Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Continuing the account of our vacation ambling through the Pacific Northwest in search of old books and comics and cool stuff. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three you will find under the fold.
I always have mixed feelings when we visit Portland.
It’s a beautiful town, nicer than Seattle in a lot of ways, and now that we’ve been relieved of the family dramas that used to accompany our visits it’s generally an enjoyable place for us. But because I did grow up there, and most of those memories were not happy ones, well… sometimes the place can feel a little overpowering. Julie swears that just being in downtown Portland sets me on edge. “You don’t see it, but I do,” she says. “You get all wound up.”
She’s probably right. On the other hand, the city itself can often seem like it’s a few bubbles off plumb, so to speak.
All of this is by way of explaining that we didn’t spend a lot of time there– it was strictly an overnight stop. We got in late from the coast because we’d stopped to mess around in Clatskanie, and then we had promised to have dinner with an old friend. The following morning, it turned out, we had to deal with a prescription thing that involved finding a medical supply place out in southeast Portland somewhere, so we didn’t call any of our other friends we were hoping to see, or even get in a whole lot of bookscouting, really. (We didn’t even check out the old Armchair Books Paperback Exchange like I was kind of half-hoping to do, though we did drive by it.)
This is my favorite bookstore in Portland, more so even than the famous Powell’s City of Books up on Burnside. It’s been a refuge and a hangout of mine ever since I was a teenager sneaking out to take the bus into downtown.
It gives me great comfort to know that almost forty years later, it’s still pretty much the same place. Powell’s caved in and got all gentrified and upscale (I know the coffee shop’s been there for a while now, but I still can never see it without a snort. Seriously, Powell’s, lattes and biscotti? Seriously? Who are you kidding? Put on all the airs you like, but some of us still remember the Mack Bolan room. )
Cameron’s Books, however, is still the same wonderfully dark and dusty cave full of cool old stuff that it was back in 1975.
Cameron’s specialty is old magazines, particularly Life and Playboy, but they have full runs of all sorts of stuff.
There’s even a few old pulps in with the “Vintage Magazines” section, though nothing in particular jumped out at me that day. Not surprising, since most of the good stuff is filed in a special room in the back of the store, where the light won’t damage it.
There are comics too, though those are hit and miss. But for me Cameron’s was a place to find books, particularly schlocky out-of-print series paperbacks, for next to nothing. (All the fuss at Cameron’s is over the magazines. Books are almost an afterthought, so prices are incredibly low.)
We looked through the juveniles and didn’t see anything for the three young people we were shopping for, but when I glanced over at the science-fiction section I could see a rainbow of uniform paperback spines on the top shelf I recognized at once, even from thirty feet away. Almost the full run of Laser Books.
I’m telling you, a wave of nostalgia hit me so hard it was a palpable thing.
For a couple of years there in the mid-1970s, Laser Books were everywhere. Spinner racks, bookstores, even supermarkets. It was an imprint of Harlequin Publishing, who hoped to create the same brand-name familiarity for science fiction that they had for romance novels. I guess you can certainly say they succeeded with that, since I’ve never heard anyone refer to a Harlequin Romance other than with a sneer (“Formula! Hackneyed! Cliche!”) and unfortunately that was usually the case with Laser Books as well.
They were edited (heavily) by a man named Roger Elwood, who was very much of the old school when it came to science fiction, as well as being a bit of a prude besides. Considering the late 1960s and early 1970s “new wave” of SF was just cresting and going mainstream, he was really not a good choice for the job, and his fresh new line of original science fiction novels ended up looking terribly out-of-date and old-fashioned. Laser Books selections tended to be bland and forgettable as far as conceptual SF was concerned.
But I always had a soft spot for them, nevertheless. Largely because of the Kelly Freas covers. He did all of them, each according to a strict formula — a scene from the story as background, with a head shot of a major character always in the lower right-hand corner. Like everything else about the Lasers, it was formula — but Freas made it work.
And the books weren’t bad, at least not to my undiscriminating 14-year-old self back in the day. (Those of you in the back snickering about how Hatcher’s not really any more discriminating today can just shut up.) They were a much better way to kill an hour in study hall than actually studying, for God’s sake. Laser Books was where I first found authors like K.W. Jeter and Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky and others, all of whom would go on to do books I liked quite a bit.
And here they all were at Cameron’s for a buck each. Even the one you couldn’t get in stores, Seeds of Change. (You had to fill out a questionnaire in the back of one of the ‘regular’ books and mail it in, and they’d send you the book as a gift.)
There were fifty-seven of the Laser Books series released between 1975 and 1977 (fifty-eight counting Seeds of Change, the “zero issue” mail-order one) and it looked like practically all of them were sitting on the shelf there. For one blindingly white-hot moment of collector’s lust I thought about scooping them all up, but then reason prevailed. I did pick up five of them for old time’s sake — Renegades of Time, Herds, Gates of the Universe, Blake’s Progress, and Serving in Time, for those keeping score– and Seeds of Change, as well. Six dollars in all.
As I was making my purchases I noticed that the proprietor had sitting next to the register, bagged and boarded, one of the rare DC Tarzan Digests that reprinted a lot of Russ Manning’s Sunday newspaper Tarzan strips.
Again came the double whammy of nostalgia and acquisitive lust. He had it priced at twenty-five dollars, though, which was a bit high for me. I told him it was quite a find, though.
He gave me a sour look. “I wish someone liked it enough to buy it,” he said.
He must have been getting a lot of wistful comments like that. Well, twenty-five was too high, damn it. Oh well. If Julie had been there she probably would have tried to talk me into it, but she had stepped outside, the dust had finally proved too much for her.
I found my wife blowing her nose out on the sidewalk and showed her my loot.
“That’s nice, honey,” Julie said, and sneezed. “But I don’t know how you managed more than five minutes in there. My allergies are killing me.”
So, fair warning. There will probably be sneezing. But if you’re ever in downtown Portland and you can brave the allergens, there are all sorts of rare delights to be had at Cameron’s. Bring Kleenex.
Once we’d dealt with the prescription thing, we were on the road again. We headed south out of Portland, bound for Detroit Lake in the Santiam River Valley. I’d designed our route to take us through as many fun back roads and small towns as possible, so we eschewed Interstate 5 and instead went south out of Oregon City on route 213.
This eventually brought us through Molalla to Silverton, where we decided it was time for lunch.
In a small town on a weekday afternoon, if you want to know where the good lunch place is, you look for where the local crowd goes. In Silverton that is O’Brien’s. I mention this largely because I know comics fans like their junk food and O’Brien’s serves quite possibly the finest milkshake I’ve ever had. The fries were magnificent too. If you ever happen to pass through there, make the time to stop and have some.
The proprietor, a jolly fellow who proudly informed us he played Santa every year in the Silverton Christmas Festival, told us about Silverton’s Mural Society and gave us a map to the other ones scattered throughout the town. This sort of thing is exactly why we like going on these back-roads excursions in the first place, so after lunch we decided to take a look.
The murals were nice, but more to the point, we also found an interesting little thrift shop.
Since the whole point of our trip was to stop anywhere that caught our interest, we decided to poke our heads in and have a look. I was particularly interested in the “Original Art” advertised on the sign outside.
I was impressed with the gallery. The paintings hanging on display were quite vivid and striking. But only one of the artists had work out there instantly identifying him as being one of Our People.
Howard Godwin was clearly channeling the spirit of Basil Wolverton out of Peter Bagge. There was a whole pile of his drawings stacked in the windowsill, most any of them looking like it could easily run as a cover for PLOP! back in 1974.
There were a couple of attempts at superhero pieces, but most of it was funny, bigfoot-cartoon stuff.
“This stuff is awesome,” I muttered. “Who the hell is this guy?”
I was talking to myself, since Julie was on the opposite side of the store looking at carnival glass. But the woman at the sales register heard me and came over smiling. “Those are our success stories,” she said, waving a hand at the paintings.
It turned out that the art hanging on the back wall of the store was part of the Mount Angel Developmental Center’s art therapy program. They work with autistic patients and other people with developmental disabilities, and Howard had done these pieces as part of the workshop experience. The lady, whose name was Heidi, went on to explain that the entire store was a fundraising program for the Mt. Angel Center. (Article here.)
Well, now I felt like I had to buy something– Howard’s art wasn’t for sale– so I went to go look at the books. The book section was pitifully small, just a couple of shelves, and it didn’t really have anything terribly interesting at first glance.
But suddenly I saw something stuck in with the juvenile books.
Seven or eight of the old Trixie Belden hardcovers from the mid-1960s, forty years old at least, and all of them looking brand-new except for the one on the bottom of the pile, which had a broken and peeling spine.
Trixie Belden, for those who don’t know, was a girl-detective series in a similar vein to Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, but it wasn’t from the Stratemeyer juvenile-fiction factory. Trixie was an original from Whitman Publishing, the same people that brought you the Big Little Books. The old hardcover editions are quite rare and highly sought after by collectors — Trixie doesn’t have as big a fandom as Nancy Drew or the Hardys, but it’s far more fiercely devoted.
The books aren’t my thing, I’m not actually a fan — but even though I’m not a professional bookscout I know a nice score when I see one. I glanced at the price and they were each marked at 99 cents. I wondered what the set would go for on eBay. A hundred bucks? Hundred and fifty maybe? For a second I considered quietly scooping them up, but I decided I couldn’t do it to Howard and his classmates.
“Excuse me,” I said to Heidi. “But you have a bunch of highly collectible Trixie Belden books back here on the children’s shelf. Right now you have them priced at 99 cents each and you can get the hell of a lot more than that for them. Even this one with the peeling spine probably would go for five or six bucks to a collector.”
Heidi came hurrying over. “What? Really?”
I explained about the books and she pulled them off the shelf and set them behind the register, and then excitedly started taking notes as I told her about collector sites and so on.
“We have some other nice ones back there,” Heidi said hopefully when I was done. “Harry Potter…”
I smiled, gently so as not to look too smug about it. “99 cents is about all you’d get for the Harry Potter, those books have never been out of print. These Trixie Beldens have been out of print since 1968 and they look brand-new. The thing about Whitman is that they were incredibly cheap, the books were made out of really crappy material — see how that cellophane is peeling up there on the bad one? — so what makes these so valuable is their condition. You almost never see them looking this good. So it all boils down to supply and demand, just like in college economics.”
Heidi smiled at that, then raised an eyebrow. “Thank you so much. You could have just bought them yourself to sell again.”
“If this was a Value Village I might have,” I admitted. “But you guys are doing good work here. I couldn’t stab Howard in the back like that. He’s a cartoonist after my own heart.”
“Well, thank you again. I will certainly check into those books.”
I didn’t actually buy any books for myself, but Julie had found a piggy bank and a little lavender-scented bag of bath stuff (Heidi told us proudly that the patients also make up the little bath bags as part of the therapy program) so we did spend a little money.
Outside, Julie smiled at me. “That was a nice thing you did, in there,” she said.
“Traveling the Northwest, spreading nerdlore in our wake — that’s how we roll,” I told her. “And I’ll tell you a secret. You know what the real perk is of being a geek scholar? Getting to flex your expertise once in a while. Sometimes, it’s just fun to have an appreciative audience.”
That was it for books and comics for the next day or so. We were bound for eastern Oregon, because my wife is a bit of a geology geek. Julie was hoping to score a geode or possibly a thunderegg from one of the rock shops, maybe even spend an afternoon at one of those “Dig Your Own Treasure!” places you see on the Discovery Channel. I’d arranged for us to spend a couple of days near the John Day Fossil Beds with the idea that we would poke around some of the various geological attractions there.
We decided to travel along the Santiam River instead of over Mount Hood because Julie had never been there, and I’d only been once, twenty years ago. The scenery was stunning and we had a lot of fun…. but there was very little bookscouting action to be had.
The phenomenon we’d noticed along the coast highway from Seaside was becoming more pronounced. The small towns were hurting.
Granted, none of them had ever been what you’d call a bustling metropolis, but we passed so many empty storefronts and FOR LEASE signs we started to wonder what people who lived out this way were living on. They couldn’t ALL work at a gas station.
It continued this way until we reached the town of Sisters the following afternoon.
Sisters is a nice little town that’s kind of in the weird area of eastern Oregon where the mountains start to give way to the desert. There’s still lots of trees around, but not the thick firs you see coming through the pass at Hoodoo. The air is a lot drier, and the trees you see around Sisters are smaller and thinner, scrub pine and such.
I hadn’t been to Sisters since I was about seven years old, and even then I don’t recall my family even stopping there, we just blew through it on our way to visit my cousins in Bend.
But it was a delightful place. Clearly a tourist trap, but we didn’t mind that, we were so pleased to see a town that had people moving around and doing stuff. It was the first town we’d seen since Silverton that looked, well, awake.
Best of all, there was a real bookstore.
Well, that was all right. I don’t mind paying fair market value when it supports a good store. Though it did strike me that Sisters seemed like an unlikely place to find a rarities expert, it just proves that you never can tell with book people. (Although, upon reflection, the other two bookstores I know of that are run by genuine expert bookscouts are in out-of-the-way small towns as well.) While Julie was looking at the vintage buttons and stones that were on display up front, I went back in the stacks to see what was passing for “antiquarian” in the science-fiction and fantasy section.
Some nice things, and it amused me to see that both a Spider-Man hardcover novel and an X-Men novel from a decade ago were available in pristine first editions. (Diane Duane’s The Venom Factor even had its collectible trading card insert intact.) But I already had both of those… in pristine first editions, even.
I did fall for a couple of others.
Martin Caidin’s Buck Rogers came as a complete surprise to me. I had been a fan of Mr. Caidin’s ever since I read Cyborg back in junior high, but I’d had no idea he had done a Buck Rogers book. And though The Land That Time Forgot starring Doug McClure is probably my favorite of all the dozens of films based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I’d never gotten around to actually reading the books. And here was the entire trilogy in a vintage hardcover ‘movie edition’ from the SF Book Club. Couldn’t pass either one of those up.
When I took my purchases up to the front register I noticed a locked display case up there. Most rare-book dealers have one, it’s where they show off the really good $tuff. I leaned over to have a closer look, since Julie was still looking at the button case. A splash of color stood out from the other old leather and buckram spines. I grinned.
“How much for the Trixie Beldens?” I asked casually.
The owner shrugged. “Oh, I just keep those in there because they’re so fragile. Not that much. About fifteen each.”
I felt absurdly vindicated and pleased, and did some quick math in my head. Seven times fifteen was a hundred and five, figure another four or five for the bad one with the cracked and peeling spine… yeah, that would be a pretty nice score for Howard and his fellow artists back at Mount Angel. I hope Heidi clears at least that much on them.
…and again this has gone on rather longer than I thought it would. So I’ll stop here.
Be here next week for the wrapup, where we find more amazing comics and ‘zines in more really unlikely spots, as we continue on through the desert and swing north for home. See you then.
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.