Excerpt from

Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom
By Bill Schelly
© copyright 1998 by Bill Schelly 

 

Sense of Wonder

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert Einstein

 

1. More Powerful than a Locomotive 

Why is it, no matter how early we get up on the first day of a Schelly family vacation trip, we’re always behind schedule?

Carl Schelly—my father, who is six feet five inches tall—leads the way along the sidewalk.

“There’s the terminal entrance—hurry!”

I am too young to discern the inherent irony in such a thing as a “terminal entrance.”

We head toward the blackened granite edifice of the Pittsburgh railroad depot known as Penn Station.

Joanne—my mother—fusses to keep us in line. “C’mon, Bill! You too, David! Where’s Steve?”

We’re jazzed on kid-adrenaline. We take two steps for every stride of Dad’s long legs. A black porter wearing a snappy-looking uniform pushes a dolly full of our luggage behind us.

We enter the darkened interior of the massive building. The amplified metallic voice over the public address system twangs with the reverb born of marble floors and walls. It sounds like the voice of destiny with nasal congestion.

Columbus … Indianapolis … Chicago.

To my eight-year-old consciousness, these destinations conjure up images as exotic as Singapore and Rangoon. I have that “butterflies” feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I’m nearly hairless, unless you count the quarter-inch of bristling scalp-stubble that is known as a crew cut. Because my hair is blond and my skin fair, my appearance is that of a little bald man. My brothers Steve (who is almost eleven) and Dave (who will be six) are similarly shorn.

We aren’t wearing jeans. Travel in 1960 isn’t exactly an informal occasion. Mom wears a dress, a hat and heels; we muster out in neat pants and shirts. Dad is dressed for the office in suit and tie, since he will have to fly out to join us in Oregon a week later.

“Your train is a few minutes late, so we’re here in plenty of time,” he tells Mom as he reads from the big board marked “Arrivals and Departures.” They both visibly relax. Dad shows the porter the tickets with our seat assignments and slips him a coin. The man wheels our baggage out through the swinging doors to the loading platform.

Despite the bustle, the wafting cigarette smoke and the echoing announcements, a colorful display catches our attention as we make our way toward the waiting area. It is the terminal newsstand.

Dad turns to us. “Would you boys like a comic book to read on the train?”

Amid the church-like surroundings—vaulted windows and wooden pews—the newsstand is like a stained-glass window, made not of multi-hued pieces of glass but of glossy paper covers and pulpy newsprint emblazoned with four-color printing. It’s well-stocked with all kinds of ephemeral reading matter: newspapers, magazines, paperbacks, puzzle books, and of course, comic books. The newsie also sells smoking products. His stand reeks of tobacco.

My brothers are quick in making their reading choices. Steve grabs a western or an issue featuring Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett; he had only recently given up his coonskin cap. Dave goes for issue of Looney Tunes with Sylvester and Tweety.

My eyes are 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 my something familiar attracts my attention. Is it the flag? The red, white and blue of Old Glory?

Wham.

My eyes land on a comic book featuring a character I can’t help but recognize, even if I haven’t ever read his comic book adventures before.

Superman!

The logo in bold yellow and red block letters spells out the title: Giant Superman Annual #1. It is subtitled An all-star collection of the greatest super-stories ever published!

My choice is made. I pull the comic book out and hand it up to Dad. He tosses a dime onto the counter, but the clerk says, “That one’s a quarter.”

“A quarter?” Dad frowns.

He hands the comic book back to me.

“You’d better put this one back, son. Find one for  ten cents.”

I had sensed something more substantial about the feel of this comic book than the others ones on the stand. “Look, Dad. This one is extra-thick, see? I can read it for a long time.”

“The ones I got for your brothers just cost a dime. They’ll be jealous if I spend more on you.”

I look up into his eyes looming high above me. “Please can I have this one? It has everything about Superman.”

He sighs. I feel rather than see him share a smile with the clerk. He tosses down the larger coin. “Okay … but don’t tell your brothers.”

“I won’t. Thanks, Dad!”

I struggle to contain my excitement. Up until now I was looking forward only to a train trip. Now I would have the extra bonus of an excursion into the Superman mythos. I join my family on the wooden pews where they are already settled. The bustling milieu around me no longer holds any appeal.

Superman Annual #1 is the first comic book that I remember picking out for myself. The ones I’d seen before hadn’t made any particular impression on me.

Maybe it’s the four-square-and-solid look of this cover, with the heavily-muscled frame of Superman facing directly forward, bursting a chain by expanding his chest. The cover symmetry is further enhanced by rows of five panels on either side of the Man of Steel depicting important supporting characters: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Jor-el, et al. This is clearly a special comic book.

Quivering with anticipation, I open the cover and read the title of the first tale. “Superman’s First Exploit.” What’s an exploit, I wonder? Well, I can probably figure it out by the way it’s used in the story.

“Bill!”

A voice penetrates my bubble of concentration. It’s Mom.

“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 sigh. Loudly. I let the book fall shut. Ugh. Back to boring reality. It isn’t too bad though. We don’t have long to wait. The PA system emits a series of nasal barks. The word “Chicago” is barely comprehensible. It’s time. We move through the wide doors to the loading platform.

Steam trains are a thing of the past. We’re traveling in a sleek, state-of-the-art diesel train. The smell of oil and air brakes charges the platform area with its special pungency. The flurry of boarding passengers creates a commotion. We say our good-byes to Dad. My parents kiss. We mount the steps, wave, and are swallowed by the train.

As soon as we find our seats, I again open my comic book and begin reading “Superman’s First Exploit.” It tells the story of a Daily Planet contest to see which reader can remember the earliest feat performed by Superman after he’d been launched in a tiny rocket as a tot from the exploding planet Krypton. At the story’s climax, Superman himself is asked to try to remember his own first feat, which must have occurred when he was a small child.

One image grabs me: a dramatic close-up of Superman’s face in deep shadows. The overhead caption reads, “And the mighty mind of Superman reaches back, back to his infancy on the planet Krypton!” Superman says, “I remember – on Krypton, my father Jor-el warning of doom.…” This is heavy stuff for a third-grader.

A phrase especially intrigues me. I read it again. The mighty mind of Superman….

I try to imagine what it would be like to have a “mighty mind.” What would that mean? I understand super-strength, but a super-mind?

 

“Bill! What are you doing?”

“Reading.”

“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. We began to hear the first of the clack-clacking of the metal wheels on the tracks. 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, one-hundred 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 learn 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 really appreciate. No matter what the school bully threw at you, it would bounce off.

“Superman’s First Exploit” took place mostly in the office of the Daily Planet, the leading newspaper in Metropolis, U.S.A. Here he’s in the guise of reporter Clark Kent (by merely wearing glasses and a suit), keeping abreast of breaking events. This was 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 the mild-mannered guise, Clark 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 by packing 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 has also miraculously survived the destruction of Krypton—meaning that he was not only not alone, but had a family—I was deeply moved.

On that day on the train, I experienced a sense of wonder: the power of an imaginative universe to enthrall.

 

2. Family Matters

It was only natural that trains loomed large in our lives. Dad worked for the Northern Pacific railroad whose tag-line was “the Main Street to the Northwest.” He was the top man in the Pittsburgh office, which was an odd place to be since the NP didn’t run farther east than Chicago. His job was to see that his railroad got its fair share of the freight traffic moving westward from the Windy City. The General Agent position held a good deal of responsibility, but paid not a lot. Money was always tight in the Schelly family.

When it came to train travel, however, we had a special advantage. Dad’s company discount made tickets cheap, allowing our money to go toward an upgrade of our accommodations. Instead of traveling by standard coach, we had private rooms. Two compartments, with two sleeping berths each, could be connected by opening folding doors between them. This made travel a breeze.