A few years ago, I found myself wandering the streets of downtown Athens, Georgia on a lazy Saturday morning. After dutifully visiting the local record shoppes, I chanced across Bizarro Wuxtry, an old school comic book store located on College Avenue. A wonderful mess, the place offered its customers the opportunity to sift through immense piles of back issues, nostalgia drenched toys and collectibles, and other miscellaneous pop culture debris. As I strolled through the store that day, I suddenly caught sight of an issue of Elson’s Presents Super Heroes Comics, the cover of which is depicted above. I was instantly taken aback, as I had been searching for this particular comic book for a number of years. This issue – apparently published in the very early 1980’s when “Elson’s Gift and News paid DC to repackage some of [its] comics” – was the very first comic book I owned. I don’t recall very much about the circumstances surrounding its initial acquisition, but I suspect that my father purchased it for me as a gift during one of his business trips. Some Googling confirms that the Elson’s franchises catered to business travelers during that time period. Somewhere along the way, my original copy of the issue was lost to the ages (likely misplaced during a move or otherwise purged from my possessions during some vainglorious effort to achieve a more minimalist existence). But three decades later, there it was again, sitting atop a pile of comic books and beckoning to me. Of course, I bought it and relived a few moments of my lost youth.
Shortly thereafter, I realized that in my late thirties, and now, in my early, early forties, I have been attempting to assemble a collection of pop culture relics from my childhood. Perhaps “reassemble” is a better term, as I continue to purchase items I once owned long ago, whether they be comic books, novels, cassette tapes, or even vintage toys. For example, I recently reacquainted myself with the works of Stephen King and Robert McCammon, two of my favorite horror writers from days gone by. Perched atop a coffee table in my office is an original Millenium Falcon spaceship toy (the one once manufactured by Kenner). Not too long ago, I reacquired a copy of DC Comics Presents #69 which, if memory serves, was an early addition to my nascent comic book collection all those years ago. (Published in 1985, the cover of that issue is at left, and yes, that’s the face of Albert Einstein to the right of Superman.). Sometimes, I wonder what has prompted the rekindling of my interest in these bygone artifacts. Although simple nostalgia prompts the search for such things, the quest becomes an effort to recapture that wonderful sense of possibility that permeates youth. This curious habit occupied my mind again recently because my old friend, the indefatigable blogger Ryan Steans, recently embarked upon something he has dubbed The Gen-X Recollection Project, an effort to gather together the childhood pop culture memories of those who came of age in the 1980’s. In a recent post at his fine blog, The Signal Watch, he asked his readers and friends to recount their childhood experiences with comic books, science fiction, and the like and compare them with today’s far more tolerant environment of such diversions. As Ryan suggests in that post, while knowledge of comic book lore might earn one “indie street cred” in today’s environment, the culture was not as permissive of those pastimes during the Reagan years. As you might expect, Ryan’s invitation to participate in this undertaking prompted some reminiscences of the 1980’s, the era when I first became an avid comic book reader. As a part of his project, he has asked a number of specific questions of the contributors to this effort, several of which I’ve elected to answer in this post (which will be published both here and at Ryan’s site).
What do you do for a living?
For the past fourteen years, I’ve practiced law. As a part of my job, I also serve as the editor of Abnormal Use, a products liability law blog. Each Friday, we run a column called “Friday Links,” in which we oftentimes analyze and comment upon comic books with legal issues depicted upon the cover. On that blog, I’ve even interviewed a few comic book creators, including Daredevil writer Mark Waid, She-Hulk writer Charles Soule, and Tiger Lawyer creator Ryan Ferrier. Back in college, I majored in screenwriting. A few years after I graduated from law school, I wrote and produced a low budget film called Pleadings. You can read a bit more about my background on my “About Jim” page.
Where do you live?
I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before moving here five years ago, I lived in Greenville, South Carolina. Born in Tennessee, I spent most of my formative years in Texas.
How did your interest in comic books, science fiction, and fantasy initially germinate? What year was that? Do you remember what was going on in your life?
Like most members of my generation, as a youngster, I followed the Star Wars films with great fervor. Equally of interest was 1985’s Back to the Future, which prompted me, along with every other child that year, to request a skateboard and a guitar for Christmas. Michael Keaton was Batman, and of course, Christopher Reeve was Superman. I watched a lot of science fiction television, whether it be reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, new episodes of “Misfits of Science,” or Saturday morning cartoons like “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.” I read Choose Your Own Adventure books and, later, Stephen King novels. When my Atari 2600 found its way to obsolescence, I began to save money to buy the new-fangled Nintendo Entertainment System. My favorite computer games, though, were the Infocom text adventures games. After learning computers using a TI-99/4A and then a Commodore 64, I discovered telecommunications and bulletin boards using my Tandy 1000’s 1200 baud modem. And there were the boxes and boxes and boxes of comic books. As noted above, my father bought me my first comic: that fateful issue of Elson’s Presents Super Heroes Comics back in the very early 1980’s. Not long thereafter, I began to scour those iconic spinner racks for back issues. Although my initial introduction to the medium was through DC Comics, I quickly became a Marvel reader, finding my way through older issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers (the cover of issue #250 of which, released in 1984, can be found at left). I obsessed a bit over The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, a series of comics which featured encyclopedic mini-biographies of super heroes and villains. I shuddered at the drama of the tragic Mutant Massacre storyline and the tale of Scourge of the Underworld, the vigilante who took it upon himself to execute third rate villains. Other favorites included New Mutants and X-Factor (both of which, along with the Classic X-Men reprints, further educated me on the larger backstory of the X-Men). The social and political stakes of the X-Men titles – represented by The Mutant Registration Act, Marvel’s faux political advertisement for which appears below – made the issues presented seem important to young readers. After all, Marvel introduced us to characters who were senators who discussed actual legislation. In the Marvel Universe, mutants were an oppressed class, and X-Men writer Chris Claremont’s nuanced and riveting storytelling during those years was, well, a marvel.
But, as all things do, that hobby came to an end, just a year or two after the release of 1989’s Batman, the major motion picture blockbuster which, curiously, instigated the incremental process of making comic book superheroes “cool” in the eyes of the general public. By 1990 and 1991, my interest in popular (and obscure) music overtook that of comic books. Who cared to follow the misadventures of Captain America or the West Coast Avengers when there was the output of Nirvana, R.E.M., and U2 to be explored? How could I spend my hard earned money on new issues of comic books when there were compact disc singles to be purchased? So, I stopped venturing to comic book stores, save for the occasional lark. A few times in the last two decades, I’ve thought about returning to the habit, but these days, the storylines and wearisome crossovers are too complicated. I haven’t the time to sift through so many reboots, multiverses, and other gimmicks.
Where did you buy comics?
For most of the 1980’s, I lived in either Memphis, Tennessee or Houston, Texas. There are a host of comic book stores from those cities which exist now only in the memories of members of my generation. In Memphis, I frequented the now defunct Memphis Comics and Records which, if I recall correctly, boasted two locations. In Houston, I shopped at Third Planet (which still exists, actually, but in a different location than the one I once visited) and The Silver Penny (which was located within a flea market somewhere near the Town & Country neighborhood). There are others, of course, but their names now elude me. (To no avail, I’ve spent the past few days attempting to recall the name of the comic book store on Gessner Road, just north of I-10 in Houston, which I visited in the early 1990’s.). I can remember patronizing these stores on early Saturday afternoons in the care of my parents armed with whatever money I had cobbled together that week. Decade laters, in an effort to reintroduce myself to comics, my store of choice became Comics Kingdom in Beaumont, Texas, the city in which I first entered private practice as a young lawyer. However, after valiantly attempting to keep pace with the ceaseless onslaught of new titles and issues, I gave up, as the task had become too much of a chore.
Did you have friends who shared your interest? How was your interest in such things perceived by others?
It’s strange what we remember all these years later. In elementary school, my friends and I would debate the various plot points of the latest episodes of “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” the two weekday afternoon cartoons we were too young to recognize as mere toy commercials. I clearly recall discussing the merits of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with a classmate during homeroom at White Station Junior High School in Memphis in 1988. About that same time, my friends and I began to watch the various slasher movies of the period, including releases from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Curiously, though, I don’t specifically recall discussing comic books with friends during elementary or junior high school. I likely did, but I have no memory of any such conversations. As Ryan himself noted in his own post in this series, “reading comics [is] something people do on their own, like any reading experience outside of a class.” This is not to say I concealed my interests. In those early years, I brought my lunch to school in one of those metal Star Wars lunch boxes. A few years later, I would occasionally wear a Joker t-shirt, a wonderful image of which I’ve located online and appended at left. I’m not certain what my classmates thought about that particular fashion choice (and I cringe to speculate). Although it is axiomatic that comic books were not a path to popularity, I don’t recall any particular animus directed towards comic book readers. That said, I never took comics to school (a decision borne more of a concern for their condition than a fear of social ostracization). In sum, I knew my peers did not consider comic books to be “cool” in the way that, say, The Joshua Tree, Kick, or Green might be.
Generally, my parents were very supportive of the hobby. At least once a month, they would transport me to the local comic shop to find new reading material. Whenever comic books would make the news, my father would bring the news coverage to my attention. In fact, when John Byrne’s Man of Steel reboot earned national media attention in 1986, my father brought the clippings to my attention (and, of course, that weekend, we made our pilgrimage to the local comic book shop to buy the issue in question).
What is the oddest thing about how comics, superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy have changed in their original form as you knew them?
Of course, the Internet has changed nearly everything, and as such, there are countless websites where readers may discuss comics new and old. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a young reader with those resources at the fingertips. I’m not certain that the Internet has revolutionized the manner in which we read comics themselves (despite the prevalence of digital comics). But what do I know? I’ve certainly aware of the sheer number of titles being released of late and the daunting task readers face in attempting to keep up with the deluge of new titles and issues. For me, it’s now far easier to follow the various comic book film and television adaptations than commit to an multiple monthly series. As noted above, confusing reboots abound. In 2011, DC Comics rebooted itself with its New 52 brand, and just this year, the company announced it would relaunch itself yet again as a part of its Rebirth initiative. Marvel is no stranger to unwieldy crossovers, whether it be the “House of M” storyline or “Civil War” or what have you. To me, this modern approach seems far more convoluted than the simpler days of Secret Wars II or the Mutant Massacre storyline, both of which spanned a small number of titles during their heyday in the 1980’s. In fact, in 1986, Marvel created a handy Marvel Mutant Massacre Map (depicted above at right) which was distributed to local comic shops. Easy to follow and relatively small in scope, this storyline allowed the company to introduce readers to other potential titles while not asking their customers to break the bank. These days, such an affair would be far more involved and require a significant financial commitment to follow (especially in light of the increasing cost of comics). As such, these days, there’s just a bit to much noise for me to return.
What is your greatest joy when it comes to your memories of discovering comics?
Reading begets reading, whether it be the message boards on those long forgotten bulletin board systems, the aforementioned text adventure games, or the comics themselves. Without comic books, I would not have become a voracious reader. I would not have found the works of Stephen King, Douglas Adams, and other masters of genre. Without finding those novelists, I would not have later delved into Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So, generally, it is the joy of reading that I cherish most when I reflect upon those days.
What is your greatest disappointment?
When it comes to popular culture, my greatest disappoint remains the Star Wars prequels. Although films released in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s may seem outside the scope of this project, you likely understand the sentiment if you’ve made it this far into a post about the whims and caprices of members of Generation X when it comes to these issues. So, for the record, I formally object to the Star Wars prequels in response to this question.
Returning to the topic at hand, I suppose I regret, at least in part, the early focus on comic books as potential investment properties. Back then, we all fancied ourselves “collectors” in part because we labored under the misimpression that comic books purchased in the 1980’s might somehow exponentially increase in value, making us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. That folly was the one trait we shared with the baseball card aficionados of the era. Looking back, it is astonishing to consider how high the value of the first issues of Marvel’s Star Wars and G.I. Joe ultimately skyrocketed. I haven’t a clue how much those issues might be worth now, but I suspect their value has plummeted. Like many others, I owned a tattered copy of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, which assigned a value to back issues based upon their condition. (An image of the 1985 edition of the price guide I once owned is at left.). When a new issue number one was released, I would typically purchase it, prompted in part by the possibility that it might increase in value. That philosophy led to many, many poor decisions (including the acquisition of a number of Star Comics and New Universe titles to my collection). Instead of meticulously archiving my comic books in plastic bags and cardboard longboxes, I should have treated them more like the ephemeral properties they were and enjoyed them as such. I’m not necessarily suggesting that I should have disposed on the comics immediately upon reading them (as one might a magazine), but I suspect I would have enjoyed the hobby to a greater extent had I relaxed a bit about their protection of their condition. Kids should read comics for fun, not financial worries.
Perhaps, though, my greatest disappointment is the slow but inevitable dissolution of the comic book collection I had so lovingly assembled. Bits and pieces of my collection were lost during various moves. I remember essentially donating hundreds of back issues to a used bookstore in Austin when it came time to move to Waco for law school in early 1999. It would have been nice, I think, to have maintained the collection as a whole, as if in a time capsule, such that I could revisit it in later years and remember simpler times. Unfortunately, the logistical demands of adulthood thwart most efforts to preserve our childhood in some sort of nostalgic amber (which is why, as I noted above, I’ve been attempting to reassemble some portion of that collection these past few years).
As a part of this project, Ryan requested that participants include a photograph of themselves. A contrarian of sorts, I choose to share the photograph below. Taken on December 19, 1979, my fourth birthday, it depicts me, standing and showing my friends the Star Wars action figures I just received as gifts that day. I have no recollection of that day. (Many thanks to my mother for unearthing this ancient photograph.).
- “The Generation X Recollection Project: Ryan Steans.” (Ryan Steans, The Signal Watch, March 27, 2016).
- “The Generation X Recollection Project: Jason Steans.” (Jason Steans, The Signal Watch, March 23, 2016).
- “Collecting Memories Project: You Were Into Superheroes, Fantasy and Sci-Fi Before It Was Cool.” (March 9, 2016).
- “On History: Elson’s Super Hero Comics.” (Sean Kleefeld, Kleefeld on Comics, November 11, 2014).
- “The Mighty Thor #362, Marvel Comics, 1985.” (David Campbell, Dave’s Long Box, May 11, 2005).