Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Aunt Lily taught me to love The Human Fly

I bought 10 issues of The Human Fly yesterday, and my Aunt Lily is to blame.

When I was just a little Maxo back in 1970s-El Paso, my parents would often drive downtown to pay the utility bills. Back then you could go in person to an office that would keep the water and electricity flowing, and since the short drive seemed exotic and adventurous at the time I'd usually volunteer to go along.

But I had an ulterior motive.

I didn't really want to spend an afternoon standing in various city-sponsored lines. Almost as soon as my parents mentioned a trip Downtown, I'd start pleading with them to leave me at the main library branch or at my Aunt Lily's used bookstore — knowing full well they wouldn't leave a niño on his own to navigate a cavernous library and its potential for stranger-danger. The idea of a bored and increasingly whiny kid didn't appeal to them, either, so Aunt Lily's it was.

Martin's Bookstore was named after my uncle, who ran the shop with my aunt until he passed away and she took her now-longstanding post behind the register. This is how I always think of her — perched on a stool, greeting customers with a brusque-sounding French accent that has never really faded after years in Spanish-heavy El Paso (Aunt Lily was a war-bride, marrying my Tío Martín after they met during World War II).

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intimidated by her, even though she was always patient and generous. She didn't appreciate a lot of noise, and she made sure her books weren't being manhandled to the point they couldn't be resold. It was usually so quiet in there that when my sister came along we'd whisper, tiptoeing down the aisles of the rambling store as if we were hapless Greeks trying to sidestep the Minotaur.

Now, of course, I realize probably none of this was lost on her. But she'd let us play our games, only shushing us when we'd get too rowdy. More often I'd wander around the store for hours, picking things off the shelf and sitting cross-legged in a hidden corner, wrapped in silence and the musty smell of old books.

I don't remember when exactly it happened, but it was one of those seemingly endless afternoons when my love of comics would be sparked.

What I do remember is being plunked down at a small table in a back room, the same table where Aunt Lily would have lunch after closing the shop for maybe 20 minutes. She pulled a box from off a nearby shelf and put it on a chair next to me; the box was filled with comics.

From that time on, if I was in the bookstore I was reading comics. The Unknown Soldier. The Human Target. Justice League of America. Spider-Man. Superman, Batman and The Flash. Tomb of Dracula. House of Secrets and House of Mystery.

And, of course, The Human Fly.

Needless to say, I was hooked. Aunt Lily had a collection spanning the Silver and just-beginning Bronze ages, and for better or worse those would be the comics that would inform my basis for loving comics. And it's why finding a stash of The Human Fly slapped a stupid grin on my face and sent me reaching for my wallet; suddenly I was back at that back room table, a plate of cookies and a glass of Kool-Aid nearby, diving headlong into a world I would never completely leave.

It wasn't until years later I realized there was a reason those comics were in boxes and out of sight. Unlike the magazines she had in spinner racks throughout the store, these weren't meant for the random patron. These were books she was saving, books she was preserving for collectors and possible future sales. And she was letting her eight-year-old great-nephew paw his way through each and every one of the hundreds tucked safely away.

She still owns the bookstore, still perches on a stool behind the register. I make sure to visit her whenever I'm in town, and the last time I was there I made a point of thanking her — for everything, but particularly for introducing me to comics. She rolled her eyes and reminded me to pick a book off the shelf — something to take with me before I left.

How did you begin reading comics? Did you discover them yourself, or did someone introduce you to the medium? Were you a kid, or did you come across comics as an adult? Share your story in the comments!


Anonymous said...

It was the Batman TV show that did my brother and I in. Our story was posted on the excellent "Hey Kids, Comics" blog and later on my own little bloggity blog:


Maxo said...

Hey Kids, Comics is a great site - I actually owe Rob a post. (I started it, I just need to finish!)

Brandon said...

I actually always had comics. Even before I could read, my parents would appease me with a comic or an issue of Mad. That was when you could get comics at the drug store or even at the deli in my small hometown.

It helped that Spider-Man was all over the place because of the Electric Company and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.

Ostrakos said...

I can say that one of my earliest is memories is that of my parents giving me a stack of Superfriends comics when we got on a plane to go somewhere (probably Buffalo). I was probably about 4 at the time, and I honestly can't remember NOT having comics ever since. The first comics I really had to have as a kid were G.I. Joe, thanks to the toys and the cartoon and the amazing marketing Marvel and Hasbro did; and Wolfman & Perez's New Teen Titans. Every week my father would take me to the flea market where he would buy baseball cards and I would pick comics from Jeff's 3-for-a-dollar box with my paltry allowance.

Maxo said...

Brandon: Yeah, I figure I must have run into comics before then, but for some reason they didn't have an impact until around this time. Maybe it was because I could just immerse myself in them — I was like Tony Montana and his huge pile of cocaine!

Electric Company Spidey was awesome — I always thought it was cool that he never talked (and how different is that from comic book Spidey?).

Ostrakos: Oh man - flea market comics! I love rooting around in boxes of comics at flea markets and yard sales; you never know what you'll dig up.

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Pat said...

Most kids in the 1950s and 1960s probably encountered comics for the first time in places like doctors' offices, dentists and barber shops; anyplace where there was liable to be a wait. Although I had read plenty of comics before that, it was reading a World's Finest giant issue at a barber shop that turned me into a collector.

Maxo said...

It's funny where they turn up, isn't it? I wish I had gone to your barber shop - the best mine could do was Highlights (come to think of it, that's what the doctor and dentist offices had, too).