A Nightmare Autographed, or The Archeology of Anxiety. Second draft.
When I was a child this comic gave me bad dreams. Just look at the cover. Superman, branded on the forehead, slumped on the ground, aging and withering in agony as a crowd of people look on, helpless and horrified. The most horrified witness was six-year old Me. I’m certain my parents didn’t mean to inflict trauma when they spent 25¢ on a Superman comic for their son, but they did. And there were a couple of midnight visits to my bedroom to reassure me that Superman was alright. See? He’s okay at the end of the story.
The interior pages also contained tormenting images.
Terra-Man – a villain dressed like a black-hat cowboy riding upon a winged horse – erupts from a movie screen and flies over a terrified audience. A man is given a ghastly green chest X-ray, exposing his grisly rib cage. The artist draws vivid close-up of Superman’s ancient face, the brand still a bloody crimson red on his forehead.
In one disturbing sequence, Terra-Man pulls a gold tooth from the back of his mouth and throws it directly onto the “S” on Superman’s chest. The gold spreads out, engulfing the “S”, then his chest, his torso. Superman tries to fly away but the gold blob covers his entire body and he falls to the ground, landing awkwardly on his face. By the look of it I’m certain that Superman’s neck is broken.
This may sound fanciful but I remember, back when I was a tyke, eating breakfast with this comic spread out next to my plate. My parents built a child-size countertop against a wall in the kitchen where I ate my breakfasts, drew pictures and looked at books. I left the comic right there, and off to the school bus stop I went. When I got home the comic was gone. Mom didn’t know where it was, she said. It will turn up. It didn’t.
I mourned. It was a scary book, but I liked that scary sensation. I liked the monster movies they showed on TV on the weekends, I liked the wicked witch in Wizard of Oz, I liked Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and I liked that creepy Superman comic book. But, eventually, I forgot about it. Old fears are replaced with new fears, I suppose, and the things that scare six-year olds are buried beneath the weight of adolescent dread and adult worry; only the occasional shifting of sands reveal to us the archeology of our anxieties.
35 years later, while cruising the internet and shifting the hell out of some sand, I happened upon an image of the cover of Superman #250. I flinched and I flickered out of the real world and found myself sitting somewhen else, in the early 1970s, at that counter in my parents’ kitchen. My tiny hand held a plastic fork, there was a half-eaten waffle — pre-cut by my mother — and Superman #250 was open to the page with the X-ray. Trying to brush away a veil of hour-glass sand, I gazed upon almost-remembered drawings that moved from wonderful to strange to frightening.
I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and slumped back into the 21st century, but I brought with me the impressions of the gold tooth scene, the X-Ray, Superman’s scarred forehead and senescent face, and the flying horse in the theater. The visions weren’t clear but their shapes moved through the fog and their ghosts whispered. I wanted to re-visit these specters of childhood past.
I found a copy for sale online, it was about 3 bucks. I bought it. It has been on the wall by my drawing table for several years now because the thrill and horror of Neal Adams’s illustration is still sharp for me. But the gold tooth scene, the green chest X-Ray and the flying horse in the theater are not as dynamically frightening in maturity as in reverie. I understand why those panels seemed weird to a small boy and my memory believed they had been drawn by Goya and inked by Bernie Wrightson. Alas, the art of Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson delights, but does not reach the frightened inner-child that Adams’s drawing still firmly throttles.
I’m not the kind of person who gets excited about autographs. I have no interest. My collection of signatures is small, and in almost every case, they were acquired incidentally.
The autographs I sought out:
1) When I was 11 years old I stood in line at a mall to get the autographs of Anthony Daniels and Dave Prowse.
2) I bought a book of Boris Vallejo paintings at a comics convention in the early 80s and he signed it for me.
3) Will Eisner autographed a book, also in the early 80s.
4) And, just a week or two ago, the great Neal Adams signed this battered old pamphlet.
When the opportunity arose to see Neal Adams and possibly ask for an autograph, I balked at first. Not my thing, really; and my Neal Adams collection is extremely thin, consisting only of a few smelly, yellowed, well-read comic books. I own absolutely none of his more famous, highly regarded works. No Batman, no Green Lantern, and – much to my regret – no Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (God! I want an original copy of that. Autographed!) I do not possess a Neal Adams book, the monetary or personal value of which might be enhanced by the signature of the artist. That’s what I thought.
But, in a quiet moment at home, sitting at my desk I looked at the comic pinned to the cork board and considered that this might be a rare opportunity to have a nightmare signed by one of its creators.
Now, this is my favorite autograph.
Afterword: Neal Adams is the perfect blend of humble cartoonist, arrogant artist, salesman, outspoken opponent of “The Man,” slayer of windmills, comedian, nice guy, mad scientist. He told stories, he cracked jokes, he sold prints. If you should ever have the opportunity to hear him speak or to speak with him, I would recommend it.