During my vacation last week, I got caught up in a twitter conversation with Mike Sterling about our primordial funnybook collecting days. At some point, I mentioned it would make a decent topic for a post, so here we are. Most of these memories have been recounted previously across multiple posts, but never as a comprehensive chronology.
The first comics I clearly recall owning — some issues of Gold Key’s UFO and Outer Space and a Superman comic featuring Kobra — came from the bagged three-packs Zayre and J.J. Newberry used to shelve alongside astrology guides and disposable lighters at the checkout counter. They provided a cheap and easy out for harried parents who came in to pick up a pair of slacks or floormats for the family ride but couldn’t find someone to watch their covetous tykes while they made a quick trip to the local shopping plaza.
The included comics gravitated towards certain characters and titles — lots of Superman and Batman stuff (including DC Comics Presents and Brave and the Bold), Spider-Man, Marvel-Team-Up, Hulk, Captain America, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, Fantastic Four, and various Marvel reprint titles — from around 1978 up until the Big Two hiked cover prices from forty cents to fifty. For some reason, the Avengers (aside from a few Marvel Super Action reprints) was shut out of the bundling scheme, though I did score my first X-Men comic — issue #129, the debut of Kitty Pryde — as a middle-packed surprise.
These were supplemented by the occasional DC Blue Ribbon Digests which would turn up by the registers at Purity Supreme and get gifted to my brother and me by our parents.
Our first forays outside the polybagged pre-packed pool came by way of an indoor flea market held on weekends at a former supermarket in Reading. One of the vendors was a cranky older dude with hearing problems who sold unbagged comics for thirty-five cents each (or three for a dollar). Our parents would give us a couple a bucks each and wait patiently while we browsed through the dozen or so longboxes and pulled whatever captured our attention. Most of the books were Bronze Age overstock, uncirculated but already turning brown at the edges, with a few more recent comics (as in “from 1981 or 1982”) thrown into the mix.
There was no rhyme or reason to my purchases. Lil Bro had already settled into his Captain America kick, but I grabbed whatever looked interesting to me — thick collections of reprints from DC’s failed attempt at the 52-page format, the Gerber/Simonson Metal Men revival, stray issues of All-Star Squadron, and stuff that I knew I could trade to my pal Brian for a recent issue of Firestorm or one of his cooler Star Wars figures.
Though three-packs and the flea market supplied the bulk of my early funnybook collection, we had a few other, less reliable sources of comics at the time. Occasionally my aunt’s comics-reading husband would gift Lil Bro and me with a recent issue of Captain America or an autographed copy of Wolverine #1 (before he found Jesus and dumped part of his massive collection of Bronze Age comics on us). There was also a short-lived joke shop in Woburn center with a spinner rack where I bought New Teen Titans #11 alongside the current issues of Sgt. Rock and the Unknown Soldier before it shuttered up for good.
More reliable, but still capricious, was the vendor who used to show up for the Woburn Mall’s periodic “hobby shows.” These were pretty anemic affairs where a half-dozen grumpy old dudes would lay out old coins or rare stamps on folding tables around the concourse, glowering and muttering about the lousy foot traffic and the lack of sales. The sole comics seller at these affairs dealt in recent releases, which were bagged and tossed into longboxes with no regard for organization, and sold at a fifty-percent mark-up.
Frustrating? Sure, but it’s also how I scored New Mutants #1, the double-sized conclusion of the X-Men’s “Brood War” arc, and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe‘s “Book of the Dead” issues.
The notion of following a current comics series on a regular basis didn’t become a reality until my buddy Brian and I discovered that Moore and Parker, a newsstand in Woburn Center, hosted well stocked spinner rack. Getting out that way from our remote corner of town was still a hassle, despite the fact that my grandparents lived within walking distance of the place. It wasn’t until my brother started taking gymnastics classes at what used to be the old Strand Theater (since burned down and replaced my a municipal parking lot) that comics became a weekly concern for me.
My grandmother would pick up Lil Bro and me at school, drop us off at the practice space, and give me a few bucks to buy comics at Moore and Parker to read while I waited for the class to end, at which point I’d escort my sibling back to my grandparents’ house. The weekly trips were how I learned about release dates and skip weeks, and which new comics to expect on a given date. It dovetailed nicely with my ground-floor interest in New Mutants, allowing me to follow the book monthly from the second issue, alongside All-Star Squadron and Atari Force, and Alpha Flight.
Moore and Parker did not stock double-sized issues or annuals. Obtaining those depended on my grandmother making one of her occasional trips to the Billerica Mall, where I’d hit up the Waldenbooks store in hopes of filling those gaps. It also carried a smattering of Direct Market offerings, mostly from Marvel’s Epic imprint, which is how I got into Dreadstar and Crash Ryan.
It was around this time that my parents resumed our monthly trips to the Reading flea market. The three-for-a-buck guy had vanished, replaced by a hipper-looking dude who dealt in “money” books and a rack of current releases that allowed me to follow the original Secret Wars to its gloriously goofy end.
During the early days of my junior high experience, my buddy Brian caught word that an ACTUAL COMICS SHOP had opened in Stoneham, only a few miles from where we lived. No more cajoling parents for rides or missing the crucial part of a story arc — we now had access to a steady supply of sequential art within a relative stone’s throw from our comics-poor suburban backwater!
We decided to walk there. In mid-January. Wearing sneakers. After a snowstorm. Across some of the steepest slopes and hazardous intersections in the region.
The shop was named Blaine’s Comics and was tucked away in an alley behind a furniture place. It was a small paneled room that smelled of untreated wood and cigarette smoke, but was well and truly stocked with new releases, graphic novels, and back issues. The best part? Blaine offered a ten cent discount on the current week’s comics.
Getting there and back again was not quite as easy as we’d anticipated, so we soon fell back into our old routines. The local CVS and Christy’s convenience store had also begun to stock new comics, including double-size books, which dampened the urgency of making the long tek down Montvale Avenue and across the I-93 interchange. For back issues, we started hitting up the travelling flea market that rolled into the Northeast Trade Center every couple of months and hosted a vendor who sold all manner of pre-1980 oddities like “It! The Living Colossus” and From Beyond the Unknown and the Watergate-inspired Captain America arc on the cheap.
In the early months of 1985, DC launched both Crisis on Infinite Earths and Who’s Who. The one-two punch of inventory taking and consolidation set my comics fandom at a fever pitch. Before that point, I didn’t fret too much about missing an occasional issue or two. I wasn’t happy about it, but I’d come to accept it as part of living in a place without a reliable and comprehensive source for new comics. When it came to the multiverse-changing melodrama of Crisis, however, skipping an installment was not an option.
Every Friday (or sometimes Saturday) afternoon, I’d hop on my shitty old BMX bike and pedal my way to the new release shelf at Blaine’s. It didn’t matter if the weather was shitty or if my skull was splitting from a raging sinus headache, the six-mile round trip had to be made. To keep my haul safe on the ride home, I used to stuff the bag of comics under my shirt to protect them. (It’s why I had a weird skin rash on my chest during my middle teens, but what was a little discomfort compared to protecting a pristine copy of Alpha Flight #24 from a sudden downpour?) Depending on which route I took home, I had a number of specific spots where I could stop for a breather, organize the comics into the correct reading order for when I got home, and occasionally devour the continuation of some white-knuckle cliffhanger from the previous month.
I found out that the owner of the shop was married to one of my aunt’s childhood friends. After my cousin tagged along on one of my trips to give his regards, Blaine began tossing an additional small discount my way…which only encouraged me to buy even more comics. My weekly trips to the store continued through the summer of 1988, with periodic disruptions caused by lack of spending money, problems with my bike, and some bouts of diminished interest in the hobby. In those years, Blaine’s served as my gateway into the early days of localized manga titles, Zot! and other B&W wonders, Watchmen, and the oversized color EC reprint books.
It was also where I bought Secret Wars II and the New Universe launch books — which helped dial back my interest in comics — and my first copies of Animag and Dragon Magazine — which filled the slack left by that reduced interest.
The weekly trips to Blaine’s ended after my mother’s death. My Saturdays were given over to hanging out with my dad in Boston, and New England Comics’ Malden store became a quick and easy side trip during those visits. Closer to home, a Newbury Comics store had opened in Burlington. It was easy to make a quick run there when my grandmother was shopping at the Bradlees or mall across the way, plus it sold music, buttons, and band shirts as well as a decent selection of indie and mainstream funnybooks. (It also had an outsized influence on my transition into punk rock, by virtue of bringing a touch of Harvard Square to the suburban hinterlands.)
And that pretty much covers the course of my comics buying adventures from ages eight to seventeen. After that, I would pick up my books at some Newbury Comics or NEC location in town, either on a Saturday while visiting my dad or after classes at UMass Boston. There was a small shop with an amazing quarter bin right across the Woburn-Winchester line (not far from where I live now) I briefly frequented during the immediate pre-Image era, but it didn’t last long. During the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-Nineties, I bought the handful of new releases I still followed at whatever store Lil Bro and I happened to be visiting that weekend.
When Maura got back into reading comics, I piggybacked off her sub at NEC Harvard up until I drifted away from the scene a decade back or so. On the few occasions something does call out to me, I’ll either hit up a comics retailing pal like Mike Sterling or ask Maura to pick it up when she grabs her pull list.
For something that was such a large part of my life for so long, it’s shocking how little I miss the comics buying experience…until I flip through a random issue of Xenon or the Watchmen trade and get slammed with vivid flashbacks of being sweaty and breathless and scanning the shelves at Blaine’s for the just-released Crisis on Infinite Earths #7.