Friday, June 3, 2011

Autobiography Pt. 1

Though shackled by a mother’s penetrating keep-track gaze, I was fortunate to have a brother who was six years older than me, and very mobile. I remember him dragging me over to the brown and illuminated Bake-o-lite radio and making me listen to this new singer. He said “Listen to this guy. He’s gonna be big!
“His name is Buddy Holly.”
And, Pat never steered me wrong.
If Pat said so, it was so. Could be trusted more than parents.
I remember the day Buddy Holly died because I had to break the news to him at the front door as he returned from school, where I wasn’t allowed yet.
 A terrible burden on a four year old.
 Because of Pat, I got to experience a lot of great pop culture that I would have otherwise missed.
The first comic book I can remember reading was his copy of WORLD'S FINEST from Spring of '57. I've never been able to remember exactly which issue, but close enough. Pat returned from the penny-candy store around the corner with a comic book, small plastic magnifying glass, and some sweets in some small brown-paper bag which Mom made him share with me, with a sneer in my general direction. He explained that the new comic was the world's finest comic book title, because it said so on the cover. And who wants to wrestle with that kind of logic? It was also so because Superman and Batman were the world's finest heroes and appeared in the same comic.
Pat said it, I bought it for sure. Superman I’d seen on TV and he had lots of powers, and cool ones to boot but this new guy Batman was plenty mysterious.
My mother told Pat to show me how the faces weren't printed with pink ink, but with red dots that looked pink when they blended from a distance. Pat whipped out his brand-new magnifying glass and I started inspecting comic art at 150%.
Yes, there is a sub-text to that.
Mom told me to move to the front door where the late-springtime sunlight was pouring in. As I observed the comic up-close I realized that the magnifying glass made bright spots that were very hot on my fingers and on the paper as well. Experimentation. I'd burned over a dozen holes in his book before Pat smelled the smoke, screamed, and tore the whole mess out of my mitts.
The thing left quite an impression.
It was a series of life-long lessons in a ten-minute episode. Discovering Comics, meeting the top two heroes, learning their pecking order, having printing explained to me, seeing work at the size it was drawn, two-and-a-half times-up, and that a magnifying glass can burn your fingers and paper! The whole thing branded "4-Color" in my youthful brain.
       Is it any wonder that I'm here?
I got to see FAMOUS MONSTERS #1 with Pat, at a drugstore near the Wyoming Theater on, what else, Wyoming Avenue. He dragged me over to some newsstand and announced “Look! Frankenstein! On a cover! For the first time!!!”
And, I’d wondered why it had taken so long for
Frankenstein to appear on the cover of a magazine with four-year-old wisdom. Pat grabbed the top copy and hogged it. Self-interested-typical.
Shortly, I realized that there was another, many more copies on the newsstand. And at just-past-four years, I had a revelation. And I suppose the earliest ones are the most important.       
“They printed a lot of these, so there’s more than one, and I don’t have to suck-up to my older brother to see it.”
What do they call that? A “Free Agent?”
Or, is that emancipated?
YES, I picked up my own copy and enjoyed the moment, at four, in the afternoon.
Mom said a big thirty-five-cents “No.” when we begged for her to buy one for us, and hustled us out through the somewhat Deco front glass door. My last memory of the event was my young self looking back to where the pile of the Frankenstein magazines approximately resided.
And very unhappy.
Burned ?
More like branded.
“Nobody’s gonna keep me from me and the thing I want to see.”


Shortly after, I was enrolled at the Ella Fitzgerald Elementary School.
       Swear to God.
       It had been built in 1938, and I guess “A Tisket, A Tasket” had a greater cultural clout then than it does today. It was a magnet-school for the blind children of the city, and the sighted children would gawk in envy as the blind were delivered to school by TAXI! Only people in New York City and Detroit blind kids got to ride in taxicabs.
       One of the blind students was a Black kid named Stevie, and like many of the dozen-or-so-blind children seemed a little old to be in elementary school. For some reason, and I’ve never been able to figure out why, I ended up in a speech class. I never had a speech impediment. Anyway, the blind students would pass in the halls five or ten minutes before the rest of to school to avoid being trampled by younger children. Stevie had a class in the speech room after us and would always arrive early and fool around with the piano in the corner of our very small speech room.
       He had this habit of opening the door to the boys’ room and announcing in a high, sing-song voice “Is there anybody in here?” Why he did this I’ll never know but imagine my astonishment when I heard that Stevie Morris-Wonder was, in fact, the #1 artist on the then-1963 charts with his hit “Fingertips Pt.1.”
And if you flipped it over, you got part two.
       And, you’ll be relieved to know that is my only elementary school story.
       Okay, another short one: In the second half of my Kindergarten year, my mother announced to me that we were moving. Now, moving, for a kid that age was like dying. You knew you’d never see this friend again and on the off chance you did, they’d be somebody else. So, I had a big tearful-hug goodbye on Friday with my very short mates and on Saturday morning we packed a truck full of our house and some man drove it away.
The new place was a Tudor castle, and we were all thrilled.
“What’s my new school?” I asked Mom.
“Oh, you’re not changing schools. We’re still in the same district.”
       We’d only moved four blocks away.
Vhat da Hell da’s dez kids know?
Yes, we’d moved into a very Jewish neighborhood.
All of my Jewish friends did, so I was so pissed when I didn’t get Bar-Mitzvahed!
Anyway, back to the moving story.
Really, it’s a moving story: His pals thinking him dead. Tears shed on his behalf, and then he showing up again like nothing happened.
       I’m not certain how embarrassed a five-year-old can be, but I was plenty on Monday morning. Still, happy for them that I hadn’t died, and still had my friends.
       How deep can a five-year-old be?
       Once on my own, a little after, in the real world things opened up considerably. I eventually got to taste the wonderful world of kids’ pop culture first-hand: Saturday matinees in a dozen theatres close enough to get to by foot, or bike; square feet of penny-candy behind glass; racks of magazines, comics, and paperbacks with nobody demanding I leave the store; plastic model kits if you had the change; and FAMOUS MONSTERS, James Warren and Forry Ackerman’s horror movie re-run show on paper.
I got to see FAMOUS MONSTERS #9-18 because of Pat and lots of other monster magazines. About the time Charlton launched their imitation horror mags  MAD MONSTERS and HORROR MONSTERS in 1963 Pat was done with it and I inherited his collection. I haunted the stands for the new issue until I hit my personal wall at F.M. #35.
Dozens of Topps card sets and related items also filtered through our house and my early life. An amazing emissary to the world of kid stuff, Pat showed me the ins and outs of all of it: MAD MAGAZINE at the peak of its powers, and all of the imitators; CAR-TOONS MAGAZINE; Ace-Double paperbacks; DOUBLE LIFE OF PRIVATE STRONG; The first issue of THE FLY; Roy Orbeson; James Brown; PLASTIC MAN (he always lamented losing a stack in a house fire the year before I was born,) and most everything a kid would think was cool.
He’d managed to collect a two-foot-high stack of comics which resided in the left-hand corner of our bottom dresser-drawer, including lots of art by Jack Kirby. We’d known his work for a couple of years but the signed features in the westerns and big monster titles over at Marvel cleared up that mystery. Our hero finally had a name: Kirby Ayers.
Most kids had comics in those days, so Pat wasn’t my only source for them. I looked at a FELIX THE CAT 3-D issue in Kathy’s collection, with the cover, first wrap, and glasses missing and longed for satisfaction.
And, being in Detroit meant that there were lots of outlets for all of the books. I had five stores within walking distance, and another dozen more if I rode my bike. I remember going into Al’s Party Store on Puritan Street. He had a meat-cooler near the register and if you got out of his sight,and fished with greedy fingers under it, you'd always come up with lost change. Woodlawn Drugs was even better for this. "Hey mister, by money rolled under the magazine rack," (which it hadn't, as I didn't have any money.)
"See if you can find it."
Then I'd fish-out a buck or two (big money in those days,) and buy my comics or monster magazines. For free.
          But I digress.
          This is about Al’s, not Woodlawn Drugs.
Approaching the comic book rack at Al’s, my eyes laser-locked onto JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #3, tightly racked like it had just come in, and I pulled one out and was amazed.
I was delighted and furious in the same heat-beat. Pat and I followed their BRAVE AND BOLD adventures, but had no idea they’d gotten their own title. And two missed issues to boot! Not one to take “no” for an answer, I went through every comic book on the wire rack, and low-and-behold, misplaced among the Archies was the second issue!
I’ve got to tell you, the walk home was the most twenty-cent satisfying purchase of my life. You can’t buy that.
I was ahead of the Comic curve with Pat this time, but the sweet smell of success was short lived.

I met Doctor Doom the same week that the public discovered FANTASTIC FOUR #5.
Pat crashed into the basement, interrupting my black and white television, waving a mitt full of comics out of his jacket, wildly.
“Marvel has started doing superheroes! Look!”
As usual, he held it and only showed me.
If I was taller I’d have bitch-slapped him.
What did he think I was going to do? Burn it up?
And it was issue number five!
This one was going to be difficult to make up, and we knew it.
       Anyway, that was my introduction to the Marvel superheroes.
       Certainly something that turned my path, or defined it…. OR CHANGED MY LIFE!!!
       YOU DECIDE!!!
Calm down.

Greg had access to dozens of Atlas Big Monster comics, Charlton with Ditko, including the first dozen CAPTAIN ATOMs, and most every DC superhero comic issued between 1958-62. At fourteen Pat started dating girls and gave the whole schmeer to an eight year old me. A stack of comics four feet tall, as tall as me.
Young boys gasped when I displayed it.
Okay, let me back up here. Pat didn’t actually give them to me. In retrospect, seems mom decided that Pat was getting too old for Comics, and was giving him a hard time about the mess they were making, which I couldn’t figure out because they were always neatly filed, by title and issue-number on our bookshelf, having outgrown a dresser drawer.
I suppose it was Mom’s plan that he’d just give them to me, but Pat had other plans. Steamed, he stormed down the back-door stairs with all of the comics in his arms (and it took two trips) and bee-lined to the back of the house to the wire burning-basket, plopped them in and started fishing a pack of matches out of his pocket, which I knew he shouldn’t have.
I screamed for Mom, and she barged out the back door, told him to stop, and since he’d thrown them into the trash he no longer owned them and that they now belonged to Greg!
My toes curled, like they always did on Christmas morning.
Now, EVERY comic in the house belonged to me!
King of the world!
“I’ll keep ‘em neat! PROMISE!”
Don’t be burning-up Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, and Steve Ditko.
Because I am a collector at heart, I kept them in perfect order and tried to fill the gaps. “Trade a ‘double’ for something you need!” became my battle cry. All of my non-candy money went to The Collection. As I got a little older and more mobile, I'd bike or bus ten miles into downtown Detroit to scour the used bookstores for more. 


  1. Congratulations. I'm always pride to be your friend even if it is only on Facebook and from such a distant place and with this language wall in between. Parabéns.