I met Chris in first grade. Both new to the school, we were wary of each other that year, but by the following September we had become best friends.
Chris and I were inseparable through our boyhoods, partly because our interests always seemed to evolve on parallel tracks: Just as we were giving up on G.I. Joes, we moved on to Transformers. Just as we were leaving video games, we started playing tennis. Just as we discovered girls, we wound up playing more tennis.
One of our longest phases was a descent into comic book collecting, a period that spanned roughly from third grade to Suzanne Jehl, who precipitated the aforementioned discovery. We went to the annual comic book convention in Philadelphia, and every Saturday we’d go to the local comic shops, pick through the racks, then take our prizes home to read and catalogue.
Coming from modest circumstances, I had to husband my resources: I’d hem and haw before spending 60 cents on a new issue. But Chris was rich. His mother would hand him a $20 bill every time she dropped us off at the comic shop. Twenty dollars! He wouldn’t just buy new comics—he had the scratch to buy the high-value comics on the wall behind the counter, some of which cost five or even six dollars.
I didn’t envy Chris’s money, but I envied his comic books. My own collection was wonderful. By the time I stopped, I had perhaps 1,200 books, which were worth, at the time, close to $5,000. Chris’s collection was so vast—we estimated it to be in the neighborhood of 10,000 comics—that he could have used it as the down payment on a small house.
Last summer Chris’s mother, a lovely woman named Patricia, died quite suddenly. He had lost his father years before. An only child living in New York City, he sensibly opted to sell his boyhood home. Sensibly, perhaps, but not easily. Among the possessions that had to be disposed of were his comic books.
Which is how, 33 years later, I became custodian of the comic book collection of my dreams.
Having a best friend is special enough, but having the same best friend for your entire life is a rare blessing. Before the handover, Chris and I spent a long while sorting through the comics, boxes upon boxes upon boxes, a grown-up version of the cataloguing we did as kids at the end of each weekend.
There were his classics: early X-Men, Spider-Man, and Daredevil runs along with an assortment of Silver Age Westerns that Chris, inexplicably, loved. There were curiosities: an issue of the 1950s noir T-Man: World Wide Troubleshooter. It’s about the adventures of an agent from the Treasury Department. Which sounds ridiculous, sure. But no more ridiculous than U.S. 1: High Adventure Trucking Down the Highway. A short-lived series from the ’80s, U.S. 1 was about a guy who drives a tractor trailer and has a CB radio implanted in his skull. However terrible this sounds as a concept, the execution was worse. Except that as I examined the first issue, I remembered the afternoon Chris bought it at a shop called Hero’s World, in our favorite mall.
Paging through the comics I found other tiny treasures. Inside an old issue of The Avengers was a small advertisement for a “Monster 7 feet tall in authentic colors . . . only $1.69.”
Another issue carried an ad for something called “Yubiwaza.” The handsome, tight-lipped pitchman is identified as “Yubiwaza master N.J. Fleming,” who explains that “Yubiwaza is the secret, amazingly easy art of self-defense that turns just one finger or your hands into a potent weapon of defense.” The full-page color spread concludes with a testimonial from “Yoshie Imanami,” the “Pretty Japanese wife of N. J. Fleming.” A few boxes later I found another ad for Yubiwaza. This one featured only the pretty, Japanese face of Yoshie, who claimed the Yubiwaza system as her own and made no mention of Fleming. Another casualty of the divorce revolution, I suppose.
As I lifted a stack of comics out of the last box, an old picture tumbled to the ground. It was one of those wallet-sized photos that everyone used to carry but have been replaced by iPhones. There, in black and white, was Patricia. She’s smiling, and I can see Chris’s face in hers. She’s just a child, maybe 10 or 12. The age Chris and I were when we were buying T-Man and Spider-Man and all the rest.
The symmetry made me realize that my own son is now the age Chris and I were when we first met. In a sense, our thousands of comic books are his now. But I hope that someday he finds a Chris of his own.