Heroland Issue 1: Heroland Comics
Posted on November 18, 2013
By: Michael Hempen
Brought to you by Cous’n Hemp’n Entertainment
Cous’n Hemp’n Entertainment: Winner of Marvel Comics ‘No-Prize’! The only award that DOESN’T get you laid!
Issue 1: Heroland Comics
The Soul of the Spider…
Let me start by saying: Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a dork. Much like alcoholics and drug users, there’s no such thing as an EX dork. Once you’re a dork, you remain a dork forever. What counts is how you DEAL with your dorkism. I’ve been a dork since I was 7 years old when the neighbor kid and I would play with his Star Wars figures on the back porch of his mother’s condo because my mother was too cheap to buy me my own.
From those lazy days of two kids making ‘ptchoo, ptchoo’ noises at one another as we shot our imaginary space lasers, my love of fiction grew and sprouted into a full on obsession with Comics. Comic books have not only been a great source of entertainment for me, but their influence on my life and the events that unfolded in it cannot be understated. The people I’ve met, the stories I tell, and the tragedies I’ve seen have all come from my past obsession with comic books, or as a direct result of it. Although these stories may be humorous, I also ask you to take them as cautionary tales. Laugh at them, learn from them, but ignore them at your peril. Much like anything in life, comic books should not be taken too seriously and they have the tendency to be addictive. If you get too close to them you’ll find yourself alone and muttering to your action figures because nobody wants to be around a guy who has mustard stains on his ‘Sandman’ t-shirt because he hasn’t washed it since 1992 when Neil Gaiman signed the label underneath the “Triple XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX HAND WASH ONLY IN 4 OF THE 5 GREAT LAKES (Lake Ontario is too small)” tag. Yes, I’m calling you fat.
The cast of Comic book enthusiasts that influenced my life is short, but every fucking one of these guys is a unique character that impacted me in ways that I still feel to this day. Even though I tend to shy away from a relationship with the guy who owns the comic book store that I frequent now, I’m still reminded of my past love of comic books whenever I enter his establishment, like when a 28 year old sees a hot dog and is reminded of the priest who molested him as a boy. Lee, Joe, Paul, and Action Jim were the guys who taught me everything I know about comic books, and sometimes about life in general. Even now I look on Paul as the deadbeat father figure in my life and I still see Action Jim as that brother you just can’t convince to put the heroin needle down.
But in the 80’s and 90’s these men represented the top of their craft. They were Kurt Russell in Used Cars, they were Don Draper in Mad Man, and sometimes they were even Marlon Brando overseeing their empire through fear and intimidation. These were Chicago land’s greatest comic book peddlers and they were masters of bullshit.
The 80’s was a time of fandom and comic book stores were always packed. Marvel comic books were becoming more mature every week and their influence spread from kids to adults who could relate to the stories. Iron Man was a drunk whose alcoholism caused his suit to be stolen by a villain, a child fan of the Human Torch lit himself on fire and died as he was engulfed in the flames, The Punisher was killing people for jaywalking, Bullseye murdered Daredevil’s girlfriend sending him on a depression filled rage, and Spiderman was beating the shit out of people in his sleep as the alien black costume tried to take over his body. Over at D.C. Comics, an aged Bat-Man shot the Reagan era government sponsored Super-Man with a Kryptonite Bullet in The Dark Knight Returns, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold were embezzling money from the Justice League to build an island hotel so they could get laid, Neil Gaiman turned punk chicks into goth chicks with his Sandman title, and the Vertigo Label came screaming out of the gate with sometimes funny and often disturbing stories of Animal Man and brooding dark tales of The Question. Not only were these stories more adult themed, but they were well written. Comic books were being taken more seriously for their writing instead of just being kid stories with silly drawings.
At the time I didn’t know from all of that. When I DID begin reading comics in 1986, it seemed that it would take a lifetime to catch up on the industry that had been around since the 30’s. There were countless stories to read, key issues, and a wealth of insider information to learn. But because my brain was not yet addled with the lies of women, the peer pressure of cigarettes, and the temptations of alcohol, comic books became my first true obsession as a young man.
The first comic book I bought at age 13 was Amazing Spider-Man 274. While in military school, I scored a Saturday pass to go off campus one cold and snowy February afternoon in 1986. I trudged 2 miles to Jewel, not looking for anything in particular, just to peruse the magazine rack because at 13 the only escape I had from the nightmare of an all boy’s school was my imagination. I sat there that Saturday afternoon reading through Fangoria Magazine, Mad Magazine, and others when something caught my eye on the rack in front of me. There was a comic book whose cover depicted Spiderman doubled over in pain, grasping his head as faces swirled about him in the mist. The caption read: ‘In this issue the Beyonder battles Mephisto for The SOUL OF THE SPIDER’. I had NO idea who these people were, but I was 13 and I wanted to find out.
The cover of Amazing Spider-Man 274 advertised that there were 32 pages with NO ads and I paid 75 cents for that mother fucker. I took it back to my dorm and read it from cover to cover. I was hooked. But I had to know the story that led up to the events in that issue. Because it was a crossover issue with the Secret Wars II miniseries, I went back up to Jewel the next weekend and bought one of those. NOW I was being introduced to Iron Man, Captain America, Wolverine, all the Marvel staples. Their costumes and interactions with one another forced a need in me to know everything about these people.I started reading every comic book I could get my hands on, and then I started drawing what I saw in them. At first I just mimicked the pictures, but eventually I developed my own talent and my imagination coupled with that gave me something to barter with. When the high school kids learned that I could draw their favorite super heroes in whatever scenario they asked, they stopped beating my ass and I began trading art for comic books. Because of my newfound ability, the high school kids even started sticking up for me, and protecting me from the bullies of my 7th grade class. In that way, I saw comic books as a protector, a shield from the harm that had been inflicted on me since I started going to that military school. I didn’t know about comic book stores yet, so trading drawings for comics was the only way I knew how to collect back issues.
Comic books offered me that great escapism of which kids often need. I would read every issue from cover to cover, study every drawing, and I’d even read the ads. As time went by, I came to love the smell of the older issues. Comic book fans know exactly what I’m talking about, something about an older comic book just smells like history. I would lie back in my bed after reading an older issue of Spider-Man and wonder what it must have been like for the kid who owned that issue when it first hit the stands.
I know it sounds dumb, but growing up without a father or a mother, I learned a lot about morality and integrity from comic books. Spider man comics taught me that although things in your life didn’t always go as planned, you still had a responsibility to do the right thing. Here was a kid being picked on and bullied much like myself in military school, but when he got super powers, he didn’t go after revenge; he simply used his power to help others. ”With great power, comes great responsibility” became a mantra to me rather than a line from a comic book. The only problem was that I didn’t have great power.
I was enamored of the X-men comics as they dealt with racial bias in a world that feared them while still standing up to help those same people. Then came ‘The Punisher’. Although at the time the punisher was only a bit player in Spider Man comics and didn’t yet have his own title, I loved the idea of a man out for revenge on bad guys. I think that we’re predisposed to certain situational fiction. I don’t know if it’s inherent, but The Punisher clicked in me and I’ve been in love with likeminded stories ever since. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ being my all time favorite story of revenge (and yes, to the irate movie fans out there, I KNOW that the THEME of ‘Unforgiven’ wasn’t revenge, but when Clint sais in that grating voice: “yeah…I’ve killed women and children, I’ve killed just about everything that’s walked or crawled at one point or another…and I’m here to kill YOU Little Bill, for whatchu done to Ned” I still get fucking goose bumps.).
By the time I was kicked out of military school, I had amassed a huge collection of around 10 boxes of 300 comics each. These were bought with what little money I earned doing odd jobs around the campus for four years, but most of them were given to me in return for drawings I would be commissioned to make. Some were pretty old, including an ‘Amazing Spider Man #1’ from 1963 that a classmate had found in his grandfather’s attic and traded to me for some tickets to the cantina which he could use to buy candy. We were kids and we didn’t know the value of anything. Soon I began putting my initials in the top right corner of my comic books with a tiny ‘mh’. I did this because there were a lot of thieves in military school, and after they found out that my books were marked, taking them became too much of a risk.
Most of my weekends in military school were spent with my friend Aaron and his brothers. Aaron’s mother was nice enough to take me in on these weekends because my mother was busy drowning herself in alcohol. During my last year at Glenwood Military School for Boys, I learned that there was a comic book store not too far from Aaron’s house. I became a regular customer at Heroland Comics, and although the owner made me uncomfortable, it was his employee Joe who always had me coming back.
Joe was in his thirties and had a great sense of humor. He was a smart ass who chose his words carefully. Joe didn’t talk much, but when he did it was at the expense of someone else and it was always funny. When I would be looking through the boxes of back issues, Joe would approach me and make back handed comments about his boss, Lee.
I was an outcast in military school and I got no respect from my fellow students. The adults on campus would turn a blind eye to my daily ass pummellings. It was because of them, and my mother’s bat shit alcoholism that I always had a problem with authority, and when you’re a kid, ALL adults are authority. But Joe was different. Joe talked to me like I was an equal, and when he made fun of other people under his breath so only I could hear him…I felt like one of the guys.
Joe’s boss, and the owner of Heroland comics was Lee. Lee and Joe’s personalities were far removed. When I first started going in to Heroland, Lee tried selling me everything in that fucking store. If I wanted a Spider-Man comic? He would make me buy a Spider-Man poster with it, if I wanted an X-Men comic; I had to buy the X-Men t-shirt as well. He sold things in a way so as to make you feel compelled to buy it; like you were an asshole if you didn’t. Lee was that intimidating pitch man that could sell ice to Eskimos. We weren’t customers; we were ‘marks’. Looking back on it, I almost have to respect Lee in that he WAS the consummate salesman, the guy that every car dealership wishes they had on their sales staff. That being said, you will never come across a bigger dick head in your life…as I would come to find in Lee.
Lee was in his forties and he was the biggest man I’d ever seen. You’ve seen those TLC specials about the ‘fat hospitals’? That’s Lee. He was a towering man over 6 feet tall, and he was just as tall across. He couldn’t have weighed less than four hundred pounds, and he always smelled of sweaty meat, body odor, and pop. Lee was Jewish, and he lived up to all the negative stereotypes I would later hear rednecks say about Jews. He wore coke bottle thick glasses and had a constant five o’clock shadow that looked like play dough being squeezed out of that ‘play dough spaghetti maker’ toy. His skin was the color of an old beige leather sofa from the 60’s that had been left out in the sun for too long. After eating an enormous meal of hamburgers, gyros, and hotdogs, while downing an entire 2 liter of soda, Lee would burp so loud that the ceiling tiles would lift out of their grating and drop white Styrofoam dander on all of us as they settled back into place with a ‘thud’. This was a man who could destabilize the pressure of any room he was in, using only his various bodily functions.
The back room of his store was ALWAYS closed, and this was the tree where his Keebler family of elves worked tirelessly, bagging and boarding comic books, taking phone orders, and putting shipments together. Lee’s wife and mother in law worked in the back along with a few straggling employees, and the door was kept closed so as to not make customers uncomfortable at viewing Lee’s management style.
Lee’s wife Louisa was literally a midget. Standing at about three foot tall, Louisa could be an intimidating presence at Heroland herself. When Lee wasn’t around Louisa liked to make it VERY clear that she was in charge. There was even a step stool behind the register for her to stand on when she rang people up, and when there weren’t any customers in the store she’d bark orders from atop her podium like a tiny female Hitler. I think it was her way of dealing with the beatings that Lee would dish out to her in the back room. Sometimes in a fit of rage, Lee would stomp off into the back room, slam the door behind him with a loud “BANG!”, and then you could hear the muffled cries of “no, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, it’s not my…”. In the beginning I felt sad for Louisa, not because of her height, but because Lee didn’t treat her all that differently than he treated his customers and other employees. When Lee had his salesman mask on, he would tell customers, through his big fat rosy cheeks and pitchman smile, how he and Louisa went to prom together. But when nobody else was around but the employees, Lee’s love seemed to fall flat as Louisa became cuckold to the mighty dollar.
The juxtaposition of Lee v. Louisa in terms of pure body mass forced Joe and I to ponder for hours on end their means of fornication. We came to the conclusion that Lee ONLY married Louisa so that someone could finally clean in between the folds of his ginormous body, like a zoo employee washing a hippo with a giant wet push broom. That theory was soon put to rest though when we remembered that Lee NEVER smelled as though he was washed.
After I left military school, I got my first job at a banquet hall called The Glendora House. I was 15 and only worked there on the weekends, but every time I got a check I would ride my bike up to Heroland and sign it over to Lee in exchange for all the comics I could carry home. He was almost certainly overcharging me, and I can even recall him charging me ‘tax’. There have never been taxes on comic books in Illinois. Eventually, as the comic book boom hit in ’88, Lee moved his store to a bigger location and I took this opportunity to offer my services as an employee. I was eager, I was a hard worker, and for Lee the best part was that I would work ONLY for comic books; he didn’t have to pay me a dime.
On Sundays, I would load up Lee’s giant bread truck with all the comics from the store. This disgusting monstrosity spat out black smoke from every orifice and there was no passenger door, so sitting up high on the seat, you could look down and see the pavement zooming past you at breakneck speeds. Joe would drive the truck while Lee followed in his car. I always feared that Joe would take a corner just a little too hard and I’d go flying out of the open door.
These comic book conventions were where I learned the bulk of my comic book knowledge. I learned everything from value, to specific events in silver age, golden age, and modern comic books simply because it was my job to cherry pick what would sell at the convention. After unloading Lee’s truck at whatever convention center he had a table at, I would help other comic shop owners unload THEIR product in exchange for more comic books. I never wanted anything overtly expensive, but if I did, they would give me a great discount in trade for my help. Most comic book store owners were fat, smelly, unhygienic loads like Lee, but I didn’t mind because it was their laziness that kept my collection growing. At the bigger comic book shows, I would help various artists and writers with their luggage, get their lunch for them, and do generally menial tasks for them throughout the day in exchange for their autograph on comic books that they worked on. Doing this every weekend for years made me well known in the comic book world. At times Lee would even get phone calls from famous artists before the convention, who were checking to make sure I would be there to carry their shit. It should be noted that had it not been for Lee and his many friendships and connections in the comic book world at that time, my own popularity might not have occurred.
The ONE thing I hated about going to comic cons with Lee was that HE was that annoying salesman who always gave the HARD sell. He would stand in front of his table SCREAMING at the top of his lungs: “My brother just got arrested for stealing all these comics, so now I have to sell them to afford his bail! HELP ME OUT HERE”. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t fun, and it embarrassed the shit out me. He would scream that same lame line at least 20 times every weekend. I kept telling myself that it was worth it to feed the beast that my collection was becoming.
It was also Lee’s cheapness that made some of those weekends a nightmare. Not only was his comic book bread truck a fucking death trap on wheels because he wouldn’t pay to get it fixed, but sometimes we had to stay at a convention center for the entire weekend…which meant Lee springing for a hotel room. Yes, ONE fucking hotel room. Lee would take the bed, Louisa would sleep on the floor, and Joe would put two chairs together and sleep on those. If I was lucky there was enough room left over for me to stand behind a curtain and sleep standing up. Cheap fat fuck.
Why did I spend every dime I earned those years on comic books? Well, I lived at home so I didn’t have rent or bills, I didn’t smoke or drink yet, and it wasn’t like I was dating anyone. I had no overhead so Lee got everything I earned in return for the one thing that made me happy. Comics were my heroin, and Lee was content to be my dealer.
Working at Heroland was probably the best job I ever had. Since Lee rarely came out of the back room, I mostly worked with Joe. Even though Joe was way older than me, we quickly became friends and I discovered that we had a mutual distaste for authority. Joe was funny and patient. He taught me a lot about sales, but it was his friend Paul who would eventually teach me a lot about management.
Unfortunately for the staff at Heroland Comics, Joe seemed to be the only one immune to Lee’s outbursts and tantrums. Lee’s mood swings would cause him to go from being Mr. helpful salesman to a customer to screaming at me in front of that same customer for not knowing the Silver Surfers real name or some such nonsense. When I first heard Lee beating Lousia and her mother in the back room, I frightened beyond belief. I asked Joe if we should do something and he told me that he tried once, but Lee pulled a gun on him, that he kept in the back room.
For the most part, Lee left Joe alone, and his immunity to Lee’s temper tantrums was obvious. Lee would go around everyone in the room and yell at us, passing over Joe and not saying shit to him. I asked Joe once why Lee didn’t bother him and he told me that it was because he didn’t give a shit. Joe had told Lee once that if he yelled at him or talked to him like he did everyone else; he’d simply walk out and go work for a competitor. Joe was given many offers over the years to work at other comic book stores because of his extensive knowledge, his loyal customer base, and his friendship with many people in the industry. Joe would convince writers and artists that he knew in the comic book world to come to Lee’s shop and do signings. This was a huge influx of cash for Lee, so LEE needed Joe a lot more than JOE needed Lee.
Joe and another employee at Heroland were also responsible for Lee’s well crafted advertisements, which brought people in droves to the store. These ads didn’t cost Lee much if anything to make, but his customers seemed to love them. I learned a lot about irony from these flyers because as disgusting as Lee was, he was depicted as a tubby, yet lovable business owner always trying to pass savings on to his customers. They were yet another gauge as to Joe’s worth as an employee.
During the next 2 years that I busted my ass for Lee, I added another 20 boxes to my collection. I had nearly a complete run of everything from the Amazing Spider Man 1, 15, and 23 up, to the Uncanny X-Men 10 up. I didn’t really read D.C. Comics, but after I collected just about all of the Marvel Comics, I started in on those. D.C. had been around longer, so I knew that collection would take some time. I didn’t mind that at all.
Lee’s House of Nasty
In order to grow my collection, I would do odd jobs for Lee outside of work as well. One time Lee told me to come out to his house because he wanted to put all of his personal comic book collection in alphabetical order. I remember imagining that Lee’s house would be this extravagant mansion set high up on hill, and I romanticized his collection being a million times the collection that I had. I was looking forward to seeing the old comics that I didn’t yet have, and seeing the neat rows of boxes lined up on the floor of his basement. That fat stack of cash Lee was so fond of flashing made my imagination flow with the personal wealth I would be introduced to.
However, much like the man himself, Lee’s house was a fucking train wreck. Surrounded by a brown, almost burnt looking and unkempt lawn, it smelled like a desert slaughterhouse before you even walked in. There were no pictures on any of the walls and almost every square inch of floor space was covered in comic books. There were paths, dug out like trenches in World War 1 leading to different areas of the house, and most of the lights were burnt out. It was darker than a vampire’s asshole in that place and the smell almost made being in there unbearable.
At one point I had to use the bathroom, and Lee told me it was upstairs on the second floor of the house. The stair case was bowing and nearly caved in from the weight of Lee waddling up and down it. For some reason I imagined the sound of Louisa’s tiny footsteps rumbling quickly down the darkened stair case to greet Lee when he got home, like a circus version of Leave it to Beaver, and a shiver ran down my spine. When I pushed open the bathroom door through the bundles of towels and filthy clothes on the floor, I stepped in and saw that the side of the bathtub had been caved in revealing the hollow emptiness of the porcelain. There wasn’t a hint of moisture on the floor, so I immediately assumed that Lee hadn’t showered in at least a week. On the sink, next to the toilet was a Daffy Duck comic book from long ago, with what I hoped were chocolate fingerprints all over the cover; however when I lifted the lid on the toilet to piss…I knew that they weren’t. The shit stains in the toilet climbed up high on the inside of the bowl, and as I lifted the lid to piss, I almost vomited all over myself. The toilet seat was covered in dry crusty poop from front to back. I ran back downstairs and held in my stream until Lee drove me back to the shop.
What kind of person lives like that? The ONLY possessions he had, the only possessions he CARED about were those fucking comic books. It was almost like his house was just a storage unit for that collection. I couldn’t fathom what would drive ANY woman into living there, much less being a subordinate to Lee’s collection. It was nearly enough to put me off comic books all together.
After seeing Lee’s collection, I was determined not to end up in a similar situation. I wanted to keep my shit neat and clean. I was also curious as to the value of my collection. So, in 1989 when I was only 16, I asked a professional comic book assessor, who was a customer at the store, to appraise my books. He visited me at my mother’s condo on a Thursday night and after spending about 3 hours going through my collection, grading key issues, and accounting for autographs, he appraised them at around seventeen thousand dollars; I had no idea they were worth THAT much. Today that number would be multiplied by a factor of nearly 10. However, one of the things I learned from Lee is that comic books are only worth what people are willing to pay for them, and in that sense my collection wasn’t worth much at all.
Lee opened up a warehouse in another city that year and in it he started a mail order business along with the manufacturing of his own brand of bags and boards. He spent most of his time there with his employee’s Jim and Liz, who I would come to meet later.
Yours Truly, Mike
In June of 1989 I’d just finished my sophomore year in high school. My mother’s alcoholism was reaching its zenith and she moved us into a condo almost 2 blocks away from the apartment she’d lived in most of my life. After we moved she was told by my high school that I had to go to a DIFFERENT school the following year because of the district lines. I was devastated. It took me a long time to make the few friends I DID have at that school, and now, just like after military school I had to start all over again. I decided that I wouldn’t go back to school the next year.
The reason my mother shoved me into that military school was because she didn’t want boys. This is a well known fact in my family so it’s not just me whining. After I told her that I was dropping out of high school, my mother promptly used that as an excuse to kick me out of the house. However, since I was only 16 she couldn’t legally do it…so she took me to court and had me emancipated. This means that the state considers me of a legal age at 16, allowing my mother the legal right to kick me out of her house.
Not being COMPLETELY heartless, she made a deal with my friend Pete’s mom. I would live with Pete, his brother Danny, and their mother Nancy for 200 bucks a month. My mother would give Nancy 100 bucks and I had to give her the other hundred. That summer I stopped signing my checks from the Glendora House over to Lee, and started paying my first bill: Nancy’s hundred bucks. I didn’t go back to school in August; instead I started working more for Lee. He was beginning to rely on me almost as much as he relied on Joe, only not in the same way. Lee relied on ME because I was an idiot and would do whatever he told me to do.
That summer I got my first car. I talked a girl that I’d been dating into making her current boyfriend sell it to me for 50 bucks. Maybe Lee was rubbing off on me. The car was a shitty Oldsmobile something, but I was finally mobile. It seems the whole world opens up to you when you get a car, but in my case all it meant was that I would become Lee’s bitch even more.
Since I had a car now, it fell on me to pick up the new comic books every Wednesday morning all the way out in fucking Oak Brook. Besides doing that, I had to get Lee’s lunch for him, run errands, and while Joe took the bread truck to ONE convention on the weekend, I had to load up my car with comics and go to ANOTHER so the store could make more money by being represented at two shows. The last bit I didn’t mind so much because it gave me the opportunity to run the table without Lee there. I hate to say this, but I actually learned a lot about selling from Lee and there were times when Joe was shocked, and sometimes pissed that I made more money than him at a convention.
I wasn’t doing all of this with no goal in mind. My plan was to become a comic book artist. As Heroland grew from just a storefront to a mail order business and a brand name, Lee could afford to have a better class of artist come into the store for signings. My plan was to use those connections to get my foot in the door. After all, I was a great artist in my own right. I’d been drawing for years and in high school I’d even won a few awards. I always had this fantasy that Marvel Comics would discover me, fly me out to New York where I would live in a loft, draw for tons of money, and bang hot sophisticated women. Unfortunately…that wouldn’t be the case.
One weekend, Lee flew John Romita Jr. in to Chicago to do a signing at Heroland. If you don’t know Romita Jr., he’s a pretty famous comic book artist whose run on X-Men and Spider-Man was legendary at the time. His father also worked on Spider Man back in the 70’s. The way it worked was that you would get a hold of an artist through his manager, fly him out, pay for his meals and hotels, pay him a flat fee for signing a specific number of comics OR pay him 25 cents per autograph. The artist would then sit in Lee’s warehouse signing 1000 books, go back to his hotel, and then come into the store and sign for fans and sometimes do drawings for them.
Romita Jr. had just come off of a popular run of X-Men, so Lee spared no expense in advertising his personal appearance. My job was to be his bitch while he was at the store. Before we opened that morning, I picked up his breakfast, brought him lunch in the afternoon, and kept his table full of pens and drinks throughout the day. After the crowd had died down and it was time for him to go to the warehouse to sign a 1000 of his comics, I asked him to sign a few of my books. He signed them and then drew a picture of my favorite super hero at the time: Gambit. Before he left the store I showed him some of my art and he was very impressed, when I asked him about the industry though, he dashed my fantasy.He told me that as an artist, you have NO artistic license. Marvel paid him for his STYLE, but they told him exactly what to draw. He would receive a script from Fed Ex, and then send his work back to Marvel through Fed Ex. He would then receive any changes Marvel wanted through Fed Ex, and that was the entire process. I asked if the money was good, to which he replied “If the money was good, would I be sitting in this shit hole?” and then he got up and left.
The next day Lee called me at the shop and asked me to come out to the warehouse. I didn’t know it at the time, but Lee was about to teach me a very different form of art. When I got there, he had a table set up in the back with about 900 Romita Jr. X-Men comic books on it. None of them were autographed. He gave me a book with Romita Jr.’s signature on it and had me copy it 100 times on a sheet of paper until I could mimic it exactly, and then he had me sign all 900 comics. Apparently Lee sent Romita Jr. back to his hotel without paying him to sign the thousand comics as promised, and he left the next day pissed. This was a trait in Lee that haunted Joe, Paul, and Jim for years to come because ANY artist that Lee hired, got ripped off by him in some way. Because of this, nobody wanted to have any dealings with people from Heroland. Lee’s grift was that he only wanted the artist or writer to come out and be seen in his store. That way nobody could question the 1000 autographed books, or more, that he sold at the storefront, or through his mail order business. After all, he had pictures of the artist or writer signing autographs IN his store. Who could question the cheap fat fuck?
How to Rip off a Teenaged Boy
In the autumn of ’89 I was laid off from the Glendora House; I guess Irish people just weren’t having banquets like they used to. But I still needed cash for food, gas, and to pay Nancy her hundred bucks a month. I went to Lee and told him that I needed to be paid in money instead of comic books.
Lee knew Nancy and her sons because they visited me at the comic book store on several occasions. He told me that he didn’t have the money to pay me in cash, which I knew was bullshit because Lee loved flashing that large wad of cash around at every opportunity, especially when the pizza guy would come. Lee would order no less than 3 pizzas at a time, pull out a fat stack of hundreds, pay the pizza guy and LITERALLY tip him whatever coin change he got back. Cheap fat fuck.
However, because Lee enjoyed the cash that I was now bringing into his business, he didn’t want to get rid of me. I was 16 now, and Lee knew this day would come. I had worked for him for 2 years, and he had a pretty good idea of what my collection had become. He knew the books that I got from him in exchange for my 2 years of servitude, and he knew the books I had gotten from his competitors at the conventions. Lee made no secret of his desire to buy my collection, and when I told him I needed cash to pay Nancy rent, he offered to buy it again. I laughed him off, and he told me that he understood, but before he offered to help with my situation, Lee said something odd: “A fool and his collection are soon parted”. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but later as my bloodshot eyes stared violently at nothing through a red haze of rage beyond the bars of a shitty small town police station holding cell, that line played over and over in my head until it was all I could hear…
Lee told me that HE would talk to Nancy and work something out for me. He patted me on the shoulder and told me that he couldn’t have his best employee living on street, could he? I told him that talking to Nancy wouldn’t do a thing. Nancy wanted money and Lee either needed to pay me at LEAST a hundred bucks in cash per month, OR I was going to have to find another job. Again, he told me not to worry about it, he’d dealt with women like Nancy before and knew JUST what to say, but if it made me feel better? He assured me that he’d pay me in cash if she refused to see reason. In hindsight I should have seen the wheels turning in his brain.
Nancy was a short fat woman who was caustic and reflexive to say the fucking least. She looked like a female Danny Devito with the personality of Carla from Cheers…only not funny. Even though she was at least 2 feet shorter than her son Pete, she would constantly berate him and hit him in front of anybody who was around. I think she had a female Napoleonic Complex.
Nancy was the kind of woman who adorned the walls of her apartment with wolf blankets, Harley Davidson bandanas, eagles, and American flags. She drove a van, and always wore black spandex while shopping at the local flea market on the weekends. Pete and his brother never really stood a chance in life with this monstrously over nurturing whack job of a mother.
But Nancy’s main feature, and the one that came to cause my first and greatest loss, was her greed. This woman was so money hungry that she would let strange truck drivers sleep on the floor in her living room for cash. Like a low-rent leather vest bed and breakfast. She used Pete and Danny’s social security numbers on her bills until things were going to be shut off and then put them in someone else’s name. She even let Pete’s friend sleep on the floor of his bedroom for 200 bucks a month. There was no length that Nancy would not go to, other than actually WORKING, in order to get money. In that respect, she was not unlike Lee.
A few days after I asked Lee to start paying me in cash rather than in comic books, he called me from the warehouse to tell me that he had spoken with Nancy and I wouldn’t have to pay her that month. He said that he’d taken care of it. There was a tone in Lee’s voice that I’d heard before whenever he was about to rip someone off, and I didn’t like it all. It was as if he was bragging about fucking me in the ass, even though I didn’t KNOW he had fucked me in the ass. Other than Nancy telling me that Lee was full of shit however, I couldn’t think HOW he could possibly be ripping me off…but I was defiantly on guard.
When I went back to Nancy’s apartment that night, I was greeted by Pete and our friend Grey Jim. They stopped me at the door and took me outside. I could see that they were upset and my first thought was that someone had died. They wouldn’t tell me what happened, and as I pressed them, they just kept hemming and hawing telling me that they were sorry.
“What happened? Did my mother die? My sister? What the fuck guys? Tell me what happened” finally Grey Jim told me that he and Pete were watching a movie when the buzzer rang. Nancy came screaming out into the living room to open the door. She yelled at Pete and Jim to stay where they were and shut the fuck up. She came back into the room with my boss…Lee. Lee and Nancy walked past them without acknowledging them, and went into Pete’s room where all of my comic books were. Jim and Pete looked at each other quizzically and went into the hallway to listen.
They heard Lee and Nancy negotiating and knew immediately what was happening. Nancy called me a deadbeat because I didn’t have the job at Glendora anymore, to which Lee agreed. They then heard Lee tell her that he had started paying me in cash because he knew that I had to pay my rent, but I was still spending it all on comic books; a straight up fucking lie. Lee told her that my collection wasn’t worth that much, but because he was a nice guy and didn’t want to see her kick me out on the street…he’d give her 200 bucks for all of my comic books. He reasoned with her that that should keep me there for another 2 months. I sometimes wish I could have been there JUST to see one conman rip off another con man.
Nancy agreed to the price. Pete and Jim ran back out into the living room and tried calling me at the store, but Louisa answered and told them I wasn’t there; ANOTHER fucking lie. Apparently Lee was expecting that phone call to be placed and he told Louisa to say that.
Nancy came out and screamed at Jim and Pete to carry my collection out to Lee’s car. At first they refused, and Grey Jim even went so far as to tell Nancy that he would call the police. But Nancy grabbed a broom and started chasing Pete and Grey Jim around the apartment with it, yelling at them to mind their own fucking business and carry my comic books out. They did as they were told, but whenever Nancy or Lee had their backs turned, they would pull out a handful of comic books and shove them under Pete’s bed.
As they told me this story, I was so full of emotions that I didn’t know what to do first…I wanted to cry because my comic books were all I had. That collection helped me escape daily beatings in military school, I’d earned it through 5 long years of hard work, everything I’d learned over the past 5 years was IN that collection, seeing those books was a comfort and a reminder of the friends I’d made and the somebody that I was becoming, and because I had no family that wanted me around, this collection represented my escape from that reality.
After the crying came the rage. I wanted to beat Nancy’s face in with an iron because she was such a cunt, I wanted to call the police because my property was stolen. I wanted to scream, curse, shout, or wail on anything within my eyesight. 5 years of collecting might not seem like that that long, but when you’re 16? It took me nearly a third of my life to amass that collection. Not even a year had passed since it was appraised at seventeen thousand dollars and this bitch had just sold it for 200! And Lee KNEW he was ripping me off, what’s more, he PLANNED it. His wife was complicit in it, that short fat fuck.
I asked Pete if they grabbed my Amazing Spider Man 1, but Jim and Pete didn’t know anything about comic books and had no idea what they grabbed. It turned out to all be shit. Nothing. The most worthless books in my collection, but I had to thank them for trying.
I didn’t go into Nancy’s apartment that night, or ever again. It was too late to call Lee at the warehouse, so I slept in my car. Well, I didn’t really sleep at all that night. I sat up thinking what I would say to Lee the next day. I decided that I would try to reason with him. I’d tell him that I’d give him THREE hundred dollars if he’d give me back my collection. What the fuck did I know? I was a kid. I wasn’t thinking clearly. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The next morning I waited outside of the warehouse for Lee to show up. When he did, I approached him in the parking lot, hat in hand, begging him to give me my collection back. He didn’t even look me in the eye. He just kept walking and as he put his key in the door he said: “I had no idea those were your comic books, I just bought a collection for a good price”. I was dumbfounded…I was ripped off and that fat fuck right there KNEW he ripped me off, and worse yet he just lied to my fucking face. So I went to the police.
It was a brilliant idea. I’d tell them what happened, Grey Jim went with to back up my story, and Lee would HAVE to give me back my collection. That’s the way the law works right? They’re there to keep things like this from happening. Hell, that’s what comic books had taught me for the past 5 years. Lee was the villain and surely the police would step in to save me.
Grey Jim and I walked into the Worth police department together and told the desk officer that I wanted to file a complaint. We told her that I’d been robbed and Jim was a witness to that robbery, I wanted to press charges. She motioned an officer over to us and he asked me to explain my story to him, which I did; Jim accounted for the facts I wasn’t present for. After about a half hour of us telling him all the details, the officer LITERALLY yawned in my face and said “Possession is 9/10’s of the law, if he has them then they’re his now” and walked away. All of the feelings of rage that I felt the night before came surging forward again and I screamed at him as he left “SO IF I WENT AND ROBBED A FUCKING JEWLERY STORE RIGHT NOW, I COULD KEEP EVERYTHING I STOLE BECAUSE POSSESSION IS 9 FUCKING 10’s OF THE LAW?!?!?!”Jim grabbed my arm and tried pulling me towards the door as I screamed, but the cop pivoted on his heels and came running around the front desk at me. Jim stepped aside because he could see the rage in the cop’s eyes now, the whole police station had gone deafeningly quiet as I was thrown up against the wall and arrested. The cop told me that he was arresting me because I had just admitted that I was going to commit a crime. I was fucking furious and I kicked and screamed all the way to the holding cell. I kept thinking of Lee with a top hat and monocle flipping through the comic books in my boxes and laughing as his midget wife poured champagne over his head, while I sat furious and stewing in a shitty jail cell, ready to chew through the bars to get out and exact my fucking revenge on Lee, Nancy, and Louisa. All the while I kept hearing Lee’s voice in my head “A fool and his collection are soon parted, a fool and his collection are soon parted, a fool and his collection are soon…”
I was crushed as a human being for the first time in my life. I now had no job, no place to live and no possessions other than my car. I slept in that car for nearly a year, filled with self pity, depression and rage. How does a 16 year old with nothing exact revenge? Pop a tire? Throw an egg? I was devastated in my impotence.