When I was in my early teens, I used to frequent a second-hand book and magazine shop in my town. In the window there were sleazy True Detective type magazines hanging from a string line by bulldog clips to tempt those who had a weakness for scantily clad women, but for my friend Stephen and me, the treasure lay inside the shop against the back wall.
This was a large table that was piled high with literally hundreds of American comics, and they were available at two pence each. Spider-Man quickly became our favourite, and we scooped up as many as we could find. These were originals from the early days of the comic, and there were some rare collectable issues to be unearthed. Stephen found issue 9, but the earliest I could manage was issue 17.
I loved the stories, not only because of the fabulous enemies Spidey would fight (Dr Octopus, Kingpin, The Lizard, The Vulture and The Green Goblin to name but a few), but Peter Parker's home life was also interesting. He went out with Gwen, and later Mary Jane. His friend Harry, whose father is (spoiler alert), The Green Goblin, became addicted to prescription drugs, and of course Flash Thompson, the boorish jock who bullied Puny Parker, but idolised Spider-Man. That was frustrating; I wanted Parker to reveal his true identity to the bighead, and land him one on the nose, but he couldn't or he'd give the game away.
The prize of my collection is a two-part story over issues 26 and 27 that features a one-off villain, called the Crime-Master (the Green Goblin also appears in this story). An unusual feature of this particular tale is that the aforementioned Crime-Master is shot dead, a rarity in Marvel comics.
Unfortunately for me, my young cousin chose to scrawl his nickname, Flip over the front cover of issue 26 in green marker pen, greatly devaluing the comic. Obviously for flimsy publications that have been around for about 70 years, their age is showing, although I do keep them in rigid protective cellophane sleeves. The condition of the comics has deteriorated to the extent that the staples have rusted and the paper is somewhat brittle. But they are complete, and the colours are as bright as ever. With some regret I must report that I snipped the front covers from some early Spider-Man comics to stick on the door of the wardrobe in my bedroom. I'd say I destroyed about twenty comics in that manner, unaware of their rarity.
On reading the comics, I became absorbed and sometimes I would pause just to marvel at the illustrations, and I became enamoured with Stan Lee's storytelling. After the great man died in 2018,aged 95, I listened to an interview with him from 2016 on the radio, and what a likeable guy he was, still brimming with life in his nineties. The photos are of some of my surviving comics - story: Stan Lee.
Comics Used as Ballast
I do have a theory on how that book shop came by its vast stock of American comics. I live in a busy port town, and I discovered that back in the day ships crossing the Atlantic without a cargo sometimes used bales of magazines and comics as ballast. I wonder if that's how those Marvel and DC issues got to a town on the north-east coast of England. Maybe the enterprising shopkeeper bought a bale cheap, or perhaps they sneaked over to Ballast Hill after dark with a wheelbarrow and helped themselves. Imagine sifting through a bale containing hundreds of Marvel and DC comics from the early 1960s. That would be, excuse me, Marvel-lous.
Of course, had I known then what I know now, I would have gathered up as many comics as I could afford, and kept them in a safe place. But at that young age, I didn't think twice about cutting the front covers off rare comics. And, on one occasion, I came close to throwing my entire collection into the bin while on bedroom cleaning detail.
(Originally published in Medium)