09 April 2013

Spinner Rack Magic

Comics magic infected me long before I could build up any natural defense.  At an early age I was somehow convincing my mother and grandmother to buy me comics off the spinner rack at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store.  I would try to get my mother to read them to me at bed time.  I have a memory of my mother trying to read to me what I think was an issue of Devil Dinosaur and her becoming flabbergasted and giving up because she could not make sense of the thing.  But it made perfect sense to me.  I soon started reading them to myself.  If I did not know the words I knew the pictures.

And there were also the Sunday Funnies from grandfather's copy of the Bristol Herald Courier.  It is easy to take their influence for granted.  They, like Saturday and Sunday morning cartoons were as big a part of my life as food or air.  I cannot remember any part of my life where I did not know about Peanuts and Popeye.  As far as conscious memory is concerned, I’ve known them as long as any of my family.

Around age five I was picking out comic books based mainly on seeing characters I was familiar with.  The first comics I owned featured Star Wars, Tarzan, Spider-Man and The Hulk. The more characters the better.  I ended up with a lot of Marvel Team-Up comics.  Late 70's Marvel's domination of the spinner rack had a big influence on me.  But thanks to a fairly unique situation, I also had access to stacks and stacks of comics from before I was even born.

I grew up in a very small rural town in the Appalachian region of these United States.  Think Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show with a layer of coal dust on everything.  I lived down town and a short walk away from the library.  My mother would take me there on Saturdays.  She would check out novels, LPs and 8-tracks.  I would take home stacks of comics.  I don't know how and I don't know why but my library seemed to have kept subscriptions from just about every Marvel, DC, Archie and Charlton comic from about 1968 through the mid 80s.

And I read them all.  Crazy war comics about wars I would not hear about in school for years.  Insane comics with insane drawings I did not understand by guys named Kirby and Ditko.  Weird old comics where the Iceman guy from Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends hung out with these strange guys in yellow and black jump suits. Haunted tanks, unknown soldiers, ape-men, man-apes, man-things, cowboys, barbarians, talking ducks, masters of Kung-Fu, masters of the Mystic Arts, etc., etc.  They smelled amazing.  And I read them all for free.  I read the covers off the things to the point that eventually the library just let me keep the ones I wanted.  I still have many comics with "Property of St. Paul Bicentennial Library" stamped on the cover.  At a young age I was becoming well versed in comics beyond my years.

When I was eight I got my first comic book subscription.  My aunt got me a subscription to Marvel's Star Wars as a birthday present.  By the time I was nine or ten years old I was allowed to walk beyond the library and go shopping for new comics off the spinner rack all by myself.  There were at least five different stores with spinner racks within walking distance of my house.  (A walk that included crossing creeks and railroad tracks that I would certainly not let my own kids go near today.)  The Piggly Wiggly, Jessee’s grocery store, a former bus stop turned dinner/grocery called Molinary's and two convenience stores; Darwin's Mini-Mart and the one that served "Hillbilly Fried Chicken".  And if I was out and about with my Dad and he drove across the river into Castlewood he might for a pack of smokes and I could luck into a comic from the Stop N Shop or from Milton's country store.

Yes children of teh intronets.  There once was a time where in even one of the smallest poorest towns in America you could buy comics in as many as seven different stores none of which were comic book shops or book stores.  Read it and weep America.  (Dear modern comics industry- you are doing it wrong.)

By the 4th grade I was told that I had filled in circles with a No. 2 pencil on reading comprehension tests at a skill level higher than 95% of the rest of the country and that I was reading at a 10th grade level.  By 5th grade I was told that I was reading at a college reading level.  Everything I know about reading came from reading comics.   Telling a kid that he can read at a college level before he enters high school is a terrible thing to do.  By sixth grade, I was certain that there was nothing any public school teacher could teach me that I either did not already know or could not teach myself.  I was correct but his benefited me in zero ways.  That kind of knowledge makes for a terrible student but a very good nerd.   I read my hidden comics in my text book while those other suckers were learning long division.

Then the GI Joe phenomenon hit and I was no longer alone with my infection.  Every boy in my class read Marvel’s GI Joe comic.  We’d pass them around, borrow them off each other and steal them from one another.  We would race to the spinner rack after school and whoever got there first would hide them and say the store only had one copy.  (I, being a chubby kid, was never first.)  We would fight for them on the playground.  Those first twenty or so issues were so hard to find.  And then one day Raleigh McRynonlds rolled into class with the first two issues of GI Joe and told us that he got them at a comic book shop.  He explained that a comic book shop had “back issues”.  What the expletive was a comic book shop and how could I get there?!

The next Saturday I cashed in all the goodwill I had built up in my young life and talked my grandmother into making the hour long drive to a comic book shop in the next state over.  It was a dark strange place.  Rows and rows of boxes full of comics on tables arranged like a maze.  And the smell.  It was the smell of all the old comics in the library times one hundred.

I quickly dug my way through what felt like the Creature Cantina from Star Wars and found some of the “back issues” I was looking for.  But there was all this other strange stuff.  Swords, sorcery, elves, boobies, guns, turtles, ducks, bleeding smiley faces,  post-apocalypse Tokyo, Batman with blood all over him...  Was this the larger world Obi-Wan Kenobi told us about?  I bought all I could afford.  The stranger the better.

I would start up a “pull list”.  It would grow and shrink over the years.  There would be distractions.  Girls, sports, school, jobs, family, pets, home etc. etc.  But the comics would always be there.  In my closets, in my dorm room, in my apartments, in my house and now in the basement.  But mostly in my blood.  Not like an addiction.  More like an infection.  Like vampirism.  You can put them in the cellar and hide them but eventually you have to sink your teeth in just to survive.  Maybe the ink gets in your fingertips and creeps into your blood.  Maybe the spinner rack pricked my finger and gave me some sort of mental tetanus.  Maybe it’s through the smell.  Invisible nostalgia agents float up your nose and penetrate your brains reshaping them into a Jack Kirby mother box.

I can’t explain the magic of those old comics.  They say time travel is impossible but if you give me a Marvel-Team up comic from 1978 I’ll be standing in the Piggly Wiggly looking up at the spinner rack.  Dozens of comics towering over me.  The squeak as it spins and the characters fly by like a carousel.  Star warriors, barbarians, cowboys, soldiers, sailors, ducks, mice, goofy teenagers, magicians, dinosaurs, space knights and yeah, even super heroes.  I can’t explain magic but I know what it smells like.

Your best pal ever,

Shannon Smith

This essay was originally printed in the Wide Awake Press book The Sickness of Fandom and would not have existed if editor/publisher J. Chris Campbell had not asked me to throw something together for that book.  Thanks Chris!  
Maybe you should go buy a copy of that book. It is very good.
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