I see by the internet that the print version of The Comics Journal will be returning to our friendly neighborhood comics shops this coming January. That’s cool. I appreciate their work in expanding the purview of the medium while establishing a language for criticism and education. That’s grown-up stuff for a medium that used to be perceived, and often continues to be perceived, as sophomoric clap-trap.
But I come here today not to praise intellectualism in comics journalism. I find myself thinking back to the days when comics fans were fraught with nostalgia, reminded by the fact that The Comics Journal originally was called The Nostalgia Journal.
Ah, good times. But my mind’s unstoppable WABAC Machine is stuck in reverse.
I am now thinking back to the days before dedicated comic book shops, before the Overstreet Price Guide, before we shoehorned 150,000 sweaty, suffocating fans into a convention center built for maybe half that number. I am thinking about the original comics stores, which were really old magazine shops in low-rent urban areas and in slightly loftier neighborhood white elephant stores. One of my favorites – home to about a zillion festering ancient magazines, comics, paperbacks and pulps – was heated by a large pot-bellied stove. I think the damn thing scared away the fire inspectors.
Fifty years ago, in what is now one of Chicago’s highest-rent districts there lurked one of the city’s lesser Skid Rows. Yup, we had three or four of them at the time; it’s a big city. Storefronts could be rented at low rates and in this particular stretch of urbanhood there weren’t many cheap liquor stores. There were more than a few flophouses and an even greater range of comparatively inexpensive bordellos. Within a two-block stretch of Clark Street just north of the Chicago river were, depending upon the day, as many as five old magazine stores; by the end of the decade they were beginning to advertise the fact that they sold old comics. It was our medium’s first hesitant steps towards respectability. Follow the money, folks.
One such joint was called the Acme Book Store, and it is best remembered not for Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner but for Sam and Noel. “Sam” (Miss P.A. LaChapelle, which may or may not have been her real name) called herself a comicologist, and I cannot begrudge her the title as I called upon her wealth of knowledge several times. She was, according to a December 1966 Chicago Sun-Times profile written by noted comics fan Roger Ebert, “an attractive blond who can quote you Batman’s genesis quicker than most people can name his television sponsor.” The Batman teevee show was at its prime in primetime, at that time.
Now that you’ve absorbed the “Roger Ebert the comics fan” part (as was Gene Siskel; he had three complete collections of Conan comics), let’s look back at that paragraph. Sam was a woman, and it was 1966. Stores that proudly sold old comics at remarkably high prices – or so it seemed to the non-collectors – were few and far between, but women who proudly professed their love and knowledge of that medium were much, much harder to find. For Chicago fanboys, she shattered that illusion several years before the first mega-comic-con.
Her partner, Noel Roy, appeared to be quite a bit older. This is because his gaunt appearance was reminiscent of the Red Skull after rubbing Donald Trump’s face makeup onto his visage. Noel rarely said anything, at least in my presence, and one suspected he was more involved with selling old books, Big Little Books (then a fringe of comics fandom), old Edgar Rice Burroughs tomes and flying saucer encyclopedias. Then again, Sam was so enthused about our hobby it’s likely Noel had simply given up getting a word in.
Ebert concluded his piece by revealing a recent Acme Books sale of the first five issues of Batman for the noteworthy price of $200.00. “Noteworthy” had a different meaning in 1966 than it does today.
Within about a half-decade dedicated comic book stores had started springing up and Phil Seuling started selling them new comic books on a non-returnable basis; shops got their books two to three weeks before the general newsstands, and those of us who were fanboys and fangirls were happier than pigs in slop. Conventions quickly grew in number and in size, and it turns out there were hundreds of thousands of us all over the nation. Who knew?
Fans started getting into the field – one should note the original comics pros were fans as well, but they were fans of newspaper comics and pulp magazines. But those older well-established professionals verbalized the inmates were taking over the asylum.
This is true. The business of comics defied many a Harvard MBA graduate, and it killed at least one such businessman. But that is a story for another time.