Thursday, April 28, 2011

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Remembrance of Comics Past: Amazing Spider-Man 102

One of the great struggles I’ve always had to deal with throughout my lifetime of collecting was separating myself from the popular stereotype of a comic book collector. Whenever I mention to someone who’s a non-collector that I’m a hardcore fan of Amazing Spider-Man, I can tell their thoughts immediately go to the “Comic Book Guy” character from The Simpsons, or to the countless number of people who dress up in character costumes at major conventions and industry events. Obviously I’m not one to judge and if you’re reading this blog and you’ve acted like any of the aforementioned people, more power to you. As for me, maybe it’s because I earned enough abuse and name-calling growing up because I was good in school and wore glasses, but I’ve always resisted bringing additional attention to my comic book enthusiasm. As a result, there are some tenets of comic book culture that I’ve refused to embrace and have oftentimes made me feel like an outsider myself.

That brings to Amazing Spider-Man #102, which was purchased during my initial buying crazy in junior high school. At that point, I was trying to get my hands on any ASM back issues I could afford just to see how many I would end up having in my collection before I officially ran dry of allowances and holiday money. ASM 102 is a neat issue for fans of the occult as it’s the second full appearance of the Morbius the Living Vampire character, a fascinating creation because he always seemed tapdance on the line between good and evil (for the sake of argument, let’s call him a tragic hero). ASM 102 also wraps a bizarre yet famous story-arc that began in issue #100 where Peter Parker grows four additional arms and becomes a living spider.  So there are obviously many reasons why I’d be drawn to this issue as at the time.

But buying ASM #102 introduced me to an entirely new world. As I became more deeply involved with my Spider-Man quest as a teenager, I began seeking out any and all places that solid comic books within a manageable distance from my house. I convinced my mother to take me to this one specific shop that someone I went to school with had just told me about, and it ended up being the first time I ever was nose-to-nose with those elements of comic book “culture” that I referred to earlier.

On first blush, the place looked like any other comic book shop from the era – rows and rows of boxes, tightly packed together, alphabetized by title, filled with back issues. But what surprised me was that my access to these boxes of back issues was blocked by throngs of teenagers enthusiastically playing some kind of card game on a makeshift tabletop. So many things confused me. What was this card game? And why couldn’t these stupid kids get out of my way so I could get to the Amazing Spider-Man box? And why did the store owner just sit there near the register encouraging these kids?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Random Reflections: It's Scary Out There

Collecting comics can be fun and finding some of the older issues in the proper condition can be challenging. But buying many of these comics can also be downright scary.

Personally, I’ve managed to avoid any major sticker shock through my lifetime of buying Amazing Spider-Man, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never been ripped off. That’s why Michael O’Keefe and Terri Thompson’s 2007 investigation into the most expensive baseball card in history, The Card: Collectors, Con Men and the True Story of History’s Most Desire Baseball Card, struck a very serious chord with me after finally getting a chance to sit down and read the book earlier this month.

While The Card may deal explicitly with the baseball card industry – most notably the hysteria surrounding a near mint condition copy of a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card circa 1909 that’s worth more than $1 million – some of the described predatory tactics deployed by sellers has a lot of relevance to the comic book industry. Collecting is collecting, whether its cards, comics or rare bubble game wrappers. And after reading this book, I have both assurances and nagging concerns regarding my amazing chase as it nears its conclusion.

While there are a few hundred T206 Wagner cards still in circulation, what has made the copy highlighted in The Card so notorious is its pristine condition. It’s the highest graded Wagner card of its kind. When the two authors first got a chance to see the card in-person during a press event, they asked a question that’s both obvious and indicative of a non-collector: where did this come from? Namely, how does a card from 1909 survive nearly 100 years in such fantastic condition? And when the seller in question couldn’t come up with a square answer, that’s where the investigation begins.

What we learn about the card is primarily based on speculation and hearsay, but the information is damaging enough that it should get any collector to think a minute before plopping a month’s rent or far, far more for a piece of memorabilia. There are rumors that the card was actually cut from a full-sheet of cards, which would explain why collectors weren’t even aware of its existence until the mid-1980s. Then there’s the talk that first group of guys who bought it – who now happen to run one of the biggest memorabilia empires in the world – did some tricks to “restore” the card, despite them arguing the contrary (restoration of collectibles like cards and comics is generally considered a no-no, especially if the object in question isn’t being promoted as such). Then there’s discussion of the authorized baseball card grading system and how those results can be skewed in favor of a certain dealer to help him get more money on a sale.

Like everything else in the world, the deeper the authors dig, the smellier the mess becomes. Personally, I’ve tried to safeguard myself against some of these things out of both caution and fiscal necessity. The closer I get to the nitty-gritty of getting every Amazing Spider-Man, the lower my standards have become in terms of the condition of the comics I buy. As I’ve noted on Chasing Amazing in the past, what I’m generally looking for is an attractive flat cover, that’s not covered with writing and is fully in-tact. Things like creases, spine rolls or tears, or even heavy damage to the back cover don’t bother me so much. As long as I can proudly look at the comic in its bag, and not have it disintegrate in my hands when I take it out, I’ll live, especially with the older issues from the 1960s.

By keeping my standards so modest, I’m able to get comics affordably and avoid any potential chicanery from dealers. Simply, someone is not going to put the time and resources into restoring something that’s originally in “Good” condition into a “Very Good” comic. That would be totally inefficient and quite honestly, stupid. But would they take a Very Good comic and restore it into a Very Fine or Near Mint copy, especially when they can potentially make hundreds or thousands of more dollars from that sale? It’s possible.

As for the grading system, I am yet to purchase any Amazing Spider-Man’s that have been professionally graded. Primarily it was because most of these graded comics have an extra premium attached to the price tag, because getting a certified grade ain’t cheap. But now, after reading The Card, I’m a little bit more reluctant about trusting the subjective grade system to boot. I’ve been collecting comics long enough to have a general idea of what passes as what condition. I have a set of eyes. I should just use them. I don’t need a professional grader to tell me what I’m buying.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembrance of Comics Past: Amazing Spider-Man 297

In my hometown of East Rockaway, NY, at the corner of Atlantic and Centre avenues, was a candy/cigarette/general store we called "Jack's." I don't know where that name came from. There was never a sign with that name anywhere -- maybe it wasn't even Jack's. Maybe it was Jax. Or Jaks. If someone knows any better, please call me out on this, because more than 20 years later, I still have no idea. The more I think about it, maybe it was just a reference between my family and I.

Point being, Jack's is no more. It closed down when I was in junior high school, and the store went unoccupied for more than a decade, despite being on the corner of a busy intersection -- for small-town standards -- and within spitting distance of two schools, a church and a train station along the Long Island Rail Road. But Jack's is definitely in the dead but not forgotten category for me, because that was where I would spend my time after school examining the metal carousel racks carrying the first comic books I would come to own.

Initially I would journey to Jack's on Monday's after school. I attended a religious education class at 3:30 at the church near the store, so when I was really young, my brother and I would take the walk together and either hit Jack's before or after our religion classes. As I got older, I'd make the walk myself. My mother, who taught at our elementary school would spot me a dollar for the weekly Jack's visit and while I think that money was initially distributed for the cause of getting an after-school snack -- some chips or some cookies -- there was one afternoon where I saw my brother pick up a copy of Amazing Spider-Man. I recognized Spider-Man from the cartoon series my father had picked up for me on VHS and from some of the rubberized-plasticy action figures I owned which turned out to be the Marvel Secret Wars line. I saw the price near the top left corner of the book was 75 cents, so I picked up the same comic as my brother -- it was issue #296.

Here's the thing with my brother and I: we're five-years apart, which when we were younger seemed like an eternity. By the time I was in first-grade, he was already in junior high, and when I finally made it to high school, he was starting college. Despite being very close, there was also a good chunk of emotional and mental distance there. And I could be a precocious -- nay -- annoying little kid. And I think it bugged my brother that I wanted to same comic that he was picking up. In fact, I think it annoyed him I was buying comics in general. Wasn't I supposed to be getting a package of Wise chips or a pack of gum with my $1? He had an allowance that was probably five-to-ten times larger than my weekly after-school money. And he was also the neater, more attentive Ginocchio boy in our household. As he likes to remind me to this day, I was the kid who lost his first wallet inside a coloring book. That day in Jack's he bought that comic to read and then preserve, like he did with the thousands of baseball cards he had in his bedroom. I was just going to read the thing, color in it and lose it. And he was probably right.

The joke's on him though (not really). Despite being a kid who lost his wallet in a coloring book. Despite being the kid who used to have to head back to his school after hours to beg a custodian to let him inside because he left his notebook in his desk, I would eventually learn to properly collect and take care of my comics. Though that transformation did not begin in time for me to pick up this particular issue, ASM #297. Just look at it. The bottom right corner is permanently bent upwards, the cover is well-worn and wrinkled and some of the inking near the title on the left has been wiped off. This is not a particularly valuable and note-worthy comic as it is. In its current condition, the condition of a comic that was wall read and abused by a six-year-old, it's probably worthless. But I don't care. I keep it bagged and boarded all the same, like it's as valuable as my issue #14 (the first Green Goblin, my most expensive comic). Because it's a time capsule that dates to the foundation of my collection.

Plus there are still mysteries about this book that I would never want to stop thinking about. Like what's with the writing -- 12.2 -- near the top left corner of the comic? I know lots of older comic books sold at newsstands carried similar-writing. If I'm not misinformed, the numbers signify some kind of inventory-system used by the merchant. But why 12.2? Is it December 2nd? Can't be, this issue was released in February 1988. Maybe it's not actually 12.2. Maybe it's 122? Maybe this was the 122nd copy of this comic that Jack's sold? Or maybe Jack was the name of the owner and that's why people started referring to his store as Jack's. Mysteries, all. Fortunately, I still have ASM #297 to remind me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Random Reflections: What Was Wrong Then Is Still Wrong Now

This post stands to cap off a cranky week for me here at Chasing Amazing, so let me start by stating what should be the obvious: collecting comic books has always brought me joy. This joy goes beyond the artwork on the cover, the witty banter and the over-the-top plots and powers of heroes and super villains. For me, there's something special about every time a new issue comes in the mail. I read through it, admire it, and then place it in a protective bag, slide a pice of cardboard behind it, and tape it up for preservation. When I receive an older issue, I love the smell of the yellowing paper. If there's a crease or a chip on the cover, I love trying to imagine how it got there. Was it rolled up in someone's attic? Did some 7-year-old in the 1960s or 70s buy this issue when it first came out on the newsstand and neglect it? These are the joys of collecting.

What doesn't bring me joy is the comic book "industry." Just that word -- industry -- makes me cringe. My definition of the industry (based on nothing by wild assumptions and speculations) is the group of people who are there to determine the best way to make money off of comic books.

Granted, I don't expect anyone who's involved in a commercial enterprise to do it just to appease idealistic folks like me who seem to value artwork and the smell of paper over the nickels and dimes that are out there to be made. But I've always held firm that while I "collect" Amazing Spider-Man comics, I'm probably by definition an enthusiast. Something that I get asked quite often by people when they hear about my goal of collecting every issue of ASM is, "what are you going to do once you get them all? Sell it?" No. When I have them all, I will have them all, and my collection will just continue to grow as long as Marvel continues to pump out Amazing Spider-Man comics, or until the "industry" does something so abhorrent that I can't reconcile myself to stick with it any longer.

An example of something that extreme is what Marvel is attempting to pull off with the June issue of Ultimate Spider-Man -- a separate series that was released more than 10 years ago that's a "reimagining" of the Spider-Man universe. I dabbled with the idea of collecting this series a few times over the past 5 or 6 years, usually getting through a year or two of a subscription before losing interest. The stories are clearly geared towards teenagers and feature a more angsty Peter Parker and slicker, more powerful versions of Spdiey's classic villains. There's just a little too much polish on Ultimate Spider-Man for my liking.

But more power to Marvel and those who read Ultimate Spider-Man. If that's the Spidey/Peter you know and love, don't let a grouch like me stop you. But for their 160th issue, Marvel is revisiting a bad place -- a place that almost drove me out of comic books back when I was still a teenager. For starters, Ultimate Spider-Man #160 is being advertised as the "death of Spider-Man." Second, this "landmark" issue is being issued in two different "collectible" blue and red polybags and will only be distributed to comic book dealers directly -- no newsstands.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New Issues: In Praise of Spidey Sense

What distinguishes a superhero from a plain old "hero" are superpowers. The ability to fly, super-strength, heightened intelligence, etc. all qualify. Otherwise you're just a do-gooder who would likely fall victim to a Green Goblin pumpkin bomb or Doctor Octopus' tentacles. You need honest-to-god powers to compete in this universe.

After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gained the proportionate speed and strength of an arachnid, as well as the ability to scale walls and jump long-distances (contrary to the Spider-Man movie, in the comics, Peter was not able to produce his own "webbing." He used his scientific know-how to engineer mechanical web "shooters").  But the superpower that always stood out to me was his "Spidey Sense." This power was an innate warning system; if a villain was in shadow ready to strike, or a floor board Spider-Man was walking across was on the verge of collapse or revealing his position, his Spidey Sense would "tingle," enabling him to use his lighting-quick reflexes to get out of harm's way.

When I was much younger and still trying to determine which heroes I most identified with, these distinguishable superhuman traits were vital. Superman was almost too perfect - stronger than everything, immune to bullets with only one real weakness, a foreign substance from his home planet called kryptonite. Sure, villains always found a way to procure kryptonite to keep things exciting, but as a kid, I viewed Superman as indestructible, even when DC inexplicably tried to kill him in the 1990s.

I was also never able to get behind superheroes with projectile powers -- i.e. shooting fire, ice or water (thus negating a number of the X-Men). It felt like cheating to me. When the going got tough, they were able to lean on the power of the elements to get out of trouble. Plus those were the kinds of powers reserved for super villains. It was up to the superheroes to outsmart the villains, not match power for power.

You could throw physical freaks of nature like The Hulk and The Thing in a similar boat. Yes, Spider-Man has strength, but as you might recall, when he was buried under tons of steal and wreckage in ASM #33, there was serious doubt on the reader's end that he'd be able to power his way out. It took every last ounce of strength and determination for him to succeed. Superheroes like The Hulk and The Thing seem to get by just on brute strength. In the Ang Lee Hulk movie a few years ago, the green guy was swinging tanks around like they were baseball bats. That's just not fair.

But Spidey Sense is both simultaneously beyond the realm of imagination and realistic. While it's a clear advantage for Spider-Man, it's a power that makes sense -- a spider is comparatively strong and fast in the insect kingdom, but a key part of its survival is its ability to elude danger. How hard is it for a person to sneak up on a spider? If you're looking to squash one, you generally need the help of a newspaper or something broad. And yes, just because Spider-Man had his Spidey Sense, doesn't mean he never got hit. In the comics, he gets beat up on a regular basis. But the Spidey Sense still gives him at least some kind of an edge headed into a fight. Spider-Man still has to use his intellect and speed against characters like Electro who can control electricity or Sandman, who's more immune to physical damage because he's made of sand, but the Spidey Sense gets him in a position to succeed. And the Spidey Sense also helped Spider-Man vanquish perhaps his greatest villain of all time, the Green Goblin (before Marvel brought him back to life in the 1990s, but let's not get into that right now). After a knock-down fight in ASM #122, Spider-Man starts to close in on the Goblin when the villain summons his Goblin "Glider" to act like a guillotine and slice Spidey in half. Spider-Man's Spidey Sense tingles and he's able to dodge the sneak attack, leaving the Goblin to get the sharp end of the stick.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Remembrance of Comics Past: Amazing Spider-Man 252

It was probably a year or so before the first Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst was released when my then-girlfriend, now wife and I were at my parents' house on a Saturday night for dinner. Typically, my mom always puts some coffee and dessert out after dinner and my father would stay at the dining rom table for a few minutes before retiring to the bedroom and zonking out. After he would leave, my mom would always open up a bit more around this other woman who was now commanding so much of my attention.

The conversation focused on my mother's co-worker whose Queens, NY, house was used as part of the set for the film. She met the cast and crew, and even had a piece of cake in honor of Dunst's birthday. I was obviously fascinated by this story, but as my excitement continued to mount, I realized I never really told my girlfriend about my collection. At that point, I hadn't purchased a comic in years -- this was one of the longer collecting gaps in my life. But it's also the set-up for a major renaissance for my old hobby.

I knew my girlfriend wasn't going to be too put off by the fact that I collected Spider-Man comics. She was never the type to put down anyone for something like that, but this was still a big leap for me all the same. It was unlocking a piece of my childhood -- and a past that I wasn't necessarily done with. While I knew as a 13-year-old collecting every single Amazing Spider-Man was an impossible goal, I did more-or-less give-up, and without a particularly good reason (unless you count lack of funds as a reason).

I went to my old bedroom, which at that point only got used during summer and winter breaks, and pulled out of my closet a couple of binders containing all of my "collected" comics. I ran through the list like a kindergartner during show-and-tell: "this is the first Rhyno. This is an early appearance of the Green Goblin. Here's Amazing Spider-Man 300 …"

There was one specific issue missing from that pile -- one that really bugged me. Granted, at that point, there were hundreds of issues that had gone uncollected, but Amazing Spider-Man #252 was a key issue that came out in my lifetime -- 1984. Yes, it was before I was buying comics with my weekly allowance, but when I was in my initial buying craze in junior high, it's an issue that I should have picked up. It wasn't a terribly expensive comic, and the storyline kicked off a years-long arc that culminated with the origins of my favorite villain of all-time, Venom.

ASM #252 was the first Spider-Man ASM appearance in his brand new black suit. Of course, in retrospect, a move like a new-suit totally smacked of a marketing ploy centered around rebranding a stale character, but at least in storyline terms it all went somewhere. The actual, actual first appearance of the black suit came in a Marvel mini-series "Secret Wars." I was obsessed with "Secret Wars" as a little kid. The series was essentially a Marvel character battle royal, good versus evil with every single character of significance in the fight. In issue #8, Spider-Man is beaten down and his traditional red and blue costume is tattered. A strange black goo crawls up his hands and becomes his suit. Spider-Man feels great with the foreign substance -- how could a strange black goo that takes over your entire body possibly be evil? --  and a new suit is born.