Last week Kalie and I were in Indianapolis presenting at the PCA/ACA Conference on Popular Culture. It was so much fun! Both of our papers were well received (mine (as I’ve mentioned once or twice) explored Jason Aaron’s use of the Divine Feminine in The Mighty Thor) and the whole week was an enriching, stimulating experience. It was exciting to meet so many other people who teach through popular culture and there were papers on just about everything you could imagine. To see all these different scholars in all these different areas, utilizing pop culture and speaking to its value in an academic setting was incredible. While we were there, Indiana’s Comic Con was going on down the street. And THAT got me thinking about the one comic I covet…
By nature, I’m not one to need original back issues. I’m fine with reprints and trade paperback collections and all of that. I’ve always been more interested in the story than the get of having a weighty back issue in my collection. When I was a kid, I loved hunting for back issues. My local comic shop always did this crazy exciting “50% off all back issues” sale for members once a year. It came every summer and lasted a week. I’d always use it as a chance to snap up old issues of Fantastic Four or The Incredible Hulk, not in the name of getting big ticket items cheap (how much disposable income does an eleven-year-old have anyway?) but of getting more stories of the characters I loved. I looked for writers I liked, to fill in holes in stories I’d read, or (honestly) just to straight-up judge a book by it’s cover. If it looked awesome and it was cheap, I’d grab it. I never looked for any value outside of what the story would mean to me.
Since I’ve returned to comic reading as an adult, I’ve focused primarily on the current age of comics. Going back to read everything that happened in my nearly two decades off of comic reading seemed too overwhelming. And looking for classic/big ticket back issues now is even more expensive than it was in my youth as the whole idea of “comic collecting” has exploded from the 90’s on. While I have more disposable income now as an adult than I did as an eleven-year-old, I still can imagine all sorts of better uses for a couple hundred dollars (be it lame “adult stuff” like bills or fun stuff like other comics, movies, or concert tickets) than a single back issue.
To use a distinction I’ve used before, I see myself as more of a comic reader or a comic lover than strictly a comic collector. By that I mean my goal has never been amassing a big, flashy collection filled with comics worth a lot of money. I’m not looking to make a financial investment in my future or wow others with my treasure trove. I’m looking to fill my boxes with exciting stories featuring characters I love. In short, I want stories that mean something to me, regardless of their “market worth.” So the specific, big ticket back issue hunt has never been my scene.
With one exception, then and now, The Amazing Spider-Man #121 and 122.
“The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and “The Goblin’s Last Stand” are iconic moments in the life of Peter Parker. As such, they tend to be expensive back issues to pick-up. I’ve always been drawn to them, not for their worth, but for their importance to who Spider-Man was and who he became. Having learned Spider-Man’s identity, the Green Goblin kidnaps Gwen Stacy and lures Peter to the Brooklyn Bridge. Once Peter arrives, Norman Osborn tosses Gwen from the top. Peter manages to catch her…but a tragically careless angle on his webline results in her breaking her neck and dying in the fall. With Gwen dead, Peter hunts Osborn with the intention of killing him to avenge Gwen’s death. I started reading Spider-Man comics in 1986, thirteen years after Gwen died. As a result, she was only ever a flashback character for me. Peter was always with Mary Jane. Yet Gwen’s importance hung like a shadow over everything. Before Peter married Mary Jane he thought of Gwen, wondering if it was fair to her for him to marry MJ and struggling with whether or not it was ever fair to bring someone into his life like this, putting them at risk as Gwen was.
While I never really read stories with Gwen Stacy in them, I understood her importance to Spider-Man. So as a young lad who lived and breathed Spider-Man, I wanted to read those stories. Now, back in the early 90’s, it was an era before easily procured trade paperback collections. There was a Spider-Man: Classic title, reprinting early issues of the wall-crawler’s life, but it wasn’t doing the Gwen Stacy era. As a result, I always read about Gwen but I wanted to read these stories for myself, to see the first great love of Peter Parker’s life.
My local comic shop used to have these plastic…uh, window things near the ceiling. In them, they’d display their most prized back issues. It would highlight six or eight different titles, rotating as people would buy them or if they’d get a hold of new titles themselves. I still have vivid memories of the day I happened to look up at them and see…The Amazing Spider-Man #121 AND 122. They were there! I was in the same room with these legendary issues! I could physically see them myself. I could also see the price tags…$120 and $100 respectively. YIKES. I’d have trouble paying that for a single comic now, as an adult with a job. But as a kid? Yeah, they might as well have been priced at $1,000,000,000,000.00. They seemed impossibly far away.
However, my young mind quickly realized, it was summer. And that meant the 50% back issue sale was a few weeks away. Now, spending $50.00 for a single comic book still seemed insanely high. But maybe, just maybe it was doable. I knew my birthday was in the summer and I knew it came before the half off sale. I might be able to pull this off. But which to buy if I did?!? I couldn’t afford both. And the back issue sale wouldn’t come around again for another year. I knew there was no way the other one would still be hanging there in that amount of time. After much painful deliberation, I settled on The Amazing Spider-Man #122. That cover was the more iconic and (ironically) I wanted to read the one where the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy, not all the build-up.
So I busted my bum for the first third of summer vacation, mowing lawns and finding any manner of chore I could do for anyone willing to offer cash in exchange for my services. Each week I’d go in to pick up my file (which obviously depleted part of the cash reserves I was storing up) and looked up with hope and trepidation to see if they were still hanging there. Each week they were! When the back issue sale rolled around, combining the money I was able to earn with my birthday money put me right in the neighborhood I needed to be. Mom and Dad floated me the few extra dollars I needed to pay off the whole tab (with my promising to pay them back of course (whether or not they took the money is a foggy memory now…I hope they did!)) and I had the cash I needed.
At that time in my life, it was the single biggest monetary transaction I was ever a part of. I walked out of the store with shaking hands, due both to the importance of the title I was carrying home (what if something happened?!? what if the car blew up or I got trapped in a rainstorm or I was mugged on the way home?!? what if I lost it?!?) and the fact that I had just spent $50 on a comic book (on ONE comic book! would I ever see that much money again?!? was this all a huge, greed and pride-fueled mistake?!?). I got home and, with still shaking hands, pulled The Amazing Spider-Man #122 out of it’s bag…and of course the DAMN TAPE STUCK TO THE DAMN COVER.
My heart stopped! OH NO! This is my worst fear made manifest! I was trapped in some sort of living hell! What, oh dear, sweet God did I ever do to deserve such a fate?!? With my hands shaking and my breath held, I began the slow, painstaking process of trying to lift the tape from the cover. The tape came off…taking a tiny little speck of purple from the Green Goblin’s hood in the process. Damn. I’m sure there was a lesson to be learned there but…damn. The greatest financial investment of my young life and I’d already tarnished it.
But I still had the story! Right? For so long I wanted to read the heartbreaking tale of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and now I finally could. So, after a few moments of mourning, I opened the cover…to find Gwen Stacy was already dead. What?!? What in the actual heck?!? I wanted to read the story focused on Gwen and her tragic loss. Not the one of Spider-Man hunting the Goblin! Remember, this was pre-internet so there was no easy research to double check this. Every story I’d ever read about Gwen’s death, every collector card I had about her death in every card series featured the iconic cover from The Amazing Spider-Man #122. How was I to know?? So I read on. I saw Peter’s rage-fueled hunt for Norman Osborn. I saw him wrestle with whether or not he should kill him. And I saw Osborn ultimately impale himself on his own glider, trying to kill Peter. But this was not “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” This was “The Goblin’s Last Stand.” Damn. Again, I’m sure there was some sort of lesson to be learned here too but…damn.
It was a powerful story in its own right and one I feel privileged to have in my collection. I’ve read it – with care – several times. Each reading, a little of that anxiety from the first time I opened the bag returns :). But there were never any other tape issues. It remains (by far) the single most expensive comic I’ve ever purchased.
There’s always been a part of me that’s wanted The Amazing Spider-Man #121 – ever since I opened issue #122 to see the story I was looking for, the one that left such a haunting scar on Peter Parker’s life, had already finished. As I expected, issue #121 was long gone before the next back issue sale. I died a little inside when it sold and I never saw another copy return to my local comic shop. I thought of it often through my youth and, from time to time, I still think of it now. I’ve always wanted this issue, to complete this iconic story from Peter’s life. I still covet it. And, as I considered going to the Indiana Comic Con (which I ultimately rejected because tickets were $30 a day and the bulk of our days were spent at the conference and why would I spend $30 to go walk around for an hour or two?), I wondered if it would be there. I think about it whenever I see an ad for a comic con. Do I look for a copy, still? And, if I found one, would I buy it? A quick and careless Google search shows people tend to sell it for anywhere from $200-600. That’s not really something I’d like to drop on a single comic. Not without MASSIVE GUILT about how I was failing at adulting in the process at least.
Yet…I still covet it. I don’t actively seek it, even if I still crave it. Maybe someday I’ll begin to actively seek it out. Maybe someday I’ll actually buy it. Maybe someday I’ll finally get to read this story for myself. Maybe someday. Only time will tell. Also, um, totally unrelated, if anyone’s looking for a big surprise present idea for me (for my birthday or Christmas or whatever), I have a ready suggestion.