Fanboy:   Encounter With a Codger

By DarkMark

Fanboy is property of DC Comics and is the creation of Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, two of the nicest guys in comicdom.  No cash, barter, or stock options are being made from this fict.  No infringement is intended.  At least, I didn’t intend to.

*********
 

Finster is a clerk in a great metropolitan comic book store.  He wears his hat backwards, his hair could use some tending and cutting, and despite all this, he manages to have a girlfriend.  How, even he is not sure.

But.

He also has a boss named Mr. Grudge.  Mr. Grudge has never been seen without a sandwich in his face.  He manages to communicate, drive one-handed, and run his comic book store (and possibly even sleep) while working on multiple layers of meat, cheese, rabbit food, and bread at all times.  It has been speculated Mr. Grudge’s mother was startled by a Dagwood comic strip while carrying him.  This is not certain.  Neither is Mr. Clinton’s credibility, but leave us not get into that.

Mr. Grudge came into his comic book emporium one Thursday afternoon, kicking aside two nine-year-olds wrestling over the latest copy of PROMETHEA.  "Finster," he said, around a mouthful of tomato, special sauce, provolone, bratwurst, mustard, spicy jalapeno, onion, turkey, mayo, pumpernickel, and rye. (1)

Finster dropped his half-eaten Hershey bar right in the middle of a vintage ‘70’s SGT. ROCK.  Oh, well, he thought, at least it makes for a decent bookmark.  Standing up and saluting, he said, "Yes, Boss?"

Grudge, working his way verbally around the various ingredients in his hoagie, said, "We’ve made security improvements around here.  It’s getting towards the end of the day, so I thought I’d let you know."

"Yes, Boss," said Finster, still holding his salute.

The boss gestured with his right hand towards a button beside the door, switching his left hand to pushing the end of the sandwich forward, ever forward.  "See this button, Finster?"

"Affirmative, boss."

"Before you leave, press it and then haul ass.  If you’re not out the door within three seconds, the door will lock, and a bunch of lasers will form a lattice about the door and you won’t be able to get out even with a key."

"You mean," Finster gulped, "I’ll be rayed to death like a refugee from an old Lensman novel?"

"I mean," said Grudge, down to the last two inches of his meal, "that it’ll lock the door and if you break the beam it’ll send a special message to police headquarters.  That’s to keep any ripoffs from stealing stuff like, eh, the gold prismatic Liefield second first edition of X-ACTITUDE with the time lock black bag on it."

"But nothings inside that black bag, boss.  You told me yourself."

"I know that.  You know that.  But do the customers know that?  No.  I’ve sold fifty of those things already."

Finster blinked.  "And nobody’s come for their money back?"

"Hey, if they open it, the thing becomes worthless."

"But it’s worth nothing in the first place!"

"That’s why they’re paying me fifty dollars apiece for them.  Anyway, just wanted you to know.  I—"

Grudge stopped.

His hands no longer held a sandwich.  Indeed, he had almost bitten off his fingernails before realizing their texture was slightly different from the onions on his po’ boy.

His face grew ashen and his body began to twitch.  "IgottagetouttahereIgottagetouttahereIGOTTAGETOUTTAHERE!" he gasped.  His legs moved independently of his will, first turning north, then west.

Finster walked over, grabbed the boss by the right arm, and steered him in the direction of the door.  "That way, boss."

"ThankyouFinstergottagetouttaherethankyouFinsterswitchtoRightGuardgottagetouttahere—"

"The deli is to your left, Boss. That way, yeah.  Half a block down.  You remember."

"Delidelionmyleftgottagetouttahereohhhh…"

Finster looked down.   "Hey, kids," he said.  "Which one of you wants to buy that ish of PROMETHEA?"

"Buy it?"   The two boys stopped in mid-grapple.  "He thinks we wanna buy this comic book?"

"Nah, forget it," said the other.  "Promethea’s old hat.  Ain’t even an Image comic."

"Is so," said the first kid.

"Is not," said the second.

"It is and your mother votes Republican!"

"You take that back!"

"You try and make me!"

The kids began wrestling again.  Finster stepped over the counter and tried to separate them.  "Ouch," he said, with feeling, when one boy sank his teeth deeply into the web of his hand.  He separated the kid’s jaws gently, as an angler takes the hook from a fish’s mouth.

"Actually," Finster said, "it’s almost an Image comic.  It’s produced by Wildstorm.  You know, they’re headed by Jim Lee.  He used to be with Image, and it used to be an Image imprint."

"Told ya so!"

"What’s this ‘used-to-be’?"

"Well," Finster explained, "Jim Lee sold out to DC, and now America’s Best Comics, which is an imprint of Wildstorm, which used to be an imprint of Image, is now an imprint of DC."

"Say that over again."

"I don’t think I could, kids.  But it used to be an Image company."  Finster smiled.  "And it’s a good comic."

"It ain’t neither!" snapped the first kid.  "It ain’t got a hot artist on it and it ain’t got a TV cartoon or movie tie-in.  Or any card set, neither.  What’s a comic without a card set?  Huh?"

"But it’s a good comic," protested Finster.  "Good comics don’t need card sets."

The two kids gave each other a knowing look, and then a pitying one towards Finster.

"Look, it really is good," said Finster, beginning to feel like a daisy in the desert.  "It’s written by Alan Moore.  The guy who wrote WATCHMEN."

"What’s WATCHMEN?"  said the second kid.

"You…you have to know about WATCHMEN.  It’s the greatest comic of the Eighties?"

The first kid looked nauseated.  "Back in the Golden Age?  Forget it.  Let’s go, Ryan."

The two nine-year-olds started for the door.  "But kids," said Finster.  "You’ve damaged the comic book!  One of you has to buy it."

"Damaged comics go inna bargain bins," said the first kid.

"Yeah. When we come back, if it’s there, we’ll buy it," said the second.

Both of them sidled out the glass door just as somebody at least two and a half heads higher came in.

The new arrival was over four times the age of each kid, Finster estimated.   He wore a blue shirt and jeans, a flat gray corduroy cap, and tennis shoes which looked like he’d worn them for half the days of his life.  He had a carelessly tended short blond beard and mustache.

In his hand was a sheaf of computer printout pages that looked like a wantlist.

Oh, great, thought Finster.  An old fanboy.

Nonetheless, the old codger did have the prerequisite of most who stepped within the doorway:  a book of checks in his shirt pocket.

"Hi," said Finster.

"Hello," said the codger, with what looked to Finster like too ready a smile.  "Sorry I’ve gotten here so late."

"We’re just about to close, but I can help you with that there wantlist," Finster assured him.

"What’ve you got in the way of affordable Silver and Golden Age?"

Finster’s jaw was set somewhere between open and shut.  His expression must have done enough talking for him.  The old guy said, "I’m looking for all sorts of stuff.  Old SUGAR AND SPIKE, FLY, JAGUAR, FOUR COLOR, anything from that era."

"Oh.  Um," said Finster.  "Hang on, we may have a few in the regular bins."  The FOUR COLORS were usually adaptations of ancient TV shows or movies.  Finster read some of them when he needed to sleep.

The Codger was looking at some of the plastic-bagged ones up on the wall.  He pointed.  "How’s about that one?  What’s the price on it?"

He looked.  Cripes, he wanted that?  An old 77 SUNSET STRIP?  With some photo cover of three guys, one of whom looked to be a 1960 teen-idol type with a comb in his hair?

Go figure, he figured.  Some guys like anything that’s old.

"I think it’s about fifteen," said Finster.

"Can I have a look-see at it?  At the insides?"

"Sure," said Finster.  He had to grab the ladder to get it.  Routine operation.  He’d done it a zillion times.  Well, defining a zillion as at least four times a week during Finster’s tenure at the comic shop.  Zillion is definited internally, subjectively, like "a zillion minutes till lunch" or "a zillion seconds till I reach the rest stop" or even "a zillion times I’ve seen the Avengers’ lineup refurbished".  So, in Finster’s case, it was subjectively accurate to say he’d been on the ladder in the store a zillion times.  More or less.

What was new about the current situation was the blob of sandwich that was on the floor, very near the ladder.  Neither of them noticed it.  Finster even missed it, going up.

"Seventy-seven, Sunset Strip, click-click," hummed Finster, recalling the theme from an old TELEVISION’S GREATEST HITS.  He felt proud that he’d gotten the lyrics down cold in one take.  Just like he had with BATMAN.

"That’s it," confirmed the codger, as Finster’s hand closed about it.  He came down from the ladder, clutching the plastic-bagged piece of Americana as if it were a fragment of old wedding cake.  Hey, it wasn’t EC, but if this guy wanted it, it was his money.

Finster held the bagged comic out to the guy while he still had his other hand on the ladder and one foot on the bottom rung.  In retrospect, he thought of it as a Sistine Chapel ceiling moment, in the sense of an action almost completed with the spark about to close the gap.  He wouldn’t have been arrogant enough to place himself in the Sparker’s position, though.

The sole of his other Keds shoe came down right on a gooey blob of sourdough bread, tomato, and bratwurst.

Finster slipped, tripped, stumbled, and fell.  The comic book did an adagio dance towards the ceiling.  The codger moved in, trying to either grab Finster or catch the comic, whichever was the most grabbable thing at the moment.   Going ass-over-teakettle, Finster had time enough to consider the unwaxed state of Grudge’s flooring and to begin what really should have been a good scream of physical terror.

Maybe a Captain America move could get him out of this one?

As he whisked between the old guy’s outstretched arms, Finster waited for the instant in which his Keds would touch the floor again.  When they did, he bounced up, straightening himself, sure that he could slam his arm or back or something against a wall behind him or grab hold of a counter top or do something similarly inventive to halt his backwards cartwheel.  After all, he used to be jungle-gym champ of fifth grade.  That wasn’t that long ago, subjectively.

Problem was the door.  It was a lot closer than he expected, and the back of his head was the furthest-back portion of his body at the moment.

He whacked the wood of the doorjamb smartly, yelled "OW!" (a lot more practical than a long, drawn-out scream, when you think of it), bit his tongue, and felt the rest of  his back go whump against the doorframe a nanoinstant later.

Finster grabbed the back of his head in both hands, slid down the wooden upright, and moaned.  Somewhere, he heard the old man say, "Fella, are you all right?  Are you okay?"

He started to yell, "Hell, no, I’m not okay!  My cranium just lost a bashing contest with the door!  My brains are so loose now I could make sense of an Image script!"  Actually, he would have said, "I’m fine, sir, really," since the guy had not paid for the comic book yet.

But he heard a noise of metal clanking other metal, and he opened his eyes and looked up and around him.  He was half-in-and-half-out of a lattice of red.

Finster bolted away from the door as if he was being assaulted by a criss-crossing of Darth Vader lightsabers wielded by trick-or-treaters.  The old man caught him under the arms and drew him upright.  "This your security?" he said.

Finster nodded.  "We’re in here for…all night," he said.

"Oh," said the old man.

Two things were on the floor, besides themselves.  Finster stooped and picked up the 77 SUNSET STRIP and the wantlist.

"Let me help you look," said Finster, resignedly.  "As long as it’s on ground level."

"Wouldn’t it be better if you called the cops?  They might be able to get us out."

Finster paused.  "You really want to get out of here before your wantlist gets filled?  Sir, I hate to have to say this.  But what kind of fan are you?"

The old guy’s eyes rolled skyward.

"Oh, all right, if you’re going to be THAT WAY about it," said Finster.  "Heck, the cops have already been tipped automatically."  He reached for the phone on the nearby counter.

"Then why aren’t they here yet?"

"Maybe I can find out.  Hold on."  Finster consulted the telephone directory and dialed the number of the local police station.

A prerecorded voice came on:  "Good evening, this is Precinct 14 of your friendly local Metropolitan Police Department, serving the public of this great urban area with pride, fortitude, and the lowest graft rate of any city of comparable size according to Pomeroy’s Police Statistics, 1999 edition.  If you are in danger of being murdered, press 1.  If you are in danger of being assaulted, press 2.  If you are in danger of being murdered and assaulted, press 3.  If your assailant is O. J. Simpson, this is the number of  F. Lee Bailey…"

After awhile, Finster got the correct digit, pressed it, and was told, "Please state your problem after the beep."  Thirty-five seconds later, he heard a beep.

"This is the comics shop on 5th and Broad," said Finster, trying for a Jack Webb cadence.  "We’ve been accidentally locked in by a security device.  Send help.  Please."

BEEP.

"Thank you for your cooperation," said the voice.  "And remember, your local Police Review Board is probably infested with commie-symps.  Good night."

Click.

"That’s it?" said Finster, still holding the receiver to his ear.  "That’s it?"

"Probably not," said the codger, his arms folded across his chest.  "Your message must’ve been relayed to all the donut shops in the area."

Finster punched another number.  He got his girlfriend’s answering machine.  "Hello, this is Sandy.  I’ll be out all night at the Mighty Magnor marathon at the Bijou, so if this is Finster—tough luck!  Leave your message at the beep.  BEEP."

Finster sighed.  Then he said, "This is Finster.  If they find my bleached bones on the floor of Mr. Grudge’s comics shop, Sandy—you’re to blame."  Then he hung up.

He held the phone out to the codger.  "Anybody you want to try?  Maybe Dial-A-Prayer?"

"Nope," said the older man.  "Looks like we’re stuck with each other, Bullseye."

Finster’s eyes widened behind his horribly round specs.  "You remember the last line of Miller’s first run of DAREDEVIL!  Sonofagun!  When I was a kid, that was my favorite comic."

The codger smiled, a bit, and sat down on the floor beside Finster.  "By the time that one came out, I’d been reading superhero comics for almost twenty years.  Except for that issue, I thought that was the best run of DD, bar none.  One of the best runs of comics, too."

"What was wrong with that issue?"

The old man regarded Finster with curiosity.  "You mean you can’t see anything wrong with a hero playing Russian roulette with a villain?"

"Well, yeah, there was that.  But it was pretty tame compared with some of the stuff coming out these days."

"You got that right.  That crucifixion scene in GREEN ARROW, the face getting cut off and hung on the wall in SANDMAN, all of the Shadow’s trusted aides getting killed in the first ish of Chaykin’s SHADOW."  The old man blanched.  "How anybody could read those comics and eat at the same time is beyond me."

Finster adjusted his cap.  "Times change, I guess.  If you grew up watching Freddy Krueger, that’s kind of tame."

"Listen, you’re talking to somebody who never went to see THE EXORCIST.  I liked horror when it was left up to the imagination, not splattered in your face."

"Oh.  You don’t like horrible horror."

"Something like that."

Finster shifted position against the glass counter.  "You’re just into old comics, aren’t you?"

The other man nodded.  "But I try to keep up with a few of them.  Heck, there’s only so much new you can keep up with."

"Which ones do you read?"

"Oh, AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, maybe a SAVAGE DRAGON now and then.  Whatever grabs my fancy.  Alan Moore comics, when I can find ‘em."

"Like PROMETHEA?"  Finster smiled.

"Yeah.  And SUPREME, TOMORROW STORIES, all of that."

The comic clerk extraordinaire took new stock of the old man.  "You know about that stuff.  You know."

The other nodded.  "Yeah.  But most of the new stuff…well, it just doesn’t have the same lift for me."

"Like what?"

"Lots of it.  Most mainstream stuff.  All the heroes I used to love, I got off the track sometime ago."  He looked at Finster.  "What do you read?"

"I read DC’s, X-MEN, a couple of Images now that they’ve gotten writers, some Dark Horse stuff, GROO, and just about anything Gaiman, Moore, and Ellis write," said Finster.  "X-MEN, man…for me, that is a title to conjure with."

"I can’t much get worked up about them," said the old man.  "Not any more."

"Why not?" asked Finster.  "Operation Zero Tolerance with Bastion, and that big mega-crossover with Apocalypse, they’ve got to be two of the high points of Nineties superhero comics.  And now that they’ve got Claremont back, they’re better than ever."

"I’ll take your word for it."

"You really don’t like X-Men?"

"Ah," said the old man, stumbling for the right expressions, and looking off into the distance as if there was something to be perceived only with concentration, or with 3-D glasses.  "I used to.  I guess I could say, I liked my X-Men.  The originals, back in the Sixties.  Then when they brought them back in the Seventies."

"They’ve always been around for me," said Finster.

"But now…well, too many books to keep up with that I don’t care about in the first place. Too many new characters.  Nothing like they were when Thomas and Adams were doing ‘em, or Stan and Jack.  Or Claremont and Byrne.  Hell, even Claremont and Cockrum."

"But that’s leaving out Claremont and Lee," said Finster.  "And Jim Silvestri, and Mark Waid, and even the John Byrne run.  There’s some classic stuff there, man."

"Classic for you, maybe," said the codger.  "I bought X-MEN #1 off the stands, brand new, in 1963."

"And I bought X-MEN #1 brand new, too."

"What?"  The old man looked surprised.

Finster grinned.  "The first ish of the Byrne run, when they made the adjectiveless one."

"Oh."  The old man looked confused.  "Well, I hope you enjoyed it."

"I did.  You would have, too."

"Maybe."  He looked thoughtful.  "Maybe I would have."

Finster mused that, if he had to be stranded for a night with somebody, at least it was nice to be stranded with a guy with whom he could talk comics.  For most of his life, comics had been his polestar.  It was that way for a strange subset of people like him, those who had been hooked by the four-color demons at an early age and never quite let go.  Some got to satisfy their addiction by becoming pro writers and artists.  Most did not.

If the old guy was any indication, the addiction might well be permanent.  Involuntarily, Finster shuddered.

He brought himself back from the edge.  "You’ve missed a lot of good stuff in the last fifteen years, old man."

The codger nodded.  "I’m sure I have, young man.  But I’ve gained a lot, too.  You see—"  He paused.  "You see, I had a choice of trying to keep up with an ever-expanding market of ever-costlier books which were being geared to an audience younger than me, dealing with heroes—if you want to call some of them ‘heroes’, that is—who meant nothing to me.  Or mediocre versions of my old favorites—"

"They weren’t all mediocre," said Finster, in defense.  "And everything in the past wasn’t good, either."

"You’re right.  There was a lot of crap that we’ve painted gold and served up as Christmas presents.  But there was a quality to it back then, a quality of, well, heroism.  A lack of cynicism.  Of innocence."

"Comics lost their virginity, I know," said Finster.  "I’m not all the way happy about it, either. But it happens."

"Yes," said the old man.  "Especially if you can make big bucks doing it.  I call that prostitution."

"Others might call it givin’ the public what it wants."

"Perhaps the public wants it because it’s the only thing the ‘industry’ gives it."

Finster straightened up against the glass case, waved his arms to limber them up again.  "This debate’s been made a lot of times over the years.  By better guys than you ‘n’ me.  It’ll never be settled."

"Well, it will be, but every man must settle it individually.  For himself."

"Or herself.  Don’t leave out the girls."

"Or herself.  You’re right."

Finster scuffed his left Ked a few inches across the floor.  "You were talking about what you did instead of keeping up with new stuff."

"Yes.  Well, after I was between jobs, I found out I couldn’t keep up with everything just for collection’s sake. So I just bought what I really wanted to read.  And you know, I found out I didn’t miss a lot of the ones I dumped."

"Like DC?"

"Mostly Marvel.  Stuff like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and, yes, X-Men.  I’d been reading them for almost twenty years by then, and I knew of the good stuff and had it.  So I had enough good memories, and I kept buying the books I really enjoyed.  Like Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING and WATCHMEN and MIRACLEMAN."

"You don’t like anybody but Alan Moore?"

"I liked lots of writers and artists.  But a lot of them were out of the business by that time, or on furlough.  Anyway, what I did instead of extending my knowledge any further into the future was extend it into the past. Golden Age comic books were coming out by then on microfiche.  I bought myself a used reader, borrowed thousands of the fiche, bought a few.  And I found out first hand about all the books the comics fans before me were raving about in the Sixties fanzines."

"No kidding?"  Finster was interested, despite himself.  "Like what?"

"Like Mac Raboy on Captain Marvel, Jr.   They couldn’t draw quite like him even twenty years later—still can’t.  Like Simon and Kirby on practically everything, from the Black Owl and Wing Turner on to gangster and romance comics.  Like Charlie Biro on BOY COMICS.  You think the Joker in the 1970’s was a bad guy?"

"Considering he wasted over 100 people at conservative count, yeah."

The old man’s eyes twinkled.  "What if he did it by biting off their arms?  Or if he killed his own son by biting his neck? Because Iron Jaw, in BOY COMICS, did!"

Finster’s jaw dropped.  When he picked it up again and put it on his face, he said, "This a one-shot character?"

"No!  Iron Jaw was Crimebuster’s main nemesis.  He was a Nazi, killed the boy’s father on the operating table and had his mother machine-gunned.  Crimebuster fought him in practically all of his early issues. Then Iron Jaw finally died, or was supposed to, in a fight with a Hitler agent dispatched to kill him.  But they thought better of it in the Fifties and brought him back.  He didn’t kill as many people, but he was just as mean."

"Sonofagun."  A bad guy that seemed to be a combo of the Red Skull and the Joker.  What’ll they think of next? , thought Finster.  Then he caught himself:  that guy had been thought up about thirty years or so before Finster had been born.

"So, like, what other things did you find out about those books?"  Finster hugged his knees to his chest.  If this was Golden Age 101, at least he had to admit he was enjoying the lecture.

"Well, I assume you’ve read Eisner’s SPIRIT?"

"Absolutely!"  Anybody who had gotten past the first flush of Marvel-DC fandom, who was, like, into Serious Snob as far as comics went, had read some of The Spirit.  Those incredible graphics, the logos formed out of floating paper or buildings, the shifts in perspective, the lettering, the theme and atmosphere, the Spirit himself…it was Comics Snob all the way.  And the thing is, the stories were really good.  Even for the time in which Finster read them.

"Well, one of the artists who worked with him on the Spirit was named Jerry Grandenetti.  Doubt you know of him, since he was mostly out of the mainstream by the Seventies. But the man could do all of Eisner’s tricks, maybe even taught him some, I don’t know.  And he did a strip in RANGERS COMICS called ‘The Secret Files of Dr. Drew’ which was just like the Spirit as a ghostbuster, all the wild graphic tricks and everything.  I’d read a few of those in reprints before.  What I didn’t know was that he did a couple of episodes of a strip called ‘Senorita Rio’, also in RANGERS, I think, and they were just like Eisner, too.  She was a lady spy, and most of her stories were pretty mundane. But for those two—" He spread his arms, slapping the wall with one hand.  "Like tearing a hole in the mundane page and letting the real stuff shine through."

"Hey, where can I read them?" said Finster, his eyes ashine.

"Well—I’m afraid you can’t, son.  They’ve never been reprinted.  And I had to give my issues back."

"Oh," said Finster, de-ballooned.  "Well, what about some of the other stuff?  What else was really good?"

"My favorites were Quality and Fawcett, mainly for the art.  Captain Marvel I loved.  The art by Beck and Schaffenberger was of a supreme clarity. And Cap himself, and the other Marvels, were so much fun."

"Maybe," said Finster, who had seen old reprints in the first run of SHAZAM!  "Mostly, in the Seventies, I thought they were mediocre.  Liked the run in WORLD’S FINEST, though."

"Yeah," said the codger.  "A new time demanded a new approach to the character.  He got it too late."

"Then you’re saying that change is not necessarily bad," said Finster.  "Good for you."

"No, change is an inevitability. But we can choose what changes we want to go along with, and what ones we personally reject.  I don’t believe in going along with everything that New York and Hollywood want to shove at us."

"If you mean like Sharon Stone’s acting, yeah."

"Changes were made in Swamp Thing and Miracleman and Daredevil," said the old man.  "They were good changes, quality ones, made without violating the characters too much.  I just don’t like the idea of throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.  The way they did after CRISIS."

"But,  you know," Finster had to point out, "that’s probably the way the real oldsters, the First Wave, felt in the Sixties.  Here were these guys running around called the Flash, the Atom, Hawkman, and Green Lantern.  And they didn’t look anything like the ones that came before."

"I suppose they did, in a way.  But at least Julius Schwartz, who edited those books, came up with the Earth-One / Earth-Two thing."

"There were a lot of Earths back then," said Finster.  "Too many."

"I never had any problem keeping them all distinct.  From Earth-One down to Earth-S."

"What about some of the others?"

"Well, you know," said the oldster, "I didn’t know, when I was a kid, why Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Blackhawk had lasted so long, over 100 issues by that time.  Mostly, they were mediocre.  At least, by my tastes, back then.  But when I read their earliest adventures, I found out why?"

"Because they were good back then?"

"Yeah!  Superman had a social conscience, fun writing, and, actually, pretty good art!  Plus he kicked butt a lot more back then, than in the Sixties.  He had some, some vigor.  A reason for being.  Batman, well, he was heroic, a good man, a lot better hero model than he became in the late Eighties.  At least, as far as I’m concerned."

"But he was pretty dark, when he started out," Finster said.  "I’ve read the old reprints of the first year or so of Batman."

"Yeah, but you know why he changed so quickly?  Because the lighter Batman worked better.  The ‘dark’ Batman was a phase that passed over in about two or three years.  After that, he was a detective, a guardian.  A hero."

"He still is.  And I like the dark Batman better."

"Well, I liked the hell out of Denny O’Neil’s and Steve Englehart’s versions.  That was the Batman that really should have been.  I even liked Miller’s DARK KNIGHT.  Problem was, after that they went all over the Dark and forgot about the Knight.  Not very satisfying.  At least to me."

"I still like him."

"Your privelage.  Someday, he’ll change again."

"So…you read old-time Marvels, too, right?"

The codger snickered.  "Sure did.  About the only ones I liked were the ones with Jack Kirby or Bill Everett work in them.  The rest—pretty darn pathetic."

"Really?"

"Really.  Mostly, the stories were just like recycled old radio crime dramas, except that one guy wore a costume.  The art wasn’t usually worth a damn. There was a good reason Marvel started out reprinting their early Forties stuff, and then switched to the Fifties.  The stuff in between, for the most part, stunk."

"Nuts."  Finster had hoped that a Marvel reprint program, like DC’s, would unearth some forgotten jewels, not rhinestones.

"But there was good stuff.  I like practically the entire run of CAPTAIN AMERICA.  It’s true, Simon and Kirby were only on for ten issues. But after that, the ones that came after them—like Al Avison and Syd Shores and such—did a Kirby kind of riff.  They had a whole Rogue’s Gallery of costumed crooks for Cap to fight, and they kept it going like that all through the Forties.  It was a really fun title."

"You mentioned Bill Everett.  On Sub-Mariner?"

"Yep.  Bill was the strongest artist they had this side of Kirby, and one of their best writers.  The Sub-Mariner story was the first serial Marvel ever did.  As long as Everett was on it, Subby was readable.  Then he left, and he came back in the late Forties and early Fifties, and his art was the best thing anybody’d ever seen in a Marvel comic up to that time."

"Yeah, I know," said Finster.  "I’ve sneaked a look at some of those reprints.  Namora was a hottie."

"Are we going to make this a monologue or a dialogue?  Tell me something of your formative moments."

"Uh," he said.  "Pretty much standard stuff, I guess."

"Nothing’s ever standard," said the codger.  "Just similar."

"Oh, I started as a kid, watching Super Friends in the afternoon reruns," said Finster.  "Mom told me that she used to read about them in comic books, only they weren’t the Super Friends, they were the Justice League of America.  I asked her what a comic book was, and she took me down to the store…yeah."

Finster’s eyes gleamed with nostalgia driven at locomotive power.  "The comic book store.  It was like a holy site, like Don McLean’s line in ‘American Pie’…’I went down to the sacred store.’  The guy behind the counter was an old dude, a dealer, but that wasn’t important.  To me, he was like a priest or a gatekeeper.  When I was in there, all those covers with those heroes leaping off at me in all that incredible color and power…man.  I just stood there for a few minutes, drinking it in, until the guy asked me, ‘Kid, whatcha want?’"

The old man was grinning.  "And what did you want?"

"I wanted a Super Friends, and my mom said I was looking for the Justice League.  He said they had both books there.  It was like the tail end of the SUPER FRIENDS run, but I had her buy the book for me, and then she got me an ish of JUSTICE LEAGUE, and she had to pry the books out of my hands to lay them on the counter and pay for them.  I read those things at least fifty times in the first week.  It was…incredible.  A whole new world.  Better even than the cartoons, somehow.  I had to get my hands on more of these, and I did.  I was hooked, man.  I hung out at the comics shop after school, and somebody told me about X-MEN, and then DAREDEVIL, and all the rest.  I just shoveled them into my brain as fast as I could buy ‘em."

Finster sighed.  "I guess that’s why I’ve just ended up here.  Clerking in a comics shop.  Not much pay, but at least I’m not bagging groceries or something.  I’m part of the sacred store, now.  For as long as they’ll let me."

"Do you enjoy it?"

"Oh, yeah, absolutely.  I can keep up with just about everything here, and not have to buy it.  Even though I do, a lot of the time.  But it’s tough sometimes.  I sold an adult book to a kid in a disguise once, and went to court for it.  That’s when I met Dr. Zensie, the guy who wrote the Fifties book against comics.  Remember?"

"Oh, yes," said the codger.  "Everybody knows of that book.  I’ve even read it."

"Dr. Zensie was going to testify for the prosecution.  At least, that’s what they thought.  But he testified on the stand that he’d been wrong, that comics stimulated the imagination.  The case was dismissed.  I didn’t have to get measured for a gray suit."  Finster shuddered.  "They have guys in there that make Iron Jaw look like Richie Rich."

"I’m glad they didn’t get you, then."

"Not half as glad as I was," said Finster.  "But I’ve seen the good times and the bad times.  Alan Moore leaving SWAMP THING, Claremont off of X-MEN, Gruenwald off of CAP, but you learn to live with it and move on.  You know what I mean?"

"I know," said the codger.  "For me, it was Kirby leaving FANTASTIC FOUR.  I bought the next two issues to finish up the serial, then I quit."

"You haven’t read FF since 1970?" said Finster, incredulous.

"Oh, yes," said the codger. "I came back in late ’75, bought up all the back issues, kept reading and dropping out and reading and dropping out, got tired during the Simonson run and dropped out altogether.  It’s not Stan and Jack, but Roy and John Buscema and Byrne and Englehart weren’t bad."

"Was the Fantastic Four your fave, back then?"

"Nope.  That was AVENGERS.  They were Marvel’s JLA, with all the solo heroes together in one book.  Even when they were badly written, I kept buying them.  Shooter never understood the characters, and Michelinie wasn’t much better, though he wrote a great Iron Man.  But Lee, Thomas, and Englehart were first-rate.  The book was one of the few that didn’t drop too much in quality after Stan took off.  For 151 issues, it was a solid book.  I read it from issue #1 on."

"So you’ve really been around," said Finster.

"Yeah," said the codger.  "Even though you know all the things I don’t.  You’ve been able to hang in there when I had to drop out.  Since you work in a comic store, you can read all the books for free.  The cost factor makes it impossible for most of us to keep up with everything."

"Yeah, I know," said Finster.  "You can’t even keep up with all the good stuff now, let alone the character books.  Half my time is spent just trying to scan everything so that when somebody comes in and asks me, ‘What’s good?’, I’ve got half an idea of what to tell ‘em."

"Maybe I should ask you," said the old man.  "After all, I cover only a small part of it, myself."

Finster said, "Depends on what you want to read.  Like what?"

The codger shrugged.  "It all depends.  For awhile, I kept up with Valiant for the  Magnus and Solar books, because I’d read those heroes when they were with Gold Key.  Then I tried Ultraverse for a long time, because they were decent and were written by a lot of the good writers from the Seventies.  Image I tried, but I went through those books faster than beer goes through me.  Nothing but art, no place to slow down there, just look at the pictures and whap!  You’re gone."

"I know what you mean," said Finster.  "But they at least looked nice.  And now they’re getting writers."

"They are," said the old man.  "Sometimes I buy an Image because Alan Moore is writing it.  But even he can’t make me that interested in the characters."

"What do you think of Spawn?"

"Except for Angela, it can go to hell."

"So," said Finster, "I’ve told you mine, you tell me yours.  How did you get to be a fanboy?"

The codger said, "Pretty similar to you.  When I was a kid, I was into animated cartoons.  Huckleberry Hound, Bugs Bunny, Bullwinkle.  I saw these books on the newsstand and in the grocery stores with those characters in ‘em and I said, ‘Got to have ‘em!’"  Now Finster saw the light in the old man’s eyes, and knew him for a True Believer.  That was comforting.

"It was, in a way, better than the cartoons," the old man continued.  "Because you could take them out any time you wanted to and read about Yogi Bear or Dennis the Menace, and not have to wait for it to show up on TV or settle for a little strip in the newspapers.  So I bought up as many as Mom would stake me to, and when Gold Key started up with those big 25-centers, I think I almost broke her."

"No kidding?" said Finster.  "Hmmm.  That was when they took over from Dell, right?"

"Right," said the codger.  "Dell was a power back then, one of the biggest comics companies around.  They did all the characters liscenced from TV and movies and strips.  Back then, if you were a kid going to a Disney movie or a Western or something, chances are a comic book with an adaptation of it would be out in the stores at the same time.  And you could buy it and read about the movie for years after the show was off the screen.  That was a long, long time before the video age, let me tell you."

Finster adjusted his hat.  "Never thought about that, but you’re right.  Now, it’s only Dark Horse does that, mainly."

"At that time, I thought of superhero books as pretty scary," said the old man.  "I’d see the covers, and here was an alien with Robin’s life-force sucked into his own body, and Batman would be telling Superman, ‘Don’t hit him, or Robin will die!’  Or Supes would be without his powers, getting gassed to death in a cell while a bunch of gangsters sipped champagne and watched.  That was scary stuff when I was five, let me tell you.  But I finally got up the courage to ask Mom to get me two DC’s in 1963, a WORLD’S FINEST and METAL MEN #2.  From then on, I never looked back."

"METAL MEN?  Wasn’t that, well, a pretty cheesy title?  With all the weirdbeard stuff and corny plots?"

The codger looked at Finster.  "No.  It was a very fun title, with a lot of good character writing and a lot of action and some stuff kids could appreciate.  It was written for eight-year-olds, and I was an eight-year-old.  And I fell in love with Tina."

"Okay, sorry."

"Don’t be.  You weren’t around back then.  I wasn’t around when the EC’s came out.  I missed a lot, too."

"So when did you get into Marvel?"

"With TALES OF SUSPENSE #44.  It had a cover of Iron Man flying over the pyramids of ancient Egypt, with Cleopatra under one arm.  Back then, he looked almost scary, like a robot, in his original armor.  I thought he was a robot.  But not one like the Metal Men.  Anyway, I bought it, read it, and enjoyed it.  And I thought it was really cool, the way Marvel had that corner trademark on every book with a little picture of the heroes there.  DC was never that cool.  Just a little DC circle."

"So you became a Marvel fan, then?"

"Pretty quickly, yes, even though I still bought all the DC Schwartz books and the Legion of Super-Heroes in ADVENTURE and MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER and all that for awhile.  Back then, Marvel was only about ten books a month or so, and all of them were twelve cents except for annuals.  There was no such thing as a comics shop back then.  Maybe the Cherokee Book Shop, but I was a long ways away from that.  So we did it the hard way.  We hit up every grocery store, drug store, five-and-ten, and any other place that carried comics.  Not every place would have all the issues, so you really had to know every store that carried ‘em, and hit ‘em all.  And we did."

"Sounds like real pioneer stuff."

"It was.  We found the places that sold old comic books for a nickel and hit them up for it, too. The first place I went to, there were two issues of SPIDER-MAN #1 at.  I bought one.  Lost it in a trade.  Cursed myself ever since.  But someday, I may get another one.  If I win the lottery, that is."

"So what was there about the books that made you keep on with ‘em?"

The old man rubbed the back of his neck.  "Probably the same thing you get out of X-MEN today.  It felt like the heroes were our friends, part of our family.  You felt like you knew Captain America and Spider-Man and Green Lantern.  If they were in a jam that hung over to the next issue, you had to—I mean, really had to—get the next issue to see how they got out of it.  If they did.  I mean, we always expected the good guys to win.  But there was always that little chance, we thought, that maybe they wouldn’t."

"Yeah," said Finster.  "And nowadays, they can get killed and come back."

"Sometimes they got killed back then, too," said the codger.  "Like Menthor in THUNDER AGENTS, or Professor X in X-MEN, or Lightning Lad and Ferro Lad in the Legion.   Two of them came back, though, just like Jean Grey."

"What did you think of her coming back?"

"That it was about the biggest cheat I’d ever seen in comics."

Finster grinned.  "Me, too.  The death of Phoenix, man, when I read it in a back issue, it was about one of the  biggest moments I’d ever experienced in comics. Scott just kneeling there and going, ‘Jean…Jean,’ and about all the rest of us were doing the same thing and trying not to let our folks see we’d been crying."

"Yep," said the old man.  "Jean was one of ours, too.  But her death was so well-done, it was a pity they brought her back.  Even worse that they said Jean wasn’t really the Phoenix."

"Oh, well, no point in telling you about Teen Tony or the Spider-Clone saga."

"Yeah.  Sometimes I think I dropped out at the right time."

Finster said, "So why did you stay in all this time?  Was there some peak moment for you in comics, or what?"

"There were a lot of peak moments, son."

"Call me Finster."

"All right, Finster, then.  Of course, the resurrection of Lightning Lad, the Avengers’s first changing of the guard, the first JLA / JSA teamup, Spider-Man lifting the big metal thing off his back in SPIDER-MAN #33, the fight between Nick Fury and Baron Strucker in SHIELD, more than I can tell you.  But the one thing that was the real peak for me was in FF #50."

"The Galactus Trilogy?"

"Exactly.  Wherein a blind girl taught an emotionless alien of great power how to feel and care, four superheroes were faced with an opponent who treated them like ants, and mankind was finally saved by Reed Richards holding up the one thing that could destroy Galactus, like Prometheus holding fire.  The one thing that we carried away more than anything else from it, Finster, was Galactus’s closing speech.  It meant so much to us when we were kids, living in the shadow of the bomb and the ‘Nam war, that it’s hard to describe.  But I remember it.  Every word."

"Every word?" prompted Finster.

The old man smiled, then stood up, struck a pose appropriate to a Shakespearean actor, and began.

"’The game is ended.  The prize has eluded me.  And at last I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man.  Be ever worthy of that glory, humans—be ever mindful of your promise of greatness.  For it shall one day lift you beyond the stars…or bury you within the ruins of war.  The CHOICE—is YOURS!’"

Finster gulped.  The old man’s eyes were shining with something that looked akin to tears.  It should have been embarrassing, but somehow, it wasn’t.  It was just a mainline into something very great, very glorious, very important to a kid and to the old man that kid had become, thirty or so years later.

It was comic books.

And Finster said, before he could stop himself, "’I leave it in your hands.’"

"What?"  The old man turned, looking at Finster in surprise.

"It’s from the last issue of WATCHMEN.  The last line of dialogue in the entire book.   The crazy right-wing editor doesn’t know that his idiot flunky’s looking over a pile of stuff that includes the Rorschach Diary, the one thing that could blow the cover off the New World Order that’s been set up to stop Russia and America from going to war.  So what Moore’s really saying in that one is, ‘The fate of the world, it’s all in your hands.’"

"’The choice’," said the old man, "’is yours.’"

Silence for a few seconds.

"The more things change," said Finster, "or maybe the Moore things change—"

"—the more they stay the same," finished the old man.  "Now you know why I’m still in comics?"

"Yeah," said Finster. "I think I do.  That’s why we’re all still here."

"Yes," said the codger.  "Even despite all the exploitationism, all the cheap sex and overdone violence, the violations of old heroes, despite all that—there’s still something worth it, shining through. Still some heroism.  Still some innocence.  Still some reason to read."

"Innocence," scoffed Finster.  "I think they killed that with Jean Grey.  Or maybe with Flash and Supergirl, in CRISIS."

The old man’s eyebrows tented.  "You think they killed Supergirl?"

"Think they did it?  Heck, man, they did it.  In CRISIS #7.  Superman carrying her bloody body and crying over her, in front of an army of good guys.  No doubt about it."

"Do you have an internet hookup in this store?"

"Sure," said Finster, curiously.  "Why?"

"Let me show you something."

Gingerly, Finster took the old man to the back room, where Grudge kept his Ritz crackers, cheese-spray cans, and various other things, including an IBM 586.  He fired it up, connected to the Net, and said, "Now what?"

"Let me in and I’ll show you," said the old man.  Finster moved out of the seat and let him take his place.  The codger typed in a URL, entered it, and brought up a site that Finster hadn’t seen before.  Then he clicked on a highlighted title, and something came up.

The old man stood up, gestured to the chair.  "Now.  Read."

Finster sat down, looked at the title.  "’Kara and the Dreamsmith,’" he said.

"Read to yourself," said the old man.

And while Finster did, he helped himself to some of the Ritz and cheese spread.  After all, it was going to be a long time till morning.

-F-

"So…you really wrote that thing?"

"Lots of people write those things, Finster.  Lots of folks who’ve been ‘buked and scorned by the mainstream publishers, but who find an outlet on the Internet.  They don’t make any money, but they have a lot of fun."

"So why do you do it?"

"There’s stories we want to tell.  About the characters that mean something to us."

"It’s very weird," said Finster.  "It’s like saying to the companies, ‘We don’t have to put up with what you deal us.  We can do the stories ourselves.’"

"And so we can.  Kind of liberating, when you think of it."

"I never read a Supergirl story like that."

"It’s because the bozoes in charge never saw her like that.  There are no bad characters, Finster, only bozoes who can’t handle them well."

"If she’d have been written like that…heck, I might even have read her.  Or even have bought her."

"Lots of characters get written about on the Internet," said the old man.  "All the Marvel and DC bunch.  The Valiants, the Ultraverse bunch, Image, you name it.  If it’s been published, chances are somebody writes about it.  Lots of the stories are crap, it’s true.  Maybe some of mine are, too."

"You really think that?"

"No."  The old man grinned.  "But here’s a place where you can go to find out about them."  He input a new URL and hit "enter."  A site came up.  "CFAN.  Short for Comics Fan-fiction Authors Network.  They keep up with most of the stuff that’s out there.  You might find something interesting out there.  Of course, there’s a lot of crap you might have to wade through first."

"Just like comics."

"Just like comics."

"Y’know," said Finster, "if there’s some issues of recent ones out there you want to check out, be my guest.  But be careful of them, and I’d appreciate you bringing them back here to read, so that nothing turns up missing."

"Thank you.  What about you?"

"I’m gonna sit here and read some more."

-F-

And when Mr. Grudge finally came to unlock the door in the morning, one hand on the key and the other around a hot dog with everything up to and including whipped cream and strawberries on it, he was astonished and disgusted and shocked (yes, shocked!) to see two guys stretched out on the floor, dozing.

One of them was Finster, his head propped against an empty comics storage box.

The other was some old guy, lying beside a pile of old bagged comics on a wantlist.

The sight was so disruptive that Grudge actually took the sandwich out of his mouth and hollered, "FINSTERRRRR!  FINNNSTERRRRRRR!!!"

Finster came to as quickly as a member of Easy Company sacking out on the grass of France, responding to the call of Sgt. Rock.  "Yes, sir?  I mean, boss?  I mean, sir?"

"What are you doing on the floor?  What is this guy doing here?  What have you been doing to—"  He stopped, not wanting to finish the word, but the rest of it burst out through fragments of food plasma:  "—gether?"

"We’ve been locked in here all night, Mr. Grudge.  We were talking about comics."

"You were. Talking about comics."  The mustard, mayo, catsup, pickle juice, and special sauce from Grudge’s hot dog dripped slowly onto the floor from the hand in which he held it, pointed downward.  He seemed unaware of it.  Not good.

The old man was getting up.  "Daylight already?"  He stretched.  "You must be the proprietor, sir."

Grudge blinked and grasped his hot dog more tightly.

"I want to tell you that I had a marvelous time chatting with your clerk Finster here last night," said the guy, extending his hand.  Grudge shrank back, not knowing what diseases were communicable in it.

"We shared a lot of history," the old man continued.  "We talked a lot about comics."

"Keep back," warned Grudge.

Finster piped up.  "And the best part is, Boss, he bought $112.89 worth of comics."

"He," said Grudge slowly, "bought.  $112.89.  Worth.  Of.  Comics?"

"Yep," said Finster.  "Cleaned out some of those golden oldies we’ve been trying to move for some time."

Grudge rushed forward, his face split in a grin, and extended a hand, realized it was the hot-dog holding one, and drew it back and extended his other, with which he pumped the old man’s hand vigorously.  "Thank you, sir!  Thank you, definitely!  I want to know, we appreciate customers like you who can discern real quality in comic books, who know the worth and value of a good buy, who can count on Grudge’s Comics Emporium to show them the true way—"

"Thank you, thank you," said the codger, extricating his slightly mashed hand from Grudge’s grip.  "I’ll be sure to call on you again.  That is, if young Finster here is working."

"Finster?"  Grudge blinked.  "Oh.  Yes.   Finster.  Well, I think you can count on that.  Yes sir, I think you can be assured that he’ll be here to give you top-notch service, any time you want that four-color jones serviced—"

"Thanks again," said the codger, moving towards the door, a sizable stack of plastic-bagged books under his arms.  "And Finster?  Remember.  ‘I leave it in your hands.’"

"’The choice,’" echoed Finster, "’is yours.’"

Then the old man was gone.

Grudge looked at Finster. "What was that all about?  Some kind of sales slogan?"

"Yeah," said Finster.  "Two of the greatest in the business, boss."

"Maybe we can do it as a sign.  ‘The choice is yours.  But you bend, you buy.’"  Grudge reconsidered.  "Maybe not.  Okay, Fin, I want you to get back to work right after breakfast.  Catalog all the mutant books with angst and overwrought dialogue.  Shouldn’t take you more than a week."

"I’ll get right on it, Boss," said Finster, with a smile.  "Right after I catalog all the ones with hope and heroism and affirmation in them."

"Hope?"  Grudge looked puzzled.  "We gotten in some old BOB HOPE COMICS, or something?  And what’s this affirmation stuff, anyway?"

"It’s hard to find, sometimes," said Finster.  "But it’s always there.  I’ll get right on it, Boss.  Okay if I hit breakfast at the deli?"

"Sure," said Grudge.  "If you bring me back two pigs in a blanket with extra syrup and sausage and two eggs sunny side up, all on a bun.  Make it quick.  We’ve got a big day ahead of us, Finster.  Be glad you’ve still got a job."

"I am, Boss," said Finster, going out the door.  "More than anything else in the world."

Greade looked after him.  The kid was weird.  Must have been something he read in those funny books.

Greade looked at a stack of them on the glass of his showcase.  Maybe there was something in them, after all?  Maybe he should crack one or two of ‘em, and see what Finster got out of ‘em?

Nah.

Nothing more to ‘em than Lady Death or Vampirella.  And he didn’t have to open them, just look at the covers.

Business as usual.

Maybe.

******

(1)  If we told you every ingredient in Mr. Grudge’s sandwich, this short story would become an epic maxi-series with many crossovers.  Trust us.  You’re better off not knowing.

******

This one’s for Mark and Sergio.  Long may they wave.

 (HOME)