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Trouble with Comics, ADD Flashback: Please Don't Bend the Comics

ADD Flashback: Please Don’t Bend the Comics

My family lived in Florida in the 1970s, and in 1980, when I was about 14, we moved back to upstate New York from whence we came and where we belonged. Now, I had discovered all sorts of wonderful things between, say, 1978 and 1980: The Bud Plant Catalog, CerebusStar*ReachThe Comics Journal, hell, the very existence of comic book stores probably hit in there somewhere, in that formative 12-to-14 year old time in my life.

And while there were no “good comic shops” (as I like to call them) where we lived (St. Augustine, Florida — this may have changed since 1980, I’ve never been back and would not know), there was one used coin shop that both bought and sold comics and had maybe 5 or 10 longboxes full of back issues. This was the first store ever where I experienced bringing in my unwanted extras and stuff I no longer cared for and walking out flush with cash.

In my memory, that store paid full guide for back issues, but knowing what I know now, that seems sort of impossible. Maybe they paid some crazy figure like 80 percent of guide and kept a low profit margin; after all, comics were just a sidelight in this shop. But at any rate, I probably sold many hundreds if not thousands of my accumulated comics to that store in a two-year or so time period — all my Bill Mantlo/Sal Buscema Incredible Hulks certainly ended up there: Incredible Hulk by Mantlo and Buscema was one of those comics that seemed awesome at 10 and incredibly lame by 12, you know?

But between that shop and the great number of 7/11s and Jiffy Marts that were in our area (one within walking distance of our home in St. Augustine Shores, a middle-class housing development built on swampland on the outskirts of town — that one was a Jiffy Mart that became a 7/11), I never wanted for comics. They were always available, either new in the convenience stores or used at that coin shop. In fact, not a weekend went by, probably from the age of 8 or 9 right up until we moved when I was 14 that I would not take a buck or three and walk down to the Jiffy Mart (it was Jiffy Mart most of the time we lived there, in my memory) and get some comics, a Slush Puppy (later a Slurpie once it became 7/11), and walk home with my bounty, set for the weekend of reading. And in the early part of those years, when comics were 20 cents? Two bucks bought a lot of comics. Toward the end I think they were closer to 35 or 40 cents, so, then, not so much. But I digress…

So, living in Florida: Plenty of comics to be had. Flash ahead to 1980, back in upstate New York (where my comics addiction had begun, at the age of 6, recovering from having my tonsils out): After she had the good sense to leave her husband, my mom moved us (me, my brother and her) to the very small town (literally one red light in those days; it might be three, now) of Greenwich, in Washington County. And like in St. Augustine, we lived not “in town,” but rather on the outskirts. And rural Washington County is pretty damn rural. Not Deliverance rural, where we were, but closer to that than to any sort of Gilmore Girls small-town idyll.

Greenwich had no comic shops. Unicorn Comics in Saratoga Springs, probably the second most significant comics shop of my teenage years after FantaCo in Albany (40 miles south and reserved for special trips, maybe once a month), would not open for months, so as we settled in Greenwich, I was parched for comics with nothing but desert all around.

Downtown in Greenwich one day with mom and my younger brother, we went into Hughes Newsroom. Ah-ha! There on the bottom tier of a two-tiered magazine rack were the comics. Well, you knew they had to be here somewhere, right? 1980 was still in the beginning years of the direct market, and comics were living out their dying breaths in the mainstream magazine distribution chain, so they generally could be found in most towns, but you had to look.

I grabbed as many as I could afford (read: talk my mom into buying for me) and went up to the counter. The old man, Hughes himself, took the stack of maybe half-a-dozen comics. He put them on the counter. He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.

Again: He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.

In my head, a voice screamed: OH MY GOD. HE IS KILLING MY COMICS. STOP KILLING MY COMICS!

In the store, a young teenage boy smiled meekly as the old man, Hughes himself, handed me a bag with my now-ruined comics and no doubt told me to “have a nice day.” A day he had just destroyed by KILLING MY COMICS.

It was no different than bringing a hamster to the cash register of a pet shop, having the clerk break its neck, take your money and hand you the dead hamster in a paper bag. In fact, this is exactly what it felt like.

And I’d like to tell you that I either spoke up next time, or never shopped there again, but as I say, other than once or twice a month trips to FantaCo in Albany, I had no comics and I was hooked on comics. You may be able to relate, but from the age of 6 until, well, now, my whole life in any retail environment is basically where are the comics? Are there comics here? No? Anywhere nearby? Have you any comics? Come on, there must be some comics here someplace! And in those days, that was a successful strategy more often than not. Every garage sale, thrift shop, drug store and supermarket had the comics; you just had to look. And look I did.

But no, it was many weeks — maybe months — before I screwed up the courage to take my stack to the counter at Hughes Newsroom and meekly say to to the old man, Hughes himself, “Could you please not bend them?”

You could have heard a pin drop, as they say.

Total silence.

In my memory, he was smoking a cigar. That may be my brain playing tricks on me, but intimidating and big is how I remember this old man, and I swear to God I think he was smoking a cigar. A short, stubby one. Which he would have had to take out to ask me, “What?”

And there it was, in my first moment of comics consumer activism (that’s right, blame old man Hughes), I repeated my plea that he please not break my hamster’s neck. I mean, please don’t bend my comics.

Boy howdy, did he ever look at me like I was out of my mind. I guaran-damn-tee you that every comic book he ever sold, from probably the 1940s when that store probably opened up until the chubby teenager spoke up in spring or summer of 1980, every comic book that old man ever sold had its spine broken by his checkout method. Palm on lower half of cover of top comic: Check. Comics bent back one by one to verify prices: Check. Comics ruined: Check.

And thinking about it, back then, every damned comic cost the same! Always! Unless you were buying some outsized Warren magazine or Heavy Metal, they were all the same price! All he had to do was count them. But no!

It was some tense moments, there, in Hughes Newsroom there in early 1980. But after I explained, no doubt with many stutters and stammers and a good deal of flop sweat, that he was destroying any resale value the comics might have had (and by then, as noted, I had a good deal of experience reselling my old comics), he came around. Never again did old man Hughes destroy my comics when I checked out there, which I did at least twice a week. See, his distributor dropped off the new comics twice weekly, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think it was, so I was in there twice a week. And from then on, there were no more broken spines on my comics from Hughes Newsroom.

At least, not for me. I wonder now if he extended the same courtesy to anyone else who bought comics there. If anyone else even did.

Alan David Doane 

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