Every geek has their own secret origin, a time when the world of comic books magically came to life for them. I’ve never changed into a costume in a phone booth, but I did transform into a mutant in a garage many times during my childhood vacations.
My family lived in rural Missouri for many years. My parents’ families mostly lived in small-town Ohio back then. In most of my pre-adolescent years, Mom, Dad, Sister, and I packed our bags every December to drive north and spend Christmas with the families.
Mom’s parents had a detached garage off their modest but cozy three-bedroom house. It held the typical backyard stuff: trees, a bench swing, a small garden, a clothesline. To get to the garage, I walked along square, concrete tiles with black pebbles in the spaces between. A waist-high chain link fence separated the small path from the driveway. A door opened into the darkness of the garage, which at that time of year was always cold. When the moon was up or the back porch light was on, I could see my breath in the darkness.
The garage possessed a unique scent. Grampa smoke his cigarettes in there and framed pictures at his work bench. Dust, sawdust, stale cigarette smoke, and mold. Dampness, but frozen. It’s not the bouquet you might associate with happiness, 25 years later – unless you were also there with me to turn on the dim light, squeeze between the cars, and approach the ramshackle shelves on the far wall. Those shelves held every comic book my grandparents had purchased for their four children from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, and some that Gramma still liked to follow in the 1980s. She always called them “funny books.”
Every year I dug out a new section of the stacks – hundreds, maybe thousands of books. Some years, I excavated completely unknown buried treasures. Some years, I found an issue I’d read before: a copy of World’s Finest #147 featuring Superman and Batman, or Tales of Suspense featuring Thor, Iron Man, or the Human Torch. With a year between visits to Ohio, it was like meeting an old friend. Early issues of the X-men and Spider-man sat under so much dust and time and disuse that I sometimes got sick. I had pretty bad allergies to dust and mold at that age but zero qualms about risking my health to read those books. I would take an armful back inside the warm house, find a comfy spot to curl up, and be absorbed for hours. If the adults wanted to stay up late and play Rook at the kitchen table, I might even make two or three trips to the garage!
To read some of those magical old books now might be a disappointment. Stories that appeal to you as a boy often seem childish after a time. But, I do regret not going there and getting, oh, just a few hundred of them before the collection was sold some time in the 1990s. They didn’t sell for much, considering how many decades they had been exposed to the elements. But the connection to those feelings and those fantastic adventures my mind took as a child… There is no dollar figure you can put on fuel for your imagination. And if the nostalgia becomes too acute, I can find most of them at My Comic Shop in better shape than when I first read them!