I was recently asked by my pal Rob Kelly, of the Aquaman Shrine and many, many other blogsites devoted to the olden days of comics, to contribute an essay to a collection he’s editing based on one of those other websites, entitled Hey Kids, Comics: True Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. Hey Kids, Comics! has an admirable Mission Statement” “to share the beloved memories of discovering comics for the first, second, tenth, or hundredth time” and “anyone with a story or photos are welcome to contribute.” Other contributors include Steve Englehart, Jonathan Latham, Mike Carlin, Bob Greenberger, Stephen DeStefano, J.M. DeMatteis, Steve Skeates, and a whole lot more.
My beloved memory?
Hey, Kids, Comics!
“An All-Star Collection of the Greatest Super-Stories Ever Published!”
© Paul Kupperberg
Covers © DC Comics
Oversized, higher price-point comics had been around since almost the beginning of comics. The first comics were 64-pages for 10¢. In 1939, within a year of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1, one of the companies that would one day become DC Comics, published the first of two officially licensed New York World’s Fair Comics, 96-page extravaganzas featuring Superman, Batman, Robin, Sandman, Slam Bradley, and Zatara, the 1939 edition selling for 25¢, the one from 1940 for 15¢. In 1944, they tried topping themselves with the 128 page, 25¢ Big All-American Comic Book (featuring everybody!).
Dell and Disney and later Whitman all played with the oversized format over the next couple of decades. Giant compilations of stories around a seasonal theme (Bugs Bunny’s Winter Fun) or genre (Western Round-Up, Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies). I have several issues of Dell’s late-1950s A Giant Comic, each with a different theme, 96-pages for a quarter.
In 1960, DC Comics tried its hand at the giant-sized format again with two comics: Superman Annual #1 and Superman Annual #2, one published in August (to take advantage of kids on summer break from school) and the other in January (to take advantage of kids on Christmas break).
Even if they were playing fast-and-loose with the concept of “annual” by publishing two a year (a trend that continued for the next three years), these were remarkable packages, irresistible blocks of four-color excitement that any kid with even a modicum of commonsense would have to own!
I mean…eighty pages for a quarter?!
I was in love.
Remember: a kid could do a lot of damage with 25¢ in 1960.
The corner candy store offered an irresistible array of penny goodies, licorice whips, candy buttons, Bazooka, lollipops, Necco Wafers, Turkish Taffy, pretzel sticks, root beer barrels, Tootsie Rolls, wax lips, Sugar Babies, candy necklaces…enough candy to keep a five year old and his friends in a sugar-haze for days at a stretch. A slice of pizza and a Coke was twenty-five cents. The price to ride the bus or subway was 15¢, and it was still under a buck to get into most neighborhood movie theaters, while comic books were priced the same as they always had been, 10¢…albeit with thirty-two pages of content versus the original sixty-four.
The corner candy store was also the venue in which the candy-sated five year old bought his comic books. In my East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, that was Flemmy’s, on St. Johns Place, right around the corner without having to cross a street from where we lived on Buffalo Avenue. In the opposite direction was the grand Eastern Parkway, a European-inspired boulevard designed by the same men who created New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the much grander neighborhood of Crown Heights. But St. Johns Place, with its hardware and clothing stores, its Kosher-style delis and bakeries, the knishe stores, the local movie palace (the Congress, where my grandmother once sold tickets and my grandfather ran the projector, and where I saw my first movie, ‘The Three Stooges in Orbit’ with my older brother and Uncle David), was the street where we spent our time.
Flemmy’s had been on St. Johns Place forever. My father had grown up in East New York and Crown Heights and had hung out in front of the old candy store with his pals, a veritable Bowery Boys gang of guys, from his best pal Morty, to the mentally challenged ‘Crazy Eddie,’ who, almost twenty years later wound up in the same East Flatbush neighborhood my grandmother was then living in…which was also the neighborhood my friends and I made our weekly Tuesday pilgrimage to in order to buy the new comics from the four candy stores and newsstands that lined our route, none of which carried all the week’s releases from the six or seven publishers then filling the racks. By the time I was that five year old in 1960, Mr. And Mrs. Flemmenhoffer (there was also a son, a renowned neighborhood lay-about who eventually wound up as a television producer and, I believe, died young) were getting old and, Mr. Flemmy in particular, very cranky. He liked to bark out absurd and disturbing things to his kiddie customers, like “Why aren’t you working?” and “Go home and shoot your brother!” But that didn’t prevent me from going in whenever I had the cash in hand to get my fill of candy and comics, the two staples of life (sorry to say, that hasn’t changed much in the intervening fifty years).
I remember Bugs Bunny. I remember the mice and ducks in the Disney Comics, and, most of all, I remember Wonder Woman. I loved Wonder Woman when I was a kid. It was being written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. The stories were filled with dragons and genies, Mer-Boys and Bird-Boys, fairy tale kingdoms everywhere, and the glorious ridiculousness of Wonder Tot and Paradise Island.
And then Superman flew into my living room.
He came through the television, as I recall, in the form of the classic 1940s Max Fleischer theatrical cartoons on a program called Terrytoon Circus, hosted by Ringmaster Claude Kirchner. Kirchner, who had spent years playing the Ringmaster character on the Chicago-based Super Circus, assisted by Mary Hartline, beginning in 1949, and been in New York since 1955, the year I was born, and his program is one of my earliest memories. The half hour Terrytoons Circus ran every weekday evening at 7 p.m. on WOR-TV, channel 9 in New York, after which was my bedtime. Kirchner was my Barney, my Power Rangers, my Transformers, and he introduced me to Superman. Whatever I saw on that show was what my five year-old imagination took to bed with me. I dreamed in black and white, of old silent Farmer Brown cartoons and the Man of Steel.
It was an easy and natural shift from the gray-toned figure on our small-screen black and white wood cabinet Philco to the blue-and-red clad one on the cover of the comic books on Flemmy’s magazine stand, the wooden rack up against one wall of the narrow store, opposite the soda fountain and counter.
Comics were, as I said, just ten cents, but only if bought new, off the newsstand. Up St. Johns Place, towards Ralph Avenue, was a secondhand bookstore owned by a man named Dave Solomon. Dave was a dumpy, egg-shaped fellow with greasy hair and thick glasses, but it was there my father had bought two-for-a-nickel coverless pulp magazines in his youth, and it was there we went for two-for-a-nickel coverless comics. (Years later, Dave was found, quite accidentally, having relocated to Church Avenue and Argyle Road in Flatbush, right near my brother’s apartment, circa 1970.) Even I, as bad in math as I remain to this day, could figure out this enabled me to read four times as many comics for the same dime!
But there was one exception to the pricing structure.
Those were the 25¢ giants. The annuals!
Continued, in Hey Kids, Comics: True Life Tales From the Spinner Rack…!