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The Comics Rack

All this month, we’ll be helping Children’s Hospital Los AngelesMake March Matter campaign, which aims to raise over a million dollars in March alone for CHLA through the efforts of its corporate partners, among which we are proud to be numbered.  Children’s Hospital Los Angeles sees over 528,000 patient visits annually, and is the top ranked pediatric hospital in California by US News & World Report. You can help Make March Matter by simply attending one of the many events or participating in one of the many initiatives being offered by CHLA’s partners (including our event on Saturday, March 25), all listed at www.makemarchmatter.org.

To help remind us all to Make March Matter to support children’s health, we’ve asked all our contributors here at the website to focus on books and comics for kids, or the books or comics that meant the most to them as kids, because we firmly believe that escaping into literature is just as important in keeping children healthy and happy.

Today’s piece is from novelist Jeff Tucker:

I was born in 1971, which means I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were glorious times. They were days of All in the Family, Disco and waiting an hour for a tank of gas. Okay, so maybe they weren’t glorious, but they were interesting, to say the least. I learned to read early and suddenly the whole world opened up to me. I devoured every Narnia story, Hardy Boy Mystery and Golden Ticket to a Chocolate Factory I could get my hands on. I lived at the library. When the Hardy Boys were unavailable I dated Nancy Drew. And along with all these picture it in your mind adventures, I discovered comic books. And not superhero books like all the normal kids. No, I gravitated towards the more bizarre comics that promised other worlds and alien races. I had a big imagination and the bright colors of the comic page stimulated and excited me.

I knew that my mom did her grocery shopping usually once a week unless we ran out of something. Friday (payday, naturally) was the big day where she would sometimes fill 2 shopping carts at the ol’ George’s Grocery in Norwalk, California. It was a small mom-and-pop grocery store that she liked to frequent because the she knew the butcher, the vegetable guy and the clerks by name. They would smile and give her extra Blue Chip stamps for her collector books. We were a big family of 5 with pets so we did a lot of shopping. The weekly trip would sometimes take over an hour and I would count up the bags at checkout knowing we had to bring all those in when we got back home. My brother and sister never went with my mom on her shopping trips, they thought it was boring. They had no idea that my mom and I were having a blast at the store. She would grab 2 cans of Coca-Cola, crack ‘em open and we’d drink ‘em as we maneuvered through the aisles. Sometimes she would grab a bag of her favorite candy – Circus Peanuts – and munch on them. I never really cared for the puffy weird candy but to this day they make me think of my mom. But candy and soda weren’t the real reason I tagged along to the grocery store.

No, the real draw (pardon the pun) was the rack of comic books. George’s Grocery had a Marvel/DC Spinner rack right by the door that I would peruse as my mom watched the clerk ring up her purchases. The rack featured Spider-Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, Batman, Superman and Aquaman. And next to the superhero books were the other comics: Star Wars (I had read the movie adaptation, gotten the mega-size version and was eagerly awaiting adventures beyond the film), Micronauts (based on the Mego toy line), Rom the Space Knight (Rom! Though I never was able to afford the figure, I loved reading his adventures) and a truly mind-bending title called Devil Dinosaur written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby.

Devil Dinosaur!

What an insane comic! I loved every page of it! Devil Dinosaur was born a regular green-skinned dinosaur – but he was attacked by a mutant tribe and the fire they tried to kill him with instead gave him super powers and he became the red-skinned Devil Dinosaur on the cover. Devil Dinosaur would prowl around the planet (there was lots of discussion if the planet was Earth itself or another, alternate version of Earth – as a kid I didn’t care, it was a red dinosaur tearing up the scenery and that’s all that mattered!) with the human-like Moon Boy that had rescued him from the fire. The comic was all over the place and I had a hard time following the story but the art was fantastic. Heck, it was Jack Kirby, the King himself, so you know it was amazing.

Sadly, Devil Dinosaur only lasted 9 months in his initial run in the Marvel Universe. I remember picking up nearly every issue of the crazy comic and cherishing each one. There was just something about the art. Like most other kids, I was way into dinosaurs and loved Godzilla, but Devil Dinosaur was able to rise above. He was red, he could talk and he had his own comic series! I guess I wasn’t alone in my love for the crimson creature, as ol’ Devil has made numerous appearances in comic books ever since and has even been a playable character in more than one videogame. That’s all great but nothing compares to sidling over to that spinner rack and finding the latest issue of his adventures back in the day. Finding the issue was only half the battle – the real war was getting mom to buy it!

Another title that sparked my imagination was the aforementioned Micronauts comic series. After Star Wars blew the lid open on science fiction it seemed everyone wanted to get in on the act. Mego, who had been making some of the finest superhero figures of all time, jumped in with both feet by introducing the Micronauts toy line. The toys were originally created in Japan under the name Microman. Mego imported them and dubbed them the Micronauts to compete with other toy lines, eventually going head to head with Kenner’s Star Wars juggernaut. Marvel Comics stepped in to create a comic series based on the toys, and boy what a job they did! Even though I didn’t collect the Micronauts toys, I loved the comic book. Featuring a rich backstory with lots of history, the Micronauts presented a great battle between good and evil.

The good guys battled Baron Karza, who resembles Darth Vader in a sense, and other memorable characters based on the toy line. In a fun twist that really appealed to me, the Micronauts arrived on Earth and found themselves to be about the size of toy action figures! Talk about art imitating life imitating art! Action figures that got their own comic series only to become action figures in the comic series? I was all about it! Micronauts turned out to be a pretty popular comic book series, running all the way to 1986, even outlasting the demise of the Mego Corporation in 1982, which had spawned the license in the first place.

Writer Bill Mantlo, who begged the head honchos at Marvel to purchase the rights initially and shepherded the heroes through their early adventures, sure knew what he was doing. His take on the Micronauts really sparked the imagination. Like I said, I didn’t have the toys, but I could imagine what it would have been like to play with the figures and vehicles as if they were real entities exploring the strange world known as my living room.

This final comic-book title shares a lot in common with the Micronauts: a toy line tie-in, Marvel Comics as the publisher and Bill Mantlo as the writer! This time it’s not a tiny army but an oversized warrior named ROM: The Space Knight. ROM got his beginnings as a very expensive toy from Milton Bradley.

He had light up features, sounds and was so expensive my mom wouldn’t have even considered buying one for me. I think I could have talked her into an Atari 2600 videogame system before she’d put ROM in the shopping cart. But when he showed up on the spinner rack at George’s I knew I could get mom to finally let me check him out. Now, the ROM toy came with every little information on who he actually was. Milton Bradley was more than happy to let Marvel Comics do all the heavy lifting in that area.

And did they deliver – the ROM comic saga was full of fully dimensional sympathetic characters, a vivid backstory and a long-running tale that (just like Micronauts) long outlasted the toy’s appearance on the store aisle. I wasn’t the only one captivated by ROM as it seems he’s had reboots, limited-edition toys and more in the years since his initial offering turned out to be a failure.

The captivating titles on the spinning rack were a major force in my early life. There were no VCRs to watch whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. If you missed a program on television you missed it and hoped for a rerun. But the comics rack at George’s Grocery was always there to provide an imaginative escape into other worlds; worlds of red-skinned dinosaurs, tiny armies and bigger-than-life knights. My mom, for her part, saw that I was a voracious reader and, to her credit, didn’t look down on comics. Instead, she embraced what I was into and paid the 35 cents admission to these other worlds. As I grew older I found bigger books to read but I always kept my love of comic books and even now I look forward to cracking open a fresh comic book and jumping into the colored pages inside. Every child should grow up with an open mind about what literature is. Good stories can come from anywhere. Too many people dismiss comics outright as being kids stuff and what a shame that is. I went from Devil Dinosaur to the Dark Knight Returns, from Micronauts to The Watchmen. Every tale strives for meaning and every reader is richer for it. Comics grow with you and are there to entertain and challenge you. They’re portable works of art that speak in a hundred voices. I attend San Diego Comic Con every year and I marvel (pun intended) at how big the industry has become and how my favorite characters and stories are still revered after all these years. Heck, I even saw a guy dressed up as ROM one year. Now, if I could just come up with a realistic Devil Dinosaur costume…

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