Toronto crime reporter digs comic superheroes

 
 
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Rob Lamberti
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Toronto Sun crime reporter big fan of comic superheroes
 
By Rob Lamberti
Why did I start collecting comics?
 
It all began on a dark and stormy night.
 
Or as Winnie the Pooh would say, "Maybe it was a Windsday."
 
Or maybe it was all about the story telling, where a couple of guys would write about something unbelievable and then draw it to make it believable.
 
Who knows?
 
I just remember it was fun when I was a kid. My friends did it. We would run from one of three variety stores in the Oakwood Ave.-Rogers Rd. area in Toronto to the next and to the next.
 
I always seemed to know that while others snickered, or while adults saw it only as something that kids did, I was reading and looking at art.
 
The best artists included Steve Ditko, Wally Wood and Don Heck, but the "bestest" was Jack Kirby. His pages exploded into action.
 
And there was only one storyteller: Stan Lee. He was our era's troubadour, our minstrel without a lyre, our Brothers Grimm.
 
My earliest recollections of reading a comic book go way back, to when I was about five or so, getting my tonsils out. As I lay recovering in a bed in a Toronto hospital, my dad supplied me with some Metamorpho comics, printed by DC.
 
I hated them. The stories were dumb, nowhere near as good as the comics I had at home.
 
As time went by, the focus turned strictly to Marvel Comics. Man, I could relate. I wasn't a teenager, but I felt some of the angst the main characters went through, the trials of being picked on and ridiculed by fellow classmates.
 
DC was, well, we couldn't figure out DC Comics. Why were The Bat-Man and Superman all about girlie things? About Bat Girl and Lois Lane, and marrying them.
 
They were supposed to be superheroes, man.
 
These were stories for little kids, not us. DC's bad guys, well, they were lame compared to Electro, Mysterio, Dr. Octopus, The Red Ghost, Loki, the Destroyer and the evilest of all, Dr. Doom. Or was the super Nazi, the Red Skull, the evilest of all?
 
But in time they were small fry compared to Galactus, the devourer of worlds. Literally. He sucked all the energy out of living planets so he could survive. His herald, the Silver Surfer, boy, blew our minds.
 
Who could think of these things? We were kids and we couldn't even dream of that. Oh yeah, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could. They thought of so many things. And then there was Dr. Strange, master of the occult, who dealt with a character named Eternity, who encompassed, well, everything.
 
There were no earthly bounds with Marvel. But Stan Lee, the main writer at the time, brought story telling down to Earth, so readers could relate.
 
Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, was the butt of many jokes and jabs of his schoolmates in the issues drawn by Steve Ditko. Things became more serious when John Romita Sr. took over. We didn't know about the trials and tribulations of the office politics and serious underpaying of staff at Marvel. We just knew it was a change in artists. But while Ditko did some crazy things with his pen, Romita made it more realistic, more bombastic, more like . . . Jack Kirby.
 
The Incredible Hulk, I felt sorry for that big green giant. A simple fellow misunderstood by everyone. He could do no right. Most kids were like that, always getting into trouble even though they meant no harm. But Betsy Ross and Rick Jones understood Hulk. They knew all about Dr. Bruce Banner.
 
And Thor, torn between two worlds because he was a bad boy, ticked off his father, the omnipotent Odin. And indeed, reading about Norse gods in a Catholic neighbourhood, well, that too was daring.
 
While I sympathized and empathized with the alter egos of my heroes, comparing their woes with mine, the only thing I didn't have was a super power. Oh well.
 
I remember wandering into Memory Lane on Markham St. I don't remember how I knew about the curio shop that sold used comics. Why would I buy used comics? He asked for too much, anyway.
 
There was also a used goods store on St. Clair Ave., near Christie St. An elderly couple there sold used comics for no more than a dime. The pressure was on to be the first of our little group of friends to cross the threshold and get dibs on the books.
 
But then the world changed.
 
Comic companies raised the price to 15 cents from 12 cents. Outrage! I couldn't afford the increase.
 
Then came my Waterloo. Mom campaigned to get me to rid of my collection. It was collecting dust, she gently argued. Eventually, I caved in. I watched as a garbage man tossed a box or two containing a few hundred comics into the back of the truck.
 
And then it was all gone, including Silver Surfer #1, the 25-cent issue; my Ditko issues of Spider-Man; my Heck issues of Iron Man; Jack Kirby, too.
 
I rediscovered Marvel Comics years later in Grade 13. I was 17 and while Spider-Man and Hulk and Captain America and Fantastic Four were on my list, Dare-Devil captured my imagination. A blind man shall lead them, and storyteller extraordinaire Frank Miller would soon arrive.
 
Alan Sant, a friend at the Canadian Tire store I worked for at the time, took me to my first comic book convention at a Quebec Ave. high school. I saw my first Golden Age book. I still remember it: The original android Human Torch arcing through the sky - it hardly seemed possible the cover could keep the character within its bounds - battling some bad man. It was priced at about $60. Outrage. I couldn't afford it. I settled for a copy of Howard the Duck #1 for $5.
 
Then we went to a big show at the Toronto Hilton, where I saw my first Fantastic Four #1. What a monster on that front cover. I saw a dad drop hundreds for a high-grade run of Fantastic Fours, between numbers 1 and 4. My head spun. Ah, my hero, Jack Kirby.
 
In my college years, the late 1970s, I walked into the Silver Snail on Queen St. W. in downtown Toronto out of curiosity and saw, ohmygod, The Silver Surfer #1, near mint for $60.
 
While in Thunder Bay, working at the Chronicle-Journal, I found a comic book shop on the Fort William side. Bought X-Men books for the first time, but missed out on #94, the second issue of the new team, by only a year or so. I thought, "What? $15? Outrage. I can't afford that on my miserly wage of $250 a week."
 
Since then, I dabbled at dealing, getting a vendor's permit that allowed me to sell at shows. I was nowhere near being considered a major player, but I held my own.
I have picked up a few things that would enhance any table, like a copy of Amazing Fantasy 15, the first Spider-Man in a Good minus condition. Affordable at about $1,000 or so.
 
I discovered the Atomic Age, the 1950s and Good Girl art - you know, comics with covers showing the moll blasting away with her gat while her skirt rises enough to show the stocking-clad gam. Made me swoon and I didn't care if the price was outrageous.
 
Plus Will Eisner and his moody inks. The EC stable of artists. Space stories written by Ray Bradbury. Realistic war stories so truthful the U.S. government got angry. It was, after all, during the Korean War and it had banned Dalton Trumbo - again.
 
EC comics, alas, what a crime it was that the forces of good defeated Bill Gaines. Goody Two-shoes - actually, the U.S. Senate that was convinced by a questionable headshrinker that crime and horror comics led to juvenile delinquency - didn't like the stories filled with gore.
 
The senate, however, didn't complain about the KKK cover.
 
There's so much to collect. Japanese Manga exploded in the North American market a few decades ago, but it's not my thing.
 
After Superman was killed off, my interest waned in the modern era, and I know that is to my detriment. But where Frank Miller saved comics with the Dark Knight limited series, the money grab of the Superman death story - when it was painfully obvious that such a character couldn't and wouldn't die - instead killed my interest in the "new stuff."
 
That's fine by me. That focuses my interests even more, forcing me to look back at what I missed - either by not being born at the right time or by ignorance - because I would now love those Metamorpho books my dad gave me as a kid in a hospital bed.
 
Rob Lamberti can be reached at lamberti@cogeco.ca
 
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