A Real American Hero

I have a problem.  The problem is comic books.

I love them.

I love the feel of newsprint between my fingers and the way the pages smell, I love the way their spines show wear and tear; I love the imperfections.  Through my considerable ups and downs I’ve never stopped reading comic books.   Hell, I even love flipping through the letters pages of books I bought twenty plus years ago and read people’s letters on the previous issues.   I wonder what became of that  letter writer  Are they still reading comic books, or was it just a passing thing for them?  I even wrote a letter to a favorite comic book 25 years ago.  They never published it.  I did however review the trade collection of Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper opus From Hell several years after that, and they did print an excerpt from that review on the dust jacket (look for it on the inside cover, below the guy from the Village Voice).

Point being, comic books weren’t a passing thing for me.  I still read them, though the numbers of books I keep up with are considerably fewer than they were at the height of my collecting. I pretty much stick to trade collections now, both for space and cost considerations, but also because I just know if I were to pick up a monthly book mid-way through I’d be spending pounds of dollars to get all the back issues.  As I sit typing this, all I need to do is cast a glance to my right and see three large shelves loaded with trade paperbacks and hardcover graphic novels to see the end result.

But what started me on this obsession?  Well, if you’re a collector, what started you? Ask any fan and they’ll tell you there was that one, that gateway comic that set them on the path to full blown fandom.  As for me, I could narrow it down with an absolute certainty;

If you were a boy growing up in the early-mid 80s, chances are pretty good you were, at least for a short period of time, a fan of G.I. Joe; surely the greatest ever Cold War era metaphor unleashed upon Reagan’s America.  Remember this was post Return of the Jedi; pre-teen boys were desperately looking for something to fill the void, and the Joes fit that bill.  G.I. Joe was America’s highly trained special missions force, whose mission was to defeat Cobra – a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world (like Russia, get it?).  Of course they never defeated Cobra, because if they did you wouldn’t have the toy line, the cartoon, and the comic book series.  The characters are going strong even now; after a ten year hiatus they were re-launched largely to cater to the now middle-aged fan-base that fell in love with the characters back in the 80s.  For a really solid history of the 80s run, you’ll find it here.

I was a fan of the toys first, then when the first G.I. Joe Miniseries aired in fall of 1983, I became a fan of that too.  But I didn’t pick up my first G.I. Joe comic until I was visiting friends out west the following summer, all of whom had been collecting them for a while.  Here were stories and situations I hadn’t been experienced to, and characters who existed only in the comics.  I plunged on in, and discovered just what I had been missing.  The books were different from the cartoon – though still kid friendly they were more “adult”; people actually died in them.  They were also more grounded in reality than the cartoon.  You can credit the series writer Larry Hama, an ex-Viet Nam vet who brought a sense of military realism to a comic book that ended up being better than a book based on a toy line had any right to be.  In fact I’d rank the span of G.I. Joe #11 through #33 as some of the finest continuous comic book storytelling of the last 30 years.

[Someone was selling this on ebay for $2,400.00, which is more than I paid for the computer I’m currently typing on]

Despite the fact it was a book pretty much intended keep interest in the toy line active, Larry really brought his “A” game to storytelling.  He made Snake-Eyes, arguably the most popular character on the entire series and toy line, a Viet Nam vet like him, and his writing introduced me to that war that was ending just as my life was beginning.  Even in the face of adversity and Hasbro lobbing increasingly outlandish characters like Zartan, Dr. Mindbender and Serpentor into the fray, Larry ran with it; finding surprising depth in stock villainy and keeping the focus on the men and women in uniform who were the linchpin of the series.  He was even forced to bring the Transformers into the story at one point late in the game, and he heroically did.

Anyway, I bought the then most current issue of G.I. Joe (#28) and by the time I got back home I was on the hunt for more.  This meant journeying to a type of store I’d never set foot in before; a comic book shop.  See, I had discovered that there were stores that sold comic books exclusively (though many did and still do combine comics with movie and sports memorabilia). Thus began a ritual that me and my friends maintained for years, of taking the subway downtown and loading up on comics, music and horrible food.  I went to those shops, and began filling in the Joe collection, all while keeping up with the current issues.  I was aided by a couple cases where two books would be packaged in the same bag and sold at corner stores.  And before long, I had managed to grab all of the preceding issues, even a copy of #1 – in horrible condition no less – from a garage sale.

But there was one issue that was impossible to find anywhere.  That was the ever elusive issue #2.  You see, after its big splash debut, comic stores had underestimated demand, and ordered fewer copies of #2 than they should have (which remains standard practice even to this day with new books of unknown audience).  Then, when it became apparent that G.I. Joe was there to stay; presto — instant collector’s item.  Point of fact; G.I. Joe issues 2 through 4 were the Holy Grail as far as me and my friends were concerned. I had managed to find 3, 4 and 5 over several excursions, and I think I may have paid a princely (for 1984-85) sum of 10 dollars for them in total.  But #2?  Forget it –

So, we moved to North Carolina in the summer of 1985 (though I should point out this was not so I could find G.I. Joe #2).  On the plane ride down I had packed the entirety of my G.I. Joe comics into a briefcase my dad had given me (because we were staying in a hotel for a few weeks before we could move into our house – honest).  And one of the first things I did on arriving was to flip through the Yellow pages and seek out the local comic book stores.

There was one.  It was downtown.  I convinced my parents to take me there one afternoon.  They did, and walking through the doors with twenty dollars in hand and ready to do some damage, I saw it, bagged and boarded behind the counter; I saw GI. Joe #2.  My mind was blown. I had to know how much it was.

You can guess the next part.

It was 20 bucks.  For a comic book.

For a comic book?  My mother pointed out that I could buy close to twenty books for twenty dollars.  But I didn’t want twenty other books, I wanted that one.

So, then and there, in July of 1985, I spent the most money I ever had on a comic book up to that point, and it was the best twenty bucks I ever spent.  Because it represented the end of a search, because I had the complete set of G.I. Joe; and even though I stopped reading the book a couple years later I still have that complete run stored away here.  I even have a Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow battling it out on a bookshelf here.

It also marked a change in behavior for me.  During those teenage years and beyond, anytime I’d visit aunts and uncles and cousins or grandparents in several towns, I’d always seek out the local store just to browse the racks, maybe make some purchases, and just see what they’re like.  As we witness the sad decline of the local record shop, you realize the last reliable place to have that “record shop experience” is at the local comic book store.  You have your new releases, you have your back catalog, and you have surly staff judging you silently on your taste.

More than any comic book, G.I. Joe #2 made me a fan of comic books.  I wish it was something “cooler” like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, but no, it was that G.I. Joe comic.  It was my gateway book; the one that set me on the path.  And while I’ve sold or gave away toys and games and many other things over the run of my life, I still have every comic book I ever bought.

I’m glad I did keep them too, because a couple years back at NYCC, I was wandering artist’s alley and actually saw Larry Hama at his table.  And I went home that night and rummaged through my long-boxes and dug out the same comic book I’d bought with my hard earned money twenty-five years before.  I returned the following day, and you can probably guess what happened next;

[That’s #2 cover artist Herb Trimpe’s sig. on the left. At that point pre-teen me lost his frickin’ mind]

I had to tell Larry too, how I hunted across two countries and two cities for it, how at the time it was the most money I’d spent on a comic book ever.  It was the most money I’d spent on comics at that point in my young life.

“I’m guessing you spent a lot more after it though,” he grinned.

Larry, you have no idea …

4 thoughts on “A Real American Hero

  1. I think I started to love comics with a humour strip called “Mortadelo y Filemón” (every generation in Spain read them at some point of their lives), but I remember that the cover of the first “Dark Knight Returns” made me nuts when I was a child. I didn´t get the chance to get it at the time, and I remember later how a friend of my father showed him a page of Batman kicking Superman´s butt.

    I had the chance to buy the 10th anniversary and I didn´t knew that comic with Batman in the shadows + thunder and Batman kicking Superman was that comic. I had a weird (but happy) feeling knowing that.

  2. I was never big into superhero books growing up (and still am not, for the most part). Marvels, Astro City, Watchmen, TDKR all hold a special place on my bookshelf, but I could never get “into” them as a kid, presumably the ideal age for being into webslingers and Hulks and X-Men. Maybe because the backstories were too daunting (remember this was well before TPBs became ubiquitous) — you had 20 plus years of history to wade through, which for a 10 year-old is too big to comprehend.

  3. Superhero books get boring pretty easily. And they usually do the same patterns over and over… But sometimes you have any interesting history among the hundreds of generic titles.

    I think it isn´t a weird thing changing from mainstream, men-in-thights comics to indie, normal people graphic novels when you grew up…

  4. After Preacher folded in 2000 I went through a 7 year lull in comics buying, because I couldn’t find anything that appealed to me. Then, right around the time I was moving to NY, I re-discovered comics when I visited the local store to buy some long-boxes to store my collection. On a whim I picked up the first DMZ and Y: The Last Man TPB’s and those started me back into comics reading. Of course with those too books finished I need to find something else to get into.

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