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I was recently reading my buddy Todd Dezago's wonderfully weird blog, perhapablog... and other ramblings (a great place to hang out... and Todd offers up a tough-but-fair trivia contest every Friday!), when he told the humorously sad story of how he was "forced" to make a horrendous comics trade as a kid, to get the missing chapter of a favorite storyline (link). It reminded me of just how difficult it was to obtain your favorite comics back in the days before the internet and the Westfield site - and even before comic shops! (GASP!!!)
Yes, kiddies! Once upon a time, comics fans had to do a lot more than just "point & click" to get their favorite comics. Imagine, if you can, not being able to get regular issues of Marvel comics, depending on what part of the country you lived in, due to how spotty the distribution was. How it was virtually impossible to find comics by Jack Kirby that were published by DC (In The Days of the Mob and Spirit World) because no one knew how to handle a different format (black & white magazine) for the company. How legendary work by such artists as Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben, Neal Adams, and John Byrne was "lost" to fans who could not get irregularly distributed Warren and Charlton comics.
So, "ol' Gramps KC" is here to tell you about the time he walked five miles in the dead of winter, just to buy Brother Power, the Geek #3 - a comic that never even existed!
Well, not really, but it is the very odd story of how difficult it was to find certain comics when I was a kid, and how it indirectly led me to a career in the field.
I don't remember exactly what my first comic book was, but I'm pretty sure that it was a funny-animal book or a TV tie-in - or both, most likely. I've looked back at the Dell Four Color line of comics and recognize many of the covers from 1958 and 1959 (when I was 2 and 3, respectively), but I'm not sure if these were comics from the era and purchased by my parents or obtained by me later. It also seems unlikely that I was interested in comics when I was 2 or 3, but my parents report that I was reading at a very young age, and that was largely because of comics - mostly from the newspapers. Like many kids from my era, I first remember "reading" ,Peanuts, probably due to its deceptively simple style of art and easy-to-identify characters. I do have some old notebooks of (probably) tracings of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, as well as a letter from Schulz (or his secretary) telling me it was okay if I wanted to start a Peanuts fan club. I was also an early fan of B.C. and, oddly for such a young age, Dick Tracy. When I was a little bit older, I used to carefully cut the strips out of the papers and stored stacks of them in shoeboxes. Thus began my collecting "bug."
I'm fairly certain that the oldest comic that was actually mine (not bought later) was Yogi Bear Goes to College (Four Color #1104, June-August 1960). My copy barely still exists. I read that comic book to death. Today, it is one of the few that I actually keep bagged & boarded - mostly because I believe that it will turn to dust if I ever handle it again! But it was probably the one that got me started. In the early years I read a ton of Hanna Barbera comics: Yogi, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw - probably because I saw them on TV. That television connection was strong, because the other comics I read were Bugs Bunny, Rocky & and His Friends and Tom & Jerry. I also had a fondness for Beep Beep, the Road Runner, mostly because he and his three nephews (?) not only spoke (of course you know that the classic Road Runner cartoons were totally dialogue-less), but that they all spoke in rhyme!
Another early favorite was Yogi Bear's Birthday Party (Four Color #1271, November 1961) which Overstreet informs me could only be obtained by sending in a box-top of Kellogg's' Corn Flakes, which was a very popular way of getting cool stuff in those days. To this day, I still think of Battle Creek, Michigan as a magical place created only to send me cool stuff when I was a kid. I still have a number of comics, as well as Banana Splits records and the official club membership kit, that I "earned" by eating my cereal. Go Drooper!
I was exposed to the Disney characters through Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, which I received as a subscription gift from my grandmother for every birthday - all the way through high school. (She was the best grandma in the world, as she also gave me whatever the new Peanuts collection was every Christmas. Thanks, Grandma Lil!). This became my favorite title for awhile, mostly because of the multiple stories/characters in every issue. I was a real "quantity-over-quality" guy in those days, as I loved the anthology books, and I actually avoided the book-length stories in Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge because I liked the variety in the anthologies. Besides, who was Uncle Scrooge anyway? He wasn't on TV, so he didn't count, as far as my young brain could fathom. Luckily, fandom started to piece together the legacy of "the good Duck artist" - Carl Barks - when I was in college, so I learned to appreciate his work by then.
The subscription copies were weird, as they came folded in half and wrapped with a thick band of brown paper, where the address label was. And of course, the comic was permanently creased by the folding, which is now an established flaw in grading comics. What I'm surprised about, in retrospect, was the fact that the comics weren't more damaged by going through the mail. Granted, they were printed on a thicker brand of newsprint back then, and when folded and banded, became a solid little package. But is seems to me that the U.S. postal service was a lot more careful back then when handling items that weren't standard-sized letters. I wouldn't dream of subscribing to individual comic issues today. Does anyone even offer them any more?
Although I loved the idea of getting WDC&S every month in the mailbox, I didn't subscribe to any comics myself. When I was young, money was tight and coming up with a dollar or so (!) for a subscription was tough for a little kid. Besides, mom could always come up with a little change for comics whenever we were out shopping, and that was plenty for me. I wasn't a serious collector yet, and I also didn't mind re-reading every issue dozens of times!
When I was a kid, comics were everywhere! They were in every drug store and grocery store. Back then, there were actual newsstands in the midwest and they had tons! They were in airports and bus stations and even rest areas on the tollways. (I always found stuff I had never seen elsewhere at the Belvedere Oasis in Illinois when we stopped for trips.) There were spinner racks in many restaurants (probably to keep screaming kids quiet!) and although they weren't for sale there, every barber shop and doctor's office had stacks of them to read while waiting. And when I was older, I discovered that the best place to get comics where I lived was the local billiard parlor! ("Oh, we got trouble!") Oddly, I was never tempted to play pool there - never had the time. There were way too many comics to look at! My parents would have freaked... had they known.
It was while I was shopping with my mom that I discovered that I had a weird ability: Whenever I walked into a new drug store or grocery store, I would always walk directly to where the comic books were- even if they were way back in the store and I had to turn down a lot of different aisles to get to them. This freaked out my mom quite often, and I told her that I could smell them. I didn't really think that, but I didn't have a better explanation for it. It still weirds me out a little...
One of the cooler ways that I bought a few comics were out of specially designed comic book vending machines. They sort of looked like a traditional school locker, except they were four or five individual units filled with comic books stacked on top of each other. The comics were all balanced spine-up on a big metal rod and there was a little gizmo in front of the pile to hold them in place. When the machine was full, there were about 20 or 30 comics in the pile. The piles were all random comics, but you could only see the cover of the one on top (and maybe a sliver of the one directly underneath). There was a slide contraption that you put your 12 cents (or, later, 15 cents) into, and when you slid it in, the little gizmo would release the top comic. Usually. Like all vending machines, it didn't always work, and so it wouldn't release your comic. But sometimes, it worked too well and two comics would drop! For the longest time I started to believe that I had just dreamed the whole thing up, as I would ask various people around the country if they had ever seen one of these vending machines, but the answer was always "No." Finally, just this year, I ran into a comic dealer that operated in the Midwest around that time and he remembered them as well. I only ever saw them in Rockford, Illinois, in a regional department store that I half-remember being called Union Hall.
As I got older, my tastes in comics changed. I still adored all the funny animal stuff I loved, but eventually I was looking for something more challenging. It started off gradually, first with a comic I discovered in a collection that was given to me. It was called Sugar and Spike and it was this odd little comic about two babies, so young that they couldn't talk yet. They communicated between themselves with a special baby-language (it sounded like "GLX SPTZL GLAAH!!!" to their befuddled parents, but read as English in the balloons for us readers). Since they didn't actually know English, they made up descriptive phrases for things, mostly based on how they worked. Like a wheelbarrow was a "push-thing" and a motorcycle was a "putt putt". (For you super-hero fans, think Hulk's speech pattern during most of the 70s, especially the Steve Gerber Hulk in Defenders: Sub-Mariner is "Fish-Man" and Dr. Strange is "Magician"). To this day, I still call a pocket calculator a "button- thing" in tribute. Created by Sheldon Mayer in 1956 (the year I was born. Hmmmm...), Sugar and Spike is now considered a cult-classic and has inspired, either directly or indirectly, everything from Rugrats to Calvin and Hobbes in its use of the wild imagination of young children as the basis for entertainment.
So, Sugar and Spike was still "kids stuff," but it was clever enough to work on different levels, which intrigued me, but I wanted more. The other important thing about Sugar and Spike was that it exposed me to other DC Comics titles through the continued use of DC's "house-ad" cover reproductions and their very clever ad copy of the era. From here, I got into the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman titles - in retrospect, the most "juvenile" of all the DC hero lines of the time, with all the emphasis on weird transformations, loss-of-parents stories, and just general silliness. This is where I made my life-long connection to the Legion of Super-Heroes - they got to me early and I was hooked! After a while, the Super-stories became repetitive, so it was easy to make the jump to some slightly "mature" super-hero titles - namely the Julie Schwartz edited Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and Justice League of America, my new favorite, establishing my pattern of really enjoying the team-book concept.
I accidentally fell into these particular comics in a very lucky way. We had just moved into a new house, and the mom of the family next door worked at Woolworth's (a very popular department store chain). Woolworth's at that time carried DC Comics, and she provided me with stacks of my new favorite super-heroes, as her sons had grown out of them and she wanted them out of the house. Oddly, all the comics that were given to me at that time had the logo part of the cover "stripped" off. I just thought that this was something that those kids had done, and I proceeded to tear the rest of the covers off, so that the books weren't "odd," giving me a fairly sizable collection of comics that were, unfortunately, coverless. And for some reason, my stupid kid-brain thought that was the way to collect them. So, not only did I go back and tear all the covers of my previously owned super-hero comics off (so they'd all match), but for the next couple of years, I routinely tore the covers off all the new comics I bought or received. (sigh). Eventually, another comic fan set me straight.
When I was young, I got a 25-cent allowance - at that point enough for two 12-cent comics and a piece of Bazooka every week. That was usually enough, but if I occasionally wanted an extra comic, I skimmed off my school milk money (15 cents per week) and did without at school. (I drank extra at home, however!). But during the summer, there was no extra money to be had. I was too young to work! One week, I remember being faced with a terrible decision. Two of my favorite titles were out at the same time - The Flash and Batman - but there was something interesting in the new issue of Showcase. It was the first appearance of the Inferior Five and it looked really cool - and funny. It was an impossible decision. I just knew that if I left any of them behind, they wouldn't be there the following week. So I bought the two faves, and rushed straight home, and made lemonade. I quickly set up a lemonade stand in the front yard and the second that I sold 12-cents worth, I shut down the stand and tore back to the store to get the I-5. And the book was even better than I thought it would be - because I earned the money for it myself (sorta).
My favorite place to buy comics at this time was at a little convenience store called the Milk Jug Dairy. When I first started going there, it was actually attached to an active dairy, with lots of loud mechanical sounds and much steam pressure clouds outside of the building. And for awhile, there was actually a small farm in back and a few cows wandering around. But eventually the area became very commercialized, and soon the cows were gone, and after that the dairy shut down. But the convenience store was very cool and rustic, with lots of fresh produce and milk. It was a long walk from home, but do-able for a kid who didn't know any better, and by the time I got to high school, it was right across the street and I could walk over during my free period. (I worked very hard in high school to get honors grades just so I could leave campus during free period and lunch. To buy comic books. Heh.)
Needless to say, I shopped there for many years and got to know the owners quite well. When the comic book "bug" finally hit me hard, I started stalking the store, trying to figure out exactly when the new comics arrived every week. I finally narrowed it down to Mondays, but now I had to know what time they showed up. So I would hang around a lot on Mondays to see if I could figure out exactly when they would arrive. It never dawned on me to just ask. That was too simple! But eventually the owners figured out what I wanted and just told me. Well, that was no fun, but at least I knew. Now I was a different kind of pest, as I would wait around impatiently for them to put out the new titles.
By this time, I had figured out DC's publishing schedules. DC routinely ran the on-sale dates of the titles in their house ads, and I had figured out which books were monthly (Action, Detective), bi-monthly (Doom Patrol, Challengers) or 8-times-a-year (Flash, JLA). I had even mastered the weird 10-time-a-year titles (Superman and Batman - 8 regular issues, plus two Annuals), and I figured out the Annuals cycle. I had huge lists of DC titles on calendars and could figure out which titles came out on which weeks of the month. Further, I could fairly accurately determine what was going to be out next week... and the week after... and so on. My parents thought I was crazy, but it kept me off the streets (except on Monday)! Only much later did I discover that other "future" professionals - like Mark Waid - were doing the same thing.
Luckily, I used this power for good, and soon I was helping the Milk Jug Dairy folks with their comics returns. They had to use lists to determine what was returnable week after week, but I instinctively went to the rack when I came in and weeded all of the older books out for them (and made room for the new books to go up faster - there was method to my madness). I was so accurate at this, that eventually they just held all the new comics behind the counter for me to put up whenever I came in. Apparently, they hated doing it, and I obviously loved it and it got me out of their hair. And every once in a while they slipped me a free book for helping out.
At some point I realized that the Milk Jug wasn't getting all the comics I wanted. I would see other titles advertised in the comics that the dairy never seemed to get. So, although I still did my primary shopping there, I eventually set-up a route of three or four other stores that I would ride my bike to to find other things. The was a small store across from the GM plant that seemed like it was the only place that got the 25-cent Annuals, so I had to check there every week. And I discovered that the billiard parlor (which was also a newsstand) was the only place that got the Treasuries and Digests, so that became a regular stop. It was also the only place you could find Warren magazines (although not on any regular basis) and the black-and white Marvel line in the 70s. And yet, none of these three places carried the DC 100 pagers when they came out. Those were at the bus station.
It was not much fun being a comic completist in those days, but it was certainly an adventure! And in retrospect, I was happy to get all that exercise on my bicycle. I wish I still had that today!
But I'm getting a little ahead of my story... Let's flash back a little bit.
I haven't spoken about Marvel Comics much yet. There's a good reason for that - I didn't like them! Back in the 60s, Marvel had very spotty distribution (I found out later), and so I just didn't see many of them around my area. And when I did, I wasn't impressed. Their covers were often printed wrong, either cropped or crooked, and the cover stock that was often used was slimy to the touch and if you pushed too hard the ink would come off on your fingers.
And then there was the "measles" incident. When I was younger, I had an awful case of the measles which lasted for what seemed like weeks. So I was in bed for a long time and tired and grumpy to boot! Mom had been good about getting me new comics to read, but she soon ran out of DCs that I didn't already have. So one day she brought home an issue of Tales of Suspense, the Marvel comic that Captain America and Iron Man shared at the time. I whined that I didn't like that one and I wouldn't read it, and she calmly, but firmly, told me that I better read it and I better like it or that was the last comic book I was ever going to see. So with that in my tiny, feverish mind, I read the comic and told her I liked it, but I really didn't. It was my first Marvel and the Captain America part was probably Part 3 of 5 and Iron Man was Part 5 of 8, and they were only 10 pages each and I didn't understand any of it. And the book smelled funny too. But I sucked it up and told mom that it was great, but when she left the room, I bust into tears about the whole thing - about how much I hated it and that I had lied to my mom! She never admitted it, but I think she heard me crying - and she never bought me a Marvel comic again. And I didn't find out more about Marvel comics until I met Mark Muzi.
Mark was a cool kid with a big box of Marvel Comics. I had shelves full of DC Comics. I told him about the measles incident. He showed me the "good" Marvels and explained that it was best if you read a bunch at once to get the best reading experience. He told me that he thought DC Comics were dumb. I showed him the Schwartz-edited books. It was the perfect kid friendship. He lent me his Marvels to read and I lent him my DCs. So we both got great reading experiences at a time when neither of us could afford to "branch out" and read other books. I ended up not ever having to buy a Marvel Comic until the month that Fantastic Four #100 came out. By that time, Mark had discovered girls, or something, and I was back to reading and collecting by myself.
I remember that we were both intrigued with all of the "comic books for sale" ads that were popping up in the Marvel comics of the day, and so we both sent off for price lists from some of the most frequent advertisers. Names like Robert Bell and Howard Rogofsky and the Passaic Book Center. When we got the price lists back, we were astonished! Fantastic Four #1 for $12! Daredevil #1 for $6! Who would be crazy enough to buy comics for that much money?! (And who would have guessed that I would end up living not that far from Passaic when I worked for DC Comics in the 90s? Life is weird...)
After I lost my access to Mark's Marvel collection, I started finding ads for comic books for sale in the local newspaper, and I spent a couple of years calling up these advertisers - mostly kids that were a little older than me - and then riding my bike over to their house to see what they had. Some of these places were miles away, even across the river to the other side of town. Sometimes trips would take me hours, but it was worth it, because I was often buying large bags or boxes of comics for only $5 or $10 (mostly because these people just wanted them out of their houses). This was all pre-Price Guide, so there was never much haggling about price or condition - I was just looking for books to read. Often the biggest problem was that it was difficult figuring out how to get a large collection home on my bicycle.
Also around this time (the early 1970s), some comic book stores were beginning to pop up in some of the larger cities like Rockford and Milwaukee. I first discovered one in Rockford by accident, as Mom and I were driving through the downtown area. Suddenly I saw a brightly colored sign that said "Comics" and I screamed at Mom to stop the car. She didn't want to because it was a "bad part of town" but I pleaded and pleaded and she finally let me go. She stayed in the car, however. I'm not sure what her logic was in letting me go alone in a "bad area" but sometimes she was as crazy as me. I remember going into the store and seeing piles and piles of comics all around the store on shelves and on tables. It was a real mess, but I was in heaven - or maybe my own personal hell, as there was so much to take in all at once! It's all vague now, but I think I was overcome by it all and started shaking and eventually I had to leave because I couldn't even decide what to look for first. It was just all too much for my young brain.
It was a couple of months before I could talk my Mom into going back. By then I had saved up some money and I had a game plan. But things had changed when we got back to the store. Specifically, there was no storefront any longer! Some other business had moved in. But the "Comics" sign was still up on a door next to where the store had been. When I slowly opened the door, all there was was a stairway to the second floor. Okay, this was getting weird, I thought, never having encountered this kind of building before (I was a suburban kid - everything was only one floor). When I walked up to the top of the stairs, there was a doorbell and a little tiny "comics" sign on top of it. So I pressed the bell and a minute later the odd man that I remembered from the store opened the door. I asked if this was where the comics were and he nodded yes. And then the monkey ran by, jumped up to a light fixture, swung around and landed on the man's head. And scared the living crap out of me!
After I regained some level of composure, I realized that I was in this man's apartment. And he had a pet monkey. Ooookay.... He then took me to a mostly empty room, with only a table and a chair and motioned for me to sit down. He asked me what I wanted and I said "comic books" and he rolled his eyes (and the monkey rolled his) and asked me what title I wanted to see. "Oh. Doom Patrol, please." He shambled out of the room leaving me wondering what I had gotten myself into. (And did I mention that my mom was down waiting in the car?) A couple of minutes later, he came back (sans monkey) with a three-foot high pile of comic books, set them on the table, and quietly left the room again. I started sorting through the books - they were all Doom Patrol comics and multiple copies of each issue, but they were in no order whatsoever. So, being me, I started sorting them all out by issue number. I was about a third of the way through the stack, when he brought out another three foot stack of Doom Patrol comics, put them on the table, wondered what I was doing and wandered out of the room again. I kept sorting and five minutes later, he was back with another stack, although this one was only a little over a foot high. "That's it," he said and disappeared again. A few minutes later, the monkey ran by in the hallway, chasing a small dog.
By the time I was done sorting, there were at least 20 copies of every issue of Doom Patrol. I had never seen anything like this before. So I quietly pulled out the best copy I could find of each issue (none of them were bagged and they were all very dusty) and set them aside as the stack I wanted to buy. When I was done, I waited for him to come back, but he didn't. I waited for about 10 minutes, and finally I started calling out "Hello?" and "Anybody home?" No response. Finally, I wandered out into the hallway to find him. The main hallway was long and there were lots of side rooms each filled to the brim with different things. Paperback books. Life magazines. Hardcovers. More comics. Finally I made it to the living room where I heard the TV going. I slowly looked around the corner, going "hello?" to no response. When my head cleared the corner, I saw the man asleep in a recliner, with his shirt off, and the monkey curled up, asleep on his bare chest. This sort of startled me and I made a noise, which woke the monkey up, who started running around and woke the man up, and he nonchalantly picked up his shirt and put it back on. I got the feeling that this was a common occurrence in this house...
We went back to the comics room and I showed him my stack. It was about 40 or 41 comics - the entire run of Doom Patrol - so I was mentally thinking a dollar a book, when he simply said "Twenty dollars."
"Really?" I said, confused.
He looked angry. "I can't go lower," he said.
"Okay then. Twenty dollars," as I handed him two tens. And got the hell out of there.
But before I could get out the door, the monkey had found a little hat and had climbed back on to the man's head, where he made a big showy deal of tipping his hat to me as I walked out the door. And ran down the stairs.
"What took so long?" asked Mom as I scrambled back into the car.
"Oh, we were just talking about old comics," I lied, knowing that if I told her the real story that she'd freak.
"Oh, it's nice that you have a new friend," she said.
I don't think I slept for two days.
But two months later I was back there buying a run of Challengers of the Unknown. And later, Blackhawk. And Aquaman. And so on, until I went up north to college and never went back to Rockford for many, many years.
I never found out what his name was. Years later, I ran into a dealer from the Rockford area, and we were trading stories. He knew exactly who I was talking about. And he told me that the man was brutally murdered a few years after I was his customer, and that all of his comics had been stolen. I was totally shocked and sad to hear this. But all I could think about was the monkey.
I was able to afford to buy these collections, because I was now a working man. By this point, I had figured out a lot of how the local comic book distribution system worked by asking around. I figured out that all the comics in town came from a magazine distributor called River City Distribution. So, of course, I just rode my bike down there one morning and asked for a job. The guy I talked to - who I later found out was named Lisle Wood - immediately thought I was talking about a paper route (they handled the Chicago Tribune). I looked disappointed and asked about working in distribution. He asked me my age, which I told him was 14, and he replied that 14-year-olds work on paper routes. So I said okay. At least I had my foot in the door.
So within a year, I had two or three Chicago Tribune routes - which covered a distance of about 20 miles a day on bicycle - and I learned to get up VERY early in the morning to be able to cover it all before school. The high point of the week was Saturday mornings, when I got to go down to the distribution warehouse to turn in my paper money. And get paid. I got paid in cash - he usually just counted out the paper money I gave him to see if it was the right amount, and then counted out my wages out of that and gave that back to me. I always tried to sneak into the warehouse part of the building to see what was going on back there, but I almost always got caught. All I ever saw was rows and rows of shelves made out of chicken wire and 2' x 4' s, filled with magazines and paperback books. I never got in far enough to see where the comics were. The place was a real dump, but I was fascinated by it - or at least the idea of it, since I could never get inside.
Knowing that Mr. Wood was never gonna let me back there, I had to try a different tack. I started coming in on Saturday morning with dozens of questions. Do you sell comic books here? Do you distribute the comic books here? How does that work? Is it the same as magazines - or different? How come some stores get different comics than other stores? How come only this store gets Annuals - and not the others? How come you don't get Charlton comic books? What are Charlton comic books? I've never seen one... Blah blah blah... The guy just looked at me with a bemused expression and said "So... you like comic books, huh?" And that was that for that week.
Later on, after he saw that I was reliable and accurate with my paper route, the discussion opened up a little. One Saturday I told him that I occasionally helped put out the new comics and take down the old ones at the Milk Jug Dairy. "Oh, that's you? I've heard about you!" Apparently, the Milk Jug owners had told him about me. "Are you the kid who does that at Owen's (another market) and hangs out at the pool hall?" Oops. Busted. I told him that was me, and he started to laugh. "The pool hall manager thinks you're weird... Do you really straighten up the entire rack of books before you leave?"
"Um... yeah. That's me. They're always all messed up when I get there," I tried to explain. He kept laughing.
"Okay, look. You never told me you had rack jobbing experience." I had no idea what he was talking about. Later I discovered that a rack jobber was the person who changed the magazine racks when new magazines came it. And that I had been doing it, albeit on a small scale, since I was 13. "So, I can't hire you to work in the warehouse because you're underage, but do you want you go back there and see how it works?' Was the Hulk green? Of course I wanted to!
So I finally got to go into the warehouse to see what comic book distribution was all about. I have to admit that it was pretty unimpressive, just a table in the corner in front of a lot of empty shelves with the names of stores written on them. Mr. Wood explained that when the new comics came in, once a week, they were broken down and that each shelf with a name on it got a certain number of each title, and then when all the titles were done, the whole bundle of comics were bundled together with wire. I noticed that there was a big barrel next to the desk and it had a few comics sticking out of it. And I noticed that the ones I could see had the logo area of the cover stripped off of it, just like the comics I used to get from the woman who worked at Woolworth's. When I asked what they were, he explained that those were the unsold comics, and that the covers were "stripped" to send back to the publishers - to get credit for the unsold copies. Only the "strips" got sent back - the rest of the comics were worthless and were to be destroyed. "But you can have as many as you want as long as you never tell anybody about them." That sounded okay to me.
And that's when I got my first real surprise. As I was digging through the barrel, I discovered that there were a bunch of comics that I hadn't seen before. Not other publishers, but Marvels and DCs that were unfamiliar to me. Upon closer inspection I discovered that these were the next issues of the comics I collected - comics that weren't supposed to be out yet. When I asked about it, I was told "Oh, yeah. We get the comics about three weeks in advance of when they're supposed to be distributed." And then he took me around the corner to show me the stacks of new comics - three weeks worth - that were bundled up and ready to go to the stores when it was the right time. This was so cool - I could get comics three weeks before anyone else now! Too bad they were "stripped," but whatever.
It took me a little while to realize that since these "advance" comics were already in the "stripped" barrel, that they were actually being stripped for returns before they were given a chance to be sold. Later on, when I was given the job of distributing and stripping the books, I came to realize that only a little more than half the comics that were being sent to the distributor were getting out to the stores. There was no internal mechanism for the re-order of unsold books, nor was there ever any interest in doing so when I asked about it. They were just stripped and destroyed on the spot. Plus, it seemed like about half of the books that were actually distributed to stores came back unsold a month or so later, and I had to strip and return those as well. It was pretty depressing on a number of levels - first, I had a hand in destroying a lot of comic books at a fairly young age. And second, I realized that very few comics were actually being sold in my town (and that I was buying about 8% of them). No wonder I couldn't find many other people that collected comics.
But the other good thing that happened was that I was eventually allowed to buy my comics directly from the distributor (and thus was able to pick the condition of the ones I wanted). Mr. Wood was amused that I still wanted to buy comics, when I could have all the stripped copies I wanted for free, but he agreed that it would be okay. Plus, I got them for a substantial discount - my introduction to the concept of the Employee Discount - and thus began my life-long goal of trying to get as many comics as I could without paying full price for them.
And that's how I broke into comics. Through the back door. The one that opened out to an alley. Little did I know that it would ultimately get me working at a number of different comics retail opportunities, an actual Direct Comics Distributor (Capital City Distribution), and the largest mail-order comic book service (Westfield Comics. Yay!). And, ultimately, to DC Comics, where I was able to meet and work with many of my comic book idols (several of which became close friends), help plot the course of some of my favorite characters, and travel the world - promoting comics along the way! And all because I wanted to get comic books for cheap!
Got a comment or question for KC? Send it to AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com.