“There’s something about time-traveling I just don’t understand!”
–Superboy, in the story “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” by Bob Rozakis, Jose Delbo, and Joe Giella
(My copy of The New Adventures of Superboy #26, DC Comics, February 1982)
My grandmother, Patricia Stango, who died in the fall of 1995 shortly after I graduated from college, would have been 100 years old today, March 1, 2013. Her parents, Anthony and Monica (Abromaitis) Budris were Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in the United Sates in the early 1900s. Of her brothers and sisters, my grandmother was the only one born in Lithuania.
Her mother and father, who met in Waterbury, Connecticut, and married when my great-grandmother was only 16, returned to Lithuania one last time to visit their families. My grandmother was born on that trip, and she liked to tell the story that her mother and father considered throwing her off the boat on their return journey because of the scabs on her head. They feared they would not be allowed back into the country with a sick baby. When I was a child I knew my great-grandmother but I was never able to ask her to confirm or deny this story as she spoke no English, at least to me. This language barrier posed no problem for my grandmother, her brothers and sisters, or for my mother, all of whom speak Lithuanian.
When my sister Alison was born in December 1977, my grandmother and I, already close because of the time we spent together while my mom was teaching high school and my dad was completing his law degree, became roommates. My grandmother lived with us until her death in 1995, and our house on Bamford Avenue in Oakville, Connecticut, where my mother also grew up, had two small rooms on its second floor. One was my grandmother’s and the other, newly furnished after my sister’s arrival, was mine.
We shared the same interests, especially as I got older: she listened to Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, The Ink Spots, and Glenn Miller on WATR or WWCO, Waterbury’s am radio stations, and read romance novels. She’d spent most of her life working at the factories in Oakville or Waterbury, which, despite the collapse of its factories in the 1970s and 1980s, is still called the Brass City because of its once thriving brass manufacturing industry. Until 1972, Waterbury was also the home of Eastern Color Printing, which published the first modern comic books in the United States in the 1930s.
By the time I was ten years old I was an avid comic book reader. While my grandmother read her novels and listened to the swing jazz of her youth, I read my beloved Avengers and Spider-Man comics and listened to The Police or Men at Work on my radio/cassette player. My interests still mirror hers—words and music. When I am alone in my office grading papers, I am always listening to music, often a CD collection of Frank Sinatra’s early Columbia singles. I listen and I am reminded of sitting at my childhood desk and doing my homework. I listen to the Sintara CD quietly to mimic the sound I heard drifting from the white clock radio on her dresser.
Of all the comics my grandmother bought me, the one I remember the best but enjoyed the least is The New Adventures of Superboy #26, dated February 1982 but published by DC Comics late in 1981. It might even have been a birthday present. We found two comics on the spinner rack at the 7-11 on Davis Street in Oakville that day, but I cannot remember which other one I took home.
In the fall of 1981 I was in the second grade. Earlier that year I’d been placed in what our first-grade teacher called the “second” reading group at my grammar school, St. John the Evangelist School in Watertown, Connecticut. We were slow readers who spent several hours a week in a classroom in the basement of the school with Sister Mary Louise, a stern, grey-haired woman with black, cat’s-eye glasses and a quilted blue overcoat she wore at recess. We sat at our desks and struggled to read short, terse sentences in books filled with illustrations of blond boys with crewcuts and girls with blue and white dresses and black, patent-leather shoes. In every story, and in almost every sentence, there was always a dog, usually a scrappy, long-haired Cocker Spaniel who looked nothing like my great aunt Annie’s dog Spooky. My mother knew Sister Mary Lousie was a much better reading instructor than our first-grade classroom teacher, so she insisted I stay in the second reading group.
But in the winter of 1981 I spent most of my time staring at the pictures in my comic books. I think I picked this issue of Superboy because I had no other Superman comics in my toybox. The violence of Kurt Schaffenberger’s cover might also have appealed to me—Superboy, disguised as Clark Kent, whistles and rides his red bicycle as three machine gun-toting villains ambush him, revealing the Superman insignia concealed under his red sweater. His eyes closed, Superboy thinks, “Perfect! They’ve fallen into my trap!”
Schaffenberger’s cover, like his artwork for the comic’s first story, “Clark Kent—the Grooviest Guy in Smallville” (a story written by Cary Bates with inks courtesy of Dave Hunt)—is crisp and elegant, more realistically rendered than C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel stories but with the same economy and clarity. Like other cartoonists of his generation, Schaffenberger is an artist whose drawings tell the story even if the reader ignores the word balloons and the text boxes. A perfect comic, then, for an 8-year old still gaining confidence as a reader.
Of the two stories in this issue, however, I prefer “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by Jose Delbo with inks by Joe Giella. In this time-travel story, one of Superboy’s “Strange Encounters of the First Time,” Clark Kent’s teacher assigns him a research project over his school vacation. While in the opening panel of the story Clark dreams of skiing “down the lava flow of a volcano,” by the second panel of page 2 he is comparing assignments with Lana Lang. While she’s been asked to research “the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881!” Clark must, as he explains, “ ‘cover’ a manned space flight in 1962!” A few panels later, after he decides he’d “rather get a real eyewitness report by traveling back in time—as Superboy,” we see him flying through a time vortex to his destination in the early 1960s.
When he arrives, he discovers the rocket is in danger because one of its engines has failed to fire. “Looks like I go from watcher to rescuer,” he thinks, but discovers that he is no more than a ghost. “But why?” he wonders. “I’ve always been solid before when I time-traveled into the past!” On the next page he is shocked to see his ten year-old self on a mission to save the rocket. Yet, as he admits a few pages later, he has no memory of a day in 1962 when he saved an American rocket from the Soviet spies trying to destroy it.
The first two panels on page 7 of the story heighten this mystery of Superboy’s past. Delbo and Giella draw the now 14 year-old hero as a phantom haunting his bedroom. “There’s something about time traveling I just don’t understand,” he thinks. The artists frame the young, disembodied hero in the light cast by the lamp on Clark Kent’s desk:
In the first panel, Superboy, a white and blue ghost, tries to scratch his head before he realizes, “There’s nothing there to scratch!” His posture echoes that of his alter ego, who sits studying at his desk. In the next panel, Superboy studies the books on his shelf: “Everything about this room is exactly as I remember it being when I was ten…” In the cliff-hanging final panel of the story, the 14 year-old Clark, now back in 1966, admits, “I’ve probed my super-memory to go over everything I did that week of the space-flight! I can remember every detail of the day before and the day after—but nothing about that day!”
I was hesitant to write about this comic because I remember being disappointed by it after returning home from the 7-11. The 8-year old me defined a good comic as one like The Avengers, filled with a large cast of colorful heroes. This issue of The New Adventures of Superboy only has one character who spends most of his time at school or on his bike. Even though I wasn’t a superhero, I had a bike and I had homework, too. I wanted a comic book which would transport me to places I didn’t recognize.
I had no idea when I began writing this entry that the second of these two Superboy stories, however, would be about the process of memory. I selected this issue because, of all the comics which my grandmother bought me when I was a child, this is one of only two, along with an issue of Strange Tales which I wrote about recently at The Comics Grid, which evokes a specific memory of the two of us together. That “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” is about memory itself is a telling coincidence, perhaps, or one of Walter Benjamin’s secret, magical affinities.
This book, this quiet companion, has been waiting patiently to reveal its secrets, and perhaps it has taken me thirty years to learn how to read it.
I have saved this comic for three decades not for its stories or for its art, but because when I see the cover again I remember Oakville, Connecticut in November or December of 1981, as my grandmother and I walk past the brook which runs parallel with Pullen Ave. It is cold and damp, but she is holding my hand, and I am not at school, and I am careful to walk close to her as we cross Bamford Avenue to the driveway of our house. And like Superboy I am a ghost in that world as I watch the two of us walking home. Meanwhile, here in the present, in Chicago, I stare at a yellowed, fading book which like the hero’s time vortex returns me to my childhood.
Unlike Superboy, who cannot remember the day he saved the rocket, I can recall this quiet walk home, even without the alien gift of supermemory, and so for a few moments I inhabit that space, and see her again in the same perfect clarity as the four-color images in this comic book.
Happy birthday, Grammy.