I’m 5 years old and I’m really into comic books.
My older brother Ken is into comics too, but in a territorial way — I’m forbidden to read or collect the titles he buys. But that’s okay because the comic that I want to read isn’t his Spider-Man or his Hulk. No, it’s something else: Fantastic Four. The first comic I ever read. And it’s just down the street at a neighbor’s house.
The issue number is 130. The cover reads “Battleground: The Baxter Building.” But who is featured on the cover is more important than any of the words: two of the four titular characters — a guy made of rocky plates and another who can stretch like rubber — fight a man made of sand. There’s also a super-strong woman, a flying man in purple firing blasts of energy from his gloved hand, and another guy who shoots some sort of cement at still another woman with living red hair. It’s awesome.
I mentioned I’m 5, right?
This cover is irresistible. I went to the Putnam’s house yesterday and read the comic again. And the day before that as well. I want to read it right now but the comic is there and I’m here. I need it here. Then it occurs to me: I want to read the comic, the comic clearly was made for me, and the Putnams have stacks of comics all over the place. They will never love this one the way I do. They’ll never even miss it if it disappears, I’m sure.
So on my next visit I read the comic first, as always. Then I put it down my pants. I stay and play a while longer, and then go home with my perfectly pilfered prize.
Had I asked if I could have the comic, which cost all of two dimes, I’m sure Ray Putnam would have said yes without a second thought. However, even as a cop’s kid, going the legal route never occurs to me. I couldn’t take even a small chance on him saying no.
This moment is a crossroads: I can keep stealing and go down that darkening road, or I can go legit and start working to earn money to buy my own comics.
I choose the latter. I immediately start doing whatever chores I can to earn comic-buying money now, and I get a real job — a paper route — as soon as I turn 12. My buying power grows.
My comic collection is off to a humble start. I collect the titles my brother allows. I want to know everything about Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, and their superpowered friends like the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans, as well as otherworldly enemies like Galactus and especially Victor Von Doom.
Gleaning that kind of information is no easy task. Basically, the only way to learn more is to read on. Track down the back issues and keep reading every month. There’s the occasional comic magazine that doles out bits of information — one called Comics Scene is a favorite while it lasts – but without the internet or social media culture to lean on, you just need to pick up a monthly habit and mainline the stories.
Sometimes the guy at the comic shop is helpful filling in details, but I’m a shy kid. I’m not looking to get to know my dealer, I just want the stuff he’s peddling.
The Fantastic Four’s creators, the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, have moved on to other projects, but they left behind well over a decade’s worth of existing Fantastic Four comics for me to track down. I find some in reprint form but this isn’t a trade-paperback world yet — nice collections of older material aren’t prevalent.
Even more scarce is the one where it all began: Fantastic Four #1, originally released on November 8, 1961. Not only is this issue the title’s debut, it’s also the single comic book credited with starting what the ever-hyperbolic Stan Lee refers to as “The Marvel Age of Comics.”
Fifteen years after its debut, copies of Fantastic Four #1 are already valuable enough that I know they will forever be out of reach for mere mortals — especially for kids on lowly allowances or paper-route salaries. Those first runs of Superman, Spider-Man, and other favorites are displayed behind unbreakable glass in comic-book stores and carry price tags of three and four digits. I can’t imagine ever being in the position to buy one.
And so the first issue of my favorite comic, the Fantastic Four, becomes my Holy Grail. My Lost Ark of the Covenant. My White Whale. I will someday track it down and make it my own.
That becomes my goal. Far down the line, that is, at a point where I’ve attained financial security and can spend what will surely be a five-digit purchase by then. Then and no sooner will I climb the unreachable summit and lay my hands on the Unattainable Thing of my dreams.
Or… maybe it will happen far sooner than that. Like when I foolishly get myself one of those credit cards they give college kids by luring us in with the promise of a free beach towel if we sign up. Six weeks later that piece of magical plastic arrives with a broad credit line and a 25% interest rate.
The card is in my wallet in July 17, 1997, the first time I attend the massive San Diego Comic-Con.
I’d been to a couple other conventions as a kid. Very early on, I met the artist/co-creator of Superman, Joe Shuster. He signed something for me. I scribbled on it. I was probably not even 5 then.
In 1997 San Diego’s massive convention isn’t quite the explosion of pop culture that it will become a few years later, but there are still tens of thousands of people packed into a convention center and geeking out: costumed fans attend panels to hear about what’s coming up; TV show actors sign photos; since-banned VHS bootlegs of unreleased movies like Roger Corman’s low-budget Fantastic Four flick; artists draw sketches for fans; and D&D gamers play tabletop games while chain mail-wearing LARPers mock-battle on the back patio. Marvel, DC, and the smaller publishing houses peddle new wares and trot out beloved creators to sign for and chat with fans.
And then there are the comic book vendors. These retailers deal vintage comics, all nicely preserved (“bagged and boarded”) and ready to take home if you’ve got enough cash. They also have boxes of “reader’s copies”, which means comics that are in crappy condition but fun to fill out a collection at a reasonable price. But it’s not the small stuff that draws me in.
No, what catches my eye are the old titles in mint condition — the rarely-seen classics. The perfectly-preserved copy of Fantastic Four #1.
I know the cover image well. I’ve seen it in numerous reprints. I recognize that Jack Kirby art from across the crowded conference hall like it is a member of my family.
A member of my family that costs as much as the car I drove to the Con in, that is.
I stand and just gaze at it, lovingly and in awe, like someone admiring every thick brush stroke of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Which is apt because the comic feels as out of my price range as a painting by an old Master, so I eventually tear myself away and move on.
I’ll have to wait to make Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s classic creation mine.
I make my way to the Marvel Comics booth. If Fantastic Four #1 can’t yet be mine, maybe I can lose myself in some of their current fare. Though truth be told, 1997 certainly isn’t a high point for comics creativity, theirs included.
At the booth there’s a huge crowd of people milling around. Why? What’s happening?
Turns out Stan “The Man” Lee himself is there signing comics. Holy shit!
By 1997 Stan has already been at this for more than 40 years. His public persona is well-honed. He’s a master at making Marvel fans feel like part of the club. Through his editorial pages and the different fan clubs he’s set up, and from his presence on TV shows and even occasional appearances as a character in some comic books, we fans feel we know him without ever having actually met him. So here at the Con, this first time I witness him in real life, I’m struck by just how much he looks like, well, Stan Lee. Like a comic illustration come to life.
I had no idea Stan was at this convention. That this American icon, the co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, the X-Men, and my Fantastic Four, would just be sitting and signing autographs at the Marvel booth. Right over there.
Those waiting in line converse while holding bags of comic treasures with an excitement bordering on glee. Enthusiasm at these conventions is never in short supply as it is, but in 1997, before Marvel movies became juggernauts, Stan being at a Con like this commands everyone’s attention.
I’ve got to meet him. This might be my only chance.
I notice Marvel reps handing out free copies of the current issue of Spider-Man and Stan is signing those for everyone. A comic he didn’t write and, let’s be honest, very likely hasn’t even read.
That won’t do at all. I want Stan’s autograph, but not on something so pedestrian. Oh, no.
Then it hits me. That shiny copy of Fantastic Four #1 I walked by earlier! It is just across the hall. That would be worthy of having Stan sign. But there’s no way I can afford it.
Then I remember the pristine Visa card in my wallet.
I make my way across the exhibit hall as quickly as I can and immediately put my burgeoning negotiating skills to work. The comic is priced a good $500 more than any legitimate price guide would value it, but when the salesman agrees to knock off $300, I convince myself that I’m getting a good deal.
I ask him if he takes Visa. Thankfully, he does. I hand him the plastic and nervously wait to see if this first transaction passes muster with the bank. As the transaction goes through I have a brief moment to reflect. I‘ve imagined this moment for so long that it’s hard to believe it is happening. Then he hands me my purchase and suddenly my beloved and much-lusted-after comic is finally — FINALLY — mine.
Hands shaking, heart pounding, pits sweating, I head back to wait in line for Stan. As I get closer I see his handlers mechanically grab the next copy of Spider-Man from a large stack and put it in front of him. Stan scribbles his name and they do their best to keep the huge line moving quickly.
I’m finally standing in front of him. I dismiss their free comic and remove my new purchase from its brown bag. I carefully place it down in front of Stan and ask if he’ll sign this one for me instead.
He stares at it for a few seconds, and then looks up at me.
Stan pauses, gets out of his chair and yells, “Wow! I haven’t seen one of these in years! I don’t even have a copy any more.”
His handlers try to motion him back to his chair but he waves them off.
“Hang on, hang on! This is where it all started,” he says. “Me and Jack!”
He looks me in the eye and declares, “I can’t sign this. It’ll wreck its value!”
“Not to me, it won’t,” I say. I assure him I don’t care about the comic’s monetary value. I want the author of this comic to sign it.
Stan relents. I can tell there’s a part of him that still dreads scribbling on it so he puts away the thick Sharpie and takes out a pen with a much finer line. He signs it and hands it back to me with a smile, saying his signature phrase, “Excelsior.”
I’ve climbed my personal Everest.