Friday, October 19, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part One)

I can only vaguely remember a life without comic books.

A comic book was the amalgam of two things that fascinated me: books and comic strips. I will always credit my love for books to my grandfather, Roy Leming, who I barely remember, since he died in an auto accident when I was almost four years old. What I do remember about him, though, was that he loved to read, and he gave me socks as a birthday present. The same day he gave me the socks, he started to read to me from a Louis L'Amour book that had a striking Western cover on it (yep, I was attracted to good art even then!), but either Mom or her mother chided him because they didn't think it was appropriate for a young child. He put the book aside; not too long after that, he was dead and the book disappeared in the subsequent house cleaning. I would occasionally look through boxes in grandmother's musty, damp basement, hoping that I would find that book that he had actually touched and had begun reading to me, but it was lost forever. I did find many other books of his--all sorts of books, from histories to war novels to other Westerns (including other L'Amour books) to then-contemporary best-sellers like Peyton Place (never did know for sure if that was his book or grandmother's--but I never saw grandmother read for pleasure, so I presume that was his as well).

Comic strips--well, I credit Dad for that. He worked in a newspaper, and that meant that we always had newspapers around the house. Newspapers had comic strips, and in flipping through the papers, I would always stop at the comic strips. Mom and Dad would read them to me; I liked the gag strips, but I would ask them about the adventure strips as well. Flash Gordon, which ran in the Rome News Tribune, was a favorite of mine; I loved the Mac Raboy artwork.

So it was only natural that I would find a comic book to be the best of two worlds.

My first comic books were purchased at Garden Lakes Pharmacy a few months prior to my fifth birthday. The occasion was the impending removal of my tonsils. Knowing I would be bed-ridden for a couple of days (it was the late 50's, and tonsillectomies were more serious then they are now), my parents wanted something that would entertain me--and comic books seemed to fit the bill.

Garden Lakes was Rome's first "suburb." It's really what we would call a neighborhood today--but it wasn't in Rome proper, and it was large enough that it had its own local grocery and its own pharmacy and its own "main street" and two lakes and its own thriving industry--General Electric, which had built a major facility right there smack-dab in Garden Lakes. When people would ask me where I lived, I would say "Garden Lakes."

Now, when I visit Rome and drive through Garden Lakes streets like Lakeview and Wakefield and Lakeridge and Plymouth and Harrison, the houses seem forever locked in that late-1950's era; they are the same low, small-windowed brick ranch houses that were considered contemporary back then. (The south side of Garden Lakes Boulevard--the "uphill" side--had the best houses, the upscale brick ranches. The north side--particularly the area near the little lake--had the smaller "starter homes." It was in that area that we lived when I was a child, in two homes on Plymouth Road; we moved from a slightly smaller house to a larger one two doors further away, and it was there that we lived until my parents had the Marchmont Drive home built in 1963).

Since we lived in Garden Lakes, it was only natural that Dad would stop at Garden Lakes Pharmacy to pick up various items in preparation for my hospital stay--and those various items included four comic books. One was a Superman; one was a pre-hero Marvel book that I believe was an issue of Journey into Mystery, but none of the stories were memorable enough for me to say for sure which issue; one was a Casper the Friendly Ghost; and the final one was a Dennis the Menace.

I was in love with the art form from that moment.

Comic books had lots of pages like books; they had illustrated stories like comic strips. They had all sorts of stories--some funny, some scary, some exciting.

And they had color!

I pleaded to be allowed to read those comics that night, before I went to the hospital. Since Dad had bought them for me so that I'd have something to read at the hospital, he said no--but when you consider how many times I read and re-read those comic books, there's no doubt that one more reading would not have in any way lessened their appeal to me during my hospital stay.

So which was my favorite? Truth is, I never thought about favorites back then. I loved every one of them. Casper was every bit as appealing as Superman to me, and the monster stories in Journey into Mystery were no less entertaining than Dennis the Menace. That omnivorous appreciation of all forms of comics continued throughout my childhood; I'd read war comics, adventure comics, hot rod comics, funny animal comics, superhero comics, horror comics--heck, I'd even read romance comics in a pinch, although I found the stories to be a bit too similar for multiple readings.

Once I found comic books, comic strips lost a lot of their luster. Not only were they in black and white, but they also offered far too little entertainment in each daily installment. It would be several more years before I would recognize the distinctive charms of comic strips like Peanuts and guilty-pleasure favorites like Tumbleweeds and Barney Google & Snuffy Smith. (The strip carried the Barney Google title reference during my childhood, although I don't think Barney Google ever appeared in its panels... I had no idea why his name was there.)

1 comment:

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Absolutely fascinating, man. As many discussions as you and I have had about comics, there's info here that I didn't know. Looking forward to further installments.