By Max Delgado
I had one coup as a teenage collector. Just weeks after the end of my freshman year, I caught a bus to the Toys “R” Us near Southwyck mall and (through a fluke of packaging) inadvertently bought a $50 comic with the change at the bottom of my backpack. It was 1992, Toledo, Ohio -- the swamp-hot summer after my freshman year and I was asserting my independence in the only way a true geek could: by taking public transportation to a toy store.
Toys “R” Us was not a comic shop, of course; it was an airport hanger with toys, but they sold comics for below the cover price and my summer job didn’t actually pay. For work, I reported to the private high school I attended for three-weeks at a time, and eight hours a day. The arrangement was an equation in two parts: on my side, I washed windows, stripped floors, and scraped dried bubble gum off furniture; on theirs, they knocked a workable chunk off tuition -- a tremendous deal for a kid like me, with no money but lots of disposable time.
Given the lack of money, the Toys “R” Us “Collector Packs” were the only comics I could afford. Imagine a stack of comics cellophaned together with a backboard -- you could buy three for the price of one, but there was a catch: you could only see the top comic. Your purchase was based on instinct and hope. Tearing off the cellophane that day I discovered New Mutants #87 slipped inside. This was an incredible discovery; packs were typically just shit -- if comic books were weed, Toys “R” Us sold shake. They were generally random, undersold, and arbitrary. But New Mutants #87 was the first appearance of Cable, and was already selling at comic shops for $50. And besides: I considered Rob Liefeld one of the best artists in the universe.
My first year of high school had been hard, and I felt, not ironically, like this was my reward from God. I was not a scholar. Or a writer. Kids walked into St. John’s knowing things I’d never been taught, or had failed to retain. My junior high, a little yellow building wedged between the projects and the downtown Urgent Care, had been the only Catholic Montessori grade school in the city and the emphasis had not been college prep. We didn’t get grades. We were allowed to retake tests until we got every answer right. The nuns planned lessons with an emphasis on collaboration, and creative play.
St. John’s was the opposite in every way. It was not downtown, but near the suburbs. It promised and delivered three hours of homework every night. Nearly everyone had money. And almost everyone was white. For my first year I was placed in lower classes, and even these nearly broke me. I had to actually stop reading comics the last semester of my freshman year just to make it, and so I entered this first summer thirsty to collect again.
Collecting was a solo art. For the most part, my best friends didn’t read comics. They were just thoughtful nerds, and the most enduring gift St. John’s gave me was a social group where high grades created status, where social points were earned by taking honors classes. The only thing they lacked was a love of superheroes.
Yes, Joe had collected, but he was phasing out -- his interests shifting towards dense non-fiction. Jake only ever had time for real books. Kevin, Peter and Frank were into musicals. Brad liked Indiana Jones. Pat might have been the only one to actually follow sports. Chip read comics, but was not a fanboy: a breed I’d never met before. He offered to lend me full runs of Sandman, Hellblazer, and Swampthing, but in my dumb proud youth, I passed on his offer, only wanting guys in capes. It took me years to find these gems again.
There was a group of junior guys who loved fanboy comics, however, and that’s where I met Aaron. We were work-study partners for a stint, and assigned to wash windows side-by-side. Socially, he floated in the stratosphere above me -- an upperclassman. Aaron was kind, though, and would entertain my visits to his lunch table, where I’d quiz him for the results of impossible team-ups: “Who do you think would win,” I’d ask. “Spider-Man or Wolverine?” His friends would blink at each other for a few moments and just when I thought they’d start teasing me, they’d answer, citing sources and drawing comparisons.
It was for these reasons that I went to Aaron with my find of New Mutants #87. When I brought this comic to Aaron it was the fall of 1992, and like me he was following X-Force religiously and recognized how extraordinary and rare phenomenon my Toys “R” Us find was. He ran his hand over the cover, checking for imperfections, but it was beautiful.
“I’ll trade you for it,” he said.
A note about my personal collection: it was eclectic, but not because I was an interesting or varied kid. It was because I bought whatever shit I could find. My access to comic shops was poor and my collection reflected this. I have an unsuccessful re-launch of the Green Hornet tucked away, and nearly every movie adaption of RoboCop. If drugstores carried it, I bought it, but at fifteen I had giant holes in almost every run I cared about. And now enter Aaron, offering me a $50 shopping spree from his personal collection.
It was too much to resist.
We negotiated terms. Knowing I wanted to fill-in my Spider-Man collection he brought in a list of issues he’d be willing to part with, sorted by condition and price. My coup allowed me to fill in missing Hobgoblin stories, and finally got me access to the Peter Parker wedding issue (Annual 21), which I’d never read. I was happy for about a week, but in the end, Aaron was a better businessman than me. New Mutants #87 rose quickly in price, peaking at about $100 just a year later. I never blamed Aaron, and I never felt cheated, but even years later it would drive nuts to see New Mutants #87 bagged up on the speciality rack.
A lifetime later, at thirty-years of age, I sat on the couch with my fiancée in St. Paul, Minnesota, trying to design our wedding invitations on Shutterfly. The only options all seemed to involve flowers and I was tuning out again. Sensing this, she placed the laptop on my knees and said: “You do it. I’m done trying to find something that you like.” It was not an affront, but a challenge, and about an hour later I tiptoed down into the basement and fished out the Peter Parker wedding issue that Aaron had traded me fifteen years earlier. I drove it to Kinkos and paid to have it gently photoshopped, deleting the Spider-Man masthead and adding the words: “We’re Joining Forces. Come Celebrate With Us.”
Incredibly, she liked it. We ordered sixty color copies on heavy card stock and mailed them out. This was, in many ways, when I finally came to peace with the fact I’d undersold my most valuable comic ever. Our wedding invitation is now framed in our bedroom, and when I look at I don’t feel that yank of adolescent regret anymore. Or maybe, to be honest, I just feel it a little less.
Max Delgado is the founder and curator of The Longbox Project. He loves comics the way crazy old ladies love cats.