Monday, 7 October 2013

You can buy these Marvel Comics second-hand, too?

IN THE EARLY1960s, I discovered Marvel Comics and dedicated myself to tracking down comics featuring my hero Captain America. At first I was content with scouring the local newsagents looking for ... the spinner rack. Then I looked for kids in the neighbourhood who had Marvel comics that I really wanted and offered them ridiculous trades - three DCs for one Marvel.

Okay ... this is a spinner rack in an American store, but we had
them in UK newsagents, too. Trouble is they wrecked the condition
of the comics - not that we cared much about that back then.
But there was another source of US comics beginning to turn up during the Silver Age - second hand shops. At first it was just random shops, often selling bric-a-brac like brass ornaments or other household nonsense, that would have a box of old LP records and comics outside, priced at 3d or 6d.

The records outside those second-hand shops would be tut ...
terrible stuff I'd never be interested in. No Beatles or Dave Clarke 5 here.
In America, if comics were unsold, the newsstand owner could cut or tear the logo from the front cover and return it to the wholesaler for a refund. You'll sometimes still find old comics on eBay missing the logo for that very reason. The comics were supposed to destroyed ... but many made it on to cut-price racks. Later, the publishers figured this out and made the news sellers return the whole comic, and the wholesaler would then ink the edges with blue ink. These comics also made it out into the world again.

In the UK, if distributors Thorpe & Porter accepted returns, it would have been the entire comic, which they would then likely pulp or possibly commit to landfill. But even during the Sixties, American comics had a perceived value and it was possible to find second-hand comics in the oddest of places.

Back then, like many kids in the neighbourhood, I had a bike. After exhausting the newsagents in the area, I began to range further afield to get my hands on yet more Marvel Comics. There were more newsagents  to be found westwards along Woolwich Church Street, at least two of them before it became Woolwich Road and crossed over the Blackwall Tunnel Approach. Then, as Charlton gave way to Greenwich, I found a print shop that had a stack of comics in the window. That shop would become a regular source of older Marvel Comics for me.

Finally, at the furthest limits of my range, was New Cross and the Popular Book Centre, a sleazy haven for paperback books, assorted girlie magazines and three or four stacks of American Comics, all with a heavy "Popular Book Centre" stamp on the cover and a handwritten biro price, initially 6d, but that would go up over the next couple of years.

Admittedly, this one's not too bad, but very often,
the Popular Book Centre stamps were heavy and inky,
and often smudged on the glossy comic cover stock.

Later on, I'd become a regular customer of Bonus Books in Woolwich, which was much closer to home for me. In fact, I was in there almost every day and got to know the proprietor quite well, to the point where he'd save comics for me. I think his name was Dave. He seemed a like a very nice guy, even though he did appear to sell some quite scary porn, to some even scarier customers, from under the counter.

The comics I bought from Bonus Books have long since gone,
(and what happened to them is a story for another blog entry)
but I still have the
Doc Savage paperbacks all these years later.


Sometime in the second half of 1965, I had managed to find two really early Fantastic Fours ... 4 and 8. I forget now where I'd got them from, but I know I would have paid 6d from one of those second-hand shops. Being second-hand, they weren't in perfect condition, probably about Very Good to Fine in today's standards, but back then, condition wasn't a deciding factor, more of a bonus if the comic was a nice copy.

My next Marvel "classic" was Fantastic Four 4.
I had no idea that Sub-Mariner had been a major
Golden Age character ... but it didn't spoil my
enjoyment of this issue one bit.
Fantastic Four 4 brought back The Sub-Mariner from the Golden Age of comics. Then, I knew nothing about "The Golden Age of Comics" - and to be fair, Stan didn't bill it that way. What I did notice was that this was not the same Fantastic Four team I'd been reading about just weeks earlier. The Thing looked completely different. More like a mudslide than the blocky angular rockpile he later became. And he seemed much more ... dangerous than his later self. 

The underlying (at best) insensitivity of Reed Richards
is present here when he calls Sue "Sue"
in the last panel and Ben "Thing".
The issue begins with a brief recap of FF3 - the Torch has run off because The Thing shouted at him and now both Mr Fantastic and Invisible Girl are fed up with The Thing. The leader of the FF keeps calling Ben "Thing" over and over again, while Reed and Sue call each other by their names. My first thought, looking back, was that Stan was trying to establish new characters the readers weren't familiar with. But that doesn't seem to be the case. It's as though Stan was deliberately de-humanising Ben Grimm, so the readers would think of him as a monster, rather than as an ordinary man who's tragically devolved into a monster. That approach would change quite quickly.

Meanwhile, The Torch is hiding out in the Bowery. Why he would hole up in a fleapit flop-house isn't explained, but it's a quick way for him to meet The Sub-Mariner, who has lost his memory years before and is now a down-and-out. Stan and Jack show us an old Sub-Mariner comic but that didn't mean a thing to me, as I had no awareness of any comics older than 1960.
Johnny Storm finds a vintage Sub-Mariner comic in
a Bowery flophouse (yeah, right!) not six feet away from
the actual Sub- Mariner ... what are the odds?
Johnny suspects the true identity of the hobo, after the apparently frail amnesiac bounces several burly thugs around the dormitory as though they were weightless. Oddly, The Sub-Mariner allows Johnny to burn off his beard without even a blink, and is revealed as ... yup, Prince Namor.
The first of several close shaves with The Sub-Mariner.
Finally, Johnny does the stupidest thing he's ever done. He drops the Sub-Mariner into the ocean to restore his memory. Why would you do that, Johnny? What good can ever come of restoring the the memory of one of the most dangerous creatures on Earth? No good at all, as it turns out. But amidst the battles we see the beginnings of Namor's infatuation with Sue Storm and though his plans are balked, The Sub-Mariner escapes to fight another day ... as he surely will.

At the time, this was the earliest Marvel comic I'd been exposed to. Heck, they weren't even called Marvel Comics at this time. And to be honest, I didn't think it was anything really special as a story. Mostly, I was thrilled to own it because it was such an early number of Fantastic Four. Even then, I was as much a collector as a reader. 

One irony that occurred to me much later about this comic was the way that Jack Kirby didn't seem to have any qualms about using The Sub-Mariner in one of his Fantastic Four stories (Kirby had claimed for years that he did all the writing as well as the art and was robbed of his creations by Marvel), even though the copyright situation was a bit fuzzy, and the rights to the character may well have been owned by The Sub-Mariner's creator Bill Everett. I've always respected the heck out of Kirby's abilities as a creator, but even he can't have it both ways ...


Anyway, in the same transaction I also acquired a copy of Fantastic Four 8. This too was a key issue because it introduced not only one of the dumbest-looking villains the FF have ever fought, The Puppet Master, but also the baddie's step-daughter Alicia, who would become the love interest for Ben Grimm and the key factor in the humanising of The Thing. 

Why did the Puppet Master look like a ventriloquist's dummy?
And why did no one comment on his bizarre appearance?
No rationale is given for why the Puppet Master looks the way he does. Precious little motivation is given for why the character wants to do mean-spirited things. He just does it because he feels like it. At this point, I don't think Lee and Kirby knew what they had or where they were going with it, so the whole issue feels like it was just a throwaway "comic book story". The elements that separated Marvel from DC were all here, just a little unfocussed. So everyone is still calling Ben Grimm "Thing" and he's still pretty angry with the world. 

When Reed bars Ben from the Lab, Grimm gets all paranoid and stumps off in a huff. Of course, Reed is working on a cure and doesn't want Ben disappointed if it doesn't work. But his moodiness is the catalyst for Ben to meet The Puppet Master - and more importantly, Alicia. This is one of the few times I can remember that Alicia is said to resemble Sue Storm. And the Puppet Master disguises her as Sue with the mere addition of a blonde wig and sends her back to the FF with a now mind-controlled Ben.

This is one of the first times that Ben Grimm reverts to his human state,
this time because of a chemical potion Reed has been working on.
I wonder now whether Stan was going somewhere with this. In the earlier issues of FF, he'd given Ben a romantic interest in Sue which ended up being forgotten. Perhaps he was toying with the idea of Ben falling for Alicia because she looked like Sue. But this idea was quickly abandoned and Ben and Alicia's relationship became its own animal, and a core principle of the Fantastic Four family legend. 

Even though Alicia is unable to see, she can sense that Ben is
essentially the same person, no matter what his outward appearance.
The other features in FF8 were a Feature Page which explained how The Human Torch's powers worked and an early Fantastic Four Fan Page on which all the letters began "Dear Editor" ... a formality that would be soon jettisoned in favour of "Dear Stan and Jack" or "Dear Marvel Madmen". 

The early issues of Fantastic Four were filled with fun features like this -
this one explains in "scientific" terms how Johnny Storm's power works.
But the terrible misfortune for me was that when I went from junior school to grammar school in September 1965, I took these two comics in with me one day and foolishly left them in my desk. And when I came back later, someone had taken them. It took me years of scouring the second-hand shops before I was able to replace Fantastic Four 4 and 8 ... but I learnt a valuable lesson. Some people are real a*holes ...


This bit of bad luck and poor character judgement didn't deter me, though. It wasn't long before I uncovered a copy of X-Men 4 - a real key issue. It was the first time I saw Magneto (I pronounced it Mag-netto) and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

A brilliant iconic cover to introduce the reverse X-Men.
Pretty much perfect apart from a couple of silly colouring errors.
These days you wouldn't get a cover like that. It seems that contemporary editors would look at an illustration like that and ask why Magneto and his Evil Wotsits have been drawn as giants. But even as an eleven year old, I knew that Magneto wasn't really fifty foot tall. I just thought it was really cool and that the baddies looked really menacing.

Inside the story was fairly routine, except that the characterisation again was way ahead of what any other publisher was doing at the time. At this point, Magneto was still a bit of a dictatorial control freak. He wouldn't get in touch with his nobler side until much later. But his followers were a mix of repulsive and pitiable.

Without comment, we're shown life with the X-Men and how things go down
as Castle "Evil Mutant" and left to decide where we'd rather be.
Lee and Kirby compared the good guys with the bad guys side-by-side and left it to the readers as to which group they would prefer to hang out with. They would use this device again, notably in Fantastic Four 36, which introduced the Frightful Four.

But the key milestone is this issue is the introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch as reluctant allies of Magneto. 

We're offered an origin of sorts for both Wanda and Pietro.
These four panels would be expanded on later by other hands.
Leading by fear, he exploits the humans' hatred of mutants to keep these two basically decent people in his thrall. Of course, later Pietro and Wanda would break away from Magneto's influence and join The Avengers in issue 16, which I covered in more detail in an earlier post.

The other high point for me in this issue was one of the house ads. It showed the very issue of The Avengers, coincidently also issue 4, where Captain America is introduced in a modern setting.

For a Captain America fan like me, this house ad depicted
the Holy Grail of comics ...
The Avengers 4.

It would be many years before I managed to track down a copy of this immensely important (to me, anyway) Marvel Comic ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: More Marvel, more second-hand shops