O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
It’s been over a year since we have been able to go on any kind of a real trip. But finally, the stars– and work schedules– aligned, and last weekend we were off to the north to see what we could turn up in the way of books, comics, and other diversions.
For this year’s expedition we decided to try Blaine, a tiny little town right at the Canadian border. We’d never been there, and it was on the water, which is always our first preference.
I don’t know exactly what we were expecting… I guess just the usual tickytacky beach town. Someplace with a diner and a couple of junk shops and some interesting oddball sights.
What we got was something akin to Veronica Mars’ Neptune– one rich neighborhood on the bluff overlooking the bay, with the rest of the place looking weatherbeaten, surly and poverty-stricken. Blaine is much more about being a border town than a beach town. A lot of the retail spaces were boarded up or vacant, and there was a weird, angry vibe about the place. We saw lots of vehicles like this one…
(Because someone will ask: the two bumper stickers read, respectively, I wish my girlfriend was as dirty as my truck and Is there life after death? Touch my truck, you’ll find out!!! And there was a screaming hooded skull-faced Grim Reaper decal on the driver’s side door, as well.)
Our motel, the Bayside, was clean and cheap, but that’s about all. It had the same ambiance as the no-tell motels you see in old movies, the kind where the detective hides a witness.
Our view was of the dumpster in back of the Chinese restaurant next door. There was only one thing missing; there was no flashing neon sign to intermittently light up our room with red light throughout the night. If we’d had that, it would have been the perfect fifties noir experience. Fortunately, we are not hotel snobs; we’ll overlook a lot as long as the place is clean. In our income bracket, we are never looking for a resort when we travel, just a bed for the night. The desk clerk was a nice older lady and the price was right, so we were content with our choice.
There were another half-dozen similarly run-down motels, and one slightly more upscale B&B, strung out along the beach road. When you hit what passes for downtown there is one diner, Big Al’s; a couple of expresso places; a Pizza Factory; a tiny strip mall with roughly half the spaces vacant that had seen better days; two duty-free shops flanking I-5; and a Subway. And that was really IT for Blaine, for the most part.
But they were doing a land-office business in mail-box drops. Chain places like Mail Boxes Etc. and UPS, and another ten or twelve privately-owned concerns. It’s THE business in town. I told Julie, “They ought to rename the place Smuggler’s Cove and just own up.”
As far as comics and books were concerned, nothing. The closest we got to anything in that area was the decor in Big Al’s diner– Betty Boop greets you as you enter. Here she is with Julie.
And that’s all she wrote as far as comics-related stuff in Blaine, unless you count the Supergirl shirt our waitress was wearing.
So, having exhausted the possibilities in Blaine within an hour of checking in to our motel, we determined to spread out a little.
The following day, Saturday, we were meeting my old WITH magazine colleague Helen in Lynden for a late lunch at two, and we set out around ten AM thinking we would turn up something on the way.
And we did. Just before hitting downtown Lynden, we stumbled across a giant rummage sale. “I see books,” Julie said, and so we pulled over.
There were indeed books. Most of them were crap; lots of Reader’s Digest Condensed, lots of Left Behind paperbacks, lots of spiritual healing and self-improvement woo-woo handbooks. That kind of thing. (Well, it was a church-lady sponsored event.) But somewhere, someone’s dad– or recently-deceased grandpa, more likely– was a fan of the good stuff. Because under the main display table, I found a huge box of Gold Medal men’s adventure paperbacks from the sixties.
Grandpa had a good eye. Alister MacLean, Edward S. Aarons, Peter Rabe– most of them first editions and all of them in like-new shape. The church ladies had them at fifty cents each and I vacuumed up about fifteen of them– Aarons’ Sam Durell spy books for the most part.
If you’ve never read Aarons, well, he was riding the James Bond wave like Donald Hamilton and Norman Daniels and a lot of the other pulp paperback guys in the sixties, but his books are quite a bit tougher, meaner, and more plausible than Fleming’s Bond novels– or even Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. Sam Durell works for K Section of the CIA, the department that apparently gets all the dangerous and crappy assignments– more often than not, Durell ends up having to come in and salvage a covert operation that’s gone bad somehow. Really Aarons was the proto-Tom Clancy, but with all the boring parts left out; Sam Durell never has time to ruminate on the state of the U.S. military or vegans or nuclear sub protocols. There’s a Cold War on and Durell’s got serious shit to do, man.
Back in the day, paperback originals clocked in somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 words– about a hundred and seventy pages. So thriller writers knew to keep it moving and Aarons was one of the best. There is not nearly as much swashbuckling adventure and wry humor as you see in the Matt Helm novels or even in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books– but despite his dour outlook and grim sense of foreboding, I can’t help but like Sam Durell. He’s kind of the Joe Friday of sixties superspy fiction. And an Aarons book moves, the pace is headlong and relentless. I’d always meant to read more of them and here was a boatload of Durell firsts for chump change. So I loaded up.
I also found a few outliers. A couple of non-Durell Aarons books, CODE NAME GADGET by Peter Rabe, and SPECTRE SPREAD by Tom West.
Impulse buys, really; Tom West I’d never heard of, but by the time I got to that one I was willing to gamble on Grandpa’s taste, since so many of the others were so clearly my thing. Mostly I just liked the covers (and in the case of Rabe, the title was irresistible as well.) An interesting bit of trivia is that Peter Rabe also co-wrote, with Lorenzo Semple Jr., a two-parter for the Adam West Batman TV show– “The Joker’s Last Laugh”/”The Joker’s Epitaph.”
But mostly Rabe was a Gold Medal crime novel guy. He churned out twenty-five-plus books for them throughout the fifties and sixties. Trying to find out more about him, I came across this cool interview; interestingly, I think I and most other mystery aficionados like his stuff as lot better than he himself did.
I’ve been regretting not just making an offer for the whole box off and on since we got home. But I already had most of the Alistair MacLean here in hardcover, and anyway church sales are generally staffed with exceedingly conscientious volunteers who are terrified of improvisation– it probably would have taken an hour to track down someone empowered to dicker. Furthermore, I didn’t have enough cash on me; as it was I emptied my wallet scooping up what I did. More than that would have involved an expedition to an ATM and I didn’t feel THAT strongly about it.
In any case, in addition to my paperback score, Julie had found a desk lamp, a couple of old vases and a beach towel she liked a lot, so we decided the stop was definitely a success.
Lynden itself, the last time we were there, was a place so manicured, stuffy, and proper that it spooked us a little. It was a bit like the Village from The Prisoner.
But that was before. This time we arrived just as they were getting their party on.
We had apparently arrived right in the middle of the annual Raspberry Festival, where they block off the entire main street of downtown for food, games, music, and all sorts of stuff. We loved it. This is what we enjoy the most about going on these back-roads expeditions, stumbling across things like this. Small-town festivals are the best festivals because the whole community is in on it, EVERYONE is ready to have fun. It’s infectious.
There was a vintage car show, all sorts of crafts on display… but far and away the thing everyone cared about was the three-on-three basketball tournament ranging up and down the main street, with boys and girls divisions starting from third and fourth grade and going on up through college-age. No matter how old the players were, though, they were deadly serious about their basketball… and these farm kids have game. Julie got very invested in a couple of the younger kids’ playoff chances and checked in on those teams throughout the day. It was easy to get caught up in it all. I don’t even care about sports and I found myself having to stop and watch every so often.
All the businesses were open– were, in fact, probably having their biggest day of the year– and we were delighted to discover that since we were there last, Lynden has acquired a comics and games shop, Heroes Resource.
It’s a very nice place. More about the toys and games than the books but they still had a pretty good graphic novel selection. Nothing for me that day, but Julie found a Superman coffee mug she liked, and we had a pleasant chat with the proprietor.
But the place I really wanted to check out was the antique mall next door, to see if the guy was still there that had all the pulps and comics priced ridiculously low.
He was. Everything was still at three to five dollars, even things like Western Story Magazine from the 1930s.
I was tempted by a lot of what he had on display– he had quite a few Marvel magazines and silver age DC books, in particular.
And also a bunch of amazingly obscure pulp paperback stuff. I exercised restraint, though, and settled for three as-yet-uncollected Aquaman comics from the Skeates-Aparo years.
And a couple of pulpy paperbacks that just looked so wonderfully trashy I had to have them: Balzan of the Cat People and The New Adventures of Frankenstein.
Balzan owned me just with the blurb that he was the “Tarzan of outer space.” But the back cover of the Frankenstein was what sent me into paroxysms of sheer nerdy glee.
Consider the full wonder of that: The Frankenstein Monster, Agent of OGRE, versus a killer anti-monster robot. There is just no part of that premise that’s not awesome. Haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t tell you about the execution. But Don Glut wrote a fair number of What If comics for Marvel that I liked quite a bit, so I am hopeful.
What melted me is that Julie, seeing me putting things back in the display rack, sneaked back for a second pass when I wasn’t looking so she could surprise me with another comic and a paperback. An issue of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and also Otis Adelbert Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars, just because she thought I ought to have them.
The reason this moved me so is that Julie was obviously remembering our trip to the Ripley’s museum a couple of years ago and how annoyed I was that there were no actual Ripley’s newspaper comics available at the gift shop. Since she is only nerd-adjacent, she didn’t realize the Gold Key comics weren’t what I meant but I was delighted to have it anyway. And the Kline I just hadn’t seen, but Julie knows how much I love planetary romance: John Carter of Mars in particular. I spent most of my life defending my interests to my family, so whenever Julie does something thoughtful like this that supports my nerd hobby, it always gets me. Best spouse ever.
By this time we were due to meet Helen, who was completely apologetic– she’d had no clue the festival was happening, Lynden’s just a convenient halfway point. We assured her we were having a great time and considered the festival a value-add to the afternoon. Most of the lunch was no interest to readers here, but I will say that it was great to trade signed books– she had a new one out and for once I did too.
I write about movies and comics and pulp fiction, and Helen writes inspirational books and also tours as a speaker. People who’ve met both of us are always a little surprised that we’re friends– but writers are writers, really. We each worked for many years as ‘contributing editors’ at WITH, doing both young-adult fiction and nonfiction. And because we’re both from the Northwest, we were always on the same plane when they’d fly us back east for the annual magazine conferences WITH used to have. So Helen and I spent many, many hours together hanging around in airports trading stories while we waited for various airlines to get their act together. (Helen loves pointing out to Julie the places I show up in her books as an anonymous ‘friend’ giving her words of wisdom about her divorce. Later I explained, “That was in O’Hare waiting for a delayed flight and she really cleaned up the language. What I actually said was, ‘Seriously, screw that noise, just dump him. The hell with what other people think. The kids will get on board and they’re all grown up and moved out anyway, it’s none of their goddamn business. It’s a marriage, not a suicide pact. It’s okay to get out, God and the church will get it, and if they don’t, you’re in the wrong fucking church. You survived frigging Nazis, you can do this for Christ’s sake.’ “)
For my part, spending all that time with Helen in my twenties taught me a lot about being more gracious and less harshly judgmental about… well, everyone I’d ever met up to that point, really. She also was instrumental in me getting less defensive about… pretty much everything. I was a jangled and prickly fellow back then. We essentially helped each other figure out that there is, in fact, a large middle ground between Fuck off and die! and Thank you sir may I have another? and maybe that middle ground was a healthier place to live. From our first enforced airport layover together back in 1993 or whenever it was, she’s been one of my dearest friends. Every time we visit it annoys me that since WITH folded we don’t get to see one another enough, especially since that’s mostly on me and not Helen. Somehow Julie and I get distracted by work all the time, and end up giving a lot of time to people we don’t even like instead of the people we genuinely care about. But that’s a different column, and not really one for CBR. You are probably here for the comics and bookscouting so I should get back to that.
After lunch Julie and I took one more pass at Lynden’s main street– I knew there was supposed to be a rare book store somewhere a block or so down, and there was an antique mall we hadn’t tried yet.
The mall was just odd. There was a lot of weird stuff like three-foot-tall dolls of movie characters from Sister Act and Superman Returns. Too small and well-made to be movie-theater promo things and too large to be practical as toys. For a brief moment I considered the Brandon Routh Superman as an addition to the home office decor but there was no way I was paying fifty dollars for it.
Then there was this item under glass, which stopped my heart for a moment. Listed price was twenty bucks.
The right size and everything, so it wasn’t the 1970s Famous First Edition with the outer cover stripped off. But a tiny label on the bag explained that it was just a reprint of Action #1, calm down.
No real books at all, and the only other comics in the place were 1990s junk that was priced so high the dealer must have been delusional… or more likely, no one had broken it to him that the speculator bubble had burst two decades ago. You see it a lot in antique places. They’re hell on wheels when it comes to furniture, but most of the time with books and comics and magazines they have no clue and guess… usually way too high. But we always like to look because sometimes it goes the other way– like the dealer at the previous mall who consistently prices stuff much lower than the standard.
Katz Coffee and Books was great fun, though.
It’s an interesting establishment– not a bookstore with a cafe added as an afterthought, but a literal fifty-fifty split. Half coffee and lunch place, and half bookstore. Plus there are writing tables and free wi-fi. It really works. Even in the midst of the festival it was a very relaxing and pleasant place– if we were closer to Lynden Julie and I would practically live there.
I was interested in the rarities they had under glass and behind the counter up front. To my delighted surprise, they had a book I actually own– a hardcover first of John Pearson’s biography of James Bond.
I don’t keep up with the prices of books I own; I knew this was a collectible but I didn’t think it had reached keep-under-glass status. (I paid about eight dollars for mine.) I asked the barista what they wanted for it, hastening to add that it was idle curiosity, I already owned it, no hurry. She told me Katz worked hard at being fair about pricing, they scrupulously checked eBay auctions and other dealers to get a sense of the market, and the Pearson was very reasonably listed at seventy-five dollars.
I told Julie and she reminded me again that we’ve been talking about getting the books cataloged and appraised since before we were married and maybe we should, y’know, get around to that. We probably should. One of these days we might even do it…
..but we acquire books like dryers acquire lint, so it would end up being our life’s work. For example, I found two interesting and offbeat Whitman juveniles in the young-adult section.
Three bucks each, in like-new shape, which is rare for a Whitman juvenile. Shudders is a collection of classic short stories; most of them were new to me, though I recognized “The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage which really creeped me out when I read it as a kid. There were also two from Robert Bloch. So if it included Bloch and Burrage, I reasoned, it was the good stuff and worth three dollars. The Thing in B-3 was next to it on the shelf and looked like fun so I decided it was worth risking another three. You never know… maybe these might end up under glass somewhere in another decade.
Then there was the “men’s adventure” shelf, right next to the Westerns. It was practically calling to me.
I decided on just one Western, the first of the new Gunsmoke series by Joseph West. (No relation to Tom West of Spectre Spread fame.) It had a foreword by James Arness and I was more interested in that than the book, though I assume the book is at least passably entertaining if you like the show. Since I do like Gunsmoke and figured they’d have to really work at it to screw up a licensed Western, I added it to the pile.
And with that, we called it a day. Saturday’s haul was pretty huge… and we still had Sunday and Monday. It was shaping up to be a good trip.
Since this column is getting pretty huge as well, I’ll stop here and pick it up again next week. See you then.
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