Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Charlie K's Funny Books

That cold wind that has been woofing in the eaves the last few weeks reminds me of my childhood in the Sylva Elementary School. SES was a two-story brick building on what is now Mark Watson Field, and it had been officially condemned several times before I graduated (to high school) in the late 40’s. On windy days in March, I would sometimes feel SES literally move. Somewhere in the bowels of that building, great metal girders shifted. I would look across the aisle at Charlie K., a little chubby kid who always wore peppermint-striped tee-shirts, and he would make his eyes get big and round and he would whisper, “It’s coming down!” Then, he would imitate the sound the building made: “EEEEERRRRKKKK! Hear that? You feel the floor moving?” Charlie K. was my best friend. We ended up together because, as our teachers said, we shared “an imaginative proclivity.”

Charlie K. was my best friend. We ended up together because, as our teachers said, we shared “an imaginative proclivity.” Charlie K. and I knew that this was “teacher’s talk” for saying we were weird in the same way. Like me, Charlie K. loved funny books, Saturday Westerns and “Owl Shows,” (which is what we called the scary movies at the Ritz Theatre on Saturday night.) By the time we were in the third grade, Charlie had shown me his secret hideouts. He had two. One was under the Sylva Elementary School and the other was the inside of Sylva’s abandoned movie theatre, the Lyric.

Beneath the flooring of the school, Charlie had found a dark hole where we could sit and listen to the building creak while we ate our bag lunches. Charlie said that the shadowy recesses beneath the school were where Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster stayed between appearances at the Owl Show. Charlie had a talent for making me see the same thing he saw. “Don’t you see him, Gary Neil? Behind that big brick pillar? There! I can see his teeth!” Eventually, I would see Bela’s fangs or the knobs on Boris’ head, and as the dark figures lurched slowly toward us, Charlie and I would flee. Leaving our lunch, we would emerge with thundering hearts into the bright sunlight where we would describe our narrow escape to our classmates, who would look knowingly at each other and smile.

However, in terms of atmosphere, the Lyric Theatre far surpassed SES. Every window was boarded up and every door was locked and wrapped in chains – but Charlie K. knew how to get inside. After crawling through a network of vents and old storage rooms, we would emerge in the murky interior where rotting curtains stirred in the damp air and little shafts of light struggled to reach the rotting stage and moldy seats. I remember that there was always the sound of dripping water and families of squeaking rats would skitter up the dark aisles. Inevitably, Charlie would point to the great sagging balcony that seemed to float in the darkness. “There he goes! See him, Gary Neil? The Wolf Man! He's coming for us!" And he was,
because I saw him, too! Lon Chaney, Jr. dropped from the balcony and growled
and Charlie K and I were gone, back through the tunnels and vents...back into the
sunshine and the safety of the ordinary world
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But the biggest treat was yet to come – Charlie K’s funny books. We would climb College Hill, stopping at our favorite foxholes to fight valiantly with the “sons of Nippon” who infested the kudzu thickets along the way. When we finally reached Charlie’s house, we would tiptoe
Through the kitchen into a screened-in porch where a huge chest-of-drawers sat against the wall. Each drawer was labeled with names like CAPTAIN MARVEL, THE HUMAN TORCH, NYOKA,

Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), the first appearance of Captain Marvel. Cover art by C. C. Beck.
Cover to Moonstone Books' The Phantom #12 by Joe Prado.

and THE PHANTOM. Inside, the comics were chronologically arranged in neat stacks. Charlie K. had everything!

Thanks to Charlie’s collection I knew the origin of all of my favorite heroes and could follow their careers from their birth to the present. For example, I knew that “The Heap,” who was a kind of walking brush pile, had once been a famous German fighter pilot before he crashed into a swamp and emerged as some kind of human/plant hybrid that wandered the world destroying evil humans.
Heaven help you if the Heap grabbed you in his twiggy embrace. We knew that Billy Batson (Captain Marvel) had a long-lost twin sister who became her brother’s equal by saying the magic word, “SHAZAM.” She looked a little like a high school cheerleader, but she could fly.

Usually, Charlie K’s mother would put an end to our comic book session by staring at the two of us until I got uncomfortable. “You need to go home, Gary Neil.” It is almost dark and your grandmother will be worried.” In those long, summer evenings with Charlie K’s funny books, I noticed that Charlie K’s mother looked at his wonderful collection with distaste. “Reading those things will rot your brain,” she would say. “Them silly books are going to make idiots of the two of you.” She always ended this little tirade with a threat: “One of these days while you are at school, I’m going to burn them! I’ll make a huge pile in the back yard, pour a quart of coal oil on them and strike a match!”

I remember one afternoon when Charlie K’s mother had made her threat and returned to the kitchen; Charlie K. watched her go and then said, “That’s not my mother, you know.” I laid down Shenna, the Queen of the Jungle and forgot about the terrible revenge that she was about to bring to Ungawa, the witch doctor. “What?” Charlie K. laid down his Captain America, leaned forward and whispered, “Neither one of these people that I live with are related to me!”

Then, he told me a marvelous tale. Charlie K. said that his real parents were wealthy English aristocrats who had devoted their lives to fighting the Nazis. They build an underground lab in Africa where they designed atomic weapons. When the evil “axis powers” learned their location, Hitler sent an assassination squad to Africa. In a hushed whisper, Charlie K. told me that his parents were killed, but that Charlie K. was smuggled to America where his father’s friends arranged for him to be reared in secret. When he reaches the “age of concent,” his father’s atomic squadron would come to Sylva and spirit Charlie K.
Away in a black heliocopter. Charlie K. would then take command of his father’s loyal forces who would launch a coup to avenge the murder of Charlie K’s parents. Wow!

Sixty years have passed since Charlie swore me to secrecy. I guess it is safe to talk about it now. I like to think that Charlie is happy and well in Africa. I wonder if he needs an assistant.

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