THE MODERN AGE
Ralph Rogers walked into a lavish room filled with heroes and villains.
The party was in full swing. Dozens of people yelled at one another over the music. Everyone was drinking, and they had a good head start on him. The mix of t-shirts and comic book costumes looked infinitely more surreal in the huge house than it did in the convention hall. In the living room, a band thrilled a small but enthusiastic crowd. Two men played synthesizers and samplers as a young woman dressed as the 1980’s headband-wearing Supergirl sang lead, her red skirt swaying as she danced.
I’ve fallen into a Justice League frat party, Ralph thought as he passed the line for keg stands. He found a solemn man in a tuxedo tending the bar. “Got any scotch?” Ralph asked. The man nodded. After looking Ralph over, he chose a glass from the shelf and poured in several inches of rich brown liquid. He handed it to Ralph, who found his drink served in a Pepsi glass from 1977. On it, a red and yellow Captain Marvel stood with his hands on his hips, a yellow moon behind him. Beneath the hero was written his catchphrase: “Shazam!”
“Pretty classy,” he said, tipping his glass to the bartender. “I’m Ralph Rogers.” They shook hands.
“Bartlett, sir. Thank you.”
“You don’t happen to know Ben Walker, do you?”
“I do, sir. Perhaps you might find him by the pool.”
Two men dressed as Wolverine arm-wrestled by the back door, their plastic claws flapping back and forth in the air. Passing them, Ralph walked outside to find what looked like a cross between an X-Men Summer Special and a 1970s swingers movie. Men and women in their underwear filled the pool, their clothes and costumes folded on beach chairs or hanging over the fence. Two topless women, sitting on the shoulders of men standing in the pool, tried to wrestle each other into the water. An enormous man in a Swamp Thing costume carried a laughing, white-haired woman in a bikini over his shoulder. She slapped at his back, leaving handprints in the green makeup. A man in a Spider-Man leotard cannonballed into the water, and Ralph jumped back to avoid the splash. Three Asian women in schoolgirl uniforms giggled at him.
“Rogers!” yelled a man behind him. “You hack fraud!”
Uh-oh, thought Ralph, looking for an escape route. A large hand fell on his shoulder and spun him around. Ralph stared up at an enormous man with cartoonish muscles. He wasn’t wearing a costume, but Ralph believed the man could pull off a convincing Gorilla Grodd. “You must be Eugene,” Ralph said. His pulse thumped in his ears.
“You ruined my life, you piece of shit!” Eugene glared down at him. “Do you have any idea how many copies of Meta Boy I bought for my store? Your swindle put me out of business.”
Ralph fought the urge to stand on his tiptoes. “Listen, man, I’m sorry to hear about your store. Really. But it was the ’90s. Comic shops went out of business everywhere. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Maybe not, but you didn’t help, either. So you’re going in the pool.” He leaned in closely and whispered, “If you’re lucky, maybe I won’t drown you.”
Eugene lifted Ralph off the ground as everyone cheered. The image of Bane breaking the Batman flashed across Ralph’s mind.
Ralph squirmed and kicked his feet but it was no use. He calculated the cost of replacing his cell phone as he tried to keep his glass of scotch level. His thoughts turned to the glorious day that had brought him to this point.
“Ralph Rogers, you suck!” the woman in the Star Trek uniform yelled. Ralph waved to her and went back to his sketchbook.
“I don’t know how you put up with that, Rogers,” said the artist at the table next to him. Ralph had no idea who the other artist was, only that he drew popular comic book characters in the nude for an even hundred dollars.
“You get used to it,” Ralph shrugged. He had heard there’d been a drop in attendance at these fan events, but there was a decent turnout at the eleventh annual Oklahoma City Comic and Anime Convention. It was nothing like the circus the San Diego con had turned into, but there were plenty of cosplayers, dealer tables, and special guests. Ralph sat at a white plastic table surrounded by the latter, but he did not consider himself all that special. His name was written on a small sign at the front of his perch, and few people gave him a second look.
He half-hoped everyone would forget about him, but Frank Reese, his agent, insisted Ralph attend conventions for exposure. Commissions earned Ralph just enough money to justify the trips on paper.
Looking down at his current drawing, Ralph realized he was nearly finished. Doing commissioned art was one thing he enjoyed about comic book conventions. It gave him a chance to prove his talent to a rare fan, and the money was a nice bonus.
This time around, his patron was a shy young woman who wanted Ralph to illustrate a team-up of the Black Canary and Ralph’s character, Meta Boy. He had never drawn the Black Canary before, but he was happy with how her fishnets turned out in the pencil sketch. She gave Meta a flirty look as she stood perched beside him on the rooftop.
Despite everything, he still enjoyed drawing Meta Boy. The billowing cape, the high collar, even the buttoned cavalry shirt that looked like an old band uniform. The blue and orange costume would look garish paired with Black Canary’s black leather jacket and fishnets, but it looked great in black and white. Meta Boy stared out of the page as if he were about to leap right out into the real world.
Ralph hoped the sketch would end up scanned and posted online, so he could read what strangers thought about his art in the comment section. Don’t be stupid, he told himself, none of the comments would be about the art. He took a sip of water and began darkening in the details.
As he drew, two young men in their mid-twenties paused near his table. One had a scraggly goatee, and the other wore too much black. Ralph could imagine their conversation.
Who’s that guy? said the one with the unfortunate facial hair. I’ve never heard of him.
You haven’t heard of Ralph Rogers? asked his friend. Surely you jest.
No, I have not heard of Ralph Rogers.
The friend looked over at Ralph, just missing the chance to catch Ralph spying on them. He probably said, Then we must go over there and somehow make his sad little day a bit worse.
“Hi, guys,” Ralph said as they approached his table.
The one in black pointed to his friend. “My friend here’s never heard of you.”
Ralph smiled. “That’s hardly surprising.” He leaned over and shook their hands. “I’m Ralph Rogers, it’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Cal,” said Mr. Black. He pointed a thumb at Mr. Goatee. “That’s Martin.”
Martin looked Ralph over and asked, “Did you really get published when you were thirteen?”
“Fourteen,” Ralph said.
Martin nodded in admiration. “Wow, that’s impressive.”
“See, I told you.” Cal pointed at Ralph’s sketch. “And this was your guy, right? What was his name?”
“His name is Meta Boy,” Ralph said.
“How many issues were there?” asked Martin.
How many times had Ralph answered that question over the years? “Three were finished, two were published,” he said.
Martin asked, “Why were only two published?”
Ralph frowned and looked down at his sketch.
Cal grinned. “Because it turned out he copied all the art from other comics.”
Martin’s jaw dropped. “No way.” He turned to Ralph. “Really?”
Ralph felt the other artists around him stop what they were doing. Pencils stopped moving and conversations shushed as they leaned in to hear the exchange. Ralph’s skin turned cold and clammy. “There’s a bit more to it than that,” he said, forcing himself to remain calm.
Martin’s eyes went wide. “For real?” When Ralph didn’t answer, he threw his head back and laughed. “You did! You fucking traced it!”
A stifled laugh drifted from a few tables over. Ralph felt sick. He began to say “That’s not—”
Before he could get the words out, Cal reached out and tipped over Ralph’s cup of water. Ralph moved as quickly as he could, but the Bristol board of his commission sketch had soaked through. He looked up, but Cal and Martin had disappeared into the crowd.
“Bastards,” said the artist from the next table. “I’ll report them to security for you, if you want.”
“For all the good it will do.” Ralph watched as his beautiful Black Canary and Meta Boy dissolved into sludge. A good hour’s work down the drain.
Ralph stood up. “I’m going to get some air. Watch my stuff for me?”
“Sure, whatever,” said the other artist.
Ralph wadded up the soggy drawing and tossed it into a trash can as he waded through the crowd of comic book fans.
As he walked the rows of comic books, action figures, and bootleg DVDs, Ralph thought about his first big break. Maybe it was nostalgia for that fleeting triumph that kept him accepting invitations, or maybe he hoped to one day encourage a young artist himself. Of course, no kids brought him artwork; his reputation preceded him.
He ducked through a wall of curtains into what qualified as the green room. A few dealers and industry personalities chatted and sampled the snack table. With a cup of sugary coffee in hand, he tried to relax. No one attempted to strike up a conversation, so he sat at one of the round folding tables with a plastic plate of grapes. Beside him, a group of comic dealers were deep in conversation.
“And that, my friends, is why comic book continuity is like the Bible,” said a large, bald man with a beard. “One story, many authors, knit together over generations.”
“That’s some impressive bullshit you’ve created,” said a gray-haired woman in a Hawaiian shirt. “Make any good buys while you were thinking that up?”
“No buried treasure here,” said the bearded man. “Found some Mego accessories for my personal collection, but I didn’t find anything I could make a profit on.”
A black man wearing a Legion of Superheroes t-shirt sipped his coffee. “Tell me about it. I got a nice batch of Fawcett stuff, but that’s about it.”
“Fawcett?” asked the large man. “Who needs Fawcett?”
“I have a guy lined up,” said the Legion fan. “He can’t get enough of it. He puts up the cash for high grades.”
“Better hope he lives long enough to pay you,” the woman said, and they laughed.
“No, no. He’s not that old. He loves Beck’s Marvel Family.”
The large man said, “Me, I love me some Mary Marvel.”
The others groaned.
“The new stuff, where she’s older! Come on, y’all, give me a break!”
“Are you really making money on that stuff?” the woman asked.
“It’s not like they’re printing new copies,” the Legion fan said, eliciting laughter from the group and an amen from the woman in the Hawaiian shirt. “It all comes down to supply and demand.”
“It’s not like that nineties crap,” said the larger man. “I could insulate my house with the piles of Meta Boy I have in my back room.”
“Shut up, Johnny,” the Legion fan said, glancing at Ralph.
“Ah, shit,” Johnny said. “No offense.”
Ralph stood up. “None taken. I’d rather you use them as wallpaper, though.”
The dealers laughed, and the woman in the Hawaiian shirt slapped Ralph a good one on the back.
Ralph asked, “You deal with a lot of golden age stuff, mister…?”
“Walker. Ben Walker,” the black man in the Legion shirt said, and the two shook hands. “These yahoos are Anna May and Johnny.” Ralph shook hands with the rest.
“You know, Rogers,” Walker said, “me and my buddies, we thought you were the coolest thing in the world when we were kids.”
“Thank you,” Ralph said. He heard this often.
“I always thought you deserved better after everything went down.”
That was something Ralph did not hear often. “Sounds like you deal in some older stuff. You wouldn’t happen to have any Fiction House books, would you? I’m trying to get a complete run of Planet Comics.”
“Those the ones with the good girl pin-up covers?” Ben asked.
“Like a naughty version of Strange Adventures,” Anna May said, laughing.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “But if cheesecake is your thing, I have that issue of Phantom Lady with the Matt Baker cover. It’s graded at 8.5.”
Anna May whistled as Johnny rolled his eyes.
“I would be very interested in that,” Ralph said.
Ben smiled. “Tell you what. There’s a party tonight after they lock up the convention, should be fun. Guy running it collects Golden Age stuff, too. Has a copy of Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly number one. The son of a bitch even claims to have issues two to four, but he just says that to fuck with me. Meet me there with your checkbook; I bet we can work something out.” He scribbled the address on a business card and handed it to Ralph.
“At least somebody’s making money this weekend,” Anna May said.
Ben looked over his shoulder and said, “Hey, Ralph, you might want to watch out. Some guy named Eugene Sandhurst has been talking about kicking your ass all day. He’s always running his mouth, calling you a hack fraud, but he’s big as a house. He’ll probably crash that party, too.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ralph said.
I forgot to keep that in mind, Ralph thought as Eugene Sandhurst lifted him high in the air.
“Hope you’ve got yourself some gills, Aquaman,” Eugene said.
Ralph looked down at the crisp blue water and wondered how long he could hold his breath.
Everyone froze at the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked.
“Turn around,” said a precise voice.
Eugene turned, still holding Ralph horizontally above his head.
Bartlett the bartender faced them, holding a shotgun. Ben Walker stood beside him, looking overwhelmed.
“Please lower the guest slowly to his feet,” Bartlett said. He spoke with a level of courtesy that would put Eddie Haskell to shame.
“Are you crazy?” Eugene said.
“Not at all. I have loaded my weapon with alternating rounds of rock salt and bean bags. But the final shell is lethal, I assure you. Place Mr. Rogers gently on the ground.”
Eugene put Ralph down on the poolside as gently as a mother would her child. Ralph’s glass of scotch never lost a drop.
Bartlett motioned with the shotgun. “Now it would be in your best interest to depart the premises.”
The crowd cheered again.
Wishy washy sons of bitches, Ralph thought.
To his credit, Eugene knew when he was beat. He fled without another word, but as he left he locked eyes with Ralph. Eugene’s cold expression made it plain: this only added to Ralph’s sins against him.
That can’t possibly come back to bite me, Ralph thought.
“Are you all right, sir?” Bartlett asked.
“I’m fine,” Ralph said. “Thanks to you two.”
Ben Walker laughed. “You’re one hell of a bartender, Mr. Bartlett.”
“I’m also an excellent butler, sir. If you need further rescuing, I will be making drinks.”
As Bartlett walked inside, Ben said, “Sorry about that, Ralph. I ran and got the cavalry as soon as I saw what was going on.”
“Thanks for the save. I guess the butler is also the bouncer?”
“He wears many hats.”
“Jeez, my heart is pounding.”
Ben laughed. “My friends might have something to calm us both down.”
Making their way around the pool, they joined two men dressed as the marijuana-themed superheroes, Bluntman and Chronic. Appropriately enough, they were sharing a joint.
“Thanks for the show,” Chronic said, offering the joint.
Ralph accepted. “This is the craziest party I’ve ever been to.” He took a long drag.
“You should see what happens in San Diego,” Chronic said as Ralph coughed violently.
“We were just discussing which is the best bad movie starring Damon Ripley,” said the man in the Bluntman costume.
“Come on,” Ralph said. “That guy is great. I love his movies.”
“Oh, we do, too,” Bluntman said. “I bought a motorcycle after seeing Spit in the Wind. Changed my damn life. But you have to admit, the man makes some hilariously bad movies.”
Ben snapped his fingers. “Oh, it’s gotta be Man Versus Baby. Did we really need a more violent version of Three Men and a Baby?”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “Fine, I’ll play. How about Drive Real Fast? It had more pointless car explosions than a Ford Pinto convention.”
“Dude, I happen to like pointless car explosions,” Chronic said. “The best worst Damon Ripley is Dismember the Alamo. Ripley as Davy Crockett, fighting off a zombified Mexican Army. That’s kick ass. Worth it for the title alone.”
“What about Red Eagle?” Ralph asked.
“That Top Gun ripoff?” Chronic rolled his eyes. “More like Spread Eagle.”
Bluntman tapped some ash off the joint. “I’d give it to the remake of The Phantom Empire. I’ll never tire of watching Ripley trying to be a singing cowboy.”
Chronic laughed. “Are you kidding? The robots look like cardboard boxes.”
“How dare you, sir,” Bluntman said, puffing his chest. “That movie is a cinematic treasure. History will vindicate it.”
Ben blew out a mouthful of smoke. “You gentleman are forgetting the greatest jewel in Damon Ripley’s crooked crown. A film so full of shlock, so full of Ripley chewing the scenery, that it hasn’t been available to purchase since the 1980s.”
The other three thought it over until Ralph remembered a title. “I’m Coming For You, and Hell’s Coming With Me.”
Ben slapped him on the back. “That’s right. I’m Coming For You, and Hell’s Coming With Me. It’s his Plan Nine from Outer Space, his Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It’s so bad it’s good, then so bad it’s bad, and then it circles back around to being cinematic genius.”
Ralph sipped his scotch as they smoked and discussed bad movies and good comic books. The mingling tastes of the liquor and marijuana were terrible, but he no longer felt jittery and his head felt free and clear.
“Bringing back Bucky is my favorite retcon,” Ralph said. “Bar none.”
“No way,” Bluntman said. “The best retcon of all time is what Alan Moore did with Swamp Thing. It was pure genius.”
“What the hell is a retcon?” Chronic asked.
“Retroactive continuity,” Bluntman said.
“Doctor Doom and his Doombots are my favorite example,” Ben said. “Doom’s supposed to be this sophisticated, honorable villain, the most magnificent bastard. But then some asshole writer comes along and makes Doom a megomaniacal mustache twirler. So the next writer pops up and boom, that last time? That was just a Doombot. It wasn’t really Victor von Doom, it was just an android pretending to be him.”
“Sounds like a bunch of nonsense,” Chronic said.
Ben nudged Ralph with an elbow. “I’m guessing you’re about ready for that Phantom Lady.”
The man in the Bluntman costume nodded his approval. “That’s one sexy lady. It’s not the bondage cover, is it?”
Ralph grinned. “One and the same.”
“I’ll pay twenty percent over what this guy is paying,” the man said to Ben.
“Sorry, buddy, a deal’s a deal,” Ben called back over his shoulder as he walked with Ralph toward the house. “C’mon, Ralph, our host let me put it in his safe.”
As they entered the house, Ralph put his empty Captain Marvel glass on the bar, giving a dramatic salute to Bartlett and feeling oddly jubilant. He followed Ben up the stairs, stepping carefully over a passed-out Captain America.
A ragged high school letter jacket hung in a plexiglass case on the hallway wall. It was sewn together from at least a dozen different jackets. Pausing in front of it, Ralph squinted at the strange creation. “Hey, is that the jacket from that ’80s movie, FrankenTeen. Didn’t it star the guy we were talking about earlier? “
Ben nodded. “Damon Ripley.”
“This thing belongs in a museum!”
“Like I said, the host is a collector. He has a ton of these old props.”
Ralph stared at his reflection in the plexiglass. “I fell in love with Diane Franklin after seeing her in that movie. That scene where they make out in the graveyard was my Some Like It Hot. Did you ever have a crush on her?”
“No, man, sorry,” Ben laughed. “I’m more into Cloak than I am into Dagger, if you catch my meaning.”
“I read you,” Ralph said. His steps no longer felt sure, and the pictures in the hallway hung at odd angles. For the first time in a while, his stomach threatened to expel its contents. “What was in that weed?” he asked.
“Pym particles, by the feel of it,” Ben said. “I am royally fucked up.”
They walked into a large, open room. Framed, vintage comics covered the walls. A majestic saltwater tank full of neon tropical fish sat behind the long, beautiful desk in the center of the room. A middle-aged man wearing a loose linen shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals leaned against the desk. He spoke with an attractive, red-headed woman in a green party dress. The two of them stopped their conversation as Ben and Ralph stumbled into the room.
“Ben!” the man said. “So glad you could make it!” He turned to the woman. “This is the guy I was telling you about. Today he helped me complete my ‘Mister Mind and the Monster Society of Evil’ collection.”
Ben bowed as the other three clapped. “Damon, this is my new friend, Ralph Rogers. Ralph, this is—”
“Mr. Ripley,” Ralph said, shaking the movie star’s hand. “Explains that FrankenTeen jacket. I love your films. My favorite movie in junior high was Free Radicals.”
“Anyone with such good taste can call me Damon,” their host said. “I’ve always said Free Radicals is a hidden gem. I loved playing the science geek in that one. Feels like a million years ago.”
Ralph waved his hands. “Hey, your new stuff is good, too. You should have won an Oscar for that adaptation of At Swim-Two-Birds. You always bring it to the table.”
“Careful,” the woman said. “Damon’s ego already threatens every man, woman, and child on this planet.”
“That’s why I like to remind him that he made Air Force 666,” Ben said.
“Hey now,” Damon said. “I won my fourth Golden Raspberry for that one. Let the man talk. I only wish the critics agreed with him.”
Ralph laughed. “If it’s all the same to you, I wish the critics would go to hell.”
Damon held up a finger. “Wait a minute. You’re the Ralph Rogers. He is, isn’t he? Holy fucking shit. Valerie, do you know who this is?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “Hi, Ralph. It’s been a long time.”
Scrolling through the beat-up rolodex in his mind, Ralph tried to remember how he knew this beautiful woman. “I’m sorry. Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Don’t be an asshole, Ralph,” she said.
His eyes widened. “Val? Valerie Hall? Oh my God. You look fantastic.”
She smiled. “That’s more like it. It’s good to see you, Ralph.”
“Watch out, Ripley. Looks like you might have some competition,” Ben said.
Ralph shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
Damon turned to Valerie. “You never told me you knew Ralph Rogers.”
“It never came up.”
“’Never came up!’” he repeated. “Never came up?” He slapped his knuckles into his palm to punctuate the words. “You know that’s the kind of thing I would eat up.”
“It’s nothing,” she said. “We just knew each when we were young.”
“Don’t be modest,” Ralph said. “Valerie is the one who dared me to make the Meta Boy book in the first place.”
Ben’s jaw dropped. “Oh, wow.”
Damon Ripley’s eyes shined. “This is a story I want to hear.”
Ralph Rogers’s love for comics began in the 1980s, after he stopped wetting the bed and before he started wetting it again. One day his friend Valerie Hall, all freckles and glasses, passed him a comic book under the lunch table. She had three older brothers, and she was always borrowing their comic books. On the cover, a beautiful woman in white underwear stood over a fallen Captain America. Ralph devoured the contraband every time Ms. Clawster turned her back on the class. He recognized Captain America, but the rest of the characters were new to him. He followed the story as best he could until the Clawster confiscated the magazine. It went to live in a locked drawer of her desk until the end of the year.
Ralph talked his dad into taking him to a comic book store that weekend to replace his friend’s property. The store was dark and stuffy, but to Ralph it looked like a treasure trove. He blew a month’s allowance on back issues from the long rows of cardboard boxes. With no idea what was good and what was schlock, he did his best to get some of everything.
Back home, he took his haul to his bedroom. Pictures Ralph had drawn and copied from books and magazines plastered the walls. Clothes covered the floor, some clean and some dirty. The shelves over his desk were full of toys and interesting things he had picked up in the woods. The only organized spot in his room was the surface of his desk. There, he’d carefully arranged his art supplies beneath the lamp.
He dumped the comics on the bed: The Mighty Thor, Betty and Veronica, The Legion of Superheroes, and a dozen others. There was even a Vampirella Ralph had hid at the bottom of the pile so his father would not notice. A pale woman lounged on the cover, and her red costume was even more revealing than the one from that Captain America cover. Ralph hoped Valerie’s brothers would consider it an adequate replacement.
But Val would have to wait. That night, Ralph read every issue in the stack by the light of his desk lamp. Afterward, he read them all again. Then he sat down at his desk and started copying his favorite drawings from the comics. He drew every night, sometimes copying from the comics and sometimes doing something on his own with the same characters. He worked until he was exhausted enough to fall into bed. The next week, when he got his allowance again, he pestered his father to take him back to the comic book shop. The cycle repeated itself again and again.
In the midst of this growing obsession, his parents went away for a weekend while Ralph stayed at his grandparents. Ralph’s grandfather was more than willing to listen as his grandson prattled on about mystic hammers and word balloons. “Come to think of it,” Grandpa said, “I think I have a few of your dad’s old comic books around here somewhere.”
Ralph’s eyes lit up, and the two of them adventured into the cluttered attic. They reached the layer dating back to the childhood of Ralph’s father, and Grandpa pulled down a box full of Aurora plastic monster models. In the bottom of the box were several well-read issues of Showcase, Four Color, Whiz Comics, and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories.
One yellowed cover from World’s Finest featured Batman, Robin, and an astonishing three Supermans. The book had a square cut out of the bottom of the cover. Ralph frowned at this grave injustice and opened the fragile comic.
DRAW INSTANTLY, proclaimed the inside front cover. A boy sat at a desk, drawing a cowboy on a horse. Somehow the cowboy was projected onto the paper from an image on the wall by the Magic Art Reproducer, only $1.98. The order form had been cut out by Ralph’s father almost four decades earlier.
“Grandpa, is this thing up here, too?” Ralph asked.
They looked through a few more boxes before they found it. Ralph wasn’t surprised; his grandfather never threw anything away. His parents said it was because he lived through the Great Depression.
The Magic Art Reproducer’s box featured the same little boy drawing a cowboy as the ad. Downstairs, they were both surprised when the contraption actually worked, albeit nowhere near as well as advertised. The simple metal box contained a small mirror and glass window, all of it suspended over over the paper by a thin rod. It reflected a faint image onto the paper that the user could trace. Ralph and Grandpa spent the weekend using the device to copy the simple art of his father’s old comic books.
“Your dad used to love to draw,” Grandpa said Ralph looked up from the Magic Art Reproducer, but Grandpa was staring out the window, lost in his memories.
Ralph Rogers was thirteen when he took the dare that would ruin his life.
Valerie Hall and Ralph were sitting on the floor of Ralph’s bedroom, looking through some of her superhero trading cards. The back of each card had a description of the character and some statistics, as well as a graph rating their various traits.
Ralph dropped the cards in disgust. “There is no way U.S. Agent has more intelligence than Hawkeye.”
“What are you talking about?” Valerie asked. “Hawkeye is full of shit.”
“Don’t be talking about my boy Hawkeye,” Ralph said. “At least he can think up his own shtick. U.S. Agent is nothing but Captain America with more boring colors.”
“Oh, like there was never a hero with a bow and arrow before.” Valerie started gathering back up the cards. “The shield looks cool, though.”
“Definitely cool,” Ralph said. “Not too many guys have the balls to fight supervillains with just a shield.”
“I can’t think of any others.”
Ralph frowned, racking his brain. “I think it’s just those guys, and other people who get a hold of Cap’s shield. Like that guy in the future. There’s also that Cap rip-off in Youngblood. Oh, and the Guardian.”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “Who the fuck is the Guardian?”
“The blue and gold guy in Metropolis. He’s a clone or something.”
“You mean in a DC comic?” Valerie asked. “Lame.”
“He’s okay. And there’s nothing wrong with DC comics.”
“Except they’re lame.”
Ralph crossed his arms over his chest. “Batman.”
Valerie slumped back. “Okay. Batman is cool. But DC comics are not cool.”
“Yes, they are,” Ralph said.
“No, they’re not,” Valerie said. Ralph saw she was serious, and remembered what happened the previous summer. That argument had been about which movie was better, Monster Squad or The Goonies. They had not spoken for a month after that one.
“Tell you what,” Ralph said. “They’re different. Marvel’s more popular right now, but there are cool DC series. And that’s okay, right?”
Valerie nodded, and the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees. But the Monster Squad would still beat the shit out of the Goonies, Ralph thought.
Valerie started gathering up her cards. “I better get home.”
Ralph helped her pick up the cards and the two of them walked outside to Valerie’s bicycle.
As Valerie walked the bike down the driveway, Ralph asked, “Can I still go with your family to the movies on Friday?”
Valerie grinned. “Yeah, sure. It’ll be fun.” She started to pedal away, but squeezed the hand brake and squealed to a stop. “You know, I bet you couldn’t do it.”
“Do what?” Ralph asked.
“Make a comic book that looked like a Marvel or an Image comic, but felt like a DC comic. I bet you couldn’t do that, you’re-so-smart.”
Ralph thought for a moment while kicking at gravel in the street. He had been drawing almost every day for years now. “I bet I could,” he said. “And I bet it would be pretty good.”
“I bet you can’t. I bet you twenty dollars you can’t.”
Ralph’s jaw dropped. Twenty dollars was easily the most money he had heard of anyone betting on anything in his entire life. “Fine.”
“But I get to choose the character,” Valerie said.
“Fine,” Ralph said again.
Valerie grinned. “Meta Boy.”
“Meta Boy?” Ralph asked. “The kid with the cape I used to draw in the fifth grade?”
“That’s the one.”
“That guy is the worst,” Ralph said. “With those stupid buttons on his chest, he looks like he’s wearing a high school band uniform. No way.”
“I knew you couldn’t do it,” Valerie said.
Ralph’s face burned. “Oh yeah? I can and I will.” He put out his hand. “One comic with Meta Boy. Twenty-four pages.”
“Plus a cover,” Valerie said.
Ralph nodded. “Plus the cover.”
Valerie spit in the palm of her hand, Ralph spit in his, and they shook on it.
Late that night, Ralph sat with his head on the old drafting desk his parents had bought for him at a garage sale. The black swing-arm desk lamp issued the only light. Ralph gripped his hair, and the threat of a headache loomed inside his skull. A pile of wadded, ripped, and torn sketches littered the floor. On the paper beneath his forehead lay a pencil sketch of his character, Meta Boy. Something about the drawing was off.
Everything is wrong, he thought. Ralph had mastered copying the work of other comic artists, at least to the extent that a thirteen-year-old could. He knew how the muscles on a spandex-clad hero should look. A comic panel—that magical frame holding a still-shot of an impossible universe—he could recognize one that had been put together correctly. Yet he had no idea how to create that perfection from scratch.
I should give up, he thought. Then he pictured Valerie giving him a hard time at their cafeteria table, with the kids around them joining in on the fun.
Dammit, he thought. He lifted his head and looked around, as if his sleeping mother in the other room had heard the swear word in his head. Ralph leaned back in his squeaking desk chair and stared at the ceiling. He shared a moment with other aspiring artists across time and space: the realization that recreating an image did not in itself teach you how to create images for yourself.
Look, Val, I know we spit shook on it, but I had my fingers crossed. He sighed. Val, buddy, I finished it, but I pissed off my dad and he ripped it up. I shit you not. I’m still grounded, even.
His desk lamp flickered, and he slapped it. The light disappeared completely. But for a sliver of light from beneath the door, Ralph was now in darkness.
Rejected layouts and vetoed character sketches crumpled beneath his feet as he shuffled to his door. He carefully turned the knob so he could open it as quietly as possible.
He felt his way to the hall closet. The light clicked on with the pull of a chain, and he scanned the shelves for the family’s supply of light bulbs. They were crammed on the same shelf as his dad’s board games: Shadowlord!, Thunder Road, Acquire, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and several others Ralph had no interest in ever playing again. There, mixed in with the games, was the black and yellow box of the Magic Art Reproducer. Ralph grinned at the memory of the weekend spent drawing with his grandfather. Grandpa was not an artist at all, but even he was able to do some great sketches with that thing—
Ralph grabbed the Magic Art Reproducer. He hurried back to his room, forgetting the light bulb. After a second trip and with the new bulb installed, he opened up a desk drawer overflowing with his comic books. He had read each one at least half-a-dozen times, and he had no problem finding the issue he needed.
He opened up a black-and-white reprint of the old Spirit comic strips by Will Eisner. The opening splash page showed a trolley running through a rundown industrial district. Above the image, looking like windswept litter, swam the words, ‘The Spirit,’ and on a discarded handbill danced the name of the story: ‘The Last Trolley.’
Ralph cleared his workspace and propped up the comic on his desk, the spine leaning against the wall. Careful not to damage the corners, he slid a sheet of Bristol board out from under his bed. He clipped the thick white board in place and positioned the Magic Art Reproducer above it. After shining the swing-arm lamp on the Spirit, Ralph looked through the tiny peep hole on top of the Reproducer. A faint image of the splash page was there on the paper. With some adjustments, the large page filled the board.
His heart beating fast, Ralph lightly sketched over the phantom art, beginning with the panel border. It took a long time to scratch out the image he wanted, but he removed the Reproducer and let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. There, on the paper, was a drawing that felt right.
He spent the rest of the night adding detail to the simple image. He replaced the trolley with a freight train he found in a magazine. As the sun came up, he put the finishing touches on the fragile letters that now spelled out, “Meta Boy!” The playbill remained empty, as he had no idea what to name the story. The finished pencil work was different from the original. It was more detailed, for one. Instead of Will Eisner’s organic, flowing lines, Ralph had used his crisp, straightforward style.
Ralph giggled. He was already daydreaming about shoving the finished comic in Valerie’s face.
Valerie completely lost her shit.
“Dude,” she kept repeating. “Dude.”
The two middle schoolers sat alone at the cafeteria table. It was a half-hour until the first bell, and scattered early birds huddled around cafeteria tables. The boys played games of paper football or mercy, while girls put on makeup they had smuggled out of their houses. Unlike lunch, there were no adults in the room to keep kids from getting up to shenanigans. Those in authority correctly assumed that students were too tired first thing in the morning to get into much trouble.
Valerie gripped the photocopies of Ralph’s first-ever comic book. In accordance with the bet, the stack contained twenty-four black and white pages plus a cover displaying Meta Boy punching a hoodlum in the face. Blood flew out of the hoodlum’s mouth along with a single tooth. The rest of the pages were just as exciting. It had taken all of Ralph’s willpower not to show off with an action-packed two-page spread.
Ralph watched his friend’s eyes dart from panel to panel, word balloon to word balloon. Valerie’s lips pulled into a grin at all the right times, and her eyes went wide on the last page just like they were supposed to. She finished reading and respectfully set the final page down.
“So what do you think?” Ralph asked.
“Bobby Crane is kind of a stupid name for a teenager.”
“No, seriously. What do you think?”
Ralph laughed, and Valerie joined in.
“Ralph, you son of a bitch,” Valerie said, shaking her head. “It hasn’t even been two weeks!”
Ralph shrugged. “I guess that means I win,” he said.
“Wipe that grin off your face, you jerk. You’ll get your twenty bucks. Christ.” Valerie slouched down in her chair, tilted her head back, and sighed. “Truth is, I figured you’d do it. But I thought you’d be working for months. I haven’t even started saving.”
“Don’t worry about it. I had fun making it. It’s no big deal.”
Valerie snapped forward and stuck her finger in Ralph’s face. “You calling me a welcher, Rogers?” Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were not.
Ralph put up two waving hands. “Nah, you’re no welcher. Seriously. I know you’re good for it.”
“What I thought.”
They sat for a moment, each of them considering the value of twenty bucks.
Valerie’s eyes lit up with a flash. “Boy howdy. I got an idea.”
“Yeah?” When Valerie was excited about an idea, it was cause for worry.
“Oh, yeah. Come on.” Valerie gathered up the pages, careful to put them in the right order. She carried them off like a hostage, and Ralph hurried after her.
“Val!” Ralph hissed as they started down the hallway.
Valerie waved at him to shut up as she peeked around a tiled corner. With a tilt of her head, she motioned for Ralph to follow her.
They crept deeper into the school. Anything past the cafeteria was off-limits this early in the morning, and Ralph dreaded the thought of trying to explain his actions to a pre-caffeine teacher. It didn’t help that he honestly had no idea what they were doing.
Valerie found the room she was looking for. With a final look around, she opened the door and the two of them slipped into the darkness. Ralph had never been to a party with the cool kids, but he had heard of Seven Minutes in Heaven. Oh my gosh, he thought. She wants to make out with me. He licked his lips and gave his armpit a sniff test.
A light clicked on, forcing Ralph to shield his eyes. They stood in a musky storage room. There were cardboard boxes, a copy machine, and a card table with a paper cutter and a stapler.
“What are we doing in here?” Ralph asked.
Valerie said proudly, “Check this out.” She patted the lid of the copy machine, then leaned over and clicked a red switch. The machine lit up, humming softly. “Mrs. Jones sent me here to make copies for her once.”
“Mrs. Jones the librarian, or Mrs. Jones the drunk theater lady?” Ralph asked.
“Drunk theater lady. She said to use this copier, because all the teachers like the new one. There’s never any line. So come on, let’s do it!”
“Make a bunch of your comic books. Duh. And we’ll sell ‘em.”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “Are you an idiot? No one wants my comic book.”
“Yes, they do. They just don’t know it yet.”
“No, way. Even if I wanted to make more, I’d just make them at the library, like I did with this one.”
“How much did it cost at the library?” Valerie asked.
“Like two dollars.” But that was a lie. He had wasted another three dollars trying to get the settings right to resize the image and get his pencil art to actually show up.
“We can copy them here for free,” Valerie said. “Then we sell them for two dollars—”
“One dollar,” Ralph said.
“Fine, one dollar. We split it fifty-fifty.”
“Wait a minute,” Ralph said. “Why fifty-fifty? I made the comic.”
“Yeah, but it was my idea to sell it, and I was the one who got us a copier.”
Ralph chewed the inside of his cheek, thinking. “Fine,” he said. “But just on this one.”
“Sounds good to me,” Valerie said.
“Then get out of the way. You’re on staple duty.”
They printed and assembled thirty issues, which didn’t look too bad for second-generation copies. Each of them took half, and they sold out before lunch. Once the lunch bell rang, Ralph and Valerie snuck back to the storage room. They printed up another fifty comics as they ate their sandwiches. Those copies were gone by the end of the day, leaving only the copy Ralph had brought to school that day and a particularly nice copy Valerie took home with her.
Somehow they finished out the day without adult intervention. After the last bell rang, they rode their bicycles several blocks before splitting up ther loot. Neither of them was all that big, and any number of bullies would have relieved them of their profits with a grin and a threat about snitching.
“Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. Wow.” Ralph finished counting the money into his friend’s nervous palm.
“Yeah.” She looked down at their fistfuls of money.
Ralph shoved his cash into his pocket and climbed on his ten-speed. “Thanks, Val, today was fun. I guess I better get home.”
“Waitaminnit,” Valerie said. She counted from one hand to another, like a magician doing a card trick, and offered the money to Ralph. “To cover the bet,” she said. “Now we’re square, right?”
Ralph’s jaw dropped. He shook his head.
“C’mon,” Valerie said, grinning. “Don’t make me stuff it down your throat.”
“Like you could,” but Ralph was smiling, too. He took the money and looked at the crinkled bills in his hand. Sixty dollars. Sixty big ones. Sixty smackeroonies.
Valerie jumped on her bike and sped away. “Get started on that second issue, asshole!” she called over her shoulder.
Ralph and Valerie were caught making copies of Meta Boy issue two. A giggling Mrs. Jones opened the door to the storage room and stopped short when she saw the two students making a piss-poor attempt to look like they weren’t up to something. The copy machine shot out page after violent page. Through the crack in the door, Ralph watched Mr. Gardener, the boy’s gym teacher, slink quietly away.
The discovery led to parent conferences and a promise by the two to split the cost of one toner cartridge and one box of copy paper. The principal also made Ralph and Valerie promise not to sell any more funny books at school.
Ralph’s parents, James and Catherine, had no idea their son had created two comic books entirely on his own, and they weren’t sure how to proceed. On the one hand, Ralph had stolen supplies from his school and gotten caught. But, as James told his wife in the privacy of their bedroom, “The only thing I accomplished in the eighth grade was learning to smoke. We should give the kid a break.”
So one weekend after Ralph had mowed enough lawns, pruned enough trees, and cleaned enough gutters to pay off his debt, he and James hopped in the family hatchback and drove to Dallas. They were off to the biggest comic book convention in Texas. A new art portfolio case leaned against the back of Ralph’s seat.
The car reeked of ancient coffee spills, but Ralph didn’t mind. It was a smell he would come to associate with his father, and it would have felt strange to ride together in a car that smelled any different.
They cruised along to classic rock, that great middle ground that existed for baby boomers and their offspring.
Ralph finished off another strip of beef jerky and washed it down with lukewarm soda. “This is pretty cool, Dad.”
“It’s always nice to put a few hours between you and your real life,” his dad said. They passed a sign for a gas station. “Need to take a leak?”
“Nah, I’m good,” Ralph said. He could actually feel those early tingles, but his father took pride in making as few stops as possible. Ralph would rather die than be the first to break.
On the radio, Brian Johnson compared a woman’s sexual organs to a car engine.
“You’re pretty serious about this comic stuff,” his father said.
It wasn’t framed as a question, but Ralph replied, “Yeah, I guess.”
“That’s really neat, son. Really neat,” James said. “That’s why this weekend is important. It ties into what I always tell you. What do I always tell you?”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “‘Don’t be a bystander.’”
“That’s right. You’re getting your stuff out there. You’re not just drifting along like a bump on a log.”
“Say, Dad, did you ever think about doing something other than a normal job?”
“A normal job?” James laughed, and Ralph knew he had said something wrong. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Really?” Ralph asked. “Like what?”
James shook his head. “It’s pretty stupid.”
“You can’t say something like that and then not tell,” Ralph said. “That’s cruel!”
“Okay, okay. I wanted to be—” James paused, and waved one hand in flourish. “A magician.”
Ralph chuckled, but stopped short when he saw James was serious. “That’s pretty cool, Dad.”
“I thought it was, anyway,” James said. “But I’m much better with numbers than I was with the linking rings. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to help support the family on one birthday gig every three months!”
“Sorry if Mom and me held you back. Did you ever regret it? Working in an office instead of sawing ladies in half in Vegas?”
“Maybe every now and then, on a Monday morning when no one turns in their reports. But you listen here, buddy.” James took his eyes off the road to pat Ralph on the shoulder. “If I’d wanted to do that, it’s what I would have done. Simple as that. I decided there was something I wanted more than a hat full of rabbit shit, and that was you and your mom. Get me?”
“I gotcha,” Ralph said. “Hey, were you any good? At the magic stuff?”
James laughed again. “Son, I was absolutely terrible.”
They laughed as Robert Plant and Sandy Denny sang about the conflicts of Middle Earth.
A crowd packed the entrance to the convention center. There were plenty of kids Ralph’s age, but he was surprised how many adults were there without children. Darth Vader—or a close relative—boomed unintelligible instructions over a loudspeaker. Ralph gripped his portfolio tightly against his chest and followed in his father’s wake. They checked in at the desk and entered the main floor. Once past the bottleneck, Ralph’s jaw dropped. Dealer’s tables surrounded them, and everywhere Ralph looked was something he wanted to buy. “Don’t forget why we’re here,” James said. Ralph frowned, but he nodded.
James drug Ralph past more treasure than had been hauled out of King Tut’s tomb. Then there were the celebrity guests, most of whom Ralph could not pick out of a police line-up. A gray-haired woman sat next to a framed picture of a sexy alien from Star Trek. Ralph recognized the curly-haired star of The Greatest American Hero. Though Ralph didn’t know who the other guests were, people had already lined up to talk to them, take pictures together, or get something autographed. Ralph let his father walk a few steps ahead before sneaking a peak at a woman who was apparently famous for being naked in a magazine.
According to a vinyl sign hanging from the ceiling, they had finally reached Artist’s Alley. A number of men and a handful of women sat at wooden folding tables covered in posters, comics, and art supplies.
This was his mom’s idea. Catherine’s theory was that the only people who could honestly critique Ralph’s work were actual comic artists. She had even called the comic shop to find out the best way to go about it. “After all,” she said, “this is the first time you’ve ever shown interest in anything approaching a career. You never even wanted to be a fireman.”
So Ralph repeated his mission to himself: show his portfolio to every professional artist at the convention. He would also be in charge of remembering what was said and writing it down afterward. James would stay out of the way to avoid the deadly Embarrassed Teenager Syndrome.
Ralph had no idea what any of the artists on his list looked like. He scanned name tags, and stopped cold after walking past a half-dozen artists. His shaky hands dug into his shiny portfolio.
The legendary Matt Corrigan sighed and sipped his coffee. He adjusted his thick-framed glasses and dramatically flipped to the next page of his newspaper. He wore a ragged baseball cap and was much older than Ralph had expected. The boy realized how silly he’d been; Corrigan started drawing comics in the 1940s.
No one was standing in front of the old man’s table. Ralph squirmed and looked over at his father. James gave his son a smile and two thumbs up, just like he had done five summers earlier when Ralph had been afraid to go off the high dive at the city swimming pool.
Ralph crept up to the table, but the newspaper wall remained in place. He stood there, sweating. “Excuse me, sir?”
The newspaper dropped and Corrigan asked, “What can I do for you, young man?”
Ralph swallowed. “I really like the stuff you did for Timely, Mr. Corrigan.”
The old man laughed. “Wasn’t that before your time?”
“Back-up story reprints.” Ralph felt relief wash over him. Mr. Corrigan looked less scary than he had a moment before.
“What have you got there?” Corrigan pointed to the portfolio case.
“Just some stuff I wanted to show you. Maybe get some pointers?”
“Open ’er up, Mr. I-Read-Timely-Comics,” Corrigan said. “Always happy to help another pencil pusher. Especially one with respect for the classics.”
Ralph handed over the portfolio, and Corrigan pulled out the thick stack of Bristol board. Flipping through the pages, he asked, “It looks like you have a whole book here.”
“Yes, sir. I did another one, but I thought it would be too much if I brought both.”
“And you drew this all yourself, did you?”
Corrigan shoved the portfolio and artwork back across the table. “Get out of here, kid. I don’t have time for this bullshit.”
The newspaper wall went back up.
“Mr. Corrigan, please.”
“Go away, and tell your buddy he can kiss my ass.”
Fighting back tears, Ralph shoved his work back into the portfolio. He slunk away, ignoring his father’s questioning eyes.
In an interview years later, Matt Corrigan said, “Yes, that really happened, and I feel terrible for how I treated the poor kid. You should have seen his pencils, though. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a kid that age draw that well, but the composition! Those pages had energy and style that it takes years of professional work to cultivate. There was no way this kid could do that. I thought Kubert set it up as another of his stupid practical jokes.”
It took forty-five minutes for James Rogers to convince his son to speak to another artist. Kevin Hunter did the writing and art for his own books, working with independent publishers. Ralph did not own any of Hunter’s work, but had read some at Valerie’s house.
The bald, bearded Hunter examined Ralph’s work. “This is good stuff, buddy. I mean, it’s really good.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hunter,” Ralph said. This is more like it! he thought.
“Bobby Crane is kind of a silly name for a teenager, but you can always change that. Tell you what. I want to show this to a friend of mine. That okay with you?”
Ralph nodded furiously. Carrying the portfolio, Hunter led Ralph to the booth of ATG Graphics. Ralph recognized the name; it was a company that published creator-owned work. Although only in business a couple of years, ATG had already made a name for itself. It was founded by some of the most popular artists in the business, and their books sold out quickly at the comic shop.
Hunter handed Ralph’s work to a man with gray hair and kind eyes. As he looked at the pages, the two men spoke in hushed voices. Ralph waited, too aware of his posture. Finally, Hunter asked him to join them.
“Hi, Ralph,” the other man said, holding out his hand. “I’m Paul Simmons with ATG Graphics.”
Ralph shook it. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Simmons.”
“Call me Paul. Kevin here tells me you did all of this yourself.”
Simmons turned to Hunter. “How old did you say this kid is?”
“I’m fourteen,” Ralph said.
Looking at the artwork again, Simmons smiled. Hunter said, “You mentioned you were looking for something like this.”
“That I did,” Simmons said. “Ralph, how long did it take you to do this? Could you do another?”
“I already did the second issue. It took two weeks. It took less time than the first one, since I kind of knew what I was doing.”
“Get a load of this kid,” Hunter said. “Fourteen-years-old and he’s cranking out two pages of pencils a day. When I was fourteen, there was only one thing I was cranking out twice a day.” Ralph shrugged, and Simmons and Hunter laughed.
“Jim Shooter,” Hunter said.
“Jim Shooter,” Simmons agreed.
“Could you get someone to ink and color it?” Hunter asked.
“Without credit? Who do I look like, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories?”
“What about Chill?”
Simmons looked thoughtful. “Maybe. Ralph, is that your dad over there, trying to look like he isn’t watching us?”
“Get him over here, please. I’m not talking business with you without a guardian present.”
Ralph’s jaw dropped. “What are you talking about?”
“Kid, how would you like ATG Graphics to publish Meta Boy?”
Ralph, Ben, Valerie, and Damon sat on the leather couches in Damon’s office. The party continued to roar outside. By the end of the flashback, Ralph felt the mixed effects of booze and bud wearing off.
“Phantom Lady?” Valerie said, holding up the old comic book. “Seems a little low brow, Ralph.”
“My girlfriend, that’s Sandra, we collect good girl art,” he said. “I guess this is my contribution to the cause.”
“Oh,” she said. “How long have you two been together?”
“Jeez. Four years now, I guess? A lot of that was off and on. How about you? Seeing anybody?”
“Not right now.”
“Only because she won’t go to dinner with me,” Damon said.
“I’ve seen how relationships with you end up,” she said. “It’s enough work just being your friend.”
They laughed as Damon topped off their drinks. “Ralph, you have to tell me what it was like. You were the darling boy of the industry. The wunderkind. The comic press raved about your unusual combination of styles. The target audience ate it up, reading a comic by a kid just like them.”
“I remember Bobby Crane, stupid name or not, was at the top of all the favorite character polls. You even scored that movie deal with Universal,” Ben said. “How long until the hammer dropped?”
“About six months,” Ralph said. “You know that story.”
Damon nodded, taking a drink from a plastic cup covered with the image of the 1970s superhero team the Champions. “Wizard magazine ran that article listing all the panels you swiped. Everyone felt cheated and lied to.”
In the back of his mind, Ralph heard the furious phone call from his editor, Paul Simmons. “You ripped me off, you little shit!” the man had yelled again and again. Ralph shook his head to clear it.
As if reading his mind, Ben said, “That’s too much to put on a kid. When I was fourteen, you’d be crazy to trust me with a lemonade stand. I’d rob the till and throw the lemons at cars.”
Valerie and Ralph locked eyes and exchanged a quick smile. They had wasted a weekend together trying to sell lemonade when they were nine-years-old.
“Enough with the bad vibes,” Damon said, standing up and walking over to a cabinet built into the wall. “Since I have you here, I’m not wasting the opportunity.” He scanned the contents of several drawers before pulling out hard plastic case. It was too big to be a regular comic book. Tossing it into Ralph’s lap, Damon asked, “Mind signing this for me?”
Ben laughed. “Son of a bitch!”
Ralph could not believe his eyes. He held one of the original photocopied issues of the first Meta Boy. The crooked staples were unmistakable. A few bootlegs had been brought to his attention over the years, but he hadn’t seen one of his and Valerie’s copies since high school. Teachers had confiscated the majority the week they were made, and most of the surviving copies were thrown away when everyone found out Ralph was “just a tracer.”
Ralph pulled out the Sharpie marker he used at conventions and looked the case over, trying to figure out how to open it.
“Sign it on the case, please,” Damon said. Valerie stifled a laugh.
“Oh, of course,” Ralph said, grinning. “This is surreal, me giving Damon Ripley an autograph. Want me to personalize it?”
“That would be great.”
“For my good friend, Damon Ripley,” Ralph said as he wrote. “Do you want Val to sign it, too? She was the publisher, after all.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Valerie said.
“Come on,” Ben said. “You owe it to history.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” Damon said.
“Tell you what,” she said. “You put something good in my auction, I’ll sign anything you want.”
“That I will not do,” Damon said. “I gave you everything I could bring myself to part with the last time.”
“No deal,” Valerie said, putting the cap back on the marker. Ben and Ralph booed.
Damon leaned forward in his chair. “What if I emcee it for you?”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t.”
She smiled and pulled the cap off the marker with her teeth. Ben and Ralph cheered from the peanut gallery as Valerie signed her name under Ralph’s. Valerie Hall, Publisher.
Accepting the comic from her, Damon smiled broadly. “This is a momentous occasion for me. It gives this tired old actor hope that one day I’ll find everything on my want list.”
“Not this again,” Ben said. “You’re never going to find them, Damon, they don’t exist.”
Valerie raised an eyebrow.
Damon began to speak, but Ben cut him off with a dramatic groan.
“What?” Ralph asked. “You’ve got to have one of every comic worth having. I heard you have two copies of Adventure Comics number forty, for Christ’s sake.”
“When it came to the first appearance of the Sandman, I didn’t know if I needed that or the 1939 New York World’s Fair Comics, so I had to have both. Then I found a nicer copy. But I only have one Adventure forty now, thanks to Valerie and her damned charity auctions” Damon turned to an annoyed Valerie and said, “I know you did a lot of good with the money. I just can’t believe I let you talk me out of the prettier copy.”
“Just tell us what the hell you’re talking about,” she said.
Damon Ripley smiled, his eyes grim. “There are certain comic books out there that are so rare, many claim they do not even exist.”
“Because they don’t, you egomaniac!” Ben said. “It’s an urban legend, like Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head. It’s all nonsense and rumor.”
“Hush. Stories differ, but most accounts agree that, in the early 1940s, a small company called Pithos Publishing tried to jump on the superhero bandwagon. They put out a few issues that didn’t sell in large numbers.”
Ben stopped trying to hold in his words. “Don’t listen to him, you guys. I have put hundreds of hours into trying to find these books for him. You’d be better off finding a copy of Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried. Pithos Publishing never published a damn thing because Pithos Publishing never existed.”
“Pithos existed,” Damon said. “But after putting out only a handful of issues, they closed their doors. Forever.”
“Valerie, have you ever heard of them?” Ben asked.
“No, but that doesn’t mean much. I deal mostly with making the 78 RPM Comic Book Back Issues and Distribution Company look good on the internet. There are comics I love to read, but I’m not that into the spandex circus.”
Damon waved his hand at Ralph. “How about you, Meta Boy? You ever hear of these guys?”
“Sorry, buddy. I have a passing knowledge of most Golden Age publisher, not just National and Timely and the other guys that became Marvel and DC. But Pithos Publishing doesn’t ring any bells.”
“See?” Ben asked. “I told you, man. You’re tilting at four-color windmills.”
“They’re real. I know it. You’re the best buyer I know, but just because you couldn’t find them doesn’t mean they’re not out there somewhere.”
“What kind of stuff did they publish?” Valerie asked.
“All heroes,” Damon said. “No war comics, no cowboys, no romance. Just adventurers in funny costumes punching bad guys in the face.”
Ralph leaned forward from the couch. “But what makes them so great?”
Ben pounded the desk with his fist several times in succession. “Great job, Ripley. Now you’ve got them doing it. Congrats, you’ve spread your madness.”
“Ignore him,” Damon said. “Ralph, these comics are said to be the greatest hidden gems of the Golden Age. The characters, art, and story were decades ahead of their time.”
“But it sounds like no one has really seen them,” Ralph said. “I don’t get it. You could read all day every day for years and not read all the best comics out there. Why get wrapped up in these old books? There’s no way they could live up to your crazy expectations.”
Damon leaned back in his chair, kicked his feet up on his desk and stared up at his ceiling. “It’s hard to explain. When you have enough money, you can buy everything you ever wanted. So you build your dream house, and you buy your dream car. You buy a full run of Action Comics and read it like you’re twelve-years-old again. But eventually you run out of things that get your blood pumping.”
He sat up. “You need a grail, Ralph. You need a quest, even if it never comes to fruition. I don’t care if I’m just tilting at windmills like Ben said. Don Quixote was a bad ass.” His eyes glazed over. “I just want to hold them in my hands one time. Read them—hell, just smell them—just one time. It’s something to dream about when all my other rock-and-roll dreams have already come true.”
Ralph, who once had his dreams come true for a brief time, could understand.
Damon turned to Valerie. “Once I’m done, you could auction them off. How does that strike you?”
“That’s great, Damon. Let me add them to my list. I’ll put an asterisk next to them, just like I did with the mermaid’s tears and that piece of the true cross.”
“I’ll find them,” Ralph said. His body felt lighter than air, and his scalp and brain tingled. Ecstasy wiggled down his spine. It felt like a religious epiphany. “I’ll find them for you.”
I’ll find them and become a legend, he thought.
“Attaboy,” Damon said, raising his glass.