AIKEN --- Comics are no laughing matter to John Martone.
The New York native started collecting original comic strip art decades ago, amassing and selling off such important cultural icons as Donald Duck, the evil queen in Snow White and autographed Peanuts strips.
Now regretfully, of course.
Although those same strips were worth only a few hundred dollars when he sold them in the 1980s, many of them are now valued at thousands of dollars.
Who knew their worth would skyrocket? Mr. Martone asked from his home in Woodside Plantation.
"I was paying $35 a strip from people who had them and selling them for $50," Mr. Martone said of the Peanuts strips he was a particular fan of. "After he (cartoonist Charles Schulz) died, they just went up in value."
Though the ones he has left aren't exactly name-brand -- Henry , Off Main Street and Grandma are among the select few -- he still has some stories to brag about, such as the time he snagged a letter from George Washington's niece, outbidding others at an auction.
That letter turned out to be one historians had been looking for, and now it's in the Library of Congress.
While he had it, he said, he got his wife, Angela, and their sons to hold it.
"How many people in the world have ever held a letter by George Washington in their hands?" Mr. Martone asked. "It's grand."
Back in the 1970s, he was running ads in The New York Times offering to buy, trade or sell his original comics when he was contacted by a Japanese ambassador, who wanted one of his Peanuts strips -- only signed by Mr. Schulz.
Thinking he'd never get the artist on the phone, Mr. Martone dialed information and ultimately reached the Peanuts creator at his California home, who graciously sent signed strips for both the collector and the ambassador.
The two corresponded for a while after that, and Mr. Schulz drew a personalized Snoopy for his wife's birthday. It's framed in their living room.
They're not sure how much the drawing is worth, but Mrs. Martone said her husband isn't allowed to sell it.
Not that he's planning to, he said.
Although he's retired now, Mr. Martone isn't sure whether he can get back into the comic collecting business. It has gotten quite pricey, he said.
So the couple, who moved to Aiken from New York in May 2006, spend their days settling into retirement.
They met at the hospital where they both worked -- she's a retired nurse -- and hit it off immediately.
"As soon as I saw her, the bells went off," Mr. Martone said.
Retirement was a little hard at first, they said, because they left behind busy departments that could always use a hand. But it has gotten easier. Adapting to Southern life wasn't as hard.
Though neither had ever considered retiring to the South, they fell in love with Aiken after hearing about it through a conference.
"It's a gentler way of life," Mrs. Martone said.
The couple now spend their days gardening, shopping and going for long walks. And they're even assimilating Southern habits.
At first, Brooklyn-raised Mr. Martone said, they were suspicious of strangers who would start up friendly chats in the grocery store or other public places.
"Now I find myself talking to people -- just to say hello," he said.
Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or email@example.com.
FAMILY: Wife of nearly 39 years, Angela; two grown sons
OCCUPATION: Retired hematology supervisor
HOBBIES: Collecting comic art, autographs and historical letters and playing the stock market
QUOTE: "Now I find myself talking to people -- just to say hello."