KILDEER – It could be a plot from a classic comic book: A mild-mannered boy with the good Spidey sense to treat his comics like 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.
Fact is, for Steve Landman, it's a real-life predicament.
Diagnosed with anti-MAG IgM peripheral neuropathy, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerves, Landman for months has watched helplessly as the numbness that started in his toes crawled up his legs to the point where 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. And an alternative to some of the current treatments has side effects that, he's learned, don't always work.
So, he's turning to his collection of 10,000 comics in an effort 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.
"I had to cut them down because they didn't fit (the comics) exactly," he said of the boards, which prevent the comics from the kind of sagging and creasing that drives down resale value.
Today, when comic books can go for millions – the first issue of Action Comics that marked the first appearance for Superman sold for $2.16 million in 2011 – such precautions are common. But back in the 1960s and '70s, most comics were treated with all the care of baseball cards – some of which also turned out to be highly valuable – obliterated by kids' bicycle spokes.
"I've talked to a lot of my friends, and we think Steve is the first guy to every 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 wasn't thinking about some future payday. He was just a huge fan of superheroes and a meticulous kid intent on keeping his comics in the best shape possible.
That quality has carried forward into Landman's adulthood, as he now faces the rare disease.
One possible treatment for anti-MAG IgM peripheral neuropathy is an aggressive form of chemotherapy, though one expert said the treatment is not always effective. And if it does work, it also can stop working, said Dr. Louis Weimer, co-director of Columbia Neuropathy Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center. He said some patients decide against the treatment because the powerful drug compromises the immune system.
Landman said he doesn't want to put himself at risk for other diseases because of a weakened immune system.
"I would love to hear from one person, any doctor ... or one patient with it who has found something that helped him in any way," he said.
So, he's pinning his hopes on the money and publicity from the auction.
Landman said he's hoping there might be someone who as a kid shared his love for comics – a doctor or researcher, perhaps – who might know something that he can use for the last chapter of a book about his life he's toyed with writing.
"I don't want to write a book without a happy ending," he said. "Until I get something, I don't want to go there."