- Associated Press - Sunday, July 26, 2015

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - The circumstances of Tony Onesto’s early life make it seem almost preordained he would be a serious comic book collector.

Born into a military family, he moved around a lot as a young boy, so the need to make new friends became routine.

The difficulty of that was compounded by a speech delay that followed a dog attack when he was 2, which took years to overcome, The Hawk Eye (https://bit.ly/1gPZMbu ) reported.

“By the time I healed, I was behind on my speech,” said Onesto, 41, seated in a basement room of his Burlington home, where he is surrounded by a comics collection that numbers about 70,000 volumes, most in boxes but some framed and hanging on the wall.

It took years to get caught up with his peers, and the stutter still comes out in anxious moments.

“Most people wouldn’t guess,” he said, crediting the work of his speech therapists.

Onesto’s vagabond existence settled down in sixth grade, his speech issues started to abate and his future as an artist and comic book aficianado was set, too, when his family moved to San Diego to stay. There is where he attended his first school with an art program, made a friend who turned him on to comic books and had access to artists and storytellers who gathered annually at the San Diego ComicCon.

In those days, the convention was a gathering of people with an interest in art and storytelling.

Unlike the event there this month, ComicCon hadn’t yet been taken over by movie and television studios, long lines and high prices. For the teenage Onesto, whose parents would drop him off for the day and pick him up in the evening, it was a chance to meet and learn from masters of the comic book trade - once even in a writing class taught by the legendary Stan Lee himself.

Oh, and there’s this:

“My father raised me on Bruce Lee, James Bond and Godzilla movies,” Onesto said, acknowledging the source of the geekdom he wears as proudly as the Stark Industries shirt on his back. “I never had a chance. I really didn’t.”

It all was fuel for Onesto - who came to Iowa to attend Morningside College in Sioux City and teaches art at Aldo Leopold Middle School in Burlington to tell his own stories. Or to draw them, actually.

“I’m not the greatest writer in the world,” he said. “It was easier for me to tell my story in that way, not in the written word.”

San Diego also is where he discovered an interest in teaching.

“My first job was at the San Diego Zoo,” Onesto said. He had numerous assignments at the zoo, but once his bosses learned he could draw, he led a program working with children crisscrossing the zoo making drawings of various animals.

His collector’s mentality started young, too.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of stuff,” Onesto said, “so when I bought something, I took care of it.”

A hoarder, however, he is not. Nor is he necessarily interested in curating a museum. When he sold a collection of Star Wars toys that were in mintinbox condition, the young buyer “played with them in the dirt.”

And that was OK.

Likewise, while his comics are wellpreserved in individual bags inside boxes, or sealed inside frames for display, they aren’t locked up.

“I read them,” said Onesto, who is in the throes of his second time around as a collector, rebuilding after having gotten rid of much of what he collected in younger days before deciding comics were too much like kid’s stuff. “I share them. I let people touch them. I take them to school and give them away.”

A few go as rewards to students for a job well done. Others he gives as gifts at Christmastime to students who might not otherwise receive one.

“It means the world to them,” Onesto said. “It’s one thing to collect them, but if you never share them, what’s the point?”

Onesto doesn’t get into the whole Marvel versus DC debate, or whether Superman is better than

SpiderMan (though Superman is his favorite hero). Good stories are what appeal to him, and among the best comic series and intriguing characters these days don’t come from either company.

“The Walking Dead” series, for instance, is from Image Comics. Other upandcomers are the “Invincible” and “Descender” series from Image.

“It’s OK to like a character or a company,” Onesto said. “But don’t be so obsessed you miss out on great stories.

“I just love the stories. I love the characters. I love sharing it. I love talking about it.”

His personal favorite series is the “XMen.” It was issue No. 141, which introduced the “Days of Future Past” storyline that has informed the recent movies in the film series, that really grabbed him and turned him into more than a casual reader.

“That just hooked me,” Onesto said. “I love the ‘XMen.’ “

Beyond any one series or set of heroes, Onesto’s mostprized comics are the ones that include firstappearances. Like the issues of “The Incredible Hulk” that include introductions of characters like Rocket Raccoon from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and Wolverine.

Other favorite comics are connected to good memories.

Some of the comics he owns that have real value are locked away in a bank vault, safe from theft, fire or flood. With them are his favorites of all the thousands of comics he owns, none of which are worth a dime but in a way are worth more than all the rest.

Those are the five comics his father carried with him through Vietnam as a soldier.

After a 15year break and starting almost from scratch about two years ago, amassing 70,000 volumes hasn’t been accomplished one comic at a time.

Onesto subscribes to several series by mail through a store in Rock Island, Illinois, gets back issues at comic book stores from Burlington’s downtown comic book shops, and seeks out some titles online.

Other comics have been received as gifts, some from his fatherinlaw. A few even from students.

He also buys whole collections, which made for having a lot of doubles. Those extras are the ones he gives away.

One thing he doesn’t do is try to keep up with every series introduced by the comic book publishers. There simply are too many.

All this collecting and organizing has been done with the blessing of his Onesto’s wife of nearly 10 years, Jacqueline. In fact, it was her idea that he start up again.

“It’s gotten so bad,” he said, “my wife has a box of ‘Dr. Who’ comics. She enjoys this as much as I do.”

Taking advantage of the summer break, Onesto recently finished cataloging his collection, a process that included sorting, individually bagging and putting into boxes organized by series or character.

“It takes hours to bag and board,” he said, referring to the piece of paperboard that goes into each bag to help support the magazines inside.

Just as hard is trying to read them all. So he hasn’t. Most, but not nearly all.

For all the work involved, collecting and reading are a fun activity.

“When I’m stressed, it’s nice to be able to escape without escaping,” Onesto said, explaining he buys and reads comics - and dotes on his 1965 Thunderbird - instead of going to bars. “I enjoy the pictures. As an art teacher, I enjoy the visuals as much as the written word.”


Information from: The Hawk Eye, https://www.thehawkeye.com

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