I Was Twelve Years Old in 1964
by Mike Tiefenbacher
I got my first computer for Christmas of 1985. I remember the year because I had just attempted to submit some stories to a couple of comics companies using the only available typewriter I still had that had all the letters attached, a 1940s black L.C. Smith that weighed fifty pounds and had an out-of-kilter "o" that came off all the time, and which I used till the "n" also came off. That had replaced the electric Smith-Corona I had till the fan belt broke, and the standard Smith-Corona portable a friend bought me at a rummage sale for $5.00. The "e" came off of that one. Oddly, my luck with keyboards has continued: evidently my skin oil is pretty acidic, as it only took a little more than a year to wear letters completely off my current grey HP keyboard (I can no longer read the "e" "t" "y" "u" "i" "o" "p" "a" "s" "h" "l" "n" and "m, and the "k" is only half there"). I'd replace it, but it goes with the monitor. A set is a set.
Anyway, the computer was a Tandy TRS-80 Color computer, the one advertised in the Superman and Archie comics Radio Shack used to give away. I got it because my brother was a Radio Shack manager at the time and wanted me to get a jump on the 21st century. It had no internal drive, and everything typed on it had to be saved on audio tape. (I remember it took me a full month to wade through the instruction manual, which was written in computer jargon I had never heard before. "Boot up" was only the tip of the iceberg.) Since I was temporarily (if you can call twelve years temporary) out of work, it required my parents' purchase of an exterior drive which could write to 5 1/4" floppies to begin to actually save data. Once I was able to save data on a disc, I could finally replace the means I had been using to keep track of my comics collection.
When you first begin to collect, there is really little reason to have a checklist. You remember what you own, and you know what you want and there's really no other reason to write anything down. When I began seriously collecting in '64, that remained true for about two years. I discovered early on that you could find older issues at used book stores and through the mail, I could still remember things, and even after I started my first list it was more a matter of pride in the size of my collection than actually needing to remember what I had. Eventually, even though I read and remembered them all, I needed to do it if simply because Gold Key and Dell comics didn't have numbers on the front covers and despite all my efforts, I would occasionally miss issues. So I'd use a school notebook with the offending pages of homework ripped out, and list everything alphabetically, leaving space for additional issues. Eventually, the lines for new titles were filled and as they would gradually get out of alphabetical order, I'd start a new one. By '69, I'd had three or four notebooks of various sizes, eventually settling on 4" x 6" as portable enough to carry with me, though there wasn't a terrible need to do that until 1970. Sometime that year I purchased a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee notebook that served me well through the decade. I worked in the photoduplication department at the college library and they had a beautiful Olympia typewriter with condensed type, and I typed all the titles I owned or wanted to own on sheets of paper, carefully cut them out and pasted them in the notebook, meticulously hand-writing the numbers of issues I didn't own in pencil and those I did own in ink, so if I got something I could simply write the number in ink over the pencil. I'd write the condition above the number in pencil, so that if I replaced it I could erase it. It was a relatively efficient means to keep the thing updated even as I was acquiring them.
By the late '70s, the back cover had fallen off, and subsequent back pages continued to tear off as I carried it around, and eventually I switched to smaller 3" x 5" size notebooks. No longer having access to the tiny-type Olympia, I hand-lettered all the titles, only this time, having had eight or nine years of Overstreet Price Guides to tell me (more or less) what had been published before, I could now include everything that had been published for every publisher, which is how I now organized things, each publisher separate from the other. Of course, this required four notebooks instead of one, and I lettered different publishers in three different colors. I had been known to accidentally leave behind my original single notebook and the story was true for the four of them too, so I'd learned early on to put my name on the front cover, which worked out okay, since I still have all of the notebooks I ever filled with effluvia. Considering where they went with me, that’s remarkable.
In 1970 I discovered comics conventions. Maybe conventions is too grandiose a term for some of the small meetings some of them actually were, with attendance in the dozens rather than the thousands, but most never were, in any sense of the word as I understand it, “shows,” as many dealers insist to this day on calling them. Earlier that year I had met my eventual Comic Reader partner Jerry Sinkovec, who was a couple of years older and already among the employed. Having expendable cash, he already had a much larger collection of golden-age comics and had a complete set of Marvels, and actually had been to New York City and its huge national comics convention. Better, he knew of the Fantasy Collectors of Chicago (organized by Chicago fan Joe Sarno), a weekly meeting of fans only ninety minutes from Milwaukee suburb Menomonee Falls, where we both lived. He had been attending for several months with some fellow Milwaukee fans he’d met somehow, Ron Killian and George Schwartz (eventually joined by Jim Hannis), and we piled into George’s sedan and headed southward for the first time. As we arrived at the insurance company basement we met in, I had no idea what to expect.
Jerry had told me to bring some money, and as a college freshmen on a work-study program, I may have had fifteen dollars, probably less. Three or four hours later, I’d seen a chapter of a Nyoka serial, a speech by a pulp collector, a cartoon or two, I’d met a bunch of people who’ve remained friends to this day, and I had a full shopping bag of comics. I’m not exaggerating: among the perhaps twenty tables in the room, one “dealer” (our name for anyone who offered comics for sale--few people had actual retail businesses, though some sold my mail) was liquidating a few hundred comics of what were probably a purchase from some second-hand book and magazine store--for four cents each! They were mostly early ‘50s titles, some of which had the titles stripped off (retail returns) and some of which were in less than mint condition (I picked up a lovely copy of Roy Rogers #31 which smelled as if someone had been wearing it as a dress shield, but which after leaving it inside my storm window for a year, eventually lost its noxious acridity), but many were perfect. All-Star Western, Big Town, ‘50s Dells, Atlas-era Marvels, odd things I’ve never gotten any further issues of (like Crime Smashers #3, Crime Mysteries #7, Stories of Famous Authors Illustrated #8, Terrifying Tales #13 and many other issues), IW and Super reprints, and undoubtedly stuff I’d now blanche at having missed--all for less than a nickel each. Amazing--and the only time it ever happened. But 10 or 15-cent comics were the rule, with annuals for a quarter or fifty cents, and ten bucks seemed to be an adequate amount of money to bring. (Of course, it makes me cry when I think of what golden-age goodies could have been purchased for three or four dollars each, but at the time, spending that much for any single comic was unthinkable to me. Besides, who needed old and odd when recent, familiar and far more enticing stuff which filled in holes in my collection was so much more affordable? Why else would I own such a huge collection of Charlton comics?)
Jerry had already published the first issue of his comics fanzine Comics Commentary before we’d met, and was in the midst of assembling the very first Complete Marvel Index, prior to the more famous version done by George Olshevsky, and he’d enlisted me as artist on both projects. We became regular attendees of the Chicago cons, which moved to local fan Joe Sarno's basement, then the downtown YMCA, then the Pick-Congress Hotel, missing perhaps one monthly meeting in the next fifteen years (and that was because Jerry's car broke down on the way there). Jerry went to New York that summer of '70 for the Phil Seuling convention, bringing home tales of having visited the offices of DC Comics and having had an audience with no less than Dick Giordano. We pumped out several more issues of Comics Commentary over the next year, and we became good enough friends that we planned to attend the next convention together. This time, we'd drive. Taking two days to get there and two to get back (so we could visit Niagara Falls and Cap'n George Henderson's comic shop in Toronto). In Jerry's 1968 Mustang. Which we slept in. And since, at 6' 2" vs. 5' 11 3/4" I was shorter, I got the front seat--or rather seats--bucket seats. You can withstand a lot of pain when you're nineteen. The next year, we took my car instead, a full-size 1967 Chevy Caprice with bench seats, so the two nights we slept in it were a bit more comfortable. But we pulled a trailer behind it because we gave away 2000 copies of our recently launched weekly comic-strip reprint magazine, the Menomonee Falls Gazette #30 to the attendees of the convention. If we picked up 100 new subscriptions, we ate up all the profits and then some when we had to pay for two parking spaces in a New York City parking structure for five days.
The Phil Seuling-run New York conventions are blurry in my memory, and I may not remember the proper hotels for each year, but I seem to recall that the '71 hotel was the Hilton, which was torn down by '73 or '74. Another later one was the Commodore, and there was another one which I found hideous, with five or six dealer rooms spread out all over the place. Of course I've still got the programs and I could look all this up, but even I'm bored by the subject, and I was there. Suffice it to say I met dozens of important people, some of whom actually remembered me later, and I was overwhelmed by the idea that we could walk around and actually meet the people who made the comics I'd loved most of my life. I was skinny, with a scraggly beard and long hair (a friend of mine sent me a picture from the one of the NY cons which, I swear, makes me look like a dead ringer for Shaggy from Scooby-Doo), and you couldn't imagine a person who was shyer than I was. (Least favorite memory: I was ready to meet my favorite artist, Murphy Anderson. Jerry says, loud enough for Murphy to hear, "Hey Tief--look! It's your favorite artist, Murphy Anderson! Go tell him!" I took a right turn--and didn't meet my hero until 1994.) I had brought my "portfolio" (i.e. several pieces of art I'd done) and had visions of impressing someone and getting a job in comics. After seeing actual art by actual comics artists displayed on many tables, not only could I no longer envision that happening, I couldn't bring myself to show them to anyone. The closest thing I was able to do was to put a four-page story I did for Comics Commentary in the art show, where some people actually said some kind things. Jerry, though, didn't think that was enough, and (certainly without my encouragement) he showed the printed version to Dick Giordano, whom he ambushed while he was walking through the dealers room. Understand that the story was comprised of my layouts combined with generous Neal Adams swipes. Dick, Neal's inker, was perhaps the worst person to show it to. To his credit, though he was well aware of that, he did offer words of encouragement, though I was too humiliated to hear them.
To this day, the only other time I showed any professional my "portfolio" was after I had become a published artist, at a Chicago con in which Joe Orlando (and Jim Aparo, by the time I got in line) were looking at work. Joe looked at them and offered a job on the spot--to Jim Engel, who'd inked some of my pages.
But I'm drifting from the topic. That 1971 NYC con was intoxicating, making Jerry and me think we were actually part of something. Jerry actually appeared in the costume parade (dressed as the Phantom, as I recall, the effect sort of spoiled because of his mustache), and bid in the Seuling-led auction. I actually spent nearly $100 on comics, mostly which cost 20 cents or less, so there were a lot of them. And I attended panels which had actual DC and Marvel artists and writers, talking about stuff that wouldn't be out for many months. We stayed at a (probably) first-rate hotel (I had no frame of reference, actually, but they had bellhops) and ate at New York restaurants. We met Don Rosa, who was writing the Info Center column for the Rocket's Blast-Comicollector. We visited the DC offices, where we spent fifteen very awkward minutes asking inane questions of Julius Schwartz, and Nelson Bridwell, who showed us the DC library. It was wonderful. Midway through the convention, a former Comics Commentary reader named Neal Pozner (who later wound up working at DC) dragged us up to DC's offices of then-publisher Carmine Infantino where he conducted an interview, and I somehow overcame my reticence to speak and had a nice conversation with him. We visited Pozner's home in Long Island. The next year we came a day or two early to visit the offices of King Features and then Will Eisner to negotiate reprint rights for the Spirit daily strip, along with our regular DC visit, as well as Paul Levitz's house. The next year we visited both DC and Marvel, little knowing that we would be publishing The Comic Reader (purchased from Levitz) later that year. By '74 we had our own table to sell our three magazines (also having added the Menomonee Falls Guardian, another weekly reprinting humor comic strips) and we were now flying there and shipping our merchandise and purchases back and forth. It was still fun, but it was also beginning to feel like work.
1976 was the last New York Seuling convention, with New York somehow losing its national status to San Diego, which was growing bigger and bigger. In the meantime, we solaced ourselves with the new summer Chicago conventions which were held at various locations downtown including the Playboy until it settled in at the Pick-Congress under organizers Bob Weinberger, Larry Charet and Joe Sarno. In 1978, Jerry and I finally made it to San Diego, where we stayed with his brother's family. I'll admit my attention was divided by then, spending parts of three of the five days there at a local record store buying 45s. (I learned just this year that because of that I missed out on going to lunch with Jerry, our friends Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala, and Chuck Jones!) We had a table there too, which may be why I have incredibly dim memories of the convention itself except Jim and Chuck's performance at the costume parade, where they went as the 1966 Marvel Marching Society Record (Jim doing all the voices), as well as doing a Star Wars skit, though I do remember meeting a number of west-coast friends who never made it east, along with conversing with Shel Dorf, Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman. Jerry wanted to visit Disneyland and Tijuana, but I was too tired, being all of 26 years old and all.
The Chicago conventions were our focus from that point on, though we managed to make it to several Minneapolis conventions in my parents' RV, with Chuck, Jim and Don Rosa along for the ride. Even Milwaukee itself began having mini-conventions of its own. But, as the Gazette and Guardian were folded into The Comic Reader and then various circumstances eventually drove us our of business by late '84, our convention-going slacked off. Eventually, the monthly Chicago meetings we'd attended began to wind down, and the yearly Chicago con, now located at the Ramada, was the only one we attended. By 1986, Jerry had ceased all comics-related activity (having had several comics stolen at the prior year's convention, including Flash Comics #1), but I've continued to attend, even after moving from Menomonee Falls 300 miles north in 1993. In the '90s they switched to the cavernous Rosemont Convention Center, and in the last few years, the local ownership of the convention has changed to WizardWorld, marking another change of atmosphere. 2006 will mark my 37th anniversary for Chicago summer conventions.
Several years ago, mostly fueled by the enthusiasm of my friends from work April Feinberg and Jason Troxell, I began attending Minneapolis conventions again, renewing acquaintances with old con friends Joel Thingvall and Chris Budel, publisher of the electronic fanzine you're now reading. Over all these conventions (easily in excess of 200), two things have prevailed: they've almost always been as focused on visiting the people I've met over the years as they have on purchasing comics, especially during the years when I had virtually no income, and I've always, always found aspects of the convention and collecting experience that I've wished I could change.
First and foremost, and I'm not alone, conventions can live or die on how far away from the dealers' room you have to go to eat, to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink. The Chicago Ramada was great; you had restaurants within walking distance and a McDonald's across the street. The Rosemont Convention Center (which was renamed the Donald J. Stephens Convention Center after Stephens bought the naming rights) has a cafeteria with stadium pricing (so I never eat there) and it's a mile to the McDonald's in one direction or Denny's in the other. My normal schedule has me sleeping all day so I don't get that hungry anyway, but for someone like me who spends an entire seven or eight-hour convention day on the dealers' floor without a break, lack of water is a concern, and the choices aren't good. There are restrooms in the hall itself, but no water fountains. There should be a law, but apparently there isn't; you have to walk the equivalent of several city blocks to get to the closest free drink. A con organizer told me that I should carry my own water. Because dealers really love it when you park your liquid containers near their paper collectibles. I wish they'd fix that.
But since my first convention experience in 1970 to today, the shopping experience has only gotten more complicated. When I was a free-lancer with no money, it was actually easiest, because I'd either place my focus on old comics, which I knew very well, or pinpoint only certain recent series and look only for them. When I began to make some money again and decided that I wanted to fill in my DC and Marvel collections through the present (along with certain Dark Horse, Image, and whichever other independent publishers' output that appealed to me), I realized that much has changed since my heyday in the '80s, when I was certain I knew everything that existed and had it all written in my little notebooks.
The biggest change grew out of the much-despised Crisis On Infinite Earths era. After DC found success restarting Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Justice League with #1, publishers soon realized two things: new readers will be attracted to a series that restarts with #1 because they have a chance to have a complete set vs., having to try to collect 500 back issues of a title that began in 1939. And older readers, though the backbone of the rapidly shrinking comic-book audience, don't have enough weight to stop them from doing it. So since the mid-1980s, almost everything has had a new first issue--which wouldn't be so bad if they could have stopped there. But they haven't--and every publisher has abused the option, most egregiously Marvel. After their disastrous 1996 attempt to shake things up by allowing the Image creators to take over their main titles and remake them in their own "image," starting all the old titles over with first issues, they cancelled all of them again, and restarted them all with third series. Then those ended, after a bizarre double-numbering period when they totaled up all the issues published, added them to the original series, then changed over to the larger number to reach issue #500, then cancelled them soon after, to re-begin with a fourth series. And some haven't stopped at that. I count six series of Punisher, ignoring all the mini-series and one-shots. Captain America has had five (six if you count the original '40s-'50s series), Warlock has had eight, six if you only count titles using that word alone. Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil--I can't keep track. Without my list, I'm lost, and my list--a combination of what exists and what I have--runs 350 computer-printed pages. Which I have to carry around in a big notebook. Which I still manage to leave behind at one dealer's table or another. Even though it weighs five pounds.
What makes this doubly difficult now is that comic books are now configured in four-issue story arcs which are then reprinted as trade paperbacks. Because of this, the indicia (the tiny type inside the book which tells you what the official title of a comic book is, which is important since the logo on the front is often mostly obscured or altered in some way to prevent you from knowing from sure, and which tells you the month and year the comic was published, and by whom) has been reduced, shuffled off to the third or fourth of fifth page, or in the case of the DC-published titles, moved to wherever there happens to be a text page. Originally, this was almost always the last page of the comic, but now it can be anywhere. When there are multiple series with exactly the same title, knowing the year is extremely important, and it takes a lot more time to page through them than it did to simply open up the cover to the first page. It would be nice if they could put it back on the inside front cover, like they did in the '40s.
And I have always been a completist, even if I never complete anything, so I try to get all the significant variations of each issue. So if a comic has been published on various grades of paper for two different prices, or if it has multiple covers or special-grade covers (cardstock, embossed, holographic, iridescent ink, die-cut, et al.), I mean to get them all. Again, once upon a time this was relatively easy, as they were generally restricted to anniversary issues, or first issues (there were thirteen for Gen13 #1), or special events. But then Marvel decided to alleviate the natural fall-off of comics that lost sales on their second issues (the investors or readers who wanted to sample the first issues and weren't impressed would not buy them) by making people like me have to buy two copies of that second issue by having two covers on every second issue. But it didn't stop there, with double covers on sixteenth issues (The Avengers), or #527th issues (Fantastic Four), or every issue (House of M--which has five covers for #1!). The trouble isn't knowing that they exist--it's knowing which ones you already own. I've found that the only infallible way to be certain about it is to buy them both at the same time. Which means I have to buy three for every two. At least I'm not paying full prices. DC, which had been restricting this kind of thing to the WildStorm line and to second or third printings, has been scheduling them beforehand of late (the new series of Supergirl; the upcoming Green Lantern #8). I wish they'd stop it, but I know they won't.
And one last thing about coming away from a convention with a big haul. Always try to come with a friend because if you're stuck with two or more long-white boxes of comics and it's a long trek to your car, you may never get them there. That Rosemont Convention Center recently refurbished the front entrance as a taxi pick-up. Only. You can pick up passengers, but not freight. And there is absolutely no place anywhere on the River Road frontage to the center, or behind it, or beside it, to stop and park while you get them. I found this out accidentally two years ago, when I had three full boxes at the front door when time ran out. My car was in the train station parking lot, about three-quarters of a mile away. The comics in the boxes were all recent ones, which meant they were printed on enameled paper and together weighed fifty to sixty pounds per box, if not more. I parked them inside the lobby amidst the still-lingering crowd and walked to my car, drove into the taxi turn-around and managed to get one box inside before a cop stopped me, threatened to give me a ticket, and couldn't suggest any means for me to load the others into the car without violating the law. I drove around, futilely attempting to find anywhere--side road, parking lot, turnaround, where I could stop the car, walk back to the center, grab the two boxes left and lug them to the car. I ended up driving back to the train station, finding my old space (which, being 5 PM on a Sunday, was still, thankfully, empty), and making another trip back to the center on foot. I then proceeded to ferry both boxes in tandem, carrying one fifty feet, setting it down, and getting the other one, which I carried beyond the other fifty feet, and so on. I managed to get about a quarter of the way back when a big guy who'd been a demonstrator at one of the non-comics booths at the convention and was on his way to the train saw my plight and came to my rescue, carrying the heavier box for me back to my car. All he would accept for his help was a soda I had in the car. I now make certain there's someone around when I leave who can keep an eye on my boxes while I get my car, but I can't help but feel there should be an easier way.
I do know this: as long as I continue to collect, I'll put up with it all. Because a set is a set.