Hunting Comics and Other Old Books In the Valley

The Willamette Valley, that is. Central Oregon.

Julie and I had written off the idea of getting any kind of real vacation this year. But my old friend Joe had emailed and said, basically, I haven't seen you in twenty years, I've never met your wife, you guys deserve a vacation and I'll even buy the gas. We can put you up at Rhonda's, she wants to meet you anyway. Plus we have all sorts of great old bookstores and thrift stores. It's all worked out. Pick a weekend.

Well, that was an offer way too good to pass up. We settled on a date and Friday morning we hit the road.

Joe and Rhonda live in Eugene, Oregon, more or less right in the middle of the state. Farm country. Long ago, Joe and I were in high school together and our senior year we even did our own zine there, Visions. (That story is recounted here.) We both tried going to the University of Oregon the following year and hated it. After a brief and undistinguished career there I was asked to leave. I will spare you the details; suffice it to say there's some sort of rule about showing up sober. I ended up knocking around Portland for a couple of years before eventually moving to Seattle and cleaning up, but Joe stayed in Eugene, dropping out of school to play in various bands and so on. We've never really lost touch, but it's mostly online. Eugene was a little out of our range for road trips and Joe rarely goes anywhere out of his regular orbit.

"Joe likes to say he always drove the getaway car in high school," I explained to Julie. "When we needed to get away from our homes, we usually ended up at Joe's house because he had the cool mom who let us alone. Saturdays, a lot of the time we'd drive around to guitar shops and stuff and then Joe would throw me a bone by taking us to Looking Glass Books. Honestly just getting away from the dysfunctional snake pit in my house was enough, I'd have gone along for the ride no matter if it was just grocery shopping or whatever, but it was always really interesting. Joe knew everybody in the Portland music scene, but it was from their day jobs, so we never saw them at gigs-- they played bars and we were still in high school. Guys like Arni May from Pell Mell, who worked in a record shop, or Bruce Hitchcock and Jim Baldwin from the Tutu Band-- that's how we got the interview with Bruce and Jim in Visions. Bruce was Joe's guitar repairman guy, or something. And in Eugene it was the same thing-- that's where he met Henry Cooper, Jimi Haskett, all sorts of people. He's really easygoing. You'll like him."

And it was true. Julie is usually horribly shy and gets very nervous about meeting new people, but she was instantly at home. I had never met Rhonda in person, but we had corresponded, and I appreciated that both she and Joe were at pains to put Julie at her ease. Joe had even pulled out our old high school yearbook and Julie was delighted. She spent the next hour or so poring over it and putting faces to names from the stories I'd told over the years, as well as looking up the few people she had already met. (I don't really keep in touch with people from high school but there are a couple of exceptions like Joe.) She burst out laughing at one point, "You all have seventies hair!"

"Well, it WAS the seventies."

"But it's so poofy!"

I will NOT be posting pictures of this, so don't even ask.

As for me, well, it didn't take long at all for Joe and I to fall into our old rhythms of gossiping about pop culture. Joe presented me with a couple of books about the Kinks: Americana by Ray Davies, and Kink by his brother Dave.

"I thought you would enjoy these." Joe beamed at me. "Ray's is kind of oblique but Dave tells you EVERYTHING."

"Of course I'll enjoy these. We went and saw the Kinks when I was in high school," I explained to the girls. "I sneaked out because I wasn't supposed to go. Mom had kind of a thing about rock concerts. Well, really, she had a thing about pretty much everything. But we loved the Kinks, we didn't miss a show when they came through Portland for the next six or seven years."

We had brought presents as well. I had bound manuscripts of the stories I'd been doing for Airship 27; Joe had the first couple of books I'd sent him, but it surprised and pleased me when he told me he had been buying the others himself off Amazon. So Rhonda got the manuscripts and was gracious enough to appear pleased about it. But I'd hedged my bets by bringing some other stuff too. The new Captain Kirk "autobiography" from Titan Books for Rhonda, and the last issue of DC's Batman '66 for Joe.

Rhonda's was because I knew she was a huge Trekkie; it was how we got started corresponding, I had sent her copies of Greg Cox's Gary Seven books when Joe told me she hadn't heard of them. Over the course of the weekend she pulled out various other pieces of Trek memorabilia for us... like her old Power Records Star Trek comic-and-record sets, the early ones written by Alan Dean Foster with the art by Russ Heath and Dick Giordano, and Neal Adams covers.

She also showed us her many other Star Trek books, including her first editions of David Gerrold's two books about Trek behind-the-scenes-- those had been a gift from Joe, which made me smile because I had forced both of them on him when we were fifteen-- and even Leonard Nimoy's third album, which she eventually played for us. That's the one with a full version of "Maiden Wine." You remember that one, Spock played it while wearing a toga on "Plato's Stepchildren." (In our high school days, Joe never failed to crack us all up by looking soulfully skyward and singing softly, "Bitter dregs..." Later he said he was going to start a punk band called Bitter Dregs, but sadly it never came to pass.)

As for Joe's gift, he's not really a comics person, but he loves the old Adam West television version of Batman. I knew he would love Mike and Laura Allred's brilliant "Main Title," the story built on the original opening credits.

The next day Rhonda had to work till lunchtime but Joe wanted to take us bookscouting and thrift shopping. We were pretty tightly budgeted but considering we were getting free room and board, plus Joe financing the travel, we allowed as how we could shop a little. Plus, at dinner the night before Rhonda had wistfully mentioned a comic she had owned once and adored. "White Orchid, something like that."

I had drawn a blank-- I had gotten hung up on the "white" and all I could think of was the movie White Oleander, which was clearly wrong. But Julie figured it out: it was Black Orchid, by Gaiman and McKean. So now we had a mission. We would find a copy of the trade collecting this and give it to Rhonda as a hostess gift, because she was feeding us so magnificently. I knew Eugene had a world-class comics retailer, because I was sure Darrell Grimes still had Emerald City Comics going. (When I was skipping class at the University decades ago, I often ended up there.) There were two stores now, the original Emerald City and also Nostalgia Collectibles.

"Would he remember you?" Julie wanted to know.

"It's possible," I admitted. "But unlikely. Our relationship was mostly him telling me 'this isn't a library, kid.' But I did buy a lot of stuff there. And from the book store across the hall, too."

That was the Smith Family Bookstore, which was pretty spectacular even forty years ago, and now was something to rival Powell's Books in Portland. Amazingly, both locations were across the hall from the comics shops. The one on 13th was right where I remembered it across the hall from Emerald City, and the new downtown one on Willamette was in the same building as Nostalgia Collectibles.

We started downtown. At Nostalgia I inquired if Darrell was still the owner, and a young man explained that Darrell had retired. "Still comes in on Wednesdays though," he added. "I'm his son. What can we do for you?"

Damn, we're old, I thought. What I said was, "We were hoping you had Black Orchid, the Neil Gaiman mini."

He bustled off and a few minutes later reported sadly that they did not; only the first issue of the non-Gaiman Vertigo series that followed, on sale for a buck. Well, that would be a little DVD extra to go with the Gaiman one if we could find it. I told him we were good for it and continued to look around. Joe was more interested in the toys and took a couple of pictures of those.

I did end up getting something-- the Dark Horse Herbie archives volume one. It was marked down to $18.99. That was an extraordinary discount, less than half price, and no sales tax in Oregon, either. I snatched it up. Joe wanted to know why I had lunged at it, since he had never heard of the Fat Fury.

Since Joe is a musician I put it in music terms. "You know how hardly anyone knew about the Velvet Underground but the few people who did were inspired to go start their own bands? Herbie Popnecker is kind of like that for comics people. It was groundbreaking, and a huge influence on a lot of the underground guys. It just....I can't really explain it. I'll show you later."

Later I showed him the story where President Kennedy exhorts Herbie to go settle a revolt in an emerging African nation. Joe laughed in all the right places but mostly he just shook his head. "That is the strangest comic I have ever seen."

Still determined to nail down Black Orchid, we decided to check out Smith Family as well. They had a good selection of used graphic novels, but no Orchid.

I did find a couple of interesting paperbacks for me.

Quest of the Dark Lady and Flame Winds both caught my eye because of the Jeff Jones covers... back in the seventies, if you couldn't get Frazetta to paint your barbarian paperback cover, you got either Boris Vallejo or Jones. Jeffrey eventually became Catherine and it's a fascinating, though often very sad, story. More here for those that are interested. Moreover, I recognized Norvell Page's name as being the chief architect of the adventures of the Spider, my favorite pulp character of all time. I knew Page had written other stuff but I had never seen any, so this was too good to pass up.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber was the real find, a first printing from 1964. It was a little discolored with age but otherwise in terrific shape. It was Leiber's first-ever short story collection, and the piece that gives it its title had blown my mind when I first read it in some Scholastic Books collection when I was in the fourth grade or thereabouts. So that was nice to find.

But no Black Orchid, so it was off to the campus location of Smith Family and Emerald City to see if we could turn it up. The young lady behind the counter at Emerald City was very enthusiastic about helping us -- "Oh my God I love that comic so much!"-- and she was disconsolate when she couldn't find the trade paperback. I asked about the individual issues, the original Prestige Format mini-series. She didn't think those were there either, but she added that it never hurt to check, and was instantly off to the back-issue stacks.

And by golly, they were indeed there. We were all very pleased. The clerk even gave us a discount-- I guess for having good taste. So we had the Gaiman-McKean mini and also the first issue of the Vertigo series for Rhonda, and she was delighted when we presented them to her at lunchtime.

"The art in this is so beautiful." She was so tickled she instantly photographed them to post on the internet for all her friends to see, which is where these pictures came from.

We were insufferably pleased with ourselves at going from do-you-know-the-name-of-this-comic to actually putting it in Rhonda's hands within twelve hours, though I can't take credit; it was all Julie. She was the one who identified the book and then suggested we should go hunt it down. She won't shop for herself but when it's for someone else, she is relentless.

After lunch Rhonda excused herself to go get dinner ready-- I should add that we ate like royalty all weekend long. Rhonda likes cooking, she says it relaxes her, and would not accept help. Julie insisted on doing the dishes, at least, and that much was allowed.

But that left us to our own devices again. Joe said we really needed to see Tsunami Books, which was just a few blocks from Rhonda's house anyway. She agreed and said it was her favorite bookstore and not to be missed.

Smith Family was huge. Tsunami is also pretty big, but what it really is, as far as I can tell, is one-half poetry slam/music performance space and one-half world-class antiquarian bookseller. Seriously, they had some really nice pieces there and they knew what they had. The vibe was definitely retired-hippie counter-cultural, but not to the point of self-parody. There were a lot of cool comics-- several of of the Hermes Press Buck Rogers archive hardcovers were there, and for a very reasonable price, but we'd already shot most of the day's budget on Herbie and the Black Orchid and I was feeling guilty. Nevertheless I really enjoyed seeing so much vintage SF on a spinner rack, just like I remembered, and I pointed out to Joe that, even though he probably didn't remember, he'd seen me carrying one or another of those paperbacks with me throughout our time in high school.

I did fall for a nice hardcover of Owen Wister's The Virginian, which I knew mostly as an old TV show my mother liked a lot, though the novel has an important place in American literature. Published in 1902, it was the first true Western novel; before that book you only had the 'story paper' fictionalized exploits of Buffalo Bill and stuff like that. Wister was the first author to just sit down and make up a story about cowboys and romance and living by the gun, and in doing that he created a genre. Later, guys like Louis L'Amour and Max Brand and Ernest Haycox would refine it a little more but for the most part, the template is Wister's. This was a nice hardcover edition from 1945, which Tsunami had priced for a dollar. Presumably because the endpapers were covered in notes written in ballpoint pen: Bernadine Richards says Owen Wister spent some time at the hotel at Heppner so actually this book is about Central Oregon instead of Wyoming. Stuff like that. It's odd but I kind of like it. It's not a lot different than what I'm doing here; every book I own has an anecdote to go with it. I would never annotate the book itself with these kind of stories (Writing in a book is blasphemy. It used to make me cringe when Julie did it in her college textbooks.) But I understand the impulse to footnote things.

So that was the day's haul. We returned to Rhonda's and lazed around for a while while she worked on dinner, and reminisced about the old days, mostly for Julie's benefit. I won't bore you with most of this, because it's strictly personal stuff for the most part, and some of it's probably libelous. But there was one story that made me laugh ruefully.

See, I honestly don't remember how Joe and I met. I knew it was our friend Phil that introduced us, our freshman year, so I would have been fourteen; however, if you were to ask me, I couldn't tell you. The actual circumstances are long forgotten.

But Joe remembered. His description of meeting me in high school had Julie on the floor. "This guy, he looks like he's working at a newspaper with his sleeves half rolled up and he's scowling at a book like he's on a deadline. Phil introduces us and in about a minute we're talking about Star Trek." I was fourteen. I have no memory of this but I apparently entered the world fully formed.

And after dinner we screened Star Trek: Of Gods and Men for Joe and Rhonda, who'd never seen it and had no idea it existed. So clearly I haven't really changed much in the intervening four decades, either.


This is getting a little long so I'll stop here and we'll pick up here... next week. See you then.

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