Sense of Wonder, My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story
By Bill Schelly
© copyright 2017 by Bill Schelly
1. More Powerful Than a Locomotive
WHY WAS IT THAT no matter how early we got up on the first day of a Schelly family vacation trip, we were always behind schedule?
My tall father, Carl, led the way along the sidewalk. “There’s the terminal entrance—hurry!” he said. I was too young to discern the inherent irony in such a thing as a “terminal entrance.” We headed toward the blackened granite edifice of the Pittsburgh railroad depot known as Penn Station.
My mother, Joanne, fussed to keep us in line. “C’mon, Bill! You too, David! Where’s Steve?”
We were jazzed on kid adrenaline, taking two steps for every stride of Dad’s long legs. A porter wearing a snappy-looking uniform pushed a dolly full of our luggage behind us.
We entered the darkened interior of the massive building. The amplified metallic voice on the public address system twanged with the reverberation born of marble floors and walls. It sounded like the voice of destiny with nasal congestion.
Columbus … Indianapolis … Chicago.
To my eight-year-old consciousness, these destinations conjured up images as exotic as Singapore and Rangoon. I had butterflies in the pit of my stomach.
I was nearly hairless unless you counted my quarter-inch crew cut of bristling scalp stubble. With my blond hair and fair skin, I looked like a little bald man. My brothers Steve (10 years old) and Dave (age five) were similarly shorn.
Travel wasn’t exactly an informal occasion in 1960. Mom wore a dress, a hat, and heels, and we boys mustered out in neat pants and shirts. Dad was dressed for the office in suit and tie because he had to stay behind for work; he’d fly out to join us in Oregon in a week.
“Your train is a few minutes late, so we’re here in plenty of time,” he told Mom as he scanned the big board marked “Arrivals and Departures.” They visibly relaxed. Dad showed the porter the tickets with our seat assignments and slipped him a coin. The man wheeled our baggage through the swinging doors to the loading platform.
Despite the bustle, the wafting cigarette smoke, and the echoing announcements, a colorful display caught our attention as we made our way toward the waiting area: the terminal newsstand. Amid the churchlike surroundings—vaulted windows and wooden pews—the newsstand was like a stained-glass window, with its glossy paper covers and pulpy newsprint emblazoned with four-color printing. It was well-stocked with all manner of ephemeral reading matter: newspapers, magazines, paperbacks, puzzle books, and, of course, comic books. The newsie also sold smoking products. His stand reeked of tobacco.
Dad turned to us. “Would each of you boys like a comic book to read on the train?”
My brothers were quick in making their reading choices. Steve grabbed a western-themed comic, probably featuring Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett; he had only recently given up his coonskin cap. Dave went for an issue of Looney Tunes with Sylvester and Tweety.
My eyes were like pinballs, bouncing around the colorful display, checking out various possibilities. Our Fighting Forces? No. My Greatest Adventure? I don’t think so. Young Romance? No! No! No!
Then something familiar attracted my attention. My eyes landed on a comic book featuring a character I couldn’t help but recognize, even if I hadn’t read his comic-book adventures before: Superman. The logo in bold yellow and red block letters spelled out the title: Giant Superman Annual #1. The subtitle read: An all-star collection of the greatest super-stories ever published!
My choice was made. I pulled the comic book out and handed it up to Dad. He tossed a dime onto the counter, but the clerk said, “That one’s a quarter.”
Dad frowned. “A quarter?” He withdrew the dime and handed the comic book back to me. “You’d better put this one back, son. Find one for 10 cents.”
I had sensed something more substantial about the feel of this comic book than the others ones on the stand. I said, “Look, Dad. This one is extra thick, see? I can read it for a long time.”
“The ones I got for your brothers cost a dime,” Dad said. “They won’t like it if I spend more on you.”
I looked up into his eyes looming high above me. “Please can I have this one? It has everything about Superman.” I was working him, playing on our unspoken understanding that I was his favorite.
He sighed, then shared a smile with the clerk as he tossed down the larger coin. “Okay … but don’t tell your brothers.”
“I won’t. Thanks, Dad.”
I struggled to contain my excitement. Until now I had only been looking forward to a train trip. Now I would have the extra bonus of an excursion into the Superman mythos. I joined my family on the wooden pews. The bustling milieu around me no longer held any appeal.
Giant Superman Annual #1 is the first comic book that I remember picking out for myself. If I’d seen any before then, they hadn’t made any particular impression on me—but this one certainly did. Maybe it was the solid, foursquare look of the cover, with Superman’s heavily muscled frame facing directly forward as he burst a chain by expanding his chest. The cover symmetry was further enhanced by two rows of five panels on either side of the Man of Steel, each depicting an important supporting character: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Jor-el, et al. This was clearly a special comic book.
Quivering with anticipation, I opened the cover and read the title of the opening tale: “Superman’s First Exploit.” What was an exploit, I wondered? Well, I thought I could probably figure the word out from the way it was used in the story.
“Bill!” Mom’s voice penetrated my bubble of concentration. “Put that down.”
“What? This comic book? But …”
“If you read it all now, you won’t have anything left to read on the train.”
I sighed and let the book fall shut. Ugh. Back to boring reality. It wasn’t too bad, though. We didn’t have long to wait. The public address system emitted a series of nasal barks. The word “Chicago” was comprehensible among them. It was time. We moved through the wide doors to the loading platform.
In 1960, steam trains were a thing of the past. We were traveling in a sleek, state-of-the-art diesel train. The smell of oil and air brakes charged the platform area with a special pungency. Amid the commotion of boarding passengers, we said our goodbyes to Dad, and my parents kissed. We mounted the steps, waved, and were swallowed by the train.
As soon as we found our seats, I again opened my comic book and began reading “Superman’s First Exploit.” It began at the offices of the Daily Planet newspaper, where Superman worked in his guise as reporter Clark Kent. The paper was sponsoring a contest to see which reader could remember the earliest feat performed by Superman after he’d arrived on earth in a tiny rocket as a tot fleeing the exploding planet Krypton. At the story’s climax, Superman himself was asked to try to remember his own first feat, which must have occurred when he was a small child.
One image grabbed me: a dramatic close-up of Superman’s face in deep shadows. The overhead caption read, “And the mighty mind of Superman reaches back, back to his infancy on the planet Krypton!” Superman said, “I remember —on Krypton, my father Jor-el warning of doom …” This was heavy stuff for a third grader. One phrase especially intrigued me, and I read it again: The mighty mind of Superman. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mighty mind. What would that mean? I understood super-strength, but a super-mind?
“Bill. What are you doing?”
“Don’t read that whole comic book before the train even leaves the station,” Mom commanded.
“Aw, Moooommmm,” I moaned, letting the book fall shut again.
The conductor pulled up his step stool and shut the door. The train jerked—jostled—stopped—then groaned into motion. The clack-clacking of the metal wheels on the tracks began. Slowly gaining speed, the train pulled out of the confines of the depot and headed on its route through the industrial part of town and points west.
I barely noticed. I was completely, totally, 100 percent absorbed in the colorful comic book on my lap. As I read this annual, the first of its kind from National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics), I was taking a crash course in Superman 101. I learned about his origin, his friends, his cousin, and his pets.
Most of all, I learned about his powers.
Superman’s awesome strength was shown right up front on that memorable cover. I would soon realize that his strength was so great that its outer limit had never been determined. My favorite power was his ability to fly. Flying is a “dream power.” When we do it in our dreams—and who of us hasn’t?—it seems perfectly logical that we’re able to cast off gravity’s bonds. His X-ray vision, the ability to see through solid walls (unless they were made of lead), conjured up the capacity to know everyone’s secrets. And the Man of Steel’s invulnerability was something a kid could keenly appreciate. No matter what the school bully threw at you, it would bounce off.
“Superman’s First Exploit” took place mostly in the offices of the Daily Planet, the leading newspaper in Metropolis, U.S.A. It gave me an early glimpse into the milieu of adults at work.
The concept of having a secret identity especially captured my imagination. No one suspected that under his mild-mannered exterior, Clark Kent was actually a being of untold power and glamour—a hero for all to admire. My daydreams came alive with fantasies of having my own powers that I had to conceal from the world, lest criminals harm my loved ones.
Some of the stories took me by surprise because they packed an emotional wallop. When Superman discovered that his romance with Lori Lemaris was doomed because she was revealed to be a mermaid (in “The Girl from Superman’s Past!”), a feeling of intense regret washed over me. In “The Supergirl from Krypton!”, when Superman learned that his cousin, Kara, had also miraculously survived the destruction of his birth planet—meaning not only that he wasn’t alone, but he had a family—I was deeply moved.
That day on the train, I experienced a sense of wonder: the power of an imaginative universe to enthrall.
Sense of Wonder, My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story by Bill Schelly.