As I browsed the latest and greatest news articles that the mysterious Google algorithms had deduced were what I wanted to see, I ran across this story on Gizmodo.
I’m not going to quibble with the author, a Mr. Charles Pulliam-Moore. And by that I mean, I am going to quibble, but I’m not going to try not to be a jackass about it. His experiences are his experiences, and I have no doubt that any attempted argument on my part to dissuade him from his opinion of comic book stores would come to nothing. And it may just be that’s how Charles is; he enjoys reading trade paperbacks and online comics and he finds little or no joy in the retail side of it. Even if I can’t change that – and I know I probably can’t – well, it makes me a little sad. And perhaps a little defensive.
Part of the problem here is that, in spite of how I feel about the medium of comic books, the specialty shops that sell them, or the people who work behind the counter, Charles has a point. Some, but by no means all, comic retailers have shops that are cluttered or disorganized. Sometimes you run into people who are working there to feed their own comic book habit or because they are missing whatever genetic marker it is that makes people have the ability to tolerate putting in 40+ hours in an office and not go fucking insane. They may have zero interest in helping someone who isn’t already immersed in the somewhat arcane world of comics and don’t want to just be nice.
It happens. I know. I’ve been in those shops myself, and it’s fucking annoying. The only thing worse than a shop of unresponsive, mouth-breathing fanboys is a staff of unresponsive, mouth-breathing fanboys.
I’ve been in stores where I walk in the first time and say, “Hi, I’m Sebastian. I really like stuff like Sandman, Preacher, Strangers in Paradise, Hermes the Eye-Ball Kid and anything drawn by Don Simpson, Barry Windsor-Smith or P. Craig Russell, any suggestions?” And if they say something like, “Dude. Marvel is over there. DC is over there. Image is over there…” well, I vote with my feet. You don’t have to blow my mind with your encyclopedic knowledge of story lines, or know who inked issue 182 of Fantastic Four (yes, Troy at Flashback Comics, I know you know it was Joe Sinnott, and that’s why you’re the MAN). That doesn’t hurt, of course, and I will be appropriately in awe of such minutia, but what really makes a store work for me is that the person behind the counter gives a shit. Those are the stores I go back to and open up a subscription.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked in a comic book store a while back. Bedrock City Comics in Houston, to be exact. When I was there, it was a small but thriving operation. The main store on Westheimer hadn’t expanded yet and it was one of those intimate retail specialty stores Charles might have hated. I like to think he wouldn’t, however; besides being well-organized, the owner (Richard Evans) and the manager (Mike Steenbergen) had a philosophy that it wasn’t just about retailing funny books, and it sure wasn’t meant to be some repository of arcane lore and “over stuffed museum shop”. They taught me that building relationships with the customer was the foundation of a successful shop and if it wasn’t a place were people enjoyed themselves, they wouldn’t come back. Oh, and that playing Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9 Pts. I-IV on the store jambox was NOT conducive to a fun atmosphere no matter what. Point taken.
Comic books should be fun. I remember buying comic books at the grocery store. Okay, I’m old. I’m not saying I took my dimes down to Mr. Cacciatore’s Green Grocer and Liquor Emporium to buy the latest issue of All-American Comics or Outlaw Kid! But when I was a bit younger there weren’t that many comic books stores around so if I wanted a fix of Captain America, Fantastic Four, or Thor (I was a Marvel guy even then – never mind my obsession with Superman’s cousin Power Girl) I’d toss one into the cart when my mom wasn’t looking. Thanks, Mom. Getting home and reading it cover to cover was a joy. Learning to draw by tracing the characters was awesome. Spending a couple of bucks on those “100 Piece Toy Soldier” sets (comes packed in it’s own footlocker!) was a lesson in expectation vs. reality (and the evil world of misleading advertising). I still have some of those 1970’s gems, and if I hadn’t read them to pieces, they might be worth a bit more.
Going to buy new comics, or to discover old ones, should also be fun. Maybe because I have a couple of degrees in English and spent an inordinate amount of time in libraries (those weird buildings where they store actual books? yeah, told you I was old) I like comic book stores. Talking with the staff, finding out what’s new, browsing through overstuffed and heavy long boxes, ogling the high-grade Golden Age or Silver Age books, admiring the toys and statues… man, that’s a blast. Do I occasionally have to deal with over-exuberant customers who break into my conversation or clog up the aisle? Well, sure. That happens. And it happens in lots of other places, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy eating a burger at a bar or standing in line at the post office.
This sounds like an attempt to justify my own good experiences, both on the retail side and the customer side. Perhaps. I do wish I could bring Charles to one of the stores I enjoy and see if maybe, just maybe, he could share in my enthusiasm.