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Superheroes – Introduction

I didn’t give this essay a title, but if I did it would probably be “What Superheroes Mean to Me.” And with a title like that there’s just no other place to start with than the Littleton Stamp Company of Littleton, Colorado.

Which is exactly where we will start, except for a brief digression to mention my aunt, who was a librarian in Portland, Oregon, and who for many years tore the foreign stamps off all the letters that came into the library until one day, possibly alarmed at the way her desk drawers were bulging, she dumped them all into boxes and shipped them off to me, in Texas.

I kind of liked them. And when the rest of my family heard this, a few other relatives promptly sent me the stamps they had been hoarding for years because they were too pretty to throw away and besides, maybe they’re worth something. (I’ve since learned that every family sooner or later selects someone to be known as “the stamp nerd,” usually a thin, studious male with thick glasses. Except for the specs, I fit the part. Thus are philatelists born.)

I bought a stamp album, learned to soak the stamps off the paper backing, and started pasting them into their proper places.

Enter the Littleton Stamp Company. This firm advertised on matchbook covers and in comic books. The gist of the ad was they would send you 500 (or 700, or maybe it was 1,000) stamps, all different, FREE!!!!, if you just sent them a self-addressed, stamped envelope. (anslexusastmpsnaprval)

Eh? What was that? The print was so small and it went by so fast . . . it must have been the wind. Did you hear anything? Never mind.

Wewillalsoincludeaselectionofstampsonapproval

Hah? Speak up, will you? Heck, I’m sure I didn’t hear anything, and even if I did, I don’t know what “on approval” means, and anyway, I’m sure not going to let it stand in the way of my 1,000 (I’m sure it was a thousand) FREE!!! all-different stamps from twenty-five (count ‘em) countries.

So I fixed four-cent stamps to two envelopes – thereby cruelly dating myself to my readers in 1994 – posted the letter, and sat back to wait.

The results exceeded my wildest dreams. The Littleton Stamp Company paid off like a slot machine from hell. There were at least 1,000 stamps on paper stuffed into a big bag (there were a lot of duplicates, but who cared?). Looking through them, I soon concluded there were a lot of librarian aunts out there, and not all of them had a designated stamp geek to send their hoarded treasures to. Obviously, they were selling them to the Littleton Stamp Company. Which, in turn, was giving them away in the mail . . .

Did I feel the first chill of doubt then? Hard to remember. Even at that tender age I think I’d concluded that people seldom just gave things away. On the other hand, I knew a lot of people thought of these little bits of paper as nothing more than trash. So maybe it was true.

For whatever reason, I put my doubts away and returned to the examination of the treasure trove. And here I discovered something entirely unexpected. In addition to the wads and wads of stamps torn from envelopes, which were printed with legends like “10 Madagascar,” “15 Switzerland,” “4 Kenya,” and “24 Germany,” were by far the best stamps of all. These had never been used. They were in sets. From Germany there were a dozen portraits of Hitler, each a different color. From Africa there were sets of wild animals. There were sets from places called Norge, Espana, Helvetia, Suomi, and Sverige, places I couldn’t find on any of my world maps.

These were wonderful stamps. They put the others to shame. I simply couldn’t believe my luck, that the LSC had sent them to me, for FREE!!!!

Of course, there was the matter of the price printed in the corner of each little glassine envelope.

I wish I could remember all the pro and con arguments I used on myself during the next week. I wouldn’t put them down here–they would fill a whole book that would keep Talmudic scholars busy for decades. I just wish I could remember. An exercise in sophistry of that magnitude is worth remembering.

In the end, it came down to this: I was pretty sure that some money was expected of me for these stamps, “on approval,” whatever that meant. And: I was damn sure I was never sending them back. Since I didn’t have the money to pay for them, some other arrangement would have to be made. That arrangement turned out to be that I would simply hold on to the stamps. For the verb “hold on to,” you may substitute “steal.” I don’t mind.

I’d never stolen anything before, as far as I can remember. I was amazed at how little it seemed to affect my life. Nobody pointed at me and shouted “Thief! Thief!” I didn’t sleep badly. No little worm of conscience ever gnawed at me. Hell, I hadn’t asked for the damn stamps.

So things were going well, and I was even considering sending off to another stamp company, this one in Pennsylvania, for their Giant Grab Bag of Five thousand stamps for only 49¢. I hardly ever thought of the Littleton Stamp Company. What were they going to do? Send a bunch of thugs around to my house to break my legs if I didn’t pay up? Ha ha.

That’s when the siege began. The first shot was a simple brown envelope in the mailbox. I was only a little curious about it, wondering if it might contain more free stamps, ha ha. It didn’t. It was crammed with fliers and catalogs telling me how I might purchase even more wonderful stamps than the ones I already had, some of them for prices that made me sweat just to look at them. And, oh, by the way, we still haven’t received payment for the stamps on approval we recently sent you. We’re happy that you liked them, of course, but you are now thirty day overdue. We’re sure this is just an oversight. Ha ha.

(I have tried and tried and tried, and I cannot remember the amount the LSC was dunning me for. Considering the fact that it was the central number of my life for almost a year, I find this odd. I must have simply blanked it out, like one forgets the events surrounding a horrific traffic accident. A guess? I’d say it was around twenty dollars. Pocket change today, of course. Then? Do you remember when Coke vending machines went from 5¢ to 6¢? It was right about that time. We went to the movie for a quarter. Don’t ask me what a loaf of bread cost because it was another ten years before I’d ever buy a loaf of bread. Cokes and Saturday matinees were about the extent of my economic knowledge. But let’s say it was twenty dollars. Do you have any idea how much twenty dollars was. You could feed a family of five for years on that kind of money. I don’t have the exact figures, but think of fifty or sixty thousand in 1993 dollars. You don’t believe me? Just try to find a 6¢ Coke today. Go ahead! Try!)

Please remit twenty dollars. The words burned themselves into my brain (though not, apparently, the numbers). What to do? What were my options?

First, I could ask my parents for it.

Oh, sure. That ought to be real easy. You remember that family of five we could have fed for years? That was my family of five we were talking about. There was no way I was going to be responsible for having my mother and my sisters eat dog food for three years. The idea didn’t exactly appeal to me, either, for that matter. (Though maybe I ought to get used to it, a part of me was saying–a very pessimistic part that, I’m sorry to say, is with me to this day–because it will be good preparation for prison food.)

It was while trying to imagine ways of breaking this to my parents that I came up with my second course of action, because it would be the first question they would ask me after they’d grasped the enormity of the situation: Why don’t you just give them back?

Because it’s too late!

By then I’d learned a little about stamp collecting. I’d learned some of the terminology collectors used. I now understood the meaning of words like uncirculated, original gum, mint, light cancellation. For those of you lucky enough never to have been involved with this terrible hobby there is a simple rule you should be aware of: In philately, the closer a stamp is to the state it was in on the day of its creation, the more it is worth. It should show no wear and tear. It should not have a postmark. And it must have the same awful-tasting, sticky, easily-breakable glue on the back as it had when it rolled off the press.

Like most young collectors, I’d been using a drop of glue on the backs of most of my stamps. Later, I learned of the stamp hinge, but I never liked them much as they never kept the stamps in place in the album. With the stolen approvals, things were dead easy. Just lick them and paste them in, like you would on an envelope.

Thereby rendering them worthless. (Sorry, all you librarian aunts. With very rare exceptions, any canceled stamp torn from an envelope is of no value.)

My third option was really a lot of assorted options. Option 3A: Run away to sunny California and live at Disneyland. Option 3B: Run away to New York City. 3C: Run away and join the circus. You get the picture. While I spent a lot of time considering these options, I knew deep down I was not the running-away type. Not that I wouldn’t like to get out and see the world. I just had barely enough sense to realize I had not the foggiest idea what I’d do once I got out there.

Killing oneself was always an option. It certainly eliminated all one’s problems. Let’s put that one on hold, until we see what prison’s like.

This brought me to the fifth option, the one that had served me so badly up to that point. Sit still and do nothing and maybe the dreaded LSC would forget about me and go away.

They didn’t, of course. About once a month I’d find a message from them. These messages got nastier and more threatening. They appealed to my sense of fair play. I remember one phrase as if it were yesterday: “. . . so just send us the twenty dollars and we’ll call it ‘square’!” Call it square? Call it square, you miserable bastards? After you’ve made my life a living hell? After you misled me with offers of thousands of free stamps, after you cleverly tucked your little time bomb in with the stamps, knowing full well, counting on the fact, I shouldn’t doubt, that a lot of dumb guys like me would get ourselves in hock up to our eyeballs . . . you want to call it square?

I had been reduced to a shattered bunch of nerves, a hollow-eyed wraith whose dreams were now always haunted by the Littleton juggernaut, and I didn’t think things could get any worse, when things got worse. The next communication from the Littleton Terror Company had this information: Unless payment is received in forty-eight hours, your account will be turned over to a Collection Agency.

Well, option number four suddenly started to look much better.

My visualization of a collection agency was necessarily a bit vague, but no matter how I imagined it there were always policemen in the picture, or shadowy guys in trenchcoats or other dark clothing pounding on the door and shouting “Come outta there, Varley! We know you got the stamps!” Oddly enough, they didn’t carry guns. I was a lot more afraid of knives, so they carried knives. Even the cops. And after breaking down the door they always dragged me from the house–trying to make myself small and harmless, trying to act as if this was no big deal, as if this sort of thing happened every day and it would soon be straightened out, which was tough to pull off, since I was usually naked or in my underwear when I envisioned this scene, and a large crowd had always gathered.

By then I realized that even killing myself would do no good. The Collection Agency would come around anyway, and they probably wouldn’t believe it when told I had recently done away with myself, and would then visit all sorts of atrocities upon my innocent family. So out of a sense of duty, to alert them to what was about to happen, I did what I should have done when the first dunning letter appeared. I turned the whole thing over to my mom.

And Mom took care of it.

I don’t know what she did. To this day I have never asked her and she has probably forgotten by now. I doubt it was a very traumatic event for her. I am now older than my mother was then, and confronted by a similar problem I would probably write an angry letter or make an angry phone call (the LSC really was misleading children with its ads, though they did nothing illegal), and if that didn’t do it, I’d pay the stinking twenty dollars. A double sawbuck certainly would have put a big hole in our monthly grocery budget back then, but that business about feeding a family for years was maybe a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve tried to remember if we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese after I told my mother. It seems that we did, but we did before I told her, too.

The point is, she took care of it. Bingo, and the problem that had been tormenting me for the better part of a year just melted away as if it had never existed. You want to talk about superheroes, you need go no farther than that, in my opinion.

 

But we will, of course, go farther than that. This book is not primarily concerned with the day-to-day acts of heroism performed by ordinary people (though there are some stories here concerned with that very thing), but about the outlandish acts performed by certain obsessive/compulsive borderline personalities who like to dress up in tight, primary-colored spandex suits, most of them endowed with powers far beyond those of mortal men, and physiques far beyond that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who like to leap from the pages of comic books and into our hearts, righting wrongs along the way, and who have come to be known by the generic term “superhero.”

So just what are superheroes? Why are we so fascinated by them? What part of the human psyche do they come from? Should we look for the roots of the superhero in history, in literature! Was Jesus a superhero? What about Paul Bunyan? Crusader Rabbit?

All very good questions. I don’t have the answers to any of them. And the reason is an admission I am forced to make here, since my experience with the stamp company made me a firm believer in truth in advertising: I don’t know much about superheroes.

I stopped being a comic-book fan about the time of my traumatic mail-order experience. Somehow, picking up and reading a comic just didn’t have the pizzazz it used to hold for me. Part of me really didn’t enjoy reading them anymore, probably the same part that had recently graduated to reading books with no pictures at all in them, something a lot of my friends thought very weird indeed. The other part was much like what a heroin addict thinks. I was much better off if I didn’t let myself get tempted again. From time to time I would pick one up, and my pulse would immediately begin to race as I read the ads within . . .

(I can’t tell you how sorely I was tempted to buy the Pen-Size, Clips-on-your-pocket SECRET SPY SCOPE, or even better, the X-RAY SPECS (only one dollar) which showed a leering guy looking at the bones of his own hand . . . but behind the hand was a pretty girl and we all knew what he was really looking at, and we all wanted to look at it, too . . . or How To Build A Body Of Steel, or The Unbeatable Self-Defense Secrets of KETSUGO! Or–and here my heart still skips a beat–the seven-foot-long Space Rocket, for only $6.98. This later evolved into the seven-foot-long Polaris Nuclear Sub (they were obviously stamped from the same mold), and I have a copy of that advertisement before me now, the ad for the sub, and I want it now almost as much as I wanted it back then.

(I lusted for that Space Rocket for many years. It was said to be made of 200-lb.-test fibreboard, with easy assembly instructions. The picture showed lots of happy kids playing all over the damn thing. It had an electrically lit instrument panel and a money-back guarantee: “If you don’t think it is the greatest ever–the best toy you ever had–just send it back for full purchase price refund.” How could I go wrong? But then the cold hand of the Littleton Stamp Company would touch me, and I just knew it wasn’t what it seemed. I mean, six dollars and ninety-nine cents? Come on. It seemed insanely cheap. So just what was fibreboard, anyway? Maybe corrugated cardboard? That’s what I concluded, but the notion that I may have missed out on the greatest toy deal of the century simply because I was mail-order gun-shy still nags at me. Did anybody out there ever order the Space Ship or the Polaris Sub? What were they like? Did you have lots of fun?)

This is why I missed the great comic revolution of my generation: the quick rise and ascendancy of Marvel Comics, which in a few years had the old juggernaut of DC on the ropes. My friend Calvin, who probably still reads a lot of comics, told me the reason was that Marvel comic heroes were more vulnerable. More human. Subject to unreasonable rages, like the Hulk, or having the same problems I, as a teenager, was then experiencing, such as dating problems and, possibly, super-acne, like Spider-Man. There were antihero superheroes, supermen with feet of clay, protagonists who not only didn’t have the Gotham City or Metropolis police forces at their beck and call, but who were being actively pursued for imagined or trumped-up crimes.

Well, the police don’t get on well with the Guardian Angels; why should they like a wise-ass like Superman who goes around making them look bad by showing what a poor job they do? It all made sense, the Marvel universe . . . but what was the point? Wasn’t the whole idea of superheroes that they were above all that?

Apparently not. Marvel-type stories are still around and, from what I hear, even DC does stories like that now. Heck, a while back they even killed off Superman–in seven or eight high-priced issues, certain to be followed by ten or twelve more issues concerning his resurrection. It makes one wish for the good old days of green kryptonite. Or at least it made me wish it, but I know I have no real right to, because to this day I’ve never read a Marvel comic. Maybe if I did, I’d see why they’re so much better.

See, what you have here in your editor is a comic conservative. While I’m certainly no expert on either Batman or Superman, I know all the history: Ma and Pa Kent, Smallville, Robin, Lois and Lana, Krypto the superdog, the Joker, the Fortress of Solitude, and so on and so on. And I know a little about the classic Marvel characters. Unless you don’t have a television set, you pick up some of this through some mental osmosis. I never watched The Incredible Hulk on the tube, but I’ve seen pictures of Bixby and Ferrigno.

But I must admit to you that I know virtually nothing about any comic character of the last fifteen or twenty years. I don’t have any figures, but just from casual observation it seems these have been the very years when comics have had their most phenomenal growth, and the time when they have achieved a degree of respectability. Hundreds of people get together on weekends to buy, sell, and trade comics at astronomical prices.

Sorry, folks. I missed all that. I own one comic book, which I paid two dollars for.

So where do I get off editing a book about superheroes? you are probably asking yourself along about now.

It’s a fair question, one that deserves an answer. And just to show you what a generous guy I am, I have two answers for you.

The first concerns a story idea I got one fine day a few years ago. It was quite a simple idea, and went something like this: What if Kal-El of Krypton, escaping his home planet’s destruction, had landed in the late Soviet Union instead of Smallville, U.S.A.? Maybe he brought Truth and Justice along with him, in his little Kryptonian brain, but how about “The American Way”? I thought there might be a funny story in there, so I wrote it.

That story is collected here, which is only logical when you understand that my co-editor, Ricia Mainhardt, upon reading the story, thought it would be a good idea to put together an anthology with a whole bunch of these alternate superhero stories. It sounded like fun to me, too, so we sent out queries and the stories started pouring in. The best of them are in this book.

Well, sure. (A third answer to the question occurs to me now: It’s my book. I’ve got a right to do the introduction. However, I won’t use that one.) Sure, but you’ve admitted you’re no authority on the subject, I hear you complaining. Why not let an expert take over? This sounds like a job for . . . somebody else.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no experts on the superheroes to be found in this book. These are the guys who didn’t make the cut into the big leagues. None of them has ever had a comic of his own, much less a television show or a feature movie. These are the superheroes that take Marvel Comics one step further. They’re not just more human. Most of them are too human. Take Captain Swastika, for instance. There’s a tragic story. These are the guys whose superpowers can be more a nuisance than an asset, guys like Sound Effect Man, a second-banana superhero if ever there was one. You’ll meet these people, and more like them in the pages of this book.

You know what? Maybe there is something to this Marvel business. Because I like these superheroes more than I ever liked that muscle-bound jerk, Superman, or that gloomy, brooding, boring Batman.

So here it is, on approval. Constructed of the finest, sturdy paperboard, seats one, good for hours and hours of adventure, some assembly required. Use it for ten full days and if you don’t think it’s the greatest anti-superhero book ever . . . well, maybe you’ll ask your mom before you buy another one like it.