It’s cold as ice . . .

No, that doesn’t mean I’ve been listening to Foreigner. It just means that winter has arrived. On a couple of days this week I shifted my walk to the afternoon—on Wednesday because the snow had turned to rain and Thursday because I just couldn’t get motivated to get out in the morning. Afternoon walks are just fine, though, especially in the winter when the western sky is tinted the color of wheat and flocks of ducks fly down the creek, with the setting sun turning their underwings orange as they bank.

For me this is comic book weather. It reminds me of the times back in the seventies when I would walk through wintertime Augusta, Maine, on my twice-weekly rounds to buy comic books. I was a pretty serious comic-book collector throughout high school and I must have amassed thousands of them. At first I kept them in little stacks on a little metal shelf in my bedroom. Eventually they began taking up more and more room in my closet. At some point I put them in big steamer trunks. I sold one trunkful to finance my move to Washington, D.C., in 1985. Just a few weeks ago I sold my copy of Fantastic Four #1 on eBay for $510. I had purchased it when I was in high school for $25, but the price was low because someone (not me, I hasten to add) had clipped the muscle-man ad from the inside front cover.

Back then the two newsstands in Augusta received their new books and magazines on Wednesdays and Fridays. During the temperate months I rode my bike to the newsstands to see what had come in, but in the winter—on days like yesterday and today—I made the circuit on foot and felt the bite of the cold winter air in my lungs as I clomped around town in my winter boots. First I’d head downtown to Depot News, a rundown place on the edge of downtown that doubled as the city’s Greyhound station. It smelled of cigars and even in the 1970s it felt like something from a black-and-white film. Sometimes I’d reach Depot News before they had put their new arrivals out, so I’d continue my hike up the hill in the direction of the State Capitol building to State Street News. It didn’t have the same downtown vibe as Depot News but by the time I got there they usually had their comics out.  I’d make my purchases and complete the circuit by walking across the Memorial Bridge, up the long hill past the high school, and back home.

I read Marvel comics almost exclusively. Superhero comics were okay, but I preferred horror and science fiction titles. My two favorites were Man-Thing and Tomb of Dracula. Man-Thing, in fact, was the comic that sparked my collecting mania. One summer day I read one of his adventures in the comic Adventure into Fear and I thought it was pretty cool. I decided I would keep this comic book and my collection began to grow around it.

The Man-thing was a swamp creature, a mindless, shambling monstrosity of muck and mire that had once been scientist Ted Sallis. He had big red eyes, three root-like growths that formed his face, and powerful ape-like arms. The comic often called him “macabre,” a great word. Man-thing lived in the Everglades, which happened to be a nexus of realities where parallel dimensions met and bizarre things often happened. Unlike his D.C comics counterpart Swamp Thing, the macabre Man-thing could neither think nor speak, but he could respond to emotions, especially fear. It was best not to fear the Man-Thing, because whatever knows fear burns at the Man-thing’s touch.

It was a strange comic, switching back and forth from somewhat ham-fisted morality tales to surreal otherworldly adventures (one of which introduced the cult character Howard the Duck). I was either oblivious to or just ignored the somewhat ribald nature of the name (made even more obvious in the jumbo spin-off comic, Giant-Sized Man-Thing).

Tomb of Dracula was even better. Written for most of its run by a guy whose name was really Marv Wolfman, it spun a complex saga of gothic horror, with Dracula himself a complicated central character. He was evil, no doubt about that, but he also had a beleaguered nobility about him. Best of all, he was illustrated by the Gene Colon, one of the great comic-book artists. Colon had a very fluid way of drawing—as though gravity ebbed and pulsed in ways that stretched his characters and panels in all directions. It was a bold and dynamic style that worked to great effect in other Marvel comics, especially Dr. Strange and Daredevil. I though Colon was at his best in Dracula, in part because of the fine inking by a guy named Tom Palmer. Colon drew the pencil sketches and Palmer would add the depth with his inks, and you could always tell Palmer’s work. He made other illustrators look good, too, but he and Colon made a perfect match.

I was in horror comic book heaven when Dracula teamed up with the title character from another comic I liked, Werewolf by Night. The match prompted me to take pen in hand and write to Marvel. Imagine my delight weeks later when I received a postcard telling me that my letter would appear in Tomb of Dracula #22 (and so it did). I guess that must have been my first published writing. I still have the postcard and I keep it tucked inside the comic book.

After I sold the Fantastic Four on eBay I took out my bins of comics and went through those colorful pieces of my past. Strangely enough, though, I found I lacked the patience to actually read any of them cover to cover. I never felt guilty reading them when they were new, but now I feel I should be tending to more important things. I guess that’s one of the burdens of growing up.

Yesterday I kept the iPod on shuffle as I walked through the cold, wintry neighborhood. Nothing really grabbed me until I heard “One Fine Day” from the David Byrne/Brian Eno CD Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It fell just short of inspirational, but it did lift my spirits considerably. As I made my way up the final hill a school bus stopped at the top and disgorged a couple of kids, who ran down the hill toward their waiting mom. One of them stopped to pick up a big chunk of frozen snow crust and went running down the sidewalk with his prize clutched in his bare hands—I assume he wanted it because it was a really big chunk of frozen snow crust, something that was cool in more ways than one. You value things differently when you’re a kid.

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