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Four Days on a Deserted Island, conclusion

by  in Comic News Comment
Four Days on a Deserted Island, conclusion

Wrapping up the tale of our sojourn to Whidbey Island to hunt rare books and comics in the wild. Part one is here, part two is here, and the last installment lies under the fold.

*

When my bride reads these columns about our travels, she occasionally grumbles that I leave things out or telescope events. This is true. Most of the time, it’s done in an effort to clear away the clutter and get to the books and comics-related stuff. We actually do lots of other things and meet all sorts of interesting people on our road trips, as well, but they’re generally not relevant to the subject at hand. Even with all the things I leave out, I still feel guilty about my tendency to get carried away by trivial asides in these accounts.

All that being said… even though it has nothing to do with books or comics, I wanted to get it on the record that we really enjoyed our evening at the Whidbey Playhouse’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Sure, it was a small-town community theater effort, with all that implies. Some of the cast members looked a little nervous and there were a couple of flubbed lines, some of the staging was a little odd, and so on. There were definitely rough edges. I daresay most of our theater-snob friends in Seattle with season passes to Intiman or ArtsWest or the 5th Avenue would have sneered at it.

But we had a great time. There’s a joyous amateur enthusiasm with this kind of thing that often trumps craft, at least for me. It’s the same reason I like local garage bands more than big shows and triple-A baseball more than the major leagues and why the small-press ‘zines are usually my favorite part of any comics convention. It’s that DIY ethic, the need to get out there and make your own contribution. And whatever its flaws, the thing that shone out from the entire production was that everyone involved with it was having the time of their lives. Certainly, they were playing to sold-out crowds.

I don’t mean to imply that the show wasn’t good, because it was. I have to single out Jim Ortuba as George Bailey, in particular. He was terrific and somehow managed to suggest Jimmy Stewart without actually crossing over into impressionism or parody. For the most part, Ortuba carried the play on his back the whole night, but Ralph Dubois as Mr. Potter was pretty good too — when it came time for Potter’s Evil Speech of Evil, Dubois delivered it with such savage glee that when he got to that part about, “you’re worth more DEAD than alive,” it earned him a smattering of applause, despite it being George’s lowest moment. Everyone loves a good villain.

Anyway, tomorrow night is their last night — the show’s run was from November 26 through December 19. Although it’s unlikely anyone reading this is currently in Oak Harbor and has a chance to go, nevertheless, I wanted to get the recommendation out there. We loved it and we wish them well.

*

But mostly, we were on the hunt for books and comics. I mentioned the WAIF thrift stores as being good places to prospect, but they weren’t the only thrift stores we found. There was also the main branch of Community Thrift in Freeland.

When we saw it we were delighted. It’s massive, big enough to be organized like a department store, and while Julie happily wandered off to look at clothing and knickknacks, I hustled upstairs to the book department.

Sadly, despite it taking up a good-sized hunk of the upstairs, the book section was a disappointment.

I mentioned last week how you can tell a good book department even if there’s not much on the shelves, and here was the flip side of that — this was an example of a not-so-good book department despite rows of shelves groaning with books. They had been organized somewhat in the adult section, but the juvenile section looked like it had been taking mortar fire, and it would take a more dedicated bookscout than me to plow through that mess in the hope of turning up something good. Especially since it was overflowing with non-books like the odious Disney photo-novel abridgements of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and other such travesties.

(I’m not a literary snob; you can’t be a pulp-and-comics guy like me if you have a big chip on your shoulder about Artistic Merit. There are lots of movie and TV tie-in books I approve of– in fact, there are some appearing later on in this very piece. But, Christ, I have some standards… a jumped-up souvenir magazine like those Disney Narnia abominations being mistaken for a real book is just wrong.)

Even as souvenir magazines these are pretty weak tea. Marketing them as 'kid's books' on the assumption that the actual CHILDREN'S BOOK they're based on is too hard, or something, is just a little nauseating.

Unfortunately, that was the vast majority of what I was seeing. It was a dumping ground: “Take those books down to the dealer and see what you can get for them, and whatever’s left over you can drop off at Community Thrift.”

I did pick up a hardcover of Raymond Feist’s Magician, mostly because his Faerie Tale is a favorite of mine and this was the only other book of his I’d seen around that wasn’t Part Four of the Nine-Part Saga of Something-or-other.

It was just a Book Club edition, no collector value, which is probably why it ended up here on the Shelves of the Unwanted. But I buy books to read. It was in good shape and for a buck it qualified as a Why Not? purchase.

That was it, though, and if it had cost more than a dollar I’d probably have put it back. But I think Julie found a couple of shirts, so it wasn’t a total loss.

We did finally find our way to the Book Rack in Oak Harbor, the one place on Whidbey Island that actually sells comics. It was a nice enough place but really it’s a used bookstore specializing in paperbacks. The new comics display was all Marvel and DC monthlies, no trade collections at all, and the back-issue bins didn’t have too much stuff from earlier than 1993 or so.

What they did have that caught our interest were quarter and fifty-cent boxes. We are always on the lookout for these because it’s a place to stock up on giveaway comics for my students and also for the neighbor kids on Halloween. Since Halloween had come and gone just a month before, we were happy to have a chance to replenish the Hatcher supply of giveaway funnybooks, and they had a lot of failed 36-page manga experiments from the days before American publishers discovered people would buy digests in this country. There was also some Spyboy and some 90s Iron Man, which I knew the kids would adore.

These are all sure bets with my students, so we scooped them up.

So we cleaned them out of all that stuff. I think it ended up being about twenty-five dollars, or roughly a short box of quarter books. That probably would carry us through a few classroom holiday parties.

The real scores, though, came the following day, Sunday.

It was our last day on the island and we were going to drive south from Oak Harbor down to the town of Clinton on the southern shore, where we could catch a ferry home.

Our idea was to take all day, stop anywhere we felt like it, and if a side road looked interesting then we’d go see whatever there was to see.

Coupeville didn’t have anything of interest for us — a couple of antique places, but strictly of the Ye Olde Gift Shoppe variety, which is not our thing. Greenbank was just a wide spot in the road, a grocery store and a gas station, and Freeland we’d pretty well scoped out the day before.

But Langley was amazing.

It looks like just another sleepy little coast town, but to a book person, it’s the happiest place on earth. Langley actually bills itself as “A Book Town By The Sea” — really, there’s a brochure — and in a downtown that’s roughly four blocks long by three blocks wide, total, there are four rare book dealers, as well as another bookstore/coffee shop place and a thrift store with an astonishingly healthy book section considering it’s literally around the corner from the two rarities dealers on 2nd Street.

We started with the Good Cheer thrift shop.

Good Cheer was indeed cheering. The book area was a bit cramped, and certainly smaller than what we’d seen at the big Community Thrift store in Freeland… but it was chock full of good stuff. At least from my point of view.

The adult section was full of interesting reads– and remarkably, there was a lot of science fiction in hardcover. In particular, I saw a couple of Asimov’s later novels under Doubleday’s Foundation imprint, Sturgeon’s More Than Human, and a nice copy of Dune. A couple of others. Nothing I didn’t already own, but it pleased me to see it so well represented.

The juvenile section was where I scored, though.

In particular, I found an import boy’s adventure book from Great Britain that looked like great fun, and three more of the Whitman “Authorized Edition” hardcovers I am so fond of.

The Lassie is from 1968, one of several Steve Frazee turned out for Whitman’s juvenile line. He also did the Bonanza and High Chaparral books for them… anything to do with the west or outdoors in general, he was the go-to guy. Frazee was a Western writer of some note in the fifties, and the films Many Rivers to Cross and Gold of the Seven Saints are both based on his books, along with several episodes of Cheyenne, Bronco, and Zane Grey Theater. I don’t care that much about Lassie but a Frazee western is always a good time and I quite like his other work.

Coaster’s Mate I picked up mostly because of the cover– it just looked so magnificently pulpy– but the story’s pretty good too. It’s about the experiences of a young man named Derek who signs aboard a cargo freighter working the African Gold Coast, and all the smuggling intrigue and danger he happens across doing it. The date on this one is also 1968 but I suspect it’s a reprint from considerably earlier, based on the vaguely condescending tone of the author regarding colonials vs. natives. Still, it’s not as overtly racist as some pulp things I’ve seen– our hero’s black shipmates are all tough, capable fellows that young Derek looks up to and learns from, despite the captain’s unfortunate tendency to call them “boy.” And it’s otherwise a rollicking non-stop adventure.

But what I was really pleased about were the two vintage Whitmans from the 1940s.

The Whitman Authorized Edition series didn’t just put movie stars in a mystery-adventure setting. They often did the same for newspaper strip characters, as well, and these two books were both of the latter type. Don Winslow and the Scorpion’s Stronghold features, naturally, Don Winslow of the Navy in a novel-length adventure, written by that strip’s creator Frank Martinek and illustrated by Erwin Hess.

Blue Streak and Doctor Medusa is more problematic when it comes to telling you what it’s based on. The truth of the matter is that I have no idea whatever.

These endpapers are pretty cool... but not really any help in identifying the source material.

The Blue Streak is a costumed crimefighter, but as far as I can tell he is no relation to the Blue Streak character whose name was Don-Vin, that appeared in Crash Comics in 1940… nor is this the Jim Dare who fought crime as the Blue Streak in a backup feature in Headline Comics in 1946.

Pretty sure we can rule both of these guys out.

I can’t find any possible inspirations in radio or movie serials of the time, and I can’t find any pulp adventures either. In short, I’m baffled. I don’t often come up with absolutely nothing but this has me stumped. Whitman simply didn’t do original characters under this imprint, it was an “Authorized” tie-in to something… but what that was, I have no idea.

Maybe someone out there will recognize the guy. Blue Streak is stronger than an ordinary man, more agile, faster, with better eyesight. He can jump fifteen or twenty feet straight up. But he’s not invulnerable, and wears a bulletproof vest. So the Streak is at about Doc Savage’s level, let’s say. Despite his name, he’s not really wearing a lot of blue, but he seems to be the Blue Streak all the time; when he dresses in civvies, it’s to go undercover, the way the Lone Ranger used to. The Streak’s nemesis Doctor Medusa is amassing huge ill-gotten sums of money from moneyed elites that he then “calcifies” into statues. One of Medusa’s intended victims is the lovely and spirited young socialite Bess Marigold, whom the Streak has sworn to protect.

…and so on. It’s a rockin’ good time that leads to a big showdown in Medusa’s underground lair, but I kept getting distracted by trying to figure out why the hell this guy I’ve never heard of was getting a Whitman Authorized Edition. Anyone out there know? Anyone? Bueller?

*

We could have spent days in Langley, and I assure you that the next time we’re on Whidbey Island, we will. But since we were headed back to Seattle, we contented ourselves with a brief visit to the Words and Pictures Bookshop, just around the corner from the Good Cheer thrift store.

Words and Pictures has a little bit of everything…

…really, we could have doubled the number of books in our household if I’d wanted to spend money like water.

But what stopped me cold was the incredible selection of vintage paperbacks.

“Holy crap, he’s got Cap Kennedy. I haven’t seen Cap Kennedy anywhere since I was in high school. And look at all those Doc Savage.” I was awed.

Julie said, as she always does, “You should get them.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so, not at these prices. This isn’t a thrift shop. This is someone who knows what he’s got.” The paperbacks were priced very reasonably at six to eight dollars each, but I knew if I let myself start spending money on the stuff I liked in there, it would mount quickly into triple digits.

Julie hissed, “It’s a bad economy. We shouldn’t come in here and spend all this time looking around without buying something. It’s rude. Get a Doc Savage at least.”

My wife just wants everyone to be prosperous and happy. I smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you’re insisting. But I’m going to get those Cap Kennedys if I’m going to buy anything.”

I picked up both of them and walked up to the register. The proprietor greeted us, asked how we were enjoying the island, and perked up when I told him we’d heard about Whidbey at the Book Fair and thus been ambling around doing a lot of bookscouting. “Really? Are you a collector?”

“Not in any kind of serious way,” I hastened to assure him. “We can’t afford it. But I’m floored by how much good stuff is just floating around loose in the thrift shops here.”

“Oh yeah, and library sales too,” the bookstore man agreed. “There are some great ones here. What all did you end up with?”

I told him. He winced a little when I mentioned the Silence of the Lambs hardcover I’d seen in the WAIF shop. “The thing is,” he confided, “my wife and I, when we opened this place, we agreed we just wouldn’t go looking for stuff at the shops or the sales. People would see you and say, ‘aw, he just bought that for two dollars and now he’s going to mark it way up.’ It’d be bad for business. So we don’t go. But I miss it sometimes.”

I knew what he meant. All book people love the hunt.

Then I noticed his display behind the register and pointed a book out to Julie. “Hey, look at that.”

Julie loves the Oz books, and this one, The Scalawagons of Oz, was a rare one. Of the original forty Oz books that are regarded as ‘canon’ by Oz scholars, the first fourteen are by L. Frank Baum, and most of the rest of them are by Ruth Plumly Thompson. But John R. Neill, who illustrated almost all the books, also wrote a couple of them after Thompson quit, and this was one of those. You never see them anyplace outside of spendy auction sites and rarities dealers. And this one looked almost new.

“How much for the Oz book?” I asked the proprietor.

“Seventy. It’s not a first.” He looked almost apologetic. I thought, Man, that’s a steal, but tried not to let it show.

Instead I nodded and turned to my wife. “Well? What do you think?”

Julie winced. “Seventy?” She’ll spend money like water on ME, but never anything for herself. Well, we’d see about that.

“Seventy’s a deal for that. You never see this one. And for God’s sake, look at what we’ve spent on books for me the last three days. It’s your turn.” I turned back to the owner. “The Oz book too.”

As he wrapped up our purchases, the owner asked us where we were headed. I told him we were catching a ferry in Clinton and he told us that we should stop by the other Good Cheer thrift outlet there.

So we did. And there was one more score to be had.

Most of the time, Book Club hardcovers are cheap knockoffs of a much nicer hardcover edition of something. But the Science Fiction Book Club has done several hardcover editions of books that first appeared as paperback originals, and those are very cool books. In particular, there are the Frazetta editions of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books… and the Karl Edward Wagner Conan collections. These came out in the late 1970s as a sort of pushback against the Lancer paperbacks that L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter were doing — Wagner proclaimed these editions as being the ‘pure’ Robert Howard Conan, no more, no less. There were three volumes, done as paperback originals from Berkeley. But the SF Book Club produced hardcover editions as well. One of them, The Hour of the Dragon, I already owned.

And at the Clinton Good Cheer Thrift, why, here were the other two, hidden on a bottom shelf behind a chair.

Red Nails and The People of the Black Circle, for seventy-five cents each.

The moral of the story? Don’t forget to check the bottom shelf. Even if you have to move a chair.

*

And that was our trip. I hope you all enjoyed the travelogue… but not enough that Whidbey gets swarmed by collectors, at least not before we get a chance to go back ourselves.

Incidentally, I forgot to mention this at the time, but Fred Van Lente Day has come and gone… which means I’ve been doing this weekly thing here for five whole years.

It’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything — as you’ve doubtless gathered if you made it this far, getting paid to ramble on about books and comics is pretty much my dream job. So I wanted to take a minute to express my appreciation. Thanks to Brian for asking me to do it and to Jonah for hosting it and to all of you for reading it. I plan to stick around as long as you all will have me.

See you next week.

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Road trip!
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