Comic wars


WHEN Stephen A. Geppi, Baltimore's comic-book distribution czar, paid $176,000 in March for a single copy of the first Captain Marvel comic book, it only surpassed the $137,500 paid for a single copy of Action Comics No. 1, the book that introduced Superman. This megadeal brought back a flood of memories for a lot of us.

Entertainment for kids in the 1940s consisted mostly of Saturday movie matinees, baseball, roller skating, dime-store shopping, ice cream cones eaten while we sat on tall drug-store stools, penny candy and comic books. They were affordable, portable and could be enjoyed anywhere. I remember spinning drugstore comic racks around and around, carefully choosing those 10-cent collectibles. Store owners shot icy stares at kids sitting cross-legged on floors reading without benefit of purchase. For less than $1, I could arrive home with enough adventure, suspense, humor, mystery and science fiction to last a week.

Condemned by educators, comic books were quickly confiscated when discovered in laps of students or behind large geography books.

Years later they did a complete turnaround and decided comics could actually be an educational tool, especially since kids were such willing participants.

For me, though, trading those books was the greatest challenge. Every summer Saturday morning of my childhood -- at 10 a.m. sharp -- I brushed back my long brown hair, smoothed down my skirt and prepared for battle. My ammunition . . . a pile of comic books. I maneuvered the long country driveway with a load in my arms. Long before I reached the end, I could see the "enemy" down the road, precariously leaning against mailboxes next to tall stacks that I hoped would be mine by the time my mother called me home for lunch.

They spotted me, too, as I marched down the road to meet them on neutral territory. Once there, combat could begin. While our parents focused on what was happening in Europe, our full attention was on the skirmish at hand.

Battle lines were carefully drawn. Soon Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman and Dick Tracy lay across the grass from Archie, Mutt and Jeff and Sub-Mariner. We all knew the rules: one mint comic for another, two for one in the event of badly torn pages, missing covers, etc. Here was where the heaviest bargaining was done. Due to pets, siblings and overzealous house-cleaning mothers, comics had a way of not surviving too well. Of course, boys and girls had different ideas on comic heroes. I recall one particular day when I had to give up Mary Marvel and Orphan Annie to get a Wonder Woman I had my eye on. Boys seemed to have two things in their favor. They were louder and more shrewd. After all, they had lots of practice trading everything from baseball cards and catchers' mitts to bicycles.

Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates took their places alongside the Shadow, Andy Panda and Felix The Cat. I tried a last ditch effort for some Disney Comics, but I had traded almost everything I came with. As the day's encounter was drawing to a close, the spoils of war were hastily gathered. I hadn't done too badly as I smiled to myself and turned toward home. And, for those I didn't get, there was always the next week.

Barbara Sparks writes from Glen Burnie.

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