Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Julie and I had to delay our annual back-roads bookscouting expedition this year, but we did get one.
These summer-vacation road trips of ours only started because our relative poverty kept us from continuing to attend the San Diego convention, but it’s actually turned into something of a tradition for our anniversary. Just get in the car and go, preferably on as obscure and untraveled a route as possible to a relatively inexpensive rural destination, stopping at any bookstores or thrift shops or garage sales that catch our eye along the way. The first time out we ambled through the southeast Cascades until we ended up in Hood River, and the second time it was down back roads along the Olympics until we hit Seaside.
This year we were off to the Great White North. We chose that direction for a couple of reasons — one, we’d never been very far that way, and two, we’d been promising to visit my old friend Helen, just over the border in British Columbia, for years. Helen was one of my fellow writers at With magazine for fourteen years, and she’s one of my dearest friends… but with one thing and another she’d hardly had a chance to meet my wife Julie, except for a brief flyby at our wedding reception five years ago. So I was very pleased to be able to remedy this at last.
Also, more selfishly, I’d noticed a particular bookstore as we were passing through Mount Vernon on a day trip a couple of months ago, but it had been closed then and I really wanted to get back and get a look at it. It had advertised ‘rarities’ or ‘collectibles’ or something like that in its display window, and it looked like it was home to a real antiquarian book dealer. I couldn’t remember the name of the place, but I was certain I could find it again if we were in the general neighborhood. So we decided we’d spend our first night in rustic Mount Vernon, where I could scratch my collector’s itch that had been bothering me for three months and track down that bookstore.
Now, I am not actually a true antiquarian book collector, we can’t afford it. I just play at it, here and there on the fringes. Most of the things I enjoy collecting are not high-end rarities, though there are a couple of juvenile young-adult series books we like that are edging into that range. (We are very fond of the original Oz hardcovers, and also I like a lot of the older boy’s adventure series books…. more on those in a bit.)
Once we’d checked into our hotel, we were off in search of the bookstore. It didn’t take long to figure out where it was — downtown Mount Vernon’s only about six square blocks. The place is Easton’s Books, on south First Street, and we thought it was really rather magnificent.
Easton’s was indeed a true antiquarian and collectible bookshop– I had to make myself stop drooling over the pristine Naval Institute Press first edition they had of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October ($100 — a perfectly fair price, but way out of our league) though they also had lots of used paperbacks and stuff as well.
Right near the entrance was a shelf of vintage hardcover Westerns, something I’ve been getting more and more interested in over recent months. I found one nice little one by E.B. Mann priced at about four dollars.
For those that don’t know, E.B. Mann was almost as well-known as Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour in his heyday. His primary vocation was as a outdoorsman-magazine writer — he was a columnist for Field and Stream and an editor for American Rifleman, among others — but he was a fine Western novelist, as well, and about a dozen of his books were loosely adapted for film in the 1930s.
He’s fallen out of vogue somewhat since then, but I like his books quite a bit. His most famous character was Marshal Jim Sinclair, “The Whistler,” who starred in three of his novels.
I’d found the first of the three, Rustler’s Round-Up. In really good shape, with the dust jacket intact and everything. Even for a wartime edition (from Triangle Books, a firm that specialized in cheap hardcover reprints during the 1940s) four dollars was a steal — usually you see something like that for about ten dollars.
Moving on to the juvenile series books, I found a Rick Brant that was in good shape — The Lost City, second in the series. Rick Brant was one of the inspirations for Jonny Quest, for those that don’t know.
However, this one was priced at twelve dollars, very reasonable considering its condition, but more than I was willing to pay; it would have been strictly a historical-curiosity purchase for me, I wasn’t that big a fan. Regretfully, I put it back, but then I saw something I was sure Julie would like.
Pollyanna is one of Julie’s favorite movies, but I was pretty sure that she didn’t know it was based on a novel by Harriet Lummis Smith. And even I hadn’t known that it was a series of novels that had been franchised out by the publisher after Mrs. Smith moved on to other projects… despite her name being on all of them, only the first two in the series are actually hers.
Easton’s had the second in the series and the one true sequel by Harriet Smith herself, Pollyanna of the Orange Blossoms, wherein Pollyanna grows up and gets married. (Oddly, all of the Pollyanna sequels are about her adult years– probably why none of them had the staying power of the original.)
Anyway, it delighted Julie as much as I’d thought it would, and it was only $6.95, so it went into the pile.
But the real find was not only the cheapest, it even had a comics connection of sorts.
The Adventures of Lewis and Clark was one of the first books I’d ever owned when I was a kid — I have vivid memories of insisting our family detour to Fort Clatsop on a trip to Astoria when I was eight, simply because I’d read about it in this book and had to see it for myself. I’d read my original copy to tatters long ago and hadn’t seen it anywhere since then.
So it was a wonderful moment of joy and recognition when I found it there in Easton’s, and more, realized that the illustrations — one on almost every page — were all by the great John Severin.
How cool is that? One of the most fondly-remembered books of my childhood turns out to have been illustrated by my very favorite Western comics artist.
I am heroically restraining myself from posting every single illustration in the book here, but I assure you, they are all amazing. I snatched it off the shelf so fast it left a smoke trail.
Best of all, there was a little ding on the cover so it was marked down to $1.50. I’d have paid ten times that, ding and all.
I looked it up when we got home. Apparently, this is the only juvenile book illustration job Severin ever did, which is a damn shame. You can find more information here, along with all the rest of the illustrations.
So that was Easton’s. We chatted a bit with the lady who rang us up. I expressed amusement at her sign on the register, Not buying ANY Danielle Steele or John Grisham.
“It must be really depressing for Danielle Steele if she ever goes into a Goodwill,” I told her. “You can always find at least twenty of her hardcovers there marked down to nothing.” (This is true. You could easily put together an entire Steele library in hardcover from your local thrift stores in about forty-eight hours, for roughly fifteen dollars total. If you were nutty enough to want to.)
“Woman’s too prolific for her own good,” sniffed the clerk, and made a sour face. Clearly, not a fan.
The next day we continued north. As luck would have it, the laws have changed so that now you need a passport to get into Canada, so we weren’t going to be able to cross the border as we’d originally planned. (In the state of Washington, you can also get what’s called an ‘enhanced’ driver’s license that works in lieu of a passport just for Canada, but we hadn’t even had time to get those.) So we were confined to the U.S.
However, Helen’s passport was in good order, and she was coming across the border to have lunch with us stateside, in the town of Lynden. So we had a rough itinerary of leaving Mount Vernon around ten-thirty or so and being in Lynden by around two o’clock.
Here’s a map to give you an idea.
Now, the routine way of doing this would be to shoot up I-5 to the Lynden exit and turn east, putting us there in an hour or so. But that’s no fun at all, and anyway we were in no hurry — our only commitment was to meet Helen at two. Our rule is ‘no interstates,’ if we can find a back road. We had decided to take Highway 9, in keeping with our tradition, and also because we’d never been on it.
It quickly became our favorite north-south corridor ever. This map will give you a slightly better look at the route, but it doesn’t begin to put across the sense of the country we were passing through.
Seriously, it was like something out of Doc Hollywood. Here, for example, is downtown Acme.
Next door there is a diner and across the street is a fire station and a church. That’s it.
You’d think there’d be slim pickings for book lovers on a back road like that, and certainly there weren’t many places for us to stop and scrounge around.
But we did find a few. Just before Nooksack there’s a wide spot in the road called Deming, and just for the hell of it we stopped at their library. Mostly because their neon sign assured us they were open.
After all, when you have to compete with taverns and diners, not to mention the Nooksack Casino just a hundred yards or so away, your library damn well better have a neon sign.
The Deming library is actually a really nice place.
It’s set back from the main road, nestled in a little cul-de-sac just below the ridge. They were in the middle of unpacking and re-shelving stuff following the remodeling and expansion of the building, but in spite of that the place was clean and tidy and really rather bustling for a Saturday morning, with people using the internet stations and mothers finding books for their children.
Just out of curiosity, I wandered over to Dewey Decimal 741 in the nonfiction section, where the comics live, and saw that they weren’t in any rut up there in Deming — there were several of the Fantagraphics Peanuts collections, The Return of Superman, a couple of Marvel’s Ultimate hardcovers, a Joe Sacco book, Calvin & Hobbes, some Lynda Barry, and a Fox Trot collection.
We were completely charmed by the place and really impressed at how nice it was, despite still looking a trifle unfinished. I said as much to the girl working the desk. “Raised all the money locally,” she said, beaming. “Private contributions, no tax money at all.”
You have to love a town that loves to read that much, especially when it’s barely a block long.
They were having a little book sale in the foyer, too. Julie picked up a collection of stories by Jeffrey Archer, and I fell for a Robert Parker Spenser hardcover.
Frankly, the latter are becoming as easy and cheap to pick up as Danielle Steele’s, but I like a Spenser book once in a while, and we felt like we should buy something. The girl at the desk had very kindly let us use an internet station despite our lack of a Whatcom County library card, and she’d also taken the time to answer all my questions about the expansion.
The Deming library was pretty much it for books or comics until we hit Lynden itself. Despite our dawdling, we were still an hour and a half early for our rendezvous with Helen, so we decided to wander up and down Lynden’s one main street.
Lynden is a preternaturally tidy and quiet place, very nice to be sure, but there are times when it’s disturbingly reminiscent of Stepford, Connecticut. Or maybe The Village.
The place is almost too nice. Like, manicured. I told Julie that if we saw a pennyfarthing bicycle anywhere, we were getting the hell out of town.
There were no actual bookshops that we saw anywhere on the main drag, but we did find a couple of nice antique places with book sections and we dug out some treasures there.
I found a couple more vintage juveniles. Impulse buys, both of them, but they were cheap.
The Shadow of Robber’s Roost caught my eye simply because it reminded me so forcibly of the young-adult adventure books I devoured in grade school. One look at that Young America Book Club seal on the spine and instantly I had a sensory flashback to the smell of chalk and the incredibly loud ticking of the clock in the old Lakewood Elementary library. Picking it up I almost felt like I could hear my old school librarian Mrs. Hunter chuckling from over my shoulder, “Another blood and thunder book, Greg?”
And it was a vintage hardcover Western for two bucks. So I bought it. It actually turned out to be a pretty good book, based on the real-life story of the outlaw William Coe and how he terrorized the homesteaders of the Black Mesa country until finally young Buddy Emery, the son of the trading post owner, sneaked away during the night while Coe was asleep in their barn to bring back the U.S. Cavalry. Robber’s Roost is a fictionalized account of this adventure, told from the boy’s viewpoint. If I’d discovered this book when I was nine or ten, I’d have thought it was made of awesome. As it is, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to considering it was strictly a nostalgia buy. Worth looking for at your local library, especially if you have a young reader around your house who craves adventure.
Mystery Rides the Rails just looked fun and pulpy, and it was only a dollar-fifty. Half the price of a modern comic book and it was a nice little hardcover from 1937, inscribed “To Jack from Aunty Belle, 1937.” So it was a first edition, and for a buck and a half I thought why not?
It was entertaining too, but more for the historical part. The ‘mystery’ is nonexistent; young engineer Joe Jutton and his pal Tubby have to figure out who’s sabotaging kindly Mr. Orest’s Silver Line Railroad, a conundrum with a solution so painfully obvious that even Aunty Belle’s little nephew Jack probably had it sussed by chapter two.
But the fun of the book is that it provides a wonderful snapshot of life in a 1930s mountain mining town. There’s all sorts of interesting bits about the dangers of keeping the rails clear so the silver ore can ship, the heroics of trying to keep snow and rock from destroying the locomotive in an avalanche, the sheer desperation of a town trying to keep their one economic lifeline open. That kept me interested, even after I was snorting at the ease of the mystery and the predictability of the plot. If I was in third grade I’d have enjoyed it well enough, though it wasn’t as good as Robber’s Roost. Nevertheless, I was happy to have both books considering the total cash outlay was only around four dollars with tax. Not bad at all for ‘vintage’ books from an antique store.
Next door was an antique mall with a variety of individual dealer stalls, and it was there that I hit serious paydirt.
This particular dealer had comics… and he was the kind of dealer you secretly pray for when you are out nosing around for bargains, the Guy Who Has No Clue What He’s Got.
If you look at that spinner rack there in the photo, you will see an amazing variety of material, ranging from Bronze and Silver Age rarities to 1990s three-for-a-dollar crap. This fellow had lovingly bagged and boarded every one and priced them all at three or four dollars each. No matter what it was.
I should cut the guy some slack… after all, this was an antique mall in Lynden, Washington, hardly a hotbed of comics fandom. It’s probably all the market will bear. Still, it struck me as a very arbitrary sort of pricing, though as you will see it worked out well for me.
I am trying to cut back on the single-issue comics purchases and stick to trade-paperback format as much as possible… but this was just too good to pass up. I resisted temptation for the most part but did fall for three that are unlikely to be collected anytime soon.
World’s Finest was the one that I grabbed just by reflex. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I loved DC’s 1970s experiments with combining new and reprint material in a super-sized format, and you never see those books this cheap… and this particular issue features a rare Shining Knight reprint by Frank Frazetta.
That was the real score. But I also found a copy of DC’s Korak I didn’t have, also for three bucks.
This one isn’t all that hard to find, but online dealers generally have it for at least double that price and that’s before you add in shipping. The lead story with Korak is a nice little done-in-one by Len Wein and Frank Thorne, and the backup is the second chapter of Wein’s adaptation of Pirates of Venus, with art by Mike Kaluta.
The final one set me back a whopping four dollars.
I bought this simply because I love Fantastic Voyage with all my heart and soul. But it turns out that the art was by Dan Adkins and Wally Wood and it’s gorgeous, if a bit pedestrian.
Gold Key had a knack for sucking all the excitement out of adventure comics, there was always something a little textbooky about them.
Even so, I was delighted to find this. Gold Key also published two comics based on the Fantastic Voyage cartoon in 1969, and Julie got me the second one of those for my birthday a couple of years ago (also from an antique mall, as it happens.)
So that leaves just one to go. Sooner or later it’ll turn up.
I should add that the guy had lots of other cool stuff besides comics, as you can see from this photo. (I love how Mr. Spock is getting ready to phaser Howdy Doody to ash. Serves him right. Squint at Howdy Doody and he bears an alarming resemblance to the demonic Chucky.)
If you look down to the left of that photo you can see that he also had some pulps. Again, those were priced around three to five dollars. I seriously considered picking up the copy of Dime Western he had there, but it looked too brittle to read… and even though the collector hunt is great fun, I do buy these to read.
He did have a nice copy of Zane Grey’s Western Magazine from 1951 for $2.95 and I took that one off his hands.
This issue was something of an anomaly in that it doesn’t lead with a Zane Grey reprint. Instead, the headline story is The Silver Star by Harry Drago, and as far as I know it never appeared anywhere else. I finished it last night and it was pretty good… nothing innovative, it was basically the old “lone man brings law to a lawless town, redeems his dark past and finds love” story that you’ve seen in countless westerns (and Road House, too, come to think of it) but it was done well and I enjoyed it.
Then it was time to meet up with Helen, but we weren’t quite done acquiring books that day.
Helen surprised us with the gift of a signed copy of her new book, Lead, Kindly Light. Now, it’s unlikely enough that Helen and I got to be such good friends in the first place — she is a gracious, stately Christian lady who writes inspirational books and articles, and I’m a foul-mouthed, ex-drunk pulp fan who writes… well, the stuff I write. So normally her books are not really in my wheelhouse at all, but this one I am very interested in checking out because I actually know several of the principals involved.
It’s the story of how Helen’s mother smuggled their family out of Stalin’s Russia through Austria during World War II after her father was killed, finally getting Helen and her three siblings safely to a refugee settlement in Canada despite enormous obstacles. Helen and her sister Katie have both told me bits and pieces of this story over the years and I can assure you it’s a harrowing tale, it would make a hell of a movie. It’s nice she’s finally written it down. (Helen told us her biggest obstacle to getting the book done was her mother herself, who kept insisting that she was embarrassed to be painted as such a heroine. Despite, well, being one.)
I daresay it’s highly unlikely anyone in the CBR demographic cares about it, but when I was writing this Julie said, “You’re going to mention Helen’s new book too, aren’t you?” And so I have.
And that was our road trip…. at least the bookscouting part, though we had other adventures. But this has gone on long enough. Second year in a row I scored both pulp-magazine and comics rarities in the most unlikely places… it just goes to show that if you keep an eye out, the nerdity will always show up. No matter where you go.
Because Our People are everywhere.
See you next week.
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