Let me start by saying: Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m NOT a dork. Oh, sure the subject matter may suggest otherwise to those unfamiliar with the turn of the century, but there’s been a change in the wind my friends. ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ was much more than a comedy about socially-inept outcasts, revenging themselves upon their harassers…it was a roadmap to the future; a precognitive look at, what we didn’t know at the time, would be a shift of the nerd norms. In other words, we’re the cool kids now; no longer, do the jocks and muscle heads who gave us ‘two for flinching’, haunt our Freudian landscape. No…THEY’RE the outcasts now. They’re the Republicans and religious zealots who look like schmucks for not being able to adapt to the times. They’re the bigots who can’t accept an individual’s right to live their lives on their own terms; they’re the losers and has-beens who we’ve canceled and isolated for not getting on board with the changes that were inevitable.
So yeah, I used to be a ‘dork’ in their eyes, but no longer. Now I stand tall with my brothers and sisters, with the LGBTQIA+ community, with those who give and give back. And specifically…with those who have read and have always held great affection for the world…of comic books.
What? Where’d you think I was going with that uplifting speech?
Comic books have become a billion-dollar film industry, and if you asked any one of us, old enough to remember when Dolph Lundgren’s ‘Punisher’ or ‘Howard the Duck’, were the only two comic book movies available on Betamax, we’d tell you that we never thought in a million years we’d see a real comic book movie, much less an MCU with such intricacies as the multiverse. But here we are; we live in interesting times.
When I think back on it, I’ve been in love with fantasy 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 fantasy grew and sprouted into a full-on obsession with Comics. Comic books were not only a great source of entertainment for me as a kid, but their influence on my life and on the events that unfolded in it cannot be understated. The amazing and not-so-amazing people I’ve met, the fantastical stories I tell, and the deepest tragedies in my life, have, for the most part, come from my past obsession with comic books. And although some may see my stories as humorous and sometimes unbelievable, I write them as cautionary tales. Laugh at them, learn from them, but ignore them at your peril.
The cast of Comic book enthusiasts that influenced my life is short, but every one of them is a unique character, who impacted me in ways, for good and bad, that I still feel to this day. 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 a 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 Marlon Brando overseeing their empire through fear and intimidation. These, and others of ill repute, were Chicago land’s comic book peddlers and they were masters of bullshit.
Setting the Stage
The 80’s was a time of fandom, for both creators and collectors. Marvel comic books were becoming more mature every week and their influence spread from kids to adults who could relate to the stories. The creators who had grown up on the rated G stories from the Disney and Gold Key comic books of their youth, could now tell the stories that THEY wanted to see in comics. Adult themed stories which demanded a mature artistic style had become the norm, and the 80’s became a great time for the medium. Of course, that bubble of popularity would burst in the 90’s, but at the time…
Iron Man’s alcoholism hit its peak when his suit of armor was stolen by a villain, while Tony Stark was in a drunken stupor; a child fan of the Human Torch lit himself on fire to emulate his hero, and died as he was engulfed in the flames; The Punisher was shooting at people for jaywalking in a misguided need for revenge against all criminals who, to him, represented those who murdered his family; Bullseye killed Daredevil’s girlfriend sending him on a depression fueled rage; and Spider-Man…the most kid friendly of Marvel’s stable of characters, became engulfed in adult themes: Kraven the Hunter buried Spider-man alive, stole his costume and began murdering criminals; and to prove his superiority and show that he could defeat Spider-Man’s greatest foe, Kraven put a shotgun under his chin and killed himself. It was a dark and shocking tale of mental illness that some would say, comic books ought not to have tackled. Spider-Man’s girlfriend, the Black Cat, was disgusted by his secret identity and refused to sleep with Peter Parker; she’d only fuck him as Spider-Man. That’s some dark comic book shit right there. And as the 80s closed out, Spiderman, after beating people in his sleep, discovered that the alien black costume he’d acquired, was actually a symbiote trying to take over his body; leading to the villain Venom, who’s answer to fighting crime was to the eat the brains of the those who did wrong.
Over at D.C. Comics, an aged Batman shot the Reagan era government sponsored Superman 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, for no other reason that I could see, than so they could get laid; Neil Gaiman turned punk chicks into goth chicks with his ‘Sandman’ and ‘Death’ titles, 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’ and ‘Swamp Thing’. Not only were these stories more adult themed, but they were arguably as well written as any best-selling novel at the time. Comic books were being taken more seriously for their writing instead of just being kid stories with silly drawings.
When I first starting reading comic books in 1986 however, I didn’t know from all of that. 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 adulthood, bills, apartments, cars and women…comic books became my first true obsession as a young man.
Then, Spider-Man Literally Saved My Life
I was thirteen when my mother told me were getting ice cream, and then dropped me off on the front steps of Glenwood Military School for Boys. It was 1986. If you haven’t read the autobiographical chapters of my blog under the “Heroland” banner, to sum up, I came to be there because my mother didn’t want boys. (See “Heroland: Chapter 1” for the full story) I’d come to find out, that my father was a monster who beat my sister and my mother, eventually leaving her and us for her best friend when I was still an infant. His final act of hatred came when he pushed my high chair over while I was in it, on his way out the door, smashing my face into a table leg; still have the scar under my nose. I’d come to find out that my sister was my half-sister, and I had three brothers whom I didn’t know existed. Apparently, my mother only wanted girls. She had my sister, then three boys. She kept having kids, hoping for another girl. My sister’s father beat them as well, and as the story goes, in the early 60’s, on a snowy winter’s night, my mother murdered him by starting a fire and making it look like he started it with a lit cigarette while he was passed out drunk. She tried murdering the boys too, by locking their bedroom door after she’d started the fire, but someone got into the burning house and saved them. They went to stay with their father’s parents in southern Illinois and I have never met them. My mother kept my sister with her, because she only wanted a girl. (See “The Friend Zone Episode 18: Legacy” for the full story).
Then, she met my father who was an Illinois state trooper, while she was a dispatcher for the Illinois State Police. The story I heard from my father’s partner at my mother’s funeral, is that I was conceived in the Illinois State Police District 5 headquarters. Anyway, when my mother found out that I was going to be a boy, she tried having me aborted behind my father’s back, but failed. When my dad found out, he had her committed until I was born.
After he left when I was still an infant, my mother was stuck with another boy she didn’t want. Things didn’t look good for j’boy, and as soon as I was old enough, off to military school I went. It was a miserable time for me. All of the other kids got to go home on the weekends, but my mother would never pick me up. This made me fodder for, not only the other kids who would pick on me mercilessly, but for the adults who were our ‘houseparent’, and would have to stay on campus to watch me. They were pissed that they couldn’t go out on weekends, and so would turn a blind eye when I was beaten by the other kids.
Once, while making hot caramel over a campfire, some kids held me down and poured the scalding caramel all over my arm, giving me third degree burns. They started rumors that I was blowing the male nurse on campus, and at one point…I was held down and raped with a dildo that some of the kids found in the woods (See Heroland: Chapter 5 for the full story); when I would go home after these events, my mother would beat me for interrupting her alcoholic adventures. Those are just some of the stories from that period of my life; I have a books worth of them.
I was at a crossroads and as time went by, I became bitter, angry…full of blame. At 13-16, I was at a point, and an age, in any young man’s life, where he decides, whether consciously or unconsciously, what kind of man he’s going to be for the rest of his life, and with no positive influence to guide me…I was going down a path that would not lead anywhere good. I began getting in trouble, stealing, fighting, and cussing out adults on campus. I was so angry all the time, so put-upon by life. My mother would scream at me as she beat me in an alcohol fueled rage, tears streaming from her eyes “YOU’RE JUST LIKE YOUR FATHER!”; a statement that would come to hurt me all the more in retrospect, when I found out what a monster he truly was. I was becoming a villain.
Then, one cold and snowy February afternoon in 1986. I trudged 2 miles to a Jewel near my military school campus, not looking for anything in particular, just to peruse the magazine racks, because at 13 the only escape I had from the nightmare of that military 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, rolled it up and put it in my back pocket for the snowy trudge back. I excitedly went 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. Amazing Spider-Man 274 was a crossover issue with the Secret Wars II miniseries, so 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 characters.
I started reading every Spider-Man comic book that I could get my hands on. Here was a kid, not unlike myself, being picked on in school. Peter Parker had no parents, and blamed himself for the death of his uncle, who was murdered by a burglar. And when he got these fantastic powers, instead of taking out his frustrations and hatred at the bullying that he received and the violence perpetrated on his loved ones…he used them to help people. He tried to make a difference in the world despite the odds against him.
Even though it was from 1966, when I eventually read Amazing Spider-Man 33 later that year…it inspired me in ways that nothing before had. In it, Spider-man is buried under tons of iron and metal; he has to test the limits of his strength to escape in order to save his Aunt May, and in lifting it, he lifts the weight of guilt over his uncle’s murder, that had plagued him for 33 issues. It showed me that no matter how impossible the odds against you are, you can overcome them. It was a lesson that, as a kid, I was desperate to learn, though I didn’t know it.
Not only did Spider-Man have to overcome villainous odds, but the newspaper that he worked for had turned the public against him, much like I felt that the world was against me. But Peter Parker didn’t let any of that get to him. He would even try to help those villains, and their families, despite their hatred of him. Spider-Man was just a regular kid, who did the right thing. This…all of this…changed everything for me; it changed my way of thinking, it changed my view of my situation, my view of the world and most importantly…Spider-Man changed my narrative. ” With great power, comes great responsibility” became a mantra to me rather than a line from a comic book.
I know it sounds dumb; maudlin, garish, and probably a little insane. I get it. But growing up without a father or a mother, I learned a lot…not to be hyperbolic, but maybe everything actually, about morality and integrity from comic books.
The X-men comics dealt with racial bias in a world that feared and hated them for no other reason than that they were born different; yet in that world, they still stood up for and put their lives on the line, to help those same people. Then came ‘The Punisher’; I loved the idea of a man out for revenge on bad guys, but more importantly to me and what really clicked…was that the Punisher was always prepared. He always had a plan and he never made a mistake. The stakes were as high as killing people, and the Punisher always did his research. Tolerance for all people and a commitment to understanding, studying and learning, were the lessons learned here.
At thirteen, Spider-Man and the others, forced my eyes open to the realization that everyone has a story, but your story doesn’t have to dictate your behavior; hatred and blame don’t have to be inherent, they don’t even have to be learned behaviors…we have a choice. A life of struggle, doesn’t have to make you a bad person, so I changed. I began being more helpful around campus; rather than getting into trouble, I volunteered my time and began doing things without being asked. I began to take responsibility for myself, rather than blaming my mother, or all the bullies who I’d felt had made me miserable. I dictate how I feel, not them.
I made a friend named Aaron, whose mother would take me home with him and his brothers on the weekends so that the house parents wouldn’t be burdened with having to watch me. My attitude shifted; it lightened and my outlook on life wasn’t so bleak. I started laughing and listening to comedy albums like Eddie Murphy or radio programs like Dr. Demento. Then I started drawing.
At first, I just mimicked the pictures I saw in the comic books I was reading, 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, I was able to trade art for protection from the bullies who beat me on a daily basis. That was a huge turning point for me. 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.
As my desire to read more comic books blossomed, I began working and finding value in that work, so that I could afford to buy new issues. Working kept me out of trouble, and I developed a work ethic that would make me successful in life. Eventually, as I garnered more friends from my newfound artistic ability, I was able to start trading artwork for back issues of comic books. 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 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 issue of Spider-Man from before I was even born, and wonder what it must have been like for the kid who owned that issue when it first hit the stands.
Not only had I went from a complete outcast, hated by adults and my peers, but I became popular and sought after. I’d started a comic book fan base on our campus, and eventually most of the 180+ kids were reading comic books. It was all anyone was talking about at chow time in the dining hall, and the stores like 7-11 and Jewel near the campus, found themselves selling out of comic books. On Sunday nights, the kids who lived in my cottage and I would get together in the foyer to read the newest issues. I still remember us all in awe of Amazing Spider-Man 289, when we finally found out the identity of the Hobgoblin; the song “You Belong to the City” by Glenn Fry was playing on the radio, and every time I hear that TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE song now, I’m reminded of that night and the feeling of comradery as we all shared in the reveal.
By the time I was kicked out of military school, I had amassed a huge collection of around 3000 comic books. These were bought with what little money I earned doing odd jobs around the campus, 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 a handful of “Now ‘n Later” candy. And, of course that Amazing Spider-Man 33.
After my comic book revolution at Glenwood, most of my weekends were spent with Aaron and his brothers. 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’d been an outcast in military school, and although I’d become popular towards the end, I still never felt like I ‘belonged’ there. I had my issues 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 that only I could hear him…I felt like one of the guys, like I belonged.
Joe’s boss, and the owner of Heroland comics was Lee Tennant. Lee and Joe’s personalities were far removed. When I first started going in to Heroland, Lee tried selling me everything in that 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 Tennant.
Lee was in his forties and he was the biggest man I’d ever seen. You’ve seen the show ‘My 600 Pound Life’? That’s Lee Tennant. I honestly think that Comic Book Guy on ‘The Simpsons’ is based on Lee. Lee was five feet tall, and he was just as tall across. He couldn’t have weighed less than five hundred pounds, and he always smelled of sweaty meat, body odor, and pop. Lee 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 and his clothes boasted stains that could have fed a village of homeless people. 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.
Lee typically had two staff working on his sales floor and 3-4 people in the back room working on his mail-order business. The back room of Heroland 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 one or two outsiders, and the door was kept closed so as to not make customers uncomfortable at viewing Lee’s management style.
Lee’s wife Louisa was a little person. 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…”. I felt 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 proudly tell customers, through his big yellow 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.
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 are no taxes on comic books in Illinois. Eventually, I was kicked out of military school. 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 my need to belong made me easily manipulated, so I would work ONLY for comic books; he didn’t have to pay me a dime.
Comic Book Conventions
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, which was just as monstrous and full of McDonalds wrappers. 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. Far from the brightly lit, glamorous events that comic book conventions have become, conventions back then were typically relegated to the dimly lit, low ceilinged basements of a bad hotel. However, I learned everything I know, 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 into the booth he’d rented in a convention center, 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 overweight unpleasant 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. Doing this every weekend, made me well known in comic book circles. At times Lee would even get phone calls from famous artists before a convention, checking to make sure I would be there to work for them.
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 over and over like a carnival barker, 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 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 hotel room. Lee would take the queen-sized bed for himself, I assumed that was because he might roll over on Louisa and smother her. Louisa would sleep on the floor, and Joe would put two chairs together and sleep on those. If I was lucky there was a bathtub that I could sleep in.
When we’d bring the stock back to the store, Lee would sit there fanning out the huge wad of cash that Joe and I had made for him at the convention; thousands of dollars each time. I can still remember the first convention we’d gone to. When we got back to the store that Sunday night, Lee asked Joe and I what kind of soda we wanted; he was going to order pizzas. The mood was light, and it had been a hard, long day. I was looking forward to that pizza. When three pizzas were delivered to the store along with a few cans of soda, Lee left the cans of Coke on the table and took the three pizzas in back for himself, closing the door behind him. I couldn’t believe it. Joe ended up taking me out for burgers that night, but I was just dumbfounded at the cheapness of that.
So, 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.
I mostly worked with Joe at Heroland and even though Joe was 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 life and become a true father figure to me.
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 with customers, to screaming at me in front of that same customers for not knowing the Silver Surfers real name or some such nonsense. When I first heard Lee beating Louisa and her mother in the back room, I was 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 his office, and told him to mind his own business.
Lee left Joe alone, and his immunity to Lee’s temper tantrums was obvious. Lee would have meetings sometimes, and yell at all of us, passing over Joe and not saying anything to him. I asked Joe once why Lee didn’t yell at him, and he told me that it was because Lee needed him, more than he needed Lee. Joe 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.
During the next 2 years that I busted my ass for Lee, I added another 20 boxes to my collection. Between my convention work, buying from Lee and getting deals from other dealers and sometimes customers who came into the store, I had amassed 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.
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 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 knew that Lee just never showered. 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, ran along the top of the rim, and streaked down the sides; I dry heaved and tasted the bile in my mouth. 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 cuckold 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 always made sure my comic books were bagged and boarded, and in neat new comic book boxes. If one tore or became ragged looking, I’d replace it. 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, maybe more with that Amazing Spider-Man #1. 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 moved his mail order business from the back room of Heroland into it. He also started manufacturing of his own brand of bags and boards. Lee spent most of his time there with his employee’s Jim and Liz, who I would come to meet later.
In June of 1989, a month before my sixteenth birthday, my mother started proceedings to have me emancipated so that she could legally have me kicked out of her house. As I’ve said, the woman didn’t want me around. I interfered with her alcoholic lifestyle.
Part of the deal my mother made with the court was that they would only allow her to have me emancipated if she could prove that I had a place to stay. See, in most situations, emancipation is an agreement between a parent and a child, that they both bring to a judge. The judge grants the emancipation so long as both parent and child (between the ages of 16-17), agree that this is what both want. I didn’t want it. I didn’t even know it was happening, but my mother was a police officer with friends in high places, so she was able to use her influence to get the emancipation without my knowledge.
She’d enlisted the mother of my friend Pete to her cause. Pete’s mother was one of the worst human beings it will ever have been my displeasure to have known; right up there with Lee. A short, stout, Danny DeVito looking biker mom. Nancy drove a van and always wore black spandex while shopping at local flea markets on the weekend. Nancy would let strangers, most often truck drivers or Easy Riders, spend the night on her living room floor for money. These were typically people wanted by the police, wandering the country, who couldn’t afford to give their driver’s license over to a hotel clerk, for fear of being tracked down. On any given night of the week, there would be upwards of 10 criminals sleeping on the living room floor of Nancy’s apartment. Her biker boyfriend and his cohorts were there to offer Nancy and her boys protection from these perverts and thieves, who they could sell drugs to. All of this in the backdrop of an apartment covered in wolf blankets, Harley Davidson bandanas, eagle statues, American flags and clouded with cigarette smoke.
Nancy had two kids; Pete and Danny. Danny was a slow adult who would beat up anybody at the drop of a hat if he felt insulted…and as he didn’t understand anything anyone was saying, he always felt insulted. Pete was a pathological liar, who’s fibs would range from “I’ll pay you back when I get my inheritance from a dead relative who owned the pyramids.”, to “I’ll pay you back when (insert lie here)” Both were maybe the dumbest and laziest men I’ve ever met in my life, and being handsome and Italian, both got more pussy than any twelve men I’ve ever met in my life.
As we got older, Nancy encouraged Pete and Danny to get the girls they slept with pregnant, as the social security numbers generated by the offspring (she would then encourage them to abandon.) could be used to start up new electric and phone bill and credit card accounts that she never had any intention of paying. Nancy also taught Pete and Danny how to get hit by a car so as to get injured just enough to sue, without leaving any permanent damage. Nancy was up on her legal acumen, so long as it was in her favor. She was a piece of shit and a fat little grifter, but she was a smart piece of shit. I believe Pete has 13 kids now at 48, and Danny at 43 has 8. All of them, their credit ruined before they were of an age to need it.
Danny is currently in a high security mental institution, and last I heard Pete lives in a trailer park under an assumed name, hiding from the law, after having been caught sleeping with AND getting pregnant, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a lawyer he married in Florida. OF COURSE, these people moved to Florida.
Pete and Danny never really stood a chance in life with this monstrously over nurturing whack job of a mother, but then one could say the same of me as regards to my mother. But I made a choice to live differently.
Pete lived in the building next to my best friend Jim and his mother, so Jim and I would often end up walking to school with Pete when I spent the night at Jim’s apartment. As neither Jim nor I had any money for Pete to ever borrow, his “I’ll pay you back…” lies didn’t affect us, so he became our friend.
Anyway, behind my back, my mother made a deal with Nancy. I would live with them 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 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 could do more work for Lee, only now it was costing me gas money.
Since I had a car now, it fell on me to pick up the new comic books every Wednesday morning from Diamond Distributors all the way out in Oak Brook, which is pretty far from Worth. Lee never gave or even offered to pay for my gas. 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.
“Yours Truly, Mike”
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 comic book artist whose run on X-Men and Spider-Man was, and is, legendary. His father also worked on Spider Man back in the 70’s. The way creator signings worked back then, was that a shop owner would get ahold of an artist through his manager, fly him out, pay for his meals and hotels, pay him a flat fee for signing books for customers in the store, and then have an agreement to sign a specific number of comics for a set price per book; like 500 books at $2.00 a book. Keep in mind this was the late 80’s; artist signatures now can cost up to $130 per book. So, the artist would get his fee for signing in store, plus a grand for signing 500 books. The artist would come out, do the store signing and some drawings for fans, and then go to Lee’s warehouse to sign the 500 books.
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 Romita Jr.’s handmaid 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 comics, I asked him to sign a few of my books, and he ended up graciously signing every X-Men comic book I had with me. a few years later when I saw him again, Romita Jr. would draw a picture of my favorite super hero at the time: Gambit. But at the time, before he left Heroland, I showed him some of my art. Romita Jr. was encouraging and gave me a few inspirational tips. 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 5000 Romita Jr. X-Men and Spider-Man comic books on it. None of them were autographed. Other kids were there as well, some who worked at other comic book stores in the area; all disenfranchised; all easily manipulated with promises of pizza and comic books. Lee gave each of us a book with Romita Jr.’s signature on it and had us copy it 100 times on napkins until we could mimic it exactly; then he put a stack of comics in front of all of us and had us forge Romita Jr.’s signature on them all.
I would come to find out that Lee did this a lot. Lee would fly out an artist, with a handshake deal for the store signings and then the bulk signings. Price per signature varied, depending on the talent, but in the case of Romita Jr., he was expecting a thousand dollars for 500 signatures. After 50, Lee stopped him and told him that was enough, shortchanging him and leaving him pissed. He did this to Kurt Swann, Brandon Peterson, Kevin West, Chuck Fiala, Dan Jurgens, Tom Morgan, Kevin O’Neill and many others. Eventually, Paul would buy Heroland from Lee, and this business practice haunted him for years to come because ANY artist that Lee ripped off, didn’t want to have any dealings with people from Heroland. Lees 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 autographed books that he sold in the store, or through his mail order business. After all, he had pictures of the artist or writer signing autographs. Who could question the cheap fat fuck? You know what we got paid for signing all of those books? That week’s new comics, limit ten and one pizza to split between ten kids.
“…the Soul of the Spider”
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 in order to pay Nancy her hundred bucks a month, and to put gas in my car. 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; usually to pick up Nancy’s hundred bucks. 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.
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’d 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, he knew the signatures I had, 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’s main feature, and the one that came to cause my first and greatest loss, was her greed. With her low rent criminal, leather vest bed and breakfast, 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 over, even though I didn’t KNOW he had fucked me over. I was uneasy, but I couldn’t think HOW he could possibly be ripping me off.
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’; they wish they could have done more.
“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 that afternoon while I was working at Heroland, 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 Lee. Lee and Nancy walked past them without acknowledging them, and went into Pete’s bedroom where all of my comic books were, stacked high against the wall. 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 such 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. Nancy agreed. 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. They said that they kept trying to call me after that, but Louisa would just pick up and hang up the phone.
Nancy came out and screamed at Jim and Pete to carry my collection out to Lee’s bread truck. 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. She told them that I’d be living on the street and Pete could live there with me if they didn’t carry my books out to Lee’s truck. 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. That collection was my life…it represented freedom to me, autonomy. It was my shelter and my security blanket; my collection was the parent I never had, it was the love I never felt, it was the meditation that kept away hatred, loneliness, blame and jealousy. My comic book collection was all that I was. 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; this collection represented my escape from every shitty thing that had happened to me to that point in my life, and a constant reminder of all that was good in it.
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 18? 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 Nancy had just sold it for 200 bucks! And Lee KNEW he was ripping me off, what’s more, he PLANNED it. His wife was complicit in it!
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 in the parking lot of it. Well, I didn’t really sleep at all that night. I sat up thinking of 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. I’d work for him for free for life if that’s what it took. 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. I had been robbed and I’d like to press charges. She motioned an officer over to us and he asked me to explain my story to him, which I did. 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 tiny 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 an 18-year-old with nothing exact revenge? Pop a tire? Throw an egg? I was devastated in my impotence.
To be continued….