On an August day in 1961 thirteen-year-old Kenny, preoccupied with going through this week's comic books at the drugstore, was suddenly aware of a presence. He turned quickly to see an old man standing behind him. A peculiar-looking old man, at that. He had gold-colored wire rim glasses, gray hair, a bushy, drooping mustache with a white beard, a pot belly he was trying to cover with a Hawaiian shirt, denim shorts and, of all things, white tennis shoes of some strange design. He could have been a bum or a beatnik. The man was too close. He was grinning like an idiot, and Kenny began to shrink away.
“Hey!" said the man. "Kenny, right? My name's Ken, too! I see you're looking at comic books and I wanted to recommend something.”
Kenny was puzzled, but also alarmed. An old man talking about comic books? Hadn't his mom and dad and teachers all warned him about being approached by strangers, especially strange old men? They said they'd try to get at a kid through the kid’s interest.
“No, no,” the man said, as if reading his thoughts. “Really, I'm not trying to scare you, Kenny. I read comics when I was your age and noticed this one here.” He pointed at one toward the bottom of the Hey!! Kids Comics spinner rack. It was called—and despite his trepidations Kenny found himself bending down to read the title—The Fantastic Four. The cover illustration showed a big monster coming out of the ground and four people fighting it. “That's Fantastic Four #1, Kenny. My advice is you use your dollar allowance and buy all the copies you see here—” the man reached and quickly flipped through them, as Kenny moved back and away from the man's hand “—six copies. With that buck you can get them all. Then you know what? This comic book will be valuable someday. You put these copies away somewhere safe and guard them, and someday, fifty years from now, you can sell them for thousands of dollars each!” The man continued his grinning and Kenny's mind whirled. He looked past the man to see if he could just bolt and run, get to his bicycle and ride for home. The druggist and his teenage clerk were busy at the register with a customer but Kenny supposed he could shout and get their attention if the man tried to touch him.
Ken sensed the boy's unease and backed up a few paces. “Really, Kenny, trust someone who knows. This will be valuable.” He had the imploring look of someone who believed what he was saying, but Kenny, who liked superheroes just fine, was looking for the titles he usually bought: Green Lantern, The Flash, Justice League of America...he didn't recognize the comic book the man was pointing at with such enthusiasm.
“I know this seems weird,” the man continued, reaching into his back pocket, “buy anything you want, but make sure you get that Fantastic Four...” The man took a wallet out of his back pocket, thought about it for a second and put it back. “I'd give you money to buy it, but my money wouldn't be good. Where I live I use plastic to buy everything.” He shrugged. “Even if I had some cash it would have the wrong dates.” Kenny looked at him blankly.
The man glanced at his watch. “Look, kid, I'm sorry if I sound funny. I'm really trying to help you, here, but I'm going to go and just let you do what you want to do because I can see I'm spooking you.” To Kenny's relief he stepped back into the aisle, leaving him some breathing room, at least. “But, I have more advice for you, okay? Because I know a bit more about you than you think.” Ken held up his hands and with the index finger of his right hand started ticking off fingers on his left. “First off, in a few years stay away from a girl named Debbie. You're a bit young to know about sex, but it'll cause you a lot of misery.” Kenny's face registered more alarm. Sex? No adult had ever mentioned that word to him. “Next, when you get your driver's license don't buy a black ‘57 Ford. It'll be too much trouble.” The man got to his middle finger. “Third, don't drop out of college or you'll end up in the Army. Fourth, remember the names Apple and Microsoft. Buy stock in Apple and in Microsoft when they come on the market. You'll be a grown man by then and money will be a little tight, but buy what you can...”
He might have said more, but Kenny decided to make his break. “Excuse me,” he said, as he brushed past the man, who let Kenny go. He watched him rush through the door, and through the store window he saw the boy jump onto his bicycle seat and speed off without looking back.
. . .
Ken woke up with his dream still fresh in his mind. It was so real, so vivid. It was like he’d been in a real place. That old pharmacy, those old comics; an old memory coming back strong. He’d mention it to his wife, Stella, and make an observation. “Even if I could go back in time to those moments where we could tell our past selves what to do and what to avoid, it wouldn't work.” After sixty-plus years he knew himself too well, thousands of dollars in psychotherapy to find out why he made the mistakes he did. He told Stella, “I was the kind of kid who never listened to anybody, not my parents, not my teachers. If I had I would have avoided a lot of problems. I was the kid that even if I’d been told by my future self what to do to make life easier I wouldn’t have done it."
Stella, who had heard him talk like that often, let him have his say because she knew she couldn’t stop him anyway.
“If I'd only known then what I know now...” he let his voice trail off. “Stubborn. Huh. Stubborn and stupid. Oh well.” he said with resignation. Stella got the remote and turned on the Today program. Ken went to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee.
. . .
In 1961, Kenny woke up, put on his clothes and brushed his teeth. The drugstore opened in fifteen minutes and he’d be there to pick up the comics he missed yesterday. If he saw the old man there today he’d tell the druggist, and he would tell the old man to leave Kenny alone. What was that he'd said about holding onto comic books for fifty years? Jeez, the guy must be mental as anything. Fifty years! The last thing Kenny needed was some old geezer bothering him, telling him what comic books to buy. Huh. And as for that “advice” he was handing out, what to do about anything else, for that matter.
. . .
Fantastic Four #1, with a cover date of November, 1961, went on sale August 8, 1961. This copy was sold for $47,800 by Heritage Auctions in 2011.
I bought my own copy of Fantastic Four #1 from the “Hey!! Kids Comics” spinner rack at Millcreek Pharmacy in Salt Lake City. In 1969 I got married, so I sold it with my other early Marvel Comics for $175. I used the money to start a checking account with my wife, Sally. In that pile were perhaps a hundred thousand dollars worth of comic books in today’s market.
I can’t do anything about that but continue looking for a way to go back through time to tell my youthful self to hang on to those comics, and to hope he'll listen to me.