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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.