The Incredible Hulk #181: The One That Got Away
It does my heart good when I pick my nine-year-old son Daniel up at the school bus stop on Wednesdays and the first thing he asks is, "Hey Dad, can we go to the comic book store? It's new issue day!" His interest in comic books had been slowly growing over the past year or so, but his mania increased considerably once this shop opened in our hometown at the beginning of the year. Walking into a comic store, checking out the new issues on the racks, and rooting through the bargain box for cheap oldies (but goodies) is still a new experience for him, but it's a trip down memory lane for me—for I was a seriously obsessed comic book collector and fanboy all through my childhood and teen years. I started collecting comics shortly before my tenth birthday in 1980 and by the time I "retired" from the hobby fifteen years later I had amassed nearly 5,000 books. I sold off most of my collection in bits and pieces during the late 1990s, except for one "long box" full of personal favorites that I still haul out of the closet once on a while for some retro reading fun.
Comics Have Become More Expensive
The first thing I noticed when these comic-shop visits began was that comics are a heck of a lot more expensive than when I was a kid! Back in 1980, the cover price for most new comics was 40 cents (though if memory serves, they went up to 50 cents only a month or two after I decided to start collecting seriously - timing is everything!). Now, most "standard" books will set you back at least $3.99 (!) and they only go up from there.
Daniel hasn't been "into" comics long enough to figure out who his favorite characters are yet, so when we drop into the shop he generally grabs whatever looks coolest at that moment. One week it might be Deadpool, the next it could be Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Futurama, G.I. Joe, or any of a hundred others. While I'm encouraging my son's growing habit, I've said many times that I could never get back into comic collecting because I don't have the money or storage space for it anymore. I will admit, however, that I've splurged on a couple of things for my own private stash—I'm not made of stone, y'know!!
The Past Returns
On our first visit to the comic shop, I was immediately drawn to a Marvel series called "True Believers,"—bargain-priced reprints of classic/pivotal stories from Marvel's hallowed archives. After the sticker shock when I first saw the cover price of most "new" comics, it was comforting to see that these reprints were only a dollar apiece! A large number of them have shown up on the shop's "new arrivals" shelf over the past few weeks, all starring everyone's favorite mutant berserker X-Man, Wolverine. Marvel is obviously dusting off his back catalog to ride the coat tails of the new (final?) Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman, Logan.
So far I've bought nine or ten of these True Believers books - some are stories I'm familiar with because I owned the originals back in the day, like the classic Wolverine #1 from 1982 (Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's seminal limited series introduced me to the character when I was a wee lad), or the first part of the "Save The Tiger" storyline from the late '80s Marvel Comics Presents anthology series, which led to Wolverine getting his own ongoing monthly book. Others have been new to me, but I've enjoyed revisiting the oldies and getting caught up on some stuff that came along after my "retirement" from the hobby. The True Believers books all appear to be one-shots, rather than ongoing series. In other words, if you buy the Wolverine #1 reprint and want to read the remaining three issues of that 1982 series, you're going to have to spring for the collected graphic novel edition advertised on the last page of the book (pretty sneaky, Marvel!).
The True Believers book that brought the biggest "Oh my God, wow, I HAVE to get this one!" reaction from me was a reprint of the now-legendary Incredible Hulk #181, from November 1974 - which any good comic nerd knows was the first "full" appearance of Wolverine. Obviously this issue is one of the Holy Grails for comic collectors, and it can command ridiculous prices on the secondary market depending on its condition. When my son asked, "What's so special about that one, Dad?" I said, "I have a good story about it," which I'm now about to share with you.
More than 25 years ago I could've gotten my hands on a copy of Hulk #181 for a song, but I foolishly let it slip through my fingers because I couldn't keep my mouth shut. As Stan "The Man" Lee himself might say, face front, True Believers - here's a tale guaranteed to break your heart!
How I Lost Out on the Incredible Hulk #181 Comic
I think I was a freshman in college when I committed this epic comic-collector faux pas, so it was probably late 1988 or early '89. My love for comic books was well known among my circle of friends—I rocked X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirts on a regular basis and made frequent off-campus trips to local newsstands and comic stores to make sure I didn't miss any of my "monthly books." (In other words: I was a total nerd! No wonder I didn't have a girlfriend! Haha.)
At this time I was a rabid Spider-Man and X-Men collector and would buy pretty much anything related to either one. I certainly knew the significance of Hulk #181, but I was resigned to the fact that I would likely never own a copy because even way back then it commanded a fairly hefty back issue price - around $200 if memory serves (Hah! If only I knew...).
One fateful afternoon there was a knock at my dorm room door, and my neighbor and drinking buddy Sean appeared, toting a large brown grocery bag. He explained that he'd gone home for the weekend and came across a stash of old comics that his Dad had accumulated some years back. Since I was the only comic nerd he knew, he asked if I'd be interested in taking a look through them and possibly buying some. Of course, I said, "Sure, let's see what you got."
I took the stack out of the bag and began going through them. If memory serves there were about a hundred comics in the bag, mostly Marvels and DCs from the mid-1970s. Nothing particularly special crossed my path at first, but I put aside a few vintage Amazing Spider-Man issues that I'd been missing. As I continued flipping through the mostly-common, mostly-uninteresting books I was muttering under my breath, "Junk... junk... junk... junk..."
... and then, BAM! Out of nowhere, I found myself staring at a real, live, honest to God copy of Incredible Hulk #181...and it appeared to be in excellent shape, no less. I was so shocked to find such a jewel hiding in this random pile that I couldn't contain myself. I literally shouted "HOLY SH*T!" Real smooth, huh?
Sean may not have known jack about comic books, but he obviously could tell from my reaction that there was something special about that particular book. There was no way I could B.S. him about it after my outburst, so I had to be honest with him. "Do you realize what this IS? Good Lord, man, this comic should be in a safe deposit box!" I think I even gave him a protective plastic bag and backing-board to put it in for protection before he took that treasure back to his room.
Of course, after Sean left (with the beer money I'd given him for those Spidey issues), I kicked myself for the rest of the night...and I've been kicking myself for more than a quarter-century. If I'd been able to keep my you-know-what together, I probably could've bought that Hulk book off of him for $20 or less and Sean would've never been the wiser. Hell, he would've taken my money and headed straight to the beer store, thinking, "Wow, did I ever burn THAT guy! What a nerd!"
...as Wolverine himself might say, "You screwed up big time, Bub."
As the years passed, I would frequently see copies of Hulk #181 on display at comic stores or at comic conventions, and as Wolverine's popularity continued to grow, the price tag on that book kept going up, and up, and up. When it hit $1000, I stopped paying attention, because remembering my stupidity made my brain hurt. A quick look at eBay shows that depending on its condition, copies of Hulk #181 command anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars today. (SIGH) When I think that I actually had one in my hands... (bangs head on desk)
When I finished telling my son that story, he said, "Wow, Dad, you really blew it," haha. Yes, I guess I did, but on the other hand, if I'd suckered Sean out of that book for cheap and then re-sold it for a pile of cash later on I probably would've felt guilty about screwing a friend over, so maybe it was for the best.
...and hey, now that I have the "True Believers" reprint, at least I can say I finally have Hulk #181 in my collection...and I can actually read this one without worrying about de-valuing a priceless collectible!