Last week I did something I rarely do. I left my my mountain lair and traveled to civilization — Portland, Maine.
Because that’s where Willie Kendrick, my college bestie from Old Siwash, lives.
And what did I do in Portland?
The purpose of the visit was to see my friend, not the city, so when it came to the town itself, I did only one thing: I visited a comic book store.
Today’s comic book stores bear as much resemblance to the comic book stores of my childhood as today’s candy stores resemble their predecessors.
Both comic book and candy stores are today perfectly arranged, labeled and displayed, and an entity unto themselves. When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a comic book or candy store, per se. Instead, comics were only some of the wares sold. For example, Boynton’s, my personal favorite, sold candy, comics, men’s magazines and tobacco products. It was the ultimate democracy — a place that rotted the minds, teeth and lungs of peeps of all ages.
My memory is a bit fuzzy on where else comics were sold, but I think they were in Hoffman’s Pharmacy and Ma Ryan’s newsstand in the Hotel Saranac.
There’s a reason my memory isn’t clear. As a wee slip of a lad with a cash flow problem, buying new comics was a struggle. But I could read them to my little heart’s content thanks to the barter system that existed then. Kids traded all sorts of stuff, and comics were one of the main items.
So here’s how it worked for me: First, I had a basic stash of comics — probably no more than 10. Second, I did not COLLECT them. In fact, I had little regard for collectors — those kids who hoarded their comics, kept them in pristine collection and, for all I know, kissed ’em good night before turning in. Uh-uh, to me comics were to be read and reread and, after I’d reread them so much I knew every line of both text and art, to trade them for a new bunch.
Runnin’ with the big kids
My tastes in comics was varied, if not worldly. Of course, I read all the usual stuff — Superman, Batman and Robin, Superboy, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Bugs Bunny, G.I. Combat, Tales of Suspense. But I was a lad of precocious urbanity and sophistication, and so was my humor. Thus I was a devoted reader of Archie comics.
Archie and his set were high school kids, and thus light years ahead of me in terms of wit and suavity. So even though I was just a grade school pisher, through Archie I could be on par with the high school crowd (at least in my mind).
I can still remember specific bits from Archie. One was a back-and-forth between Betty and Veronica. Veronica was an insufferably snotty rich girl; Betty was a sweet blonde who was no pushover. So Veronica was showing off her new mink coat, and she said, “Oh, every time I’m down in the dumps, I buy a new outfit.” And Betty, without missing a beat, said, “You know, I always wondered where you shopped.”
Then there was Jughead, the aptly named dolt of the crowd. In one comic, he got in a bike wreck and was stumbling around, a wheel jammed over his neck and stars, circles and little birdies circling his head — the designators of a solid knock on the head. Archie came up to him and said, “Have an accident?” And Jughead, in perfect fashion, said, “No thanks. Already had one.”
Riotous stuff, eh?
A scholar in the making
I read the previous comics just for entertainment, but when it came to elevated consciousness, one comic company was in a class of its own. It was Classic Comics.
Classic Comics, as the name implies, were comics devoted to the classics of literature. Let me tell you, this was heady fare. Among the ones I read were “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Green Mansions,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Ivanhoe.” And of course there were others I’ve forgotten.
Classic Comics, because of their lofty content, had a lofty price tag — 15 cents, while the other comics were a dime. This may not seem a big deal to you in 2019, but lemme tell ya, a 5-cent difference was considerable. If you want to look at it mathematically, it was a whole 50% jump in price. If you want to consider it in ’50s terms (MY ’50s terms, that is) it was five pieces of Fleer Double Bubble or five malted milk balls, or a Sugar Daddy. So when it came to getting a Classic Comic in trade, you weren’t able to trade it even for one of the dime ones. Nope, it was a dime comic … and something else, or your education was going to suffer.
Objectively, how good were the Classic Comics? That’s impossible to judge, of course. But I can say this much: The comic version of “Huckleberry Finn” couldn’t touch the book version. On the other hand, the “Moby Dick” comic was far better than the novel. Or to put it another way, as a kid, I read the “Moby Dick” comic a bunch of times and loved it. As an adult, I started “Moby Dick” a bunch of times … and never finished it. Ishmael’s struggle paled in comparison to mine. He made it through his sea voyage; I capsized and drowned halfway through Melville’s ocean of turgidity. Gawd.
Just FYI, a copy of “Moby Dick” in the comic book store, in acceptable condition, was $10. By contrast, you can get a hardback copy of “Moby Dick” in good condition for a couple of bucks.
So what does that mean?
Just this: Sometimes you get what you pay for.