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Austin Chronicle Journey Into Clarity #83

When a Boy's Comic Book Takes a Mysterious Journey ...

By Wayne Alan Brenner

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  My sister cost me $2,000 when I was seven years old. Well, wait, that's not precisely correct. Rather: It's because of something my sister did then that precludes me from owning something that, today, would be worth $2,000.We're talking about Marvel Comics' Journey Into Mystery #83. We're talking about my sister puking on it in the back of the car.

I was seven, she was four, we were living in an iron ore mining camp in the middle of the jungle in Mano River, Liberia, West Africa.

My father had moved there in 1966, accepting a lucrative position as foreman of the mine's tractor shop. My sister and my mother and I had joined him there, a year later, to live in cement-block housing surrounded by dirt roads and the sort of environment Tarzan's always pictured in: trees, vines, rivers, snakes, monkeys. Africa.

It was an exotic, sometimes even idyllic, childhood -- like Eden with booby traps. There was no television available; there was no radio save for "The Voice of America" out of Liberia's capital, Monrovia; and, except for the occasional International Herald Tribune, there were no newspapers. There were, though, movies, lots of movies. Twice a week, screened at the big recreation center we called Club Mano (provided by the Company to keep employees and their families from reverting to a sort of Lord of the Flies savagery or something). Two movies a week, for free, every week of the year. Grownup movies, for the most part: spy thrillers and spaghetti Westerns and wild comedies, with an occasional Disney-ish kidflick thrown in for good measure. It was all we had coming at us, mediawise, except for old textbooks and such from the library of the small school we attended. Except for comic books.

Every couple of months, at least in the dry season, we'd make the long trip to Monrovia, where we could stock up on things you just can't get in the middle of the jungle. It was a hundred miles to Monrovia, half the trip on dirt roads that had been graded the week before and were impassable in the rainy season. It took about three hours each way.

We'd drive through the West African jungle forever, it seemed, finally emerging into the more savannah-ish areas and the actual paved roads near the Bomi Hills. We'd speed on into the capital, my father at the wheel of our immense Buick Grand Prix, my mother quietly beside him, all of us listening to his incessant harangue about what was wrong with the world and everybody in it but him. Then, after stopping at Diana's Restaurant for onion soup and hamburgers, after checking out the piles of snapper and amberjack and grouper at downtown Mesu Fish and buying necessities from various department stores, we'd head over to Captain's Bookstore on Water Street. At least, my mother and my sister and I would do that; my father would more likely head for a bar.

Captain's Bookstore was a two-story building with a huge, wide, cement staircase in the middle of the main room. On the edges of these stairs, all the way to the second floor, step after step, there were piles of comic books.

Comic books! Dozens of them!

It was the late Sixties. All hell was breaking loose back in the States -- and some heaven was breaking loose there too but, we were insulated by thousands of miles of water, of earth, of jungle, of foreign culture. Circumstance was our fiberglass. And what little taste of America we got -- what I, as a kid, at least, got -- was comic books.

The Amazing Spider-Man. Superman. The Fantastic Four. Batman. The Incredible Hulk. The X-Men. The House of Secrets. Journey Into Mystery.

I'd grab as many comics as I could, try to make my mom understand just how much I needed to have all of them. There were storylines that continued from month to month, cliffhangers to be resolved, characters with problems and situations that just mattered so damn much. They were a private universe inside the jungle, these costumed-hero exploits; they were cultural and moral guidelines to me, a glimpse of how life was lived back in the land I'd come from, had been born in, yearned to return to; they were, in no small sense, the paradigm by which the rest of my seven-year-old reality was judged.

Captain America, I knew, would never treat Bucky the way my father treated me.

But let's not get all touchy-feely, here, okay? Let's stick to the initial point: about my sister and her Heinous Crime.

We'd left for Monrovia that morning. I'd brought some old comics with me -- as I always did, no matter where I went. And I'd brought, specifically, Journey Into Mystery #83. Because it was the origin issue of The Mighty Thor, and because this same Thor had gone on to star in his own comic book, and I was intensely excited about this because Thor was based -- albeit in a whacked-out Stan Lee sort of way -- on Norse mythology. And I was of Norwegian heritage! (My mom's side of the family -- the side of the family that I considered human, that is -- was partly Norwegian, so I identified very strongly with such things as Vikings and Beowulf and lutefisk and so on.)

And so as we traveled I was going to re-read about how Thor came to be, about how the slightly crippled Dr. Donald Blake finds -- while he's hiding in a cave to escape some evil aliens that have just landed in preparation for conquering the world -- a magic hammer: the mystic Mjolnir, sacred hammer of the Norse Thunder God. And, anyway, Dr. Blake gets the hammer and is transformed into Thor, and he goes back out of the cave and totally trashes the aliens, and so saves the Earth from -- etc, etc.

But we're about 10, maybe 20 miles out of Mano River. It's the middle of dry season, and our world's become an oven. We're driving through unrelenting jungle, the trees are closing in overhead, the road's a swervy ribbon of dull, red rocks and dust, the Grand Prix's air conditioning is struggling for its life, my father's saying something about what the fucking hippies are doing with their fucking communist selves back home, and after a while my sister Cindy starts to get carsick.

She turns kind of green and moans, basically, says her tummy's upset. And my father yells at her, of course, because, hey, she's getting in the way of his plans for a fast trip, right? And Cindy turns a bit greener, and then goes pale and leans over to where I'm trying to concentrate really hard on the story of Dr. Donald Blake and the aliens. And out comes Cindy's breakfast.

Condensed milk and eggs, mostly, with a bunch of yellow lumps that must be half-digested pineapple. All over the pages of Journey Into Mystery #83.

So we stop the car and pile out and try to clean up the vomit as best we can, my mother trying to comfort my sick sister, my father yelling at everything that's thwarting him, me standing silently and crying as I stare at the sodden, puke-saturated mass of pulp that had once been the secret origin of The Mighty Thor.

1969, we're talking about, you know? Last century. Last millennium.

But I never forgave my sister for that. I even went so far, about six years ago, to look up the issue's current value in the Waterhouse Price Guide, to heighten my well-honed sense of blame. Two thousand dollars, the Guide said: Journey Into Mystery #83 is worth Two Thousand Dollars.

As if I've saved any other comics from that time, right?


These days, Cindy lives in North Carolina with her husband and her two kids. My mom and her new husband live near them; she divorced my father years ago. He lives in Florida now.

These days, I don't care much for comics, except for the reality-based bits of brilliance like Maus and Jimmy Corrigan and Optic Nerve and so on. These days, I could really use $2,000. Definitely. It would mean a lot to me, maybe even more than a comic book did back in Africa. But perceptions change. Values shift. Magnitudes of importance play a sort of spiritual switcheroo in the soul's secret identity. And if I had the money now, the actual cash in hand, and my sister were visiting from North Carolina and she puked all over it? Or if she even, for some crazed reason, grabbed the bills from me and tore them into tiny irredeemable pieces?

It's okay, Cindy. It's all right, girl, really.

I know it wasn't your fault at all.


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