Man brings comics to tough fight

Boy's care for books may pay off when life is on the line

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KILDEER, Ill. — It could be a plot from a classic comic book: A mild-mannered boy with the good Spidey sense to treat his comics as priceless manuscripts grows into a man who must use the valuable collection to fight his greatest foe, a rare disease threatening to rob him of his ability to walk.

For Steve Landman, it's a real-life predicament.

Diagnosed with anti-MAG IgM peripheral neuropathy, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerves, Landman has watched helplessly for months as the numbness that started in his toes crawled up his legs; he now moves as if trudging through snow.

Landman, 62, is weighing his options while also hoping for a cure to the disease, which can upset a person's sense of balance to the point that walking is impossible.

So, he's turning to his collection of 10,000 comics to raise enough money to live on and fight his affliction.

"I won't really have an income in a few months," said Landman, a suburban Chicago dentist who has to sell his practice because of the disease. "Even though it's a lot of money, it's going to have to carry me to whenever, whatever."

Word of the online auction of 420 of Landman's more pristine comics, including the first appearance of the Fantastic Four and Hulk and early appearances by Spider-Man, has lit up the comic book world like the Bat Signal.

"I've never heard of anything like this come out of the blue like this," said Ralph DiBernado, owner of Jetpack Comics LLC, in Rochester N.H. He said the auction house's estimate that the collection is worth $500,000 may be low by as much as a quarter-million dollars when the auction ends Dec. 13. "It's a spectacular collection, the best thing you could ask for."

Forget Flash, Green Lantern and their muscle-bound brethren. To big-time comics collectors, it's the young Landman who is the real superhero, with an uncanny precognition to preserve his finds.

From the time he was in grade school until he was about to enter college, Landman bought a dozen comic books a week at the local drug store, but only plunking down his dime or 12 cents for copies unflawed by so much as a crease.

"When the guy behind the counter tossed it in a bag, treating it like toothpaste or a pencil, I had to slow the guy down," Landman recalled. "He'd look at me, like, 'You're weird, you're nuts.'"

And if he couldn't find comics up to his standards in the metal rack? "I'd hop on my bike and go all across town and buy a better copy somewhere else," he said.

But what really sets Landman's collection apart is what he did next.

First he put them in plastic bags. Then he asked his dad, a dry cleaner, for those pieces of cardboard that come fitted behind dress shirts and recycled them as back boards for his comics — standard practice these days for collectors but nearly unheard-of decades ago — to prevent the kind of sagging and creasing that drives down resale value.

"I've talked to a lot of my friends, and we think Steve is the first guy to ever use backer boards and bags to protect his comic book collection," said Gary Colabuono, who once owned a chain of comic book stores and has helped Landman prepare for the auction.

Landman said he was just a meticulous kid intent on keeping his comics in the best shape possible.