairs, in boxes, on stools, and on the floor, and many of his books were on the ratty side. On the other hand, he made up for those possible foibles with quantity. Arnold always had a lot of books, and he bought more all the time. Finding something good within that huge mess was a good part of the fun. You could never search for something specific; you had to stumble across your treasure. And you generally did.

I can’t recall whether my father found Arnold’s first or whether I did. In either case, we soon fell into the habit of stopping by there on Sundays so I could spend my allowance. As a nine year-old, I received one dollar a week allowance. That year, Marvel comics (unless they were Annuals) retailed for twenty cents. Thus, I could theoretically buy five comics a week, assuming I could scrape up four extra pennies for tax. Usually my father would spot me the extra four cents, saying it was an advance on next week’s allowance. But he always forgot by the time the next week rolled around. So five comics a week it was, and what a treat. Marvel had started publishing lots of books with horror heroes, like Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night (I had a subscription to that one), and Ghost Rider. I bought them all, plus my favorite superhero books, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man, and Marvel Triple Action (the early adventures of the Avengers, reprinted). Every week, my father would ask me the same question: “Andy, are you sure you want to spend your entire allowance on comic books?” And every week, I’d reply with a polite version of, “Hell, yeah!

At first, I never ventured beyond the comics racks, especially not when my father was with me (he wanted me to make my selections fast so we could get out of the dusty, overly warm, and poorly ventilated store). But I soon started visiting Arnold’s on my own, either on Saturdays or after school, riding my bike down 12th Avenue. On those more leisurely visits, I began exploring the other four-fifths of the place. And I quickly discovered that some of those old paperbacks were really cool. So I gradually transitioned from spending my entire weekly allowance on comics to spending most of it on comics and some on books, to splitting it fifty-fifty, and then to spending the majority of it on used paperbacks. The turning point came shortly after my bar mitzvah, when I used some of my Walden’s gift certificates for a copy of the new reference book, The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Brian Ash. (That I bought at the Walden’s Books in the 163rd Street Shopping Center, a store I’ll have to save for tomorrow’s installment.) This was the book that forever changed me from being a casual reader of science fiction to a determined, driven, systematic reader of science fiction. The book that made me a fan.

The Visual Encyclopedia, quite simply, blew my mind. It was the Internet before there was an Internet. It featured an illustrated chronology of all the seminal stories and books in science fiction, chapters on enduring themes in the literature, and highly detailed archival articles on subjects like the Hugo Awards and fandom and the history of the magazines. It had a fabulous index that let you track mentions of your favorite writers or books from themed chapter to themed chapter. I spent hours and hours pouring through that book. I could read the chapters and articles dozens of times, getting something different out of them each time. Of course, I began compiling my dream reading list, drawn from forty-five years’ worth of magazines and novels and anthologies.

I found a good portion of my dream reading list on the shelves or in the piles at Arnold’s. Every visit became a treasure hunt. I found A. E. van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. G. Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Anne McCaffrey. I stumbled on names and books I’d never heard of, which I’d then look up in the Visual Encyclopedia as soon as I’d pedaled home. So long as the Encyclopedia gave its seal of approval, I went back the next day or the day after and bought the book.

I became more than just a regular at Arnold’s. I was virtually a resident. Arnold and I developed a sort of love-hate relationship, or at least he developed one with me. I’m sure he didn’t mind that I was spending a good bit of money in his store, but he never seemed to enjoy my company. Maybe he didn’t enjoy anybody’s company. I don’t remember any of our conversations, but I’m sure at least some went like this:

Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?
Me: Not really. . .
Arnold: I mean, don’t you have after-school activities, or something?
Me: I ride my bike over here. It’s exercise.
Arnold: Don’t you have any friends?
Me: I see them at school.
Arnold: How come you’re always in here?
Me: I like it in here.
Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?

That place imprinted itself on me. If I could print out a map of my mind, it would look a lot like the interior of Arnold’s. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable in a home unless I have some clutter around me. Preferably clutter with books mixed in.

Arnold, you old, balding curmudgeon, rest in peace in that Big Used Bookstore in the Sky.

Yipes! I’ve already posted almost 1400 words, just on A&M Comics and Books. Looks like I won’t get around to Starship Enterprises and Walden’s Books and my first, unrequited love in this post. I’ll save them for part three (which can be found by clicking here).

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