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The Birthday Story

Reminiscing in recent weeks about comics I loved when I was a sprout — and the decade-long battle with my mother from 1968 to around 1978 or so about whether I would be allowed to purchase and read comics at all — reminded me of a story I haven’t told here before.

In particular, it reminded me of Aunt Bea and my tenth birthday.

That’s my Aunt Bea, not Andy Griffith’s from Mayberry. (Although mine did bear a slight resemblance to her television avatar.)

When I was young, Aunt Bea was the only relative I had that seemed to actually understand me. It’s probably because Bea was the other member of the Hatcher clan, besides me, that actually possessed the nerdgene herself. Hers expressed itself in more of an academic fashion, but she definitely had it. She was a social studies professor at Portland State University, and lived quietly for most of her life in an apartment on the 1300 block of southwest Broadway, not far from campus.

That's Aunt Bea at the board, teaching her social studies class, in 1947. This is the only picture I have of her, sadly. It's from the Portland State University archives.

Bea was widely traveled and had curios from her trips scattered throughout her little fourth-floor walkup– Eskimo ivory carvings, Japanese lanterns, that kind of thing– but even though she had seen more of the world than all the rest of my relatives combined, she never owned a car. Wasn’t even licensed. “Doesn’t drive,” was something the rest of the family would occasionally whisper, awed and a little horrified.

Bea was pretty good at horrifying the rest of my family. Apart from her unrepentant nerdity and adamant refusal to buy a car, she was also a militant social progressive and was active in civil rights causes before it was fashionable for collegiate white folks in the 1960s — in particular, she wanted schools to be integrated back in the 1940s, and she also spoke out against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, saying it was a crime.

I knew none of this when I was nine, but I did know one thing– Bea was the one grownup I was related to by blood that genuinely seemed to get it. She not only listened to the words that came out of my mouth, instead of just marveling that I was using them (“Huh? Did you say ‘at the molecular level’?” was the kind of typical bewildered comment I used to get a lot) but she seemed to understand what I meant without constantly stopping me to demand I explain. She was the only relative I had that didn’t think it was unhealthy or freakish that I read so much. In fact, I remember her as being endlessly interested in whatever book I was reading or TV show I was wrapped up in, and when Christmas rolled around, she’d find some book that reflected that interest. She paid attention to stuff like that.

These three books were all Christmas gifts from Bea, in 1968, 1969, and 1970 respectively. My original childhood copies were read to tatters and then I think Mom gave them away or something when I was in high school. Pity, because these first editions are pretty high-end collectibles today in good condition.

When I told her I was reading about Thor and Hercules, that Christmas brought Louis Untermeyer’s The Firebringer and Other Stories, a collection of myths from around the world presented as an anthology of short stories. When I told her I was reading the Narnia books, that Christmas Bea’s gift was Journey to Untor, another story about teenagers traveling to an exotic and magical land. And so on.

(I have tried for years to replace the books Bea found for me, with limited success. What I’ve discovered is that those books — particularly the Untermeyer– are highly prized in the first edition. I did manage to find a nice hardcover of Nicholas Gray’s The Apple Stone for a reasonable price from an online dealer a few years ago, but for the most part, these books are maddeningly elusive in any editions other than battered ex-library copies. Bea had a good eye.)

Aunt Bea and I had a sort of tradition. Christmas was always a book. For my birthday, she always sent a card with a dollar bill enclosed.

Now, a dollar went a lot further in those days. I almost always got comics with it… maybe with a candy bar, since if I got six regular-sized comic books that would total ninety cents, leaving a dime that would purchase a Snickers bar. (No sales tax in Oregon; the retail price really was the actual price.) More often, though, that extra dime went for an upgrade — five regular books and then I’d get a Giant for a quarter. Man, those were the days.

(No, the thought of saving the dollar never entered my youthful mind. When it came to blowing the birthday dough it was go big or go home, that was my feeling.)

When my tenth birthday rolled around, I took a big plunge. DC had started doing these enormous 100-page reprint collections for fifty cents and when Bea’s dollar arrived, I shot the works on two of them.

Talk about your D-list co-stars... when the biggest name in the book other than Superman is Hawkman, you might as well call this the pity edition.

I thought these were pretty awesome, particularly the Batman book. The wraparound cover by Neal Adams blew me away, and editor E. Nelson Bridwell had helpfully provided a key on the inside with all the characters’ names. That was when I finally figured out who really was in the Legion.

Isn't that awesome? Adams included every Legionnaire, even the Super-Pets.

The stories were pretty good too — the Batman entry “Masterminds of Crime!” and the Legion story introducing Duplicate Boy and the heroes of Lallor were both hits with me, I liked them a lot. But the real seller for me was the origin of the Doom Patrol by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. I’d never seen anything like it before and it was love at first sight.

This is pretty badass, even today.

I’d been sort of aware of the Doom Patrol, but I’d never read any of their adventures… the covers seemed a little too weird and off-putting for me. It wasn’t until I read the origin story by Drake and Premiani reprinted here that I realized that very weirdness was what made them cool. From the opening scenes where the Chief gathers these three strangers together…

… to the conclusion of the battle with General Immortus, I was well and truly hooked.

I loved that they were outcasts. I loved that they were bitter. I especially loved that they were just so bizarre. And the story was full of amazing throwaway bits that would probably carry an entire issue today. (The revelation that the Chief was the surgeon that rebuilt Cliff Steele and the subsequent race to defuse a bomb a few panels later would probably each be padded out to a full 22 pages in modern comics, just to name two.)

So when Mom reminded me to telephone Aunt Bea to thank her for my birthday dollar, I was bursting with enthusiasm. Bea chuckled indulgently at my thanks and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “So what did you spend the money on? Something to read?”

“Yeah!” I exploded, excited to tell aunt Bea about the AWESOMENESS of the Doom Patrol. “I got—”

Suddenly I saw Mom waving frantically, angrily, at me from across the kitchen counter. I knew she meant don’t say comics.

What could I do? I was ten. I didn’t know why Mom had such a thing about this but I knew not to cross her. I finished, lamely, “…uh…. magazines.”

“Oh? Which ones?” That was Bea, always interested.

I had no idea. The only kid’s magazines I knew existed were the ones I saw at the doctor’s office. “Urp– uh– Golden Magazine,” I said, helplessly.

Bea wanted to know more and my brain went into vapor lock. I muttered something about it being for kids my age and handed the phone back to Mom.

That Christmas, instead of the usual book, Bea got me a card. It told me that I had a gift subscription to Golden Magazine starting in January. (Although by then it was called Young World.)

I loved Aunt Bea enough that I didn’t let the disappointment show on my face. But inwardly I died a little.

It was an okay magazine, I guess, whatever you called it... though I thought it was kind of insipid. It was sure no DOOM PATROL.

Because, I realized, if I’d told the truth…. Bea would have understood. Now I was in the position of having to fake enthusiasm for this lame-ass kid’s magazine because I’d lied to my aunt.

Bea passed away a couple of months later, in early 1972. It still rankles me to this day that I let her go to her grave with that stupid lie hanging over my head. I didn’t dare come clean. That would have made Mom look bad too (and I’d have paid for it for months after.) I felt guilty and ridiculous and embarrassed.

And bitter. Oh yes. So bitter.

Even at ten years old, I was smart enough to put it together. If I’d just blurted out the truth that day on the phone and dared Mom’s wrath, Bea would not only not have cared, but she would have actually listened, as she always did. That Christmas I’d have probably gotten something awesome like Batman: From the 30s to the 70s. Or maybe even… a subscription to a comic. My youthful mind boggled at all the possibilities. And I’d blown it.

When the magazines started coming, I read them, but mostly out of a sense of obligation. They were dull as ditchwater. Barely a half-step up from Highlights.

But I felt like I owed it to Bea’s memory, so I plowed through, all the while kicking myself for letting Mom pressure me into such a stupid lie in the first place. You kids today, with your pull lists and hardcover archive editions and webcomics…. you have no idea what a closeted, fugitive thing it was to be a comics fan in the 1960s.

*

I still miss Aunt Bea. But I take comfort in the fact that it would have amused her greatly to see that forty years later, despite all my mother’s desperate attempts to put a stop to it, I am as involved with comics and reading today as I was when I was ten. On an academic level, in schools, even.

Maybe it really is genetic.

See you next week.

12 Comments

Ahhh, the quiet miseries of childhood. Having to hide what you are reading from the adults in your life is a really brutal one.

cool story. bea sounded like a real one of a kind lady who actually figured out that to get kids to start loving thing like books and want to learn knowledge nudge them by talking and learning their interest. and do not feel guilty about lying about the magazine you did it out of family loyalty.

I’m glad that you had one adult who ‘got’ you. I’m sure that Aunt Bea would not hold any of this against you, so i hope that you don’t either!

Thanks for sharing a part of your life with us.

Parental Anti-comics fascism sucked.

I wish I’d had an Aunt Bea. Great story!

Moral of the story: Never listen to your parents. Especially if they hate comic books.

Ninjazilla – you said it. Great story, Greg – I had some similar experiences with parental disapproval (mainly from my dad). You, at least, were lucky to have had someone like Aunt Bea.

Lovely tribute to your Aunt Bea. And Greg, she would have understood.

Happy birthday, Greg.

May you have 50 more years of tweed and comics.

That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Wonderful reading as always, Greg. Your youth was blessed with one very special lady.

Hope you had a great birthday.

Hope you had a great birthday.

I did, actually. We loafed around watching movies most of the day. Harryhausen’s restored version of SHE and also a bunch of the groovy 1970-71 season of Mission: Impossible, which is AWESOME — really, pimpin’ Leonard Nimoy as a nightclub guitarist may be the greatest thing ever– and then Julie took me to dinner and to Barnes and Noble to play with my new Nook. (You need a wi-fi network to register the thing and I figured if we ran into a snag we could badger a B&N salesperson about it, but it’s really easy to configure once you’re in.) The Nook will probably show up in a column at some point; the graphic novel selection they have available is a little odd but an interesting snapshot of who’s trying to get in on this at the ground floor.

Thanks for the birthday wishes to all who posted or tweeted, I appreciate them all!

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