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Tag: All About Books & Comics

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1991, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 3

The summer of 1991 was huge for two reasons: X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991) and X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991).

I was mostly buying new comics from AAA Best, where I had a pull list. But I was really into it at this point and spent most of my free time that summer hitting every comic shop I could find in the Phoenix area. All About Books and Comics was my No. 2 choice. They had their main store on Camelback Road and also a small Scottsdale location close to where I was staying with my parents.

Most of the comics I was reading at this point were solidly entertaining, and I was buying a lot of them, so I wasn’t trying a ton of new books. Batman, Spider-Man, Justice League, Doom Patrol, Avengers, The Sandman, Hellblazer and probably a few others were keeping me pretty busy.

It was all about the X-Men that summer. The commercial success of the book with Jim Lee on it just spilled over into everything. Interest in X-Men comic books may never have been higher. Both the collector crowd, dominated at this time by speculators who bought up multiple copies — even cases! — of new issues as they came out, and the fans more into the creative and storytelling side of things were unable to resist the oncoming onslaught of X-Men books.

But this interest also was so intense, it couldn’t help but radically change the comics themselves. When Chris Claremont took over as writer on X-Men in 1974, this was a very small and unimportant corner of the Marvel Universe. A mere 17 years later, X-Men and its various spinoffs were an industry of their own. The demand for X-Men material was insatiable, and Marvel was more than happy to do its best to deliver.

There was one problem. Claremont and his closest collaborators — the artists he worked with, as well as the editors who backed him, most notably Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti — couldn’t deliver on their own nearly enough material to meet that demand, though they appeared to have a solid grip on the core of the X-Men franchise. And other comics creators, spying the very large checks X-Men books generated under Marvel’s sales incentives program, wanted a piece of that pie.

That changed with the publication of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X serial in Marvel Comics Presents #72-84 (March-September 1991). Claremont for years resisted any attempt to fill in the gaps in Wolverine’s past, and now another creator was doing exactly that.

Marvel Comics Presents #84 (Sept. 1991).
Cover art by Barry Windsor-Smith.

Suddenly, copies of Marvel Comics Presents were hard to find. I had missed a number of issues prior to Weapon X and had to track down the first issue in particular by visiting just about every store in the Phoenix area before finding one at, I believe, All About Books and Comics.

As the release of X-Force #1 approached, there was a lot of excitement because, for the first time I could remember, comics were becoming popular within the larger culture. I saw people wearing X-Force T-shirts at Target. The Levi’s TV ad featuring Rob Liefeld and Spike Lee was a minor sensation on TV. Comics shops on new release day and weekends were crowded.

And suddenly the comics world didn’t seem so distant from the rest of the world.

I stopped by AAA Best the day that X-Force #1 came out — the first week of June 1991 — to pick up my regular stack of comics as well as take part in that momentous event. The store was more crowded than I’d ever seen it, with people lining up to buy huge stacks of copies of that issue. One guy proudly boasted that he was buying 25 copies of the book – and that this was nothing compared to what he was going to get when X-Men #1 came out.

Polybagged copy of X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991).
Cover art by Rob Liefeld.

While there was only one cover, each copy of X-Force #1 was polybagged with one of five trading cards drawn by Liefeld. That means most people bought six copies — five to save, and one to open and read. Within a week, I saw All About’s main location was selling the extra cards from opened copies — for a premium. There also was a brief sensation about a certain number of copies that for some reason had a reversed image of Captain America in the UPC box on direct market issues. I don’t know if that’s a legit variant, but I did scoop up an extra set of those for some reason I’m glad to have forgotten.

I spent most of my free time that summer driving through the desert heat from comic shop to music store to movie theater to bookstore and back around again. One of the nearby stops was a Bookstar outlet in the then-still-new Scottsdale Pavilions. They didn’t have much in the way of comics, but they did have a big newsstand that included copies of the Comics Buyers’ Guide. I doubt I’ll ever forget picking up the July 12 issue and reading that Jim Lee was taking over as plotter of the book, with John Byrne stepping in to script, while Claremont took a “sabbatical.” This was less than a month before X-Men #1 was due out.

Cover story in Comics Buyer’s Guide #921 (July 12, 1991).

There was no internet back then, and few publications that carried comic book news in a timely enough fashion to learn any more details before X-Men #1 came out on Aug. 13, 1991. The new issues of The Uncanny X-Men offered no hint of what was to come. Jim Lee stopped drawing the series after issue #277 (June 1991), with the incredible Paul Smith returning for #278 (July 1991), and Andy Kubert on #279 (Aug. 1991), on which Claremont’s run ended halfway through the comic. The rest was by Fabian Nicieza, who wrapped up the storyline in #280 (Sept. 1991) and set the stage for the Mutant Genesis relaunch.

That summer also was a big one for Star Trek, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to thrive on TV, its reputation growing with every new episode that aired. The original crew also was due back for one final voyage, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country scheduled for a December release. Not only was the original crew getting back together, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director and writer Nicholas Meyer was returning to both roles. There also was a rumor that TNG’s Michael Dorn had been cast in a small role in the movie.

The teaser trailer was frustratingly unspecific, but the title — originally meant by Meyer for Star Trek II — was terrific and built up expectations for a satisfying and very final finale.

On the comics side, DC put two more great Star Trek annuals, and put together the first sanctioned crossover between TOS and TNG with a pair of four-issue miniseries called The Modala Imperative. The creative teams swapped, with TNG comic scribe Michael Jan Friedman starting things off with a four-issue story of Kirk and Co. that was released biweekly that summer.

It was followed up with a sequel TNG series by regular TOS scribe Peter David that brought back Admiral McCoy from the TNG premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” as well as an older Spock who was now an ambassador. (That last detail later panned out on the show itself when Leonard Nimoy returned that fall for a two-episode run as Spock on TNG, “Reunification.”)

There also was to be an original hardcover TOS graphic novel titled Debt of Honor from Chris Claremont and artist Adam Hughes, but it was delayed into 1992. More on that later.

August was the big month. With X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991), Marvel was releasing five variants of the double-size first issue. The first four would be standard format comics with covers that would connect to form a single image. Each also had its own pinup spread by Jim Lee. The fifth edition was a deluxe edition on glossy paper with no ads, all the spreads from the other four variants, a double gatefold cover with all four of the other covers as a single image, and some bonus sketches by Lee. The editions were released once a week, rather than all at once, with Marvel pushing back the release of X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991) a week to make room for the deluxe edition room to have its own week in the spotlight.

X-Men #1 — Cover E (Oct. 1991). Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Ken Strack at AAA told me that he thought the deluxe edition might be hot enough to be worth something. But at that time no one expected Marvel would print and ship 8 million copies of the book, making it the highest-selling comic of all time (at least to comics shops) and the most common. I picked up a couple copies of the first edition at AAA Best on the day of release, also swinging by All About’s Scottsdale location just to get some of the contact buzz.

Reading the book was bittersweet. It was much better than X-Force #1, featuring the full-on return of Magneto as a villain, some cool Danger Room shenanigans to introduce the new Lee costume designs, an orbital nuclear blast, and a final showdown in Genosha. To be continued!

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991).
Cover art by Whilce Portacio and Art Thibert.

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991), came out the same day as the first edition of X-Men #1, and was more of a mess. Marvel countered Claremont’s departure by bringing back John Byrne to script both series over plots from Jim Lee (starting in X-Men #4 (Jan. 1992)) and Whilce Portacio in Uncanny #281. While Portacio’s art was exciting, let’s just say letting an artist with limited writing ability plot one of your most visible and top-selling series is about as good an idea as it sounds. The story involved some Sentinels, the return of the Hellfire Club, and some new villains that didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Claremont changes his plans for the series to wrap things up as best he could. While X-Men #1 was originally intended to be an introductory issue Claremont referred to as “X-Men 101,” it now kicked off a three-issue storyline that attempted to resolve the Xavier-Magneto conflict in some kind of convincing manner. When X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991) shipped in October, it was truly the end of an era. There was no acknowledgement of Claremont’s departure, no farewell message — no mention in any way that the man arguably most responsible for this commercial triumph was being displaced from that role.

X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Between the release of the first edition of X-Men #1 and the fifth edition, I returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona for my final semester. I was originally slated to be the assistant news editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but after only a few weeks found myself promoted to full news editor, in charge of keeping something like eight reporters busy covering the goings on of a campus of 36,000 students. Oh, and a full load of classes, too.

Next: How I almost — almost! — stopped buying comics after graduation.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1989-90, Tucson, Ariz., Part 1

I don’t remember why I stopped shopping at AAA Best when I started my junior year at the University of Arizona. Instead, I starting shopping weekly in Tucson at Fantasy Comics, which is located at 2745 N. Campbell Ave.

Fantasy was in an unremarkable one-story building, with a glass case at the front full of its more expensive comics. New releases were racked to the immediate right. The rest of the current comics were stocked in alphabetical order in racks that stretched to the back of the shop. The main floor featured lots of back issues. Charlie Harris, a frequent DC “letter hack,” either owned the store or worked there.

One of the most memorable things for me about shopping at Fantasy was that back issues were in heat-sealed bags. To get them open, you needed scissors, so there were lots of discarded comic bags in my trash.

Into the Trek comics wormhole

I fell deep into Star Trek at the time. DC published in August new Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series that I really enjoyed. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had done poorly at the box office and with critics, but Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third series debuted in September and was by far its best to date.

But it was the classic Star Trek comic that really caught my eye. It had clever scripts by Peter David and slick art printed on good paper from the team of James Fry and Arne Starr. And nothing beat those covers by Jerome K. Moore. They are spectacular and I never tire of looking at them or admiring the skill Moore brought to those illustrations.

My Star Trek obsession led me to a Star Trek convention experience that cemented my fandom for that franchise. It was a weekend Creation Convention at the Tucson Convention Center, with special guest Patrick Stewart.

Prior to Stewart’s entrance, Gene Roddenberry’s assistant, Richard Arnold, previewed upcoming episodes of The Next Generation. These were sneak peeks at some of the best in the series’ run: “Deja Q,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father” and “Captain’s Holiday.”

Stewart appeared for a charming Q&A session at the end of the day. Among the secrets he revealed: He had accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona. But the offer slipped through through the cracks and after landing the role of Captain Picard, he never looked back. What might have been!

Marvel’s X-Men on the rise

The other hot franchise was X-Men. It had been a best-seller for years at this point, but new artists raised the excitement to a new level. Jim Lee’s arrival on X-Men seemed inevitable after lengthy runs on Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal. He did a few issues here and there at first, before taking the full reins in the summer of 1990. At the same time, Rob Liefeld also was pitching in on X-Men titles and getting some heat. He took over the penciling chores on The New Mutants in 1990 and introduced Cable, another high point. Erik Larsen took over penciling The Amazing Spider-Man from Todd McFarlane, who was set to launch a new Marvel title. With Marc Silvestri jumping from X-Men to Wolverine, the seeds of the Image revolution were taking root.

But Star Trek had sort of taken over my mind. I collected the first DC series, re-watched the movies and original TV shows, and even enjoyed some of the Star Trek novels. “Writer of Stuff” Peter David was the creator whose work I most enjoyed, leading me inevitably to The Incredible Hulk.

Lost in the aisles of Bookman’s

Fantasy was but one of the shops I frequented that year. Another mainstay was Bookman’s, a used-book store that filled a former grocery store space with tons of fascinating objects. Each visit took hours, it seems. I’d start with out-of-town newspapers and move on to a newsstand section full of old and new magazines. Then there were aisles full of used books, cassettes, CDs, and bargain low-grade comics. I always flipped through Comics Scene and the Comics Buyers Guide, catching in the latter news of a Peter David signing at All About Books and Comics in Phoenix. I skipped out on school to drive up from Tucson in time to hit the Thursday evening event.

The Hulk tour hits Phoenix

The signing was part of a tour promoting David and artist Dale Keown’s work on The Incredible Hulk. Keown had only drawn two issues of Hulk at this point, and the signing was sparsely attended. That gave everyone a chance to hang out with David and Keown and chat about a lot of things. David signed several Star Trek issues for me, a Next Generation novel he’d written, and some Hulks. He joked about calling his editor back in New York to rave about the warm Arizona weather.

To my surprise, Keown hailed from Alberta, so we talked about Canada and Arizona, as well as comics. I remember he sold the splash page to The Incredible Hulk #367, his first issue, for about $150. A few years later, I saw the same page for sale in another Phoenix-area store for many multiples of that.

The signing was part of a mini-tour that continued that weekend to comic shops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All About produced a poster for the signing similar to the McFarlane one I wrote about previously. Mine is framed but in storage.

Hunting for back issues in Tucson

After that, I started seriously looking for back issues of The Incredible Hulk. David had been writer on Hulk for about three years, and I began by tracking down his back issues. I often visited a Tucson shop called Comics and Things, located in a strip mall at 3934 E. Grant Road, in search of Hulk and Star Trek back issues. It had a good selection of recent back issues but soon vanished into the ether.

The writing and art on Hulk surprised me. David started with a fairly conventional Hulk story with McFarlane on art. Their collaboration ended with a satisfying climax that completely changed the series’ premise. David next turned the Hulk gray and got him a job as a high-end Las Vegas bouncer named Joe Fixit. Jeff Purves drew this run and did a fabulous job before disappearing from the world of comics.

Hulk was so good that Sam Kieth drew the fill-ins — if you could call them that.

Keown drew Hulk for the next three years, and it became was a huge hit. David stuck with the title for years after, and still writes new Hulk stories from time to time. Great stuff.

How much is too much Batman?

This also was a time when Batman was still riding high on the popularity of the Tim Burton movie. So Batman was super-hot and DC released in the autumn of 1989 Legends of the Dark Knight #1. Promoted as the first new solo Batman book since 1940, this series set free top talent to do their ultimate Batman story.

The first issue also marked the first time I remember variant covers from a major publisher, as DC promoted the book with a second cover that came in four different colors. They said in the book that it was “just for fun,” but the result surely made DC’s accountants happy as fans decided they needed to have a copy of each color — and therefore bought four copies of that first issue.

Pointing out the differences between Tucson and Phoenix, that first Legends of the Dark Knight sold out immediately down south. The same was true of The New Titans #60 and 61, which were key parts of the current Batman storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying.” I easily found both on my first comic shop stop on my next trip to Phoenix.

Next: My short career as a “letter hack.”

Comic-Shop Memories: All About Books & Comics (Part I), 1986-87, Phoenix, Ariz.

I don’t know how quickly I was able to discover All About Books & Comics after moving to Arizona, but it was pretty quick, likely within a month or so after arrival.

The shop was farther from home, about 16 miles from home or a half-hour each way in the car, at 535 E. Camelback Road. Like most comics shops, it was in an unremarkable building, albeit one that had bright letters and even characters at times painted on its street-facing windows.

It would be an understatement to say I was impressed when I first walked into the store. Not only was the space large, but it was crammed to the gills with new and back issue comics — more than I’d ever seen in any other shop. And, I quickly learned, there was lots more in the back. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, just ask, and they’d come back shortly with the book you needed in fantastic shape. I have a stone-cold mint copy of X-Men #147 I acquired from the “back room,” and an equally nice copy of X-Men #142.

What impressed me most at first was the back issue selection, which was deep. I checked out the X-Men selection and — just in the box — they had just about every issue back to #143, the end of the John Byrne run. The issues before that were prominently displayed along the walls in mylar sleeves for “exorbitant” prices that ranged from $10 to $30 for most except the earliest issues of the “new” X-Men run. Every other title was stocked just as deeply, if not more so, since those early new X-Men issues were the hottest thing going at the time and there were no reprints. So to read them, you had to get the originals. Classic X-Men had just started and it was going to be a while before it got to the Dark Phoenix issues.

A later printing of the first X-Men trade paperback, with a great cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

I say that with one exception, that applies directly to this visit. While checking out a rack in the corner, I came across the first X-Men trade paperback, published in 1984, collecting issues #129-137, for the cover price of $7.95. I had to have this book, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Luckily, Christmas was coming up, and I told my parents this is what I wanted. So my dad drove me down to the store again, we bought it — I was sure it would be gone by that point — and it went home to be wrapped awaiting Christmas morning. I remember reading it that Christmas Day of 1986 and absolutely loving it. I’ll have to do a whole post on that book another time.

The following May, I graduated high school and was due to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson starting in the fall. My dad was working for a personnel company that had a temp business that served American Express, which had extensive operations in the Phoenix area. So he got me a summer temp job at one of their call centers, answering a national informational toll-free number for the Amex business card. The hotline was advertised in USA Today and other high-profile places, so my job was to answer these calls, answer basic questions about the card, take down the caller’s information and pass it on so that an application would be sent to them, or — if they were a larger company — a sales rep could contact them. It was boring and easy. Most of the calls came from the East Coast, so the afternoons slowed to a crawl and I’d read sci-fi books I borrowed from the library at my desk until I was done at 4:30. The perks included being able to look up cardholder addresses in the computer — few comics folks seemed to have Amex cards, but I never stopped putting their names in the system — and a fantastic deli in the complex called The Duck and Decanter, which is still there and makes the most incredible sandwiches. And it was located at 16th Street and Camelback road, just nine blocks down the street from All About Books & Comics!

So 4:30 would hit and, about twice a week, I’d make All About my first stop. I had this summer job and sufficient financial aid to pay for university, so I felt free to spend a little money on comics. I was in full-on X-Men fandom mode at the time, and so these trips were used primarily to raid those deep back issue bins. I’d grab four or maybe five issues per visit, adding in a few other back issues to series I still had holes in — The New Mutants and Alpha Flight in particular. When I started frequenting All About, my X-Men collection ran back from the current issue (around issue #220) back to about #174, with a couple of older issues in there. By the end of the summer, I’d filled it in all the way back to #141, plus annuals. I’d also brought up to date my run of The New Mutants.

I was really interested at the time in the issues from Dave Cockrum’s second run as artist, which I was reading for the first time. They were very different in tone and style than the stuff that hooked me on X-Men: issues Claremont produced with artists Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., John Byrne and Art Adams. But the more I read the Cockrum stuff, the more I really came to love it fully and completely, faults and all.

I also started trying out more comics, still mainly Marvel. Favorites included: Avengers by Roger Stern, John Buscema and Tom Palmer; West Coast Avengers by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom; and Silver Surfer by Englehart and Marshall Rogers. All About was well stocked, and you could pick up at cover price, new off the racks, the last six or so issues of these titles plus any recent annuals. And new comics cost 75 cents at the time, so it was not terribly expensive to try out six or so issues of a new series.

I recall flipping through a copy of an issue of Batman: Year One and not buying it — which was, again, really dumb. I did later acquire those originals for a very reasonable price.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been getting my subs through Fog Hollow Comics until it closed, and then those subs were transferred to a shop called AAA Best Comics. On Fridays, I would often hit All About and then drive up to Fog Hollow for my subs and then home. It took an hour in the car in Phoenix summer heat — without air conditioning. But this was my thing and I was all in. I almost always went for a swim as soon as I got home to refresh my sweaty self and remember for a moment what it was like to be cool.

The day before I was scheduled to drive down to university with my parents and move into my first apartment with a roommate I had yet to meet, I wanted to get my new comics from All About. It was new comics day, but in those days that was far less of a weekly event than now. The books came in and sat in piles on the counter throughout the afternoon as the staff worked to verify quantities before they could be put on sale. So I waited. For quite a while. I looked through back issue bins. I checked out the small section next to the comics where All About stocked used paperbacks and discount comics. Finally, the new books were freed and I picked up my comics, including X-Men #224, and began the long drive home in the late-afternoon heat.

Cover to X-Men #224 (Dec. 1987). Cover art by Marc Silvestri and Bob Wiacek.

If you’ve ever been to Phoenix in the summer, you know it gets really damn hot. And when the monsoons come, it gets worse because the humidity goes up from nothing to something. This was a monsoon day. I could see the thunderheads building up in the mountains, and was driving toward them as our house was near the foothills of the McDowell mountains. I had sweat through my clothes several times over in my AC-less VW Beetle. And then I got a flat on Hayden Road, just north of Via de Ventura. I pulled off onto a side street and, having no working spare, found a nearby pay phone to call for help. Which took a very long time to come because it was rush hour and our other car was otherwise occupied. So I found some kind of shop to sit in, with my comics, and read them until I got some help and could get home, wash off the day with a dip in the pool and try to prepare for the next day’s events. But I had my comics. That made me happy. And since I had an apartment, I did take with me my collection — about three long boxes at this point.

On to Tucson, and another town of new comics shops.

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