Jim’s Comic Book Shop

My mom and dad both celebrated birthdays this week, so I thought I’d post another section from my new zine for them. This is a section about the many trips my dad and I took to Jim’s Comic Book Shop in Waterbury, Connecticut. For years Jim’s was on East Main street across from Hamilton Park.

7. Brass City

My father grew up on the East End of Waterbury, Connecticut, not far from Hamilton Park and just a few miles from Holy Land, U.S.A., a long-abandoned Biblical tourist attraction. Until the 1970s, Waterbury was the brass-manufacturing capital of the world. My father grew up on Meriden Road with his mother and father and his two brothers. His parents were Irish immigrants who met after their arrival in the United States. My grandfather was born in a small house near Tomies Mountain in what is now Killarney National Park in southwestern Ireland. I have been to the house twice, once on our first visit to Ireland in 1995 and again in August 2012.

I have hazy memories of my grandfather, who died when I was barely two years old. I have stronger memories of visiting my grandmother on the second floor of her home on Meriden Road. Several years after she died my father and I visited the house where she was born in Mohill, Ireland, a region in the center of the country best experienced in the work of Irish novelist John McGahern.

For years the East End of Waterbury was also the home of Jim’s Comic Book Shop. My dad first took me there sometime in 1983 or 1984. Modern comic book shops are filled with toys and other collectables. Jim’s was a narrow, dark, and dusty place. I have no memory of Jim, the owner, who had another shop in Milford, Connecticut. A young man with short, greasy hair, a faint mustache, and a white t-shirt usually stood behind the register. His name was Carl. After Jim closed the shop, the space housed a real estate agent.

mego ad

The Death of Captain Marvel was my first graphic novel. I was nervous when my dad and I brought it home from Jim’s. It cost $4.95. The comic books on the spinner-rack at the 7-11 cost 65 or 75 cents. In rare cases, like the All-Star Squadron Annual, they cost a dollar. But this book, with its cardboard covers and its grim watercolor image of the book’s hero, cost almost five dollars. I was afraid my mother or my grandmother might be angry with me, but neither one said a word.

The world of my childhood was a world of women. My father and I were outnumbered. At first, things were even. After they married, my mother and my father lived with my grandmother on 30 Bamford Avenue in Oakville. My great-grandmother, my great aunt Annie, and my great-uncle Billy lived across the street. Billy’s girlfriend Helen lived in Waterbury. He and my father would sometimes watch football together. Until my sister was born in 1977, my father and I shared the house with my mother and my grandmother. As I had no interest in sports, my father and I found other ways to be together outside the world my mother and my grandmother had created. When I say we lived in a world of women, I mean to say that I entered the narratives of home and family my grandmother and my mother created after the death of my grandfather in January 1960.

My father tried several times to teach me how to golf. We spent time together on the course at the Waterbury Country Club. I was terrible. I remember once we finished the first hole and, thinking I was done for the afternoon, I sat in the cart and began reading a Judge Dredd comic. I spent only a year and a half playing soccer.

My most successful year as an athlete came in 1981 or 1982 when I was a member of the Moffo Trucking White Caps, a co-ed soccer team. After my first season, I signed up again, but this time I too old for the co-ed league and joined a team with several other little boys. I got called a sissy several times. In November, I quit. I missed the boys and girls from the White Caps.

A few years later, I learned that the White Caps’ coach had died. In the only photo I have of him, he looks like a heavier John Travolta—thick black hair, sunglasses, a cocky, assured Italian-American grin. I also have a faint memory of driving past his house in Oakville and reading the graffiti someone had spray-painted on his bay window: “Losers live here.” I don’t remember if the graffiti appeared before or after his death. I do remember his kindness and his enthusiasm despite my limitations and those of my teammates.

With the end of my soccer career, I had no choice but to immerse myself even deeper in the world of comics. Visits to Jim’s Comics and 7-11 gave my father and me the opportunity to spend time together and to share secrets. I never told my mother, for example, about the time my dad and I bought cups of lemon-flavored Marino’s Italian Ice and sat reading an issue of Marvel Tales on the small bank of grass where Bamford Avenue meets Mount Vernon just a block away from Johnny and Laura Zapone, another Italian-American family close to my grandparents.

My Irish-American father married into a world of Italians and Lithuanians. While his family had prepared him for the New World, my mother’s family still told stories of the Old World. The first time my father saw the house where his mother was born in Mohill, County Leitrim, he cried. Behind it is a small field where his mother and her sister Jane played when they were little girls. My father admits, however, that his parents, both loving, strong, quiet, and stable, rarely talked about Ireland. What good was it? The house on Meriden Road was home.

But none of these things mattered to me when, at 9 or 10 or 11, my father and I visited Jim’s Comic Book Shop every couple of weeks, and I hunted for back issues or for the black and white comics from small, independent publishers. As Carl, in his white t-shirt and biker boots, watched over us, my father and I planned our escape from a world that, years later, only the two of us would remember.

Is Bill Mauldin’s Back Home a Graphic Novel?

My new essay on Bill Mauldin’s 1947 memoir Back Home appears today at the excellent and thought-provoking comics blog Pencil, Panel, Page. Thanks again to Qiana Whitted for inviting me back for another guest post! This Mauldin piece is a sequel of sorts to my essay on the US Army War Show and Captain Marvel’s brief stint as a soldier in 1942. That essay will appear in the November 2013 issue of Alter Ego.

Mauldin’s first two books, Up Front and Back Home, have also been a revelation for me over the last year, so this essay is my way of paying tribute to him–while urging you to read him, too!

All-Star Squadron Annual #3 (1984)

This is Part 6 of my new zine, Brass City, which is available from me or from Quimby’s in Chicago. 

Scan 1

In the opening sequence of All-Star Squadron Annual #3, published by DC Comics in 1984, a character named Tarantula stumbles across a box filled “with some old newspaper clippings, and what looks like a couple of hand-written notes.” At the end of the issue’s framing sequence, written by Roy Thomas with art by Jerry Ordway, Wonder Woman feeds the documents into the Magic Sphere, a bit of Amazonian technology that allows the viewer to see the past, the present, and the future. In the story, set in the early days of World War II, the Sphere provides the flashbacks for the rest of the narrative, which features a variety of artists and a number of obscure Golden Age comic book characters.

I read this issue again on a recent weekend trip to Wisconsin. I had a vague idea that I’d use the comic book to write about the relationship between memory, nostalgia, and scholarly research. I first read this comic book in the summer of 1984 as I sat with my grandmother on the front porch of our house on 30 Bamford Avenue in Oakville, Connecticut. In the summer my grandmother would sit on her rocking chair, which was painted the same industrial blue as the porch itself. She would talk to my mother, or to her sister, or to me, or to the cars speeding down Bamford Avenue to Davis Street. We lived at the bottom of a steep hill.

The porch was a gathering place for my mother’s family for a couple of generations. I have a photograph of my Lithuanian great-grandfather, Anthony Budris, sitting on the stoop.

Scan 4

My great-grandfather sits in nearly the same spot where I will sit in my lawn chair and read All-Star Squadron over forty years later. He is smoking a pipe. Behind the potted plant is the face of a young boy, probably his grandson.

In the mid-1970s I am sitting with my great aunt Annie’s dog, Spooky. I have a phantom memory of holding him like this and of him playfully struggling with me. He was a lively dog who chased cars down Bamford Avenue. Annie was always afraid, as she often said, that one of the cars would clip him.

photo (15)

In another photograph, my grandmother sits with two dogs. Behind her is a blue spruce tree, one that, by the 1970s and 1980s, will grow as tall as the house itself. My grandmother sits just a few steps down from my great-grandfather and from me. This photograph, like the one of my great-grandfather, was probably taken during World War II. The same wooden railing, painted white, frames each of the images. I marvel at the continuities here, three generations all sharing the same location not in time but in space.

Scan 2

I have more photographs of the front porch than I do of any room in the house itself. If I’d been born in the 1940s or 1950s, I might have imagined the porch as the prow of a great sailing ship, but, as I was born in 1973 and was a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I often imagined the house as a space craft like the Enterprise or Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. I heard the sounds of the cars whooshing past outside as the ship’s engines. In graduate school, when I read Herman Melville’s White-Jacket and my professor asked me to describe the elements of Melville’s “ship of state,” I remembered the house on Bamford Avenue as a sea-worthy vessel with its captain perched on its front steps.