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?

It turns out the game they were playing was Magic: The Gathering, which was a relatively new phenomenon at the time. I’ll be damned to explain the rules, but it’s a card game involving wizards and mages. The way I understand it, it’s Dungeons and Dragons (a famous role playing game) but with cards.

The whole thing freaked me out. I just wanted to look at some comic books, and instead I’m there dealing with some cock-eyed glances from kids a few years older than me who didn’t understand why I was likely giving them the same fishy looks. And it took everything in my power to keep my mom, the driver, in the store so I could at least scout what they had to offer in terms of Amazing Spider-Man. I asked the clerk if I could just take a peek at the Amazing Spider-Man box and after moving a few begrudging kids out of the way, I got my wish. The boxes contained the same assortment of back issues from the past few years that I had seen at other stores that I visited, but hanging on the wall behind the cash register -- where storeowners notoriously parade the “good stuff” --  where a handful of 1970s-era Spidey’s including ASM #102. I didn’t have the cash on me at the time, but I now had my sights set on something. All it required was a return visit to this bizarre store filled with these bizarre people playing some card game and talking about magic.

As I later learned in life, this was all part of the deal if you liked comic books. When you walked into a store like that, you didn’t just go to buy comic books. You’d go to browse the stock, play Magic or some other role playing game, talk about video games, television and movies with whoever else was in there, and make an afternoon of it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had many similar experiences whenever I walk into a comic book store, or attend a show or convention. People just embrace all of this stuff -- other comic book characters, Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Mage, et al. Meanwhile, I’m programmed not to. I’m there to buy comic books and not just any comic books, but Amazing Spider-Man comic books.  I don’t care about the artist, or the villain featured, or the writer and what series he wrote for previously. When I’m in “buying mode” I’m there just trying to compete a collection. If someone wants to talk about my collection with me, I’m all ears, but it’s hard for me to focus on anything else. I certainly own my share of video games and I can quote the original Star Wars trilogy with the best of them. But I can’t wrap my head around embracing all of these things simultaneously. Things are just more compartmentalized with me.

I obviously did end up buying ASM 102 and I did go back to that store to do it, but afterwards, I don’t remember returning. When I went back that random Saturday afternoon, there were still kids playing Magic, so I went straight to the register, waited for the owner to attend to me and then go out of Dodge. It disappointed me that the owner never struck up a conversation with me during the transaction about Spider-Man or Morbius or the six-armed story arc. Instead, he was more fascinated with a bunch of kids playing cards. In truth, I felt like I was outcast by the outcasts.

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