Monday, April 26, 2021

Comics: End of the Collection

Those who know me may be in for a bit of a shock: I have gotten rid of my comic book collection.

To call it a collection would be rounding up. It is more of an accumulation, forty-plus years of paper and staples that had been acquired, read and deposited in long white coffins, to rest in state in various locations. Most recently that location was a small room billed optimistically by the realtor as a Mother-In-Law apartment (When my Mom-In-Law stayed with us, she got the guest room - much nicer).  When we first moved to Seattle, the Lovely Bride built a storage rack for the collection, four bins wide and two bins high, each bin holding 9 "long-boxes" of comics, each long-box about 30" long and holding about 300 comics easily (or 350 the way I would jam them in). So that is, what, 72 long boxes with a total of about 2.5k comics. 

I read comics as a kid. Harvey comics like Sad Sack and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. I read DC comics, which were better than Marvels because you could never guarantee you would get the "next issue" at the drug store, never mind that a sizable chunk of the DCs were reprints from the early fifties. Original works included Dial H for Heroes and Legion of Superheroes and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. I think I had the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire

Then I stopped, showing a preference for MAD magazine as my drug store read. The old comics, disposable culture, were disposed.

In college I got back into comics. I blame the Star Wars comic and Howard the Duck. The guy in the next room over at the dorm read super-hero comics (Hi, Joe!) and I started reading the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. The story about creating a superhero RPG from alL this can be found here. I stored the comics in the bottom drawer of my dresser in the dorm, and brought them home in grocery bags.

Out of college, I started picking up books regularly, and started storing them in "real" long-boxes. In Pittsburgh, the only direct-sale shop was on the North Side, Eide's, in the an area where urban renewal had not gotten around to renewing yet. There I found the Small Press Indies - Elfquest, Cerebus, and the like. The boxes started to pile up. When I had gotten them to about 3 by 3, I put a sheet of plywood over them and made them into a desk. The boxes were not bleached white yet, and while I was bagging I was not boarding them (and never would). 

The story of how Marvel Super Heroes came about at TSR is here (again) But the upshot was not only was I using my collection as a resource, Marvel was now sending me comics on a weekly basis. I got on their mailing list and got two copies of everything. One copy went into manila folders and was circulated around the office (for "research" purposes) while my own copy went home. We were now storing the comics in an attic crawlspace over the kitchen. The LB and I would drive up to Milwaukee to the Turning Page every other week on a Friday (then comic-book day), then go to Chi-Chi's at the mall for Mexican food  (table for two, good light source, please).  Eventually I went for weekly runs to Rockhead's in Kenosha, and finally a pair of fans started carrying comics at their video store/gas station in Lake Geneva.

About that time I was writing comics for DC (Story here) and got on THEIR mailing list, so I got a lot of comics coming in. And in the process of all this I got a lot of comics that I would never buy, like Barbie, and movie adaptations like Richie Rich and comics for Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Prince. And I got a lot of exposure to their full lines - Vertigo and Epic and Milestone. Some was very good, some was forgettable. I made a culling and got rid of four boxes at a shop up in Madison.

I no longer am on those mailing lists, but the accumulation continued. The brown boxes became large white boxes. I stopped bagging, and eventually I stopped sorting, instead just stacking. The boxes became time capsules, layered like strata of popular culture. I brought the collection to Seattle, and the LB built the storage bins. I filled up about half of them, but over the years they filled up, and there were a couple extra white coffins on the floor as well. The boxes got wider (to accommodate the backing boards I don't use), and the paper stock for comics has gotten heavier and glossier. A box of old newsprint was about 50 pounds, one stuffed with recent books was more like 70. Soon, I would not be able to move them again. They became a wall of paper, and I considered that, in case of a nuclear attack, I could build a fallout shelter with them. Viking funeral also came to mind.

And so it was time to get rid of them. Needed the space, and the necessity of keeping them for research had diminished - not only was I not designing RPGs, but a lot of the material was available through trade paperback reprints and online. And the fictional universes have rebooted multiple times, with a surge of destructive fury replaced by a flurry of number ones, so their usefulness as historical records was diminished. 

And I went through them all in the process of cleaning them out. Some we kept - Kate had some we wanted to keep - Starstruck from Epic and Jonny Quest from Comico and Power Pack from Marvel and the underappreciated Baker Street from Caliber (punk Sherlock Holmes). I kept Astro City (Various publishers), Planetary, Groo the Wanderer, and the various Handbooks, Who's Whos, and Secret Files. And multiple  all the stuff I worked on over the years, with the exception of a backup story for a TSR comic that set up the story and then was cancelled that issue.Going through them was like an archaeological dig. Newsprint gave way to glossy stock throughout. There were flurries of relaunched and renumbered Number Ones. There were stunts like  chrome covers and embossed covers and wordless issues and sideways printing, and even a couple three-D's. There were books that I don't even remember reading - Xombi and Ravage 2099 and Hokum & Hex and Leonard Nimoy's PriMortals. Sublines like Razorwire and Heavy Hitters. And most recently mega-epics that swallowed entire company lines with huge epic storylines.

And I'm done. Those we did not keep I took down, four and five boxes at a time, to the Page Turner, a thriving used bookstore in Kent, Washington (Online it can be found as The store has an excellent collection of comics, genre fiction, histories, and pop culture. I pulled out the black and white indies (which the store owner said didn't sell well for him) for a friend (and stored them in brown paper grocery bags). The last load went down this weekend, in celebration of Seattle's Independent Bookstore Day/Week. So far I haven't had a shred of seller's regret. Now the bins are stacked with plastic containers filled with sewing projects and old paperwork belonging to my late mother-in-law. 

I still read comics, but I doubt I will be hoarding them. Maybe it is time to look at electronic formats (which, oddly enough, may make the print comics of today more valuable in that there will be fewer of them, much like the paper drives of WWII boosted the disposal of old golden age books). It does feel like I have jettisoned almost two tons of albatross from my life. 

Now I just need to figure out what to do with all these National Geographics.

More later,

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Plague Books: Clap for the Wolfe, Man

Too Many Cooks/ Champagne for One by Rex Stout. Bantam Books, 2009 reprint of novels from 1938 and 1958.

Provenance: Purchased at the Strand, New York City, in the before times. I had gone to the Strand to look for the new Will Gibson book, but they had sold out. But I did find this one.

Recently, I bogged down with three rather involved tomes, so when I went in for my shot, I took this book along. Didn't really need it, but once started, I spent several pleasant spring afternoons on the back deck reading it.

Review: This is a reprint compilation - two books, twenty years apart, shoved together under a single set of covers. No additional editing, and it shows. The first book runs its course, and the second begins with new page numbering. The fonts and leading are different in both halves. There's a big globby typo on page 104 of the first story that is still there. So the effort on the 2009 reprint consists of new covers and printing.

What it does do is that it allows us to compare two books, same author, same characters, same general setup, twenty years apart and eighty years back in time. Yes, there is some creakiness involved, but in general, they hold up.

(OK, for those who haven't heard me talk about this before, here's the overview of the series: Nero Wolfe is a brilliant, overweight, cantankerous private detective with a superiority complex and preference for fine food, orchids, and not working. Archie Goodwin is his legman. employee, and friend, the wisecracking Watson in this pair, but more social and more street savvy. He pushes, goads, and otherwise manipulates Wolfe into doing the right thing as part of his job. Together they're detectives.)

So, Too Many Cooks. Here Wolfe is out of his element. He is going to a gathering of professional chefs in West Virginia to give an after-dinner speech and enjoy the food, and maybe get a secret recipe from one of the chefs. One of the chefs present is one of those guys who everyone says deserves to be stabbed. Yeah, he is stabbed. So, large crowd of suspects, Wolfe having to do things he does not want to do, Archie is being charming and flirtatious, but with a heart of gold. Even at this early date, a lot of the components of a Nero Wolfe story are pretty much set in stone. 

An interesting exception deals with race. Up to this point, I hadn't considered how white Wolfe's world is, but in this case a major set of witnesses at the resort in W Va are black men. Despite being set in New York, a lot of the people who Wolfe is dealing with are Caucasian. Some of that is dealing with the Upper Class, his clients, but also most of the day-to-day that Archie runs around with - cabbies and doormen and receptionists. There is a variety of European heritages - Italians and Irish and Polish and French, and Wolfe himself is Serbian. But these would fall under the ancient rubric of "White Ethnic", a phrase I don't think I've heard since 1978 (Its flipside would be WASP - equally extinct in the modern age, even with a recent failed attempt to resurrect it as simply "Anglo-Saxon")).

But we are in West Virginia for this tale, and black men are the resort staff. They cook and serve the food. They hold the doors. The help. They are made semi-invisible by the shade of their flesh. How does Stout handle it? Casual N-bombs are thrown in the text, but not by Archie or Nero, though Archie does use a few archaic epithets that I had to look up. When confronting the staff as potential witnesses to the crime, Wolfe delivers a "Brotherhood of Man" speech that borders on cringe-worthy to modern ears, but Wolfe pulls it off in part because of his own insufferable superiority to everyone regardless of race or creed. And Stout's characterizations of the African-American staff are better than most films of the era, and he makes clear why the staff would be unwilling to cooperate with the white establishment, regardless of where in Europe those ancestors came from.

Champagne for One also involves a hot topic of its time - in this case unwed mothers. Up to the mid-70s, there were "schools" that would take pregnant unwed mothers in, see them to term, provide varying levels of support and putting the children up for adoption. The lessening of stigma about teenage pregnancy did a lot to reduce their popularity and the rise of birth control, but they are at the heart of this part of the mystery.

The setup for this one is a bit stilted, but bear with me. Widow of the founder of one of these homes continues her late husband's tradition of inviting three of the women from the school (post-birth) and three young men (of upper middle class) to a dinner at her mansion. At this particular one, Archie is leaned upon to fill in as one of the young men. One of the women, who had told people she kept poison in her purse in case she decides to do herself in, is poisoned. Everyone assumes it is suicide, but Archie goes on record as saying it is murder. And that eventually brings Wolfe in.

And here, twenty years later, the formula is firing on all cylinders. We have the brownstone on West 35th street. We have the supporting cast, both household and professional. We have the cigar-chomping chief of detectives, who lives in the pantheon with Piroit's Inspector Japp and Holmes Lestrade as foils and frenemies. We have the big cast of upper-class suspects, who pack their own secrets and agendas. That last is definitely a Stout trademark - the murder is not frozen in amber, but rather the players continue to conspire and plot as Wolfe closes in. But the setting and action is comfortable, right down to the red chair in Wolfe's office. Are these "cozy mysteries", a term used for rural sleuths like Miss Marples? Yeah, I can see it. Comfort food with a little murder on the side.

I guessed the murderer in the first book, but not the exact method. Was surprised by the murderer in the second even though I caught the fatal statement that led to the reveal. Not that I claim to be up to Wolfe or Goodwin's level.

More later,

Monday, April 19, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus - Not Throwing Away My ... Shot.

Doctors Looking At Art
from John Hopkins Magazine
 And so I am vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson "one and done" vaccine.

It happened a couple weeks back, on a Wednesday. It turns out that the process of making appointments was tougher than the process of getting the stab itself. Being JUST under 65 in Washington State meant I missed out on the initial round, but when we finally cleared at the end of the month April, both the Lovely Bride and I when to the vaccine finder online and, finding out that shots would be given out at the local hospital, Valley Med. Great. Except to sign up, you went to the UWMed site, and once you signed up to be put on the waiting list, there was no confirmation one way or another. 

So after a week I went back to the vaccine finder, and signed up for a bunch of locations. I found they were giving the vaccine at the local sports complex (the ShoWare center, a local venue noted for never turning a profit every year). But by the time I filled out all the forms, they were out of appointments. So I ended up signing up down for a vaccination site down in Auburn, at the Outlet Center (formerly known as the Supermall). And filled out the online forms pretty fast to keep from losing THAT one. 

Now, because of what I do (designing computer games), I am extremely sensitized to UX (user experience) - how people navigate the complex web of their online experience. Every site had their own format, their own questions, and their own process. and for anyone who was not computer-savvy, it was a frustrating experience (The Lovely B, by the way, got on her iPad during a Zoom dinner party, and struck a win very quickly with a local Rite-Aide, which did not have any openings when I went looking four days before - BUT since then the J&J vaccine was halted as a result of potential blood clotting, so she's been moved further back in the line).

So, the Supermall. A friend had had a horrible experience locating the vaccination site, so I went down early for the first appointment of the day. The web site gave the location of the site by the Suite number of the store, but the maps of the mall itself did not identify anything by Suite number. And there was not a lot of signage in the mall parking lot (Supermall - big parking lot on all four sides). parked near by best guess, and found that the mall ITSELF was closed at that hour. I drove to where I had seen a number of cars parked thinking it was another entrance. And indeed, THAT was the site where the vaccine was being distributed. Spoilers: It was on the north side of the building, with a HUGE white tent for people to queue up in.

It might have been the hour, or the fact I was there early (9:30, even after going to the wrong entrance), or the fact that the web sites had confused so many people, but the huge white tent was empty, and I walked in. The place (an abandoned Sports Authority with an external main door) was swarming with helpful volunteers in orange jackets (far outnumbering the patients). One asked me if I had brought along my ID and QRCode from the confirmation message. I had not brought the QRCode, and she sent me to Guest Services, which was a long set of tables with more volunteers. I was the first of the day, so the young woman that was helping me had an older volunteer at her side, and four more volunteers hanging over her shoulder to understand what needed to be done. It turned out the first volunteer at the door was wrong - you did not NEED to bring along your QRCode, it just makes it easier. I was confirmed and sent on my way to the long, empty queue area leading to the shots itself. It was sort of like arriving for your flight early, and No One was ahead of you at security.

And here's the thing - everyone was extremely friendly and upbeat, something I rarely see in malls these days, so I was actually taken aback. The friendly volunteer at the empty queue directed me to a table with two more friendly volunteers (trainee and trainer) who took my information, and when I confirmed I had an allergy (sulfa drugs), called over a friendly firefighter who said there should be no problem but I should wait 15 minutes after the shot to be sure, and another friendly firefighter administered the shot. Now, I have an INTENSE dislike of needles, but this was probably the easiest shot I've ever gotten. I was sent to another friendly volunteer who was stationed near a widely spaced set of chair, and when I did not fall out said chair in 15 minutes, I was released into the (closed) mall itself, where a string of friendly volunteers in orange jackets showed me to the exit. 

I had taken the rest of the day off (because I was topping out my vacation time in any event), so I ran some more errands and went home, and napped. Felt a little "meh" the next day, but avoided any serious reaction.

So, it's over? No, it is not. First off two weeks to have the vaccine run its course. Plus, in D&D terms, the vaccine is Damage Resistance, not Damage Immunity. I am not immune to fire, but I will take less damage from the fire, hopefully to the point where, if I suddenly find myself in a fireball, I would not be hospitalized.(I will refrain from torturing this analogy any further in the name of the Geneva Convention). The end result is that I will continue to use a mask when I go out, and work from home until the situation changes further.

In the outside world things are trying to lurch back to normal, with a rise in number of cases in several counties out here, but a decline in fatalities (A separation of the sick and the dead). King County is verging on slipping back to Stage 2 from Stage 3. Traffic is starting to suck again, more people are being shot in public places, and I'm getting a lot more spam calls. So, I guess America is slowly becoming America again. The local grocery has pulled up the one-way arrows for the aisles that everyone was ignoring anyway. The local newspaper did a long piece on Sunday on museums that were slowly and cautiously reopening.  There was an article as well about how, despite expectations, there was a decline in suicides in the past year, as people did not deal with each other as much. And there remains much concern about new variants that are spreading and replacing earlier waves. 

So we have hit a milestone (instead of a millstone), and there is some glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. On the 15th the floodgates open, and everyone else will be allowed to get the vaccine (which, to continue the airport analogy, feels like when they have boarded the first class, business, gold, platinum, jade, and radioactive metals classes, along with people with children, those who are serving/have served in the military, and Seahawk fans, and now are ready to board "All Other Rows".

And that is where a lot of my younger colleagues are: All Other Rows. This too, I want to say, will pass.

More later,