I’m still feeling saddened by the passing of Steve Gerber, a writer whose talents I didn’t come to fully appreciate until recent years, though I’d been a fan since childhood. With all the bad news coming out of the comics industry the last couple of days, I was a little worried about posting this but today is an important day and I didn’t want it to slip by without comment. As of today, it’s been six months since Mike died. The last half year has gone by in such a blur that I was barely aware it’s been that long. People use the phrase “seems like only yesterday” a lot but, in this case, it’s nearly true.
Not a single day has gone by since August 12 that I haven’t thought about Mike a dozen times a day, but today has been particularly tough. With Suzanne out of town, I’ve been alone with my thoughts a lot and I’ve been feeling the loss keenly. But rather than posting some morose testament to that loss, I thought I’d try to cheer myself up and wax nostalgic. So, bear with me.
The sketch above, though it didn’t really take long to draw, is based on an image that’s been popping into my head for a few days now. It isn’t a specific moment in time but, rather, representative of many similar moments. I probably needn’t explain that the two kids in the sketch are Mike and me. (Mike’s the tall one; I’m the one with the wavy blonde hair. Still got the wave. The blonde...not so much.) Mike and I were roughly 13 and 8, respectively, around the time this picture represents. We were buying our comics at a bookstore called, I believe, Peter’s Newsstand. Despite the word “newsstand” in the name, it was more of a brick and mortar bookstore. The kind of Mom ‘n’ Pop place that dotted the landscape in the days before the big chain bookstores took over the world. The direct sales market was still a twinkle in the industry’s eye and, if you wanted to buy a comic book (which still cost just 30 cents...it said so, right on the cover: “Still Only 30¢!”) you merely had to walk into any supermarket, convenience store...or newsstand.
Each Tuesday, Mom and Dad would meet us at the bus stop after school. Dad would be driving his big Volare station wagon (which I would end up driving after I stupidly wrecked my ‘67 Mustang Fastback) and we’d pile into the back seat and off we’d go into Lynchburg so Mom could do her weekly grocery shopping. This operation was a bittersweet affair. On the plus side, we’d be getting our weekly fix of new comics. On the downside, Mom hated grocery shopping and didn’t want to have to cook dinner when we got back, usually around 7:00. So we’d always stop off at K-Mart on the way home and she’d pick up these godawful submarine sandwiches at the snackbar up front. She absolutely loved them. But, by the time we got home and put away the groceries, the meat would be kind of gray and the cheap bread would be all soggy and limp from the juice from the sliced tomatoes that had leeched into it. And I...absolutely...hate...tomatoes. But you couldn’t get the damned things without the vile red mucousy disks because they were prepackaged and wrapped in cellophane. But Mom loved them and she worked hard. So we made do. There was also the drawback that, by the time we finished eating dinner, we had to rush to finish our homework before our TV shows came on. I don’t remember what was on the tube on Tuesday nights back then but it really didn’t matter. We considered just about anything a must-see.
Mom did her grocery shopping at King’s on Timberlake road. (Years later, she would switch to Food Town on Ward’s Road, which became Harris Teeter, then went away altogether.) King’s was in a shopping center with Don’s Barber Shop, where we got our hair cut and...Peter’s newsstand. It just occurred to me that every place of business back then was named after a guy who worked there. Anyway, when Mom went into King’s, Dad would pull out his wallet and give us our allowance. Over the years, it had crept up from 50¢ to 75¢ to a dollar until, at this point, we’d reached a lucrative $2.00. Looking back, the $2.00 was pretty generous of Dad. That was a lot of scratch back then and neither Mike nor I did much to earn it. I had no chores at that age and Mike only had to clean off the table after dinner. I took over for him when he got a job. And that was it. With that much money, we were able to get a handful of comics each and still have money left over for a snack or, if we saved it, we could buy back issues at the flea market on the weekend.
We'd thank Dad and run down to the bookstore. Sometimes he'd join us but most of the time he'd stay in the car and read the newspaper. The comics were in the back of the store, at the end of an aisle of paperbacks on a couple of spinner racks. (Later, they were moved into the line-of-sight of the register, presumably due to shoplifters.) Being the oldest, Mike got to spin the racks. He had a strange rule that, even then, never made any sense to me. Though we kept separate collections and guarded them with our lives, he wouldn't allow me to buy the same books he did. He thought it was a waste of money to buy two copies of the same book. If I wanted to read one of his books, I had but to ask. I pointed out repeatedly that there would come a time when we didn't live under the same roof. Besides, he already had the collector mentality by then and didn't like me touching the books. He had much more sophisticated tastes than I did. He bought books like MASTER OF KUNG FU, Jim Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL, Claremont and Byrne's X-MEN and Kirby's ETERNALS. I was left with MARVEL FUN 'n' GAMES, SPIDEY SUPER STORIES, MARVEL TEAM-UP, CASPER and RICHIE RICH.
Mike was also starting to become the artist we all loved and was following particular artists from book to book. It drove him crazy when one of his favorite artists switched over to one of the books I was collecting. When John Byrne was drawing MARVEL TEAM-UP, Mike talked me into trading the series for one of his books. I don't remember which. Eventually, this sort of thing became a habit. We'd trade collections back and forth constantly. I usually came out on the short end of this, ending up with books like SPIDER-WOMAN, STEEL or FIRESTORM. Then again, I did wind up with hefty collections of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, CAPTAIN AMERICA and ROM that I never gave up. But the only time I ever regretted a trade was when I started buying FANTASTIC FOUR because Marv Wolfman was using the book to wrap up his NOVA series. Mike noticed it was being drawn by Byrne and initiated a lengthy negotiation to get his hands on it. I don't remember what I got out of it but I remember getting more than one series in the deal. Unfortunately, I never got to read the book before giving it up and still haven't to this day.
Eventually the direct market emerged and there were books we wanted that were not available on the newsstand like MICRONAUTS and DAZZLER. (Yes, I bought every issue.) I ended up subscribing to MICRONAUTS until Mike got his driver's license and started driving us to shops like Coin World, downtown which carried these direct-only books. We stopped going with Mom and Dad on the grocery runs, now on Saturdays, and Peter's Newsstand eventually closed up shop. The entire shopping center is gone now and I think there's a hardware store in it's place. Whenever I'm in Lynchburg and I drive down Timberlake, I give the old place a mental tip of the hat. Mike and I ended up buying our comics from many different places through the years but I think Peter's Newsstand is my favorite, if only because we did it together.