First Cut

by Paul O’Connor

I turned twelve in the summer of 1974, a season that saw my family and I temporarily living in Hollywood, California. I’d spent my childhood to that point in the San Fernando Valley, about a dozen miles north of our new home, and that summer marked the gap between my final year of elementary school, and my first year of junior high school. It would have been a rootless time in any case, caught between schools and on the cusp of adolescence, but moving to Hollywood made my isolation especially acute. 

Fortunately, I made plenty of friends that summer. Mostly they were imaginary.

Hollywood Boulevard was my backyard, and I still wonder at the strange lapse of judgment that saw my parents grant me free reign of that place. The Boulevard was a sleazy little strip. Porn shops, record stores, movie theaters, magic shops, toy stores, pizza joints ... terrifying from an adult perspective, but the perfect kingdom for a kid too young to register the attention of the pimps and the drug dealers and the bit extras of the freak circus that was Hollywood in the '70s. I ranged the street between Cahuenga and Highland, sneaking into Bruce Lee movies, or haunting now-vanished treasure caves like the old Cherokee Book Store (with its stacks of Famous Monsters magazines), and Bennett’s Book Store, filled to the brim with movie memorabilia.

It was in places such as these that I met those aforementioned imaginary friends, in the form of comic books that I started buying for the first time that summer. DC Comics were cheaper by a nickel, but Aquaman and the Flash seemed like squares, and I quickly became a loyal Marvel buyer, attracted by characters like the rampaging Hulk, who had broken a wedge into my imagination thanks to an Aurora model kit that I’d completed earlier that year. 

It was one issue of Hulk, in particular, that would come to haunt me for decades to follow. In that summer of 1974, I lucked into the comic book equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

You can argue about their monetary value, but some comic books are undeniably collectable. The first appearances of characters like Superman, Captain America, and Batman -- dating from an era before comics were afforded an ounce of popular respect, and pulped in countless wartime paper drives -- are legitimately scarce cultural artifacts. 

The same cannot be said of comics purpose-published by the millions as ready-made collectibles in the 1990s, but it does sometimes hold true for the 1960s Silver Age of comics, prized for the introduction of books like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. And trailing that Silver Age, serving as my personal “Golden Age” of comics, was the lesser Bronze Age of comics, known for a wildly experimental and uneven output of four-color superheroes, monsters, and barbarian heroes.

It was also the era when one of Marvel’s last significant original characters made his first comic book appearance.

I knew none of this when I bought my copy of Hulk #181 off the rack. I was just keeping up with the Hulk’s fight against a shaggy super-monster called the Wendigo, and when a scrappy Canadian superhero named “Wolverine” popped up in the last panel of issue #180, then slugged it out with the Hulk in #181, I didn’t know him from Iron Fist, Deathlok, or any other character first introduced that year.

Neither did anyone else, and that’s what makes Hulk #181 one of the most sought-after comics of its era. Marvel had put a little push behind Wolverine, convincing themselves the character would boost Canadian circulation, and trumpeting his appearance in house ads, but his initial appearance was tepid, and it would be months before the Wolverine we know today would claim the spotlight, when he was tapped to join the re-launched X-Men in 1975.

These new X-Men were an instant hit, and the team’s most compelling character was Wolverine, sporting a swagger and a subtely-revamped look that transformed him from the Hulk’s sparring partner into an eventual international superstar. The success of the new X-Men -- along with the publication of the first Star Wars comics -- has been credited with saving Marvel Comics (and maybe the comics industry as a whole) in the late 1970s.

And I missed it!

In the time between Wolverine’s birth and pop culture apotheosis, I’d moved back to the San Fernando Valley, and was no longer in walking distance of a newsstand. I drifted away from comics for a few months and completely missed the re-birth of the X-Men. Still, when I got back into funnybooks in late 1975, I thought I’d encountered a rare bit of good fortune, because I kept every comic I ever bought ... and that original Wolverine appearance might be worth five or even ten bucks! It was like winning the lottery!

There was just one problem. I’d cut up the book to get at its Marvel Value Stamp.

Marvel VALUE Stamps! Has there ever been a more insidiously misnamed gimmick? 

Starting in 1974, oversized “stamp” images of Marvel heroes and villains began appearing on Marvel’s letter pages. Each image was numbered, and Marvel offered a little “stamp book” to contain our collections. The stamps were hyped up in Marvel’s editorial pages of the day, and vague promises were made of the great glory and riches that would certainly be showered upon the dedicated fan who collected all one-hundred stamps!

The “stamps,” of course, were worthless, and the whole scheme would become the bane of Bronze Age comics collectors (who have long since learned to never buy a back issue from this era without first checking the letters page). Being a good little Marvel maniac, I sent away for the album and dutifully mutilated fifty of my comic books in pursuit of the stamps. I know this because I still have the album, with my stamps cut out and taped in place.

(Patient Zero for this plague is Stamp #54, featuring Shanna The She-Devil, clipped from my copy of Hulk #181 and still on display in my damnable stamp book).

And thus, in all innocence, was an historic comic I may have one day sold for thousands of dollars reduced to a fraction of its potential value.

But you know ... the worst part isn’t that I cut up so many of my comics.

For me, the worst part is that I was so darn careful about doing it.

I didn’t tear out the stamps. If using scissors, I cut into the page at a right-angle, and excerpted only the stamp, doing minimal possible violence to the comic. For a time I even had one of my dad’s straight razors, and cut the stamp directly from the book, inserting a cutting board behind the stamp’s location, creating a little window onto the following page, and producing an effect just slightly less catastrophic than if I’d used the razor on my throat.

There was no reason for me to take such care, except that I wanted to keep my comics as nice as possible. And there was no reason for me to want to keep those books nice, aside from sensing that they were something precious, something that I’d want to keep, something that might someday be valuable. I wasn’t careless, or heedless, or even especially reckless, but in my studious little way, I condemned myself to for the worst of both worlds, shackled to my comics accumulation for decades to come, while at the same time ensuring I could never profit from my collection, because buyers for carved-up Bronze Age Marvels are few and far between.

I still have my copy of Hulk #181, and every time I take it out, I harbor a naive hope that this time the book will have been miraculously healed, or that I’d forgotten it actually eluded my mad, stamp-slashing rampage. It happened just now, when I looked at it to write this article. 

I’m sure this ritual will continue until I go to the big longbox in the sky. For all that I fantasize about restoring Hulk #181 with the proper stamp, then getting it graded and clam-shelled and ready for the market, I know I never will. Given the right circumstances, this comic might even be worth a couple hundred bucks ...

... but the story is worth far more! I’ve dined out on this tale for years, laughing at how I scissored up the most valuable comic book of the last thirty-five years while simultaneously buying and preserving two copies of Human Fly #1 as an “investment.” 

I’ve even come to accept that the ritual sacrifice of this comic made it uniquely my own, bound to me for all time, and thus becoming more personal and important it could ever have been as a complete but accidental treasure. That I destroyed this book, yet kept it, and still think about it, and write about it, makes it precious in ways a professionally graded and preserved copy could never hope to attain. 

Only through its desecration did this copy of Hulk #181 become completely mine, a part of my journey through life and collecting, a bridge to my twelve-year-old self in the long-lost summer of 1974, conceiving a life-long love of comics and dutifully collecting his Marvel Value Stamps.

I wouldn’t have it any other way!

(No, I’m not buying it, either. Leaving now to go find that razor).

 

Read more from Paul O’Connor at Longbox Graveyard