In the 1960s, my older sister Denise took dance lessons from Miss Lorraine’s School of Dance, located in the suburbs of Syracuse, on the stretch of Taft Road that serves as the transition from North Syracuse to East Syracuse, heading toward (believe it or not) Rattlesnake Gulch. If I recall correctly, she had a friend named Pam Bradley who lived a bit farther down Taft Road. In 1966, when I was six years old and freshly-addicted to superhero comic books, a car trip with my Dad–mainly to drop off/pick up Denise at either Miss Lorraine’s School of Dance or Pam Bradley’s place of residence–included a bonus side-trip to an unexpected setting of magic and wonder: a bookstore of some sort, which contained tables filled with comic books.
A brief history of comic book distribution before the rise of the direct market: for the first several decades of comic book publishing, comics (like other magazines) were sold to vendors on a returnable basis. Unsold comic books could be returned by the vendor, and then by the distributor, for full credit from the publisher. To save time, tumult, and money, distributors were not required to return the entire, intact book for credit; they were allowed to return just the cover, or even just the top part of the cover (i.e., the book’s title), and the distributor was then expected to destroy the coverless comic books that remained.
It was, of course, a system rife with abuse. Were any of these stripped comic books, magazines, or pulp paperbacks ever destroyed? One presumes there must have been some honest soul somewhere in this chain, I guess. But thousands and thousands of coverless and 3/4-coverless publications were re-sold, illegally, at deep discounts. A 12-cent new comic book became, say, a five-cent or eight-cent coverless comic book, a windfall profit of which the publisher received bupkis.
At six years old (and for a long time thereafter), I had no idea that I was purchasing illegal contraband. I just knew I was getting more comics.
Fifty years of rose-colored vision has likely distorted my memory, but I recall this store on Taft Road as having tables full of stripped comic books. And, on that one and only visit, I was allowed to pick out a few to take home with me. One was an issue of The Flintstones. Another was Superboy # 129.
Oh my God, I loved this comic book.
I doubt I had much clue about what was going on in the book itself. Nor did I realize that none of the stories were new, just (“just…?!”) 80 pages of reprints. But what did it matter? With a cover blurb promising “Superboy And His Super-Friends,” this book had superheroes as far as the eye could see! There was Superboy himself–The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Boy!–with all the bullet-racin’, locomotive-beatin’, tall-building-vaultin’ that promised and delivered. But there was also a substitute Superboy named Vidal, a “super weakling from space” named Dworn, a time-traveling kid from Krypton named Zar-Al, and that, y’know, gurl–Supergirl, that is. Clark Kent’s own gal pal Lana Lang even got into the act–sort of–when she tried to help and/or manipulate an amnesiac Superboy set up a new secret identity.
But, best of all, there was “Superboy’s Big Brother,” Mon-El. First off, I dug Mon-El’s costume, which was simple, but featured a tunic-with-tails over shorts, just like Robin the Boy Wonder’s outfit. The two-part novel-length story, which originally appeared in Superboy # 89, shows us Superboy’s discovery of a rocketship containing an amnesiac, super-powered teen from space. See, in the DC universe, amnesia was a far more common malady than, like, measles. Circumstantial evidence leads the Boy of Steel to conclude that this strange visitor from another planet must have come from Superboy’s home planet of Krypton; furthermore, this new superkid must be Superboy’s brother, an older brother he never knew he had. Well, yeah; what other explanation could there be? Big brother arrived on Earth with no memory of his history, nor even his name, so Superboy decides to name him David Crosby. NO! I KID! I’m a kidder. Instead, Superboy names his brother after the day of the week, and Monday’s starchild becomes the superheroic Mon-El.
This new brotherly kinship soon gives way to slight sibling rivalry, but then to outright suspicion, as Superboy begins to question whether or not Mon-El really came from Krypton. To test Mon-El’s Kryptonian heritage, Superboy even takes the extreme measure of surreptitiously exposing a slumbering Mon-El to a low dose of deadly Kryptonite radiation; while this is kinda like, say, firing a bullet at Bruce Wayne to prove he’s Superman, Mon-El’s healthy non-reaction to the green rays does indeed prove he’s not a son of Krypton.
Now convinced that Mon-El is lying, Superboy arranges a trap to reveal Mon-El’s subterfuge. Superboy arranges for he and Mon-El to encounter a massive amount of fake Kryptonite meteors–actually lead, painted green–and to confront that treacherous cur Mon-El when he pretends to succumb to the ersatz Green K.
But the plan has unintended consequences: Mon-El does indeed succumb to the fake Kryptonite, but he’s not faking; the exposure is killing him. The radiation has also restored his memory. Mon-El is not from Krypton, but from the planet Daxam; he had met Superboy’s parents Jor-El and Lara prior to Krypton’s demise, and that meeting had provided the circumstantial clues that led Superboy to believe (through no fault of Mon-El, mind you) that they were Kryptonian brothers from the same mother. But it gets worse! Lead is just as deadly to Daxamites as Kryptonite is to Kryptonians, and Superboy’s well-intentioned stupid moves have condemned Mon-El to death. The only hope is to send Mon-El to The Phantom Zone, and let his disembodied form remain diaphanous until he can be cured of his lead poisoning. With that, Mon-El is voluntarily exiled to The Phantom Zone, awaiting the day Superboy can restore him to a physical, not-dying state. (A text piece in this issue then explained how Mon-El would remain in The Phantom Zone for a thousand years before being cured by Brainiac 5 in the 30th Century, allowing Mon-El to join The Legion Of Super-Heroes in the far future. So, Superboy’s a cad and a big fat failure.)
As a 56-year-old kid today, I can react to this with all the loving snark I wish. As a six-year-old kid reading it for the first time, the only appropriate reaction was: “Wow!”
My original, cover-compromised copy of Superboy # 129 did not survive the ’60s. I replaced it some years later–with a complete cover, this time!–then stupidly sold it in a comics-collection purge in the ’70s. I bought my third and final copy in the ’80s, and that one will remain mine until I the day I slip forever into The Phantom Zone myself. As a budding teen writer, I imagined a sequel to “Superboy’s Big Brother!” as a Batman and Mon-El team-up for The Brave And The Bold, but never completed any work beyond its title (“The Phantom Of Gotham City”) and a vague concept.
Miss Lorraine’s School Of Dance on Taft Road closed its doors years and years ago. Pam Bradley moved to Florida; Denise reunited with her during our 1970 Florida vacation (a trip mentioned briefly here.) And I never again visited that store, with the tables full of stripped-cover comic books; perhaps it, too, slipped into The Phantom Zone. But it was real when I needed it to be.