By Matthew Jent
My big brother Dave is older than me by ten years, so when I was four and figuring out how to read and how to draw, he had a well-developed palette of mutants, miscreants and superheroes to inspire me. He showed me how to draw Storm’s Mohawk, and how to draw boobs a little more realistically than just two “U”s next to each other.
If you cannot already tell, I did not go on to be a great artist.
I did, however, go on to be a committed comic book collector.
At first my brother and I bought our comics from grocery store spinner racks or mall bookstore when we tagged along with our mom. But when Dave got his driver’s license at sixteen, we had access to the world of southwestern Ohio comic book stores. We developed a routine that’s still ingrained in my bones: driving to the comics shop (either the musty, basement-based Parker’s Records & Comics, or the well-stocked Maverick’s Comics & Cards that boasted a bright yellow sign featuring Batman and a generic baseball player on their bright yellow sign), choosing our haul for the month, then going back home to make pizza rolls and read comics until it was time to do chores before our parents got home.
But arguably better than brotherly camaraderie was the freedom from the whims of the spinner rack. We could finally count on getting two issues in a row of any given title, and avoid wondering for all time exactly how Spidey rescued M.J. from her kidnappers.
With such a resource at our disposal, we found we could diversify our comic book interests and become keen collectors. But it also changed what had been, until then, a key component of how we enjoyed comics together: the comic book swap. Before, we had made offers and suggested trades from the entirety of our collections. But after we discovered back issue bins, and after Dave got a part-time job, if he wanted a particular issue, he could just buy it. Old issues no longer disappeared from the rack after a month or so. He saved his cash, and splurged on that issue of Captain Americahe might have missed on the shelf.
But me? I still had the same allowance to work from. I was working from limited money and a limited comics pool, but Dave had disposable income and boxes of back issues to choose from. Soon he had built a box of duplicate issues or titles he just wasn’t interested in holding onto (Kool-Aid Man giveaways, humor mags, or anything DC), and if I was interested in trading, well, I could go through those. It took the challenge out of swapping, of trying to pull one over on each other and score a sweet first appearance for something we’d just as happily toss in the garbage. More importantly, with only Dave’s box of misfit comics to choose from, swapping just wasn’t fun anymore.
Then came The Punisher.
The Punisher was a vigilante and an occasional guest star in books like Daredevil or The Amazing Spider-Man. He eventually proved popular enough to star in his own limited series, and that proved popular enough to lead to his own monthly series. But in his own book, the Punisher went after street-level criminals or gangsters instead of the colorful super-villains of X-Men or other books I preferred.
But what he did have was a badass skull on his chest. And as a kid attracted to heavy metal band posters more than heavy metal music, the Punisher was a character I immediately invested in. Of course, in the late 1980s, everyone else wanted to invest in the Punisher too, and while I was able to find most of those early issues in the back issue bins at Maverick’s, the very first issue of his ongoing series became very hard to find.
My brother? He had two copies.
Normally, that would relegate one of them to the will-consider-interesting-trades box. But The Punisher #1 never showed up there. I finally asked Dave if we could trade for it, but he said no. It was a spare copy he was keeping for a friend, he said, and it wasn’t up for trade.
This was unusual. Here was a comic book I wanted (nay, needed!), and my brother had two, and he would give up neither. I’d never successfully changed Dave’s mind about anything in the past (and probably haven’t done so to this day), so I was in a quandary. How could The Punisher be mine?
Well. It was just sitting there, after all.
I bided my time. When Dave went to work in the evenings or out with friends, I would regularly go into his room and read his comics, which was quietly permitted as long as I put things back where I found them. I checked in on his Punisher #1s, waiting to see if the spare copy ever made it to his friend’s hands. It never did.
Finally, I made my move. I took The Punisher #1 from Dave’s footlocker of comics, I took it out of his bedroom, and brought it to my own. I filed it in my own collection, easy as can be. My first theft was just that easy. I’d been playing the part of a normal good kid for eight years by then, of course. No one would have any reason to suspect me for a criminal.
On that issue’s cover, the titular hero is hanging from a fire escape and aiming a bazooka through an open window into a room full of armed thugs. What kind of criminals they are is unknown, and I don’t remember if I even read the issue to find out if that scene happened in the book. But now I can’t help but wonder: were they thieves? Would the Punisher have aimed his bazooka at me, too?
I avoided Dave for days, assuming his spider-sense would alert him to the missing issue. But he never said a word, not even weeks later when he asked if he could look through my collection for any interesting trades. I thought he was on to me, and couldn’t even stay in my bedroom as he flipped through my polybagged issues. I fled outside and crouched under my window, waiting for his outraged cry he found his missing issue. But if he noticed it, or if he ever realized it was missing, he never said a word.
A few months later, my big brother joined the Navy and shipped off to Florida for four years. He got married, had kids, and bought a house of his own. We continued to share a passion for comics, and when I go home to visit twice a year, I still follow him up to his room. He tells me about the best back issues he’s found in dollar boxes, and I ask if he’s read Saga.
I’m 34 now, and I’ve never admitted to stealing his comic book. Dave, if you’re reading? I owe you a copy of The Punisher #1. And a lifetime of gratitude for letting me share your hobby. But don’t noogie me too hard, okay?
Matthew Jent is a writer from the Midwest and has lived all over the country. He's writing a novel about sons and father figures, and he blogs at http://www.matthewjent.blogspot.com
He get his comics at Collector's Corner, Baltimore, Maryland