By Jim Mahoney
Two summers ago, my mother flew me to Lynn, Massachusetts from Minneapolis to help her “de-clutter her life.” One of our tasks involved emptying two storage lockers in her apartment building’s basement. In the back of one of the lockers lay the comic books of my youth.
I hadn’t opened these two long, white cardboard boxes since my mother sold our family home in North Conway, New Hampshire in 1995, the year I was married and the same year my son was born. (It’s always easy to remember which anniversary we’re celebrating.) My mother would threaten every few years to “sell the damn things on eBay,” but either through habit, an abiding sentimental impulse, or her need to keep something tangible on hand to needle us about every few months, these Bedouin boxes followed her around, and we reunited in the dead, dry heat of a stuffy basement locker in another July.
The boxes were in decent shape, a bit slumped, but still upright and holding their form. I remembered assembling these boxes when my twin brother and I learned that comic books might increase in value by storing them in another fashion than tossed in the back of our room’s closet. Eventually, we started buying plastic sleeves for each issue, and we tabulated the worth of any issues we had. We even started going with our mother to yard sales and thrift shops to find “steals.” Issue by issue, we read, collected and stored our comic books.
Rather than marking each box with DC or Marvel, we drew each publisher’s respective heroes at the far end of the box: Captain America dashing with Spiderman web-slinging over him, and on the other, Batman and Robin, also sprinting to a Gotham crime scene. I always drew my heroes face forward, as I couldn’t and still can’t render the human foot. (I later learned my shortcoming was a common herd-thinner for aspiring artists: the Organic Chemistry or B-minor chord of cartooning.)
I opened the Marvel box. I was greeted by a rock-tight packing of comics in clear plastic sleeves. My 12-year-old Alex P. Keaton self would have nodded and smirked; these boxes were humidors of heroes, and whatever travels they had taken, the issues looked to be in good condition, free of mold or decay. I decided to pull a few out to see what stories we had taken such pains to preserve.
The first one I found was a Star Wars comic book, slotted between movie releases, this one with what looked to be a Chewbacca/Wookie backstory. I grimaced. As I drifted through the box, I realized there were at least fifty of these literary Jar-Jar Binkses in the collection. I recalled the Star Wars comics as exploitative, with mangled, hurried drawings that looked nothing like the magic on screen. Had my mother bought these in bulk on one of her later, compulsive yard sale sprees? Wouldn’t the junior comic book snob in me have dismissed this whole line as derivative tripe? Most of the other Marvel titles were loose single issues: some respectable (Thor, a 1970 Iron Man, Sub-Mariner), some hideous (Micronauts? Kull?) and, yet again with the movie tie-ins: James Bond, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I started judging my twelve-year-old self, and he was looking like the worst of nerds: one with bad taste.
The DC box provided equally baffling returns. I found, in numerical order, the full Crisis On Infinite Earths series, in which DC writers tried to resolve the laughable continuity issues in their multiple renditions of characters over 60 years of publishing. (I always liked how the Earth-Two Superman had some grey hair gracing the tops of his ears, like my father’s.) One cover launched me back to sitting on the two-inch step at Cannell’s Country Store, staring into the distant snow-capped mountains across the two-lane highway, and feeling a hard truth: they killed The Flash. I cared.
After that, I found a smattering of secondary DC characters (Green Lantern, Green Arrow, The Flash), more random one-offs & rip-offs, and eight uninspiring Avengers issues. Where were the good comics, anyway? Had we really jettisoned all copies of Detective Comics, Action Comics, The Amazing Spider-man, Justice League of American? Not a single X-Men? Why had these lesser books made it through, while the ones that mattered vanished?
Throughout both boxes, and especially toward the back of the DC box, I kept discovering batches of New Teen Titans comics nestled together. This comforted me, and reminded me of lost Saturday mornings at our long oak dining room table sitting beside my brother, plowing through a shared stack of comics as we downed bowl after plastic bowl of Apple Jacks. We read and re-read and quoted every issue of the New Teen Titans; they were urbane, snarky superkids with ‘tudes, 80’s social consciences, and all lived in a glass tower in Manhattan shaped like a giant T.
I lingered on these and other lost images for a while – my parents talking over coffee in the small kitchen, the sun looming over the mountains beyond our backyard, midwinter snow pulsing white through our wide dining room windows-- and the Titans’ storylines rushed back to me: the groan-inducing jokes of Changeling, the somehow-sexy human-alien chemistry between Robin and Firestorm, and the perils of the traitor Terra (whose death was almost as tragic as her Tupperware-cut hair). These stories and characters mattered to me then, and I was grateful their words and drawings still loitered deep within in my mind’s back hallways.
From the pages of the New Teen Titans series emerged an amoral anti-hero whose own issues appeared at the very back of the DC box: The Vigilante. While the boxes evidenced a haphazard organization of other comics, scattered like Green Lanterns in the universe, a numerically sequenced run of roughly fifteen Vigilante comic books lined the back of the box, right up to the very end.
I stared at the first issue’s cover. I had completely forgotten about this guy. In leafing through the issue, he came back to me. Vigilante was the A-Team of amoral anti-heroes – he always found a way NOT to kill his prey (inevitably dirtbags set free on technicalities), even though his main superpower seemed to be passing an assault rifle background check. His alter-ego Adrian Chase was a psychotic district attorney who, when displeased with conventional criminal justice, dress to almost kill criminals in high white boots, with blue & white V’s across his Lululemon fullbody outfit and round Plastic-Man ski goggles across his cold eyes. No breathing or hearing concessions were made in his costuming – this was pure vengeance. As lame as he seems to me in retrospect, at the time, I was entranced by complexity and darkness of The Vigilante. My local comic book seller didn’t carry the title, so I made other arrangements.
Sitting alone in the steamy storage basement (my mother had gone up to make lunch, bored of my sifting), I was hurtled back to the summer of 1985 into the sweltering kiln-kitchen of my first job, at twelve years old, washing dishes at Stonehurst Manor for $2.85 an hour plus tips. The waiters tipped out the dishwashers last, and certainly least. The first of many sweaty and menial adolescent gigs, this one carried a sacred purpose, at least in part: it paid for a subscription of The Vigilante.
The comics arrived in furtive dark sleeves once a month. Walking to the end of our cracked driveway on a Saturday morning, opening the creaky, angled mailbox, tossing aside the cellophane-windowed bills and the penny flyers to find the comic, my comic. Every time I removed the sleeve and lifted the cover open in the front hall of our house, I felt a surge of power -- one part a invocation of late-childhood innocence and wonder at where the story would take me, and another part real adult purchasing authority. It was delicious.
I couldn’t tell you much more about The Vigilante. Since my father had been underemployed for several years when he died of a heart attack in the same front hall in April of 1986, he lapsed on paying his life insurance. The bills kept coming, but the subscription ended. I don’t remember noticing. I kept working new jobs and grinding away at school and sports, and abandoned all thought of The Vigilante, The Uncanny X-Men, and the goings-on at One Titans Tower. While the box indicates that we acquired a few scant single issues of other titles after that spring, our capes-and-masks days were over.
A year and a half later, we left home for boarding school, far from our little mountain town and the hunched black mailbox reaching to our country road. The comic book boxes started their own rambles, until we met again, still and quiet, in a strange, desert-dry basement on a summer day, so many stories later.
Jim Mahoney teaches English and works as a dean at an independent high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He bought his comics at Cannell's Country Store in Intervale, New Hampshire, and the long-gone "Comic Book Store" in Lynn, MA.