When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do with my mom was go to the mall. Or, I guess I should say, malls, plural. Back in the 1980s, the mall that is now Greece Ridge Mall was actually two separate malls: Greece Towne Mall and Long Ridge Mall, located essentially right next door to one another. Even back then, I remember my mom saying, “They should join these malls together!” It always seemed like one of those things that just made too much sense to ever really happen.
We would usually hit up both malls. Greece Towne was what you would probably consider the nicer, more “high class” of the two malls. We would usually go here for a hair cut, or back-to-school clothes, or new shoes. This was where we’d go for the serious shopping.
Long Ridge was the “artsy” mall. It was very avant-garde and had lots of interesting things to look at. There was this big, towering contraption that would constantly feed little pool balls through a looping series of pipes, lifts, and drops (I have more recently come to learn this was called “Electric Ball Circus”). There were these metal fountains that made echoey chiming sounds as the water flowed through them. There was a giant, glowing globe that changed color and had water running over it, surrounded by a pool of water that you could throw coins into. Because of all this crazy unique stuff, this was the mall I loved going to the most. If we were at Greece Towne I’d always ask if we could go look at those displays and my mom would have to remind me that those were at the other mall.
Of course, like any kid, I always wanted to get some kind of food or treat too. There was no “food court” in either mall, at least not the way we think of them today, but there were plenty of places to grab a bite. My favorite things to get were an Orange Julius, or a Hot Sam pretzel on a stick covered with nacho cheese. But the best treat of all was a cookie from the Cookie Co. And the best place to eat it was in the Contemplation Area, a trippy little sunken alcove with TV screens and light displays. There was also a play area with big cushy foam blocks for kids to climb on… Mom usually preferred that we avoid that area. You could almost feel the germs of every snot-nosed kid that had just sneezed or slobbered all over the place seeping into the foam itself.
Even with all these unique elements already in play, as if to spontaneously try to one-up themselves there would occasionally be something extra random going on at the mall, like the time there was a gigantic sandcastle being built inside. As a kid it seemed like the mall literally had nothing better to do than try to amaze everyone. And in many ways, maybe it didn’t. Also, every once in a while there would be a card and collectibles show going on, which, in the days before I knew what a comic book convention was, was the biggest gathering of cards and comics I’d ever seen right there in the corridors between the stores. At certain times of the year (Easter and Christmas I think), there would be a little train that you could ride that ran around the big globe. The fact that this stuff was not always there just added to the mystical nature of the mall. It’s like you really never knew for sure what was going to be there.
At Christmas time, things became even more magical. Displays of animatronic elves and reindeer acting out comical seasonal scenes were set up throughout the mall. It seemed like every few feet there was another display, taking over the areas where you’d usually find a fountain. An elf with ribbon sprawled all around him as he tries to wrap a present, or with his hammer going up and down as he puts the finishing touches on a special toy, were like slices of North Pole life that you were being transported to. Was Santa at this mall, or was he at the other one? Was he somehow at both? There was so much magic in the air already that anything seemed possible, so you hardly questioned it.
My parents and my aunt and uncle would take me and my cousin Nick to Greece Towne as it was getting ready to close and the shoppers were dispersing for the night, so we could run around and burn off some energy. We couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. But I still remember looking up at the big Gold Circle sign (we called it “Gold Circoco”). Being at the mall as everything was closing and being told we could run around as much as we wanted was like an adventure. We didn’t know (or care) that our parents just wanted to tire us out so we’d go to sleep. We didn’t even care that we weren’t at the mall with the foam blocks. It was a big, wide open area, it was late, and we had permission to go wild. It was more exciting than a playground.
That too-good-to-be-true idea of joining the malls together finally came true in 1994, and it came with a food court, a two-story carousel, and a big walkway of new stores that connected the two malls into one mega mall. It was awesome… but it came with a price. The unique flair that had given Long Ridge its character was tossed out, literally. Reports say that the metal fountains, foam blocks, crazy television screens and everything else were thrown into dumpsters and discarded. The word is that a private collector managed to recover the Electric Ball Circus, though… Maybe we’ll see it again someday.
The photos included with this post are ones I have found around the internet. If you are the owner of any of the photos please reach out and let me know, I would be happy to credit you as such. If you have memories of the old malls, please leave them in the comments, I would love to hear them!
Another one of the earliest home movies that we have of me as a kid is me doing a commercial for the board game “Operation.” (I’m not sure why I felt like our home videos needed to have ads every few minutes, but, I made sure that they did. There’s even a Christmas morning video where I explain that we will be opening some more presents “after these messages.”) If you watch the video carefully, there’s a moment where I turn over the lid of the box expecting to find all of the little bones and other assorted items that you’re supposed to remove from the guy in there, and they aren’t there. The only thing that’s still there is the rubber band. I play it off pretty nonchalantly and just demonstrate the game with the rubber band. But, this reinforces one of the inherent flaws of the game Operation, which is that it comes with about a dozen tiny little pieces that are very easily lost, as demonstrated by the fact that I was doing a commercial for the game after I’d already lost 99% of the stuff that came with it.
Here are my thoughts on some of the other board games that defined my childhood.
MONOPOLY – This is one of those games that you might think that you like, but you’re probably wrong. If you haven’t played it in a while, you forget that it takes basically all day to play, and it’s actually not that interesting. It’s exciting at first when there are lots of properties to buy, but then it quickly becomes about paying rent and taxes and I get enough of that in my actual life. Also when I played it growing up everyone in my family was too nice to each other during it, and tried to help everyone out if they were about to go bankrupt by making deals with them to help them stay in the game, which meant it never ended. There’s a game of Monopoly that we started in 1998 that is actually still going on today. The only way for the game to go even remotely fast is to just be merciless and try to destroy everyone, and my family was just not cut-throat enough to play it that way.
CLUE – This is my favorite board game to this day. I grew up playing the 1956 edition which was my mom’s when she was little. There was something so cool about how it came with the little tiny weapons that you moved from room to room as you took your guess, even if I didn’t quite fully grasp the fact that you were solving a murder when I was first playing it. I remember one time when I was in first grade and I had my friends Michael and Robbie over (they were younger than me), and I wanted to play Clue with them and they couldn’t read yet. I had them play against each other and I ran back and forth between them reading the cards to them and telling them what to do. They hated it and we had a miserable time. There have been lots of newer editions of Clue the years, including one that my kids got for Christmas last year, which for some reason ditches Mrs. White and replaces her with a new character called Dr. Orchid. The movie “Clue” is also fantastic and you should check it out if you’ve never seen it. (I once met Christopher Lloyd at a comic convention and told him how much I loved it. He seemed surprised, because I was probably the only person trying to talk to him about “Clue” instead of “Back To The Future.”)
MOUSE TRAP – No one ever actually played this game the way it was supposed to be played according to the directions. Everyone just built the contraption and then set it off. The places where it would usually mess up were that the first marble wouldn’t hit the pole hard enough to get the second marble moving, or the diver guy would not fall into the pool, or the diver guy falling into the pool wouldn’t do anything and the cage would not fall down. We found that if you turned the guy backwards on the springboard it worked a lot better than if he was facing forwards. I also feel like we used to fill the pool with water sometimes just for laughs but I don’t recall if that had any impact, positive or negative, on how well the trap did or didn’t work.
DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS – This is a game from the early 1980s that was used as a way for parents to teach their kids about stranger danger in a way that hopefully didn’t scare them too much. There were cards with questions on them about what you would do in certain situations, like if a stranger offered you candy, or if someone you didn’t know tried to pick you up from school and stuff like that. There were a few blank cards where you could write your own scenarios. I came up with, “What should you do if a stranger came to your door and wanted to cook for you?” (The answer was that you should not let them in.)
RUN YOURSELF RAGGED – You might not have heard of this game. I don’t think it was very well known. We found it at a garage sale one year. You basically had to get a marble through an obstacle course that consisted of a bridge, a catapult, some little jumps and some other stuff, all by manipulating some little levers and buttons. It was super addicting, and it was cool because you could play it by yourself, or you and your buddy could compete for who got the best time. It was also great because you could just dive right in and start playing, there was no pretense like with Mouse Trap or something where you had to set the thing up first; they knew kids had no time for that. When I was in third grade we had a Board Game day at school where you could bring in a favorite board game and we set up stations around the classroom where you could go around and play them. I brought in Run Yourself Ragged, and at first people were like “What the hell is this?” but by the end of the day there was a huge crowd around that station and people were going nuts over it.
IT FROM THE PIT – This was one of those games that looked way cooler in the commercials than it actually was. My brother got this for Christmas one year and it didn’t work. We exchanged it for another one which promptly broke. I want to say we exchanged it one more time after that and that one broke as well. Whatever motor or mechanism made the monster reach up and grab you just was not up to the task. This game was a piece of something that rhymed with both “It” and “Pit.”
GUESS WHO – This is another one of my favorites. It was just so simple and fun. This is another game that has gone through a lot of different editions over the years; I don’t think any of the characters in it are the same anymore. In college I made my own version of Guess Who by printing out pictures of all my friends, making cards of them and putting their pictures onto the board. It was super fun to play because instead of asking questions like “Does your person wear glasses?” we could also ask stuff like “Did this person go to high school with us?” or “Is this person currently single?”
DREAM PHONE – Yes, this was a game for girls, but, any kid who grew up with a sibling of the opposite gender ended up playing games that you otherwise would not have, and honestly I think that’s a good thing. Dream Phone was super high-tech because it actually talked to you to give you clues. You were trying to find out which guy at school wanted to date you. Depending on which part of the map you landed on, you could call and get some information about what clothes he wore, where he liked to hang out, what foods he liked, etc. and then rule people out by process of elimination. (It was kind of like Clue in a way, now that I think about it.) The thing I always thought was funny was when you called to get a clue about what food he liked. The clue would always be, “He’ll eat almost anything… except _______.” And then as you kept calling you would find out another food he would not eat. “He’ll eat almost anything… except pizza.” “He’ll eat almost anything… except hot dogs.” “He’ll eat almost anything…. except popcorn.” “He’ll eat almost anything… except ice cream.” “He’ll eat almost anything… except cookies.” Are we sure this dude will eat almost anything?
SORRY / TROUBLE – These were basically the same game, but one had cards and one had dice in a pop-o-matic bubble. That’s it.
CANDY LAND – This one was very simple to play (you just drew cards to see what color space to go to), but the artwork on the board and the colorful characters really captured the imagination. At least for me, as a kid, I remember wanting to know more about the characters because they seemed so interesting and cool looking. The art style and even some of the names of the characters have changed over the years, but the one pictured here is the one I remember best.
13 DEAD END DRIVE – I really can’t comment on this one too much because I don’t remember it very well. I think my younger siblings played it more than I did. I am only including it here because I think it’s another one like Mouse Trap where you tended to just set all the stuff up and then set it off without necessarily playing the whole game. It was a house with a series of traps in it where you could try to take other people out. I think the game makers tried to combine Clue and Mouse Trap into one game, and at least by my vague recollection I think they succeeded.
ASK ZANDAR – And this is yet another game where I don’t think people really played the actual game that much, you just took out the Zandar crystal ball or whatever and asked him stuff. He was basically a glorified 8-Ball that talked and cost a lot more money.
CONNECT FOUR – My brother is going to kill me for putting this one in here, but, when we were kids we got Connect Four for Christmas one year, and then shortly after that one night when we were saying grace before dinner, he said “Amen, Connect Four.” I think he was trying to express his gratitude to God for receiving Connect Four for Christmas? I’m not sure, but “Amen, Connect Four” continues to be an inside joke in the family that is referenced often. (Sorry, Josh.)
CHUTES AND LADDERS – As a kid, I didn’t really like this game. It just seemed way too easy to get sent way the heck back to the beginning at any moment. As an adult I don’t like it because I realized one of the things you get sent down a chute for is READING COMIC BOOKS! Dude, screw you, Chutes and Ladders.
CROSSFIRE – This is the prime example of a game where the commercial made it look 1,000,000 times cooler than it really was. If you grew up in the 90s, I know you remember the commercial for this game. The kids playing it fly down on hoverboards into an arena that is on fire. The narrator proclaims, “It’s sometime in the future. The ultimate challenge. Crossfire!” And then the kids proceed to play the game while lighting flashes in the background and the song blares: “CROSSFIRE…. You’ll get caught up in the…. CROSSFIRE…. CROSSFIRE…. CROSSFIRE!!!!” Close-ups of the kids shooting at each other, their sweaty faces, them reloading their guns. Finally one kid wins, and the kid who loses spins around like crazy and gets blasted into the sky and out of the arena. I don’t know who made that commercial but A.) I hope they went on to direct like a Star Wars type of movie and B.) I also hope they got sued for false advertising because in no way does this commercial set the realistic expectation for the fact that you are just trying to shoot some balls at slightly larger balls that have pieces of plastic around them into your opponent’s side of the board.
BIG JOHN – This was a game that my dad bought us, I’m sure. It was a giant toilet, and you fill it up with “scuzzies” (because I’m sure they could not say “poop,” and also they are green because I’m sure they weren’t allowed to make them brown, but that’s what they represent). You would load the scuzzies into the toilet, and then take turns flushing the handle. Sometimes nothing would happen, sometimes the scuzzies would shoot out of the pipe at the bottom of the toilet at you and that meant you lost. It was like Russian roulette but with poop. As I am writing this I feel like I must be leaving out some aspect of the game play but I actually really think that was it.
That’s all for now, but this might be another blog topic that warrants a “Part Two” in the future, so stay tuned!
One of the first home movies we have of me as a kid is me doing my own version of the Cookie Crisp commercial. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, holding a box of the cereal, exclaiming the slogan, “If you like cookies, you’ll love Cookie Crisp!” (I watched a lot of TV.)
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, every cereal commercial made sure to mention that it was “part of this complete breakfast.” It then showed a quick shot of the cereal accompanied by toast, bacon, eggs, a glass of orange juice, a bowl of oatmeal, and about eight other things. I remember wondering why my parents were under the impression that it was okay for me to be eating just cereal and why they didn’t know I was supposed to be having a lot of other things with it. Were they just being lazy?
Cereal was not just something to eat for kids in that era. It was a way of life. Each cereal had its own personality, brought to life by the colorful characters that appeared on the box and in the commercials.
LUCKY CHARMS – Lucky the Leprechaun. The kids were always after his Lucky Charms, trying to find them like treasure. The thrill-of-the-chase theme of the commercials as the kids try to acquire the cereal was appropriate because it mirrored the quest of trying to get your parents to buy it for you. Even in the days before nutrition information being printed on the box, getting your mom to buy you a box of marshmallows for breakfast was a hard sell.
COOKIE CRISP – Similarly, it made sense that the mascot for this cereal was a crook who was trying to steal it. That’s basically what you had to do if you wanted to get your hands on this one. Eating it felt like you were really getting away with something.
CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH – It confused me when the Cinnamon Toast Crunch bakers went from being a trio to just being one baker, Wendell. What happened to the other two guys? Did they split up due to creative differences? When the commercials with just Wendell came out I kept wondering if there would eventually be commercials with just each of the other two, like maybe they were spotlighting each one individually as a series, but that never came. I did have a wallet with a hologram picture of all three of them. Nowadays even Wendell does not appear on the box – it’s just a sentient piece of the cereal itself. Apparently CTC became self-aware and no longer needed its creators. Chilling.
TRIX – I never really cared for the ad campaign of a bunch of rude kids who refused to let the Rabbit have any Trix. You have a whole box, it’s not going to hurt to let him have some. It was just too mean-spirited. The ads all ended with the rabbit looking depressed as the kids taunted him. “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” Eventually they did have a promotion where you could call in and vote on whether or not you thought the rabbit should get some Trix. I got my parents’ permission and voted for him to have some. I guess a lot of other kids in America felt the same as me, because at the end of the promotion they did have a commercial where he finally got to try them. But, things quickly went back to the status quo right after that and he was not able to have them in subsequent commercials. Also, interestingly, this cereal seems to change every so often between being colored balls vs. being actually shaped like fruit. It’s like they can’t make up their mind on what this cereal even is.
COCOA PUFFS – Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is like the opposite of the Trix Rabbit. The Rabbit can never have Trix, and Sonny is addicted to Cocoa Puffs like they are crack. He has a bite and loses his mind. I also respect the fact that they recently decided that the fact that it turns the milk chocolatey should be a selling point and started marketing this right on the box.
CAP’N CRUNCH – The Cap’n was different from a lot of the other mascots in that he was benevolently giving his cereal to kids rather than them having to try to steal it from him or anything like that. Some of his ads even had storylines that increased your investment in the product. Who could forget when the Sogmaster locked up Cap’n Crunch in a commercial that ended with “To Be Continued,” launching the “Free The Cap’n” promotion on specially marked boxes? A cereal commercial that ended with a cliffhanger? I couldn’t wait for the next ad to come out to see how the Cap’n would get out of this one.
FROSTED FLAKES – Tony the Tiger always proclaimed how grrrrrreat this cereal was, usually in the context of it giving you energy for sports. I don’t know how many athletes really fueled up with Frosted Flakes ever. It would give you a sugar rush of energy for about 10 minutes and then make you feel sick to your stomach. It was also one of those cereals that tended to cut up the roof of your mouth. I don’t know if you’d want to head right out to the basketball court after eating it. Most likely you’d be laying down with a headache and a bleeding mouth.
FRUITY PEBBLES AND COCOA PEBBLES – These cereals are the only ones I can think of that had pre-existing characters as their mascots. How did the Flintstones get roped into being Post cereal spokesmen? I don’t know. It’s also interesting to think that there may be some kids today who only know the Flintstones from cereal boxes.
FROOT LOOPS – Toucan Sam was a hip, laid-back bird who encouraged you to follow his nose to some Froot Loops. Usually he was offering that advice to someone who was down on their luck and he was suggesting they have Froot Loops as a kind of a pick-me-up. I never cared for this cereal all that much but I respected that Toucan was a positive role model, trying to help out his fellow man by hooking them up with some of his cereal instead of keeping it from them like some of these other characters.
GOLDEN CRISP – Sugar Bear was like the Fonz of cereal mascots. He was cool but also seemed to get into a lot of fights. He’d say “How about a vitamin-packed punch?” and then punch someone in the face. In retrospect it seems weird that those ads were so violent, but Sugar Bear was just so awesome you didn’t really care at the time, you just wanted to be like him. (This cereal was easily confusable with the very similar Honey Smacks, which featured a frog mascot called Dig’em. It seems like a missed opportunity that Dig’em never smacked someone when they asked for his cereal.)
MONSTER CEREALS – Frankenberry, Boo Berry, and of course Count Chocula combined every kid’s natural love of monsters with their equally natural love of sugary cereals with marshmallows. Today these cereals actually go out of production for most of the year and only become available again for a couple of months around Halloween, which only increases their mythological status.
THE PRIZES INSIDE “SPECIALLY MARKED BOXES”
Every box of cereal used to come with a prize right inside the actual box. These days most cereals have you send away for stuff in the mail, or enter a promo code online to see if you got something. Back in the day you’d reach your grubby little hand inside, dig down deep into the cereal, and pull out a toy that was inevitably one of a series of toys that you’d be compelled to try to collect all of. (Which, of course, meant buying more boxes.) Sometimes through, to avoid getting a run of duplicates, you could send in some proofs-of-purchase and a few bucks for shipping and handling and have them send you the full set. I was all about the Disney Afternoon, so my mom did this for me for the Duck Tales, Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck toys that were in various Kellogg’s cereals in the 90s.
Some of my favorite “lost gems” of cereal history:
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLE CEREAL – When I look at a picture of the box I can still remember exactly how this stuff tasted. It was really good. Even though it’s been discontinued for more than two decades I’d honestly still call it one of my favorite cereals. It was like Chex, but with more sugar, and marshmallows. Plus, each box came with a mini-comic book inside, and there were trading cards to cut out on the back of the box. I was obsessed with the Turtles, so anything having to with them was already a win in my book, but the fact that the cereal tasted awesome catapulted this one into legendary territory. A few years ago I even called the Ralston company to ask them to bring this back into production. They informed me they lost the license for Ninja Turtles a long time ago. I suggested they could bring the cereal back and call it something else. The person I spoke to did not seem to think that this was likely to happen but thanked me for my call.
TEDDY GRAHAMS BREAKFAST BEARS – This cereal was amazing and prompted one of my favorite “comfort snacks” to this day, which is to pour milk on a bowl of Teddy Grahams and eat them like cereal. The difference is that actual Teddy Grahams go soggy in milk in a matter of seconds. You need to pour a very small bowl, eat it quickly, and then refill, or else you’ll be eating mush. The cereal would go soggy too but it managed to resist the milk for a much longer period of time. Actually the best consistency you could get with the cereal was to wait for it to go slightly soggy. There was a brief window of time where it was just soggy enough to be a little bit soft but not too mushy. With the cereal that window was a couple of minutes. With actual Teddy Grahams it’s about one second. Also the cereal box had a mask you could cut out of a bear’s face that was somewhat creepy.
NINTENDO CEREAL SYSTEM – This cereal came out right when Nintendo was starting to become popular. It was the first cereal I’m aware of that was actually two cereals. Each box actually had two bags of cereal inside, a Mario cereal and a Legend of Zelda cereal. The gimmick of two cereals in one, coupled with the fact that it had to do with video games, made this one even cooler in concept than the actual product probably tasted. I don’t remember the taste as much as I remember how exciting it was to have it.
GHOSTBUSTER CEREAL – I don’t remember this cereal very well other than we have a home video of my cousin getting a box of it for Christmas one year, and my aunt asking him if it’s one of his favorite things.
These are all of my cereal thoughts for now, but I have a feeling I’ll have more to say on this topic in the future. What are some of your favorite cereals, past or present? Let me know in the comments!
I recently asked my 6-year old son if he had any New Year’s Resolutions.
He considered the question carefully. Then, after a long, thoughtful pause, he replied confidently, “Play more video games, and watch more TV.”
I was about to tell him that that’s not how resolutions work. That you usually make a resolution to improve something about yourself, or give up a bad habit or something like that. But then I thought a little bit more about his point of view. All he was really saying was that he wanted to spend more time doing the things that he enjoys doing. And maybe there’s some wisdom in that.
In the movie Multiplicity, Michael Keaton’s character says, “It’s like work comes first, my family is a close second, and I’m a distant third bringing up the rear.”
Can anyone else relate to that feeling?
What’s that one thing you’d do, if you had time to do it? You probably haven’t even thought about it for a while, because it gets pushed so far down your list of priorities. It’s a lot easier to sacrifice the things that we want to do than to sacrifice the things that others except us to do.
And while my son’s resolutions of watching TV and playing video games are what sparked me to write this, that’s not really what I’m talking about.
What’s your passion? What’s that little voice inside you saying?
is it something creative, like writing? Drawing? Painting?
Something musical? Dancing? Singing? Playing an instrument?
Maybe for you it’s something athletic. Is it joining a team and playing a sport? Running a marathon?
Is it traveling? What places are on your bucket list? What trip have you always wanted to take but never planned?
Maybe it’s photography, or filmmaking. Maybe it’s cooking, or gardening. Maybe it’s a class you want to teach. Maybe it’s something you want to make or to build. I don’t know what it is. But you do. Because it’s that thing that when you do it, it recharges your batteries. It gives you energy, rather than tiring you out.
There are two quotes that sum this all up much better than I ever could.
Dr. Wayne Dyer said: “That music that you hear inside of you, urging you to take risks and follow your dreams, is your intuitive connection to the purpose in your heart since birth. So listen to your heart, and don’t die with that music still in you.”
And Ferris Buller said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
In my senior year of high school I had an amazing group of friends. We called ourselves The A-Team. (There will be a whole separate post about this group, I can’t do them justice in just this brief introduction to my latest comic book blog installment.) We were out bowling one night, because, why not? It was that perfect era of lots of freedom and little responsibility. We had driver’s licenses, we had cars, we had disposable income, we had free time. Of course, let’s go bowling, let’s stay out late, and let’s go to Taco Bell afterward.
There were two relative newcomers to our crew, Mike and Jeff, out with us that night. They were acquaintances, familiar faces I knew from the halls of high school, but I’d never really talked to either of them much before. They were friends with Tom and Greg, who had invited them to join the crew for the antics of the evening.
It was my turn to bowl, and I was walking up to the lane carrying my Brunswick Laser when I overheard Mike saying something to Jeff. “I gotta save Batgirl, man!” I stopped for a second. Did he just say Batgirl?
Jeff laughed. “What are you talking about?”
“I gotta get back to the comic store! Batgirl’s still sitting in the bag, and she needs my help!” Mike said. “I can’t believe I just left her there! She needs my help not to die!!”
(What I did not know at the time was that Mike was referring to the cover of Batgirl #2, in which she is holding up a sign that says “Please Help Me Not To Die.”)
When I got a chance a little bit later I asked them what they were talking about.
“We go to the comic book store every Wednesday, after school,” Jeff explained.
“It’s a place called All Heroes Comics,” Mike elaborated. “I’ve been going there for years. When I was a kid I used to ride my bike up to the store on the weekends.”
I was in disbelief of what I was hearing. “And now you guys go every week?”
“Yeah, Wednesday is the day the new comics come out. We usually get there just as Chuck is opening up the boxes and putting them out on the shelf.”
I couldn’t even process this. I had never had any friends who read comics, and now I had just met two guys who were way more hardcore than I was.
“What comics do you read?” Jeff asked. I was wearing a Superman t-shirt and asking them obsessively about their comic book shop routine, so I don’t think it was a huge leap of logic for him to assume I was into them too.
And yet, I actually struggled for a moment to answer. I had been “away” from comics for a while. There wasn’t anything that I was actively reading or collecting, and even those occasional trips to a comic store or orders from Entertainment This Month had become so few and far between that they were essentially non-existent. The most recent thing I had checked out were a few issues from the conclusion of the “No Man’s Land” storyline that had played out in the Batman comics, which I had picked up on a whim from the newsstand at Wegmans.
“I’ve been reading some of the Batman stuff,” I said. “Superman’s always been my favorite though.”
“You want to come with us this Wednesday?” Mike asked.
“Yeah, that would be awesome!” I replied.
That Wednesday, right after school, I got to be part of the weekly ritual and go with Mike and Jeff to All Heroes Comics. I had never been there before, and actually did not even know of this store’s existence until now.
(The comic store I had gone to previously from time to time over the years, which I will not name here, was not big on customer service… in fact the owner of that place acted like it was a huge inconvenience to help you with anything. I actually always felt bad any time I asked my dad to stop and grab something for me, because I knew he was on his own to try and find it!)
“What’s up, fellas!” Chuck, the owner, said as we walked in. Mike and Jeff had the timing down to a science; there was a stack of newly-delivered UPS boxes on the counter that Chuck was just about to open, as he gave the packing list a quick once-over.
He grabbed the top box and popped it down on top of one of the long-boxes full of back issues. He sliced open the tape with a box cutter, expertly avoiding doing any damage to the books inside. He took out small stacks of comics at a time, separating them into piles of copies of each new issue, and calling out the title as he did. “Amazing Spidey,” he said, starting a stack of the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. “Cap,” he called out, starting a pile of Captain America. And so on. Mike and Jeff would grab the issues they collected as soon as they hit the table.
It was like being a kid on Christmas morning, only you got to snag the presents you wanted as soon as Santa took them out of the sack. And it happened every freaking Wednesday.
Mike told Chuck he had a few things to pick up in his bag, also. The bag, also known as a pull-list, was essentially an in-house subscription service. You gave Chuck a list of the titles you collected, and if an issue came out and you couldn’t stop in to get it right away, he would set it aside for you. It also became an unofficial layaway for those weeks when you had more books than you could afford…! You could stash some in the bag to grab on a future visit. Mike used the opportunity to rescue Batgirl #2 from her place in layaway limbo and save her from the untimely demise she was apparently headed for on that cover.
I was hooked. I went from guest appearance on the All Heroes outing to series regular, hitching a ride with Mike and Jeff every Wednesday after school whenever I could. There was something so exciting about buying the comics literally as they hit the stands. And, each week on the ride to and from the store, we’d talk about what we were reading, what was good, what wasn’t. Our tastes intersected a bit but also varied. I was the only one reading Superman and Justice League. Mike and Jeff both read the X-Men books. We all read Batman.
After a few weeks of picking up whatever caught my eye, I took the plunge and started a bag. My initial pull-list included all four Superman titles, Batman, Detective Comics, JLA, and Incredible Hulk. (I would add and drop various titles as the years went on, but to be honest, that core lineup stayed relatively the same through all of the various pull-list incarnations.)
That fall, Jeff and Mike went to college a couple of hours away, whereas I was going to a school closer to home and commuting. I still went to All Heroes solo every Wednesday, and sent the guys emails about new stuff that came into the store or any funny stories about people who came in or things that were said. (There were some regulars at the shop that we enjoyed running into, like the married guy whose wife didn’t know he collected comics, and he had to come in really quickly when he was doing the groceries. Or the guy that we nicknamed “The Spy” because he always seemed to have inside info about movies and comics that no one else knew.) Of course, when the guys were home for breaks, we all stopped in together so they could clear out the massive accumulation in the bags.
I’ll never forget the year we took the galacticness to the next level and went to a comic convention together for the first time. The three of us drove from Rochester to Chicago for Wizard World in 2002, armed with a stack of swag that Chuck had asked us to try and get signed for him if we could. We returned with comics autographed by the likes of Sean Chen, Rob Liefeld, Greg Horn, Jeph Loeb, Greg Rucka, Adam Kubert, Humberto Ramos, and many more, and were rewarded with absolutely insane discounts from Chuck for many visits after that.
At that convention my fandom also came full circle, in a way… I met Lou Ferrigno, who of course played the Hulk on that TV series that had sparked my interest in superheroes in the first place when I was just a kid.
I remember when we were planning our trip to Wizard World Chicago we kept referring to it as a “once in a lifetime” trip. How wrong we were…! It was just the beginning of a new level of fandom. The thrill of meeting the writers and artists who crafted the books you’ve collected for so long, or shaking the hand of an actor who first brought them to life for you as a kid, was something that just couldn’t be a one-and-done. One year later, in the summer of 2003, Mike and I drove all night in a rainstorm from Rochester to Philadelphia, because I just absolutely had to meet Allison Mack (who played Chloe Sullivan on Smallville, and who I had a massive crush on).
At other conventions throughout the years I would also meet some of the other individuals who were instrumental in my initial immersion in the world of comics. At Dragon Con in 2011, I met Peter David, who wrote many of the earliest Hulk comics I had when I was little. My dad came to the convention, too… what a surreal moment, meeting the guy who wrote some of those first comics I ever had, with my dad, who bought them for me!
I still go to All Heroes comics, although I don’t have a pull-list bag anymore. Instead, I’m back to the “whatever catches my eye” approach when I can find the time to go in, which sure isn’t every week. I’ve taken my own kids into the store a few times, usually on Free Comic Book Day every May. My daughter particularly likes the Duck Tales comics, and in fact enjoys looking at some of the very issues I read when I was little when she goes to sleep at night.
Mike and Jeff are still two of my best friends. We collaborated on film projects together in college, including a semi-animated adaptation of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s “The Ultimates” (think “motion comic”) with us and our friends doing the voices. (You can find it on YouTube if you’re so inclined.) We went to each other’s bachelor parties and weddings. And, now that we all have kids, we’re just as likely to text each other in excitement about new episodes of PJ Masks as we are about the latest adventures of the superheroes we’ve enjoyed reading for so many years. (I’m not kidding about the PJ Masks part.)
All of this eventually brings me back to where this series of blogs all started, which was back-to-school shopping with my wife, surrounded by images of every superhero you can think of on every lunchbox, every backpack, every pencil case, and any other product you can think of, and Amanda commenting that I must love the fact that superheroes are everywhere now.
And I do. And I also don’t.
I can only compare it to that feeling you get when you love a certain band that no one else has heard of, and you have all of their CDs and you know every song by heart and you’ve seen them in concert and you’re their biggest fan. And then, one day, they blow up and become mainstream, and suddenly everyone is into them. But, they all only know the one or two songs that play on the radio. They don’t know the band the way you do. And instead of being excited that everyone else is into them, you get kind of weirdly possessive.
Those kids who are wearing Hulk t-shirts didn’t learn to read with Hulk comics, and everyone who liked the movie “Man of Steel” didn’t spend their formative years devouring every Superman comic book they could get their hands on.
Comics, when they are done right, work on multiple levels. Ideally, you should be able to pick up a single issue of any series, and get a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. You get to experience one adventure of the titular hero. With the serial nature of the series, that adventure will undoubtedly leave one or more things unresolved, or even more likely, end on a cliffhanger, compelling you to want to pick up the next installment of that title. However, something really incredible happens if you read more comic book titles. Very frequently, with the “shared universe” that these stories occupy, characters and even plot points will spill over from one series into another. You don’t have to (or, at least, when it’s done right, shouldn’t have to) read every series to get a whole story. But, if you do, you start to get a larger sense of scope and scale, and almost feel like you live in that universe as well.
That is something that, as a kid growing up, I assumed would always be unique just to the comics. I never thought it would or could carry over into the screen adaptations of my favorite heroes. The closest it ever got was usually a quick reference in the form of a throwaway line or joke, like in “Batman Forever” when Bruce Wayne mentions Metropolis. That’s right, he MENTIONED Metropolis, and at the time, that in itself was mind-blowing, because it implied that Superman must exist somehow, somewhere, in this reality as well. (Around the same time, an episode of “Lois & Clark” mentioned Gotham City, and I almost lost my mind.)
And yet here we are today, in a world where we have multiple Marvel movies coming out each year, full of cameos and crossovers and post-credit scenes that tease at what’s coming next. There’s also the slate of DC superhero shows on the CW Network, where you can occasionally see an episode of Supergirl end with a title card proclaiming “To Be Continued on The Flash,” or a Flash episode telling you to tune into Arrow for its conclusion.
When the movie “Captain America: Civil War” came out, I was seeing it in the theater for the second time, and it was up to the scene were Cap is assembling his team at the airport in Germany. Clint Barton opens the door of his van to reveal the last member of their team: Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. A kid a few rows ahead of me excitedly told his dad, in pure disbelief, “That’s Ant Man! That’s Ant Man!!” The movie Ant Man had just come out the year before. His appearance in Civil War, a movie already chock full of other heroes, was apparently the surprise that put this kid over the moon. (It’s not like the kid had been talking through the whole movie, either. Something about Ant Man showing up really got this kid stoked.)
And that’s when I realized, that that feeling of being part of a larger universe that I got from reading the comics, that feeling of being “in on it” when you caught a reference to something you had read before… it’s not unique to comics anymore. They’ve finally managed to successfully translate it.
And I realized another thing, too. In my own, weird, perhaps snobbish protectiveness of the comics, with that “I listened to this band before it was cool” sensibility where I felt like I was somehow “more” of a fan than everyone going to the movies or watching the shows… my fandom started with a TV adaptation too. I never would have discovered the comics if it hadn’t been for watching the Bill Bixby TV show with my mom when I was little. That copy of Incredible Hulk #324 wouldn’t have jumped out at me on the magazine rack at age 4 if I hadn’t first been introduced to the startling metamorphosis that occurred whenever David Banner grew angry or outraged in its television format first.
Maybe that kid who got so psyched to see Ant Man show up and hang with Captain America will ask his dad to take him to the comic book store so he can read about where that character comes from. Or maybe he won’t. And either way, it’s okay. Because these movies and shows are introducing these characters to an audience who otherwise might not have known them at all. (And, for those die-hard fans of the band that goes mainstream, there’s still comfort in knowing the lyrics to every deep track…!)
The long-boxes full of back issues that make up my collection are full of stories, frozen in time, that don’t just tell the tales of the fight for truth and justice. They tell my story, too. From a four-year-old kid who loved to see a man-monster going berserk with rage, to a 12-year-old who found inspiration in the adventures of a man from Krypton, to a young adult who made a couple of lifelong friends with a weekly trip to a comic book store, those comics are like signposts on the road of my life, each one carefully bagged, boarded, and filed away for posterity.
In November of 1992, Superman #75 made national headlines. It was in the newspaper and on the TV news that DC Comics was killing off Superman. I was shocked at the thought of the most invulnerable superhero of all somehow dying, but what was even more strange and powerful to me was that everyone was talking about a comic book. Reading comics had always been a very solitary hobby for me, and, other than the letters pages in the back of each issue where fans would write in with their comments, it was easy to feel like no one else was reading those stories but me. Now, suddenly, the whole world was interested in something that was happening in a comic. It was very exciting.
However, I figured I would never even see a copy of it. The news showed footage of people lined up around the block trying to get a copy from their local comic book store like it was a big screen TV on Black Friday. People were talking about this comic – which came in a sealed black bag – as if it would put their kids through college someday. (Today you can probably get a copy for about $10 without too much effort.)
Imagine my shock when Mema (my grandma on my dad’s side) actually managed to get a copy when it came out! She was one of those people that waited in the ridiculous comic book store lines! Apparently she tried to ask for three copies, intending to keep one, give one to me, and give one to my dad. The comic book shop owner laughed and told her it was one per customer. She bought one copy, and gave it to my dad (I’m pretty sure she was part of the “this will put the kids through college one day” camp). My dad gave it to me and told me it should go with my collection. He said it was for safe-keeping, but, I think he just knew how much it meant for me to have it. I was in disbelief to possess a copy of this holy grail of comics… but tortured by the fact that I knew that it must remain forever sealed in its immortal polybag! It was like having the golden ticket but knowing you could never open the Wonka Bar.
I would not get to actually read the story and learn how Superman met his fate until DC published a trade paperback edition that collected the whole “Death of Superman” storyline, including Superman #75 and the issues that had led up to it.
The premise, for those unfamiliar, is that a raging monster called Doomsday is tearing across the country – heading towards Metropolis, naturally – killing and destroying everything and everyone in its path. Superman tries to stop him, but Doomsday is more powerful than any foe he has ever faced. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not going to be kryptonite that kills the man of steel, as one might have expected. He has just actually, finally, met his match.
The final chapter is told all in splash pages. (A splash page is where the whole page is just one image, rather than being divided up into different panels. The title page of a comic is usually a splash page.) In the last moments, Superman and Doomsday collide one last time and both fall to the ground, dead. The issue ends with a double-page spread of Lois Lane in tears beside Superman’s body, with his torn and tattered cape flying like a memorial flag in the background. I was 10 years old, and this sight moved me to tears. It was the first time a comic book ever made me cry. (It wouldn’t be the last… Maybe when we get to the end of this blog series I’ll reveal what the other times were.)
I had assumed that this meant the Superman series was over. But, of course, it wasn’t. The death storyline was followed by “Funeral for a Friend,” which focused on Superman’s grieving supporting cast. And then, “Reign of the Supermen,” in which four new pseudo-Supermen appeared on the scene in Metropolis. Was one of them somehow the real one, back from the grave?
This was the first time that I felt the need to keep up with what was happening in an ongoing comic book series in “real time.” And this didn’t mean waiting for a new installment every month; there was a new chapter every week. You see, Superman didn’t have just one comic book series about him, he had four. “Superman,” “Superman in Action Comics,” “Superman: The Man of Steel,” and “The Adventures of Superman” were four separate ongoing series, and one of them came out each Wednesday on a rotating basis. “Reign of the Supermen” was a sprawling saga that played out across all the titles.
I couldn’t keep up with it even if I tried. I was 10. I didn’t have a means of transportation to get to the local comic book store. I could get my dad to take me once in a while, but not on a weekly basis, and even if I could, I didn’t have the money to buy every single issue. I picked up what I could at any opportunity. Sometimes I ended up reading some of the issues out of order, or missed a chapter or two and had to try to figure out what had happened in between. Something about that fact, though, made the whole thing seem even bigger and more epic.
There was even one issue that I had to, reluctantly, deliberately, skip. I was at a newsstand with my dad, and of course I had to check out the comics rack to see if there was a new installment of “Reign of the Supermen.” And there was. Superman #80 sported a cover image of the Cyborg Superman blowing a freaking hole right through the chest of the Last Son of Krypton Superman. It was the most graphically violent image I had ever seen depicted on a comic book cover. I thought back to my parents condemning those old Hulk comics for being too violent when I was a little kid, leading to me eventually throwing them out. Even though that was a lifetime ago, I just couldn’t do it. I knew there was no way my dad would let me have that comic, so I didn’t even ask. I walked away and left it on the rack. (I would buy it years later from a back-issue bin; it is part of my collection today.)
Around this time I discovered the (now defunct) mail-order company Entertainment This Month. They advertised in each issue as a way to order upcoming comics in advance and have them mailed to you. They also offered cool free incentives, like posters, trading cards, or special comics depending on when you ordered. I sent in a request for one of their free catalogs. It opened up a whole new world to me. The catalogs had a short description of what was going to happen in each issue and even pictures of some of the covers. For the first time I had a sense of what was going to be coming out when, and which issues were the absolute “must have” essential parts of the storyline. And, instead of getting a ride to the comic store or newsstand and trying to play “catch up” on the parts of the story I’d missed, I could send away for the ones I really wanted and wait for them to show up at my door.
This was also the first time I started to pay attention to the writer and artist on each issue. Even though the stories intertwined, each of the four different series had a different writer/artist pair and thus had its own style. My favorite artist, by far, was Tom Grummett on “Adventures of Superman.” He had a very clean, fluid style that looked like it belonged in an animated series. I looked forward to the “Adventures” issues more than the rest.
There came a point where I had to have everything that had to do with this event. I had a poster of the four new Supermen on my bedroom wall. I had the “Death and Return of Superman” Super Nintendo game. I had “The Return of Superman” trading cards. I had the novelization and junior novelization. I had the “Superman Lives!” audio cassette. I was obsessed.
There were a couple of kids in my class who were interested in it too. They weren’t nearly as hardcore as I was, but, they each had a few of the issues and I could at least talk to them about it. One day I brought in a stack of my comics to get them caught up and we passed them around during D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) time. I also brought in my Entertainment This Month catalogs, feeling super cool to be able to show off that I knew what was coming up next. It was nice to have a couple friends who were into the comics too, but, on a scale of 1 to 10 I think their interest was like a 4 and mine was an 11. And, beyond those couple of guys, no one else really cared about it.
In the fall of 1993, the TV show “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” premiered. I couldn’t believe they were making a show about Superman. I loved it from the very first episode. The first season especially had a real sense of wonder. The focus on Clark Kent as a “real person” (rather than just a put-on bumbling disguise) was something the comics had been trying to develop since the 80s, but it was the first time it had been done on television. And, with Teri Hatcher portraying Lois, it was the first time I ever really understood what Superman would see in Lois Lane.
The same couple of kids in my class who had a fleeting interest in the Superman comics also watched “Lois & Clark,” but, again, they weren’t as into it as I was. And the rest of the world that had bought into the Superman hype long enough to buy that one black-bagged death issue had long since moved on.
I have a very distinct memory of being in the school cafeteria on a Monday and listening to my friends talking about the football game that had been on the day before. I didn’t follow football. But pretty much all the other guys in my class did. And I remember thinking to myself, why is it so common for everyone to watch football that you could just kind of safely assume that if you struck up a conversation about it, odds were pretty good that the guy you were talking to watched the game. But if you randomly started talking about “Lois & Clark” or about the comic book you just read, odds were pretty good they would have no idea what you were talking about.
This was 1993, and “Lois & Clark” was the only superhero show on TV. There had been a “Flash” TV show a couple years before, but it didn’t last long. As for superhero movies, you’d get one maybe every few years if you were lucky, and the quality was inconsistent at best. (Batman Returns was in 1992, and then we’d wait three more years for the very tonally different Batman Forever in 1995.) Superhero culture was just not mainstream, and I remember sitting in that elementary school cafeteria wishing that it was.
If you could go back in time and tell my kid self that in 2017 there would literally be so many superhero TV shows that he would not have the time to watch all of them, or that there would be multiple superhero movies every year and they would cross over with each other the way the actual comics did, it would have completely blown his mind.
Other than those couple of kids in my class who had a casual interest in the Superman comics, I still didn’t know anyone else who read them, and certainly not anyone who cared about them as much as I did.
My wife and I were at Wal-Mart shopping for school supplies for our 5-year-old son who will be starting kindergarten in the fall. We wandered up and down the aisles, consulting the list: pencils, glue, markers, tissues, backpack… As we came to the display of backpacks, it was hard not to notice a common theme. Batman. Iron Man. Spider-Man. Captain America. The backpacks (and in fact, lunch boxes, and much of the back-to-school apparel as well) were almost all adorned by a veritable who’s who of superheroes.
“Superheroes were never this popular when we were in school, were they?” Amanda asked.
“No,” I answered quickly and with a laugh.
“Man,” she replied. “You must be loving this!”
I didn’t answer.
Do I love that superheroes are everywhere now? It’s not quite that simple…
When I was three years old I used to love watching The Incredible Hulk TV series with my mom. I was obsessed with the transformation scenes, when Dr. David Banner would turn into the Hulk, or vice versa. They were my favorite parts of every episode.
“When is he going to change, Mom?” I would ask, eagerly.
“You just have to keep watching,” Mom would patiently reply.
Children just kind of assume that their parents have some sort of innate gift of precognition. After all, their parents are always telling them “We’re leaving in 10 minutes,” “You’re going to bed in 5 minutes,” etc. Why wouldn’t my child self assume that my mom would be able to tell me exactly when David Banner was going to Hulk Out?
Finally, the inevitable would happen. Banner would be caught by the bad guys, who would beat the crap out of him and throw him into some kind of trap. He would get angry, the music would swell, his eyes would turn white. His clothes would rip as his muscles grew and turned green. With a growl and a roar he would rise up, the transformation complete! The one, the only, the Incredible Hulk!
“Now when is he going to change back??” would of course be my immediate next question.
One day in the fall of 1986, when I was four years old, I was at Wegmans with my dad, getting some groceries. My dad happened to park the cart for a moment next to a magazine rack. I noticed something on that rack that looked very familiar. Even though I couldn’t read yet, I recognized the word on the cover because it was in the same big block letters that I saw every time I watched my favorite TV show with my mom. “HULK.” The picture on the cover showed a man transforming into a giant gray monster.
“Dad!! Dad!!” I cried excitedly. “It’s a book about Hulk!! It’s a book about Hulk!!”
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was looking at was Incredible Hulk #324, the issue that brings back a gray incarnation of the character that first appeared in Incredible Hulk #1. I begged my dad to buy it for me. With a cover price of just 75 cents, my dad relented and bought me my very first comic book. He would have no idea that he was spending those three quarters on something that would ultimately turn into a lifelong hobby for his son.
That night, my dad read that comic book to me as my bedtime story. The story started off with Doctor Banner captured and being held at the mysterious Gamma Base, unconscious and in some kind of restraints with lots of people watching him. On the very next page, he transformed into the Hulk, still unconscious and restrained! He then transformed rapidly back and forth between Banner and Hulk for several pages before busting out of his restraints. To a kid who was obsessed with the transformation sequences, this was pure gold.
The story ended with Banner turning into a gray Hulk and then turning back to normal, feeling that he may finally be rid of the Hulk after all. A message at the end of the comic book proclaimed: “You Won’t Believe It! We Don’t Believe It! The NEW Hulk!” I was hooked.
Over the following months my dad bought me the next issue, and the next, and the next. We would read them together at bedtime, and in the long stretches as I waited for the next monthly installment to come out we would re-read the old ones. To help fill the gap between issues my dad would sometimes buy me other, non-Hulk, comics. Some others I have vivid early memories of – “Man of Steel” #5, where Superman fights Bizarro; “Superman” #19, where his powers are siphoned off one by one by a mysterious new villain; “Web of Spider-Man” Giant Sized Annual #3, which featured profiles of all of Spider-Man’s allies and villains. Oh, and a special Nestle’s Quik promotional issue called “Superman meets the Quik Bunny.” Veering further away from the superhero genre and into the realm of other soft-drink tie-ins, I also had several “Adventures of Kool-Aid Man” comics, where the big anthropomorphized pitcher of punch known as Kool-Aid Man fought Scorch, who was a being made of fire who hated how cool and refreshing Kool-Aid Man was. But, despite how awesome that sounds, my favorite of all was still the Hulk.
Comic books are how I learned to read. I wanted to be able to read them on my own, so I basically taught myself to read by sounding out the words and correlating them to what I already knew from hearing the story so many times. There was one thing that made this especially difficult, however. What I didn’t know was that my dad was paraphrasing those Hulk comics as he read them, and “toning them down” for the sake of his four-year-old audience. Those comics were not really written for kids. Bruce Banner is suicidal in issue #328, contemplating the idea that killing himself might be the only true “cure” to being the Hulk. In the very first issue that I owned, #324, when Banner is caught in mid-transformation, he begs a group of SHIELD agents to kill him. The darker themes of those issues flew right over my young head, regardless of my dad’s reworking of the dialogue or not. I just wanted to see a guy turn into a monster and smash stuff.
The issues continued to descend into even darker fare. Todd McFarlane, probably best known today as the creator of Spawn, took over the artistic duties on Incredible Hulk starting with issue 330. His style lent itself to a more sinister incarnation of the Hulk, really bringing out the more monstrous aspect of the character. Peter David, the writer, seemed to tailor his writing to match McFarlane’s style. Issue 333 was the most disturbing yet, as it dealt with a woman who has been beaten by her husband so many times that she considers killing him. A lot of it continued to go over my head. The idea of a husband beating up his wife was so completely foreign to me that it didn’t even really occur to me that that was what was going on, but McFarlane’s image of a woman with a black eye and puffy lip holding a gun certainly still registered in my mind as being messed up. My dad struggled way more than usual to come up with dialogue that made any sort of sense in a G-rated format.
After that issue my dad told me he didn’t think he could buy me any more Hulk comics because they were getting too violent. We skipped a few issues and he did eventually buy me #337, which gave me my first ever glimpse of the X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Ice Man guest-star in the issue, although technically at that point they were members of a spinoff group called X-Factor rather than the true X-Men). Appropriately, the issue ends with Gamma Base, which was the primary setting of most of the issues I owned, being blown to smithereens in a bomb blast set by SHIELD Agent Clay Quartermain. It was the end of an era for me as well as for the comic.
I continued to cherish the issues that I had and re-read them frequently, on my own and still sometimes with dad. I even have a few cassette tape recordings that still survive to this day of my dad reading me the old Hulk comics, because I was obsessed with recording things on my tape recorder.
But I knew my parents really objected to them now. They reacted and spoke very differently about me continuing to read those comics (I am certain issue 333 is what pushed them over the edge) and would always refer to them as being “too violent.” It was clear that they did not approve of my Hulk obsession anymore.
One day, in an effort to please my parents, in the ultimate act of a kid trying to do what he thought his mom and dad wanted, I threw all my Hulk comics in the trash. That’s right, of my own free will, probably age five at this point, I gathered up every issue that I owned and discarded them. I proudly told my parents what I had done. I did not get the reaction I expected. I thought they would be happy, proud, elated that I had done the right thing and disposed of those wretched, violent comics that had no doubt been corrupting me. Instead they seemed surprised, and I could tell they felt bad that they had driven me to do that. “Are you sure you want to do that, buddy?” they asked. The trash had not been taken out yet and I’m sure they were wondering if they should save them in case I had a panic attack once I’d come to my senses and realized what I’d done. But, I was adamant that I had done the right thing and confident in my very mature decision.
It would not be until much later, when I was in my teens, that I would gradually track down and purchase all of those old issues again, via back issue bins, conventions, and online orders. (Lest you thought that my meticulous memories of each issue number and corresponding content were all from three decades ago, they are not – although a lot of it certainly stuck with me.)
Even after throwing away the old Hulk issues, I still really liked comic books. The blend of words and pictures to create a story resonated with me, and kept me interested in reading. I still had the Superman, Spider-Man, and Kool-Aid Man ones I mentioned earlier, and my dad continued to buy me some more lighter fare in the form of ALF, Ninja Turtles, and DuckTales comics. I loved any Carl Barks or Don Rosa Uncle Scrooge comics, although at that point I was not really registering the names of any of the writers or artists who were creating these stories. I remained very interested in comics but I would not say that I was actively collecting them or keeping up with what was new and coming out at any given time.
That would change in November of 1992. I still remember being in school, in my 5th grade class, and our REACH teacher Mr. Dupra saying, “Hey, Dimino, do you know what today is?”
I thought for a minute. I don’t know… Wednesday? What’s he getting at?
“What?” I asked.
“Today is the day Superman dies,” he replied.
November 18th, 1992 was the day that Superman #75 came out. It was “The Death of Superman,” and everything was about to change.
Last month we took a family vacation that had me, my wife, our 3-year-old son (Dominic), our 1-year-old daughter (Cora), my mom and my dad, my grandmother, my sister and her boyfriend, and my brother, his wife, and their 1-year-old son sharing a beach house on Oneida Lake for a week. (A four generation vacation!) Sylvan Beach was right outside our back door.
On our first afternoon on the beach Dominic very hesitantly took a step into the water. A small wave washed up over his foot, covering it in seaweed. He instantly ran back out of the water declaring “I don’t like that,” and stayed away from it for pretty much the rest of the week.
Cora, on the other hand, charged right in so fast we had to chase after her. She laughed, kicking her feet (sneakers and all because we didn’t think she’d want to go in the water) and stomping and splashing around. She bent down and reached her hands into the water, bringing them back out with little fists full of dirt and mud. She didn’t want to hold anyone’s hand and she didn’t want us holding her back. If it was up to her she would have swam to the other side of the lake just to see what was there. I couldn’t believe how brave and carefree she was.
I’m more like Dominic. Cautious, slower to try new things, untrusting of the unfamiliar. Before I was a parent I never would have thought this was possible, but I admired my 1-year-old for possessing a quality that I just don’t have. She is utterly fearless.
Later that day I carried a tired Cora down the beach, walking slowly along the water’s edge. After a few minutes her head became very heavy against my face and I knew she had fallen asleep.
I walked back up to the deck and laid down on a beach chair with Cora on my chest. Amanda covered us up with a couple of warm, dry towels as blankets. I closed my eyes and just felt the sun shining down on us and listened to the waves gently rolling up to the shore.
As I held my sleeping daughter on that perfect day I thought about the way we spend so much of life. Get up, get ready, get out the door so you can be to work on time, be at this appointment on time, get this work done on time, pick up the kids on time, get dinner made so you can get to bed on time to do it all again tomorrow. You’re trying to get through the day just so you can get to the next one.
When you get away from that you get a chance to live the day at its own pace. You get hungry, you eat. You get tired, you take a nap or go to bed. You laugh with your family, you play with your kids. And sometimes you just don’t do anything at all for a little bit and that is perfectly, wonderfully okay. It is so good for the soul to live life instead of just getting through it. We have gotten so far away from what life could/should be.
Holding Cora and feeling her fast asleep on me, listening to her gentle breathing as I felt a cool breeze blowing over us was the most calm, peaceful, serene moment I can remember in years and I can’t begin to tell you how much I needed it.
I felt like for just that brief moment that Cora was telling me, “It’s okay, Daddy. Don’t worry so much. THIS is what life is.”
I will hold that feeling with me during the stressful times. And I will try to be just a little braver, like my fearless daughter.
The smell of pipe tobacco takes me back like a sensory-fueled time machine. I’m back in the old house on English Road, and Grandpa is sitting on the couch. He’s wearing his blue Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, smoking his pipe, and the old black-and-white Batman serials are on the TV.
I brought over my binder full of Marvel superheroes trading cards to show him, with several new pages of entries since the last time. I tell him who everyone is, and he adds some anecdotes of his own on the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America; all characters that he remembers fondly from when he was kid like me who read comics and loved superheroes.
Outside in the backyard, I can still smell the faint hint of chlorine in the air and feel the grass under my bare feet. My fingers are damp and wrinkly as I grab another cracker from the small brown bowl on the patio table, and I eat it even though I know it will have a slight pool-water taste.
Grandma has made another batch of her famous peanut-butter chip brownies. There is a whole Tupperware container of them hidden somewhere in the house, a fun tradition that started simply due to the fact that my brother would get into them within seconds of us getting to their house. The brownie treasure hunt only makes them more rewarding and taste that much sweeter.
Val, Josh and I head down to the basement. I can still feel the damp coolness setting in as we walk down the creaky steps. The pool table, the bar with the “Cold Beer” sign, the little old TV, and the bookcase full of mystery novels make it the coolest hangout ever. We stay down there for hours, hiding the pool balls, cracking jokes, playing games and making up stories. When our cousin JD is in town visiting, that basement becomes a whole other world. We have my dad film us with the video camera, making our own zero-budget adventures as we transform the basement into a crime-fighting headquarters, or a seedy underworld tavern where ghetto secret agents do battle with evil scientists.
I’ll always feel a special connection with my grandfather. Not just because we share the same first name or a love of superheroes, but I think because we share the same quiet sense of humor as well. I can still hear him saying “Some joke, eh boss?” and cracking that wry smile. Any time my grandma would ask him to remind her about something, for example if she’d say “Remind me to call Susan,” he would wait approximately three seconds and say, “Hey, don’t forget to call Susan!” I pull that same joke on my wife, Amanda, today. (She finds it about as amusing as my grandma did, which is to say not very!)
Near the end of his life, after he’d had surgery due to throat cancer, he could no longer enjoy the big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners with the family. He’d sit at the table with just a can of Ensure, which was about all he could reasonably consume at one sitting. I didn’t know how he could stand it, sitting there while everyone else was enjoying such amazing food that he could not partake in himself. I am sure it must have bothered him, but he didn’t let it show. Ironically it would only be a few years later, when I was in the very worst stages of my battle with Crohn’s disease, that I would regularly find myself in essentially the same situation, watching family and friends enjoy meals that I knew I’d never be able to touch. The greatest thing I could have ever taken from my grandfather was the ability to keep that sense of humor. I remember vividly, even drinking something as simple as the can of Ensure, when he’d start to gag and choke, going into a brutal coughing fit. He’d put a hand over his mouth, coughing and coughing and coughing, his face turning red as he put up his index finger as a simple “wait a minute” indicator… and then, when the coughing fit finally passed, he’d clear his throat, blink his eyes a few times, and say “Boy! That’s good stuff!”
It’s been 12 years now that he’s been gone. But, whenever I catch a smell of pipe tobacco, it’s like he’s still there, sitting on the couch, ready to look at my latest batch of Marvel cards and reminisce about the Golden Age of superheroes with his grandson.
It’s Christmas Eve and I am five years old. I am at Mema and Pepa’s house for a big Christmas Eve party. Packed into the small sunroom at the back of the house are Aunt Karen and Cousin Nick, Aunt Jeneane and Uncle George, Aunt Chris, Great Aunt Marian, and of course Mema and Pepa, my parents, and my baby sister Valerie. The picture windows reveal fresh-falling snow against the nighttime sky while the wood burning stove keeps the room all toasty and warm.
Presents are being handed to us kids faster than we can open them. Mom asks me who that Thundercat action figure is from, trying to formulate a thank-you card list in her head. It’s too late, Mom, that was three presents ago and I don’t even remember who gave me the one I am opening right now.
Christmas music plays softly in the background, just beneath the sound of ripping wrapping paper, the click-clack-flash of cameras, the clinking of glasses, and of course the sounds of laughter. I swear I just heard a “Ho Ho Ho!” from the other room. I think it was Pepa, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Santa himself couldn’t resist making a brief cameo at this shindig.
The food that is laid out on the dining room table looks like it could feed a group ten times this size. Turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, salad, biscuits, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce. Of course I’m too picky to appreciate half of it at age five, but even I can’t deny that the aroma in the air is enough to make your stomach growl.
Nick and I stage an epic fight between my Silverhawks and his Ninja Turtles, ducking behind piles of presents that form the battlefield. The floor is covered with cookies, Muscle Men, Ghostbuster Cereal, Pee-Wee colorforms, and trucks that go wheelies. We play and giggle until we are exhausted.
Finally the time comes to trek back out into the snow and pile into the car. It’s freezing cold in the back seat and my mom wraps a blanket around me. As we drive home I look at my little sister asleep in her carseat. I look out the window at the snow, still falling so gently down from the pitch-black sky. I stare in wonder at each house that is lit up with Christmas lights as my eyelids start to get heavy. I think about the fact that tomorrow morning is Christmas, and there will be even more presents and fun to be had.
I drift off to sleep in the back seat feeling warm, safe, and content. That feeling is what Christmas Eve is to me.