Like its patrons, comic book shops come in all shapes and sizes. In the years since I fell in love with comic books and super heroes, my travels have carried me to many a comic shop, many of which proved to be brightly lit, clean, and otherwise respectable havens from the drudgeries of reality. Others, dark dens devoted to fandom, fit the stereotype all too well. In college Dasad and I spent our Friday nights walking the malls, wasting time in the arcades and the popular comic shop, Another Universe.
Unlike most shops, owned or operated privately, AU was a legitimate chain, specializing in comic books and other comic-inspired merchandise. No dingy obscure dungeon was this, but a well-kept store equipped with freshly paint, ordered shelves, employee uniforms, an immense collection of comics, graphic novels, and figurines, as well as a knowledgeable troop of female cashiers.
Anyone who has ever donned the robes of geekdom knows the horror of talking to girls about your hobby. This is true of any male obsession – even the more socially acceptable ones like sports. Their eyes gaze, lips part to utter an impatient sigh, your final comment on the latest Batman movie is ignored as she and her girlfriends drift away, laughter and the occasional quip echoing in their wake. Not so were the female members of the AU staff:
“Big Batman fan?” the pretty cashier asked, looking at me and smiling.
“Uh yeah, I was a long time ago, and only recently started collecting again.” Typical ambiguous answer, which I mastered long ago, allowing the female in question a polite but disinterested out: “Oh that’s nice” or “Well, good luck.”
Instead she responds, holding up my issue of Batman’s “The Killing Joke:” “This is an awesome book. Great storytelling. Have you read Waid and Ross’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ yet”
“No,” I respond, excitedly. “No, I bought it the other day, but haven’t got a chance to read it yet.”
“Go home tonight and read it. Then come back and tell me what you think. I loved Ross’ art, all painted, you know. Beautiful. Go read it. I want to hear what you think.”
I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A girl geek. A pretty girl geek. A pretty girl geek who wants to talk to me about geek stuff. Not since fire and the invention of movable type has man stumbled upon such a wonder.
Unfortunately the store was bought out by a larger company weeks later and subsequently shut down. Afterwards I found a shop closer, Alternate Worlds, less mainstream and hip, but with staying-power. No girls either, but in such establishments you become accustomed to the girls to geeks ratio (0:1) and simply end up buying more Japanese comics. Nonetheless, the owner proved to be a sweet forty-something Swedish immigrant, the quiet aunt-type, who though plainly ignorant of the hobby always kept the store bright and cheery. Here I did not find a comic store but a bookstore that sold comics, a comfortable place that refused to emulate someone’s parents’ basement.
However, not all comic stores are like these. The owners and cashiers, most regrettably and all too frequently, fall into the old stereotype. The worse offenders – by which I define those who truly seek to embarrass and oppress the customer – evolve over years of seclusion and obsession, like Gollum in his cave. For these reasons, while growing up comic-buying always felt a little sketchy. In high school and college, few guys my age bought comics, so the act of collecting or even reading felt much like sneaking through your father’s Playboy collection:
“Murphey, what are you doin’ in there?”
“N-nothing, Mom, j-just reading!”
“I hope that you’re readin’ Hemingway, if I find another Batman under your bed . . .”
“H-h-haha, funny Mom!”
So when the owner of the nearby Cosmic Galaxy (for some reason all comic stores on the East Coast gravitate toward corny space epithets) began deriding me on my purchases, you felt even worse about yourself and your habits. Many geeks are like that though; lacking interest in society-approved activities, they seek to master the minutia of their own niche and thus prove their worth by abusing the less-informed. Justifying their worth to the world, they attempt to degrade it. In my mind, a bully is still a bully, regardless of interest or appearance. Still, the engine of self-promotion and public humiliation powers most modern businesses, fan conventions, and scientific research, so I suppose it was a necessary – if painful – experience.
But back to our disgruntled worker:
The local comic guy seems to emulate his tragic counterpart on the Simpsons: pale complexion, lank unwashed hair, condescending demeanor, and a tight blue T-shirt pox-marked with grease. His pot belly blocks the faint light from door as I stand before him, like an astronaut watching the planet eclipse the setting sun. His fingers glow orange, permanently stained by the entrails of countless cheese doodles. I cough politely, and he stands. Slowly. Waddling over to the register, he coughs and prepares himself for business, simultaneously cleaning his fingers and decorating his shirt in one swift move. I say hello. He nods, sipping grape soda from his over-sized Big Gulp. Purple droplets escape down his cheek, eventually collecting at his chin like a grotesque wart. He rubs away the residual pimple with the back of his hand, glaring at my purchases as if they displeased him.
“This arc is pathetic,” he says scanning my first issue.
“Huh?” I stumble, pausing at his condemnation.
“This story arc, the one you are buying, is pathetic. I hear Parker makes a deal with the devil here, some dues-ex-machina crap. Quesada is over-rated anyway. If you really like Spiderman, toss away everything written in the last twenty years – especially any title that begins with “Ultimate” – and devote yourself to Romita’s work of the early ‘70s.”
He passed me an old comic, wrapped in plastic. I felt like he was trying to pawn off some pot. The fading colors, heavy price tag, and cheese-doodle smears turned my stomach; I politely declined. Some people collect comics for individual issues, encasing prized books in plastic and then display them in locked case on their dressers next to yesterday’s change and that pyramid diorama from third grade. I am just in it for the stories. Owning rare individual copies – groundbreaking and valuable though they may be – seems pointless if I cannot read them.
The comic guy sniffs at my refusal, and then ignores all but my money. I sneak out, darting my eyes about the parking lot, an instinctive search for girls and anyone who might recognize me.
Most comic stores have that feel to them: hole-in-the-wall shops squeezed in between laundromats and liquor stores. One such institution near the lab where I worked felt more like an opium den than a bookstore. The shelves seemed handmade by unskilled hands. I reach for an old issue of Batman but happen upon a splinter instead. I nearly trip over someone. Bodies of potential customers lay strewn about the floor next to piles of discarded back issues, reading silently, lost in alien worlds. Death metal bands screamed from behind the counter, where the gaunt pierced lips of the emaciated clerk mouthed ambiguous lyrics. Any moment I imagined tear gas to crash through the windows while my face is pinned to the floor by some rookie cop, trained on old episodes of Starsky and Hutch.
“Listen . . .” I would shout, as steel cuffs bite into my wrists.
“Scum like you should just die. Tryin’ to sell this stuff to kids . . .”
“Hey the writing has really improved in the last thirty years. Have you ever read Gaiman’s ‘Sandman?’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ I hear they teach ‘Watchmen’ in college cl . . . ow!”
“I don’t want your excuses. ‘Sandman?’ Happy dust? Is that what they call it on the street now?”
As they haul me away, I suppose it good luck that no one caught me reading the Japanese comics . . . but that’s another story for another time.