Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part Eight)

Sometimes you get to say "I was there" when lightning strikes.

That's the way I feel about Fantastic Four #1. Thanks to odd timing, a cold, and dumb luck, I was there when one of the most important books in comics history was released. And by happenstance, I bought a copy of it, new, off the magazine rack. And it changed my life.

In the fall of 1961, we still lived in Garden Lakes and I still attended Garden Lakes Elementary School. Like all third graders, I came down with a sore throat and/or a cold every other month or so, it seemed. The colder months of the fall were the worst; as the weather transitioned from summer heat to winter cold, the up-and-down temperature shifts always seemed to trigger the usual cold symptoms. (I now suspect that a lot of my supposed colds were actually childhood sinus conditions and/or sinus infections, since they plagued me through most of my teaching years... but when you're eight years old, you don't think in terms of sinus conditions. The diagnosis of "cold" was adequate to encompass all respiratory problems.)

It was early evening, and Dad and I were on our way back home. I had gone with Dad to the old Rome News-Tribune offices on Tribune Street; I always enjoyed rummaging through the old office, scrutinizing the original comic strip artwork on the office walls, reading through old file copies of papers from the war years, and peering through the windowed door into the press room down below, where enormous machines produced massive quantities of printed newspaper at seemingly impossible speeds.

It also gave me a chance to get away from the newest member of our family, my sister Kimberly. In spite of years of joking about Kim being my older sister, I must confess that I was seven and a half years old when this noisy, demanding, schedule-disrespecting baby entered my life... and my room! My sanctum sanctorum was now shared with a very loud, sometimes cranky, frequently stinky baby. I would spend many evenings reading comic books in my parents' room to get away from the noise and the smells... or I would go with Dad to the Rome News-Tribune offices, where the roar of the machines was more peaceful! (Thankfully, Kimberly grew up, and got out the noisy/stinky phase by the time I graduated high school...)

So it's not surprising that I chose to ride with Dad to the newspaper office rather than staying at home, where (horror of horrors!) I might get stuck babysitting for a few minutes. That meant that Dad had to listen to my coughs and sniffles during the four-mile ride to the office and the four-mile ride back... so it was not surprising that he chose to stop at Enloe's Rexall Drugs in Westdale Shopping Center on Shorter Avenue on the way home. Dad wanted to buy some children's cough syrup and a bag of Brach's chocolate covered peanuts--the former for me and the latter for everyone, because this was before Dad was diagnosed with diabetes.

(I thought that Enloes Rexall was the name of the owner; the sign didn't have an apostrophe on it, so I assumed his first name was Enloes and his last name was Rexall. Years later, I discovered that Rexall was a sort of franchised drugstore operation and that Enloe was the last name of the family that owned the Rome area franchises. For years, though, I thought they were a large family, and the various Rexall brothers and sisters had simply opened stores in different non-competing areas.)

While Dad shopped for that amazing product that soothed --and some cough syrup, too!--I stopped to look at the comic book rack. I had flipped through three or four books when I saw FF #1 on the stands.

I didn't know it was a superhero book at first. The cover looked a lot like all the monster books I had bought from the same company--books with names like Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish. I was intrigued because it appeared that some of the freakish monsters were fighting another really big monster on a city street that looked much like Broad Street in Rome. So I picked it up and flipped through it to see what the other stories were, because all comics from this publisher (whose name I didn't know at the time) had multiple stories.

But this one didn't. Instead, it had one story, told in chapters. And it appeared from a quick perusal that the smaller monsters were actually heroes, trying to stop the big monster... and they were also trying to stop some small troll-like fellow who resembled The Mole from Dick Tracy. I knew I wouldn't have time to read this whole comic at the store, since Dad was just picking up over-the-counter cough syrup--so I launched my best "oh please it's only one comic book" plea and Dad gave in quickly.

(Dad gave in quickly a lot when it came to comics. I think he was glad to see me reading so enthusiastically at such a young age, but he and Mom were perhaps the most supportive parents any comic book fan could hope for. Dad would act tough for a few seconds, like he might say no, but I can't think of any time when he'd turn me down without at least one comic, even when I had gone through my entire allowance already. I might have to agree to extra chores or to go to bed on time without being asked repeatedly, but Dad found some reason to let me have that comic. Thanks, Dad!)

I hadn't even noticed when I bought the comic that it had a number one on the cover. In 1961, it seemed that the first issues of comics were relative rarities; usually, I was buying a book with issue numbers in the triple digits! Today, publishers constantly relaunch series with new first issues; back then, though, longevity was the key... even if it was fake longevity. Flash #105 was actually the first issue of the new series, for instance; rather than starting with a new first issue, the book simply picked up with the numbering of the old series that had ended before I was born. This created much confusion for a six-year-old who wanted to read as many old issues as possible!

So here I was, with a first issue of a new series that was unlike any superhero book I had ever read. One of the heroes looked like a hideous, lumpy monster reminiscent of a photo I had recently seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland. One of the heroes was ablaze, which seemed like it would be pretty uncomfortable. None of the heroes wore costumes. And the world didn't seem to look at them with awe or admiration. This was no Justice League... but I really liked the qualities that made it so different!

I read that book several times during the course of that night and the next few evenings. There was something about the Fantastic Four and their misfit villain that left me wanting more. So I began looking for more issues immediately. I didn't realize at the time that FF #1 must have been very new; it would be two long months before I would come across the second issue of this series.

During my search, though, I continued to buy other comics from this same company, and I realized that the same artist who drew FF #1 drew a lot of stories in these books. His name was Kirby, and I knew that I wanted to spend more time in his world...

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