For the longest time, I was pretty isolated in my comic book collecting. I remember reading “House of Mystery” horror anthologies at my Dad’s barber shop, and my girl cousin’s collections of Archie Comics at the family cottage. There were always a smattering of “kiddie comics” lying around the house too. You know: Disney based stories with Scrooge McDuck or Warner Brother’s collections of Bugs Bunny or whatever.
Comics were always around, but there was no rhyme or reason to them. It wasn’t until I hit kindergarten and I started playing with G.I Joe toys that the concept of collecting something monthly ever came to my mind. G.I. Joe had the perfect comic/toy feedback loop. I was a slave to marketing, and either didn’t know or if I did I didn’t care. The toy line and the comic book run were closely linked. If the comic introduced a new character or vehicle in one issue, you just knew that the toy stores would be carrying it/them within the month, or if you visited Consumer’s Distributing with your grandma (remember that store? It was a crazy concept. You went in and flipped through a catalogue and wrote down what you wanted on a slip of paper and handed to an employee behind a counter [which in my mind was wearing a white lab coat, but surely not?] and they were go into the back and you’d wait anxiously for a few minutes to see if they returned with their arms the same length or if they had the coveted new action figure that you JUST HAD TO HAVE OR YOU’D DIE RIGHT THERE. It was like someone who ran a pharmacy decided to open a department store), and you found something in the catalogue, well sure enough, there it was in the comic next month. It was a child’s version of Eisenhower’s Military Industrial Complex, with Marvel Comics and Hasbro Toys as the main colluders.
I started collecting G.I. Joe comics at about issue 16, and quickly learned that were things in the world called “Comic Book Shops” where you could go back and collect back issues. In the early days, I bought these comics to read and enjoy, but I soon found out that you could (and maybe SHOULD) bag and board them to preserve them for future generations. I soon had mostly filled in my gaps between 1 and 15 and I rarely missed a future issue. I know now that you can create an account with most comic book shops where they will set aside any number of titles for you each month, so you would never miss them, but back in those early days I would just go to the local drug store and try my luck with the comic book spinners. It always just worked out.
I started this post by saying I was pretty isolated in my collecting. What I meant was that G.I. Joe, even though it was published by Marvel Comics, never really intersected with the wider Marvel Universe. You would never get an appearance from Spidey, or Doctor Doom for example. All the heroes and villans were self-contained in their own pocket universe so I was never tempted to go further afield. In fact, if G.I. Joe ever intersected with ANYONE, they intersected with another pocket universe, The Transformers. Not surprisingly The Transformers were another property of Hasbro toys, and one which I had already been playing with independently, so when “G.I. Joe vs. The Transformers” comic came out, my Grade 4-year-old brain pretty much exploded. So even though my comic collecting world grew ever so slightly with the inclusion of The Transformers, I was vaguely aware that there was a whole world of heroes and villans just around the corner. It just didn’t interest me.
To be perfectly honest, I thought superheroes were okay but kinda dumb. I loved comics but I was perfectly happy to stick with G.I. Joe and Transformers as worthy reads alongside my beloved John Bellairs, Tintin, Hardy Boys, Lois Lowry and Gordon Korman.
This all changed when I met my friend Ed.
He joined our school in grade 2 but I didn’t start hanging out with him seriously until Junior High. He was unapologetically into superheroes, and had an endless supply of knowledge about the backstories of all the heroes and villains. Through him I learned that there were two major comic companies at the time, and that characters mostly stayed within their own universes (with notable exceptions). I also gained an appreciation through Ed that different writers and artists take characters in different directions and that it wasn’t enough to say you were a fan of the Fantastic Four, you should say that you really loved John Byrne’s run on it, for example. Or you preferred the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run, let’s say. I began to recognize different artist’s styles and would sometimes follow a title not so much because of the character but because of the writer or artist associated with it. Just as you might go see a movie because you like the director, Ed taught me what to look for in each comic, beyond the main character. I had finally broken free of my own pocket universe.
Ed also introduced me to Trader Pete.
We had a local comic book shop to which we could ride our bikes, but Ed discovered this place across town near his grandparents. He would always come back with stories of this comic shop and its eccentric owner/operator. It wasn’t long before I begged Ed to take me there. One Saturday we did. We had to take two busses.
The store was called Trader Pete’s, and the owner was Pete. He’d answer the phone by simply saying “The Trader”, which sometimes sounded like “The Traitor” the way he carefully pronounced it. When we first met him, he was probably in his forties. He had the skinny malnourished frame and shoulder length greying hair of someone who didn’t look after himself, but he had kind eyes behind his bi-focals and oddly reminded me of a down-on-his-luck Mr. Dressup. He also seemed to always have a lit cigarette in his hand, held at an odd distance away from his face, like he was being forced to carry it around with him, but he wasn’t really a smoker. There usually was a long tail of ash hanging off the end of it, and I honestly don’t remember ever seeing him take a drag off of it. He held it like an affectation, and I remember one time he was examining a pile of Dungeons and Dragons comics that I was wanting to trade in. He pulled a hair off of one of the pieces of tape attached to the bag and board, and looked at me over his glasses as if to say these comics were beneath him, and as punctuation, he flicked some ash at me as he handed the stack back. There would be no trade THAT day.
His store was not large, but it was jam-packed with excellent things. Comics, mostly. But he also had other collectibles and the ephemera of geek and nerd culture. Although Ed and I loitered and never bought much with our meager allowances, Pete never made us feel unwelcome. It became a special spot for us, and as you might imagine with two kids with active imaginations, we began to create a mythology around “The Trader”.
He really lived up to his name. You always got a sense that he was willing to make a deal. We were new to the world of “haggling”, but we soon learned that the ticket price was negotiable. And the stuff he had in there! Every time we went, we seemed to find unique “must have” items. I’ll never forget the time we went in there and cheekily propped up on a shelf behind the counter was a copy of Stephen King’s “Four Past Midnight”. The remarkable thing about this was that it was still two months before this book was even supposed to be published! It was an impossible item, and yet there it was! I asked Pete what he was selling it for, and he looked at me over his glasses.
“What do you want to pay for it?”
“Cash and it’s yours.”
To this day I wonder if I could have gone lower. Also, for those who might be wondering, it wasn’t an Advance Reading Copy, one of those cheaply bound preview copies distributed by publishers to stir up interest. No, my friend. It was the real deal.
Another time, Ed and I were browsing and the door opened and someone stepped in. We saw Pete’s eyes get big and he jumped up from his perch behind the counter and ran into the back room, slamming the door. I never saw a middle-aged man move so fast before. The guy who came in looked big and tough but kind of dumb. He came around the back of the counter and banged on the door.
“Pete! Pete! Open up! I know you’re back there. Open up you deadbeat!”
A few minutes later, the thug-looking guy gave up and shambled out the front door. A minute later Pete reappeared.
“Is he gone?”
Ed and I looked at each other, petrified.
“Um, yeah. He took off.”
“Oh good. Good. That guy’s been on my case for a while.” And that’s all Pete said about it. We left shortly afterwards.
But we were back the next week.
As I mentioned before, a mythology sprang up around Trader Pete. We really knew nothing about his real life, his life outside the comic book shop. Here were some of our theories.
- He was a multi-millionaire eccentric who loved comics and making wacky deals.
- He was in the witness protection program and was actually living under an assumed name for ratting out gangsters. His real name was not Pete.
- He was actually a creative genius, and the whole “Trader Pete” persona was a long-form performance art piece.
- He was a criminal mastermind who was using his comic book shop as a cover for his money laundering and tax evasion schemes.
- He was a time traveller. How else to explain the “Four Past Midnight” situation?
- He secretly really was Dr. Dressup, Ernie Coombs, and had slipped into obscurity after the CBC cancelled his show. We never saw signs of Casey and Finnegan but he wouldn’t keep those around the shop, right? Too obvious.
- He was Uatu, a.k.a. “The Watcher” tasked only to observe, not interfere with the flow of life, although having full knowledge of the multiverse. (A stretch, granted. I mean Ed and I weren’t DELUSIONAL).
And so on.
Sometimes we would go for weeks and not see Pete at all. There would be another guy running the shop. Our imaginations had Pete back in prison for violating parole, or maybe he went on the lam, or maybe that bruiser guy finally caught up with him. But a few weeks later, there Pete was, back in his corner.
The weirdest times were when we spotted Pete around town, out of the safe context of his comic shop. There was this time when Ed got the wrong prescription in his glasses and was having a terrible time with his depth perception. He would really take his time navigating curbs, and every step was a guess as to where his foot would land. It took Ed forever to walk one city block in these glasses and then all of a sudden he looked up and there was Trader Pete, walking down the sidewalk towards him. Ed said Pete looked like he was going out on a date. His curly hair was all picked out into a huge afro and he was wearing shiny pants and a glittery shirt. I’m not sure how much of this was reality and how much was Ed’s bad prescription.
Around the time we graduated from high school, Trader Pete’s closed up. Did he go bankrupt? Did he go to jail? If he was Uatu, did he return to the Blue Area of the moon? Nobody knows, but a part of our childhood ended when Pete left.
Ed and I continued to collect comics. As completers, we both tried to collect every appearance of certain characters. We knew enough to not choose someone impossible like Superman or Batman, at least. Ed chose Nick Fury and I chose the Silver Surfer, a far stretch from my G.I. Joe vs. Transformers days, but there you have it. With every chance we could, we would drive around to comic shops, with our lists of titles printed off the nascent internet, looking for the rare ones.
Before long, a new comic shop opened, and guess who was behind the counter?
It was Trader Pete.
This 5 year absence was the longest one of them all, and Pete didn’t seem to have weathered the years well. My God, was he actually in prison all that time? Did he go through a messy divorce? Bankruptcy? We couldn’t have known, and we couldn’t have asked him, right? We were just glad to see him again. We couldn’t tell if he owned this place, or if he just worked there. He seemed less sure of himself, more fidgety. One time we called to see what time they opened. Pete answered. This was a little after 10 am. It sounded like we woke him from a restless sleep.
“Normally we open at 11, but today we are opening at 11:30.” Click.
The crazy thing was that Pete was already there! For some reason, he needed an extra half hour to get his shit together that day. That really left an impression on us.
Another time, Ed and I were browsing and a car horn beeped outside on the street. Pete jumped up and shouted, “Is it the police?”
We assured him it was just some car and he seemed to relax a bit after that.
We didn’t like this new shop. It was terribly organized, and there were tons of unsavory characters hanging around all the time who were not interested in comics. Plus, it never felt like Pete was “into it” like he was before. The one good thing was that he seemed so distracted that he would make ridiculous deals with us, as if he didn’t even care about the value of the comics anymore. It was good for us, but we didn’t feel good about the situation.
We showed up one day and someone else was behind the counter.
“Pete doesn’t work here anymore,” was all he said when we asked, and that was the last time we ever saw Pete in a comic shop.
But it wasn’t the last time we heard of The Trader.
As it turned out, Ed and I weren’t the only ones whose imaginations were captured by him. When Ed got to Art School, he made friends with a guy who had similar experiences with Trader Pete, but this new friend actually took things a step further.
He wrote a song about him.
He was in a local band and even recorded a released a couple of CDs. One of them had the song, “Trader Pete will Rise Again.”
Ed played it for me, years after our last encounter with the trader. Years after I had given up collecting every appearance of the Silver Surfer. Years after giving up collecting comics altogether. You make compromises and concessions as you go along. But the song took me right back to the days before we had driver’s licenses. It is very drum heavy, almost like a march, and it starts quietly. It sounds like it might owe a lot to Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome”. The lyrics are simple:
“Trader Pete will rise again. Trader Pete will rise again. Trader Pete will rise again. Rise again, Trader Pete.”
The song builds and builds until at the very end the lead singer is screaming these words over the music and then it all comes to a crashing halt.
I didn’t say it was a great song, did I?
But it does go to show the passions that Trader Pete stirred among some of us back in the day. How many of us can say we’ve been immortalized in a song?
Sometimes I really think a new comic store will open around the corner, maybe even in my neighbourhood, and when I go in, there Pete will be, on his perch where he belongs, with that long hair, now all grey, maybe subbing that cigarette for a nicotine patch, but with the same kind twinkly eyes despite it all. And at that moment we can all say that he is risen, he is risen indeed.
Ed eventually got a job at a used record store in the village. One day, he looked up from behind the desk and who just walked in? The Trader. The roles were finally reversed. Ed was behind the counter now, and the Trader was the one who was on unfamiliar ground, blinking his eyes and adjusting to the relative gloom. Ed couldn’t believe it. He waited to see what was going to happen. Was it really the Trader? Pete, is that you? After a few minutes, Ed was sure. He worked up his courage and approached Trader Pete.
“Um, Pete? You don’t know me, but I used to visit your shop when I was kid, and I have great memories of going there.”
Pete looked a bit surprised, but quickly recovered. “Ah, you kids. You’re always coming up to me about that damn shop. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked about it.”
Then Ed went in for the kill.
“Well you meant a lot to me and my friends, and I’d like to play you something.”
Pete looked really suspicious at this, but agreed to put on a headset and Ed loaded up “Trader Pete will Rise Again”. He happened to have a copy of the CD in the store.
At first, Pete looked confused, but then a sense of realization set in as he listened to the words over and over again. He smiled and had a faraway look and by the end of the song there were tears in his eyes. He took the headset off and quietly handed it back to Ed.
It was Ed’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” moment. A look passed between them that was unreadable. Without another word, Pete slipped back into the night, forgetting whatever reason he had come into the store in the first place. Ed actually succeeded in playing the Trader Pete song for Trader Pete. Trader Pete is now aware that there is a song out there written about him, encouraging him to pick himself up out of the gutter, dust himself off, and rise again. Rise again, Trader Pete! Rise again!