The Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires fingerprinting as part of the adoption process, so Maura and I rode out to Waltham a couple of Tuesdays back to have our hands run through a digital scanner. The office was located on Moody Street, a vibrantly seedy thoroughfare that’s one of the last relatively intact vestiges of my punk era topography.
After checking out a large and pretty amazing thrift shop (where I resisted the urge to buy a beat-to-shit Seventies stereo system with a built-in 8-track player) across from the fingerprinting place, we strolled up a couple of blocks to visit the Outer Limits, one of the best comic shops in the region. I first visited it back in 1991, when my buddy Damian and I went out that way to witness the final days of the legendary Mr. Big’s Toyland (and picked up an issue of Zot‘s “Earth Stories” arc and the much-delayed second installment of The World’s Worst Comics Awards).
The Outer Limits loomed large during the Weiss Brothers’ Big Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-to-late Nineties, where Lil Bro would carefully inspect high value “wall books” while I pulled out stacks of quarter bin material and very reasonably priced back issues of the previous decade’s underwhelming wonders. Maura also frequented the shop during her teen years, buying anime soundtrack LPs and other merch with her babysitting money.
I don’t buy much in the way of comics these days, so I didn’t have any real impetus for the visit apart from “since we’re here” and “it’s been a while.” Yet it didn’t take long before the old magic took hold and steered me towards a complete set of Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior trades (more convenient than pulling the individual issues from my stack of long boxes) and the 1982 and 1984 editions of DC’s Year’s Best Comics Stories digests.
DC’s “Blue Ribbon” digests occupy a special niche in my funnybook fandom history, one that bridges the gap between the bagged three-packs and flea market fare of my childhood and the discovery of a spinner rack at a local newsstand during my early adolescence. Random volumes of the series would get racked next to the gossip tabloids and TV Guide at the checkout aisle of the local supermarket, making them perfect impulse gift material for indulgent parents.
Though small in size, the digests were thicker and sturdier than a single issue, and packed with enough content to see me though a long car trip or a rainy afternoon. I loved every one which made it into my grubby hands, but I had a special fondness for the “Year’s Best” volumes. For starters, they were pretty much my only point of exposure for relatively recent DC material. The first New Teen Titans story I ever read was the one featured in the 1981 edition.
Secondly, I was still of an age where the notion of “year’s best” carried serious weight. These weren’t just any funnybook tales. They were the BEST ones of the previous YEAR. We’re talking serious literature from a gullible nine year old’s perspective.
I still experienced a heady hit of nostalgic wonder after flipping through the pair of digests I picked up, but it was lensed through thirty-odd years of accumulated wisdom and a good deal of jadedness. It was impossible not to smirk at the sheer hubris of the title or notice certain patterns in the choice of featured selections. Many of the stories qualified as the funnybook equivalent of “Oscar Bait,” sentimental exercises in pseudo-profundity normally associated with freshmen creative writing students.
They’re the type of schmaltz that felt deep as the Marianas Trench when you’re ten and as shallow as a saucer by the time you hit legal drinking age (hopefully) — done-in-one “very special episodes” addressing some heavy topic like the parent-child relationship or the power of imagination or what if Clark Kent and Superman were two different people and both were pricks. Some of it was beautifully executed on the visual side, but rarely enough to muffle the agonizingly excessive earnestness of the writing.
The Year’s Best digests also took pains to include non-superhero fare pulled from the handful of DC war and horror titles that had managed to (barely) survive into the early 1980s. Whether it was a noble attempt at pushing back against the superheroic hegemony or came from a quiet sense of shame about it, the selections only served to illustrate how threadbare those genres had become — Sgt. Rock in the umpteenth variant of “gee, war kinda sucks” or a degraded fifth-generation photostat of a weaker Night Gallery segment.
My eighth grade English teacher was an ex-hippie who eventually mutated into a vehicle for NRA talking points. Before that unfortunate heel turn, he was the first adult non-relative who told me I had a knack for writing. (He was also the first adult non-relative who was profoundly disappointed about how I squandered that talent.) As a gesture of enthusiasm and appreciation, I lent him a stack of my favorite comics at the time, including the issue Crisis on Infinite Earths were Supergirl bought the farm. He read and returned them to me without saying a word. I asked what he thought of them, and he told me they were “predictable.”
He must’ve realized his reaction pissed me off, because handed me a made-for-the-classroom anthology of short stories and said “just read this.” The book was filled with all the usual (but new to me) suspects — “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” some O’Connor, some Bierce, some O. Henry. I read it to humor him and stay on his good side, but the message he was trying to send took a bit longer to register — that by broadening my horizons a bit, it became possible to see certain familiar tropes and beats and “shocking” twists in stuff that seemed so visionary inside my fandom bubble.
It’s not that comics were a lesser medium, but the realities of the serial publication grind and decades of being a disposable product lent itself to formulaic tendencies. It’s clear even within the confines of the digests themselves, where truly inspired stories like “The Anatomy Lesson” or the Babe solo story from Atari Force rub shoulders with the overwrought melodrama of a New Teen Titans “special issue” or some House of Mystery shaggy dog story. There’s a weird defensiveness that hangs over the whole Year’s Best concept (and I’d love to know what the office politics behind the selection process were), a demand to be taken seriously backed up by a bunch of material that doesn’t really justify it.
That said, I am definitely going make another trip to the Outer Limits next week and buy every other Year’s Best digest they have in stock.