Saturday's Bargain Hunt

Our friend Carla called last week to remind us about the giant library sale at Magnusson Park. You may remember me mentioning this last year -- the Friends of the Seattle Library fill a gigantic old hangar out at Sand Point with aisles and aisles of books and the sale goes on all weekend. It's always fun and a great opportunity to observe bookscouts in the wild, as well.

In the end, though, we decided to pass on it. It was certainly tempting, but I knew that we would each come home with a double armload of new books and I already have an alarmingly high stack of new volumes to go through.

So we ended up going to see Kick-Ass instead, but it did remind me that it's been a while since I mentioned Project Read The Damn Books.

We continue to acquire books and comics like dryers acquire lint. It's not quite an involuntary process, but it doesn't feel like anything we have control over.

Both Julie and I enjoy prowling used bookstores and thrift shops, and we both are cheapskates who are easily swayed by a bargain. This is a deadly combination.

I talk about bookscouting here every so often but it occurs to me that I haven't ever really explained what that is. "Bookscouting" is the word book dealers and collectors use to describe trolling for rare and collectible items at garage sales and thrift stores and so on. About what it sounds like: you scout for rare books. It's partly science, partly instinct, and partly pure dumb luck.

For me it's a hobby, though I've met people who actually do it for a living. Some of the romance has gone out of it now, with our perpetually-wired culture -- today you can spot a pro by his PDA or cell phone, usually typing in ISBN numbers to a search engine one-handed as he's browsing the shelves.

But for us it's just fun. I buy books to read, though I can appreciate the collectible value of a rarity and certainly I can spot one. I daresay most of you out there could too, when it comes to comics and comics-related publications. The primary tool of a bookscout is simple knowledge of what was going on in publishing at that time.... for example, I bet almost any of you reading this know why Amazing Spider-Man #1 by Lee and Ditko is a highly-prized collectible and why Amazing Spider-Man #1 by Mackie and Byrne is largely an industry joke and not prized at all. To us that's a no-brainer. Believe it or not, though, to people outside comics fandom, that is specialized information. The only difference between that kind of knowledge and what a bookscout does is that the area of expertise lies in a different area of publishing.

Over the last forty-plus years of reading junk literature, I've picked up a lot of information about that stuff, and I married a woman who loves to go to thrift stores and garage sales. The collision of those two things is really how our home evolved into a bibliophile's paradise and a fire marshal's nightmare.

Occasionally I used to feel a bit guilty about it, but I finally decided that was silly, it was just the echo of my mother's voice telling me that I should go out and get a real job. Books and comics are my real job. We love being surrounded by books and so we are.

So even though we skipped the sale, nevertheless quite a few trade collections and other books of interest have been arriving over the last few days. All remaindered, bargain-bin stuff -- the common denominator here is that every single one of these books cost less than five dollars and quite a few were less than a dollar. Many of them we dug out at thrift shops like Goodwill and Value Village. I thought I'd mention a few of those here this week, since that's really all I've been reading anyway. Most of them are just fun things, with little to no collector value. Though there was one genuine rarity -- well, I think it's a rarity, anyway. We'll get to that.

Whoops, sidetracked again. The reason I brought all this up originally, before meandering down the nerd rabbit trail above, was simply to tell you the great secret about thrift shopping and comics. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the book section in a Goodwill or a St. Vincent's thrift shop is stocked by an elderly volunteer. Usually a sweet old church lady. She may be a bit of a book person, she might very well even have some serious bookscouting game when it comes to mystery fiction or biographies or something -- but it is a near-certainty that her comics knowledge is nil. As a result, graphic novels and trade collections are invariably shelved in the kids' section.

Adult book shoppers tend to skip right over this area, and with reason -- it often looks like it's been shelled. Parents park their kids there and the little monsters paw through the stock like Tasmanian Devils. The downside of this is that the books end up taking a beating; they're probably not going to be mint-condition, or even readable, if they spend any time there at all.

But on the other hand, the fact that adults treat it as a no-man's land means the bookscouts skip right over it. So if you get lucky and you catch them before they've been there too long, you can often find graphic novels that normally retail for ten to twelve dollars, even used, for sixty-nine cents. I rarely have the patience to go through that section more than once every couple of months, but when I do, I almost always find something there that's worth the trouble.

This is how I first stumbled across the Reginald Hudlin Black Panther. I'd passed on the run during its first time out, but at sixty-nine cents apiece, I couldn't say no to Who Is The Black Panther?, Bad Mutha, Eric Dickey's Storm (in hardcover, dust jacket intact!) and The New Fantastic Four.

Now, as it happens, Reginald Hudlin's Black Panther is infamous among the CBR message-board administrators as being a topic second in its radioactivity only to "One More Day" and the Spider-Marriage. The X-Men fans are pissed off about T'Challa's marriage to Storm. The Christopher Priest fans are pissed off about what's been done to 'their' guy. The fans of the current run are pissed off that the other two factions can't let it go. And so goes the merry-go-round.

I don't really have a horse in the race-- though I enjoyed the two Christopher Priest Panther collections well enough -- but I figured that anything that created that much fan rage was probably stunt-driven, so I assumed that the usual corollary, that stunt-driven comics are bad comics, was also true, and skipped the whole thing. However, for an initial investment of less than three dollars to get four separate trade paperback collections, I thought what the hell, I'd see what all the shouting was about.

And you know what? I adored them. I couldn't care less about the continuity gaffes, whatever they might be. I came to the books pretty much stone cold and I loved them. Bad Mutha, in particular, actually plays out a daydream scenario of mine since the 1970s -- all Marvel's black heroes together in the ultimate blaxploitation epic. Luke Cage, Blade, Brother Voodoo, and the Panther all together, along with Shang-Chi for added awesomeness, in a sprawling epic of Fu Manchu, vampires, and general 70s weirdness.

I saw the back cover blurb "Two The Hard Way" and instantly knew this book was for me. (I daresay there's some irony somewhere in the fact that this blaxploitation-inspired comic found its ideal audience in a guy like me who was raised in one of the whitest towns in North America, but what can I tell you, I love that stuff. I spotted every one of the book's sly Easter Eggs and tribute 70s references and I laughed at them all.)

I enjoyed the others too. The Storm-Panther thing doesn't bother me in the least -- I've seen the X-fan complaints and honestly, my main reaction is to snort. Seriously, is anyone out there going to tell me that they're bothered about Eric Dickey's continuity problems addressing Storm's backstory? Remeber, this is the backstory for Ororo Munroe, who was a Kenyan tribal goddess -- no, wait, first she was a Cairo pickpocket -- sorry, hold on, was that before or after she was living in the New York ghetto? I can't keep up, and hell, that was just what Chris Claremont did decades ago in a fit of ADD, to say nothing of all the crap larded on to the character since then. The amazing thing to me was that Dickey was able to make it work at all, and I thought he did fine, pulling together all those disparate background elements to create a (mostly) plausible story that I found to be engaging and enjoyable if you can come to it without a big mad-on for the entire concept of a Storm retcon.

Likewise Dwayne McDuffie's New Fantastic Four was a thing of joy. It had everything I want in a Fantastic Four story -- classic space adventure done with wit and style, and McDuffie even was able to use the Frightful Four to good effect, especially the Wizard; and that's something I'd have thought wasn't possible for a modern audience. (So of course he was promptly replaced. Look, comics publishers, Dwayne McDuffie is a really fine writer, can't you guys just give him a regular gig and leave him be?)

I ended up hunting down all the rest of the Hudlin Black Panther trades online after finding these four and I loved them all too, though not quite as much as I did Bad Mutha. The good news is, if you were like me and snooted the series out of some misguided fan prejudice or something, you can get caught up on the trades for almost the same dollar-a-book investment as mine. At least you can until the word gets out and these cheap copies dry up, but it would be a disservice to not post the link.

Our other finds this last week weren't quite up to that level but there were some nice little scores in there. Two $2.99 hardcovers from Value Village that pleased me a great deal were The Best of Fritz Leiber and 13 Short Espionage Novels.

The Leiber collection doesn't have any of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stuff, it's primarily an SF collection. But it does have "A Pail of Air," a story I vaguely remembered from an elementary school anthology, and it was an unexpected treat to see it here since I'd had no idea that it was Leiber who wrote it. And the other anthology is not precisely a collection of "novels," despite the title, but it is a wonderful sampler of spy stories starring a variety of classic characters ranging from Sherlock Holmes ("The Bruce-Partington Plans") and Ashenden ("The Traitor") to James Bond ("Octopussy"), the Saint ("The Sizzling Saboteur") and Modesty Blaise ("The Giggle-Wrecker"). It's a great gateway book if you've ever wondered about the actual prose stories behind the characters that went on to become household names through TV and movies.

Another pair of fun finds at a buck each were the new Robert E. Howard El Borak collection and Richard Matheson's 7 Steps To Midnight.

Richard Matheson, is, of course, a national treasure. The guy that gave us The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Hell House, Bid Time Return and the Evil Captain Kirk needs no more introduction than that.

So I really didn't need anything but Matheson's name on the cover to sell that book to me in a heartbeat. It's a great Hitchcockian suspense-type story about a mathematician forced to go on the run.

As for the Robert E. Howard, well, I only knew the El Borak stuff from the Conan makeover adaptations in the old Savage Sword comics and elsewhere, so it's nice to have the originals here at last.

I've said many times that I'm not a Howard purist, so I didn't mind when, for example, "Hawks Over Egypt" got re-done as "Hawks Over Shem" -- but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the original Howard versions coming out in these nice new collections and I heartily recommend them.

But the real find was a small-press rarity that I remembered fondly from my youth and frankly never expected to see again anywhere, let alone in pristine condition for two dollars. Usually you see it on eBay for fifteen or twenty, and the few times I've seen it offered at a convention it's been for twice that.

Dragonflame and Other Bedtime Nightmares is an odd little book that's somehow still compelling reading, even after all these years. I guess you could call it Don McGregor's post-Marvel Comics coming-out party, even more than Sabre was.

Don McGregor was always kind of an anomaly as a comics writer, even in the freewheeling Bronze Age Marvel era. More than any other writer back then, McGregor had the rep as the guy that fought to make people Take Superheroes Seriously.

It was the fact that McGregor took that battle so personally that endeared him to all us comics fans back then. His rage at the idea that anyone could think of his superhero comics as anything less than Fine Art and Literature was the same rage we all felt at trying to explain that comics, goddammit, weren't all Adam West and Biff Bam Pow! No one felt more strongly about doing Serious, Adult superhero stories than Don McGregor, and the reason we all knew this was because he told us so, every chance he got. In the letters pages of his Marvel books, in interviews with the fan press, everywhere.

You really had to be there to realize how compulsive we all felt about this, back in 1977. So when McGregor started pitching Dragonflame as the kind of raw, uncensored adventure epic he'd been trying to write for his whole career, well, all of us hardcore Marvelites wanted to see it. The hell of it was, it cost something like $5.95 (that was serious money, back then) and you had to get it mail-order, which meant added shipping costs and getting a money order or something (remember, no internet, no Amazon, no Paypal or anything like that, and I certainly didn't have a checking account at age fifteen.) So for most of us teenage Marvel fans, McGregor's superhero novel remained an ephemeral concept, about on the level of an urban legend.

I finally stumbled across it in 1979 at Looking Glass Books in downtown Portland, the same place I found Star*Reach and Steranko's Mediascene and Byron Preiss' Fiction Illustrated and all the other wonders that were hinted at in the Marvel Bullpen Bulletin pages back then. I picked up Dragonflame, swallowed hard and ponied up the then-exorbitant price, prepared to be blown away.

And, well, I wasn't. Even back then, my teenage self could tell when something was trying too hard to be Literature.

I don't know what happened to my original copy -- probably sold it along with a pile of other old paperbacks or lost it in a move or something. But when I saw it offered last week for two dollars I went for it, mostly out of sentiment and nostalgia. I can't in good conscience describe it as a good book, exactly, but it does serve as a sort of embarrassing snapshot of what we fans thought was good in 1978. Think of it as a prose version of the old high school yearbook photo you don't really want anyone to see today.

Dragonflame as published wasn't even the complete novel. It was a couple of fragments of the novel, along with other short stories and vignettes, illustrated by Paul Gulacy and with each piece individually introduced at length by McGregor.

Certainly Gulacy's stuff is great. The stories themselves range from "meh" to painfully bad... most often, suffering from too much sheer overwrought earnestness. In hindsight the whole collection looks like the output of a really arrogant English lit professor who prides himself on being The Cool Guy among the faculty.

But McGregor's viscerally confessional introductions are nevertheless compelling reading. You can't help but feel for the guy, even today. He so desperately wants his work to be good, to matter. Which really kind of sums up the whole problem with Don McGregor's writing -- when he just leans back and writes a piece of pulp fiction, like James Bond or Zorro or something like that, he does pretty well. When he decides he's going to by God create Art, like Sabre or Dragonflame, he falls flat.

So it's not a good book, no. But it is a sort of time machine, at least for me. In rereading this book I'm reminded of my own youthful dreams of being an artist and a writer and how desperately we all wanted that breakthrough. To do not just comics, but to be riding the breaking wave of what we were sure was the coming graphic novel revolution.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this book at the exorbitant collector's prices you usually see it for, but for two dollars it was a nice little trip down memory lane.


And that was last week's haul. Tomorrow, as a consolation prize of sorts for missing the Stumptown Festival, Julie and I might check out the comics-and-collectibles sale at Meridian Park, just north of us in Shoreline. Because it doesn't seem to matter whether we skip the big book sales or not... the books show up here anyway. We might as well own up to it. That's how we roll.

And besides, I might even get another column out of it. Who knows?

Before I sign off, incidentally, I have to link you to this awesome web site.

It seemed somehow appropriate, in a column about bookscouting and old paperbacks and so on. This just may be the greatest application of Photoshop ever. I can't begin to describe how much these fake Doc Savage covers fill me with nerdy delight. When you are browsing through the gallery, don't forget to click on the book spines to see the great back cover blurbs, too.

And on that impossibly geeky note.... See you next week.

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