Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Forty-five years ago I became a comix nut.

My first haul.

Forty-five years ago this week I became a comix nut.

I was 10 years old. I had never really been into comic books, nor had the thought ever entered my mind of becoming a comix creator. I drew for fun, obsessively, but that was it. Yeah, I read Mad magazine when I had the opportunity. What kid didn't? I read the newspaper comics page religiously, too. I liked some of the Saturday morning cartoons based on comic books, like the Superman-Batman Adventure Hour or Spider-man, but the books themselves? The squeaky spinner rack at Vann's Drugstore in my hometown never held much allure to me. I always bolted straight to the toy aisle when my mother said I could pick something out as a reward for tagging along on her errands. When I returned with a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car, she'd invariably say "Pick something out for your little brother." Well, I certainly wasn't going to get him anything as good as my prize, so I'd pluck a random comic book off the rack. This small stack of battered comic books was all we had in our house.

Until July 1970.

Every summer the Family Backderf vacationed at an old lodge in Ontario's "cottage district," a string of several dozen lakes about three hours north of Toronto. We always went to the Wig-a-mog Lodge, on the sunny shore of Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog (above).  It was great. A week of swimming, canoeing, shuffleboard and fishing. My parents vacationed here before I was born and it was a part of my life as far back as I could remember. The water was so clean you could dip your hand in a take a drink!

Wig-a-mog, had a gift shop, above, in the lower level of one of the two main buildings. It was called the Tuck Shop. Not sure what that means. It was a cramped little store, with knotty pine walls. Sliding panel doors covered the front when the store was closed. It was divided into two small rooms. Each manned by one of the bored college kids who staffed the lodge. The room on the right, which takes up most of the photo here, consisted of a long counter, that shielded the more "valuable" wares from guests. The more expensive cheesy souvenirs, and toiletries and batteries, that kind of thing. 

To the left, just off camera in this pic, was another room, which you could enter. The counter in this second room, manned by another staffer, stretched along the back wall. In front of the counter was a candy bar rack. An ice cream freezer was in the corner, and a pop machine. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs displayed on shelves: pennants, t-shirts, and fake Indian crafts, like miniature totem poles and birchbark canoes. Guests were free to browse and handle the goods in here.

And on a wall rack, behind the counter and safe from sticky kid hands, were comic books. An entire wall of colorful covers. It's hard to see in this bad photo, You can just make them out to the left of the girl at the counter, peaking over the shelves that divided the two rooms. Spot the green and blue buckets there? The top few rows of the comic book rack are visible beyond, on the back wall. It's full size is hidden behind the panels, but I recall it being about eight feet high and at least that wide. The staffer, always a young girl, had to stand on a stepstool to reach the top rows. 

Historically, the big attraction for me was the array of strange and wonderful Canadian candy bars, a completely different variety than the boring Hershey and Mars offerings at home. My little brother and I were each given $5 at the start of the week, big money then. My old man only gave me 50 cents to mow our large lawn, so $5 was like a whole summer's pay!  My brother always blew his wad on Day One on a stupid totem pole or something, but I liked to stretch mine out, supplemented with allowance and lawn-mowing money I'd been saving, so I could buy a couple candy bars each day, making sure to enjoy them luxuriously in front of my now-penniless sibling, who eyed me with seething jealous hatred. 

In 1970, I was 10 years old and poised to enter the 5th grade. The organized kid stuff at Wig-a-mog was beginning to lose its appeal. Capture the flag again? Screw that. So I spent the days by myself, daydreaming and wandering the grounds. Halfway through the week, I was bored stiff. I wandered into the Tuck Shop that afternoon when it opened after lunch and carefully selected my candy bar for the day. As the girl rang it up on the ancient cash register with a loud ka-CHING, my eye wandered up to the wall display. Back home at my local drugstore, the comix were stuffed haphazardly into a spinner rack, but here in the Tuck Shop, spread across an entire wall, it was a mesmerizing visual lure.  I pointed to a copy of Fantastic Four #102 and said "I'll take that, too." An impulse buy that changed my life.

I walked out to a little point, above, jutting into the lake, free from people, and parked under the shade of a spruce tree. Probably that very tree on the left! The twerps in the canoe weren't there. Waves gently lapped at the shore and my nostrils filled with the aroma of water and pine needles. I read the FF as I munched the candy. As I walked back to our cabin, I read it again. Then a third time on the porch. That was it. I was hooked. 

FF #102 was Jack Kirby's swan song at Marvel. Fed up with Stan Lee's ceaseless gloryhogging, he was off to DC to start on his incredible Fourth World project.  In fact, Stan Lee addresses Kirby's loss in the Stan's Soapbox in this very issue, promising the "bushy tailed and bewildered" Bullpen will "turn ourselves on, knock ourselves out and do ourselves in to prove once again we're the boldest and the best!" Groan. Typical hokey doggerel from gasbag Stan. I didn't know any of the backstory back then, but I knew what I liked, and I liked this book. A lot. 

The cover, a John Romita rush job since Kirby quit before he had time to draw the cover, is actually pretty lame. Not sure why this book caught my attention. Maybe my curiosity was peaked by the FF Saturday morning cartoon of a couple years previous. But the story inside grabbed me and didn't let go. This was my introduction to Kirby and I'd never read anything like it. I was fascinated by the power and flow of his artwork. 

As Kirby books go, it's a pretty pedestrian one. That last year at Marvel, Jack was mailing it in– well, by his standards anyways– while furiously (and secretly) developing the New Gods for rival DC. But I didn't know that at the time and even mailing-it-in Kirby is amazing! I pored over this sequence, especially how he drew with those squiggly muscle shadows. I couldn't stop looking at this art. I wonder, if I had randomly selected a book by another artist, if I would have been so mesmerized? My life and career could have been dramatically different!

I rushed back to the Tuck Shop before it closed, and bought five more books. The next day, I purchased every Marvel book they had in stock, then all the DC ones. By week's end, I had cleared the rack, even the lame titles like Mighty Marvel Western, everything except the girlie romance books, the Archie stuff and the Harvey and Gold Key shit, which I knew was awful. The haul is a who's who of comics greats. Stan was still writing the dialogue for most of the Marvel books, with Roy Thomas handling the lesser titles. DC was entering the peak of its marvelous Infantino era, when Carmine oversaw a fascinating array of titles and concepts.  Outside of Kirby's brilliance, Gene Colan's artwork was like freeform jazz, so fluid and organic. Gil Kane's loosey-goosey figures were mesmerizing. I marveled at Nick Cardy's precision, Neal Adam's delicate linework and Wally Wood's masterful heavy inks. 

I returned to Ohio with a stack of 18 comix, shown at the top of this post, immediately hopped on my bike, rode to the drugstore, strode straight to the spinner rack and grabbed another armload of books. And that was that. I was lost to comix forever. The toys and obsessions of my youth were immediately forgotten. I spent countless hours drawing comix. Here's one of my efforts from later that summer, totally copping Kirby and inspired by that FF #102. Just like that, my life's calling was clear.

1970 was the ideal year to become a comics fan. All the modern masters were still at their peak, or damn close to it, and a new generation of brilliant creators was just entering the field. Both Marvel and DC were offering an exciting array of experimental titles. That would all turn to shit by 1975, of course, when both companies morphed into dull corporate entities, but there was plenty to read until then. And the Silver Age classics were still dirt cheap. Heck, you could find piles of them at flea markets and garage sales! There was so much to read and study I couldn't keep up with it.

Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog was always magic to me, for that reason. The Family Backderf only went there one more summer. My mother disliked the new owner of Wig-a-mog, so we began vacationing in New Hampshire instead. As the years wore on and I tired of mainstream comics, I'd think back wistfully to the Tuck Shop and that sense of wonder I felt discovering comic books for the first time. Would I ever have that feeling again?

In turns out, yes. In 2006, 36 years later, when I returned, this time with my own family. 

I was recovering from cancer treatment, and it was slow going. The cancer was in remission and the outlook for a full recovery and cure was excellent, but I didn't feel that great. I was fatigued all the time and mentally drained. My career had also stalled, as weekly papers began their sad decline. It was the toughest period of my life. Career wise, I decided I needed to try something new. I'd been tinkering with long form comix before I got sick. Got a couple Eisner nominations! But it had been, at that point, four years without a new project. I needed a vacation, someplace by water, to re-charge and rejuvenate. I thought, hey, why not Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog? An online search revealed that Wig-a-mog Lodge was still there, but was now mostly timeshare condos. Ugh. But right across the lake was a classic old-time lodge, Halimar, one I remembered from back in the day. I booked a week there.

Every morning after breakfast, I dragged an adirondack chair to a shady spot on the water's edge, above. Directly across the lake was old Wigamog Lodge. The Tuck Shop was gone, replaced with a gym, but the wooded point where I read that copy of Fantastic Four was still there, unchanged. With a sketchbook on my lap, I burrowed my feet into the wet sand and spent the days thinking and writing, staring across the lake at that point as I did so.

It was here that Otto "The Baron" Pizcock came to me in flash, almost fully formed. Here's how he first looked, above,  in my sketchbook. I grew ever more excited as the book took shape, and worked until sunset every day. My wife grumbled that she was a "comix widow." By week's end, I had conjured up the other characters in Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, and written fully half the book that would propel me into my new career as a graphic novelist.

Once again Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog worked its magic.

That first comic book haul:

Silver Surfer #18 was another of the final Kirby books, this one with the classic "fuck you" last page directed at Lee. It's a book with one of the  most interesting backstories in comics history. I'll get to that ,in detail, in another post.

Amazing Spider-man #88 was a typical example of Marvel's flagship title. Lee and John Romita, his favorite artist, whose work I always found a little antiseptic.

Marvel Tales #28 was one of the fat 25-center reprint books, this one with a couple Ditko Spideys (why were these so much better than the regular title?) and a Ditko Dr. Strange. Whoa. Crazy stuff.

Batman #224. This wasn't anything like the Adam West tv show! That cover was my first glimpse at Neal Adams.

Brave and the Bold #91. Beautiful Nick Cardy cover and inside art.

Astonishing Tales #1. I loved how Wally Wood drew Dr. Doom. Didn't realize it was a greatly diminished Wood. And another Kirby story? When you add in Thor and the Inhumans story in half of Amazing Adventures, Kirby drew FOUR BOOKS in his final month at Marvel! While also working hard on the Fourth World project. No wonder Stan was despondent when Kirby resigned.

Amazing Adventures #2. The Inhumans story is drawn and written by Kirby. To my knowledge, his short run on this title is the only time he received a writing credit during his Marvel Age run, a major beef, along with Lee's shameless glory hogging, that led to Kirby's defection to DC. Note, however, that Funky Flashman still puts his name first. Hard to believe Jack was fed up, huh?

Capt. Marvel #21. My intro to Gil Kane art. Lee always grumbled that his art "looked gay." 

Daredevil #67. I noticed right away there seemed to be as many Gene Colan books as Kirby ones.  Marvel had artists with widely divergent styles. I picked up on that right away.

Flash #199. Chairman Mao lobs a missile at the US! Man, this Cold War stuff was downright hysterical in tone. Hey, let's scare the shit out of 10 year olds! Nothing like propaganda.

House of Secrets #87. DC's horror mags were great fun.

Iron Man Annual #1. Great reprints from 1967. More Colan, drawing Iron Man. And then, Kirby steps in as a guest artist and HOLY SHIT! More Kirby art I couldn't stop staring at, above. I still can't stop staring at it. This is when it clicked for me.I want to draw stuff like this! Yeah, sure, kid. You want to draw like Kirby. Good luck with that! But eventually it led me to my own path.

Justice League #82. Hmmm. The DC books were noticeably less interesting than the Marvel ones.

Marvel Super-heroes #28. These reprint books hinted at a wondrous treasure trove of back issues waiting out there for me to discover. Really wasn't that big a trove, since the Marvel Age only began six years earlier. Of course, when you're only 10, six years is almost a lifetime.

Mighty Marvel Western #10. Ugh. What can I say? I was desperate.

Superman #229. THIS was the world's best-selling title? Yawn. 

World's Finest #195. Another lame book. I couldn't figure out why Batman in his own title was cool and totally square in this one.