Darrell Hempel's All-Purpose Blog

My place to write about stuff

How I became a comicbook collector

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Well, this has been a great week or so, and by “great,” I mean, “crappy.”  I am finally getting over a nasty cold, which robbed me of my ability to think straight at precisely the time I need to think the hardest (end of the quarter – papers due, exams, blah blah frickity BLAH); despite this, I feel like I should still post a blog. I mean, I guess that’s good, right? It shows that I am at least partially committed to my project.

Next week is spring break, so Patty and I are taking some long-awaited, much-needed time off from work, so I may get the urge to post more frequently. Then again, I may not go near a computer if I don’t have to. Huh. I guess my commitment to this project is conditional when it comes to lounging around with my beautiful wife. Go figure.

Anyway, it’s taken me a while, but I am going to do a post about comicbooks* – pretty much my favorite things ever. Eventually, I plan to talk about specific comics – reviews and/or opinions, most likely. This is just the tale of how I got started collecting comics – it’s a piece that I wrote a while back and honestly – I really like it. So . . . enjoy.

I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know about superheroes. As a kid, I devoured reruns of the 1966 Batman TV series. I also enjoyed the Superfriends (because, hey – Batman and Robin were there, too). Man, was I hooked. The concept of adopting a costumed identity and fighting crime has always seemed “natural” to me; well, in fiction, anyway. Of course, looking back at my “School Memories” scrapbook my mom kept of my early school days – I see that in a couple of the “What do you want to be when you grow up” spots I picked Batman.

I’ve always been a reader. My mom says I was starting to read at 18 months. Blame that on Sesame Street, I guess. I can’t remember my first comicbook, but I’d bet anything that it had Batman in it! I loved superheroes. I discovered Spider-Man courtesy of reruns of the 1967 cartoon. (As an aside – did anyone else have one of those “non-affiliated” stations that showed reruns of old TV shows and cartoons?) Superman: The Movie came out in 1978. WOW!! The Incredible Hulk on TV, Spider-Man TV show, Captain America (my dad actually made me a shield. I still remember painting the red, white and blue on it – wish I still had it – but it didn’t deflect rocks. ‘Nuff said). So – basically, my time was spent watching or reading superheroes, playing superheroes (either being the hero or playing with my Mego dolls. Yeah – I said “dolls.” Wanna make somethin’ of it?

I used to get comicbooks occasionally when my mom would go to the grocery store (comics in a grocery store? Wow, I am old!), but I had no idea about continuity or even numbering! I just liked me some stories! It wasn’t until I was eight and we moved to the next town that I would discover exactly what was out there.

You see, my new best friend’s grandma worked for a magazine distributor. When the comics were returned (unsold) from the grocery stores, the distributors were supposed to destroy them. Or – they could take them home, provided they ripped the cover off. So my friend’s grandma would bring us dozens of coverless comics to read! To this day, I buy the occasional back issue that is one I’ve unknowingly read before (since I had never seen the cover) and I smile. So – for the most part – life was good. Oh sure, I was socially awkward and teased by my classmates; but comics (as I’m sure more than a few of you know) are one hell of a form of escapism. Who knew that I’d soon need all the help I could get?

In the summer of 1983, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was 10 going on 11. I won’t bore you with too many details. That’s partly because I don’t know a lot; but mainly because this is about comics, dagnabbit!

I grew up in a small town, so with all the benefit dances and fundraisers people were holding to help my family out financially, the local papers picked up my story. The small town newspaper ran a picture of me along with their story. Of course, in the picture, I was sitting on a couch, surrounded by comics. Here’s where it gets good. My aunt lived next door to a man who collected comics. He and his daughter used to travel, showing off their collection. He and my aunt talked, and he brought me two short boxes of comics. And after years of viewing comics as disposable (and usually cover-less) entertainment, was I in for a surprise!

First – there was the box itself. Your usual short comic box; but I had, up until then, never seen that! Second – the bags and boards! Wow – you can PRESERVE them! And some of them still had the price stickers on. There was something called Uncanny X-Men in this neat bag designed to keep the comic in nice condition and . . . whoa – it was worth SIX DOLLARS (note – it was issue #137 – a book that is worth considerably more today)! All kinds of wonders! Long story short(er), I made it thru chemotherapy, radiation, hair-loss, nausea, et cetera; and honestly, my love for comics helped me get through it all.

Junior High, on the other hand . . . now THAT was tough stuff. Once the hubbub of me being in school as a minor “celebrity” (hey – it’s that skinny bald kid!) settled down, I started making friends. Hey – you guys like comics, too? Neat! And it was cool. We all had our own “field of expertise,” if you will. I was the Spider-Man guy; Chris was all about Iron Man. Scott and Don would argue about Hulk vs. Thor. The mid-80s were a really great time to be a comicbook fan. Especially an adolescent comicbook fan! Stories and events at the time: Secret Wars, Crisis, Spider-Man’s black costume, New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, John Byrne on Fantastic Four. Now that is my personal “Golden Age.” And we’d all trade comics back and forth amongst ourselves. Doing things like buying the last issue of Incredible Hulk from the stand because Scott had a Spider-Man comic I wanted. Crazy stuff like that. I hope some of you out there “get it” and I don’t sound totally insane. Ah, what the hell. It’s MY story.

Of course, people grow up and move away from “childish” things. Well, most people, anyway.  I remember my friends leaving comics behind when things like girls and driving became more important. I never did. Once I started a regular job (delivering Penny Savers for $16.20 every two weeks), my money went to the drugstore downtown (where I bought comics. That sounded suspicious). Man, everything looked good back then! And the first time I convinced my dad to take me to the comicbook store a half-hour drive away . . . thanks, Pop! Of course, I could only buy so much at a time. I subscribed to a couple of the Spider-Man titles so that I wouldn’t miss anything, was pretty much a “Marvel Zombie,” and followed John Byrne’s art. Which led me to DC when Byrne moved to Superman, which brought me back to Batman . . . well, you get the idea.

I’ve “fallen away” from the hobby a couple of times, and I’ll admit that the comics (writing and art) don’t hold as much magic for me as they used to. Of course, there are literally thousands of back issues that I need to fill the gaps in my collection, so even though I don’t buy as many current comics as I used to, here I am, an almost 40 year-old man with nearly 12,000 comics taking up an entire room of the house . . . with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

* I can hear someone – “Hey, why do you spell it all as one word?” Answer – because Stan Lee does. Good enough for him, good enough for me.

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Written by Darrell Hempel

March 7, 2012 at 9:48 pm

One Response

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  1. how is it, that in all of our discussions, we’ve never covered your childhood? this fills in SOOOO many gaps for me! thanks for posting!

    Amy Lewis

    March 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm


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