Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Ten Comics That Changed My Life--Part 4

4. Avengers Annual #2: “And Time, the Rushing River"

There are some comic books that once you see the cover, you have to have them; this is one of those for me. I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for covers showing heroes battling heroes, especially in configurations like this where the then current Avengers battled the original Avengers.

I remember the day this one was bought for me. In downtown Milwaukee, there was exactly one traditional news stand by the mid-1960s, but what a newsstand. It had the shape of a large triangle. one side was all magazines, I don't think I looked there a total of ten times my whole life, while the other side was predominantly comic books with the assorted racing form (though Milwaukee didn't even have legalized horse racing) and Sporting News racked above and below them. The owner was a dwarf, who had at least one normal-sized sone that helped him run the stand, usually at night. My clearest memories of either of those two men is seeing one or both of the huddled in the doorway of Walgreen's, trying to keep warm in the winter or dry when it rained.

Making trips to that newsstand was one of the great joys of my life. There were stores in my neighborhood that sold comic books, but especially as I got older, I learned that if I wanted to make sure I got the next issue of a continued story, a trip to the news stand was required. In that respect, I appreciate the convenience of a comic book store, but I miss the newsstand. I miss the excitement of surprise the news stand offered, going there and not knowing which comics will have new issues or actually seeing a cover that makes you want to buy the comic. Even before the Internet, the surprise was going out of buying comic books because of the direct market. When you have to buy a catalog three months before the comics inside are released so that you can pre-order the comics you want, that pretty much takes away the mystery no matter how hard you try.

Apart from the cover, Avengers Special #2 makes the list because it was the first comic I can remember confusing me. I was seven when I got the comic and I could read, but those two things do not necessarily add to understanding. When this comic was published, I had at least a passing knowledge of some of Marvel's characters and continuity cobbled together from cartoons and other comics I'd looked at, so you'd think I’d be able to follow the story.

However, this is the first Roy Thomas-written story I can admit to reading and, let's face it, those who have read any amount of his mainstream super hero work knows continuity matters to him. What that meant is that a seven year old had dumped headfirst into a story that leaned heavily upon past events. Like Mighty Crusaders #4, this comic is chock full o’ heroes, villains, and plot. There’s time travel, parallel dimensions, and flashbacks to foreshadowed events. Even the Watcher shows up in the end to explain a Scarlet Centurion-Dr. Doom-Rama Tut connection I wouldn't have even known existed had Thomas not decided to tell me about.

Did I run from comic books after this one because of my confusion? Was I fearful of trying another Marvel comic for fear of feeling left out? Of course not, if for no other reason that there would have only been four comics that changed my life.

This comic showed me that there was a bigger picture to comic books than just the one I had created piecemeal from my relatively few sources; the world of Marvel comic books was bigger than just the comic was holding at any particular moment. Without understanding the concept, or what it would eventually mean to mainstream comic books within the next few years, I began to figure out that Marvel comic books required you to know inter- and intra-title continuity.

Armed with this knowledge, I began to seek out old comics whenever my parents went to rummage sales. I became the target audience for reprint comics, obtaining an oversized reprint book whenever I could talk my parents into paying a whole twenty-five cents for a new comic whichever parent I was with when I was bought Avengers Special #2 must have been in a particularly good mood. I wonder how my parents would react if I told them that there was a time I paid (pre-Internet) fifty dollars a shot for hardcover reprinting of comic books? I probably shouldn’t; they aren’t young and many was the time they would choke at the thought of paying a quarter.

Oh, and there was a strange parody story here, too, showing the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Bullpen as they put together the latest issue of Avengers, complete with pint-sized super-heroes running amuck. You know what, I still don't know what the hell is really going on in that story.