Remembrance of Comics Past

A story of the Adventures Comics Comics Emporium

Read at the Tamale Hut Cafe Reading Series, October 17, 2018.

Gerry's Comix Shop was your stereotypical comics store: small, cramped, poorly-lit, and smelling ever so slightly of mold, Brylcreem, and antiseptic soap like they use in hospitals and nursing homes. It was in the middle of the block on a busy street in one of the less desirable neighborhoods in the city. There was never any street parking, and his hours were limited. Gerry himself weighed about 110 pounds, dressed like a jazz musician from the '40s and slept on a cot in the back of the store.

Despite the negatives, Gerry's was a destination comic store. Gerry was known for ordering everything on the distributor's list, often in multiple copies. If your local store didn't carry Flaming Carrot Comics, or that weird book from Dark Horse that collected European short stories, or the latest issue of Reid Fleming, the World's Toughest Milkman, you could get it at Gerry's. And he somehow had several month's worth on the shelf, so if you find you missed an issue of Those Annoying Post Brothers from three months ago, you'll likely find it at Gerry's.

Gerry was also known by certain customers seeking out rare and valuable issues from the Golden Age of comics. Those were typically not on display, but stored in an extensive warehouse behind the storefront next door. Legend has it that Gerry went on a buying spree in the early seventies and bought several very large collections of high-quality Golden Age comics, and trading and selling those in the mail and by word of mouth is how Gerry has been able to keep his tiny store stocked with new comics.

The customers of the Adventure Comics Comics Emporium were aware of Gerry's store, even though it was more than an hour's drive away. 'Unca' Lar himself has been known to shake the moths out of his wallet and drop a few bills at Gerry's to fill some gaps in his personal collection. But the news that had animated the ACCE clientele was the upcoming sale at Gerry's Comix Shop, a bi-annual event that always occurs in the fall, after the kids went back to school, in which Gerry opens his notoriously disorganized warehouse to comics spelunkers willing to tackle that particular Everest. Owing to the fall time frame, many comics fans received Christmas presents that were purchased at the event.

"I heard that a guy once found a copy of Amazing Fantasy 15 there, and got it for twenty-five bucks!" "Rampaging" Rich said.

"I don't believe it," 'Unca' Lar snorted from his spot on the ugly floral print couch behind the counter. "Gerry knows his stock and always hides away the pricey stuff before he opens the doors."

"One of the regulars there told me that Gerry sprinkles a few choice issues in with the common stock, just to keep things interesting," 'Bargain Box' Bob said. "Remember that Spider-Man 33 that I got there four years ago?"

Ed the Esoteric laughed. "It was there because it didn't have a back cover, and a dog chewed the corner."

'Bargain Box' Bob shrugged. "It was a reading copy. And it was priced like a reading copy. And I read it."

"So," 'Unca' Lar said. "Road trip?"

"I'm game," said Payday Phil.

"Me, too," added 'Rampaging' Rich.

"I'll go," 'Bargain Box' Bob said, "but I'm not riding in the back of the battle van again." The battle van was the panel van that the shop used to pick up the weekly comics from the distributor. It's so-called suspension had been known to loosen a few fillings.

"If it's just the four of us," Payday Phil said, "I'll drive." Phil had just bought a new Lincoln and was always looking to show it off.

'Unca' Lar stood up and slammed his hands on the counter. "It's settled. The adventure begins!"

- - - - -

It was a crisp Autumn day for the start of the sale. Under a hazy gray sky, a queue had formed in front of Gerry's Comix Shop in the hours leading to the store opening, after word had spread through the comics community of the big sale. The ACCE contingent was near the front of the line as Gerry unlocked the door. There was no mad rush to get in, as most of the shoppers knew that this was more of a marathon than a sprint. Gerry was less brusque than usual, surrendering to the festive atmosphere brought by his customers.

"Gerry!" 'Unca' Lar exclaimed, pumping the shop owner's hand. "How'sa boy?"

"Hello, Brian," Gerry replied, steadfastly refusing to use 'Unca' Lar's well-known sobriquet. "Glad to see you."

"Wouldn't miss it," 'Unca' Lar said, "Wouldn't miss it." He continued to shake Gerry's hand until the man's face showed visible discomfort. "You know the boys."

Gerry smiled wanly as 'Unca' Lar and his crew passed into the store. They walked past the racks of current comics, which were also discounted for the sale but were not the reason for this trip. They went straight for the newly unsealed portal into the warehouse area next door.

The room was better lit than Gerry's Comix Shop proper, but organized more as storage than as a retail space, with tall metal racks holding long boxes of comics. In several areas, boxes were lined up at waist-level, open for easy access. 'Unca' Lar stopped just inside the door and drew a long breath. The scent of old newsprint was strong in the enclosed space. "Smell that, boys?" he asked. "That's the smell of history."

Rich and Bob looked at 'Unca' Lar like he was a nut, a not uncommon occurrence, but Phil just stood there staring, eyes wide. "You okay, Phil?" asked Rich.

Phil didn't answer immediately, but then blinked a few times and looked around at the other three. " don't know. Something weird just happened."

"Like what?" Bob asked. "You comin' down with something?"

Phil shook his head. "No, that's not it. When I smelled that old paper, I felt a shudder run through my whole body. And I suddenly thought back to my Uncle Charlie."

"Why, did he smell like old paper?" joked Bob.

Phil scowled at Bob. "No, I just had a vivid image of my Uncle Charlie and a stack of old comic books. He was telling me that I could read any one I wanted, as long as I took care of them."

"That was pretty cool of him." Rich said. "You never mentioned him before."

"I didn't remember it until just now."

"How old do you think you were?" 'Unca' Lar asked.

"Three, maybe four," Phil said. "I don't know."

"You might be that age in The Picture," Rich said.

Years ago, Phil's mother was going through some old photos and found one of a preschool Phil sitting on his potty, reading a comic book. She had copies made, and being someone who enjoys a good joke, usually at her son's expense, she thought it would be humorous to send one to the comic store. It's been on the wall of fame ever since, along with other embarrassing photos of customers, usually in costume, taken at the store's annual Halloween party. Everyone simply referred to it as 'The Picture.'

"Yeah, it might be at that," Phil said.

'Unca' Lar asked, "Exactly how vivid was this memory, Phil?"

"Pretty detailed," Phil said. "I can remember some of the issues in the pile."

"Think hard. Do you remember having to … do number two?"

Bob snorted in laughter as Phil responded, "What the heck are you talking about?"

'Unca' Lar held up his hands in defense. "Hear me out. Maybe you're remembering the day that The Picture was taken."

Phil looked thoughtful. "Maybe."

"And you know we're all dying to know what li'l Phil was reading on the twa-let. If you can remember any of the other comics in the pile, it might give us some clue as to what that one was." 'Unca' Lar spread his hands to the room. "And considering where we are, there's a good chance that we might find it here."

Phil thought for a moment, then said, "Okay, I'm game. So what should I do."

"Okay, so if you recall, The Picture was taken from your right, so we can only clearly see the back cover of the comic. The ad for the 100 toy soldiers for a buck twenty-five."

Phil nodded. "And the corner is drooping down so we can see a little of the last page of the story. Batman is warning Robin about some giant quills."

"That puts it in the sixties," Rich added. "Batman was always dealing with some giant something-or-other."

"Think hard," 'Unca' Lar said. "What was the image that you had when you walked in here?"

Phil closed his eyes tightly. Bob frowned and shook his head. Rich rolled his eyes and walked off to look for comics. 'Unca' Lar stared at Phil with a look of anticipation on his face.

Phil shook his head. "I can remember Uncle Charlie's house. I remember a stack of comics on his nightstand. I remember my Mom helping me pick out one to read. But that's it."

'Unca' Lar frowned. "Maybe you need another blast of eau de newsprint. Here's get a whiff o' this." He walked to a nearby box and opened the lid, waving his hand over the contents and in Phil's direction. "Now concentrate."

Phil closed his eyes for a minute, then plugged his ears to drown out any sounds. Finally, he said, "It's no good."

"Oh, well," shrugged 'Unca' Lar. "It was worth a try."

- - - - -

The gang spent the next several hours browsing through boxes, checking want lists, and chatting with other shoppers and with Gerry. By mid-afternoon, each had developed a small stack of treasures that they extracted from the chaos that was Gerry's back room. 'Unca' Lar, Rich, and Phil soon met up in front of the counter in the main store.

"I think I'm ready," Rich said.

"Me, too," said 'Unca' Lar. "Has anyone seen 'Bargain Box' Bob?"

"I think he's still looking for some old Ditko Charlton's," Phil said. "I'll go get him." He walked through the doorway into the warehouse area and stopped, not looking around but just standing there.

'Unca' Lar noticed this and he and Rich ran to Phil's side. "Phil? Did it happen again?"

Like last time, Phil didn't respond immediately, but then slowly blinked his eyes like he was coming out of a trance. "Newspaper truck," he said.

Rich chuckled. "Yeah, it smells like a newspaper truck in here."

Phil turned to Rich and said, "No, the comic had a newspaper truck on the front. And Batman was unmasked. I remember Mom saying, 'Look, this one has Batman and Robin on it.'"

'Unca' Lar clapped his hands together. "Now we've got something to work with. Does anyone know where Henry is?"

Henry sometimes helped Gerry out at the shop. An older man in his late fifties, there were rumors that one of the collections that Gerry built his business on was purchased from Henry, and when Henry retired from his full-time job, Gerry gave him some part-time work. On top of having an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of comics, he somehow understood the Byzantine storage system at use in the warehouse. They found Henry sitting in a corner, reading a paperback novel.

"Henry, my man," 'Unca' Lar said, "we're looking for a comic book."

Henry looked up at 'Unca' Lar through a pair of thick lenses. "We have a few of them here."

"That's for certain, but we're looking for a very special comic. It's likely a Batman issue from the early '60s, with Batman and Robin and a news truck on the cover. Is that enough to get you started?"

Henry furrowed his brow, then stood up, putting the paperback open and pages down on his chair. Without a word he went two rows down and squinted at some cryptic markings on the ends of some boxes before pulling a long box off the third shelf. He took the lid off, ruffled through the comics inside, before pulling out one issue in its plastic bag and holding it straight over his head. "Here it is," he said. "Batman 151, cover dated November of 1962."

"That was amazing," 'Unca' Lar said, taking the comic and turning to Phil. "So what do you say?"

Phil looked like he was going to faint. "That's the book I remember." He looked over to where Henry was putting the box back on the shelf. "Okay if I open the bag?"

Henry shrugged and walked away, presumably back to his paperback. Phil carefully opened the flap, folding it back so the tape wouldn't snag on the comic as it was being removed. He carefully slid the issue out and flipped through its contents. The second to the last page showed Batman and Robin being menaced by a giant blue porcupine. "Watch those giant quills, Robin!" the word balloon read.

"That's the line from The Picture," Rich said. "I'm sure of it."

"Holy cow," Phil said softly. "I remember this story."

Phil slowly turned the pages as Bob walked up. "So what'd I miss?" Bob asked.

"Phil had another flashback and we found the book in The Picture," Rich said, pointing to the comic in Phil's hands.

"Cool," Bob said.

"But how did I remember this after so many years?" Phil asked. "Wouldn't seeing The Picture have triggered a memory?"

'Unca' Lar clapped Phil on the back. "Never underestimate the smell of old newsprint. A bigger question is how Henry could find that comic in all this madness."

"Let's go," Bob said. "I'm hungry. Can we stop at Wiener's Circle on the way home?"

"Sure," Phil said. "And when I get home, I think I need to call my mother."

© Matthew Bieniek, 2018.