It's been quite a while since I've presented an actual work of original fiction here in the Fox's lair, and that was the original purpose of this blog. So here you go. It's really long -- even for me -- for a single entry rather than a multi-parter, but I sincerely hope you'll think it's worth it. It's about comic books, as many of my posts are, but even if you know and/or care nothing about them, you still should enjoy it.
Thanks for your time.
* * * * *
CAPTAIN AMERICA would have been so ashamed...
While growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stephen Rodgers had little interest in reading, and even less interest in reading comic books. One day, however, a friend of nine-year-old Stephen pointed out that Marvel Comics' superhero, Captain America, had the same name, albeit spelled differently as "Steve[n] Rogers."
To make a relatively long story short, once Stephen -- who soon insisted that everyone call him "Steve" -- started checking out comics, he rode the burgeoning wave of comics fandom into the late 1980s and beyond. As an adult, he collected many titles, some for pure reading pleasure, others for the hope of future profit. He wasn't disappointed in either respect.
Steve was truly a part of the entire comic book "movement," as it were, He "subscribed" to his favorite titles at a nearby comics shop (which he worked at during his teens and early twenties), and bought related items such as action figures, pin-back buttons, posters, t-shirts and the like, as well. He attended comic book and fantasy conventions. He purchased multiple copies of specific issues -- some of titles he didn't even read -- for investment purposes. He progressed from swapping certain comics with childhood friends to selling his little treasures at local flea markets. He amassed a huge amount of friends -- his "brother collectors," he actually called them! -- who shared his hobby, first by mail and later by email. He met many comic book writers and artists, mostly at conventions and comic shop appearances, and collected their autographs, original art, and personalized sketches. He became an expert on the history of both comic books and newspaper comic strips; his interests went back to the late 1800s.
But Steve's favorite superhero, far above all others, had always remained Captain America. Early on, he'd even had his blonde hair combed and cut so he'd resemble his hero's Steve Rogers identity, a habit he kept as an adult, although his hair thinned a bit as he entered his forties.
In late 1992, roughly ten years into his comic collecting hobby, Steve purchased a beat-up copy of 1941's Captain America Comics #1 for several hundred dollars.
By 2011, Steve was District Manager for a chain of department stores. One of his casual friends was a store manager for a rival chain named Tim. One sunny Thursday afternoon, Steve got a call from Tim.
"Hey, Steve, are you still into funnybooks?"
"Comic books. Yes, why?"
"You like that Captain America guy, right?"
Steve laughed. "Sure, he's my favorite!"
"Ever seen the very first issue from the forties?"
"Of course. Several." Steve paused. "I even own one."
"Really! How much is that one worth?"
"My copy? About six or seven grand, maybe more. If it were in mint condition, of course, it'd be worth a couple hundred thou."
"Imagine that." Steve heard Tim laugh softly. "Okay, you remember where I live, right?"
"I think so... Look, Tim, what is this about?"
"Can you stop by my place after you get out of work today?"
"Got the day off. I could stop by any time, really. What is this about?"
"You'll see!" exclaimed Tim, with almost a giggle. "How soon can you get here?"
"About half an hour, probably. What's this about, damn it?"
"Sorry, you've got to wait!" said Tim cheerfully, before disconnecting.
* * * * *
Forty-seven minutes later, Steve eased his BMW into Tim's driveway. Tim, a chubby, jovial, bespectacled man of forty-one, was waiting with a huge grin on his face.
"Okay," said Steve as he exited the car, "Tell me."
"Follow me," said Tim, walking toward a small shed several feet away from his two-car garage. An exasperated Steve followed.
As Steve entered the shed, he saw that it was half filled with cardboard boxes. "What's all this?" he asked Tim.
"Most of it's stuff my grand-dad, Eddie, owned. Stuff that passed to my mom when he died back in '98."
"Looks like the old gent was quite the pack-rat." Steve thought for a moment. "Oh, by the way, I heard about your mom a few months back, Tim. Sorry for your loss."
"Thanks," replied Tim absently. "And as for grand-dad being a pack-rat... Well, yes and no." Tim walked toward a small box which sat upon a high wooden table and placed his hand on it thoughtfully. "He was pretty well-off, and he loved art. All kinds of art. He owned some nice paintings. In fact, when he died he left me an original Warhol and an original Norman Rockwell piece. I sold them to buy my house." Steve nodded appreciatively. "He was a big fan of comic strips, too. The sweet old guy used to laugh out loud reading stuff like Peanuts and Garfield. He knew tons about the older comics, too, of course. Like Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley... and a bunch of others I never even heard of. You and he probably could have talked for hours about all that stuff."
Steve nodded again. "Yeah, probably. Sorry I never met him."
Tim reached into the box and brought out an old comic book. Its cover and pages were brown and flaky, and even as Steve's eyes focused on what book it was, he noticed a large worm-hole that seemed to go through the entire book from front to back.
"You recognize this, of course," said Tim, needlessly, handing the ancient comic to Steve.
"Of course. Captain America #1. Captain America Comics #1, to be precise," he added, although Tim didn't understand the distinction. Steve took the comic reverently in his hands. "This is quite a find. Even in this crummy shape, it's probably worth several hundred dollars, maybe even four figures."
Still smiling, Tim took another book from the stack. This one was in slightly better shape. Less brown, less brittle, still with some wrinkles and cover creases, true...
And it was also a copy of Captain America Comics #1.
Tim handed the second book to Steve, whose eyes were wide. "This one's better than my copy!" he exclaimed. "It's easily worth over ten grand! Holy-- ! What else is in that box?"
Tim placed a few more comics on the table. Steve couldn't help noticing that the top book of the small stack was a third copy of Captain America Comics #1. Tim handed Steve yet another issue of Captain America Comics #1 from the box.
Steve was incredulous. "Tim... I don't even want to guess what this one's worth! It's... gorgeous!" He didn't take the comic from Tim. He didn't dare. By now, his palms were sweating. "What else is in that box?" he repeated.
"They're all the same book."
"My grand-dad loved comic strips and comic books. He was ahead of his time, I guess you could say. He saw this book as a future collectible, probably before the term was even coined, and spent about ten dollars out of his pocket snapping up this bunch of books, when he was about twenty-five or so."
"Actually, they've been using the term 'collectible' since the late 1800s at least, and probably years earlier," Steve said, in a rather off-hand manner.
"Yeah? Who cares, professor?" Tim laughed, then continued. "I want to move these things. My daughter Ashley's pregnant -- again -- and my medical insurance sucks, frankly. Can you help? I mean, sure, I'll cut you in for--"
"You said 'ten dollars,' spent on comics that cost ten cents back in the day! Do you... do you mean...?"
"Uh-huh. There are about a hundred of them in here. Except for the ones near the top of the box and the ones near the bottom, they're mostly in the same shape as the one you call gorgeous."
"Jesus," Steve whispered, but in a way that made it sound less like a swear and more like a prayer. Finally, he spoke, with a very serious tone of voice, flavored with a bit of... awe? "I think, at one time or another, every comic book fan has had a fantasy about owning a freaking time machine and going back to buy up all the copies of Action Comics #1..." He interrupted his little speech to explain to Tim "That's the first appearance of Superman..."
"I know, I know. Geez, you think I don't read the papers, Steve? Thing's worth about a million bucks, right?"
"Yes," Steve said, and continued. "Anyway, after buying all those mint condition Actions, they'd come back to our time and sell them, and..."
Suddenly, something unsettling occurred to Steve.
"Tim. How many people know about this?"
"Just a handful... so far."
"What do you mean by 'just,' and by 'so far,' for that matter?"
"Well, my wife knows, of course, and my son Andy, and my neighbor Phil..." Tim hesitated.
"Well, Phil called the local TV station, and they came down and interviewed me this morning," Tim said, somewhat uneasily. "So by the end of tonight's six o'clock news, a lot of people will know."
Steve was silent for several long seconds, breathing somewhat erratically. Then he looked at his Rolex. "Damn. I have to go, Tim. Look... I'll make some calls tomorrow and hook you up with someone, okay?"
"Uhhh... Okay, sure."
As he backed out of Tim's driveway, Steve realized that his hands were trembling, and that he had broken into a cold sweat.
* * * * *
The next day, while he was at work, Tim got an afternoon call from his friend and neighbor, Phil... the same Phil who'd called the TV station about Tim's extraordinary find the day before.
"Tim!" screamed Phil into the telephone. "You have to get home, now!"
"Is it... is it Jan?" asked Tim, referring to his wife.
"No, no, she left sometime this morning, and hasn't been back yet. Tim... Your house is on fire!"
In a panic, Tim made his excuses at work and rushed home. Firefighters and neighbors had mobbed Tim's property, and plunged the ordinarily sedate neighborhood into pandemonium.
But Phil had been wrong.
It wasn't Tim's house that was burning.
It was his shed.
* * * * *
When Steve finally arrived home that evening, Tim was sitting on his front steps. Steve approached the door, as an uncharacteristically serious-looking Tim stood and blocked his way.
"You son of a bitch," Tim muttered, in almost a growl.
"And don't you dare deny it!"
Tim's face turned red. "You torched my shed, you son of a bitch!" he screamed. "I know it was you! What the hell were you thinking?!? Afraid someone else would have copies of that stupid book that were better than yours, or what? Tell me!"
Steve couldn't look Tim in the eye, but he managed to speak, in a voice that was eerily calm. "No. No. You don't understand."
Tim visibly restrained himself from striking out at the man he had trusted just one day earlier. "Oh. Then please," he said sarcastically, "do enlighten me."
"Books like that are valuable because of their rarity. A large amount of them, mostly in fine condition or better..."
"Save the collector talk, damn it!"
Steve nodded. "Okay... but I did it for the collectors! Throwing a large amount of them into the market, especially high-grade copies, would affect the value of all of them."
"That wasn't my concern!"
"Well..." Steve shrugged. "It would have been different if there hadn't been any publicity. We could have leaked them onto the market, one at a time. You would have made a fortune."
"We would have made a fortune. I'd already told you I was going to cut you in for your help."
"That wasn't even the point."
"Right. Right. There was a point to all of this."
"It would have thrown the market into turmoil. Anyone who owns that comic would watch his investment plummet."
"You're exaggerating. And it's one lousy title, out of how many? You talk like the bottom would drop out of the whole damned field, and that's ridiculous. And even once word had spread to all the fans, there's no saying I would have had to sell them all at once, right? So the demand still would have been there, for the most part, you jackass!" Steve blinked; he hadn't thought of that. "But instead of discussing your concerns with me, like a friend, what did you do? You burned my shed down!" Tim's hands were clenched into fists, but they remained at his side. "What if the wind had blown that fire toward my house, you idiot? Or... my God... what if I'd been keeping those books in my living room? Would you have burned my house down?"
"I guess... I guess I wasn't thinking clearly."
"To say the very least!" Tim exclaimed.
"What... What are you going to do? Call the police?"
"I sure as hell should." Tim shook his head. "When I think of what you just cost me...! Man, you are so damned lucky there wasn't anything of sentimental value in there. I'd freaking choke you to death right here and now if I'd lost any family heirlooms, or photographs..."
"Ha! I should choke you just for having the nerve to say that." Tim was literally trembling with rage, while he struggled to keep his voice under control. "Even if we did mess with your precious market value, or whatever the hell you'd call it, there are only a hundred. There were a hundred, I mean! And how many collectors would still want a copy? There are thousands of comic book nuts out there, right? Even if their value dropped by half, or even more, that's still a ton of money we both could have had! You stupid, selfish bastard!"
"I did it for the collectors..." Steve repeated lamely. "I didn't sleep at all last night," he added pitifully.
In a voice that was deceptively calm, Tim said "Thanks for reminding me that the word 'fan' comes from 'fanatic,' Steve."
"So, if you're not going to call the police, or... umm... choke me... what will you do?"
"I'm going to share some... information... with you."
"I told you how my grand-dad was an art collector. And that he saw comic books as a potential goldmine."
"You stupid jerk, do you think that your precious Captain America Comics was the only title he bought in quantity?"
For the first time in this confrontation, Steve looked directly at Tim. Tim's usual smile had returned, however slight... and with a sneering quality.
"Almost all the boxes in that shed contained first edition comics, and other neat crap like character introductions! Comics no one else knew about, because the TV interview only dealt with that one box with the Captain America books! The rest could have been slipped into your wonderful 'marketplace' a handful at a time! All your favorite little funnybook icons, I'm sure! Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Wonder Woman... not to mention later stuff from the 1950s, like Tarzan, some Western titles, and all these cool old horror comics..."
"EC Comics..." whispered Steve, mainly to himself.
Tim's spiteful smile widened as he saw Steve's eyes literally begin to water. "Heh. I never knew that Pogo was a comic book before he got his strip in the newspapers, by the way. And MAD used to be a comic book, too?" He paused. Steve was predictably devastated. "I sure learned a lot."
"Yeah," Tim continued, with a perverse pleasure, "my grand-dad Eddie kept buying them until the early 1960s, when the price jumped from ten cents to twelve. I saw some other stuff in there, newer heroes like Spider-Man, the Flash, Green Lantern...! Oh, hell, I'm sure you could rattle them off better than I could, right, Stevie?"
Steve had dropped to his knees on his front lawn, and was sobbing openly like a little child. Under other circumstances, even kind-hearted Tim would have laughed at how pathetic Steve looked.
"There were some bigger boxes in that shed, too, Steve," said Tim, his voice raising with each sentence. "In the forties and fifties, my grand-dad also managed to score quite a bit of... I believe they call it 'original art?' Artists whose names mean nothing to me, of course, but to someone like you? I'll bet you would have known all of them! You know, hand-drawn comic pages, and quite a few penciled drawings..." Tim's usual smile had returned, full force, although with a bitterly cruel edge. "And naturally, I would have given you a lot of those things for your own collection -- and probably one of every single book in the bunch -- because you were such a good friend!"
Tim turned away from the sight of the broken man kneeling at his feet. As he began walking toward his car, which was parked on the street two houses away from Steve's property, he said "Hey, if you feel like you want to throw up, go for it. It's your lawn, after all."
Then Tim stopped and turned to face Steve once more, deciding to twist the knife, so to speak. "And you want to know something else, Steve? You obviously never learned anything from good old Captain America! Hell, I'll bet he'd be so, so ashamed of you right now."
And Tim was right, of course.
Captain America would have been so ashamed...
* * * * *
The character of Captain America®, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, is the property of Marvel Comics. All illustrations are copyright© Marvel Comics as well. All other characters and/or titles mentioned are owned by their respective companies and/or creators, and absolutely no infringement of any kind is intended. No comic books were actually harmed during the writing of this story.