This past Christmas I received a most unexpected gift, a comic book. This is unusual because as a collector I have a very specific agenda. I know exactly what I want and I pursue it. So, I assumed that my fiancée Julie would most likely steer clear of comics. Happily, I was mistaken.
It began many weeks ago. Julie and I are laying in bed chatting about something unimportant but satisfiably distracting. Movies it was. Not necessarily good ones. But, ones we enjoyed. Memories from our childhoods.
We fell upon the movie: Meatballs. A cheesy teensploitation movie about high school kids at summer camp. This one predated more notable entries in the genre like Porky's or Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It was in my recollection surprisingly good, and it was the first movie appearance of then Saturday Night Live star Bill Murray.
I told Julie that I remembered being excited about a scene in that movie because one of the characters, Rudy (who later goes on to star in a very good movie called, My Bodyguard) had comic books on his bed, and that one of the comics was one that I had in my own collection at the time.
This lead me to talk about the comic itself, which has a bit of a dark past for me. It was this comic book that led me to cut school, get into a conflict with a bully, and get into a bit of trouble with my mom. But that wasn't on my mind that night as I talked to Julie about the comic from the movie.
I told Julie about the story that was told within the pages of the comic and about how it involved the character known as "the Thing" traveling back in time to battle himself. Julie was unfamiliar with "the Thing" and asked me about him. I explained that he was a man made of stone and a founding member of the Fantastic Four. She asked if this was the same "rock man" as seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy and I answered that he was not and proceeded to talk about the Fantastic Four.
I talked to her about how these characters ushered in the "Marvel Age" of comics and how the Fantastic Four comic book was a personal favorite and that it wasn't in publication anymore and what a tragedy that was. I got sidetracked by this comic book history lesson and, never revealed to her my personal history with this comic book.
But, she paid attention all the same.
I suppose she heard the passion in my voice as I spoke of this comic. She asked me:
"What number was it again?"
"What was it called?"
"Oh, that's interesting. Do you have that one in your collection?"
I thought she was simply trying to demonstrate an interest in what I was saying. I had no idea that she was repeating the information over and over and over in her head, desperately trying to keep hold of it until she could find an opportunity to write it down.
But, remember it she did. And, she surprised me with it this Christmas. I hadn't even shared with her the story of my personal experience of this special comic book and its sordid past. So, I'm sharing that with her (and with you, gentle reader) here and now.
It would have been December of 1978. I was riding on the bus to school. We drove up to a 7-11 store and had stopped at the intersection there. I knew this intersection because one could look through the bus window if we were stopped long enough and see the store's comic book rack displaying the latest issues for sale. These comics sparkled to my young eyes like the lights of a Christmas tree.
On this particular chilly December morning, one special comic book caught my eye:
"Big 50th Issue" boasted bright red letters on the cover. "The Thing Battles The Thing ... and only one shall survive!"
"The Thing Battles The Thing!"
How could this be possible?
They are the same person. One could not battle himself!
And yet the cover depicted just such an outcome!
But, one of the two "Things" looked as he did when he was first created ... a throwback to an earlier period in the character's history.
What was going on!??
" ... only one shall survive!"
Gasp! Was the Thing being forced to a battle to the death with himself!!??
And the wording. So, ominous. " ... only one SHALL survive!" SHALL ... a heavy word ... a serious word. A word one might only read in the Bible. This was certainly life and death stuff!!
Oh, how I wanted that comic!
I got off the bus at school, turned and walked against the flow of children, heading instead in the opposite direction. I followed the sidewalk up the street back in the direction from which the bus had come. I wasn't entirely sure how far it was to the 7-11, but I was pretty sure that I could get there, buy the comic (with my 50¢ lunch money ... the comic was 35¢) and get back before the bell.
No one tried to stop me.
No one even noticed as one lone young man marched with singular purpose and indomitable determination off school grounds and up the street towards the object of his quest: his own personal "Holy Grail." I'm not sure exactly how long or how far I walked, but I reached the 7-11 safely, and I bought my comic book: Marvel Two-In-One #50.
I tucked the comic safely and snuggly into the folder of my Spider-man Trapper Keeper and headed off back towards school. I knew that spending my lunch money on a comic book instead of my actual lunch as intended was the wrong thing to do. But, this was my own personal sacrifice to make, I reasoned. Besides, I could use the 15¢ in change (comics were sold tax free as periodicals at this particular place and time) to purchase a strawberry/vanilla swirl-pop at the local arcade at lunch time.
This was my plan. It was a good plan. It would work. By the end of this day, I would be the luckiest kid in the world: owner of both a spectacular new comic book to add to his collection and the lunchroom bragging rights of how I had eaten a strawberry/vanilla swirl-pop for MY lunch that day.
Ah, but how all good plans can go astray. I hadn't correctly calculated the correlation of time and distance relative to the completion of my quest and the starting of school. I had under-estimated the amount of time my journey would take, by what I suspect is ... quite a lot.
Upon entering the school grounds, the play ground was empty. No one was there. Everyone had already gone to class. I contemplated hurrying to class, but how would I explain my tardiness? How late was I? Which class was I missing? What if the teachers had discovered what I had done? I already knew that a child caught with a comic book at school would have it taken away never to be seen again. I couldn't let that happen.
There was only one thing that I could do. I would stay off the school grounds for the rest of the day and hide out. When kids boarded the buses in the afternoon, I would join them and none would be the wiser. When asked where I had been the next day in class, I would simply explain that I had been sick.
This new plan wasn't as perfect as the first and I was well aware that morally speaking I was now on much shakier ground. There was no getting out of this one. If I got caught, I would be in a world of trouble! That was it then. I just wouldn't get caught.
Across the street from the school was an abandoned old factory building or warehouse of some kind. I walked around the place to see if I could find a way inside. The building was surrounded by a fence that was locked with a chain and padlock, but there was a gap where the gate was bound by the length of chain and back then, I was a really skinny kid.
I managed to slip through the gate and get inside. However, I still couldn't get into the building. All the doors and windows were boarded up. But, children in trouble can be very determined and very foolish. I was both, and I climbed on top of an old dumpster to reach a fire-escape. Climbing the rusty red stairs of the fire escape, I managed to reach the roof of this old abandoned factory building.
I wasn't really aware of how dangerous this was; for me it was a great adventure! Nor did it occur to me just how dirty a child might get climbing around on the tar covered roof-top of such a place. (Suffice it to say, I didn't look like I had spent my day in a classroom.)
You might think that the little bit of foreshadowing above is meant to telegraph the means of my undoing and ultimate demise, but the truth is quite the opposite. Read on, dear reader ...
I walked to the edge of the roof and looked over. I could see the school yard from here. I could see the street where the buses would line up to take everyone home at the end of the day. This was perfect! No one could see me, and I could see everything. I was winning!
I turned and sat down on the rooftop and dug into my Trapper Keeper to get out my comic book. This was going to be the best comic that I'd ever read in my life!
But, that would have been too easy.
This particular day, at this particular location the December wind decided to blow and bluster in mean, inconsiderate gusts of cold and cruelty. I wasn't able to read my comic at all ... not even a single page. In fact I tore a few pages a bit trying to turn them in the wind, and I knew that if I persisted, my comic would be shredded.
So, with a Herculean effort of self-control, I put the comic book away and resigned myself to wait to read my new comic book until I was safely home.
That is until fate offered my young desperate mind an alternative: the lunch bell!
The lunch bell rang and the school yard filled with children. This added up to one incredible fact in my mind. If all the kids were outside ... then the school building itself would be empty! I could sneak inside, safe from the malicious comic-shredding assault of the wind and I could read my comic book!
And, gentle reader ... I did just that. I would regale you with the thrilling tale of how I avoided detection and stealthily snuck back into the school like a mystical ninja if I could. But, the truth is there isn't much to tell. It wasn't thrilling or even difficult. No one was really paying all that much attention. So, just as I had walked off of the school grounds, I walked back on ... and into the school building under a stairwell to settle down in this quiet hiding place alone to finally read my comic book.
It's an odd sort of irony to me that the movie "Meatballs" featured my comic book in the possession of a character named Rudy. And that this actor's next film, "My Bodyguard" finds the same actor playing a character beset upon by a bully.
Ironic, because the next part of my story involves a bully dear reader. Like the evils of bullyism follows this specific comic book like a curse.
Apparently, my hiding spot was not my discovery alone and was in fact the preferred lunch time "smoke hole" of one of the less savory members of the high school student body. I don't remember much about this person now, except that he was much bigger and older than me. I never dared look directly at him, but I remember his voice.
"What are you doing." He asked me, his words stumbling through the air towards me like gravel across a scraped knee.
"Uh, reading my comic book." I answered timidly. Like a daisy, I wilted under the steamy heat of his putrid yellow breath.
"Give it to me." He demanded.
The struggle that followed was brief, and for me at least, it was painful. I did not surrender my comic book without a fight, but surrender it, I did. In a terrible torturous instant my triumph was turned to tragedy, and my elation gave way to despair.
I fled the scene and hid myself behind the school building. Shaking, cold, angry, afraid, and heartbroken in my defeat, I cried. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't report the bully. I was myself a breaker of the rules. I was on the side of wrong, and there was no honor among thieves. This was my punishment. Evils deeds beget evil consequences.
This is what I deserved.
And that thought made me cry all the more.
I am not sure how long I cowered there behind the school building, but I am fairly certain that while my morning of adventure flew by with hours passing in the seeming breadth of but a moment, that the opposite was happening now and what might have seemed hours was probably not so very long.
But, in this brief span of eternity I pulled myself together and prepared my mind and body to weather the rest of the day.
I was hungry. Lunch was long past and I had not eaten. I could go to the arcade as planned. No one would be there now. I still had my 15¢. The bully had taken only my comic book. And so, I went to the arcade and I bought my strawberry/vanilla swirl-pop. I ate my "lunch," and the folks at the arcade were kind enough to gift me a glass of ice water.
As a kid, you don't take into consideration what those around you think; what they do; what they know. Being a kid, it's hard enough to sort those things out for yourself. So, it doesn't occur to me that the proprietors of the arcade are no stranger to children playing hooky. Or that they would call the school. Or that a toe-headed urchin with cerebral palsy would be especially easy to identify.
I am distracting myself at a pool table in the arcade when my mom walks in behind me. I don't see her come in. I don't hear her. She is right behind me when she calls me out in a stern voice. I spin around and I am certain that in that moment of realization that I have been "caught" that every bit of color runs screaming from my face. I don't believe that every bit of it has yet come back to this day.
I have seen my mom in anger. I have been on the receiving end of her wrath as perhaps no one else could be. I have known her rage, her disappointment, and her disapproval, and I have deserved them all at one time or another. But, in this moment, on her face, I saw none of these things.
"Let's go home." she said.
I often wondered why my mom wasn't angry with me, why I wasn't punished for skipping school.
Not long ago, while visiting my mom, the subject of my "out of school adventure" came up ... and Mom revealed to me the truth. She was angry. She was going to punish me. Until that moment that I turned to see her, and she saw my face.
Remember, dear reader, that bit of foreshadowing from earlier? Apparently, I was quite dirty, almost completely covered in soot from my sojourn on that rooftop. Except, that is, for the clean white streaks that traveled from my eyes down my cheeks. Tracks created by my tears.
Mom didn't know what had happened, or what I had gone through, but I had clearly been crying. Mom confessed to me recently that the sight of me then, it broke her heart.
She asked if I had eaten lunch, and I admitted that I had not. So, she stopped as fate would have it at the 7-11. I had not told her about the comic book, or the bully, or about what I had done. But, I was ill-equipped to conceal my interest in the comic book that had been the impetus of all that had transpired this day. So, as we walked past the comic book racks at the 7-11 in addition to a hot dog and a soda, Mom bought me a new pristine copy of Marvel-Two-In-One #50.
I love you mom.
Over the years the comic books that I collected lost their "importance" somehow, as life pushed me to pursue other things and to create "grown-up" memories.
I have none of the comics that I had as a youth. But, over the past few years I have been trying to rebuild my collection. And as I do so, I find that I am rebuilding these memories as well.
She didn't know it, but this Christmas in addition to a great comic book, my sweet Julie gifted me with a great moment from my past. A cherished memory.