Mike Gold: Buying Comic Books

Pittsburgh Newsstand

For most of those of you who are lucky enough to have grown up near a comic book store, you may be unfamiliar with those hallowed days when we had to go to our local drug store, candy shop), grocery store, and/or newsstand to get our four-color fix.

Right there among the legitimate journals, next to the “men’s sweat” magazines that cover-featured well-dressed Gestapo agents torturing hapless well-endowed American women who somehow got caught up in the war effort, beside the farm magazines and the science monthlies and the news weeklies, awaited our favorite comic book characters ripe for the plucking. We didn’t have fanzines, let alone the Internet, to tell us what was coming out each week. New titles and new characters simply appeared at one or another outlet – no one place had them all – and that element of surprise was vital to our bouillabaisse of comic book entertainment.

Each Saturday my friends and I would hike down Devon Avenue from Kedzie to Western Avenue on Chicago’s north side, stopping at seven or eight different stores that met our needs. Mind you, some of us – most certainly yours truly – had already gone to as many as three different drug stores located nearer to our school. Oh, sure, we did lots of other things kids did back then, like lag baseball cards and scarf down Vienna hot dogs and mock the adult passersby and wise off to the police who seemed to hate us kids (I wonder why?). But that part of our itinerary varied from week to week. The constant was gawking at all those comic book racks.

Afterward we would go to one of our sundry abodes to read our stash, often sharing purchases with one another. Then we would discuss what we read. I remember when my best friend declared he did not think my favorite artist, Joe Kubert, actually knew how to draw. Another in our group declared he was uninterested in the embryonic Marvel Comics line because they were all written by the same guy. “If Stan Lee got hit by a truck,” my pal surmised, “they’d be up shit’s creek.”

Well, I certainly would have been. Fantastic Four #1 came out right when I turned 11 and I was just beginning to tire, just a little bit, of DC’s domination of the superhero genre. Marvel’s continuous growth stoked my interest in the medium.

As Flo and Eddie informed us, before too long those sing-along days were lost to us forever. Contrary to the popular belief of the time, it wasn’t television that really killed comic book sales. It was the slow death of all those mom’n’pop stores as families bought cars, moved out to the suburbs, and shopped in malls and chain stores where the profit margin on a ten or twelve-cent comic book was way too thin to justify retail floor space. Comic books that had been selling a half million or more copies drifted downward to maybe 100,000, and then even lower. Sell-through percentages spiraled down from 70% or more to 40% or less.

Cast-off from the growingly elitist science-fiction fandom, comics fans got organized. Comic book stores started popping up and the wondrous Phil Seuling cut deals with the publishers to get their wares directly into those comics shops. Phil saved our beloved medium’s ass.

The sad by-product of this was if you didn’t live near one of those comics shops, you were out of luck. The average age of the average reader went up as you pretty much had to have access to a car to get to a direct sales store… assuming there actually was one within driving distance. For most… no soap.

It was a deal with the devil but the comic book remains alive in America. Unfortunately, those kids today who live within walking distance of that one-mile stretch of Devon Avenue have exactly zero places to buy comic books and those other three drug stores are all out of business.

Life changes for better and for worse. But it was really fun to be surrounded by all those newsstands.