Ephemera Found When You Move, Part II: Superman’s “Real Power”


Back when I was about little league age, though I never played in little league (for better or worse, and probably for better from what I have heard), my dad traveled to various book conventions around the country as part of his work. We lived at the time in a creaky floored, three-story Victorian house—of the North American variety—complete with eerie, Civil War era “dungeons,” stone foundation, and a domed turret façade. In short, to a young child the place felt rather expansive and a little unwelcoming; by night, I swore it was even haunted, especially with a massive cemetery cradling those soldiered dead only a few blocks away. Much of that was somehow ameliorated, however, when my dad returned after a long trip from one of those book shows. The hollow, old Victorian house seemed to grow warmer and shrink to a more comfortably sized dwelling space. Also, material fiends that consumerist children can be, it certainly improved my spirits when he came home bearing gifts snagged from whatever recent New York or Chicago convention.

Take, for example, one such book show freebie of the Man of Steel soaring through a veritable metropolis of enormous library books stacked as high as skyscrapers. And little matter how haphazardly this bookmark from 1983 stayed closeted away among so many other dusty possessions from my youth: the paper has nevertheless maintained much of its original crispness and gloss, while the colors likewise remain agelessly sharp and bright—from the blues and reds of Superman’s carefully inked super suit to the fleecy down of the clouds above.

Again, the copyright printed at the bottom of this bookmark identifies the year as 1983 (with ownership claimed by none other than DC Comics), alongside the named sponsoring organization of the “America Library Association.” Of course the ALA’s founding principles also inform the well-intentioned if not inane physical strength appeal—for reading—with the blocked letters that proclaim “KNOWLEDGE IS REAL POWER!,” which almost every bullied, grade school bookworm understands as suspect rhetoric.

In any case, I have not yet researched where the ALA held their annual big convention in 1983, and maybe I prefer for this to remain a mystery to me. That way I can imagine it could have been anywhere—that perhaps my dad traveled to the moon to bring back this small but thoughtful gift to his son.

In fact, my dad returned from that year’s meeting of the ALA with a stack of these Superman bookmarks. If memory serves, though so often it doesn’t, I remember that at one time I had a drawer full with dozens of the colorfully printed bookmarks; actually, my stockpile may have numbered a hundred or more. I recall how they even felt like some curious, vibrant form of currency. Of course they held little monetary value, but Superman easily made up for that lack in other, more worthwhile terms. Over time, however, my formerly plentiful supply thinned, what with each new but changeable acquaintance made, upon whatever the latest family move (and that childhood Victorian house being left behind long ago). Strangely, or fittingly, this is the last remaining Superman placeholder in my possession. For me, that only increases its real value, its real power.

“If you ride like lightning, . . .

you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

–Robin to Luke, from The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Hot bike trading cards TPBTP vertical final 2

Hot bike trading cards TPBTP horizontal, final 2

*Template from 1972 Donruss Choppers and Hot Bikes trading cards

Hot bike trading cards

The Place Beyond the Pines ©2012 Focus Features, et al.

Holy Cardboard & Kryptonite, Batman! Superman trading cards go back to the 1940s?

Last night I interrupted what may well have been my 100th viewing of Superman II (which yields feelings of both joy and shame) because something suddenly, seemingly miraculously occurred to me during the scotch o’clock witching hour. The impetus was a typically cheesy, Salkind-produced sequence—completely overblown yet at the same time touching—when a limpid-eyed Christopher Reeve halts an elevator in freefall on the Eiffel Tower just in time to save none other than Lois Lane. For a brief moment, rescuer and rescued stare deeply and smile before Superman flies off to hurtle the elevator’s hidden hydrogen bomb into outer space. Something about that shared, intimate instant amidst chaos compelled me to freeze the frame on Reeve’s charismatic, young face. Then as if I was the very first to ever contemplate it, I felt struck with wonder by the power of the still image: if profiteering manufacturers of 1980s pop culture schlock managed to mass-produce and circulate trading cards of trendy franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ThunderCats, then at some opportunistic, product tie-in juncture surely someone did the same  with Superman trading cards (and many times over). Oh boy, did they ever.

Check out the listings on the PSA registry for “Non-Sports” trading cards. You will see that their records include over half of a dozen company sets for Superman listed between 1940 and 1978. And as PSA maintains some stricter standards, doubtless more card issues exist. Certainly, the individual “1940 Gum Inc. Superman R145s” come with the higher price tags in online auctions, but they nevertheless remain vastly more affordable than individual comics of the era.

For example, this raggedy #1 card of the 1940 Gum Inc. series went for nearly $30 in an online auction. That cost still pales in comparison to a $300, poor-condition Superman comic book (likely sans cover) from this year.

1940 Gum Inc. Superman Card 1 Superman

But personally—and wallet-wise—I prefer something more along these lines. . . .


Typical low-ball asking price for a similar 1978 Topps (US) or “Trebor” (UK) issue: $12 plus shipping—and that includes an entire set of more than 60 pulpy specimens from the Carter-era!

A TMNT Weekend Wedding

1989 Topps Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 58

Often a card’s sentimental or nostalgic value has far less to do with the card itself than some larger, surrounding circumstance. That could not be any more the case than with the triplet of wax packs of series one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trading cards from 1989 that I purchased one weekend in San Francisco.

After what involved a rather treacherous three-hour car ride through embattled cartel territory in central Mexico in the rain and pre-dawn pitch of night and then another six hours of air travel not including layover, I finally reached my destination: the land of fog and redwoods to celebrate the wedding of my younger sister. However, I was feeling anxious; perhaps the jet lag lingered, yet I doubt I traversed more than one time zone. Or maybe it was the wedding. Even though I sensed my sister’s fiancé was a fine, upstanding, and overall perfect match, the whole elaborate affair and swirl of emotions was nevertheless an uneasy experience for me as “the elder brother” (whatever that antiquated, patriarchal title is supposed to mean). So when not caught up in all of the pomp and preparations, I was determined during this weekend wedding to do anything I could to distract myself.

Said distractions included me looking up a nearby card shop in Nob (“Snob”) Hill. To be honest, though, despite the misleading directory listing and even its pitifully designed but specifically promising signage, the establishment was less a card specialty shop than an all-around convenience store. But that is understandable given the current state of the card market (i.e. its overwhelming and absolutely necessary relocation to the internet realm). Nonetheless, I was curious and, again, in need of distraction. Outside of the shop’s entrance, a curiously ornate brass dragon emblazoned a portion of sidewalk, though perhaps this had more to do with some previous residents in this largely Chinese immigrant neighborhood. The interior did not impress as much. The inside was more cramped than my old dormitory room and in similar dire need of dusting and reorganizing (or purging). Only a couple of narrow strips of walking floor space existed for the customer in front of the cashier’s L-shaped  counter. For the most part, I was initially disappointed by both the store’s modern-day card offerings (I usually prefer pre-1981 ephemera) and neighboring condom packs and myriad bottles of lubricants and salves.

Then I saw some familiar “heroes in a half shell.” Until that moment, I never knew that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trading cards existed, though it really should not have surprised me with proliferation of publishing subsidiary rights and marketing machines being what they were in the 1980s. While I believe the proprietor charged me a little more than the original twenty-five cents per pack (priced from more than twenty years ago), I still felt vindicated by the utterly random find.

So forget the Alcatraz paraphernalia, Golden Gate Bridge sweatshirts, and Fisherman’s Wharf postcards and trinkets. This was exactly the kind of souvenir I had sought out all along. And of course I will never forget that I bought these few packs of 1980s pop culture schlock while visiting San Francisco for my sister’s weekend wedding.

[Note: truth be told, most of the 1989 Topps TMNT cards seem a bit lackluster. This is one of the more attractive and dramatic scenes; also, the sticker cards contain a certain vibrant appeal.]

Image courtesy of COMC.com.