When I was in college in the early 1970s I had a friend named John. One day we were walking down Grand Avenue, the main drag opposite Michigan State University, me in my red knit halter top and skin tight bell bottom jeans, and he in his lime green sweatshirt, denim pants and sandals, when he suggested we duck into one of the many head shops. It was fine with me because back then shopping for bongs and roach clips was a great way to spend a sunny Saturday.
But that wasn’t what he had in mind. Instead he pushed apart the beaded
curtain to the back room where the newest arrivals of comics were on
display. I followed him into a windowless place I hadn’t known existed
where about 20 nerdy guys flipped through the latest issues of
Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. I watched John carefully study
then buy about a dozen comic books. Then we headed back into the
sunshine where we spent the rest of the day talking about George
McGovern, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.
He was a scrawny little guy with big rectangular glasses and brown hair hanging over the worn collar of his shirt. My roommates couldn’t quite figure out why I hung out with him, and sometimes neither could I. He was nothing like the jocks I dated. But boy was he smart. And the comic book thing intrigued me in an odd sort of way.
A couple years later we married and moved to New Haven, Conn., where he went to law school and I was a newspaper reporter. He continued to buy comic books weekly. We ate dinner most nights in the Yale Law School dining hall with other students, including Sam Alito, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice. I don’t remember him ever mentioning his comic books among the talk of Watergate and impeachment around the dinner table. I do remember taking the train into New York City one time where we checked out the United Nations and a comic store not much bigger than a closet which had just the issue he wanted.
Sometimes I’d watch him in our New Haven apartment, one leg thrown over a metal arm in the blue canvas butterfly chair, reading his comics. What was going on in that head when he read this stuff? Did he identify with Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-Man? Or was it the adventure that held his rapt attention for hours? Good over evil? I still don’t know.
Kids and the comics
He graduated and we moved to Minneapolis just as hundreds of tall ships sailed into New York Harbor in celebration of the country’s Bicentennial. We rented a duplex at 35th and Girard Avenue South. Some sunny Saturdays we’d walk the three blocks to Comic College at 32nd and Hennepin Avenue where he’d buy his stash for the week. On the way we’d talk about what was going on at Faegre and Benson, where he was a lawyer, and Twin Cities magazine, where I was managing editor.
Life went on, and after a while we had kids. In my mind’s eye I can still see each of our three kids cuddled with him on the couch as he read his comic books to them. His voice was a deep murmur that transfixed them. When we took road trips they would spend hours playing super hero trivia. (Answers at the end of this story.)
A: What’s the secret identity of the Flash?
B: Who were the founding members of the Justice League of America?
C: From what planet does Hawkman hail?
It went on and on well past when I had heard enough.
We once got a complaint from a preschool teacher that our 3-year-old was too deeply enmeshed in a fantasy world because he had convinced another teacher that his name was Robin. I told her that I had long ago come to accept that superheroes were just a part of our family culture, and if she was smart, she would, too.
After they were old enough to read the comic books themselves, John bought the kids four-inch high plastic replica comic book characters, with bendable joints. My son would push Superman to fight Batman, who bashed into the Joker, who kicked Flash. My daughter would seat them all in a circle so they could talk.
As a ‘tween she was especially in love with Superman. Every Christmas or birthday she delighted at gifts of anything with Superman, whose symbol she later had tattooed on her belly. She cried when Christopher Reeve broke his neck.
One of the best customers
All the while John bought an inch-thick stack of comic books every Wednesday, the day the Comic Book College received its new shipment. If he was going to be out of town on a Wednesday the owner would pull his favorites and keep them under the counter until he could come in to buy them. Although he’s one of their best customers, he’s not alone. Comic College owner Tim Lohn said John is among about 75 of his “pull and hold” customers. And while he is one of Comic College’s bigger buyers, there are a couple of others who spend more there on a regular basis, Lohn said. I find that comforting.
Apparently there are lots more collectors just like him. “This is enormous comic country,” said Nick Post, one of 55 volunteers at the Minnesota Comic Book Association. The association sponsors two conventions a year, each drawing about 5,000 attendees a day, with about 80 percent coming from the Upper Midwest.
From time to time the kids would go with him to pick up his weekly fix. One day another customer was in the store wondering what to buy. Our then-12- year-old gave the customer such a well-informed opinion that the owners hired him. He worked there a summer on a special work permit for young people with special talents.
Soon the comics were beginning to take over the house. We had cabinets built into a 20-feet long wall in the basement to house the collection. The shelves hold white cardboard boxes the height and width of a comic book and almost 30 inches long. There were about 130 boxes, each holding maybe 250 comics, most in its own plastic sleeve to keep it in mint condition.
One night at dinner we told the kids that we were writing our wills, and thinking about what would happen with the comic books. The older kids were in high school, and had pretty much quit reading them. Nonetheless, the conversation was heated and pretty soon there were tears. I couldn’t figure out what had lit the emotional dynamite, and then it dawned on me. This wasn’t about comic books. It was about losing Dad.
John decided that after we had died the kids could take whatever comics they wanted, with the stipulation that they be kept, not sold. The rest would go to Michigan State University, our alma mater, which has a very large popular literature collection. But that’s changed.
Our youngest graduates from college in May. Classic empty nesters that we are, we’re moving to downtown Minneapolis in a condo about half the size of our house. There won’t be room for all the comics. What to do?
First we had to find out just how many comics there are, and how much they are worth. John bought a computer program with a bar code reader and had a friend of my son inventory the books. For six months now, she’s been in our basement three days a week, scanning comics. She’s a junior in college, the same age I was when I first accompanied John on Grand Avenue in East Lansing to buy comics. He arranged with two comic dealers to assess the value of the collection. We won’t know for a while how much the collection is worth, but John guesses it will be well into six figures.
Donating the comic books
He decided not to give the collection to Michigan State because the university already had many of the books and would split it among various libraries. Besides, he wanted it closer so he could visit. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which has a new program on the design of “graphic novels” – that’s what they’re called these days – didn’t have enough room for it. But the University of Minnesota Elmer Andersen Library, dug into the limestone on the west bank of the Mississippi River, has plenty of room in its Children’s Literature Research Collections. The Faegre Foundation kicked in a substantial grant to cover cataloguing costs.
There’s no debating the logic of donating the comics. They’ll be far safer in the high-security, fireproof library. And besides, I keep telling John, books are meant to be read, not sit in our basement. People will be able to study John’s books in the Andersen reading room, as long as they leave their packs outside, use only a pencil or a computer to take notes, and wear white cotton gloves while handling them. That’s a far cry from the days when my son read his copies in the bathtub.
After John had made all the arrangements to donate the books, I visited their final resting place. A delightful young woman took me to the lowest cavern, which is two stories high and the length of two football fields. This is where the books are kept at the optimum 62 degrees Fahrenheit and approximately 50 percent relative humidity, in acid free boxes on shelves lit by lights on timers like the knob you turn in a hotel bathroom for a sunlamp. Collections appraised at more than $100,000 carry the donor’s name.
“When a collection is assembled by an expert who has spent a lifetime collecting and cares about the collection, it’s an event,” said Karen Nelson Hoyle, curator.
Even though I’ve never read one – I don’t like the graphic novel genre – it was hard for me to watch the university cart the comic book boxes away. John says he feels like he’s sending a child off to college. But the Andersen library is a short walk from our new condo. Maybe, on sunny days, we can stroll over there and visit the John P. Borger Comic Collection. We’ll probably talk about our 3-year-old grandson who says he wants to be a hero who wears a cape and saves the day. And maybe we’ll talk about the Iraq war and the next president.
Answers: A — Jay Garrick (Golden Age), Barry Allen (Silver Age), Wally West (Modern Age); B — Superman, Flash, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman; C — Thanagar