Saturday, February 21, 2015

What can you get for a dollar? The universe!

Most comic shops have them, even if they're hidden away beneath items with a higher sale value. The dollar bins - which sometimes go as low as a quarter, or even a dime – are where old comics go to die.

They're frequently full of total mediocrity, usually by their very nature, because these are the comics they just couldn't sell. The over-ordered and under-loved: faded relics of forgotten universes, Marvel and DC comics that utterly failed to find a proper audience, and oceans of small press dreck.

But there are still absolute gems lurking in every dollar bin. Slightly damaged bits of sheer comic brilliance going for a song, or entire runs of stylish, idiosyncratic fun. And they remain one of the best places to get kids hooked on comics.

My first dollar bins came long before I ever got near a comic store, down here in New Zealand. They showed up everywhere – in corner dairies, remainder bookstores, toy shops, department stores, airports and supermarkets. Bulk cheap comics dumped down on the arse end of the world, and hungrily devoured by any comic dork that stumbled across them.

I honestly don't know where they came from – whether they were a by-product of overprinting or printed for a specific goal, but some bright-eyed entrepreneurs kept scoring huge amounts of these silly things and sening them across the Pacific for a new audience, starved on four-colour funnies.

This is the 1980s, and if there were any comic shops in New Zealand, they were far away from me. But there were boxes of these comics all over the country, hidden in the smallest towns, and it was always a delightful chore finding them.

Interestingly, they were almost always DC comics, rarely anything else. There would be the odd stack of Marvel comics, but they were never the good ones, just loads of Dazzler and US1 rubbish. Sometimes there would be ugly Charlton comics that nobody wanted, at any price.

But it was DC comics that ruled, and I was constantly getting hooked on them, just because they were the comics you'd find in the strangest of places.

The crazy DC Comics Presents.... issue by Starlin with Superman and Hawkgirl, found in a cafe on the Kaikoura coast, the stack of mind-bending Action Comics by Wolfman and Kane that appeared in a box at the Temuka dairy with the awesome spacies out the back; and the endless search for prized Brave and Bold comics in small towns were my sisters went to marching competitions.

Brave and Bold comics were always prized most highly, because you got more bang for your buck with Batman teaming up with some random hero, and because Jim Aparo is, was and always will be the greatest Batman artist ever, and because they were almost always single-issue sagas, which was important.

There was a maddening randomness, because you never knew what would show up, and a multi-part story might never get resolved. It took me 20 years to find out how the Justice League of America's war with Mars – which led to the formation of the famed Justice League Detroit – actually ended. (Although I still can't tell what Zatanna is doing on the cove of #229 - she's either floating in the air, or she's eight foot tall..)

But these cheap comics, which could show up anywhere, were the ultimate gateway drug. They got me hooked on the medium as much as 2000ad, my first comic shop, the Unknown Soldier and the Tuesday comics I got from my Nana's second-hand bookshop ever did.

They were so cheap, and when you're a kid, you beg or borrow all the pocket money you can get, which might not be much, and if you have to choose between lunch and a Steve Englehart Green Lantern comic, there isn't really any choice at all.

The best haul was at a toy warehouse in Dunedin in 1986, I was an 11 year old looking for Super Power figures, and I found a massive rack of DC comics from the early to mid eighties, going three for a buck. That meant I could get eighteen for the price of one Parademon, so I loaded up on Amythest and Red Tornado comics, and the fantastic Mirror Universe invasion story in Star Trek. And I got the Super Powers comics themselves, which were, bizarrely, the first time I ever got Kirby, and he didn't even really do the art.

The most disappointing haul was an unexpected bunch of late eighties Marvel mediocrity that choked the shelves at a local supermarket a few years later. A lot of New Universe shit, but also did get me hooked on Nth Man, and the issues of She-Hulk that Gerber and Hitch did were pretty good, so it wasn't all bad.

The last haul was another toy warehouse in the early nineties, and it was lots of DC from the previous couple of years -  Superman going off to have a cry in space and getting turned into a star gladiator, the ruthless mid-run issues of Ostrander and Yale's Suicide Squad, and first tastes of the Wally West Flash.

I haven't really seen that kind of overflow in the public world for more than 20 years. As news-stand sales dried up and the direct market sucked up the spare comics, those kind of unexpected piles of total comic goodness faded away.

But if the direct market couldn't sell them all at full price, they discounted the shit out of those comics, shoving them aside and selling them off cheap, and the tradition goes on. It's a lot crazier, with more than just a random few DC comics, and stuff from everyone, but still happily random.

I still plunge into the dollar bin at any store I see, and I've bought a tonne of comics from them. Literally a tonne - about a third of all the comics I own were bought in dollar bins.

Dollar bin diving isn't as rewarding as it once was, because I've filled those minor collections I was building up, and found a lot of the strange little oddities that always grab the attention.

But I still check 'em out – I always get Cerebus or Hellblazer or Hellboy comics I missed if I see 'em going cheap, and I'm still, after all these years, still rabid for any Brave and Bold comics I can find going cheap. They're always welcome.

Besides, they're not really for me any more. I've been hooked on comics a long, long time, and I don't need insanely cheap special deals to get me into the habit. I'm already there.

Nah, dollar bins are for the kids, pulling together whatever pocket money they can get, mowing lawns for extra cash, and delving into that inexpensive randomness. Taking a side in the kids' eternal dilemma between candy and comics, and finding something new to get into. You never know what that might actually be, whether they fall for superhero or monster or crime comics, but it's the best place to start.

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