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First there was a tiny classified, in the back of a standard DC or Marvel comic, that introduced me to The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom, a tabloid comic collector’s fanzine still in existence today (under a different, but still clunky, name).

I had never been exposed to “comics fandom” before, except in the pages of a paperback I’d picked up at TG&Y called “All In Color for a Dime,” and that was exclusively about stuff from twenty or thirty years ago, before my dad’s time, even.

I felt like I had missed the party. Nobody cared about comics anymore. I was pretty much the only kid I knew in Russellville, Alabama who read the damn things. There must have been more of us, or Old Man Cole wouldn’t have kept them on the racks at Big Star, but I sure never saw anybody else messing with them.

Anyway, I don’t remember how much money the classified ad demanded, in exchange for a subscription to this magazine, but I do remember it was some easy-to-come-by amount, even for a fourteen-year-old. I bought a money order for that amount, whatever it was (never send money in the mail, kids!) and enclosed the little coupon attached to the ad (yes, I cut my comic — I was a kid! Get over it!). I got back a weekly cornucopia of comics metadata: articles, columns, illustrations, and, more than anything else, of course, ads.

Many of these ads were for independent, self-published comics, none of which were available on Cole’s Big Star’s spinner rack. You had to order them by mail. So I did. I didn’t like Old Man Cole very much anyway.

The first one I got was Elfquest # 4, by Wendy and Richard Pini.

This comic changed my life.

Elfquest # 4: Wolfsong

I’m not saying I became that much of an Elfquest fan. I followed the book for another year or so, then dropped it. I don’t even remember a whole lot about the story.

I remember the pungent smell of the pages.

These days, I make fun of Luddites who hate digital comics and ebooks because of the lack of smell — but that issue of Elfquest really did have a special smell. Maybe it was the cheaper paper they, as a start-up, had to use. Maybe it was even some kind of cheaper, more-toxic ink. I dunno. Maybe it was the fact that the issue had been tightly sealed in a (hand addressed!) manila envelope for at least a few days before I got my hands on it, instead of flopping around on a spinner rack at Big Star next to the bananas and the potatoes.

It smelled different from my other comic books, though, that’s for sure.

It was more than the smell, though. It was the idea. These individual humans, this couple whose picture was on the back inside cover (I think I remember), looking for all the world like any young adult couple anywhere, like my older cousins and their spouses, had put this whole thing together themselves. They didn’t have to ask Stan Lee for permission. Or even Old Man Cole. They made it, and then made it available, just like that, and here it was, in my hands.

Now, this was a few years before the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opened the self-publishing floodgates, inspiring hundreds, maybe thousands, of imitators to enter the comics field. But the effect was the same, at least in miniature. I immediately started writing, and eventually publishing, my own “zine” (as we called them back then), featuring comics I had created (eventually I talked friends into doing the drawing, since I sucked at it). I even managed to get a few people to buy it, by taking out — get ready for it — a small classified ad in the back of The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom.

The circle of life, you see.

That minimal little success — those twenty or thirty people who sent me a buck for the thing that I had made — shaped everything I’ve done professionally since.

I’ve asked a friend, who says he still has a copy of my first publication, to scan some samples. Hopefully he will! Possibly he won’t! If he does, I’ll share them with you someday, and tell you more about the publication. It was kind of unusual.

Meanwhile, in case you’re curious, the Pinis have graciously made the entire Elfquest saga available online, to be read for free (though they do ask for donations). Have a look! The version I loved back in the day didn’t have those awful Photoshop colors muddying it up — but you take what you can get.