There are few pleasures like the joy of a memory reclaimed
Collecting can be a lot of things. To some people, locating and buying every die-cast train they can possibly find is an obsession born out of an early enthusiasm for that very type of item. For others, gathering the artifacts of someone else's youth represents nothing more than a way to make a quick buck. Most of us have seen both sides of the coin by now.
There are situations, however, that transcend the sort of cool sophistication that glosses over any hobby after a period of time. In fact, the word "hobby" doesn't really come into play at these instances; you'd have to dip into the warm-and-fuzzy thesaurus for a better tag.
My childhood was littered with comic books. They were always around and handy - my little pulp pals. I can't remember how I got my first few copies, though it's a safe bet that mom and/or dad plucked an inaugural comic off the supermarket rack at some point in my young life when I managed to string together a day's worth of good behavior. Alas, as we'll see later in this tale, what good behavior giveth, bad behavior can taketh away.
By the time I was five, a cardboard cigarette box held my well thumbed-through library of heroes. Once a week or so I got the go-ahead from my mom while at the drug store or supermarket; "Pick one and let's go." By the time those wonderful words had been spoken, my knees were already partially locked as a result of crouching at the floor-level comic rack in order to peruse as many books as I could before narrowing down my choice to The One.
That concept - the feverish quest for The One - is nearly dead today. I visit comic shops and see kids that are under the age of ten - still in single digits! - walking up to the counter after a practiced and efficient sweep of the racks with a thick stack of comics and a twenty dollar bill. At home, they explain to me, they'll carefully poly-bag and board their purchases before sealing them in a Comic Defense System box manufactured exclusively for comic book containment. Perhaps they may even read one or two before sealing the tomb.
This wasn't the case 20 years ago. In my cardboard cigarette box, every comic retained its sense of wonderfulness. After all, each and every copy was at some point The One.
An eventful day in my fifth or sixth year found me angered enough by the sight of my younger sister sifting none-too-carefully through my comic box to fling her Dancing Darcy doll across the living room. Dancing Darcy sustained a shocking (yet fixable) loss-of-limb injury, and my sister cried the pitiful righteous wail of a four-year-old in full view of my mom, who was understandably angry. She reached into my comic box, pulled out a comic at random (a Superboy), and tore it in half in front of my face - a Solomon-like punishment that seared me deeply. I stared at the ragged pieces for a few moments before ripping the rest up in a teary-eyed rage. It was gone. All the colorful panels that I had gazed at dozens of times before were lost.
As you may have gathered by now, I took the whole thing pretty hard. That particular Superboy comic became known in the back of my mind as The Lost One.
Flash forward to the present day. As a writer specializing in pop culture and collectibles, I've found it highly instructive to visit small locally organized comic shows. Usually held in the banquet hall of a bowling alley, they attract the entire spectrum of collectors. At one table stands a lanky and morose fan-boy who looks like he cuts his own hair; across the way is a bearded guy feeding his infant daughter while discussing the relative merits of Jim Aparo art in '70s Batman comics; at the end of the room stands an elderly gentleman with actual original EC art displayed on an easel. The comics offered for sale at these events are generally very old or very new - both factors that respectively price or bore me out of the market.
On my second visit to one of these shows, I was surprised to see a large table full of Silver Age-to-1979 titles – debris of my heyday. The gentleman manning the area spoke with an English accent and invited me to look through the well-organized boxes at my leisure. The chant began; "Had it, got it, had it, had it, got it..." – everything was in the $1 to $4 range, so I began pulling copies for nostalgic value.
Then it came to me. Could this be the day I avenge the loss I sustained 24 years earlier? Elbow -deep in the "D" section, I glanced over to my right at the little file tag that said "S" - where the Englishman surely had a supply of '70s Superboy comics. I pounced and began going through issue-by-issue with only a decades-old burned-in mental image of the cover to go by. My upper lip actually began to perspire.
The Englishman saw me turn white. "Looks like you found something," he laughed. Indeed I did. Superboy number 181, "Menace of the Mysterious Stranger." The Lost One, poly-bagged with a backing board and a small sticker that cooed "$1.50."
There are few pleasures quite like the joy of a memory reclaimed. After happily paying the man - I might even have tipped him - I jogged out to my car. In the parking lot of the Red Carpet Bowling Center, I traveled back to my childhood as I turned each page of The Lost One to discover familiar image after familiar image, this time with the benefit of full reading skills (so that's why the Teen of Steel made that face when using his X-ray vision on page 1!).
I exuberantly called my mom to gloat a bit, but she has no memory of the comic-tearing incident so many years ago. No matter - I had reached my own personal sense of closure and procured my most valuable collectible. Sure, The Overstreet Price Guide may list this copy of Superboy at a mere $5-$12 in mint condition, but that means nothing to a guy who finally reclaimed a misplaced - albeit small - kernel of his childhood.
The lesson? True "value" isn't printed in neat columns on a printed page; it lives in the heart of the former child - sometimes the lump in your throat is the only real price guide worth following. We may get a bit discouraged or jaded when continuously encountering the cold business aspect of collectibles, but let's not lose sight of those golden moments of discovery that got us into it in the first place.
Here's hoping you all get a chance to find The Lost One of your own.