Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Everybody else in comics can go to San Diego. We went to far more obscure locales for our comics-hunting vacation.
…Well, actually, it was just the annual road trip that Julie and I always take for our anniversary. But there was a lot of comics hunting (and book hunting, and even some pulp magazine hunting) involved!
Last year, I talked about how all the comics and used-book outlets had dried up in the Cascade mountain towns, compared to the riches available there in my youth. This year, we eschewed the mountains and headed for the beach, since Julie wanted to see the ocean. Would the same be true there?
We ended up spending four days in Seaside, which is a pleasantly tacky little town on the northern Oregon coast.
We couldn’t afford one of the giant beachfront hotel suites but we did find a nice place across the street from the Aquarium and just half a block from the beach.
I’m going to plug them because they are terrific and they really did right by us. It’s the Hillcrest Inn, on Columbia, and their web page is here. Cheap and clean and roomy, and the owners are enormously pleasant people who are helpful without being annoying or intrusive. If you ever have occasion to visit Seaside, this would be the place to stay, and if you’re smart you’ll listen to the front desk clerk’s advice on where to find the best chowder.
We did the usual things one does in Seaside– ate junk food, walked on the beach, fed the seals at the Aquarium, played skeeball at the arcade.
But I was also on much the same mission I’d been on in the Cascades the previous year, which is to say, to see if the opportunities I’d had to discover comics and pulp fiction in these out-of-the-way rural areas still existed.
Overall, comics and genre fiction are doing a lot better on the Oregon coast than they were last year in the Cascades.
I didn’t think so at first. During our initial shopping expedition, we looked in on Beach Books, a nice little place tucked in between the various gift shops and candy shops downtown. Seaside has more candy shops per square foot than anywhere else in North America, I suspect. (We passed a place called The Buzz that offered not just the usual ice cream and saltwater taffy selections, but also chocolate-covered Twinkies. We decided it was called The Buzz because apparently “The Diabetic Coma” was taken.)
Beach Books is a delightful little oasis of civility and calm amidst the mob of harried parents and overstimulated children crowding the streets outside.
It didn’t look like my kind of place, really, but I was interested in the IndieBound poster in the window. We like to support the indie book community whenever we can. I had a nice chat with Karen, the owner, while Julie got acquainted with the store’s cat, Oz.
Karen told me that she didn’t move that many comics-related books but that she did sell a lot of Bone. As you can see, Tintin, Bone and Asterix dominate her one graphic-novel shelf.
You’ll also see a little manga there, but Karen said she didn’t actually sell all that much of it to walk-ins. Her main manga sales were to local kids that special-ordered it, which I thought was interesting. You don’t usually see a mainstream bookseller, especially in a tourist town like Seaside, doing business that way.
Not a BIG comics presence, not nearly what I remembered from my youth, but it was there in the downtown core and in a bookstore. So that was something.
Julie needed to get a prescription so we walked up a block to Holladay Drugs.
This was something of a landmark for me, because this was the place I’d bought the copy of Detective #440 years ago that had so completely mesmerized me.
It had changed a lot, of course. The comics spinner rack and the rows of lurid true-crime magazines were all gone. Still, our little nerd corner of the pop culture universe was not completely unrepresented.
The X-Men books were what are called “board” books, with pages of very stiff, thick cardboard designed to stand up to toddler abuse. Maybe ten or twelve pages long at the most, these were for very young readers. And the manga books were a clever packaging idea on somebody’s part — they are manga translations designed and formatted as coloring books.
It was no spinner rack, but I consoled myself that it might well could be a gateway for some future young comics reader there in town. Again, nothing like what I remembered but still not a total zero. (Also, the soda fountain was still there, which has nothing whatever to do with comics or superheroes but pleased me nevertheless.)
I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Julie and I looked at a phone book while we were waiting for her pharmacist to finish and we found a listing for Buck’s Book Barn (“Over 40,000 titles!”)
Okay. That was our kind of place, for sure. And it was only another three blocks up the street. (One of the things we loved about our stay was that at no point were we further than six blocks from anywhere we wanted to go. We walked pretty much everywhere. It was great.)
Best of all, it was next to a thrift shop.
So Julie was as delighted as I was.
Buck’s was great fun, and we spent a few dollars. I found a Robert Ludlum hardcover I didn’t own, a Fred Saberhagen anthology, and on a whim, I picked up a book called Werewolf, by Charles Lee Swem.
Mostly because of its age. I can’t really afford it as a regular hobby, but I do have occasional bouts of indulging my antiquarian book-collector urges. It was published in 1928, making it one of the first books chosen for Doubleday’s Crime Club imprint (that later gave U.S. readers The Saint and Dr. Fu Manchu, among others.) I thought, hell, if it was one of the first ones picked it ought to be fun, and anyway the title was promising.
On the flyleaf was an inscription in fountain pen: Christmas 1933 – for Carl from Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn. Above that, someone — I’m guessing Mrs. Alcorn — placed a little round sticker with a picture of a poinsettia. This defacing probably is what dropped the price down to something I could afford, but otherwise it’s in great shape. I haven’t settled in with it yet, but I did glance at the opening pages. The dedication is Respectfully, to the memory of W.W., who found interest and relaxation in the mystery story, and the opening paragraphs introduce our narrator, David Lee, a young man on his way to visit his old college chum Dick at his estate in Thistlewood, where there are apparently dark doings afoot. There’s a definite Dark Shadows vibe going on. I think I’ll enjoy it.
But it was next door that we hit the mother lode.
Thrift shops and “collectibles” are more Julie’s thing than mine. She accompanies me to all sorts of my nerd events and places, though, so I try to give hers equal time. And anyway, I don’t mind. I usually can find something to look at, and sometimes there are odd little book or magazine finds you luck into when the store owner has no idea what he has.
But I wasn’t prepared for about six longboxes of comics bagged and boarded, most from the Bronze Age or thereabouts, except for the real old stuff that was under glass at the front counter. There were also Whitman juvenile hardcovers and Big Little Books, old action figures, toys, board games, all kinds of cool stuff… but what had me starting to actively drool were the pulp magazines. Real ones. Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder…. it was extraordinary. I have read about these publications since I was eleven, and in some cases even been paid for writing about them, but I have almost never seen one up close.
And all this nerd gloriousness was hidden in a shacky little collectibles shop in Seaside, Oregon, a place where the retail economy depends largely on tourists buying T-shirts, taffy, or maybe little sailing ships made of seashells and driftwood.
I took a picture because I knew that was as close as I’d ever get to a copy of the real Weird Tales. Unfortunately for me, the bespectacled white-haired retired-hippie lady who ran the place was a proprietor who was dry behind the ears. The lowest price she had for any of those was $40, and, well, I’m not that hardcore about it.
I did buy some comics. Two Bat books I’ve been after for a while…
Batman #400 I never see anywhere for under fifteen dollars, but this lady had two: one for twelve and one for $2.50. I bought the cheap one and I really don’t know why she had it so low. I think it’s perfectly fine. And Brave and the Bold #132 has been eluding me at shows for the last year and a half, so it was nice to get that one crossed off.
I lusted to own a pulp magazine, though, and it was Julie that found me one in our price range.
Zane Grey’s Western Magazine debuted in 1946, when pulps were already entering their twilight years and shrinking to the digest size that they’d stay at for the next half-century before the last few remnants finally died out. It ran until 1954 and was revived again briefly in the 1970’s. The format was a common one for the time — a Zane Grey novelette headlined the book, then there were a series of shorter Westerns by a variety of authors in the back. As pulps go, these are affordable, but a bit spendy for me still… usually you see them offered online for something around $10 or $12 an issue.
Except the pile Julie found of them in the back of this store for $3.50 each. That’s incredible… just fifty-one cents more than a current comic book, for a good-condition pulp magazine from the forties. I couldn’t pass that up, so I ended up with #9, from November of 1947.
This was more just for the pleasure of finally having an actual 1940’s pulp magazine in the house than anything else, although I’m sure it’s a fun read. It’s in good shape, too. If I had a mercenary turn of mind I’d have bought the whole pile and put them up individually on eBay, but I didn’t think of it.
There were another pair of comics that were strictly sentimental buys.
The first one, Daredevil #126, was the first Daredevil solo book I’d ever bought. It was also one of the first comics I’d bought off the spinner rack at the old Sentry market when I was a kid. (Regular readers of this column may recall that this spinner rack was the chief facilitator of my personal Marvel Zombie era in 1974-1979.) The hell of it was, I’d missed the conclusion of this two-parter in #127 and so had no idea how it came out with the Torpedo. I had talked myself out of spending the money on them — they were $6 each — but after confessing to Julie that I’d wondered about it for thirty-two years, we went back the next day and I bought both of them.
Was the story worth the wait? Objectively, probably not; although I always liked Marv Wolfman’s run on Daredevil, and he set up a lot of stuff like Heather Glenn and Bullseye that Frank Miller would later use to great advantage. But it sure was satisfying to finally see how it ended, and I think even after all these years I’d still give it a solid B-plus just as a story. It’ll be Essential’d in the next volume of Daredevil, I think, but there’s a tangible nostalgic pleasure in having the originals.
I chatted with the owner a little bit, too. She said that she had actually run a comics retail business as part of her shop for a few years in the 80’s and 90’s, including being an outlet for new books, but gave it up because no one was interested. “But the last few months I’ve been selling a lot of them.”
I asked her who was buying them: collectors, young people, how did the demographic shake out? “All ages! Kids, older folks like you– all kinds.”
She also mentioned that there was an actual comics retailer in Astoria, just up the road. We drove by it later, though we didn’t stop in, and it’s called Amazing Stories. Classy-looking place, but it would have to be in order to last. On the main drag there in Astoria they’re competing with a bunch of other Ye Olde Gift Shoppe places, and tourists won’t shop at a hole.
All this was kind of heartening. That, coupled with the huge lines we saw for Dark Knight Friday and Saturday at Seaside’s one movie theatre, tells me the geek/fan demographic is doing okay out on the coast. (I know that last doesn’t really count– everybody ran out to see Dark Knight last weekend, fans or not– but Julie and I went on Friday and trust me, there were quite a few of Our People in the line with us.)
We had a couple of interesting stops on the drive home, too. When we’re traveling we like to amble and take back roads whenever possible, and we had decided to travel down the Columbia from Astoria to Portland and drop in at a couple of my old bookstore haunts before turning north for home, and if we saw anything interesting on the way, why, we’d pull in there too.
We stopped in a little town called Clatskanie to put gas in the car and decided to check out an antique shop on the main street. This was much more Julie’s speed than mine, but I found some books to look at. There were even comics– this actually was funny, in kind of a sad way. The guy had lovingly bagged and boarded a bunch of 90’s bad-girl books. Seriously, if it was a hot girl in a metal bikini, it was in stock. Witchblade, Darkchylde, Avengelyne… all of them. For $5 each.
I’ve never seen these books sell for higher than thirty cents in a discount box at any show I’ve ever been to, but I guess the news of the 90’s speculator bust hadn’t reached Clatskanie yet.
But for me the interesting part of the place was in the children’s book section. Lots of Whitman licensed stuff, some of the Grosset & Dunlap boy’s adventure titles, Trixie Belden, stuff like that.
I suppose I should explain a little. I’m sure all of you reading this have heard of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. What you may not be aware of are how many other juvenile hardcover series like that were out there from the 40’s to the 70’s or so. Tom Swift, Trixie Belden, Danny Dunn, Biff Brewster, Cherry Ames… it’s a whole sub-specialty of book collectors. Most of them, including the sales powerhouses Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, were published by the firm of Grosset and Dunlap.
My personal favorites are the ones starring Christopher Cool, TEEN Agent. There were only six of them in all and I have the first three.
Basically, it was the Hardy Boys if they’d worked for UNCLE. Chris Cool and his pal Geronimo Johnson travel the world undercover, thwarting the evil machinations of the deadly organization known as TOAD. I can’t top the jacket copy for a description so I’ll just duplicate it here:
CHRISTOPHER COOL / TEEN AGENT as he plays the deadliest game of all– international intrigue –in America’s newest exciting spy stories.
Christopher Cool and his Apache Indian roommate, Geronimo Johnson– sophomores at an Ivy League university– combine their campus lives with undercover assignments for a vital arm of U.S. Intelligence: Top-Secret Educational Espionage Network.
Expertly schooled in all the arts of espionage, the two daring TEEN agents work closely with red-haired Spice Carter, a clever coed agent, to thwart enemy spies in trouble spots throughout the world.
How cool is that? Chris and Geronimo fought thuggee assassins, mad doctors with death rays, and in one case a guy who was using a bioweapon to create GIANT MUTATED BUGS AND RATS. Seriously. The books are just all kinds of awesome.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth Cool novels have been on my shopping list for some time, but they are damnably difficult and expensive to find; though I see them listed on eBay at gouger’s prices now and then. The Clatskanie store had Department of Danger, the third book, for three dollars and it was like new. I already own it or I would have grabbed it and bolted for the register before anyone told them what they had.
As for the Whitman books, well, those are a whole column in themselves. Suffice it to say that Dell/Whitman/Gold Key were a licensed-book factory in their heyday; in addition to comics they also published all sorts of other juvenile books, licensed novels, Golden Books, Big Little Books, Whitman Classics… they probably destroyed several national forests’ worth of trees with their prodigious output while they were in business. And most of their various imprints are sought after by collectors.
Probably the most popular and highly coveted of these are the Big Little Books, about which reams of reference have been written already so I won’t get into it here. But my particular interest has always been the larger licensed young-adult hardcovers.
Specifically, Whitman did a series called “TV Favorites” in the sixties that I adored when I was a kid — they served the same function for me then that a DVD box set or a TiVo probably serves for you today. They were a way to enjoy my favorite shows on demand. You might have seen the facsimile reprint of the Star Trek entry that came out a few years ago.
Well, that was just one of them. There were dozens of others.
I’m interested in them partly for nostalgia and partly because I like the illustrations. Although the stories themselves are often very enjoyable, don’t get me wrong — I would rank the Mission: Impossible ones up there with the best of the show’s actual episodes, and certainly better than the adult paperbacks. And quite a few comics people worked on these books, too; the Maverick book was illustrated by Alex Toth.
While I was browsing, the owner, a grizzled fellow in his fifties, approached.
“You like science fiction, huh?”
“Some. Just looking.”
“Whadduyuhlike?” He pronounced it like that, all one word.
“Oh, all sorts of things. I like the Saberhagens you have here, but I already have them at home. Really, though, your juveniles are amazing.”
“Yeah?” He perked up. “Whadya see there?”
Oh, well. I wasn’t going to buy anything, and anyhow I can’t help myself sometimes. I explained about the Whitmans, and the Grosset & Dunlap series. He actually stopped me at one point and pulled out a note pad to write things down. Ask a nerd to flex his expertise and get a lecture. Fear my collector-fu, Antiques Roadshow!
He scurried off to the back of the store, saying he was going to have to check the internet. Sorry about that, Clatskanie bibliophiles… I’m afraid I screwed you. It was a reflex reaction, honest. But maybe the guy will also find out that his bad-girl comics are never going to sell at $5 each and mark them down to five-for-a-dollar where they belong, so it will wash.
Anyway, Julie did find a couple of Peanuts books she didn’t have, so it wasn’t a total loss.
There is little else to mention, comics-wise, anyway. We poked our heads in at Excalibur Comics (because Greg Burgas had recommended it) while we were passing through Portland, and I have to say that if I’d had five hundred dollars to spare I would have cleaned out their back issue boxes. Heaps of Bronze-Age goodness, many of which were books I’ve written about in this space — Marvel’s John Carter, a great selection of Warren black-and-whites, all kinds of good stuff. Nice-looking place, too.
And we stopped at Powell’s, because you have to in Portland if you like books. Again, it was a case of if-we-had-money… there’s a nice copy of Shazam From The Forties To The Seventies in their east side store, but they wanted $75 for it. Too much for us, but if I am honest I have to admit that’s a reasonable expectation of what it should sell for. It’s probably still there if any of you want it and can spare the cash. Worth an e-mail, at least; Powell’s does a lot of business online.
And in an antique mall in Kalama, Washington, I found a couple more Whitmans at very reasonable prices, so I snapped those up.
Really, Kalama’s the place for Westerns, period. That genre outnumbered every other kind of reading material by about five-to-one. It’s where all those old brown-leather “Louis L’Amour Library” books go to die.
And that was our trip. Not as exciting as Comic-Con in San Diego, but we found some comics. Plus, we had a good time, the scenery was nicer, and there were a lot less people to elbow through.
Honestly? We’ve found that it doesn’t matter where we travel, we will find some nerdy diversions there if we look.
See you next week.
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