Comics Back Then: Simpler Times?

spiderman_trainIt’s hard to imagine it in today’s world, but there was a time when, as a 7-year-old kid, I was allowed to board a streetcar and venture from my house in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to a comic store many miles away. I was allowed to do this by myself. Alone. Sure, I’d often go with a fellow third-grader, but we were in essence alone, away from any sort of parental influence, away from siblings, and away from home. We were kids on a mission to get comics. This was our world and we knew the ins and outs of not only the neighborhood we lived in, but also the surrounding neighborhoods. We worried about nothing except whether or not we’d have enough money to get that week’s books. These trips were the beginnings of my love affair with comics.

Now maybe it was a simpler and more innocent time, or maybe it was simply the fact that my hippie parents were too busy smoking dope and sticking it to the man to care (probably a little of both), but I look back on those times of childhood comics-driven adventure with a kind of relish, fully aware that those days are gone and that my own children will never really experience that particular brand of simple freedom. Oh to live in a world where kids can roam freely and quest for the The Amazing Spider-Man without fear of something terrible happening to them. Thanks to the Internet, we’ve got news and information at our fingertips twenty-four hours a day. But at what cost?

Now I don’t necessarily believe that the world is any more dangerous now than it was then, but things are undeniably different now. And as a parent inundated on a rocketracerdaily basis with horrific news, troubling images, Internet claptrap, the thought of my little ones on a streetcar without me strikes a strange kind of fear in my heart. It’s irrational and sad, but there it is. If my son (who is seven) were to say to me one morning, “Hey Dad, I’m going to the comic shop. See you around dinner time,” I’d promptly spit milk and Frosted Flakes across the room and then pull him into a loving bear hug. Not going to happen. A trip to the comic store for my kids now entails planning, adult supervision, rules and regulations. It’s all very structured. The days of kids venturing alone to the comic store are essentially dead. There may be someplace in America where it’s still a kids-wandering-the-streets til dark free-for-all, but I’m not sure I could find it on a map.

As luck would have it, my kids don’t really have a lot of interest in venturing to the comic shop, at least not yet. They like comics, but comics don’t represent the escape and independence that they did for me. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, unlike my own personal childhood experience, acquiring comics for them is now inextricably linked to a parental presence. Even if they’re getting digital books on their “devices,” the old man has to be involved, if only to provide a password or credit card or both. They’re also much more about instant gratification. The concept of long walks alone and bus rides to magical stores full of comic book wonder are sort of foreign to them.

He blames society.

He blames society.

It’s typically me who wants to wander to the comic shop, and I don’t need mommy’s permission. And aside from my pontificating about the “good old days” of childhood wanderlust, my kids don’t really know anything other than what they’ve experienced themselves. They know that play-dates are meticulously planned out, bike rides often take the form of parentally photographed events, and they know that you never ever ride a streetcar to the comic store (or anywhere else for that matter) without the good folks who brought them into this world. I sometimes lament their structured lives, despite the very fact that they don’t feel particularly restricted by their own status quo. Maybe I’m wasting my energy thinking about the way things used to be, but screw it, I can’t help but long for the days when a kid could have a little “me time” and a life of their own. To quote Duke from Repo Man, “I blame society.”

And so it’s clearly me who has this distracting brand of nostalgia for a time when imgres-2all that was really asked of a comic-loving kid during summer vacation was to be home by dinnertime. That’s not a Normal Rockwell fantasy I’m misremembering or romanticizing. That was real. My world was anything but a Norman Rockwell-esque, mind you. The Haight-Ashbury of the mid-Seventies was sort of like Mos Eisley with weed and tie-dye. Maybe it was dangerous, maybe it wasn’t, but we certainly didn’t think a kid’s trip to the comic store would naturally land your face on a milk carton. Damn you, society.

imgresFortunately, I still have a lot of the comics I purchased back then, and they act as a sort of time machine, linking me to that past and reminding me of a time when all we cared about was what was happening this month in the lives of Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. Back issues are sort of special in the way they transport the reader through everything from the paper, the ads, the smell and artwork. I know I’m not the only one feeling this sort of nostalgia, at least not judging by the retro-trends that seems to pop up a lot in comics lately. Maybe it’s a post-modern nod to cool stuff from the past or maybe it’s just publishers’ increased awareness that all of us who grew up back then want desperately to re-experience those touchstones of what once was. When you put something like issue #13 of Deadpool in my hands (a book that basically re-creates the look and feel of a comic from the Bronze Age), I can’t help but be teleported to the very time that particular book is attempting to ape, even if the story itself is perhaps a bit more “modern” in content.

There’s a lot of effort being made to get a new generation of kids into comics. The Marvel’s “Share Your Universe” initiative is specifically designed to get people like me to pass down the comic book tradition to the next generation. I appreciate the effort. I hope it works. But while you can lead a kid to Spider-Man, there’s no guarantee that he or she will latch on and become a fan. That has to happen organically on some level. Today’s young (and old) comic book lovers can press a button and bring the latest issue of Fantastic Four to their computers and tablets in a matter of seconds. No need to venture outside. No need to talk to anyone. Press a button and you get your Spider-Man fix day and date. Again, instant gratification is the zeitgeist. People want what they want, and they want it yesterday. I sometimes wonder if convenience and a lack of any sort of journey devalues the comics experience. There’s no going back, I’m well aware of that. As I’ve said, the days of the sort of those sorts of “Stand By Me” childhood adventures to the comic book stores aren’t likely to return any time soon. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes nice to remember that there was a time when parents hung back, encouraged a kind of independence and ultimately empowered their kids with the responsibility to discover comics for themselves.


Gabe Roth is doing his best to live in the now. He loves comics and he’s @gaberoth on Twitter. Follow him.

 

Comments

  1. I miss the comics experience when I was a kid. Growing up in New Jersey, I thought nothing of walking a couple miles to my lock comc shop. I don’t just miss the experience that Gabevtals bout in this article, though. I miss the comics themselves. I have rarely enjoyed comics as much as I did reading Marvel comics from the late 70s to the mid 80s. Yeah, they weren’t as “adult” or sophisticated as the comics today. But you know what? I think they were better. I certainly enjoyed them more, t least. And I have gone back and read so e of them recently and they are just as great as I remember. I wish Marvel books still gave me that joy. I am not saying I don’t enjoy days books, I do. But I don’t get that same rush reading the new comics that I still get today reading the comics from when I was a kid.

    Interestingly enough, do get th feeling from a lot of Image Comics today. When I read Saga, I have that same joy I felt when I fell in love with comics in the first place.

  2. I think one other element that’s changed the experience is the wealth of comic book material outside of comics. Prior to the Marvel movies, the only place you’d see the Black Widow or Hawkeye was the Avengers comics. Spider-Man? You had a couple options outside of comics, but I’ve yet to hear people clamoring for a Blu Ray release for Spider-Man and The Curse of Rava.

    Reading, as many will tell you, requires conscious effort and thought. On the other hand watching a movie doesn’t necessarily. So it’s not all that surprising to me that many kids would rather watch the first two Raimi Spidey movies than pick up a book.

  3. I remember being 13, and having to ask (and sometimes beg) family members to drive me to the comic shop (maybe 12 miles, a 15 minute drive). I used to get frustrated that they would be too busy to do it, but found time to go to the drive-thru 5 times a week, or drag me to the grocery for an hour and a half. Then I got a drivers license.

    Now I can go anytime I want (provided I have gas and cash) and stay as long as I want without anyone pressuring me to “hurry up and pay so we can go home”. I’ve tried being friends with me, but the last 3-4 times has turned it into a hassle I’m not eager to make common. So now I go alone once or twice a month, hang with the clerks a bit, and leave when I want. It’s great. Growing up I couldnt leave my neighborhood past “That Stop sign”, now I’m pretty much free to come and go. Before I had to walk everywhere to get something unless I drove with someone, now it’s easy. To me, comic book day is still very anticipated.

    I remember though growing up my family’s fears of my being kidnapped, molested or mugged (or all three). Even though that was meant to discourage me, it only lasted momentarily. Now? There was drive by shooting around the corner from my house, and a craziness turning tricks 2 blocks down the road. It’s weird, I’ve been leaving in the same house for 16 years and the area around it has changed. Part of it is awareness, now we KNOW what’s happening in our city/state/country. The other? It’s hard to define; entropy? Degradation? Escalation? I don’t know.

    But lately, for some reason I’ve been craving back-issues like crazy from the 70s/80s, and retro Superman from the Silver age…

  4. Another big hurdle for kids these days is the cost. When I started buying in the late 80’s comics were 75 cents. With inflation that translates to about $1.37 today. Most kids just can’t afford to be paying $3.99 a pop at the LCS for new comics.

    This was a fun article. I can definitely identify with the nostalgia affliction. As well as the horrifying notion of letting my kids wander around town (okay, they’re 2 now, but I can guarantee it’ll hold true when they’re 7).

    • I’ve always wondered how much previous prices compare after inflation. I sometimes wish the paper quality would decrease just so they could lower the price. I read them for story and don’t bother to bag any of mine so I would trade paper quality for price reductions any day.

      I always think its funny when people tell me comics are for kids because considering the price and how mature and dark most of them are they just are not heavily marketed to the youth.

    • Here’s a good resource for figuring out price changes with inflation; it’s a government website:
      http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

      I wish I could see the cost breakdown of comics from year to year, with regard to how much of the annual sales revenue went to retailers, distributors, printers, publishers, and creators.

  5. I started avidly buying when I was 13. Of course, at the time, my parents would have to go with me. Usually it would be on the way home from school; My mom would park and let my brother and I go in. That’s how it went for awhile. Eventually they let me start walking, but now I can drive anytime I want (got my license in January!). But my area is… not good, to say the least. My parents trust me to be careful, though. I really do hate that we have to be so conscious of what’s going on. I honestly wish times WERE simpler. I’d like to be able to casually walk with some buds after school to my LCS without having to worry about getting jumped…

    • Well to be fair, that was kinda common when I was in school and I’m assuming that went on way back when as well (like the 50s even). Unless you mean something different by “jumped” than “classmate ambushes you for an ass-kicking”.

    • @IthoSapien Haha, nah school-people are cool. But there are a lot of gangs where I live.

  6. i’ve heard things that adjusted for inflation comics cost about the same as when we were kids, however there is one GIANT variable. Back in the day, i could find $1.25 in quarters, dimes and nickels very easily. So many of my middle school years comics were bought with lose change. I can’t imagine trying to grab $4 in change to buy one comic nowadays.

    I’ll never forget skipping the school bus, to take the city bus downtown to the mom and pop drug store where i bought my first comics off the spinner racks. Then a few years later the LCS that popped up. We do miss stuff with progress but that’s life. My dad used to talk about watching MLB games through holes in the fence and seeing a double feature movie with cartoon for a Quarter so each generation loses things and gains others.

    • It’s nice to hear stories about people doing things like that when they were young. I’m afraid that we (teens) as a generation have nothing going for us… 🙁

    • i’m sure there are plenty of things. My wife and i were just talking about how lucky our son is that his grandparents on the other side of the country can be around all the time via Skype video chat. We never had that.

      The thing about nostalgia…its just everyday, normal stuff that you remember fondly many years later (when its gone)

    • @wallythegreenmonster I guess so. But, yeah, I probably won’t appreciate it myself until I’m older.

  7. I never had a shop within walking distance as a kid, and there wasn’t any kind of decent public transportation either. My parents we far from hippies, but even when I was small they would let me go to the 7-11 around the block by myself or with a friend because you didn’t have to cross a street to get there. If it weren’t for the trees, you could literally throw a stone and hit the place from my house. So it wasn’t far, but it felt like freedom to me. It was there that I discovered the rush of buying my own comics from the spinner racks (something else that has gone the way of the dodo and decency).

    I’m 30 now and I don’t have any kids. But if I did, I know myself well enough to know that I’d be too anxious to even let them go to a store around the block unsupervised. It would sadden me to restrict them in ways that I myself was not restricted, but it wouldn’t make me as sad as I would be if something terrible happened to them. Like Gabe said, the world hasn’t changed much in 30 years, but our awareness of danger and the human potential to commit heinous acts of cruelty sure as hell has.

  8. I live in the middle of nowhere. For me at that age the only comic book store I knew was the drug store, grocery store, and k Mart. I had never been to a local comic book store. Flashforward over 25 years later, I’m still in the middle of nowhere and have to drive 60 miles one way to my “local” comic book store.

    It’s all good because the owner holds my pulls for months so that’s cool. It’s tough not to get spoilers waiting that long but whatever, by the time I get to read them I’ve forgotten them all.

  9. filippod filippod (@filippodee) says:

    There is also this: the vast majority of modern comics (which you can actually find in a comic shop) are rated T or T+. Our beloved comics of yesteryear have evolved to suit an older demographic. If you are a 7 years old kid today… well, comics are (mostly) not meant for you.

    I know there are all ages comics (and I buy them for my daughter) but they are generally confined in a small section in a corner even in the most illuminated of comics stores. A modern kid entering a comic shop will be greeted by a wall of shiny and inviting comics which, besides being too expensive, he’s not supposed to read anyway.

    • Dont let the grading thing fool you. The content of Batman back in the 70’s and 80’s was DEFINITELY T or T+. I quit on comics for years and when I came back and read the books from when I was a kid, they were totally different. Mature, violent, and full of references a kid just wouldn’t get. There was a lot more in there than what you would find in a modern T+ issue of Swamp Thing. I have a bronze age X-Men where Bobby Drake is chilling a beer in his dorm room in between mid-term papers. That would never make it into X-Men today.

      The price thing is tricky. Especially since there isn’t a lot of paper cash in parents wallets anymore.

  10. You were lucky to have comic book stores. As a young boy growing up in England in the 70’s I had to subscribe and pick up my comics from the local newsagents, no fun at all. I used to have them delivered until I caught the delivery boy strolling down the road reading my copy of Amazing Spider-Man, cheeky little twat.

  11. Things have definitely changed for kids today Gabe, and I think our country is going to suffer from it. I was a 10 year old hanging out at the comic shop for hours, kicking teenage ass at Street Fighter 2 and Magic. Shortly after that I began traveling my city (Vacaville) on a skateboard all day long, and by the time I was 14 I was riding BART into SF with older friends and skating til midnight. I think I turned out great, and the confidence I gained (especially in the comic shops where I learned not to be intimidated, learned the ropes of life with magic cards, comics, and quarters instead of home loans) has proven invaluable in life. I have 2 kids and really want to to have those same experiences. Unfortunately, my wife is 4 years younger and was more sheltered (in ways I think my year 83, was the last -or next to last to enjoy the freedom you talk about) and she thinks my parents were crazy, so it doesn’t look like its going to happen. That means its up to me to find other ways to foster and “teach” the same lessons I learned on my own. It was much more simple.

    Kids are so dependent today, parents are “busier” than ever on their iPhones, and immediate gratification is the norm through hi-speed internet and digital media. Ive heard its actually really bad on kids and patience is becoming more rare a virtue. It will be interesting to see our society in another 20 years. The days where I had to wait 6 months for the comic show in order to get the back issue I wanted is long gone, and some of the inherent emotional value, I think has left with it.

  12. When I was 12 I got my first outside-the-house job sweeping off the docks. Back then a kid fell between the legalese cracks and did not have to get paid minimum wage. So I made $2 an hour for about 12-20 hours a week (there was also a max limit of how many hours I could be on-the-clock, but 20 hours was under that limit and it was uncommon I got more then twelve anyway). I’m not complaining about the pay, I spent it all anyway. My point is, do kids have that sort of opportunity to earn money with which they can spend freely? Because I sure hit the comic book store on the way home after payday ritually, lol.

  13. The fondness you describe those trips to your LCS is the same reason I make it a habit to take my daughter on our special trips. Whether going to midtown comics (here in NYC) to check out some Archies or discount bookstores for her favorite manga I make it a point to go every once in a while in search of comics/books with her.
    Sure we can just download it on her kindle, but I make it a point to have our special time,building memories, a joy of reading and oh yeah, some cool stuff for dad.

  14. Don’t get me started on today’s comics compared to yesteryear’s comics. Even if there were no alternatives like the internet or cable tv, if I were a kid today I would be in a state of internal depression reading today’s storylines in comics. They are so dark and depressing and they just drag on issue after issue. It’s really hard to just pick up a random issue today because the storylines are not only convoluted but never seem to resolve itself until a few years later. Whether it’s editorial or writer’s prerogative I have no idea, but they need to find a better balance. Hickman and Rememder are the biggest culprits of this kind of storytelling.
    Even back when I was growing up there were dark times like Dark Phoenix saga and Michael Saga in the Avengers but it never dwelled on those issues too long and would move on. There was a nice balance of long storylines followed by short ones. Not so much today.
    I guess comics due to reflect the times and unfortunately we seem to live in a world that focuses more dark events than positive events.