A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Tag: Phoenix

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1990, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 2

A lot changed at the end of my third year at University of Arizona. My family was living in Phoenix, just off North 19th Avenue, way up north of West Bell Road. I don’t remember how, but I landed a summer job at a nearby Minit Lube. I mostly took service orders from cars that drove up, squeegeed windows, and vacuumed the floor mats.

Everyone has a job they survive. This was mine. The people were nice, and that was the best part of it. This was an open-air, drive-through oil change place. That meant you were not working indoors, where the Arizona summer temps could be tempered with air-conditioning. The boss was generous with using petty cash to get us Gatorade, water, or sodas from the Circle K next door several times a day to help us avoid dehydration, so that was nice. It paid slightly more than minimum wage — about $4 and change per hour.

But this was an especially cruel summer. On June 26, 1990, the temperature in Phoenix set a record: 126 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s 52 degrees Celsius for those of you who live outside the U.S. I was not working that day. I was home, with the shades drawn, the AC on, cold drinks in the fridge, watching movies on VHS in the dark.

At one point, I remembered I had left several music cassettes in my car and decided to save them. I put on flip-flops, grabbed my keys, and went out to the car. I opened the door and quickly grabbed the hot tapes, pulling my shirt out like an apron to carry them indoors. As I was walking back to the front door, I thought I had stepped in some gum. Looking down, I saw my flip flops were melting on the concrete driveway. I hurried inside and did not re-emerge until the rotation of the Earth had put a merciful end to the sun’s daily punishment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds"
One of the best TV cliffhangers of all time. It was uncertain that Patrick Stewart was coming back, so this really could have gone a number of different ways.

A few weeks before that, my Star Trek fandom hit new heights with the broadcast of the third-season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “The Best of Both Worlds.” What a stunner! The third season had really taken off, and the show was now firmly boldly going into new territory in exciting, well-crafted and thoughtful ways. I miss it.

I remember catching early that summer a couple episodes of The Flash on CBS, which clearly took a lot of visual inspiration from the Tim Burton Batman movie success of the year before. It didn’t click with me, and was canceled at that point after only one season.

Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy.
Don’t have much to say about this movie, other than it seemed like a business venture more than a creative one.

In theaters, there was Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. This movie was very hyped in a clear attempt to emulate the success, again, of Batman. The miscalculation was in not realizing that Dick Tracy hadn’t been a character people cared about for decades at that point. There had been no resurgence of interest, or reframing of the character for the times, as Batman had gotten from The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. It was just an old comic strip, and the only strip back then that had any kind of active audience was Calvin and Hobbes.

Dick Tracy could have overcome that if the movie was better, but it wasn’t. It was a bunch of old actors putting on silly makeup to turn an old comic strip no one read anymore into a movie that no one really ended up caring much about. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, though I do have a DVD somewhere of it.

Back to the Future, Part III
I like Back to the Future, Part III a lot more than Part II.

Other cool stuff going on that summer included the release of Back to the Future, Part III, which prompted a thorough review on my part of the previous two films in that series. In the end, only the first is a really great film, but the others are at least entertaining.

Less interesting was Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Not at all up to the standards of the first one — a movie series of true diminishing returns.

It was Spider-Man #1 (Aug. 1990) that drew me back to AAA Best Comics. I had a day off work the day the issue came out, June 19, 1990, and decided to head over to Ken Strack’s shop to pick up a copy. He had moved down the street — he was always on North Seventh Street — into a slightly larger space.

He had ordered plenty of copies, and I picked up two each of the green cover and the silver cover, and one each of the green bagged edition and the black bagged edition. I believe the bagged editions are still unopened in my collection somewhere.

I distinctly remember Ken raving about a new DC series called Shade the Changing Man. The first issue was recently out, and he talked up the striking Chris Bachalo art. I can’t remember if he gave it to me or if I paid for it, but I found myself agreeing with him that it was cool, and coming back for the next issue for at least the next two or three years.

It was overall a fun time to be reading comics, which still were cheap. Most DC and Marvel series cost $1 per issue, which made it easy to buy a stack of new, untried books for not a lot of money.

Marvel had this new-series program, where they introduced a new first issue each month for the first half of 1990. Among them were Ghost Rider, the John Byrne She-Hulk, The New Warriors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Byrne’s Namor: The Sub-Mariner, and McFarlane’s Spider-Man.

I was in on Spider-Man and Namor. The others, for whatever reason, struck no nerve with me. With Namor, the appeal was the art. Byrne was using duotone paper that gave his work a new element. And he had some good ideas for the character that made for a really fun read, namely having Namor forage lost treasure from the ocean floor to turn himself into a captain of industry.

I was still reading comics that summer. I recall really enjoying the various Batman and Star Trek series.

X-Men was in an unusual but still very interesting place. In the main X-Men title, writer Chris Claremont split up the team after Inferno and scattered them across the world. Many found completely new identities, with older characters fading away and new ones, as always, coming in. There were a lot of single-issue stories, with the overarching story building in the background — sometimes so deeply, it wasn’t clear to the reader, or even perhaps to Claremont himself, where things were going and how. These were the last Marc Silvestri issues, which were followed by a series of fill-in artists awaiting the inevitable arrival of heir apparent Jim Lee later in the year.

Fans were impatient with this approach to X-Men.

I recall reading in a copy of the Comics Buyers Guide a letter from a fan who answered another fan’s letter asking what the hell was going on in X-Men. The reply letter ended with a plea to Claremont to return to more conventional comic book storytelling, and a note from the CBG editors stating they paid the letter writer a small fee for all the work he put into answering the question.

The Uncanny X-Men #266 (Late Aug. 1990). The first chronological appearance of Gambit, though X-Men Annual #14 (1990) was released first.

The introduction of Gambit was much hyped, though the execution of it was a mess. It took a while for the comics to find some space in which to convey anything about him that wasn’t superficial. And I remember reading that Days of Future Present crossover between the Fantastic Four, The New Mutants, X-Factor and X-Men annuals, and being flat out unable to make sense of it. There was some nice Art Adams art in the X-Men episode, though.

The other X-Men titles seemed like they were in a bit of another universe. Excalibur’s Cross-Time Caper seemed to go off the rails a bit as Alan Davis wasn’t drawing every issue and there were even a few writing fill-ins for Claremont. The momentum, clarity and humor the book had in its earlier days burned off quickly and the title soon was passed around the Marvel office like a hot potato.

The same was true for Wolverine. After the solid but underwhelming arc by Archie Goodwin, John Byrne and Klaus Janson, there were fill-ins galore with a variety of artists and writers. And these issues came out while the book was published twice monthly in the summer months. These were supposed to be highlight issues, top stuff meant to drive traffic into comics shops. And it was far from special material.

In Louise Simonson’s corner, X-Factor had been a bit lost since Inferno, and in 1990 also was rotating through a series of fill-in artists drawing stories that at best were treading ground. I understand there were plans for Cyclops and Marvel Girl to finally marry and be parents to baby Nathan, but soon crossovers and changes in creative direction would push back that actually happening for years.

I had stopped reading The New Mutants shortly after Inferno. But Ken recommended issue #93 to me, and I was indeed impressed at Rob Liefeld’s more testosterone-driven take on these characters. That issue had Wolverine both inside and on the cover fighting Cable. I quickly put together the issues I had missed, which was very easy — I paid $3 for issue #87, which is now a key from that time.

The New Mutants #93 (Sept. 1990). Art by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane.

As up and down as Marvel was, DC was even more more hit and miss. I tried Green Lantern, with the original Emerald Dawn series, followed by a regular title. This character just didn’t work for me. It was the same with Lobo. Everyone went ape-shit crazy for this character, but it was all one joke to me, and not one I found funny at the time.

I did very much like Justice League, which at the time was the brainchild of J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, and really quite funny.

Another title Ken recommended to me was Doom Patrol, by Grant Morrison. This was my first Morrison book, and it immediately stood out as something different, daring, and fun to read. I came on with issue #32, and it was years before I filled in Morrison’s run back to #19. But I bought every issue going forward and really enjoyed that book.

It was a quiet summer, to be honest. I was looking forward to going back to university in the fall, mostly because I had been hired as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and was really excited to be a part of that team and to finally get some real experience in my chosen field of study.

For comics, it was in some ways the quiet before the storm.

These books were still enjoyable and worth buying while they were so cheap. But they also weren’t really satisfying, either.

When the bottom didn’t fall out after the year of the Batman movie, it felt like there was an explosion waiting to happen. That there were new heights to reach. That all it would take was the right book at the right moment, and comics would vault out of the shadows and into the mainstream. The signs were there, with an influx of brash boys in comics shops wondering aloud why Batman doesn’t use guns, or why Marvel doesn’t make Todd McFarlane draw Wolverine, or expressing in plainly lustful language their admiration for Jim Lee’s latest rendering of a swimsuit-clad Psylocke.

All things in their time.

Jim Lee Psylocke pinup from Marvel Illustrated: Swimsuit Issue (1991). Yes, such things existed.

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.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fog Hollow Comics, Phoenix, Ariz., 1986-87

Old Town Scottsdale is the kind of place where tourists like to overpay for snakeskin cowboy boots, extra-hot salsa, cheap turquoise jewelry and elaborate Kachina dolls. On the plus side, you can just as easily find some really good tacos and cold Mexican beer.

My family moved Oct. 2, 1986, to Scottsdale, Arizona. We lived in a home in what was then the north edge of town, somewhere between Shea Boulevard and Cactus Road, just west of 92nd Street. My comics collection at the time fit in one long box.

Of course, the first thing I did was consult the phone book for a nearby comics shop, finding several listings but none nearby. The first one I found and the closest was Fog Hollow Comics, located at 3215 E. Thunderbird Road, almost nine miles away. (Thanks to the AZFandom.org folks for recalling its name!) It’s still today an 18 minute drive, without traffic, each way, from our old address. So it wasn’t convenient, but at least it was a place I could make it to once my perception of what’s too far away to drive to adjusted to Arizona standards.

At the time, there were no freeways in the area. Phoenix and Scottsdale were massively spread out areas with nary a two-story building in sight. It was, truly, a city built more for cars to live in than people. And being on the edge of Scottsdale made pretty much everything you wanted to do, aside from going to the grocery, a trip of 10 or more miles on surface streets with lights that never synched up except to ensure you hit every single one in red.

Not the actual car I owned, but a photo of the same model and color. It had the original floor mats, 4-speed manual transmission and ran on regular gas — back when you could still buy such a thing.

Nonetheless, with two younger sisters and two working parents, my drivers license made sure I was kept busy dropping off or picking up somebody around the entire north quarter of Phoenix in a yellow 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Thank god it had a tape player. It did not have AC. That deficit’s seriousness would not make itself fully known, however, until the following spring and summer. Either way, it was a lot of time spent in the car.

At the time, I was buying pretty much only Marvel comics. I knew exactly which ones were coming out each week, thanks to Marvel Age Magazine, and I had them on subscription at Fog Hollow — my first pull file. Money was tight, so I’d calculate the exact cover price minus the discount plus the sales tax to ensure I could pay for my comics before making that drive. More than once I paid for my weekly haul to the penny.

Fog Hollow was located in a strip mall suite and, unlike many comics shops, had large windows on two sides of the space and was therefore bright and open and inviting. There was the usual back-issue bin in the center, with new releases on racks around the edge. Under the back-issue bin, behind a small door, was where the subscriber books were kept.

I remember on my first visit finding at least two comics that eluded me in Edmonton and really shouldn’t have: X-Men #192 and Power Pack #27. The former I just never could find in any of the back issue bins at the shops I frequented despite being only a couple years old and all the issues around it being easy to find. Power Pack #27 was part of the Mutant Massacre storyline and had sold out instantly in Edmonton, but was still racked in the new comics when I rolled in to Fog Hollow. That made me happy, and I was a steady customer of the shop through the summer of 1987, when it closed.

I remember stopping in on Friday afternoons to pick up my books. (New comic-book days on Wednesday were not a thing at that time — at least not one I was aware of.) I’d take home the comics I was reading at the time — from memory, standard Marvel stuff, such as X-Men, The New Mutants, Alpha Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, Classic X-Men, X-Factor, Marvel Saga, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, The ‘Nam, Strikeforce: Morituri, Power Pack, some New Universe titles and Cloak & Dagger — and would spend most of the evening after dinner reading, re-reading, admiring and thinking about the new books. I didn’t have anything else to do, really.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (Feb. 1987) is one of my all-time favorite comics. Cover art by Mark D. Bright.

Among the cool items I procured at this shop: A copy of X-Men #141 that I scored for a whopping 50 cents in the back-issue bin, and later took to the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con to be signed by both Chris Claremont and John Byrne; a second printing of The ‘Nam #1, as I was completely in love with this series and the great Michael Golden art; Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, which was easily one of my most re-read books for the next year; and a copy of the first printing of the Wolverine TPB, collecting the original miniseries by Claremont and Miller, costing me a whopping $4.95, plus Arizona sales tax. (A quick note: I had a tough time adjusting at first to sales tax because there was none in Alberta. There, if it cost 99 cents and you gave them a dollar, you got back a penny. In Arizona, if it cost 99 cents, you had to hand over $1.07.)

Cover to the first printing of the Wolverine trade paperback, which collected the four-issue series by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein for the first time. Cost me all of $4.95!

Fog Hollow was run by a woman named Susan Putney, whom I later realized wrote a graphic novel for Marvel called Spider-Man: Hooky, that was drawn by no-less-a-great than Bernie Wrightson. When I eventually acquired a copy, I really enjoyed it. I also found a site that referenced a quote from former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who said he really liked Putney’s work and thought she could be good — but she kind of vanished after Hooky and Shooter himself was out at Marvel around the same time.

Cover to Spider-Man: Hooky, published in 1986. Art by Berni(e) Wrightson.

A little Googling reveals Putney also wrote a science-fiction novel called Against Arcturus that was published in 1972 as a a flip-book paperback with Time Thieves, by no-less-a-great than Dean R. Koontz.

From Google, the flip covers to Against Arcturus and Time Thieves, published in 1972.

I remember she would ring up my sub titles and give me a knowing “good reads,” especially the third week of the month when X-Men, The ‘Nam and Marvel Saga all arrived.

I also remember lusting after the copy of X-Men #94 displayed behind the counter. I recall her mentioning how she’d already sold one to a kid who paid the $100 or so the book cost in cash. You never know what a motivated kid can do.

There was an arcade-style video game in one corner, that played a music loop the staff had memorized and timed down to the second. And I remember one time the staff opening a box from the distributor that included fresh copies of First’s Lone Wolf & Cub reprints. I was not yet smart enough to pick those up, but the staff was sure excited.

Later that summer, I remember coming in to pick up my books one Friday afternoon and Susan was upset, said that the store was closing and subs’ orders had been transferred to another store, called AAA Best Comics, over on North Seventh Street — even farther away from home. It was sad, she was nearly in tears. I said thank you, I had really enjoyed shopping at the store and was sorry to hear it was closing. I didn’t know what else to say — I was only 17 years old.

I proceeded to get into my car, and trek on down to AAA Best Comics, which was a fixture in my life for the next eight years or so.

And I think I may track down a copy of Against Arcturus.

But before that, my next post will feature a detour to the longstanding champion of Phoenix comic-book shops, also sadly no more. Stay tuned.

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