I’m fresh back from the 25th Annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, in Cleveland (in fact I drafted most of this on a plane with an incredible view of snow-frosted mountains far, far below). There Craig and I presented a paper from our recently launched project about the work of Eddie Campbell. Balloonists assemble!
The presentation went well and the conference was excellent and encouraging; the general level of interest in comics was high. I came away with plenty to think about. In the meantime, all this traveling has reminded me of something else, something I’d file under the “Unlooked-for”:
About a week ago, on Easter weekend, from Friday to Monday, my family took a cool trip. Michele, Coleman, Nick and I went exploring in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, just a few hours north of our usual southern California digs. Though many sites within the parks were still closed for winter, we had plenty to visit, walk through, gaze at, and (try to) absorb, from the Giant Forest and Hospital Rock in Sequoia through the Grant Grove in Kings Canyon to various unexpected side trips, roadside stops, and vistas. It was a lightning trip that left vivid impressions.
The weekend wrapped (Sunday night through Monday afternoon) with a storm warning, then heavy, sustained snowfall and impromptu trips to the Grant Grove market to buy tire cables and a window scraper -- and then quite a bit of grunt work, under hairy conditions, to get out of Kings Canyon safely. A night and a day of snowing -- well over a foot by the time we left -- forced us to dig out our car and schlep our gear out of the Muir Lodge and down a long hill over ice and slush, dodging trucks and cars fishtailing and sliding through same. During our twelve years in Connecticut (during which we never had the benefit of a garage) we faced conditions as tough, but I’ve never had to work harder to free a car from the snow than we did this past Monday. Finally at midday we began our drive home, with cables biting the slush and the car vibrating like hell. This in California in springtime -- that’s what higher elevations will do for you. Yow, it was a beautiful night and day, and wild, and a bit of a white-knuckler to drive through.
The weekend’s adventure -- and there is something comics-related in all this, promise -- started differently, at a lower elevation and without snow. We headquartered on Friday and Saturday nights in the town of Three Rivers, down in the foothills (elevation c. 1000 feet) as opposed to the giant sequoia belt (5000-6000 feet). Three Rivers lies just outside Sequoia’s southwest corner. Our HQ was a motel called the Sierra Lodge, which, Michele found out, was built mostly back in the 1940s. It looked it: a mashup of homey decorative detail, roadside kitsch, and rugged ingenuity, with fixtures and bits redolent of the fifties and sixties. The motel’s so-called Penthouse, a memorably eccentric space, proved to be our bivouac, where we hunkered down nights, played games, and scraped together a few meals over a kitchenette stove that amounted to, basically, a couple of hotplate burners. The “scraping” included shopping at nearby village markets, whose inventories were a mixture of the new and old and whose prices gave Nick opportunity to share what he has learned in Econ class regarding “location monopolies.” Three Rivers, despite being on the skirts of a famously beautiful tourist magnet, has patches of shelf-worn anachronism and seems, at least in early April, sparse and relatively undeveloped. Which means of course that it was pretty cool.
And here’s something cool and very odd that we found:
Shopping at a Shell station that doubles as a market, gathering up eggs, bread and canned soup, et cetera, we came upon this spinner rack:
Huh. What this rack held was some shopworn coloring books and forty copies of a single comic book:
Yep, issue 11 of Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, cover-dated Jan. 1986, thirty-two pages long at a cover price of $1.00. Its wraparound cover is by Paris Cullins and the late Dick Giordano. Interior contents: encyclopedia-style entries on various DC characters and teams, spanning from Icicle (drawn by Paris Cullins and Karl Kesel) to Jonni Thunder, a.k.a. Thunderbolt (drawn by Giordano, who also inks several other entries).
That’s right: forty copies of one comic book, and it turns out to be almost a quarter-century old and without any story.
Wouldn’t you want to know why so many copies of such a thing turned up in one place?
I resisted the urge to buy a copy, though everyone in the family said I should. By the time I got back in the car I wished I had bought one. Mich kindly went back to the store later and snagged me one (as well as the above photos) before we left the area. (Mich tells me that the clerk worried about selling it to her for "only" a dollar since it was a collectible. Some basic lesson about supply and demand comes to mind!) So now I have Who's Who #11 as a sort of double memento, commemorating both our trip and the era of my “rediscovery” of comic books circa 1985-86.
Personal history time: I started buying DC comics once again, and comics period, during the summer of 1985. It was about July or August if I remember rightly (regular TB readers may remember that I wrote about this period once before). So for me there’s a real time-capsule quality about Who’s Who #11, partly because of its date -- just a few months into my newly rediscovered hobby and smack dab in the middle of DC’s vaunted “relaunch” -- partly because of its house ads for then-upcoming DC comics, and partly because it’s illustrated with drawings by, among others, Joe Orlando (The Inferior Five), Jerry Ordway (Jade; Infinity, Inc.), Jack Kirby and Greg Theakston (Infinity Man), Murphy Anderson (I.Q.), Joe Kubert (The Iron Major), Howard Chaykin (Iron Wolf), Don Heck (Jason Bard), Gene Colan and Bob McLeod (Jemm, Son of Saturn), George Pérez (Jericho), and Gil Kane (Johnny Thunder, the Western gunslinger). The text is by writer/editor Len Wein and several other known names, including Marv Wolfman, scripter of the then-current Crisis on Infinite Earths, to which Who’s Who was essentially a companion. (Wolfman and Pérez's continuity-revising History of the DC Universe would follow.)
Back in 1985-86 I collected Crisis avidly but not Who’s Who, because I wasn’t interested in “directories,” only stories. I still feel the same way. But now I have Who’s Who #11 as a reminder of the surprises that can show up in out-of-the-way corners and spinner racks. Where on earth did forty copies of this come from, what box or shelf or garage or attic or comics shop?
I’ve skimmed the comic and it has the kind of text that deflects rather than holds my attention. It’s dry and poker-faced and unself-consciously silly. In any case, trying to keep tabs on company characters and continuity this way is a mug’s game; in their time these Who’s Who comics were rather like a new piece of consumer electronics, that is, obsolete by the time they shipped. Still, issue 11 is a fun, evocative object, with its redundant character names (Immortal Man, Infinite Man, Infinity Man; Johnny this-and-that), period design elements, and pervasive use of color holds:
Now that I have it, I wouldn’t part with it. It’s good to have a few time capsules like these around.