Mike Gold: Remember The Nickel Hot Dog?

Jimmy OlsenThe beginning of each new year fills us with hope for a better future. You’d think that after a while we’d catch on. After all, we have the same exact hope year after year after year. And after we acknowledge our need for such optimism, we go out and shovel the snow.

For some reason I need not investigate, this first week of 2016 has me in the thralls of nostalgia. This disease is common to comics fans; I think it comes as part of our shared O.C.D. But I’ve been thinking about how much fun I had when I was a wee tyke on my perpetual search for new comics.

Back well-before the days I started yelling at the clouds, I lived for The Great Hunt. We had no idea what was coming out each week, although we did know when certain monthly titles usually arrived at our sundry sundry stores. This, of course, was long before Phil Seuling started selling comics to comic book shops (and, initially, comic book “clubs”).

Growing up in a big city I had plenty of options, but my friends and I had to hit many stores in order to make certain we were able to buy everything – well, almost everything – that came out during the week. Some stores didn’t get comics from certain publishers; for some reason, on the north side of Chicago it was particularly difficult to obtain an array of titles from Charlton, Harvey (particularly those titles that weren’t meant to be funny), United Features and ACG. I only knew of one place that stocked the United Features titles and, then, only briefly. DC, Marvel (distributed at the time by DC), Archie, and Dell were just about everywhere. Woolworths stocked those weird I.W. titles.

Fantastic FourBack then, new comics came out on Thursdays and we would hit the drug store across from our grammar school while the last school bell was still ringing. Often, we would get there before the clerk opened the bundles so we invested our wait time gazing at the Robert McGinnis covers on the paperback rack. On Saturdays we would take our trek down Devon Avenue where, in the stretch of two-thirds of a mile, there were seven separate stores that sold comics and we’d  hit each and every one. There were two other outlets that were in different but nearby neighborhoods and we’d visit them individually or in smaller groups.

This is not to say that we didn’t do other things while on our weekly comics journey. We would lag baseball cards, chomp down Vienna hot dogs and fries fried in lard, tell jokes, play pranks, and generally act our age. We’d wind up at the home of one of our crowd and read our comics and turn our buddies onto stuff we liked, while listening to rock and roll on the radio or on the turntable. And we’d be home in time for dinner.

I remember the day Jimmy Olsen number 57 came out. It was the first comic book I had seen at the 12¢ price point. I gawked at that cover in fear and wonder, thinking DC must have been violating some sort of law by charging more than one thin dime. Shortly thereafter, Marvel (again; distributed by DC) met DC’s action. Dell went up to 15¢ but, as the odd-man-out, they had to recede to the then-common 12¢ cover price.

I should point out that DC upped the price after many months of saying “STILL 10¢.” At the time, I didn’t see that as a threat. My mistake. Inside they ran a message explaining costs go up and when comics got their start hot dogs cost a nickel. When, some 15 years later, DC upped their cover price I was on staff editing publisher Jenette Kahn’s “publishorials.” I topped her piece with the headline “Remember The Nickel Hot Dog?”

Bill GainesA year or so later, Mad Magazine publisher Bill Gaines revealed he tracked inflation with the “hot dog index,” an invention of his own creation. He compared everything to the price of a Nathan’s hot dog when he was a kid. At that time hot dogs went for just under a dollar (New York had what was called “the hot dog tax” where they didn’t tax food under a buck), and comics were 35¢. Of course, we surpassed the relative cost of a hot dog within the next decade and our medium has never looked back.

About eight years later, when DC raised the cover price to 15¢, they re-ran that “Remember The Nickel Hot Dog” letter, pretty much word for word.

Prices go up. Stores go away. We invent new means of distribution. Comics live on.