It all began in July of 1995. Specifically, Image Comics’ ‘The Maxx’ #17. More specifically, the second to last page.

maxx17The Maxx had been, for over a year, my favorite comic book – and with good reason. It had always been a rather incredible, untraditional superhero-parody-turned-surrealist-tome. By issue #17, they decided to open up a classified ad section in the back few pages, and I leapt at the chance to try and make a few friends.

Understand that this was the days before the internet was THE INTERNET. I was a teenaged boy who lived in an upstate New York forest town, too young and too poor to drive. No sidewalks led to fascinating destinations, and just about all of my friends had turned to drugs and sex to make their lives more palatable. I turned to writing letters (and digging through old LPs while my friends were picking up new CDs). Just knowing that a piece of paper had come all of the way from Ohio, or California, or South Carolina made those places more real, and my own life a little more endurable with the awareness of the great big ‘something else’.

My ad is embarrassing. I was reading a lot of Sandman, spending a lot of time in graveyards, drawing a lot of dragons and wearing a lot of black. And probably enough pendants to choke a man with a slightly thinner neck. It read as follows :

“Desperately seeking spirits as dark as I. Is there anyone else who loves spring shadows & nighttime as I do? A promise to respond to any blessed soul who writes. You’ll be surprised.”

Followed, of course, by my address. These were days before you had to be terrified about printing your full address anywhere, also. Over the next few months, I received around 100 or more letters, and one by one, by hand, I’d write out replies. General repetitive stuff about myself that I eventually got fairly sick of writing, and the pursuit to fulfill my promises took up much of my time. I spent one year’s Jersey Shore vacation holed up in a dim room writing out letter after letter – for what ultimate purpose, I do not know. I was very angry and antisocial at that point in my life, anyhow. I think that I ended up maintaining about ten or twenty correspondences for a few years, while the others just could not hold my interest. I didn’t have a computer at my disposal to expedite the process – which would have been far less romantic anyhow.

As I was cleaning more parts of my living spaces yesterday, I came across a huge box of letters that I’d forgotten about, dating back to 1995. I threw many of them out – not for lack of care about these special people, but because the sentimentality is for people who just don’t exist anymore. I’m not an unsentimental person, but the prospect of carting around a 16-year-old version of myself isn’t exciting.

There’s the guy from California who sent me a video tour of his house who I really was in sync with. There’s the guy who took one of my letters out of context and I think started to try to romance me with phone calls. There’s the girl who I fell in love with, and who fell in love with me, over nothing more than immense stacks of letters, until it became clear that we were both too young to really implement any aspect of our relationship from across the country. The girl from Brooklyn who reminded me, at the time, of Sandman’s Delirium, and who befriended me briefly on MySpace years ago and vanished. Two people who I still retain casual communication with over Facebook, 15 years later. The girl who made daily phone calls from Scotland and ran up an absurd phone bill for herself, despite my protestations and blocks on my phone that prevented extravagant outgoing calls.

A girl from upstate New York who called herself ‘Felicity Darkstorm’, and whose real name I never learned. We sent art back and forth while she battled her own darkness, went off to Alfred University, and disappeared. This is hoping that she Googles her old pseudonym and finds me again, because I want to know how things turned out.

I ran into one old penpal while I was helping to host a booth at MoCCA this past year. I have a pretty bizarrely intense memory for names, so when I recognized his name on his badge, I accosted him. He had no idea who I was, but when I started describing comics that he used to draw, it became clear that I wasn’t just a very good salesman.

One special penpal I’ve retained actively for about 15 years – from letters and postcards sent to me in purple ink from all over the world, to e-mails, to online chatting, to the eventual phone call or two. It’s so strange to see these old letters, and who we were, and it helps to assemble this huge, intangible, four dimensional puzzle. I have kept every scrap that she ever sent me. They are the only things I am keeping from this immense box. As far as I’m concerned, these things are still present. These are the only things, over 15 years of correspondence, that are still valuable to me.

Where there was once an archive of a different time and attitude, there is now an extra two square feet of space to live in. Or to not have to take with me on the next leg of the journey. Lately, the freedom has been the more valuable option over keeping much of anything.