Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Comicmobile

About a month after I started working at DC Comics back in 1973, I arrived at the office one morning and was confronted by Vice President / Production Manager Sol Harrison. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

Startled, I replied, “I work here.”

“I know that. You’re supposed to be in New Jersey, picking up the Comicmobile.”

Yes, the Comicmobile, that fabled vehicle of comics history that many have heard of but few have seen (and even fewer have actually purchased anything from). For those of you who are unfamiliar with it: It was Sol’s idea that if kids living in the suburbs couldn't get to the old “mom and pop stores” that sold comics, we should bring the comics to them. So he leased a big blue van, had “The DC Comicmobile” painted on it, and plastered super-hero stickers all over it. Then he stocked it with leftover comics from the DC library and sent Michael Uslan (much later the executive producer of the Batman and Swamp Thing movies, among lots of other things) out on the streets of New Jersey to sell them.

When it was time for Mike to leave for the University of Indiana, Sol decided that I should take the Comicmobile to Long Island. And I knew I was supposed to pick it up, but Mike and I had worked it out that I would do so the following day.

Sol, however, did not agree. Midge Bregman, his secretary, handed me money for train fare, told me what little town in the Garden State I was taking the train to, and shooed me out of the office. They did give me time to make my one phone call -- to tell my parents I would not be coming home from work that night!

Mike met me with the Comicmobile and we spent the afternoon and evening riding around, ringing the bells and selling comics at local parks, beaches, and in front of other places potential customers were gathered. He had "lovely assistant” named Robin working with him and, frankly, I think she attracted more than one father of small children over to be persuaded into buying a few comic books.

I slept at Mike’s parents’ home that night. They were as surprised to have an overnight guest as I had been when I learned from Sol I was going to be one. And the next morning, after going over what was in our “inventory” and how to keep track of the money, Mike was off to Indiana University and I was on the road back to Long Island.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the roads of the New York metropolitan area probably don’t know that there are no commercial vehicles allowed on the parkways; they are only allowed on expressways and turnpikes. The Comicmobile, decked out with all its superhero decals and such, would not qualify as anything other than commercial. Needless to say, it made my trip home all the more interesting as I had to abandon some of the familiar routes for other highways and byways.

At one point, while driving through New York City, I passed a college friend, who was quite startled to see me. Our paths have never crossed again and to this day, I’m convinced he thought my job in the comic book industry was delivering them to stores. And when I arrived home and parked the garish-looking van in front of the house, my father’s first comment was, “I sent you to college for four years so you could drive a comic book truck?”

The hardest part about driving the Comicmobile on Long Island had to be getting a vendor’s license for each of the townships I would be working in. Each town – Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay, and Huntington – had its own set of requirements and its own set of rules. They did have one basic rule in common.

Where Mike had had it fairly easy in New Jersey, being able to drive to a local park or beach and set up shop in the parking lot, the powers-that-be on Long Island were nowhere near as liberal. I was prohibited from bringing the Comicmobile anywhere near beaches, parks, schools, and pretty much any other place kids might be. Instead, I was reduced to driving up and down individual streets, holding a set of bells out the window and ringing them vigorously. (Since DC had only leased the van, there was no way Sol was going to let me mount the bells on it.)

As those of you who have lived in areas that were served by an ice cream man might guess, I was often mistaken for someone selling Popsicles and Klondike Bars. There was, in fact, one little boy who would demand a Creamsicle every Thursday when I showed up. And all he ever had to pay for it was a nickel. I’m not sure what an ice cream bar cost in those days, but it was certainly more than 5c.

Over the six weeks that I drove the Comicmobile, I did develop something of a regular clientele. And some of the customers would request specific issues that I could often find among the leftovers in the DC library. This resulted in one of the most amusing tales of my Comicmobile adventures, when Joe Orlando tried to have me arrested.

One afternoon I was in the library, loading a box with a variety of books from the shelves therein. Joe, who did not know who I was, saw me and hustled down to the office of Vice President Sol Harrison. “Call the cops! There’s some kid in the library stealing books,” he told Sol.

Sol followed him back up the hall, took one look at me and said, “That’s not some kid; that’s Rozakis!”

For years after that, I would kid Joe about how he almost sent me to jail.

When school started, the Comicmobile’s hours of operation were severely reduced and Sol decided it was time for me to come back and work in the office. I’m sure part of it also had to do with the fact that we were barely making enough to cover the cost of gasoline the van was guzzling… and gas was only 20c a gallon at the time!

The Comicmobile was shipped off to comics dealer Bruce Hamilton out in the southwestern U.S. for continued "testing." The entire project, however, met an untimely end when the Comicmobile came out on the losing end of a collision with a semi.

5 comments:

  1. I wonder if that could've changed industry history if it hadn't had the collision.

    The fading away of the mom-and-pop store certainly was the problem in the seventies.

    Thank you, comic shop owners.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great story. Are there any photos of the Comicmobile?

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Bhob: See http://learning2share.blogspot.com/2007/08/saga-of-dc-comicmobile.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great story. I'd vaguely heard of the project--was turned onto this strange little history by newspaper writer Charles O'Donnell. I recall the story of the mobile going to Bruce Hamilton. Might have had a go of it if it'd been allowed at beaches and parks as you tried. And when comics were still inexpensive.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Damn. All this time I figured the Comicmobile was still down in the Comiccave, hidden under Stately DC Comics Manor.

    ReplyDelete