Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-One)

The first fanzine I ever read was Rocket's Blast Comicollector. I'm fairly sure that I first discovered it through a small ad in Marvel Comics of that era, but I can't pinpoint exactly which book first introduced me to the world of fanzines.

By today's standards, the RBCC was little more than an adzine. For those not familiar with the vernacular, I'll explain: a fanzine features articles and creative content produced by fans, focusing on a specific area of interest. In the case of RBCC, that field of interest was comic books. An adzine is something more specific: a fanzine that devotes a significant portion of its contents to advertisements spotlighting products related to that field of interest. In the case of RBCC, the ads included both ads for other fanzines and lots of ads for back-issue contents from such advertisers as Howard Rogofsky, Robert Bell, and Stan's Magazine Exchange, among others.

Today, when the internet makes almost anything instantly findable and purchaseable for  a sufficiently high investment, it may seem impossible to believe that something like back issue comic books could be hard to find. But remember, this was a time when there was no internet, no eBay, no instantly accessible venue for free listings of available merchandise. Before I got my first issue of RBCC, I had no idea that there were people who sold back issue comic books from the 1940s to the present--and in fact, there were dealers who made a living selling those back issues. If I wanted to find an old comic, I had to try to work out a trade with my friends, scour used-comic-book sections at stores like Coosa Valley Book Shop or Croker's, or  write to Marvel Comics and get a dittoed list of what office copies they had available and hope that the list included the books I was looking for (yes, at that time, it was possible to order comics from Marvel--and I did so quite frequently!).

And then I opened that envelope, flipped through the pages of RBCC #38, and my comic book collecting world was turned upside down.

Pretty much any comic book I wanted (bear in mind that the comics I wanted were primarily books from the late 1950s to the then-present 1965... a period of six or seen years) could be had for the right price. Even better, comic books I had never dreamed I would see--comic books from the Golden Age--could be had for a few dollars each.

It was both liberating and exasperating. Here was a source for all the comics I wanted... but the cost of those comics was beyond my budget. A copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 for $8? Preposterous! A Tales to Astonish #27 for $6? Who could afford to pay the equivalent cost of almost fifty comics for one book?

The articles were interesting, of course, and I read every word and perused every piece of fan art. I was inspired to create my own art, in fact, and to create my own characters (most of whom were derivatives of characters I enjoyed--Marvel gave us Dr. Doom, so I created Doctor Dread; later, they offered Galactus, so I countered with Univus). But it was really those ads that fascinated me.

They also confused me.

Howard Rogofsky, perhaps the highest-priced source for comics in the pages of RBCC, had a habit of routinely listing future issues of ucpoming comics. Why not? He knew he'd get them--and if someone wished to pay fifty cents plus shipping for the issue of Batman that wouldn't be out for two more months, then he'd gladly take the money, hold it, and mail you that issue when it came out. I didn't know that, however; I assumed that if he listed those issues, he actually had them in stock right then (okay, I was naive...). I also learned the hard way that Rogofsky's grading was, to say the least, rather generous. He routinely listed books as VG-F (very good to fine) that would scarcely qualify as good by today's standards--and he didn't seem to consider tape or ink marks as detrimental to condition.

But he seemed to have almost everything, and his books seeemed to sell fast. Each issue of RBCC had an ad from Rogofsky, and each month, many of those rare books would drop off the list. So I started looking at those Golden Age books, trying to find books that I could afford.

Golden Age Captain America? Couldn't afford 'em. All Star Comics? Out of my price range. Even 1950's EC's were too expensive for me.

But Sensation Comics was in my budget. I could get 1945 and 1946 issues of Sensation for $1 and $2 each. Oh, the best they had to offer was Wonder Woman and Wilcat stories, but still--it was a Golden Age Comic!

So every couple of months, I'd save up a few bucks, order a few fill-in Marvel and DC comics--and I'd add an issue of Sensation. (I only fell for the "order a future issue" trick one time, and felt really foolish when I learned that he didn't have the book. Thankfully, he was willing to let me cancel that order and apply the half-dollar to my next order of back issues.)

I felt like I had discovered a secret marketplace. My comics buying habits were about to change, and collecting took on a whole new scope.  I had no idea that those fanzines would soon inspire me to do my own fanzines... and that would, eventually, give birth to a store newsletter that eventually metamorphosed into Comic Shop News...

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Eerie Synchronicity

I've known for all of my life that I was related to author (and Charlie Chan creator) Earl Derr Biggers, but I was in my thirties before I discovered that Biggers and I shared the same birthday: August 26th. Now I've discovered more coincidences. There is some dispute over Biggers' year of birth--some sites list it as 1884, some as 1885 (for what it's worth, the family records have indicated 1885 as the correct year). It turns out that he and I suffered our heart attacks on the exact same day of the month as well--and if the year 1885 is the correct year of birth for EDB, then we were both exactly the same age when we suffered our heart attacks. 

(Thankfully, my heart attack ended up being less fatal than his...)

Monday, March 07, 2011

An Eighties Appreciation

It's no secret that I am an avid fan of 1960s music; it's the music of my childhood, the music of my adolescence, the music I grew up with, the first music that I bought. I think the latter is particularly crucial in anyone's music appreciation--the first music that speaks to us so intensely that we're willing to spend our limited allowance funds to own it is the music we're likely to love as long as we live.

However, I've been listening to a lot of 1980s music lately, and I'm about to say something that may surprise many of my friends: as much as I love 1960s music, I am convinced that the 1980s were the nexus of pop music, with more diversity, more energy, more vitality, and more creativity than any other pop music era, including the 1960s.

I credit MTV with a lot of that; when the cable channel launched with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," they did a lot more than stress visuals as well as music. They also encouraged originality and experimentation. Since MTV of the early 1980s was hungry for videos to fill its airtime, almost any group with a strong sound and a striking look could get MTV airplay. And audiences were hungry to see music videos; watching MTV was a normal part of the weekly entertainment cycle in the 1980s, and people discussed music videos with the same intensity they devoted to hit TV shows, films, and books.

Groups like Scandal and the Motels and Wang Chung and the Stray Cats and Minor Detail and Quarterflash and Big Country would have probably gotten very little if any airplay in the pre-MTV radio-driven music days. However, MTV made room for anyone with a fresh sound and a catchy video, style notwithstanding. Rockabilly, new wave, punk, pop, dance, folk, techno, soul--there was room for all of these styles and many, many more.

I recently transferred several 1980s compilation sets to MP3 to listen to on my iPod, including Priority Records' Rock of the 1980s, Time-Life's Greatest Hits of the 1980s, Capitol's Sedated in the 80s, Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 1980s and a few more--and I was amazed that, after transferring more than a thousand songs from a variety of greatest-hits packages, I had only about a 20%-25% duplication of titles. There was so much energetic, catchy music from the era that each label found distinctive songs from the decade that no one else had picked up on.

There are distinctive 1980s sounds--punchy, up-front drums, strong bass lines, swirling synthesizers--that add a lot to the sound of songs from this era, but the improved production values and upgraded recording quality also helped. Even the most minor groups could produce songs with the same production values as the big guys, and multitrack recording had become cheap enough that small groups could easily afford big sounds.

I'm having fun re-experiencing a lot of these songs, many of which I haven't listened to in years. And I've learned that even musicians and groups I didn't care for could capture the feel of an era much more intensely than I had initially realized.

I guess I was lucky enough to experience two remarkable musical decades!