Comic-book memories are no farther away than the musty shops that offer up oldies for a reasonable price.
After school and on weekends, these boutiques are jammed with customers who range from knee-high fans to gray-haired collectors. Some arrive with stacks to redeem, or lists of comics needed to complete a collection. Others simply seek the latest installment of a favorite adventure, or yearn to jawbone over the relative merits of their heroes. Many do more talking than buying, as there's little pressure to purchase.
No one seems in a rush, and it's understandable that some shops would be here today, gone tomorrow. Still, a few old reliables remain.
KEY BRIDGE NEWS STAND, 34th and M Streets NW, across from Little Tavern No. 14. Comics, souvenirs, magazines and newspapers from all over the world. Opens daily at 8 and closes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 4; Monday, Wednesday, Saturday at 6; Friday at 7. Beneath a tattered black awning, Peruvian-born Edgard Polares and his American wife, Lenore, deal from ceiling-high shelves of comics -- 15,000 at last count. The walls are crowded with intimidating posters of zap gurus -- Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Thor -- and the aisles are clogged with collectors such as artist Michael Hernandez, 18, who is pyramiding his collection of 3,000 comics.
A tall, articulate fan of the Rawhide Kid, Black Panther, Red Sonja ("the Farah Fawcett of comics"), X-Men, Dracula, Dr. Strange and Spiderman, Hernandez painfully remembers when, as a child, "My mother tried to take my comics away." No longer; he has fled the hearth.
His idol: Spiderman. "Kids can relate to him. He's sexually frustrated, socially inept, he leads a Woody Allen life. And he can swing away from his problems anytime he wants," he says.
"Comics," he says, "are pure escapism, much better than TV."
Another customer is en route to London. British embassy patent attorney Jim Russel and his wife are palming a few hard-to-find copies of the Fantastic Four, The Eternals and Ghost Rider. It's all for their 17-year-old son, a prep-school student back home. He collects.
"The bloke is crazy," scoffs a little sister.
Not so, says mother Russell. "He could be doing far worse things with his money and his mind. He's a very clever child. He wants to be a research scientist."
The aisles are also by-ways for such as attorney Richard Ben-Veniste, the former chief Watergate prosecutor and Howard the Duck fan. Upon finding himself lionized in several issues of The Incredible Hulk, he dropped by to snap up a few shards of evidence.
"What superpowers do you have?" inquired Lenore Polares, searching out the copies.
"None except the law," he is said to have quipped.
In one story, aliens adopt the disguises of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean and Nixon, hustling the real Nixon to the confines of the White House dungeon. But not for long. Ben Vincent of the Justice Department notices the alien Nixon acting strangely, insists he's not The Real Thing, bops an alien on the head and rescues the President.
The Real Nixon is saved and the country returns to normal. "It was a real gas," recalls hero Ben-Veniste.
THE BARBARIAN, 11254 Triangle Lane, Wheaton. Noon to 6 daily, closed Monday. A tight, cluttered shop with floor-to-ceiling comics, sci-fi, mystery and assorted tattered paperbacks, many discounted to a dime. A life-size Batman cutout and a plastic cobra stand watch in the window, as owner Carl Bridgers rings up sales next to a Mickey Mouse telephone.The theme from "Star Wars" booms over the stereo.
"We have so many comics, we don't know what we have," he says, claiming the largest stock of comics between New York and Florida. "But anything you want, we can find."
Among the regular customers is computer programmer Richard Tirocke, 27, an avid reader who consumes two novels a night as he rides herd over a giant computer brain from dusk-to-daybreak. He owns 2,000 comics. "When I have kids, I'll just cart them [his collection] up to a comic-book store and sell them. And that will be their college education."
CRAZY AL'S, a tiny boutique in PG Plaza's Antique Underground. Noon to 6 daily, Thursday and Friday until 9. Crazy Al is one Albert Staszny, 29, and his craze is comics. He owns 10,000 to 20,000 comics, dealing primarily the Marvel line of Spiderman and The Hulk, and assorted nostalgia artifacts like old Life magazines, movie posters, buttons and toys.
"I sell anything that strikes my fancy," he says, "anything nostalgic."
GEPPI'S COMIC WORLD, 8403 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring. Noon to 6 daily. Three rooms up one flight of stairs are full of Marvel, D.C. comics, a few Golden Age books and customers who sometimes argue over what makes them happy. Geppi, who keeps the most valuable, like Marvel Mystery No. 1 ($10,000), in a safe-deposit box, is often called upon to referee such debates over taste.
"This is my favorite," says White House adviser Steve Travis, who, on this Saturday, is taking a break from solving the world's problems to purchase a copy of Warlord. "It takes about 46 seconds to read and it's an escape from Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Economist, the daily papers and my research reports."
On the cover, a Viking-like, white-bearded Warlord staves off blows from a muscled barbarian. Chained to a wall is a curvaceous, red-headed Russian in slinky black. "Lust, sex and violence," he quips. "You caught me red-handed."
Also in the midst of hero-worship is one Dave Scott, 23, a Baltimore longshoreman who has read and collected comics almost all his life and still relishes action, violence, "a good fistfight." He likes villains that reek of evil and heroes that shine pure white.
But he's getting out of comics. As a consumer, he's tired of prices going up and the number of pages going down. Just like candy bars. As a collector, he figures his 5,000-book collection of the Fantastic Four Spiderman and almost every comic Marvel ever minted should bring $7,000 to $10,000.
There just comes a time, he says, when one must become one's own hero, like Superman, and take the world by storm. Besides, he wants to buy a Corvette. "I'm tired of reading about these guys who can do anything," he says. "I'm ready to become a wild and crazy guy myself." CAPTION: Illustration 1, PHANTOM LADY NUMBER 17, WORTH $240 IN MINT CONDITION, (c) 1948, DC.; Illustration 2, WATERGATE PROSECUTOR RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, THINLY DISGUISED, IN "THE INCREDIBLE HULK." (c) 1974, Marvel comics Group.