They Came From the Basement!!!

9 Pieces of Comic Paraphernalia I Found in Some Old Boxes That Shed a Bit of Light on How a Promising Young Lad Got Embroiled In This Sordid Business of Collecting Comic Books

1. The 448 Page Super Heroes Big Big Book
My parents knew better than to encourage their young son’s interest in comic books; my grandparents, thankfully, did not. On the occasion of one of my younger birthdays (the 7th? 8th? It’s hard to remember), they gifted me with a Hod Rod Writer (“Hot Rod Writer! You can race it and then! Hot Rod Writer! It turns to a pen!”) and this giant coloring/activity book. The first half contained four ready-to-color stories starring Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman & Robin (who pulled double duty fighting both Joker and the Penguin); the rest of the book contained crosswords, find-a-words and other various games and drawing activities with superhero themes (and many “What gets wet when it dries?”-type riddles by the Riddler). I had forgotten I still had this book, and it was a real jolt down Wayback Lane to find it in a box with some other comic-related items, a box full of childhood treasures that I inherited after my parents moved out of my childhood home. The colored pages suggest a young artist rebelling against the harsh dictates of DC’s branding standards (“if I say Batman’s cape is red, then Batman’s cape is red, dammit!”), while the half-filled-in crosswords suggest a young lad still on the cusp of developing his prodi- … his prodeg- … his really big vocabulary (though I’m pleased to see my youthful self kicked ass on the word-search puzzles and the “copy this image” drawing challenges).

2. A motley collection of Adventure Comics, DC Blue Ribbon and Year’s Best digests
Lords almighty, why did DC ever stop repackaging its old stories in this handy and dandy reading format? In the old days (say, the early 1980s), the logic behind comic digests was bulletproof: you’ve already paid the artists for the work, most of the stories are timeless, and the young readers you’re trying to hook weren’t around to see the stories when they were first printed. Plus, in a time where comics were fast disappearing from the shelves of drugstores and newsstands, the smaller-sized digests were perfect for placing in high-traffic areas like the supermarket checkout stand (right next to the Archie digests, which are still selling today), thereby hooking youngsters into trying out DC’s other offerings. But some time around 1986, someone at DC’s headquarters decided the digests weren’t worth the effort; maybe DC thought there was more money to be made in peddling upscale “archive” compilations to its established (read: older) readers, or maybe rising paper costs and/or new compensation agreements between publishers and artists in the ’80s meant the digests weren’t as profitable as they used to be. Whatever the reasons, it doesn’t change the fact the digests were pure gold for young comic fans at the time (like me) who were fascinated by all comic stories, past and present. And when you had the choice of spending a cool dollar on a 22-page standard comic or on a 100-page digest featuring, say, five classic tales in which Batman battles his five greatest villains… well, there was just no comparison. In the books I’ve found are collections of Silver Age Legion sagas, collections of Superman’s greatest team-up tales, and books featuring “100 pages of fun and frolic with Sugar & Spike.” Bliss.

3. 7 oversized greeting cards with psychedelic Marvel artwork
Eventually, my parents came around to supporting my comic collecting, figuring that, hey, at least the kid is reading something. Trouble was, there weren’t a lot of places to shop in the small Canadian town where I grew up, and my mom balked at the idea of giving me a stack of comics from the drugstore spinner rack as a Christmas present. Fortunately, that year’s Sears Wish Book had the answer, wedged somewhere between the tabletop arcade games and the rock tumbler kits: an attractively illustrated longbox for storing comics (now long gone, alas), inside of which was a guide to collecting comics, a stack of recently issued comics from various publishers, and seven oversized (6″x9″) greeting cards featuring comic art from Silver Age Marvel stories. Some are obviously greeting cards with “Happy Birthday” and such on the front, while others feature artwork lifted straight from stories illustrated by Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and other Marvel greats. I’ve since learned these cards were part of a line of products released in 1971 by a New York company called Third Eye Inc. that reprinted all manners of Marvel images with fluorescent colors. Last time I checked, the cards I have were selling for $10 apiece on eBay, not a bad return on my parent’s investment… but I’ll probably hold off on selling them for now.

4. 13 issues of DC’s Direct Currents
God, how I envy the youngsters these days, with their Wiis and their tweets and their 50 million ways to find out what’s going on in the world without leaving their chairs. In the dark days of my own adolescence (mid- to late 1980s), gathering information about upcoming comics was a little harder than it is today, which is why the Big Two did a lot of self-promotion within the pages of their own books: checklists featuring that month’s comics, interviews with artists, publishers’ announcements, that sort of thing. In 1983, Marvel took this self-promotion up a notch with Marvel Age, a full-length comic that featured a checklist of all comics published that month, along with articles about upcoming projects and retrospectives on great stories and titles from the past. DC followed suit in 1988 with Direct Currents, a news zine provided to retailers as a freebie to pass on to their customers. Having no comic shop in my hometown to patronize, I did a lot of mail-order business with a comic shop located on the other side of the continent (see below), and every one of their packages came with an issue of Direct Currents slipped in between the comics. I’m not entirely sure why I held on to them — they’re pretty flimsy things, with a few short “coming attractions” features up front, a checklist of the month’s offerings in the middle (with my youthful self dutifully noting with Xes the books I procured that month), and an artist interview bringing up the rear. I’m glad I did, though, as it’s pretty interesting to see how people found out about such things before all this cyberwebbin’ started.

5. 20 issues of the Island Fantazine newsletter
Behold the power of advertising. There I was, a young lad in a small Canadian town looking for more in comic entertainment than the local drugstore spinner rack could provide, and the answer was right in front of me all along. In those days, Marvel books ran a “Marvel Mart” column that listed the mailing addresses of comic shops that paid for the privilege of getting their information out to fans. I picked up an issue, sent $1.50 to the only Canadian retailer on the list, and waited patiently for a response. What arrived a few weeks later was an envelope containing a photocopied catalogue and a copy of Island Fantazine, the official newsletter of the Island Fantasy comic shop in Victoria, British Columbia. There were probably other Canadian retailers closer to my location, but the people running Island Fantasy not only knew the importance of using targeted media in their advertising efforts, they weren’t about to turn away a customer trusting enough to send money orders through the mail. Once I got on their mailing list, their newsletter arrived every month with a collection of fun articles about the store’s upcoming sales and events, general news about the comic industry in general, a “Mr. Trivia” column answering questions from store customers, and occasionally the odd announcement about comic-related events in Western Canada (pass the word: Stan Lee will appear at an Edmonton comic convention in 1989). Island Fantasy is no more — I’ve no idea when it folded, though sometime in the mid-1990s is a reasonable guess — and they were gone before I had a chance to thank them for introducing a young lad to such concepts as Golden Age and Silver Age comics. So, if anyone connected to the store is reading this: thanks.

6. A copy of the Daily Planet’s special “Invasion!” edition
Speaking of Island Fantasy. In 1988, DC followed up its mediocre Millennium crossover event with Invasion!, a slightly more ambitious crossover that posited Earth’s proliferation of superheroes — and those heroes’ insistence on butting into interplanetary affairs — as reason enough for an alliance of intergalactic civilizations to wage pre-emptive war on our Homo sapiens asses. At the end of the first issue — an issue in which a representative for the invading coalition tells us war can be averted if Earth simply hands over all its metahumans — Daily Planet editor Perry White articulates Earth’s response by brandishing a front page of his newspaper telling the invading aliens to drop dead. In an ingenious bit of self-promotion, DC created a 16-page, slightly-bigger-than-tabloid “special invasion edition” of the famous fictional newspaper, right down to the comic strips, columnists, sports scores and TV schedule that you’d expect to find in Metropolis’s largest daily newspaper. The DC staff behind this project clearly had a lot of fun with the concept, with every detail oozing with in-jokes and winks to longtime fans, right down to the comic strips featuring characters from DC’s defunct funny-animal titles and old-school fillers (Casey the Cop, anyone?). Fun stuff, but on to more important matters; namely, where’s my corresponding copy of the Daily Bugle, people?

7. A Canada Post media package containing stamps honoring five made-in-Canada superheroes
In October 1995, Canada’s national mail carrier released a set of five colorful stamps honoring superheroes created by Canadians. Nelvana (debuted in 1941) and Canada Jack (1941) were two of the more prominent products of Canada’s own Golden Age, a time when wartime restrictions prevented American publishers from shipping their books up north; Captain Canuck (1975) and Fleur de Lys (1985) were more modern expressions of Canadian nationalism (the leaf-bedecked fellow on the envelope seen here is Fleur de Lys’s crimefighting partner, Northguard). And in case you were wondering, Superman was included in the group because co-creator Joe Shuster lived in Toronto for the first 10 years of his life, giving Canadians a partial claim on the Man of Steel. Comic and cartoon characters have a long history of appearances on stamps, but this was the first time Canada Post put aside the usual landscapes and royal portraits in favor of Canada’s own comic-book characters, and it caused a slight uptick of interest in Canada’s relatively few homegrown heroes. (Timing was everything; that was also the year Quebec held an unsuccessful referendum on separating from Canada, and many Canadians responded with an outpouring of nationalist affection intended to remind folks in Quebec of all the good things that come with being a part of the country.) Naturally, my younger self used his connections to scoop up a first-day issue set of the stamps, along with a whole bunch of other promotional material explaining who most of these characters were. We do a lot of things well up here, but “knowing our own pop-culture history” ain’t one of them.

8. A well-worn copy of Comics Feature Presents Super Heroes
Back before “new media publishing” was a reference to the 1997-era internet, New Media Publishing was a small U.S. publisher that put out magazines in the 1980s aimed at the growing comic/movie geek set. With magazines like Monsterland and Daredevils focused on the Hollywood scene, the company’s bread and butter were its various comic-industry magazines, the longest-running being Comics Feature. Fans of Wizard and other later entries in the field will recognize the line-up: “exclusive inside looks” at upcoming titles, interviews with prominent writers and artists, occasional commentary on the business side of selling comics, fun-to-debate lists of characters and stories (“DC’s strangest heroes!”), that sort of thing. The magazine also hosted columns by comic historians like Ron Goulart and Roy Thomas that would shine a spotlight on the history of key characters or periods in the comic-book business; this special “Super Heroes” edition featured eight such retrospectives starring the most prominent Marvel and DC stars at the time. I cannot overemphasize how much like manna this kind of thing was to a budding comic nerd like myself. It wasn’t enough for my younger self to just follow the storylines of the X-Men or Teen Titans books; I had to know everything about the characters I was following, right down to why the eye slits in Batman’s mask were always blank. And yes, now that you mention it — it was exactly because of people like me that the internet got invented…

9. A pristine copy of the Batman Official Movie Souvenir magazine
Think of it as an official movie website, but on paper. Back in the old days, before every Hollywood movie came complete with an online presence full of movie stills, exclusive cast & crew interviews and behind-the-scenes pictures and concept art, we had these “official magazines” to whet our appetites for upcoming blockbusters. In the months leading up to the premier of Tim Burton’s Batman, fans could — and did, by the truckload — pick up this handsome-looking volume, which promised to “go behind the scenes!” with “130 colorful photos” (as opposed to, one assume, the grainy, black-and-white photos in other, inferior movie magazines). Of course, Batman wasn’t the only game in town; that summer saw official magazines for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Star Trek V, and other hotly anticipated films (eh, maybe not so much with the Star Trek V, but I will ashamedly admit to picking up the tie-in novel). Looking back at Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning production designs and some on the concept art used to establish the film’s look, it’s easy to see how revolutionary this film was in 1989, a time when most people were still associating Batman with the “Biff! Bam! Pow!” of the ’60s. Not so revolutionary: the pastel fonts and squiggly-lines-and-triangles backgrounds that scream their ’80s allegiance from every page, to the point where you wonder if the magazine was designed by the same guy who put together the opening title sequence for Saved by the Bell.

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