Some friends and I were chatting the other day about how certain funnybooks evoke vivid “sense memories.” If you’ve been into the hobby for a long enough stretch of time, you’ll know what I’m referring to — flipping through some back issue from your formative years and getting a double-barreled Proustian blast of tastes, sounds, or smells from a bygone era. The artifact that triggered the discussion, for example, was an early Eighties issue of Daredevil that had me tasting strawberry Tangy Taffy and hearing the audio of the Atari 2600 Vanguard port like the past thirty-six years never happened.
Most of the time, these little nostalgia trips are pleasantly nostalgic interludes and I have specifically picked up stray bits of quarter bin flotsam in hopes of kickstarting one. The most memorable and intense of these comics-related reveries, however, is rooted in the stuff of gut-churning nightmare.
1984 was the year when my universe expanded dramatically, moving from the confines of a small wedge of North Woburn to wherever our department store BMX bikes could carry us. If the weather was good and we had enough quarters to spare, my pals and I would hit up the arcade in Wilmington during the brief window between the end of the school day and the beginning of dinner. We made forays up to the Burlington reservoir and runs into Woburn Center. And, because it was the Eighties, we went to the mall.
The Woburn Mall wasn’t any great shakes from a tweener’s perspective. Its smallish mezzanine was mostly given over to clothing and shoe stores, and my days scouring the TSR rack at Booksmith and the cassette cut-out bin at Lechemere were still a couple of years in the future. Barring the occasional “hobby show” where coin and comics vendors set up tables with their wares, there was no real reason to hang around the place — and yet we still did.
The mall did sport a CVS whose magazine rack featured a small selection of Marvel and DC comics. The title choices were a bit random but did include the double-sized issues and annuals the newsstand in the center of town refused to stock, which made it worth checking out on occasion. It was where, in the late summer of 1984, I dropped sixty cents on a copy of Avengers #249.
The story wasn’t anything mind-blowing, just a transitional tie-in to the “Casket of Ancient Winters” arc unfolding in Thor. The most notable things about it were the odd-to-my-eyes cover lay-out and the return of Hercules to the Avengers’ roster. That was where the series was at during the first couple of years of Roger Stern’s run — an ensemble crossroads-slash-clearinghouse that leaned heavily towards continuity maintenance. It’s the reason why I adored the run as a kid, even though the individual installments tended to be underwhelming.
I paid for the comic, then my friends and I strolled over to the McDonald’s on the other side of the mall for pool our pennies and buy the cheapest shit on the menu. Normally, we’d nurse our soft-serve sundaes, small fries, and fountain drinks until we got bored or were asked by a manager to depart the golden arches, but this time was different.
In a bid to draft on the triumphalist sentiment of the 1984 Summer Olympics, McDonald’s launched a “They Win, You Win” promotion where folks where scratch cards were handed out with every purchase. If the U.S. happened to score a medal in the event listed on the card, the lucky winner could turn it in for a small drink (bronze), fries (silver) or a Big Mac (gold, the only step of the prize hierarchy I recall for certain).
Basing prize payouts on external circumstances is always a dicey proposition. (Note how no one up this way does the “if the Red Sox win the World Series, your big ticket purchase will be free” promotion anymore.) When the Soviets and other communist countries pulled out of the ’84 Summer Olympics, it became a cash-hemorrhaging clusterfuck of free-of-charge junk food for Ronald and the gang.
Even stupider, turning in a prize card would net you another card to scratch off and check against the leaderboard standee across from the registers.
In the space of fifteen minutes, my friends and I — with the help of a Cold War dick-waving contest — had amassed a small mountain of Big Macs ringed with a forest of fries and fountain drinks. It was enough food to feed a family of fifteen, divided up between three gangly pre-teens in tattered heavy metal raglans.
We were young, we were foolish, and we were psyched about our unexpected good fortune, so you bet your ass we finished off the entire pile. At that age, in that place, “getting McDonalds” meant your parents bringing you back a basic hamburger or cheeseburger. Anything above that on the menu was reserved for sophisticated adults with cash to burn. The first time I ever seriously considered that I had “come of age” was when my mom brought me back a Quarter Pounder for the first time. Big Macs were the food of kings, and there was no way we were going to let that feast go to waste.
We stepped out into the muggy blast furnace of an August afternoon in New England and mounted our bikes. We made it to the outskirts of the industrial park that separated our neighborhood from the mall before the mass of grease, gristle, salt, and starch in our distended bellies decided to add an explosive finish to our triumphal procession.
….and that is why I can’t look at the cover of Avengers #249 without experiencing an aftertaste of vomit in my mouth immediately afterward.