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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 02/07/2000
February 7, 2000
Last Wednesday, Kay and I got into the car to do some shopping in Cornwall, a town of 46000 with a Walmart, an A&P and a Sears among other things. To get there, we had to do a number of miles on back country roads to reach the 401, the main highway that connects everything to everything in southern Canada, from Montreal to Toronto and points west.
Although I've driven it hundreds of times, I somehow took a wrong turn getting on the 401, and went west instead of east toward Cornwall.
I didn't realize my mistake because I got stuck in a line behind a creepy twenty-six wheeler that blocked the passing lane while trying unsuccessfully and for many miles to pass another big truck. So with my attention on the monster roadhog in front of me, I missed the signs that would have told me immediately I was going in the wrong direction.
When I finally got past the errant truck, it was to discover that I was cruising west so far beyond Cornwall that the idea of turning around and retracing all those miles lost their appeal. We decided to turn off instead at a town called Allister, which I didn't remember ever having seen before on any of my westerly trips to Toronto. But since it looked big enough to have a mall which might serve our shopping needs anyway, we decided to go have a look. Anything was better than driving all the way back to Cornwall.
In moments, we crossed the overhead ramp and arrived at a traffic T, where a left turn would bring us right into the business section and a right turn probably to more miles of cow pasture. We turned left, and, sure enough, soon found ourselves at the edge of a strip mall with a few stores, while, beyond that, there seemed to be a lot of parked cars, sounds of carousel music and mobs of people. Probably a local fair of some sort. But what caught my eye as we came alongside the strip mall was-- surprise--surprise-- a comic book store. Right in the middle of Allister, a place nobody had ever heard of. Outside of Allister, of course.
But it occurred to me that such a store in such an antiquated village, populated, as was usually the case with little old towns in Ontario, by mostly older people who had never left their farms.--might be interesting. Inside that little old comic book store, I stood a good chance of finding some pretty old editions, maybe even some copies of some of my own stories that I'd never had the foresight to collect way back in the days when I was writing them. And who knows what other interesting bargains. So I headed for it, first dropping Kay off at some kind of flea market nearby where she could rummage around among her own favored kinds of junk.
The comic-book store was old, fairly small, and stacked to the rafters with old comics. It looked like I might have walked into a real bonanza. And then the proprietor appeared from a room whose entrance was hidden somewhere behind the stacks.
"Hello," I said.
"Morning," he said. He was a tall man in his sixties with thinning grey hair and a squint in one eye. He wore a knitted vest over a plaid shirt with an open collar. The way he squinted at me, I figured he had one bad eye, although he didn't wear glasses.
"I thought I'd just look around," I explained. "Never thought I'd find a comic book store way out here."
"Why not? Folks around here read comics like everybody else. You looking for something for your--grandchildren?"
I told him I was looking to see, if by chance, he had some old comics around that I'd written back in the Golden Age. Then I had to tell him who I was and what comics I'd written. And next thing I knew, he was inviting me to join him in a cup of tea which he laid out on the corner of an old rolltop desk way at the back, pulling up a pair of bentwood chairs so we could look at each other across a corner of the desk while we talked. But first, he assured me that he didn't have anything around earlier than the 1970s-- that comics had been a big thing among the kids of the town's post-sixties generation, most of whom had moved away.
"So who buys all this stuff from you," I asked. "How do you survive." "Actually-- almost nobody around here," he says. "But I own the store. I get a good pension. And every once in a while, strange people drop in from nowhere, like you. So it's as good a way of doing things as sitting in a rocking chair and watching folks walk by."
"That doesn't sound very likely--" I began. "Nothing's likely. How'd you get here? A fellow like you suddenly popping up here." He raised a hand. "Don't tell me. I know. You took a wrong turn. You know how many wrong turns I get showing up here in a month?"
Thirty or forty, he insisted. "And with enough sales to make it worthwhile."
Then we got on the subject of what was happening to the comics business.
"It seems to be dying," I suggested. "Probably won't last." "Now I wouldn't be too sure of that. Comics is not like it's just one business. It's all different kinds of ideas. Different kinds of publishers popping up all the time. Maybe, one of these days, some one'll come up with an idea as big as Superman. Or a new kind of hero."
And suddenly, I realized what he was also telling me. He was a reader himself-- an avid comics reader and he probably spent hours sitting in back of his store pouring over his collection. But, as I considered this likelihood, he suddenly broke in on my thoughts.
"You could find out easy enough," he said. "Find out what?"
"If the business is going to last."
"And how do I do that?"
He wiped some drops of tea from his mouth with the back of his hand. "Didn't you notice the crowd over at the end of the mall?" he asked.
I nodded. "A town fair of some kind?"
"Not just no ordinary fair," he said. "They had a heck of a time clearing the snow to make it possible this time of year.
"This one's very special. At first, the village council wouldn't have none of it. Mostly because Reverend Mosely objected. He's the United Church minister. But then a guy from the fair showed up at the council and showed how much money the village could make out of such a fair. In fact, he promised he'd get the town on TV to bring in the folks from outside. And they went for it-- and he did."
"Got the town on TV. Didn't you happen to see it." He studied me for a moment, then waved a hand at me. "Nah-hh-- not you. I guess you're not a TV watcher. Just a wrong-turner." He gave a slight chortle as he watched me.
"What's all this to do with the future of comics?" I asked. "It's that kind of fair-- that's what. A magic fair. You never heard of such a thing?"
In fact I had. Some time back, I'd seen something on TV about a roving fair of card readers, mind-readers, astrologers, tea-leaf readers, assorted mystics and soothsayers setting up shop in some town whose name I didn't remember. Maybe it was the same bunch. I asked my comic store host.
"Can't say for sure. All I know is, I went there a couple of times myself. Now, tell you the truth, most of them's just malarkey. But like everything else, among the junk, there's sometimes jewels. Three that I know of. Very impressive. You want to know about the future of comics-- you go ask them."
"You haven't asked yourself?"
"I had a lot of other things on my mind. Besides, I got enough comics here not to care much one way or another. And I've got my own ideas too."
"About this being a many-sided business." He nodded. "That's one of them. But go ask the magicians." He pulled a small note pad from one of the desk's cubbyholes and began to write. "I'll give you their names. These are the ones who know what they're talking about. Don't waste your time with the others. All malarkey. Then come back and tell me what you think."
I took the slip of paper from him and read three names: Dr Maranto; Madame Gorelli, Horatio.
"These three? Why do you think they're so good?" "No--no," he said, waving his hands at me. "Go talk to them yourself. You'll find out. Then I want you to come back here and give me your opinion."
And that's exactly what I did. I got some interesting answers too. And learned something. I'll tell you about it next week.
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