TOTALLY MARKING OUT FOR BACK ISSUES! and the Sobering Case of the Human Fly


brock lesnar guy and CM punk marking outMY EARLIEST MEMORIES
 of buying and reading comic books are from when I was four or five, sometime around 1981, but it wasn’t until 1986 that I got into comics full-force.

Our family had moved to Santa Rosa, CA that year, and my grandparents came to visit. During their visit my grandfather took me to the Bennett Valley 7-11 near our apartment and told me to pick out a few comics. I remember buying issue #16 of Groo the Wanderer and issue #318 of Captain America. After that, I started making visits to the 7-11 on my own and buying an increasing roster of titles each month. Time passed, and 7-11 gave way to Best of Two Worlds on 4th St., which eventually moved to the Brickyard Center near the mall before becoming Barrett’s Comics and Games.

Groo the Wanderer #16Captain America #318

My comics fandom continued until high school where it was then derailed by a misguided interest in punk rock music and 40 oz. bottles of malt liquor, yet even though I’ve never gotten back into regular readership, those years spent immersed in comic books left a significant mark on my imaginal landscape.

As a kid I was first drawn to comics both for their aesthetic presentation and their addictive, episodic narratives. Collecting for the sake of collecting didn’t even occur to me. So long as I got to take in the gripping visuals and experience the yarn spun by a story arc that caught my interest, it didn’t matter to me whether a comic book was a first-run original or a 10,000th edition reprint. Still, as a child of the 1980s, when the Overstreet Guide loomed large over the comics world and the phrase “First Issue” was to fanboys what “Logos” is to the New Testament, it would have taken willpower stronger than mine to remain unmoved by Back Issue Valuation Fever.

1986 Overstreet Price GuideDuring that year of 1986, in the living rooms and bed rooms of apartments and tract homes scattered around Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley area, elementary school boys sat, “Indian style” as it was called then, poring over dog-eared copies of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and matching up stated prices with the contents of mylar-bagged comic books filed in cardboard long-boxes.

In the midst of this poring and matching and inevitable chest-thumping about the projected dollar values of our collections–dollar values that assumed grateful shop owners ready to pay us exactly stated Overstreet amounts for our invaluable inky wares–I found myself falling firmly into the grip of collection madness.

A college professor of mine once described the downside of collecting as follows:

A person enjoys looking at butterflies. Said person then decides that, based upon his or her interest,  he or she would like to begin collecting butterflies. Said person manages to collect a group of butterflies, but the collection of butterflies soon loses its luster as the collector realizes there are more uncollected butterflies out in the world. The person then collects more butterflies but still more remain uncollected. Eventually, the person becomes wholly given over the act of collecting and loses whatever passion he or she had for butterflies to begin with.

Now, I know people who collect almost as an art form. They find treasure hidden amid junk and either re-purpose it for themselves or sell it to someone else in order to buy more treasure they find hidden amid more junk. In this instance I can understand collecting, as the process is the the thing: these individuals are not hoarding items out of compulsion or hand-wringing about future worth, but rather engaging in a fluid process of discovery and renewal. However, the collecting I stumbled into by way of speculative back-issue-valuation was of the more cloying, butterfly-esque variety.

Returning to those mid-80’s circles of cross-legged youth chanting and analyzing texts in an almost Rabbinical way, there would sometimes be a moment when–among the paltry figures the majority of our contemporary comics were “worth” by imaginary price guide standards–a white whale of a number associated with an old issue none of us owned would jump off the Overstreet page, and we’d be yanked into choppy waters, searching for more and greater figures associated with even older and harder to find issues. We’d then salivate over what it would be like to own these rare and valuable volumes and how astronomically they’d raise the worth of our collections.

Amazing Fantasy #15Amazing Fantasy #15, Batman #1, Superman #1, Detective Comics #27, Action Comics #1…these were the Grails that made our heads spin. Yet at our young age, and with our meager funding (it was hard enough scrounging up 75 cents to buy a current issue off the newsstand), such deities of collection were unattainable. What was attainable, however, was the hope that we might come across our own contemporary versions of these gems. A 75 cent first issue of a title today might become a $750,000 crown jewel of our collection tomorrow. And it was this hope that led to constant vigilance of our Overstreet guides, a tome we began reading more than the comics themselves.

Around that time a calculated trend began in the comics world, one that seemed like a happy coincidence to our not-yet-cynical-and-world-weary-pre-teen minds: the market became increasingly flooded with new titles, all of which debuted with requisite “first issues.” While our cursing the fact that we hadn’t been born at the dawn of the Silver Age with dimes at the ready wasn’t going to change the past, diligently buying the first issue of every new title coming down the pike was certain, we thought, to change our future.

It was this mindset that clouded my relationship with comics for the first few years. It got to the point where I literally spent more time fiddling around with a rickety Word Perfect database of my collection and each issue’s Overstreet value than I did reading my comics or enjoying what I read. First issues piled up, long-boxes were filled and stacked in my closet, my database was meticulously maintained, but the simple excitement I’d found in kicking back on a couch reading Groo the Wanderer #16 and Captain America #318 had been lost in the mix.

And then, some time during this period, I ended up with my family at a local used bookstore called Paperbacks Unlimited. Unlike the comic shops I used to frequent, I believe Paperbacks Unlimited is still in operation today. I wandered around the science fiction/fantasy section for awhile but didn’t see anything I wanted to buy. Then I turned a corner and saw two tall, spinning magazine racks full of comic books. I spun the racks, and after skipping past a few rows of Disney comics that didn’t interest me, I found a bunch of Marvel comics that appeared to be from the 70’s. They were all different issues, all from the same title: a book called The Human Fly, and all priced at 25 cents!

The Human Fly #1Again, you couldn’t even get current issues off the newsstand for less than 75 cents at that time, and here were all these issues of a book from another decade, all in good condition, all for a quarter each. I was convinced I’d hit a treasure trove. These things HAD to be worth more than a quarter, so I bought the entire 19-issue run of The Human Fly for $4.75 , took the books home with me, went directly to my bedroom, and…just before reaching for my Overstreet Guide, decided to thumb through the first issue.

What started as thumbing soon became close reading, which then lead to my reading the second issue, then the third, then the fourth, then I took a break to write up some homemade “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe”-style dossiers on each of the title’s characters, then I read some more, then paused again to determine Marvel Super Heroes role playing game stats for the characters I’d made dossiers on, then went back to reading, until eventually I finished the whole series and started rifling through my long-boxes for a new title to read.

I don’t know that there was anything special about The Human Fly. I don’t remember the book very well all these years later. In looking it up, it sounds kind of iffy. Per wikipedia:

“The…Human Fly was a young man of unknown identity who was severely injured during a car crash. After a long hospitalization, including a number of reconstructive surgeries in which much of his skeleton was replaced by steel, he took on the masked identity of the Human Fly. As the Human Fly, he performed daredevil stunts to benefit various charities, especially those helping children with disabilities.

His activities often drew him into conflict with criminals, who were often seeking to rob the charity events at which he performed. Additionally, he drew the attention of Spider-Man, who thought he might be the villain of the same name.”

And indeed, if I recall correctly, pretty much every issue revolved around a charity event, a planned big stunt, a creep stealing the charitable proceeds, and The Human Fly laying the smackdown. The wiki entry also jogged my memory re: the fact that Spider-Man was occasionally a pain in the ass to the Fly. Sort of ironic, Spiderman mistaking a do-gooder as a menace, no?

The Human Fly Charity Event

Ultimately though, it wasn’t the cookie-cutter stories, nor the muscular Bronze Age artwork, nor even the kind-of-cool tag-line stating that The Human Fly was “THE WILDEST SUPER-HERO EVER–BECAUSE HE’S REAL” (the character was indeed based on the enigmatic real-world stuntman Rick Rojatt), the magic of the Human Fly for me was the fact that, on a lazy weekend afternoon, I gave myself over to the words and the colors and the lines on the page, and I found myself completely immersed in an internally consistent fantasy world. Further, I rode that wave and let it carry me into all the wonderful obsession and compulsion that goes along with childhood comics fandom at its best. I read, I imagined, I created, and I read some more, without once giving thought to collections, conditions, or values.

Because of this, and even though I never revisited the title after that first reading, The Human Fly holds a special place in my comic book memories. After that afternoon, my whole attitude and approach to comics got more relaxed. Comic books started being left strewn around my bedroom, neither bagged nor boarded. Books were read for reading’s sake, and the only comics-related databases I maintained had to do with story ideas or characters for the Marvel Super Heroes role playing game. My enjoyment of the genre became a lot fuller and I never looked back or consulted the Overstreet Guide again.

Spider-Man #1 1990 PlatinumI don’t know what happened to most of my comics from that time period. After I stopped curating them for their imaginary, impending sale, they started to disappear into the ether. But that’s OK. I’ll take the memories, all of which were a lot more pleasant once I got over the collection aspect. To be honest though, while writing this I became curious and looked up the value on those Human Fly books. Seems as if they’re going anywhere from $1 to $5 on ebay. Sounds about right. BUT, in looking those up, I also saw that the 1990 Platinum Edition of Spider-Man #1, WHICH I TOTALLY HAD, is going for $170. Maybe I should have stuck with the collecting schtick after all…

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