Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Hooked on Comic Books

August 28, 2019

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Astonishing Tales, vol. 1 no. 29, 1975, featuring Guardians of the Galaxy - a reprint of their first appearance (1969) in Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 1 no. 18. THF305338

It started the summer I turned 14, when some neighbor kids told us they were moving and wanted to find a good home for their sizable stash of D.C. comic books. My four brothers and I had a hard time turning that down! The next thing we knew, several boxes of comic books arrived on our doorstep—opening a magical door into a world previously unknown to me.

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Archie, vol. 1 no. 102, July 1959. THF100874

Up until that time, I’d only read younger kids’ comic books—like Archie, Richie Rich, and Little Lotta. But these were different, these D.C. comics that recounted the exploits of such larger-than-life superheroes as Superman, The Flash, and my personal favorites—the teenage Legion of Super-Heroes.

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Adventure Comics, featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, vol. 1 no. 343, April 1966. THF 305335

My Mom was rather horrified when she learned of our new “acquisition.” She pictured us wasting our summer away reading these comic books rather than doing things that were—as she called it—more “constructive.” I must admit that I did spend many hours that summer immersed in the pages of those comic books. But in no way would I call it wasting my time. Through those comic books, I learned about how stories can be told through a series of pictures, how pictures can illuminate ideas and feelings, and how all of this can fuel a young reader’s imagination.

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First issue of Spider-Man I purchased, vol. 1 no. 88, September 1970 (author’s collection).

One evening a few years later, my comic book world shifted. My best friend introduced me to the backstory of Spider-Man—a completely different kind of comic book superhero created by Marvel, a completely different kind of comic book company. Spider-Man had problems. And flaws. And continual feelings of self-doubt. Here was a superhero who was reluctant, questioning, always feeling like a failure even when he just happened to save the world. On top of that, he was a teenager—just like me! Who couldn’t relate to that? I was forever done with Superman. So long, D.C.! Hello, Marvel!

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Spider-Man, vol. 1 no. 96, May 1971 – an unprecedented issue at the time. It did not display the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval like virtually all comic books at the time because it involved a drug-related story (author’s collection).

I soon branched out to other Marvel comic books. I became especially enamored with the stories of Dr. Strange, whose mystical world fascinated me and whose page after page of colorful psychedelic graphics captivated me even without the stories. I also went through a Silver Surfer period, appreciating his feeling of alienation from all human beings who inhabited Planet Earth. I tried many additional titles, but Spider-Man remained my perennial favorite.

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Dr. Strange, vol. 1 no. 171, August 1968, displaying typically striking graphics on the cover (author’s collection).

As I entered college, my passion for comic books came along with me. I rode my new 10-speed bicycle down miles of back roads to visit used comic book stores and attend the occasional comic book show. I joined a comic book enthusiasts’ group with fellow students, where we traded likes, dislikes, and back issues. I made inventories, kept needs lists, bought enthusiasts’ magazines, and traced the lineage of my favorite titles by searching for back issues. This was all in the days before the Internet, eBay, and Comic Cons, and most communication was accomplished through the mail.

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Silver Surfer, vol. 1 no. 1, August 1968 (author’s collection).

When I began my job as a curator here at The Henry Ford in 1977, my interest in comic books finally waned. Maybe I didn’t need that brand of escapism or that kind of outlet for my imagination anymore. Maybe I was too busy to take the time to delve into the stories. Comic books themselves changed. I remember feeling frustrated by Marvel’s trend, during the late 1970s, with story cross-overs throughout the entire network of their comic book titles to encourage more comic-book buying. Who had the patience and perseverance for that? Or the money, as the price of comic books soared at that time, from 15 cents in the late 1960s to 40 cents by 1980? This is also about the time that Spider-Man went mainstream, with a newspaper comic strip (starting 1977) and a Saturday morning cartoon (premiering 1981), both aimed at kids much younger than me. It seemed weird that, suddenly, I shared a common bond with my little five-year-old nephew—although he acted suitably impressed when I pulled out some of my old Spider-Man comic books for him, which by then seemed like ancient relics.

I might have let go of my comic book passion for good, but some project at the museum would always pull me back. For example, during my writing of the museum book Leisure and Entertainment in America (1988), I acquired a group of early comic books for the museum’s collection.

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Tales from the Crypt, vol. 1 no. 43, September 1954 - an early 1950s horror comic book title whose shocking content alarmed parents and helped lead to the comic book industry’s self-censorship board, called the Comics Code Authority. THF141540

When we decided to include a section on how people imagined the future in the Your Place in Time: 20th Century America exhibit, I acquired a range of comic book titles that focused upon futuristic themes.

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Spider-Man 2099, vol. 1 no. 1, November 1992 – a futuristic re-imagining of the original character (note steep $1.75 price by this time). THF305334

To my delight, the topic of comic books will be included in the upcoming filming for The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. And next summer, the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes traveling exhibit is headed our way in 2020. Here I am, more than a half-century later—and still hooked on comic books!

Back when I was a kid, many parents (including my own) worried about the harmful effects that reading comic books had on youth. In retrospect, I’d have to say that they were completely wrong. For me, comic books expanded my world immeasurably. They encouraged me to read, to write, to draw, to tap into my imagination. Maybe this started with those early Archie comic books. It certainly grew when that stash of D.C. comics landed on our front doorstep. But it blossomed and permanently formed who I am today when I entered the Marvel Universe.

Happy 80th birthday, Marvel!

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

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