The secret origins of Comic Book City
I was lucky to witness that period when comic book collecting emerged from being a shameful pastime to achieving a genuine level of respectability. (As it is considered a better investment than the stock market.) A copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man) purchased at the going rate in 1969, around $25, could fetch upwards of $500,000 today.
In the late-1960s, a teenager collecting comic books was considered symptomatic of a severe case of arrested development. It was not something I readily admitted to while attending Mendenhall Junior High where I met John Hitchcock, a collector into Marvel while I was diehard DC. There weren’t many of us four-color freaks around, as comics discovered on school grounds would be confiscated and destroyed.
(Another Mendenhall comic connoisseur, Pierce Askegren, began writing for Vampirella and Creepy in 1979. After being viciously attacked in print by author Harlan Ellison in 1980, Askegren retreated from the pop culture scene, returning a decade later to pen best-selling novels based on Marvel superheroes and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. He passed away in 2009.)
A Shazam!-moment for us came around 1971 when College Hill resident Clay Kimball appeared on The Bob Gordon Show, Channel 12’s Sunday afternoon rerun-fest during which Bob would interview colorful locals. Astonishing as it was to see an adult comic aficionado on T.V., it was equally unnerving watching Bob Gordon manhandle those 10-cent treasures on the air.
Kimball, Hitchcock, and I attended the state’s first comic conventions put on three or four times a year beginning in the late-1960s. Held in the backyard of brothers Edwin and Terry Murray’s home in Durham, 20 or so folks would show up to pour over what are now million dollar rarities like Action Comics #1, watch a movie, then eat dinner.
Fifty years ago, this hobby could lead you to some sketchy places, such as Sam & Mack’s Newsstand where new releases were displayed next to raunchy porn mags. “You’d look for comics wherever you could find them,” collector Raymond Tucker recalled. “There was a lady with a big moving van in a parking lot who had stacks of pre-code [1940s-1950s] comics for 50 cents apiece.”
Hitchcock remembers a house with comic books for sale on High Point Road at the end of a dirt driveway with a large weeping willow out front.
“You’d knock on the door and hear people yelling and screaming in there. Inside, there was a lady in a wicker chair with a tackle box who looked put out that we were even there. Behind her was a dog barking like it wanted to rip your throat out. She’d bang on the door and yell, ’Shut up dog!’”
The city’s first comic book store popped up in 1973, where Sno-White Cleaners is now, near the corner of Walker and Elam. Back issues were placed inside Ziploc bags and hung with pins from a clothesline. “I think it was called Book Nook,” Tucker said. “I was able to pick up early Neal Adams’ Batman in Brave and Bold for 50 or 75 cents.”
“The owner had a goatee, a big gut and a cigarette with an ash about a mile long on it,” John Hitchcock remembered. “He was not friendly, very condescending.” Back issues generally sold for under $3, that is, until a customer showed the shopkeeper a copy of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. “After that,” Tucker said, “the guy wanted highest book value for his comics.” That shop closed after about six months.
Kimball put on the area’s first comic convention in 1973 at Friendly Center Auditorium; his guest was Chapel Hill sci-fi pulp writer and Captain Marvel scribe Manly Wade Wellman. Overzealous tax assessors shut down Clay’s conventions after three shows.
“We couldn’t believe the city went after this little thing that was only making everybody happy,” Hitchcock told me.
Greensboro’s first full-service emporium, Acme Comics, opened in 1982 on the corner of South Elm and McGee, the next year they sponsored the first of many comic-cons with big-name guests including Archie Goodwin, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby.
In 2012, at the urging of Acme Comics, the Greensboro City Council voted unanimously to give The Gate City a new nickname — Comic Book City, USA. It’s entirely fitting with four comic book retailers inside the city limits, an unusually large number, not to mention Greensboro is a point of origin for a number of notable artists including DC legend Murphy Anderson (Superman, Atomic Knights), Randy Green (X-Men), and Chris Giarrusso (Encounter).
Meanwhile, John Hitchcock’s own shop, Parts Unknown: The Comic Book Store, is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Kimball liquidated his entire collection before passing away in 2009.
“Aunt Buncie was extremely poor and depended on charity from organizations, neighbors and family,” Kimball’s cousin Elvin Perkins told me. “Clay never forgot that and left over $160,000 to feed and care for those in need.”
What’s that they say about heroes not needing a cape?
Billy Ingram is the author of five books and can be found Thursday and Friday afternoons talking classic T.V., old Greensboro, and rare comics at Parts Unknown, coincidentally located around the corner from where Clay Kimball lived near Mendenhall and Spring Garden.