Well, we did it! Made it to number 50 of “A Picture’s Worth”. Couldn’t have done it without you (and, of course, Craig).
Thanks for your support and readership. I really appreciate it. Hopefully I’ve entertained, educated and maybe enlightened you a few times along the way. And hopefully you’ll stick around for another 50. Goofy or serious, I’ll always aim to make it worth your time. Please, though, always feel free to comment at the bottom of the page; positive, negative, question or silly joke, it’s better than silence. (Usually, anyway.)
So what do we talk about for this minor milestone? I wrestled with it quite a bit before I pinned it down. (Though it almost pulled my groin in the process. The bad thing about wrestling with a topic is that it doesn’t always play fair.)
Old comics, great art, inspiring story, childhood wonder, valuable collectibles and ancient technology. All in one item: one of the first comic books I ever read, the FANTASTIC FOUR #1 book and record set.
For those of you are too young to remember the primordial time period known as the Silver Age, long before MP3 players, CDs, and even cassettes, there existed giant, black, flat vinyl Frisbee-like discs known as “records.” (They’re actually still being made and their sales have recently increased, though they make up under ten percent of retail music sales.)
Marvel and Golden Books teamed up to release 33 1/3 rpm (large size) records of some of their most historical S.A. comics. The package contained a full reprint of the comic (minus ads, of course) and audio of the story read by actors, complete with sound effects. Basically, an old-time radio program with a four-color program to follow along.
For a little kid like me who had just learned to read only a few years before, it was also called “Heaven.”
I wish I could remember when my folks bought it for me or how old I was. (The first was released in 1966 but I didn’t get mine that early.) The only other set I had was AVENGERS #4, which I may have received at the same time; but I’ll save that for a future column.
But man, I can still recall a lot of specifics about that FF. It was probably my first introduction to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And what an introduction! Though I wasn’t born when the real issue came out in 1961, I can sure empathize with what it was like thanks to that reprint.
There was a big, booming announcer voice with reverb, dramatically reading each cover and splash page blurb like a fight announcer introducing a champ. Even the page numbers were read aloud in that same bombastic manner (“PAAAAGE SIX!!”) so we dumb kids would know when to turn it.
I can clearly remember certain voices, like Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, and especially the nasally Mole Man. Ben had the typical NY accent and gruff voice that matched his character.
Most of all, though, I remember various panels. The art is forever tattooed on my occipital lobe. (Kirby has a way of doing that, especially to young, impressionable imaginative minds.) The cover, of course, which is iconic. The first appearance of the thing in trench coat and fedora, and later when he meets the front end of a sedan while climbing out of (or into) a manhole. (I still can hear the sound effects.) Shots of the butt-ugly Mole Man with his even uglier pre-hip-hop rectangular shades. The pre-fantastic foursome in their rocket ship (inspired by Simon and Kirby’s Challengers Of The Unknown for DC two years prior), being bathed in cosmic rays, and then later finding out about their superpowers.
I remember it all so vividly because I read and reread that thing so many times the cover was in tatters and the pages almost the same. At one point I had to both tape the cover and re-staple it to the book! Not only did I read and listen over and over alone, but I brought my buddies along for the ride as many times as they could tolerate it. We were obviously easily entertained.
Honestly, though, to me it was truly magical. A perfect marriage of sight and sound, my two favorite and most influential senses, right in my sweaty hands. My bedroom would just melt away as I found myself walking alongside the characters in Kirby’s locales, listening to Stan’s dialog. Considered corny by many an adult now, but perfectly normal for a kid like me.
In fact, those early comics, along with the brilliantly bright and equally magical campiness of the BATMAN TV show I devoured, basically ruined reality for me. I grew up thinking *that* was life, full of saturated primary and secondary colors, vivid sound effects, stentorian voiceovers, heroic heroes, handsome hunks and curvy, bullet-bra’d vixens. I thought good guys and bad guys were clearly marked for easy identification, and that one day I would grow up to be a costumed crime-fighter with a mammiferous, mascaraed hottie like Batgirl or Sharon Carter to come home to.
Anyway, the point is the degree to which I was sucked into the medium from just those two products. (For some reason I never acquired the others in the set…I know there was one of SPIDER-MAN #1, and maybe the first appearance of THOR but I’m not sure. Anyone else know?) No way would I have worn out both record and comic book if they hadn’t affected me so deeply.
Let’s face it: we’re talking a four-color magazine on lousy newsprint and a bunch of actors reading it to me on a piece of vinyl! How low tech can you get? Can you imagine an iPad kid of today even bothering with such primitivism?
True, today’s kids have “motion comics” on the Web, which have all the elements of my book and record set, plus the addition of movement. That’s separate from an animated cartoon. While I was equally enraptured with the godawfully-animated Marvel/Grantway-Lawrence cartoons, which were little more than animatics of the comics, the book-and-record set was somehow different; maybe because I could physically turn the page and pause or repeat at will. Maybe because I could read it separately to myself and study each panel. I dunno.
But do today’s six- or eight-year-olds get the same sense of magic and wonder from “motion-comics” as I did from my ancient tech? I don’t have kids so I don’t know. But for the sake of our industry, I sure hope they do.
After those Golden record sets, my comic-book buying was sporadic at best, probably due to the lack of consistent sources for purchasing them. I became much more enraptured by monsters not soon afterwards, so my acquisitions tended more toward FAMOUS MONSTERS and the many reprint titles of the Lee, Kirby and Ditko Marvel monsters. (WHERE MONSTERS DWELL, MONSTERS ON THE PROWL, and so on.) Of course, Stan and Jack remained constant.
But eventually I was able to find a source for Marvel heroes’ monthly adventures (thankfully, I found one of the first comic shops when I was 12 and either my Dad or friend’s Dad would take us fairly regularly). After that, I was hooked, literally for life. Cap, Spidey and others became part of my daily existence, along with their legendary storytellers, the artists and writers who crafted their many exciting exploits. And of course, I had to make my own heroes and adventures as well.
Nowadays, I hunt for one or both of those sets at private sales and antique stores. No luck yet. I’ve found a few on eBay, but a still-sealed one of FF sold for $671 and the Spidey for over $1,000. Even a fairly beat-up version wouldn’t be cheap. But I’m patient.
And even if I don’t get them again, I still have my memories of what they were like. Heck, that’s probably better than the real thing; listening to those records now would probably crack me up from their horrid hyperbole and overt over dramatizing.
One thing that will never change is the sense of wonder those words, pictures and sounds inspired. Over forty years later, the magic is still there, where it should be: in the heart of my inner child.
And I don’t plan on ever letting him out.
P.S.: So, what’s one of your most vivid comic-book related memories of the time? Feel free to share below.
And if you’d like a comic character commission crafted with the passion of a kid and the skill of a grown-up, just ask Craig here. Thanks again for reading!