Here’s an American success story. Steve Geppi, a working-class kid from Baltimore’s Little Italy, drops out of school in 8th grade and takes a job at a local comic book store. He asks to be paid in comics because he can sell them to other kids at a markup. One by one, he takes on a number of other jobs — including my favorite: installing burglar alarms for Lester White’s Detecto Electronics — before finally getting a government job with the U.S.Postal Service at age 19. Years later, he is a settled family man with a decent income when he starts to read a nephew’s Batman comic and is inspired to pick back up on his interest in comic books. He eventually quits his job with the Postal Service and opens a Baltimore comic book store.
The rest is Baltimore history. Geppi becomes the owner of a chain of comic book stores and later founds Diamond Comic Distributors, which touts itself as “the world’s largest distributor of English-language comics, graphic novels, and related pop-culture merchandise, with a network of shipping and distribution throughout the world.” Steve Geppi becomes part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, buys Baltimore magazine a year later, and in 2006 channels his extensive comic and memorabilia collection into the museum he founded: Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, located with the Sports Heroes Museum in Baltimore’s Camden Yards next to the Orioles stadium.
Come to think of it, Geppi’s story reads a lot like a comic book.
Central to the museum’s collection is its miles and miles of comic book collectors’ issues. Among them are characters from the earliest days of the genre: The Yellow Kid, Little Orphan Annie, and of course Superman — including his first appearance in Action Comics No. 1, from 1938.
The Yellow Kid was first seen in the New York World newspaper in 1895. A scrawny, bald kid in an oversized nightshirt, he was meant to represent the voice of ill-educated immigrants, with slogans on his shirt written in pidgen English. The bald head suggested it may have been shaved recently to get rid of lice, which was common practice at the time. The type of papers he appeared in — both New York World and later the New York Journal — led to the rise of the term “yellow journalism,” a reference to their sensationalistic copy.
Action Comics #1 of 1938 featured not only the first appearance of Superman, but also several other comic book heroes in anthology format. It’s known as the most valuable comic book of all time, with an issue sold in 2011 for more than $2 million. It’s seen as the issue that gave birth to superheroes.
In it, Superman’s origins tale is the lead feature. The story is told of his trip from the planet Krypton to Earth, where the baby boy is found in his spaceship by a passing motorist somewhere in middle America. (Clearly, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster took some inspiration from the Bible here — Superman’s beginnings sound a lot like the tale of baby Moses in his reed basket.) In early Superman stories, the Man of Steel didn’t fly — but he did leap tall buildings in a single bound and lift objects much too heavy for mere earthlings to manage. He could also outrun a train.
There’s an estimate floating around out there that only about 50 to 100 original copies of Action Comics #1 still exist, hence the high price for a collectible issue. Needless to say, Geppi’s copy is locked up in a glass display case, as one of the crown jewels of the collection.
Also prominent in the Geppi’s collection is the Detective Comics issue (later to evolve into DC Comics) featuring the first appearance of Batman, again in an anthology featuring several superhero stories. Issue #27 of May 1939 has also become one of the most valuable collector’s issues of all time, with a copy selling for more than a million dollars in 2010.
There is also a copy of the historic Superman No. 75 from 1992, which features the death of the superhero, and issues containing the first appearances of Captain America, the Flash, Wonder Woman, and others. You can’t touch the original copies, but you can page through scanned versions of Geppi’s comics — yellowed pages, period advertisements, and all — on touch-screen kiosks.
The museum also houses thousands of artifacts from Geppi’s collection of U.S. pop-culture memorabilia, in galleries arranged by decade. The Yellow Kid makes an appearance in one of the first few rooms, followed later by toys and collectibles from the late 1700s to the 2000s.
And no worries about crime here: Batman and his oddly prominent pelvic area oversee the galleries.
Among the memorabilia in the display cases was something that looked vaguely like a contraption that had lurked in my parents’ basement ever since I could remember. Turns out it was part of a Superman Muscle Building Kit that I suspect my father got when he was an impressionable young boy. (Judging from photographs, I have to assume that this Muscle-Building Kit was not very effective.) The thing included two long springs on wooden handles to build your chest muscles, two flexers to build hand strength (all the better for thrusting a fist into the air and blasting off, maybe), a jump rope for cardio, and a tape measure. There was also a progress chart and a certificate proving one’s membership in the Superman Muscle-Building Club (“it’s SUPER fun!”).
Not that this collection leaves out the ladies. Among the treats for girls are the Sleeping Beauty Sewing Set . . .
. . . and a Charlie’s Angels hairstyling kit.
Music fans may enjoy checking out the Beatles wig or plushy dolls . . .
. . . and ’70s TV fans may like the Welcome Back, Kotter display.
And OBVY there can be no pop culture museum without a Star Wars exhibit. There are dozens of Star Wars artifacts behind glass in this collection but some of them made me question popular taste. I just wonder: Would Obi-Wan feel strange about people drinking beer out of his head?
Would C-3PIO mind people pulling tape from his crotch?
Recognize this Atari set? Congratulations, you’re old.
The museum includes a section on Baltimore heroes. Among the honorees are crime novelist Tom Clancy and oddball auteur John Waters. Also mentioned is some talking head named Oprah, who anchored the local evening news in Baltimore in the 1970s.
If you get tired of looking at the stuff indoors, check out the gorgeous view from the second-floor window.
Geppi’s Entertainment Museum is located near Baltimore’s famous Inner Harbor, adjacent to the Camden Yards baseball park and across from the Baltimore Convention Center. MUSEUM HOURS: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Closed Mondays (except for major holidays), New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day