My first comics came off the rack by the register at the Key Food on Atlantic Avenue, Betty and Veronica Double Digests where the chiaroscuro heroines posed in bikinis on an endless beach while cracking subpar puns. I’d flip through them while the cashier rang up my mom’s groceries, then beg to add the digest to our order. Mostly those pleas were unsuccessful, but every so often I was annoying enough that the buck or whatever they cost then was worth it to my mom to shut me up. I read them over and over again, lying on the floor of my room and studying them like the Talmud. I took them on vacation to Fire Island, sat on the sandy floor of the time-shared house and tried to draw my own pictures of Betty. I was a good artist for a seven-year-old, but I could never get those DeCarlo eyes right.
Those digests are gone now, tossed out in a fit of adulthood when I was fourteen. I wish I hadn’t.
Then there was the bookstore around the corner. In those days the meager comics section was 90% Garfield collections, but I bypassed those in favor of Calvin & Hobbes. They weren’t impulse buys, but birthday and Hanukkah presents. I read them over and over too, mangling the jokes out loud to my mom and learning what “high art” and “peripatetic” meant. I still have those, almost the whole collection, the pages puckered from a habit of reading in the bathtub, and another habit of dropping things.
When I discovered superhero comics it was the summer after high school and I was working at the local Borders. A comics-savvy coworker guided me through the graphic novel section: Sandman. Quiver. The Judas Contract. I could borrow the books without paying for them as long as I didn’t damage the spine, and I took full advantage of that.
We had a spinner rack of monthlies too, and I puzzled over the ongoing plotlines and crossovers before picking up Birds of Prey and Nightwing. But our selection was incomplete and often late, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Comics-savvy coworker came to the rescue again. “For the latest issues you have to go to a comic book store,” he explained. “There’s a new one that just opened in this mall – let’s go on our break.”
And so I stepped into my first comic book store. It was overwhelming – I didn’t understand how the comics were shelved or how to find last month’s issue, and the owner liked to yell, “This isn’t a library!” at any tween boys clustered over the latest issue of Spider-Man, like an old-timey five-and-ten salesman.
He also liked to follow me around the store and talk to my chest until I left. I stopped going without comics-savvy coworker. But the comics store owner bought coffee every morning from the Borders cafe, which was where I worked. All the cafe girls agreed he was creepy.
“One of the other girls said my flirting makes you guys uncomfortable,” he told my breasts one morning. “Does it bother you?”
I was eighteen. I was paid to be nice to customers. “I…a little? It’s okay, though,” I stammered, and never went back to his store.
I Asked Jeeves for another comic book store in my area. When I walked in, a dozen young dudes playing Magic: The Gathering turned to stare at me. No one said a word as I browsed the paltry back issue bins.
I never went back there, either.
College was a godsend. College took me back to New York City, where I’d spent the first fourteen years of my life, and New York had Midtown Comics. The Times Square location had two whole floors of comics. There were other girls browsing there, and even working there, and no one stared at any part of me while I picked out my selection for the week. Between the jacked-up prices on back issues and my own vast pull list, I shelled out hundreds and hundreds of dollars those first couple years of school.
When Ted Kord died, I combed the back issue bins for his solo series. “Big Blue Beetle fan?” the guy ringing me up asked.
“Yeah, he’s one of my favorites,” I said, and we talked about Ted Kord until the customer behind me coughed impatiently.
A couple weeks later, the same employee greeted me when I walked in. “This came in, and I put it aside for you,” he said. “I knew you’d want it.” It was Blue Beetle #1, the first issue of Ted’s DC series, bagged and boarded. In the wake of Countdown to Infinite Crisis, an issue that would’ve been buried in a twenty-five cent bin six months ago was now eight dollars. I bought it anyway. Everyone was buying Ted Kord comics, but this guy had set this one – a #1! – aside for me.
“You need to ask him out,” a friend said after buying comics with me. “He likes you.”
It was a terrifying thought. Ask a boy out? With words, and talking, and risk? And what if he was only being nice to me because it was his job? I didn’t want to be to him what that creepy guy had been to me at Borders.
“I’ll ask his name next time,” I promised. That was as far as I could bring myself to go.
Next time he rang me up. I handed him my debit card with shaking hands. “Hey, so, I just thought it’s weird…you know my name, and I don’t know yours,” I stammered.
“Oh, it’s Peter,” he said, and smiled.
“Like Peter Parker?” I wanted to say, but couldn’t. I’d exhausted my flirting courage. Besides, he’d probably heard it a million times, working where he did.
(The next part of the story isn’t so much fun. All those hundreds of dollars of comics, aside from the dawning of a lifelong passion, were a symptom of avoidant tendencies springing out of severe depression. I took some time off of school and when I finally had the emotional strength to go back to Midtown Comics, Peter Not-Parker was no longer working there. I would not be his Mary Jane; merely a Liz Allen passing in the night. Alas.)
After that I tried other stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, depending on where I was living and working at the time. Digital comics became a thing and I came up with strict and highly-esoteric rules for myself about which comics I could bring home to my tiny apartment (basically, is Supergirl in it?), and which ones I could only buy on Comixology (everything else).
Midtown Comics East is around the corner from where I now work (disguised as Clark Kent). I go in once a month, sometimes on Wednesday and sometimes not, and pick up my Supergirl and assorted crossovers. Sometimes a new cashier will ring me up. “It says here you like Blue Beetle,” he or she will say when they log into my account. “Ted Kord or Jaime Reyes?”
“Both,” I say, and wish there were comics to buy with either of them in them.
And sometimes in February when it’s been gray and cold for days and it seems like it’ll never be spring again, I’ll throw a Betty and Veronica Double Digest into my order, too. They’re not the holy scriptures they were to me when I was seven, but they still do what comics are supposed to do – they take me away. That’s enough.