Today I'm going to begin a series of some of my favorite experiences that I've had while hunting down comics. Some of these stories will take us far off the beaten path, to odd and sometimes weird places in the search of paper gold, but they almost all have happy endings, so it was worth it.
The Case Of The Hulk # 181
Date: September, 2013
Place: Warner Robbins, Georgia
This is by far one of my weirdest, if not THE weirdest experiences I've ever had buying comics. I thought about saving this one for a while, but figured, what the heck, let's lead off with a doosy.
This interaction started innocently enough, with a phone call explaining that the customer had comics to sell. This was still pretty early on in the existence of ACC, when I was still quick to offer to "come to you" to buy your comics. I don't do that quite as much anymore, and this story probably has a lot to do with that. The man on the phone explained that he thought he had about a thousand or so books from when he was a kid, mostly Marvel, all in good condition.
He said he lived just south of Macon, about an hour from our home base at the time in Atlanta, and would love for me to come down, look at everything, and make an offer. We set a time and date, and I went on with my day.
Later that week I hopped in my far too unreliable Toyota Camry and headed south. Stopped for lunch at Zaxby's in Macon, and arrived on the street the man lived in about an hour and a half after I left Atlanta. So far so good. I should have known I was in for an experience as when I got to the street the house was supposed to be on, I couldn't find the house. I had to call the guy and his words were, "do you see the abandoned house at the end of the street?" I'm obviously assuming he's going to tell me "it's the one next to that" or something like that.
But no, he says "that's it. It's not abandoned, I just have the windows boarded up." OK..... THAT'S NOT WEIRD! Have you ever... EVER.... heard someone say that before? I hadn't. But I was in the pursuit of what I thought was a pretty great collection, I'd already made the drive, so I thought "sure, why not go into this abandoned house with this guy, what could go wrong?" Truth is, I probably would have turned right around and left if I didn't think the stuff was that good, or that I hadn't already driven so far, so I said a little prayer as I pulled into the driveway of the abandoned house, and pressed on.
The guy had told me on the phone to go to the back deck, because the front door was boarded up.....not super weird..... so I climbed up the few stairs onto the back deck of the abandoned house at the end of the street. Before I knocked, I surveyed my surroundings to see if anyone would be able to hear me if I yelled, I didn't think it was likely.
I forget the gentleman's name, but I have a number stored in my phone under "George, Macon" so let's just call him George. George was nice enough, looked like he was in his mid-60's, ex-military, and lived alone in the creepy house. We walked in the back door through the laundry room and there they were. Organized nicely right on top of the washer & dryer, 6 or 7 boxes of comic books.
They weren't in standard long or short boxes, instead he had them in old cardboard boxes with the flaps cut off. Later he would tell me that he had them made especially for the comics, I didn't have the heart to tell him that they already made comic boxes as he just seemed so darn proud of them.
I have to tell you that I felt a lot more at ease with the whole situation being that I was literally standing a couple of feet from the exit, that was probably the first good thing that had happened for the "fear factor" since I got on George's street.
I began to thumb through the comic boxes with great delight. He had pretty much every key Marvel issue from the early bronze age period (1969-70 until 1975ish), as well as a really nice Fantastic Four run that went back even further into the silver age. This was before Black Panther, Warlock, & the Inhumans had really caught fire, but he had them all (#44, #45, #52, #66, #67), along with the Silver Surfer trilogy in issues #48-50.
He had a great ASM run, awesome X-Men run (can't remember if he had the GSX now that I think back, but I'm pretty sure he had a good chunk of the early Cockrum/Byrne/Claremont run), and an Incredible Hulk run that began in the late silver age.
Everything was in numerical order, so I began thumbing through the hulk run around the #150 mark, hoping that he'd have the big key once I got into the #180's. One of the hardest things to do when buying comics is to resist the urge to yell and rip your shirt off and do some kind of tribal cheer when you see a big key issue, as you don't want the seller to know you'd pay anything for the book. So as I'm flipping through the Hulk run I'm mentally preparing myself for the elation or depression that is soon to wave over me.
160's, every issue, ...... 170's, every issue. .....I hit # 179 and pause for a moment, take a deep breath and flip. There's #180!, ok, breath, flip, THERE IT IS! Hulk # 181, in the flesh. The first one I'd ever seen or held in my hands. It was very hard not to linger, but I didn't, I flipped on to the # 182 and kept right on going. I want to say that was about the 3rd or 4th box that I looked through so I just went back to searching. Trying my best to keep my poker face on.
I finished looking through the collection and moved into the negotiation phase with George. I kind of knew in my head what I wanted to pay, and honestly don't really remember there being too much back and forth. George wasn't asking for an insane amount, and we got to a number that was good for both of us pretty quickly.
George and I began talking a bit more and he offered to grab me a drink. So we went further into the house to the kitchen, which was when it got weird again. As I walked into the main part of the house I remember thinking, "you already agreed on a price, load them up and get out of there." But in I went. I don't know how to describe everything to you, but it reminded me of some type of military underground bunker or the inside of the Millennium Falcon or something. He had a computer and desk sitting in the middle of the room with all of the wires zip tied together and run up onto the ceiling then over to an outlet. All of the windows were sealed with what looked like space blankets. He had stack upon stacks of everything from magazines, to VHS tapes, to beta max tapes, to VHS cassettes. There was a whole room that he showed me that had nothing but vinyl records in it. And there were a ton of containers that just had liquid in them, just sitting around. I can't prove it, and it may have just been the hue of the glass, but I think there's a chance it was urine. YIKES!
I quickly directed our conversation back to us loading up the car so I could get the heck out of there. All things considered, to that point, there had been some moments of oddity, but I was leaving with an awesome collection that had, what was for me at the time, the biggest key issue of them all in it. So we loaded up the car, I grabbed my check book and started writing.
I should have known that the comics gods weren't going to let me get out of there so easily as George saw me writing the check and said something to the effect of "can't you give me cash?" I explained to him that I tend not to travel with large amounts of cash on me, and that aside from that, my accountant generally prefers a paper trail at the end of the year when I do my taxes. Neither of my completely normal, common sense reasons seemed to matter to him as he explained to me that he didn't like to drive his car, no reason provided as to why he didn't like to drive, so he'd have to WALK to the bank to cash the check.
Keep in mind, the books are already in my car, I'm ready to go. I think the car may have even been running already and now I'm faced with this dilemma. George didn't strike me as the kind of guy that was going to be cool with me driving off with the books as I went to the ATM to get him cash and he had no collateral or nothing. So, in the interest of just getting this over with, I suggested that rather than unloading everything, he just hop in and ride with me to the bank, then I could drop him back off and be on my way.
Possibly one of the worst decisions I've ever made. That was the most uncomfortable 5 mile drive to a bank I've ever taken. The entire time I kept peering over to him out of the corner of my eye to make sure he wasn't doing anything weird. Keep in mind, this is the guy that has space blankets on his windows, and maybe urine on his floors. I wasn't taking anything for granted.
We arrived at the bank and I got him his cash and began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We started back to his house when he asked me "do you mind stopping at the store so I can pick up some things?" ......... "sure" I said. I mean, what was I supposed to do. I've got this old guy that I'm driving around Warner Robbins trying to buy his comics, just picked up over $1000 in cash, his house is super sketch, why wouldn't he ask me to stop so he could buy groceries while we're out.
He thanked me and explained that he normally had to walk into town once every week or so to get stuff, and before you feel bad for him and think I'm a terrible person for not wanting to help him out remember..... HE HAD A CAR! It worked, he was only like 60 years old, not 90, he seemed to be in perfect health, he just didn't feel like driving. As we were heading back to his house he told me there was a gas station up ahead that we could stop at.
We pulled in and let's just say it was in the not so great part of town. I sat in my car while George went into the store to get whatever it was that he needed. I looked around and saw a car on blocks, bars on EVERY window on the store, and a whole group of dude's that were just staring at me like "what are YOU doing here?"
"Just be cool, it's almost over." I kept telling myself. I'm sure he was only in the store for a few minutes but it felt like half an hour. He finally reemerged with a half gallon of milk, some chips, and a loaf of bread. I kid you not. That was it.
So we finally were on our way back to George's house so I could drop him off and get the heck out of Warner Robbins. We pulled back into his driveway after our adventure and he said "wait here I have something I want to show you."
I said "Ok" and watched as he walked back down his long driveway to the back of his house. It was completely dark by this time, he had the cash, I had already taken him shopping, and as far as I could reason, he was just as likely to come around the corner and shoot me as he was to "show me" something else. So, figuring I had already done my civic duty, as soon as I couldn't see him anymore, I threw the Camry into reverse and got out of there as fast as I could.
And there you have it, my closest brush with death while on the comics trail. Once I left I stopped in a Hardees parking lot a few miles up to look closely at the Hulk 181. "WOW!" I thought as I pulled it out. It was beautiful . It was all worth it. The abandoned house, the smell, shopping with George, the urine basin's in his living room, ALL OF IT. As I held in my hands a gorgeous copy of a book that I'd never imagined I'd own. This book had eluded me for the better part of 2 years, several times I'd heard the phrase "I had a # 181, but I sold it a few years ago." But not this time, this time I found it, and it was glorious.
I've thought back on this adventure several times, always wondering what George wanted to show me in his house, but I've reasoned that I'm still alive. And that's worth more than whatever other trinket he could have possibly had to show.
The very end of the story is that I found out that Herb Trimpe was going to be in town for a convention in the Spring of 2014. It was a last minute thing, I think he was in town visiting family or something and there happened to be a convention that was scheduled that lined up with him being in town. The guy that put the con on invited him, he had some free time, so he came on out.
Herb was always one of my favorites, so I thought it was destiny to bring my Hulk Wolverine Trilogy to him to have him sign them since he was so close. After the encounter with George, I had to keep them, they were priceless to me as they were the books that almost cost me my life, yes, I may be exaggerating a little, but you weren't there. This guy was super weird.
I went down to the Con, met Herb & his lovely wife, and had him sign & "remark" the books. I even commissioned a sketch of Wolverine that now proudly hangs in my office at home. I was elated. I became even more grateful for that experience when I heard that Herb had passed last spring. Gone far too soon, one of the legends of the industry. But I couldn't help but appreciate so much more what I had to go through to get those books knowing that in hindsight I wouldn't have ever been able to meet Herb, let alone have him sign my books if I hadn't met George.
I've since had the opportunity to buy and sell 4 copies of Hulk # 181, but none of them have the story to go with it that George's did.
Until next time,
Keep collecting (and stay safe doing it, lol.)