I am the third of three children, the second boy. That meant hand-me-downs, and in my case hand-me-down comics. My older brother didn’t have a huge amount of comics, but he did have a fair-sized stack of black and white omnibus reprints. The covers had been torn off long ago, but it didn’t matter – what mattered where the stories inside. It was through these tomes, illustrated bibles to a child, that I learned of characters like Ghost Rider, Braniac, Mister Miracle and Red Tornado. I can still remember reading Batman’s origin story for the first time – the broken window, the look of shock on Bruce Wayne’s face… classic.
The first comic book that I remember being bought for me was an early collection of Daredevil, drawn and in some cases co-written by Frank Miller.* I looked it up for the first time, just then, and it seems to have been four issues from mid-1980. Like so many collected editions they were reprinted in black and white. In retrospect, the lack of garish colour probably lifted Miller’s work – I certainly never thought it lacked anything; everyone knew Daredevil wore red, who cared what anything else looked like? Those stories introduced me to villains like Doctor Octopus (it took years for me to realise he was on loan from Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery), the Hulk and Gladiator. It was fantastic stuff, full of conflict, tension, humour, wonder and danger. I read and re-read those issues, devoured them, internalised them. I am telling the truth when I say that I can still remember the images, if I close my eyes.
I also remember the first comic book I bought with my own money. I was in Grade 3, at a poorly-organised second-hand sale at my new primary school. Sitting on one of the tables was this;
I bought it with the silver coins in my pocket. It was, in fact, the first thing that I consciously remember buying with my own money.
It was something new to me, something dark. ‘Cloak’ and ‘Dagger’ were anti-heroes, a phrase that wasn’t used anywhere in the book yet one I knew on some instinctual level. Spider-Man came across these two mysterious figures on the dingy rooftops of New York City, stumbling into a fight between them and a bunch of no-good mobsters. The thing was, Cloak and Dagger had an edge to them, a raw, nasty edge. Dagger could throw shafts of light at people, shafts that could paralyse, could kill. Cloak had a, well, a cloak, but it was a cloak that trapped victims in a terrifying abyss, a confusing realm of darkness where they lost all sense of direction until they ran screaming… screaming, off an apartment rooftop, plummeting to their deaths.
Suffice to say, it didn’t end there. Cloak and Dagger had been street kids. Mobsters had kidnapped them off the streets (or maybe tricked them, I can’t remember those details), then used them in horrific experiments to test new designer drugs. Naturally, the drugs didn’t kill them but instead gave them powers, which they were now using to slay those who wronged them. Spider-Man fought a terrifying, claustrophobic three-way battle between these misguided, vengeance-fueled teens and the mobsters who were trying to kill anyone who got in their way. All in about twenty-odd pages.
I learned a lot of things from that comic. First, what an APB was (I remember the helpful editor’s note down the bottom of one panel). Second, I think the finale was on Ellis Island, and the author gave some evocative descriptions of the ghost-filled halls, of the pain of immigration, of being cast out from your home, of searching for acceptance. Third, that comics rocked.
I was hooked, and have been ever since. I’ve never been much of a Spider-Man fan, but to me that issue stands up as one of the finest, most evocative, most important works of Western literature. All for under a dollar.
* apologies to my brother if I got this wrong – this may actually be one of his. Out of the stack of comics that I remember from early childhood, though, this felt like mine, more than any other.