Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Life in Four Colors (Part Eighteen)

While I spent my fourth grade year at the old, run-down, poorly equipped Elm Street Elementary, my fifth grade year began with my relocation to West Rome High School.

No, I didn't skip several grades.

West Rome was a booming community in the 1960's, and that meant that more classrooms were needed; construction was underway on West End Elementary, but the facility wasn't completed when the 1963-64 school year began, so my class (and several other classes) were located in the south end of West Rome High School for my fifth grade year. (Ironically, I'd be back in almost the very same spot two years later when I began junior high.)

There was something that seemed almost privileged about attending elementary school in a high school facility--it was like we were advanced students. Of course, the faculty and administration took steps to ensure that the little kids and the big kids rarely crossed paths, but at least we were at the big kid school!

Even better, Phil Patterson had an older sister who attended West Rome High, and we were allowed to ride to school with her on most days. So I'd get up, eat breakfast, get ready, and either walk or ride my bike to Phil's house on Watson Street, where we'd read comics, play, talk about monster models, climb the large tree on the north side of Phil's house, or walk across the railroad tracks just north of Phil's house to sneak into the construction area near the water tower. This wouldn't last very long, of course, before Phil's sister was ready to leave, begrudgingly offering us a ride to school in her white Plymouth Valiant (I knew very little about cars at this time, but I can picture the vehicle so clearly and I'm almost sure it was a Valiant). All in all, his sister was most tolerant of two noisy ten-year-old boys; she'd even stop at the small grocery store at the corner of N. Elm and Lavender Drive. While the store didn't carry comics, it did carry a great selection of trading cards, so Phil and I would often pick up a pack of Topps Universal Monster Cards on our way.

I spent more and more time with Phil, trading comics and reading comics and even writing and drawing our own comics. We would alternately spend the night with one another on weekends; we would play in the woods above my house or at the construction site above Phil's house (where there was always a veritable mountain of sand and another of gravel... it's a wonder we weren't buried alive in the stuff, considering how often we climbed those piles when no one was looking). And while we both enjoyed all sorts of comics, our tastes began to gravitate strongly in the direction of Marvel by late 1963.

Marvel had found the perfect way to appeal to readers like us: they were creating a sense of community through their bullpen notes, through Stan's self-effacing messages, and through their letters columns. Their heroes operated in the same world, where they occasionally crossed paths with one another; that gave Marvel a distinctive feel. But their writers and artists operated in the same world as me and Phil and their other readers, and that made them seem accessible and real to us. It was that sense of community that made so many readers my age gradually succumb to the pressure to "make mine Marvel," as Stan alliteratively phrased it.

I didn't know of anyone who could possibly complete a collection of DC Comics; most of their books had been going on for decades, or so it seemed (I would find out later that some titles, like Flash, had actually relaunched with #105, and that would give me a beginning point to collect that particular character), and I couldn't imagine anyone having a complete Batman or a complete Superman. Even a complete Justice League seemed problematic; one simply didn't run across the early issues very frequently, and I had no idea at this time that one might be able to actually mail order the books from a purveyor of out-of-print comics.

But a complete Marvel Comics superhero collection? That was not only do-able, but it didn't even seem that impossible. In late 1963, Marvel had published a couple of years worth of Fantastic Four, some Hulk, a few Amazing Spider-Man (including the elusive Amazing Fantasy #15, which I had but Phil didn't), a few Iron Man and Thor and Ant-Man and Human Torch stories in various Marvel anthology titles, and a couple of new series--X-Men and Avengers. Even a collector my age, with limited funds, had a real shot at owning every single Marvel superhero comic (okay, I didn't know anything about the Timely 1950's superhero books, or the Golden Age stuff... but none of that was officially labelled as a part of the Marvel Age of Comics, so it didn't really count). I liked Marvel, and they seemed to like me and readers like me, gauging from their acceptance and enthusiasm as displayed in their letters columns and text pieces. Heck, they even seemed to share our love for comics! They were adult versions of us!

Phil and I were totally caught up in Marvelmania. We hunted down elusive issues, we read books that in one another's collections that the other didn't own, we made up our own stories of Spidey and the FF, and we engaged in a lot of "what if" speculation. We still picked up other non-Marvel books, but the excitement wasn't there; it was Marvel that had the magic as far as we were concerned.

And so it continued through the fifth grade... well, until early 1964, anyway, when we began hearing a lot of talk about this new British musical group. The radio kept playing music by this group, and both Phil and I liked it. And come February 1964, we would find the Beatles almost as magical as Marvel Comics.

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