A news item about the first Superman comic selling for $317,000 caught my attention today, especially when I saw that the original owner had bought it in a second-hand bookstore back in the 1950s when he was just 9 years old. The story triggered memories of my own childhood experience, which unfortunately didn’t end as profitably. To get myself into the right frame of mind for dredging up old memories, I also decided to listen to a very good song called “Comic Book Collector,” by the Trashmen, a group that hit it big in the 1960s with “Surfin’ Bird.” But more later about the Trashmen — let’s talk about the comics themselves for a while.
Like most kids, I loved comics while I was growing up. I often had one in my hand during the day, read them under the covers with a flashlight at night, and even tried to get away with reading during meals. My dad loved to read too and usually didn’t say much — after all, he regularly read the newspaper at the breakfast table — but it drove my mom bananas. My favorites were just about anything from Walt Disney, but especially the irascible Donald Duck and his tightwad Uncle Scrooge. Donald was so much more appealing than that wimpy Mickey Mouse, and as for Uncle Scrooge — how could you not be fascinated by someone so rich that he kept his money in a huge bin and regularly swam in it?
Of course, it wasn’t easy to buy comics on my limited allowance. A dime was a lot of money in the early 1950s, and the task became even tougher when the higher-priced but irresistible giant Christmas issue came along. However, I did find a way to make my comic-buying funds stretch a little further. As I said before, my dad loved to read too and he had a favorite used book store. It wasn’t long before I discovered that they also had used comics. You could not only buy them for half price, but you could even trade in your own comics for different ones. Of course, you had to give two to get one, but I don’t remember that slowing me down too much — and in a larger sense, maybe it was just preparing me for life as an adult.
But wait, there’s more. The guy who ran the place also sold string-tied rolls of ten coverless comics for a dime. Ten comics at a penny each was a bargain that couldn’t be passed up, even if it turned out that a few of them were something sappy like love comics for girls. Some of them were really old too, and that was significant because it was the start of something important for me.
I’m pretty sure that it was about then that I first got bit by the collecting bug, and I’m not talking about a ferocious paper mite crawling off of one of those musty pages. I decided that it might be cool to collect old comics, and began setting aside the oldest Disney issues. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that condition would be paramount to future collectors so some of them were pretty ragged, but if they were old Disney comics (my favorites, remember?) they went into the stack.
Eventually I accumulated a dozen or so and decided that I was going to put them somewhere safe, then later I’d resurrect them and become rich and famous. I’m not sure where I got the ‘rich and famous’ part of my plan, but I guess I’d heard something about people paying a lot for antiques, so decided to apply it to something important like comics.
After thinking it over, I remembered that one of the big square brick columns on our front porch had a loose brick near the top that could be taken completely out, leaving access to the interior of the column. I rolled up the comics and tied a string around them, then attached a longer string to the bundle and pushed it through the opening in the column. I slowly lowered the treasure down inside the column, making sure to keep the string gripped tightly because I intended to leave the end tied off where I could later find it and use it to recover the bundle. Unfortunately, the string abruptly broke and the bundle fell to the bottom. My heart sank. I had no way to recover the comics because the opening was too small to put my arm through and the column was too tall to reach bottom where the bundle now rested.
We moved out of that house when I was in my teens, and in the intervening years I often thought about that bundle of comics, but was never able to come up with a good idea for how to get them out. Even after I was an adult I would sometimes drive by the old house and could still see that loose brick, but never had the nerve to stop and ask the current owner about it. After all, I couldn’t very well ask him to tear down the brick column. Eventually I realized that the comics would probably have gotten brown, brittle, and worthless. I also knew that they would probably not be worth much even if they had survived, because they were already coverless and tattered when they first went into their reliquary. Oh well.
My career as a comic book collector wasn’t too successful, but the Trashmen did pretty well for a while. Although the group’s mega-hit “Surfin’ Bird” was actually a combination of the Rivingtons’ songs “The Bird’s the Word” and “Pa Pa Ooh Mow Mow,” the Trashmen generated a lot of good surf music — especially when you consider the group was based in Minnesota.
But my favorite is still that comic book song, which was recorded when founder Steve Wahrer restarted the group in the 1980s. It’s a great song, but maybe I also like it because it reminds me of how I first started collecting, something I’ve continued to do for many years with some different and unusual things — but that’s another story.