Why I Read Comics – Part Three

In my senior year of high school I had an amazing group of friends.  We called ourselves The A-Team.  (There will be a whole separate post about this group, I can’t do them justice in just this brief introduction to my latest comic book blog installment.)  We were out bowling one night, because, why not?  It was that perfect era of lots of freedom and little responsibility.  We had driver’s licenses, we had cars, we had disposable income, we had free time.  Of course, let’s go bowling, let’s stay out late, and let’s go to Taco Bell afterward.

There were two relative newcomers to our crew, Mike and Jeff, out with us that night.  They were acquaintances, familiar faces I knew from the halls of high school, but I’d never really talked to either of them much before.  They were friends with Tom and Greg, who had invited them to join the crew for the antics of the evening.

It was my turn to bowl, and I was walking up to the lane carrying my Brunswick Laser when I overheard Mike saying something to Jeff.  “I gotta save Batgirl, man!”  I stopped for a second.  Did he just say Batgirl?

Jeff laughed.  “What are you talking about?”

“I gotta get back to the comic store!  Batgirl’s still sitting in the bag, and she needs my help!” Mike said.  “I can’t believe I just left her there!  She needs my help not to die!!”

(What I did not know at the time was that Mike was referring to the cover of Batgirl #2, in which she is holding up a sign that says “Please Help Me Not To Die.”)

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When I got a chance a little bit later I asked them what they were talking about.

“We go to the comic book store every Wednesday, after school,” Jeff explained.

“It’s a place called All Heroes Comics,” Mike elaborated.  “I’ve been going there for years.  When I was a kid I used to ride my bike up to the store on the weekends.”

I was in disbelief of what I was hearing.  “And now you guys go every week?”

“Yeah, Wednesday is the day the new comics come out.  We usually get there just as Chuck is opening up the boxes and putting them out on the shelf.”

I couldn’t even process this.  I had never had any friends who read comics, and now I had just met two guys who were way more hardcore than I was.

“What comics do you read?” Jeff asked.  I was wearing a Superman t-shirt and asking them obsessively about their comic book shop routine, so I don’t think it was a huge leap of logic for him to assume I was into them too.

And yet, I actually struggled for a moment to answer.  I had been “away” from comics for a while.  There wasn’t anything that I was actively reading or collecting, and even those occasional trips to a comic store or orders from Entertainment This Month had become so few and far between that they were essentially non-existent.  The most recent thing I had checked out were a few issues from the conclusion of the “No Man’s Land” storyline that had played out in the Batman comics, which I had picked up on a whim from the newsstand at Wegmans.

“I’ve been reading some of the Batman stuff,” I said.  “Superman’s always been my favorite though.”

“You want to come with us this Wednesday?” Mike asked.

“Yeah, that would be awesome!” I replied.

That Wednesday, right after school, I got to be part of the weekly ritual and go with Mike and Jeff to All Heroes Comics.  I had never been there before, and actually did not even know of this store’s existence until now.

(The comic store I had gone to previously from time to time over the years, which I will not name here, was not big on customer service… in fact the owner of that place acted like it was a huge inconvenience to help you with anything.  I actually always felt bad any time I asked my dad to stop and grab something for me, because I knew he was on his own to try and find it!)

“What’s up, fellas!” Chuck, the owner, said as we walked in.  Mike and Jeff had the timing down to a science; there was a stack of newly-delivered UPS boxes on the counter that Chuck was just about to open, as he gave the packing list a quick once-over.

He grabbed the top box and popped it down on top of one of the long-boxes full of back issues.  He sliced open the tape with a box cutter, expertly avoiding doing any damage to the books inside.  He took out small stacks of comics at a time, separating them into piles of copies of each new issue, and calling out the title as he did.  “Amazing Spidey,” he said, starting a stack of the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man.  “Cap,” he called out, starting a pile of Captain America.  And so on.  Mike and Jeff would grab the issues they collected as soon as they hit the table.

It was like being a kid on Christmas morning, only you got to snag the presents you wanted as soon as Santa took them out of the sack.  And it happened every freaking Wednesday.

Mike told Chuck he had a few things to pick up in his bag, also.  The bag, also known as a pull-list, was essentially an in-house subscription service.  You gave Chuck a list of the titles you collected, and if an issue came out and you couldn’t stop in to get it right away, he would set it aside for you.  It also became an unofficial layaway for those weeks when you had more books than you could afford…!  You could stash some in the bag to grab on a future visit.  Mike used the opportunity to rescue Batgirl #2 from her place in layaway limbo and save her from the untimely demise she was apparently headed for on that cover.

I was hooked.  I went from guest appearance on the All Heroes outing to series regular, hitching a ride with Mike and Jeff every Wednesday after school whenever I could.  There was something so exciting about buying the comics literally as they hit the stands.  And, each week on the ride to and from the store, we’d talk about what we were reading, what was good, what wasn’t.  Our tastes intersected a bit but also varied.  I was the only one reading Superman and Justice League.  Mike and Jeff both read the X-Men books.  We all read Batman.

After a few weeks of picking up whatever caught my eye, I took the plunge and started a bag.  My initial pull-list included all four Superman titles, Batman, Detective Comics, JLA, and Incredible Hulk.  (I would add and drop various titles as the years went on, but to be honest, that core lineup stayed relatively the same through all of the various pull-list incarnations.)

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L to R: Me, Chuck, Jeff, and Mike, circa 2000

That fall, Jeff and Mike went to college a couple of hours away, whereas I was going to a school closer to home and commuting.  I still went to All Heroes solo every Wednesday, and sent the guys emails about new stuff that came into the store or any funny stories about people who came in or things that were said.  (There were some regulars at the shop that we enjoyed running into, like the married guy whose wife didn’t know he collected comics, and he had to come in really quickly when he was doing the groceries.  Or the guy that we nicknamed “The Spy” because he always seemed to have inside info about movies and comics that no one else knew.)  Of course, when the guys were home for breaks, we all stopped in together so they could clear out the massive accumulation in the bags.

I’ll never forget the year we took the galacticness to the next level and went to a comic convention together for the first time.  The three of us drove from Rochester to Chicago for Wizard World in 2002, armed with a stack of swag that Chuck had asked us to try and get signed for him if we could.  We returned with comics autographed by the likes of Sean Chen, Rob Liefeld, Greg Horn, Jeph Loeb, Greg Rucka, Adam Kubert, Humberto Ramos, and many more, and were rewarded with absolutely insane discounts from Chuck for many visits after that.

At that convention my fandom also came full circle, in a way… I met Lou Ferrigno, who of course played the Hulk on that TV series that had sparked my interest in superheroes in the first place when I was just a kid.

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Me with Lou Ferrigno (I’m the one on the left)

I remember when we were planning our trip to Wizard World Chicago we kept referring to it as a “once in a lifetime” trip.  How wrong we were…!  It was just the beginning of a new level of fandom.  The thrill of meeting the writers and artists who crafted the books you’ve collected for so long, or shaking the hand of an actor who first brought them to life for you as a kid, was something that just couldn’t be a one-and-done.  One year later, in the summer of 2003, Mike and I drove all night in a rainstorm from Rochester to Philadelphia, because I just absolutely had to meet Allison Mack (who played Chloe Sullivan on Smallville, and who I had a massive crush on).

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Me with Allison Mack

At other conventions throughout the years I would also meet some of the other individuals who were instrumental in my initial immersion in the world of comics.  At Dragon Con in 2011, I met Peter David, who wrote many of the earliest Hulk comics I had when I was little.  My dad came to the convention, too… what a surreal moment, meeting the guy who wrote some of those first comics I ever had, with my dad, who bought them for me!

I still go to All Heroes comics, although I don’t have a pull-list bag anymore.  Instead, I’m back to the “whatever catches my eye” approach when I can find the time to go in, which sure isn’t every week.  I’ve taken my own kids into the store a few times, usually on Free Comic Book Day every May.  My daughter particularly likes the Duck Tales comics, and in fact enjoys looking at some of the very issues I read when I was little when she goes to sleep at night.

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Showing my son Captain America’s shield, circa 2015

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My daughter, asleep with her Duck Tales comics, circa 2017

Mike and Jeff are still two of my best friends.  We collaborated on film projects together in college, including a semi-animated adaptation of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s “The Ultimates” (think “motion comic”) with us and our friends doing the voices.  (You can find it on YouTube if you’re so inclined.)  We went to each other’s bachelor parties and weddings.  And, now that we all have kids, we’re just as likely to text each other in excitement about new episodes of PJ Masks as we are about the latest adventures of the superheroes we’ve enjoyed reading for so many years.  (I’m not kidding about the PJ Masks part.)

All of this eventually brings me back to where this series of blogs all started, which was back-to-school shopping with my wife, surrounded by images of every superhero you can think of on every lunchbox, every backpack, every pencil case, and any other product you can think of, and Amanda commenting that I must love the fact that superheroes are everywhere now.

And I do.  And I also don’t.

I can only compare it to that feeling you get when you love a certain band that no one else has heard of, and you have all of their CDs and you know every song by heart and you’ve seen them in concert and you’re their biggest fan.  And then, one day, they blow up and become mainstream, and suddenly everyone is into them.  But, they all only know the one or two songs that play on the radio.  They don’t know the band the way you do.  And instead of being excited that everyone else is into them, you get kind of weirdly possessive.

Those kids who are wearing Hulk t-shirts didn’t learn to read with Hulk comics, and everyone who liked the movie “Man of Steel” didn’t spend their formative years devouring every Superman comic book they could get their hands on.

Comics, when they are done right, work on multiple levels.  Ideally, you should be able to pick up a single issue of any series, and get a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  You get to experience one adventure of the titular hero.  With the serial nature of the series, that adventure will undoubtedly leave one or more things unresolved, or even more likely, end on a cliffhanger, compelling you to want to pick up the next installment of that title.  However, something really incredible happens if you read more comic book titles.  Very frequently, with the “shared universe” that these stories occupy, characters and even plot points will spill over from one series into another.  You don’t have to (or, at least, when it’s done right, shouldn’t have to) read every series to get a whole story.  But, if you do, you start to get a larger sense of scope and scale, and almost feel like you live in that universe as well.

That is something that, as a kid growing up, I assumed would always be unique just to the comics.  I never thought it would or could carry over into the screen adaptations of my favorite heroes.  The closest it ever got was usually a quick reference in the form of a throwaway line or joke, like in “Batman Forever” when Bruce Wayne mentions Metropolis.  That’s right, he MENTIONED Metropolis, and at the time, that in itself was mind-blowing, because it implied that Superman must exist somehow, somewhere, in this reality as well.  (Around the same time, an episode of “Lois & Clark” mentioned Gotham City, and I almost lost my mind.)

And yet here we are today, in a world where we have multiple Marvel movies coming out each year, full of cameos and crossovers and post-credit scenes that tease at what’s coming next.  There’s also the slate of DC superhero shows on the CW Network, where you can occasionally see an episode of Supergirl end with a title card proclaiming “To Be Continued on The Flash,” or a Flash episode telling you to tune into Arrow for its conclusion.

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When the movie “Captain America: Civil War” came out, I was seeing it in the theater for the second time, and it was up to the scene were Cap is assembling his team at the airport in Germany.  Clint Barton opens the door of his van to reveal the last member of their team: Paul Rudd as Scott Lang.  A kid a few rows ahead of me excitedly told his dad, in pure disbelief, “That’s Ant Man!  That’s Ant Man!!”  The movie Ant Man had just come out the year before.  His appearance in Civil War, a movie already chock full of other heroes, was apparently the surprise that put this kid over the moon.  (It’s not like the kid had been talking through the whole movie, either.  Something about Ant Man showing up really got this kid stoked.)

And that’s when I realized, that that feeling of being part of a larger universe that I got from reading the comics, that feeling of being “in on it” when you caught a reference to something you had read before… it’s not unique to comics anymore.  They’ve finally managed to successfully translate it.

And I realized another thing, too.  In my own, weird, perhaps snobbish protectiveness of the comics, with that “I listened to this band before it was cool” sensibility where I felt like I was somehow “more” of a fan than everyone going to the movies or watching the shows… my fandom started with a TV adaptation too.  I never would have discovered the comics if it hadn’t been for watching the Bill Bixby TV show with my mom when I was little.  That copy of Incredible Hulk #324 wouldn’t have jumped out at me on the magazine rack at age 4 if I hadn’t first been introduced to the startling metamorphosis that occurred whenever David Banner grew angry or outraged in its television format first.

Maybe that kid who got so psyched to see Ant Man show up and hang with Captain America will ask his dad to take him to the comic book store so he can read about where that character comes from.  Or maybe he won’t.  And either way, it’s okay.  Because these movies and shows are introducing these characters to an audience who otherwise might not have known them at all.  (And, for those die-hard fans of the band that goes mainstream, there’s still comfort in knowing the lyrics to every deep track…!)

The long-boxes full of back issues that make up my collection are full of stories, frozen in time, that don’t just tell the tales of the fight for truth and justice.  They tell my story, too.  From a four-year-old kid who loved to see a man-monster going berserk with rage, to a 12-year-old who found inspiration in the adventures of a man from Krypton, to a young adult who made a couple of lifelong friends with a weekly trip to a comic book store, those comics are like signposts on the road of my life, each one carefully bagged, boarded, and filed away for posterity.

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