Phil for free, Carl for 10 cents

As a creepy kid tied tightly inside myself, I existed on radio programs, comic books and the Sunday comics, pulp science-fiction magazines and stunningly illustrated reprints of serialized fantasy novels. 

For sheer time spent, radio was my king. I listened at least as much to the squawk box as the next kid generation watched TV or the following one surfed the Net.

A sickly little beast, I spent many a day, week, month in bed or blanketed in an overstuffed chair listening to every show from “Rambling with Gambling” on WOR New York at 7 am, through “The Breakfast Club” out of Chicago (which played each new Hank Williams song), the treacly women’s morning shows like “Queen for a Day,” the entire noon-5 pm afternoon of quarter-hour soaps, the evening news, then ”Suspense” or “The Lone Ranger” at 7:30 or 8, and into the late-night dramas, including “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons” (parodied by Bob and Ray as “Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons”).

I have almost 3,000 old-time radio shows on my computer; Linda and I play them during dinner when we’re in a giddy mood. Some hold up remarkably well: the “Phil Harris/Alive Faye Show” was funnier than any five current sitcoms crushed together (as well they should be).

And the comic books.

My allowance wasn’t much in the early ’50s. Once a month I shuffled into the newsstandish shop on Haverford Ave. in Powelton (a few doors east of Shuman’s Hardware) and plopped down ten cents for the latest issue of Walt Disney Comics.

This was the era of Carl Barks. You don’t know Carl Barks? Of course you don’t – because pre-Trumpian Walt, by way of his dippy, stylized signature, took personal credit for every single page turned out by the Disney studios. Barks, recognized only after he retired, drew the still-legendary adventures of Donald Duck, his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, and their even more legendary Uncle Scrooge McDuck. I loved those comics as much as I loved my dad’s corn fritters.

Comic books were then 52 pages, without ads. Within a decade they had descended to 32 pages, of which 10 were advertising, while the price shot up. Was it lack of demand? I can’t understand economics.

So, did I read anything “serious”?

That depends on your definition. The ’50s are often referred to as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” thought the ’60s took SF in much more daring directions.

During the ’40s and ’50s, John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction, set the tone for the field, much as Will Eisner set it for the newspaper Sunday comics. Campbell was hardly reticence in telling his writers and readers exactly what SF should be in his didactic editorials. He both led the field and, in some respects, hemmed it in.

Though I devoured Astounding and its closest rival, Galaxy, every month, I was most enamored of brother Rod’s collection of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, book-length pulp reprints of mesmerizing authors such as A. Merritt. Looking at Merritt today, some of his stuff seems almost sophomoric. Yet I challenge anyone not to nestle their minds snugly inside his Seven Footprints to Satan or The Ship of Ishtar

But what most got me in FFM were the illustrations by Virgil Finlay, a magnificent black-and-white pointillist. He sang like Hildegard von Bingen (or, for non-medievalists, Sarah McLaughlin releasing “Angel”) – at once ethereal yet tied to human aspiration. And his women … oh lordy.

There’s a strange and muddled history to those particular copies of FFM: I kept them for years, then, for whatever lame reason, handed them over to a passing acquaintance to keep in their attic for me.

I never went back to collect them, can’t now recall the person’s name. But years later, in Chafey’s – the most wondrous used book store ever to grace downtown Philadelphia – I found a similar collection and bought it. At home, I wondered, could it be …. Today, more than half a century on, I’m convinced it was – the very same shopworn issues I’d abandoned. They now sit, wrapped in protective plastic, on a bedroom shelf.

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