Write a short story that is set in Argentina in 1932, in which a teacup plays a crucial role.
When I got into collecting comics in high school, I caught a lot of shit from normies. Why are you reading comics, they would ask me. Why you reading those kids’ books? Are you too stupid for real books?
I shrugged them off and went back to it. For years, I took hell over my reading choices. Why would I read about a man being trapped in the belly of whale only to find salvation, when there was the story of Jo Nah of the Legion of Super-Heroes who got swallowed up by a space whale and gained superpowers instead?
But eventually reading comics turned into collecting comics and collecting turned into more collecting and soon my collecting spanned a hundred thousand books. Which sounds like a lot, I know. But did you know the first book to ever feature the words “comic book” on the back cover was THE YELLOW KID IN MCFADDEN FLATS in 1897. A lot of people think is was FAMOUS FUNNIES in 1935, but that copy of YELLOW KID featured the words “comic book” on the back cover, and to me that makes me the first comic book.
See, I wasn’t happy with just having the most comics. No, I’m a completist and I wanted ALL the comics.
I had hunted at conventions all across the globe, I had comics in every language and format. I had war comics, romance comics, horror comics, pre-code comics, post-code comics, comics for kids, comics that were “suggested for mature readers”. I had golden age, silver age, bronze age, chromium age, I had comics FOR ALL THE AGES. And I wanted more.
By the time I had been collecting for a good 40 years, it was 2040. Some computer at MIT had predicted this would be the year civilization collapsed, but for me it was the year things got interesting.
That was the year time travel became a reality.
In my own time, I’d completed a run of BALLYHOO, a humor mag from Dell Publishing that ran from 1931 to 1939. This was technically a magazine—was in fact the foerunner to MAD Magazine—but the contents were a series of single-panel satire cartoons, and that, to me, made it a comic book. What I didn’t have, though, was a single-issue of BALLYHOP, a one-shot satire of the satire. It came out in September of 1932 but in all of my hunts, I’d never come across a physical copy.
The legend of the book loomed large, but I’d never talked to anyone who had seen it in print, nor could I find a digital copy anywhere. Even if I had, though, I would still want the floppy; digital comics are okay to read, but they don’t have that smell and for me comics are a four-senses deal. I read with my eyes, feel the pages with my finger, I hear the flip of the pages with my ears, and I smell that old newsprint and ink with my nose. I had once bought a digital copy of ACTION COMICS #1, and it had scratched the itch for about five seconds until I “opened” that front cover and started reading. I eventually paid $3 million for a mid-grade slabbed copy. And then went back and forth with myself over whether to crack the slab and read it or not. Eventually I decided not to crack the slab and read the digital copy, but it was one of the few exceptions. If I hadn’t paid so much for it, that thing would have been cracked, read, and re-slabbed, probably at a lower grade and for ACTION COMICS #1 it just wasn’t worth it.
But back to BALLYHOP. In 2040, I learned from a few different sources that there was a rumor of a copy last seen in 1932, the year it was published, that had made its way to Argentina.
I booked passage that day and by the next morning was in South America.
There was turmoil in Argentina in those days. This was known as the Infamous Decade, marked by political coups and fraudulent elections, but none of that mattered to me. I was only here for the funny books.
I’d done as much research as I could before traveling back, and I felt confident I knew where the book had last been seen. I knocked on a door and waited and soon the door was opened by a young boy.
“Excuse me,” I said, “is your father home?”
The boy stared at me, dumbfounded, and I realized he probably didn’t speak English. I asked again in Spanish. “Discúlpame. ¿Está tu padre en casa?”
He disappeared into the house and I spotted the corner of the book on a small table just inside a little hallway.
A few second later, a man came to the door and, thankfully, asked in English, “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I said, my speech well-rehearsed. “Sir, my name is Robert Jay. I’ve come all the way from America in search of a book I believe to be in your possession.”
My plan had been to purchase the book from him, as I’d purchased every book in my collection except one. A high-grade copy of the first issue of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. I’d owned a copy at one time, but a friend of mine, or someone I had thought to be my friend, had taken the book from the bag one day, bent back the tiniest bit of a corner of the front cover, then re-bagged it. I discovered it some time later, knew immediately who it had been, so I stole his copy when he wasn’t looking one day. While I felt totally justified in my actions, I always knew I hadn’t paid for that copy.
I wouldn’t let it happen again.
“I’m sorry?” the man said. “I don’t understand.”
“If you’ll indulge me for just one moment,” I said, and pulled out a picture of the book’s cover. I showed it to him and said, “I believe you have this book, and I would like to buy it from you.”
“What?” he said, now utterly confused. I tried to understand, tried to remind myself not everyone knew the value of comics, especially in 1932 in Argentina. In fact, I was relying so much on him having no idea what he had in his possession, that it would be a snap to buy from him. But I didn’t expect this level of confusion and I wondered if he might be hard of hearing or if his English wasn’t as good as I’d first thought.
So I explained myself again, showing him the picture, then pointing to the corner of the book I saw inside his hallway. He looked back, saw what I was pointing at, then turned back and shook his head saying, “No thank you, bye bye now,” and he started closing the door.
“Sir,” I said, sticking my foot in the door, “be reasonable. I’m offering you a substantial amount of money for a book that cost you fifteen cents. Please reconsider.”
“No,” he said, and he tried to shut the door on my foot. But I was not budging. I can’t have a collection of all the comics if I don’t have ALL the fucking comics and this was one that simply was not available in 2040.
“Sir, please,” I said again, pushing against the door. “I’ll double it. What I offered you before, I can pay twice that amount. I would really like to buy your book.”
“My son loves this book,” he said.
“And with the money I give you, you can buy him many many books he loves. I’m only asking for this one.”
“My son,” he said, “he is … special. Not like other boys. He likes a thing and that is all he sees. If I take this book from him, he will not react well and that will be very bad for me.”
He was saying his kid was on the spectrum, which was a distinction I’m sure they didn’t have in Argentina in 1932. But I understood it well. My nephew had been like that with his clothes for a very long time. But this kid wasn’t my nephew and once I went back to 2040, I wouldn’t have to deal with his fit, so I tried once more.
“Sir, I’m imploring you. Whatever I can offer to convince you to sell me the book, it’s yours. Whatever will make your life easier.”
“You leaving will make my life easier. You leaving my son alone with his book will make my life easier.”
“He isn’t even reading it,” I said. “It’s there on the table. Maybe he’s forgotten about it and he won’t even notice.”
“He’ll notice,” he said.
Fine, I thought. I could feel this slipping through my hands and I was about to start panicking so I did the only thing I could think of. I made another exception.
I gave another hard shove against the door and knocked the man backwards. He tripped over his own foot and fell on his ass. The door slammed back against the wall and I stepped inside.
He tried to get up and I knew he would come at me. Luckily I knew of the troubles in 1932 Argentina and I came prepared to protect myself. I pulled a pistol from my jacket pocket and fired into the man’s gut.
He went down and I stepped fully into the house. And that’s when I saw it. The book was there on the table. And sitting on top of it was … a teacup. Some inconsiderate, uneducated moron had put a fucking teacup on top of a comic book!
That’s when the rest of his family came running. His wife and kids all began to flock to the front hallway to see what the noise was all about and I was standing there over their father and husband, gun still in hand, staring at the ruined comic.
The man lay on the floor, clutching his gut and struggling to speak. “¡Correr! ¡Salvaos!” I don’t know what he was saying, I was still too dumbfounded.
I knocked the offending cup to the floor where it spilled it contents and shattered. I picked up the book and was heartbroken to see the cup had left a very visible ring of brown.
“You ruined it!” I yelled. But what could I do, leave it? I’d come all this way, had shot a man for it. I was breaking one of my only rules about collecting by stealing the book, but that was his fault. I had offered much more than he’d paid for it, he was just being unreasonable. He had forced my hand, so of course I couldn’t leave without taking it with me.
But first I had to deal with his family. His wife stood there crying at the sight of her dying husband. She raised her fists and ran at me, screaming, so, on instinct, I shot her too. I wouldn’t shoot the kids. There were three of them all crying and looking up at me, terrified.
They didn’t know any better, and maybe with such an unreasonable father out of the way they could grow up with a better sense of how the world operates. I did them a favor.
I tucked the gun away, held firm to the book, and ran. I sped back to the point of origin, activated the portal, and sent myself back to 2040, the only physical copy ever reported of BALLYHOP firmly in hand, but careful not to roll or crease it.
As I slid back through the timestream to 2040, I just staring at that cover. No, I was staring at the cup ring. That stupid, damnable teacup had ruined my book. And, granted, being in the hands of a kid that age in 1932, it wasn’t a mint condition book without the ring. But dammit, still! It would go in the collection, obviously, but I knew I would always be on the lookout for another copy. I’d consider this my reader copy, then, but the hunt continued. For collectors like me, it never ends.