Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Six Months


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.

18 comments:

Jadielady said...

Its weird how much areas change... Even living in Lynchburg, I'm amazed at how things get torn down, pop up... These days almost nothing's named after "a guy who works there" even Bill's Bakery is gone (last I heard).
Eventually, there will come a day, where you'll realize you hadn't thought of Mike all day. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. But anniversaries and landmark dates will always be hard. I'm glad you have plenty of happy memories to think of :) *hugs*

Leaf said...

An excellent sketch and I'm glad you got this posted last night. (Surprised, too, considering the Bushmills. Hahaha.) It's another great story that I've always remembered about Mike since you've told it to me. Though the negotiation part is new to me and a nice little footnote to the tale.

Hang in there, brother. We're here for you.

emilio said...

Hey Matt-

Thanks for sharing that story.

Sorry to hear that it's been particularly tough for you.

The sketch came out well.
That sketch alone brings back memories for a lot of us, I'm sure.

Reading along sure adds to those memories of similar situations.

It is amazing to see how much the landscape is constantly changing.

There's this a little place in the next county, called Bob's Books (or Bob's Newstand)that still exists very similar to how you describe Peter's.

Although it also carries magazines of a questionable nature, it's surprising to see that a place like that would still be around.

Also wanted to add- '67 Mustang? that is too cool. Then you go and wreck it? What were you thinking?

I hope your day gets better, specially with all the cool memories you're sharing.

Heywood Jablomie said...

Matt-

Thanks for sharing this nice story and the pic, it's really nice-you should give it a finish if you're able. I agree that it brought back some memories of my own youth with my brother. It would be so nice to be able to go back to them right?
But it's memories like these that help us in trying times.

And yeah the ever-changing landscapes are always surprising, especially when you haven't been somewhere in a long time and hope to go back to something and find it gone.

Thanks again for this post.

Parker said...

You've got a good memory!

todd said...

hey--

here i was feeling pretty bad yesterday--i tried to pass it off as just another day, but for some reason, it just wouldn't let me. just that cloud of gloom and sadness and i thought that if i called i would just transfer that on to you.

but i shoulda called you--you woulda cheered me up!

what a great story, and written so beautifully! matt, you captured every aspect of that time in life and painted such a wonderful picture of you and your family. i could visualize it all and, since i know everyone now, could see it all so clearly. you really are a wonderful writer.

mike and i used to talk about our childhoods a lot, i i'll confess something for him now, 'cause it was something that we BOTH shared and felt so very guilty about. mike and i were both the older brother, my brother, jeff, it just two years younger, and we would tell each other constantly of the trades we made and how we took such advantage of you two! jeff wasn't into comics, but we would trade toys and games and whatever cool thing we had and i would always con and manipulate him into agreeing to some horribly lopsided deal. mike too. we'd laugh about it in our recollections years later--but also feel really, really bad.
so i'm sorry, brother--for both of us. i know that he was usually a pretty good big brother, but for those times that he was THAT kind of big brother...well, i can't tell you he regretted it.
love you, man.
thanks so much for the wonderful memory--and a happy one at that! talk to ya later.
i think i'm gonna give jeff a call...

Adam Hutch said...

Matt that is a great sketch, and great story. Anniversaries are hard, but I guess it's stories like this that help us get through them.

The sketch instantly made me think of the little used bookstore "Book Thrift" that my older brother and I used to get our comics at. It had two spinner racks just like that hidden behind rows and rows of used paperback romance novels.

When I was a little older, I used to ride my bike there and then read my comics while drinking an orange soda at the McDonald's next door. It's gone now too. I think there's a bank in it's old spot.

I haven't thought of that store in years. Thanks for sparking the memory.

Oh and as a victory for little brothers everywhere, I assimilated my older brother's comic collection into mine when he went away to college!

Craig Zablo said...

That's a sweet drawing. Thank God for memories. You've got some great ones.

Heywood Jablomie said...

I just wanted to second the apology for being the oldest brother who 'screwed' his younger brother, and sister, out of something, or more, thru lots of points in our days of youth. Although they had their moments later on!

Cully Hamner said...

I was JUST thinking about this last night, which is why I dropped in here today. It really has been six months, and I do still get wistful. Doing my page in the WHAT IF? last week was really tough. It was like another goodbye, and I'm not at all sure I did him or the project justice. The only way I could get through it was to try to turn off my emotions as much possible. The last thing I'd want is for my tribute to Mikey to be perfunctory...

I miss him. It's not like Mikey and I talked every day, every week, or even every month... but god, I miss him. I still think about him at least once a day, and every now and then, I'll run across an old post on the Gaijin board. It still makes me tear up.

Sometimes I wonder to myself if I'm not overreacting. I've read and heard all these comments from people who apparently talked to him every day or week... I didn't. We never talked or saw one another as much as I now wish we had. But I do know we had a bond-- a bond from a long history of friendship-- and that bond is really still there. I *can* feel it. I can't talk to him anymore, but I'll be damned if I don't still *feel* him out there. And through him, I feel like I have a bond with all you guys. It's not a perfect replacement for any of us, but I'll take it.

Anyway, I'm rambling. I don't even know if I'm really making a point. When it comes to Mikey, I just know that I still need to talk about him, whether it makes any sense or not.

God, I miss him.

Rich Faber said...

Hi Matt,

Really nice story. What a terrific memory. The sketch is very cool too. It reminds me of Carlo Barberi (whose work, ironically, I inked on Impulse... Mike's character, then-written by Todd...)

Anyway, Mike's been on my mind, and I had a dream about him several weeks back. I dreamed that I was in a mall, or maybe the lobby to an office building, that had a lot of windows to the outside. There was a huge thunderstorm outside, and the lights were flickering. I was near the windows, watching the storm, and as a bolt of lightning flashed, the lights flickered once more. I jumped, and as I turned away from the window, I got the vague impression of a guy with grayish hair brushing past me. I had the strongest sense of familiarity, and by the time I realized why, and turned toward him, he was gone. As I turned around, there was Todd, and I said, "I just saw Mike!" The lights flickered again, Todd asked me where, and I told him he'd just been right here. Todd just smiled and said, "Yup, that was Mike."

And I know if Todd reads this, he's probably saying right now, "Yup, that was Mike."

I still miss him too. Not a good anniversary, but one that bears remembering. Peace.

Best,
Rich

renecarol said...

I had a couple of Mike dreams back before Christmas. It felt so real like he was right there talking to me. Maybe I'm just crazy but it felt like he was reaching out to me to say good-bye. Or maybe it was just my subconscious needing to feel that I had said good-bye. This has been a rough week in so many ways. And everything makes me think of Mike anyway. Reading other people's memories of Mike make me feel better. Things I say tend to sound lame. I think its possible though that people who've passed on could reach out to us in our dreams. It could be the only time when we are receptive to hearing or seeing them.

Matt Wieringo said...

Thanks, everybody. I hope I didn’t bring everyone down. That’s why I tried to keep it cheerful. And, Cully, your tribute will be anything but perfunctory if your memorial article was anything to go by. I still get choked up by that.

They say everybody dreams but, if that’s so, I rarely remember them. If ever. I suspect that, every time I reach REM stage, Charlie knocks something over and wakes me up. But, speaking of Charlie, Suzanne swears that he gives her a look every once in a while and that it’s Mike staring up at her. When he does that to me, it just feels like Charlie’s saying, “Enh. You’ll do, I guess.”

One thing I should mention is that, when it came to the two of us, Mike got the short end of every stick. As the first child, he was the “experiment”. By the time I came along, Mom and Dad had perfected their technique so I was fairly spoiled as a child. Not in a bratty way but I usually got what I wanted without much fuss. It’s been that way my whole life while Mike had to scrounge for everything he got. He may have taken advantage of his older brother status a couple of times but he was perfectly justified.

McGill said...

I just gotta say, that is a kick-ass piece 'O' art!
The story...there are no words for.

I believe we all can take that art and reflect back in time to a certain moment in loving the comics.

I know that's not the point, but looking at that brought me back to the first time I looked at comics as a love.

Matt, thank you sharing this with us.

Squeeze said...

Love this sketch.....it's so good and it just breaks my heart. It doesn't seem like 6 months have passed. I love that you drew the spinner rack because it reminds me of the tiny "Bottom of the Hill" store that I picked up a comic or two when I was growing up.

I'm thankful for all the entries here. In the many stages of grief, lately I've been mad at the world that everyone has forgotten Mike already. As I'm reminded here, of course people haven't forgotten Mike. (Actually I believe it's less anger and more guilt that I'm letting people forget.) I have no idea how you do it Cully but you manage to say the perfect thing every time I'm completely torn apart. I thank you for your honesty kind sir. Parker, just seeing your face on your avatar cracks me up- don't know why but thanks for making me laugh.

Thanks to Crom for Leaf for ensuring that my husband didn't have to drink Bushmills alone. Maybe Leaf IS Crom.......;-)

Matt Wieringo said...

Ah, but were it not for Leaf, there would be no Bushmill's to drink. It would probably have been Diet Dr. Pepper and I would not have been 40 minutes late to work the next day. Such a bad influence.

Brian said...

Wonderful illustration and remembrance, Matt.

rhombus said...

Matt-

That is one terrific rememberance and drawing. I'd wondered about the reasoning behind Mike's rule about how you couldn't buy the same book as him, but reading it again, I can see how it made sense in his eyes... Unlucky for you I'm afraid, Matt. :)

Your story also makes me wax nostalgic for my own boyhood, going to the local "news agency" I think it was, and collecting all the Marvels from the spinner racks, minus the Team Americas...:)

And of course, it makes me think of Mike, and how we went to the comics shop together, and would just spend a chunk of time back at the studio going through our new purchases, digging the art, or on the day DC comps would come in, when we'd pour through all the month's books. Good times, and boy do I miss 'em...