Lessons from Vintage Comics

Four issues of the original Jonah Hex - part of my garage sale find.

I love garage sales. The adage ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ is never so true as in the halcyon days of summer. Garage sales are the reason I am the proud owner of all the Bond flicks through License to Kill, a talking tribble, and the Star Wars box set – original theatrical releases. I’m a little addicted to VHS tapes. I have one of The Cutting Edge that proudly announces in the previews “Coming soon to theatres – Aladdin!” My latest find was a small stack of comic books. My wife fished them out from a pile of old National Geographics and waved them under my nose, knowing I couldn’t resist. When I bought them, the woman selling them flipped through the stack and said “Those are fifty cents each – because they’re vintage.”

So I took another look.

See, to me, “vintage” harkens back to the twenties and thirties, the classy, timeless lines of furniture and clothing. And while the stack of comic books I held in my hands were all from the mid- to late-seventies, somehow I don’t see something with a full-page colour ad for the Icee Bear Club on the back cover as deserving of the word “vintage”. More “historical”. Like the old tape I had as a kid of one of my favourite movies, Rock-a-doodle. It was the CBC’s summer movie in 1992 and my mom taped it from TV for me. I’ve almost worn that tape out; it was saved when the movie came out on DVD a few years ago. But the commercials are like little visual middens in the anthropological record of the early nineties.

So too are old comics.

First, you have the advertisements – which can be intentionally or unintentionally hilarious. The Icee Bear Club, for example. It was an exciting opportunity for kids to join this super-cool exclusive club for only $10! You would receive a t-shirt, a Frisbee, and the opportunity to buy more super-cool exclusive Icee Bear Club merchandise!

Then the pages of ads for x-ray specs and muscle-man transformations. A lot of these don’t have expiration dates printed on them; someday I will send away for my very own surefire way to keep bullies from kicking sand on me at the beach.

And then there’s the cultural attitudes. Superdickery has gotten famous for posting some of the more illogical, offensive, or ill-advised covers from DC’s past. Comics have grown from their early days as wartime propaganda, when having Supes “slap a Jap!” was not only accepted but encouraged. Some Tintin books have been edited or left out of print for their depictions of African children. With the value of hindsight and the current moral and political correctness of our day, we can look back on these with our noses upturned about how misogynist or racist or homophobic the “good old days” truly were.

And they were racist and misogynistic and homophobic, don’t get me wrong. It’s all there, encapsulated in the 1974 issue of Superman that I bought for fifty cents last  weekend. Today, comics are pushing boundaries, reinventing culture, becoming cultural and literary juggernauts that appeal to broad swaths of the public. “Back in the day”, comics were more for fun. Storylines didn’t always make sense. Continuity was non-existent. Even the way characters looked and acted could change depending on the artists and writers assigned to each title. But they did preserve a way of life and a way of thinking in America that changed daily, weekly, by the year. The times, they are a-changin’. Black superheroes no longer need to have the word “Black” in their name. Superheroines get to wear pants. Superman can be the Red Menace.

And, in thirty or forty years, I wonder if someone else will pick up an issue of Deadpool Corps for fifty cents and laugh at the invoking of Bea Arthur as being terribly antiquated, or marvel at the anti-gay sentiment the young heroes face in their fifty-cent copy of Young Avengers. And then they’ll flip to the back and laugh at the outdated video game consoles being advertised in the back.

What have you learned from vintage comic books? Do you think they’ll be around in thirty years or will they be beamed directly into our brains? Should we be preserving comics in a The Time Machine-esque museum?

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