Sunday, March 23, 2008

The "Bad" Comic Shop

Here is one of those "Last Exit To Brooklyn" type true stories about comic book culture from my youth. I was reading an excellent article about "bad" comic shops Alan David Doane wrote for the upcoming Comics Journal #289, and it brought me back through time...

I've already discussed on this blog what a crap hole-in-the-wall sort of comic shop I frequented and worked in when I was a teen. It was badly-lit and crowded with junk. My boss's idea of redecorating and covering all the dirt was to hand us a couple of boxes of Topps and Fleer bubblegum stickers and plaster the entire store with them, top-to-bottom. I'm serious. We covered the floors and walls with Charlie's Angels, Star Wars, and baseball stickers.

My boss hated children coming into his store. They bent the comics. He said that the kids would bend the comics and "make the comics cry." The kids were a nuisance and distracting.

My boss barely broke even on his store. Semi-retired, it was clear the store was just one big hobby for him, and not a real business. Half the people that frequented the shop were not even comic collectors. The store had a knack for just attracting the most dysfunctional elements of the entire neighborhood. Drunks, drug addicts, perverts. It was the first time I met heroin addicts; they would come into the store, sweaty, desperate (but very polite, mind you), looking to trade old toys and magazines for quick cash.

One of the store's regulars was a man I'll call Leonardo. Leo dressed in army fatigues, had a long red beard, and wore one those civil war type hats.

Leo was a commando. He was a "real cool dude." He said he knew how to kill somebody with a well-placed jab to a certain thin sharp bone.

Leo wasn' t really homeless; he had family. But he seemed homeless. He wasn't really unemployed; he did odd jobs, like driving live goats via his van to the neighboring meat markets and restaurants. Me and a friend took a ride in his van with him once. There were goat ghosts everywhere.

Leo liked to pick on a mentally-challenged woman who used to occasionally drop by the store. He liked to make fun of her, imitate her walk. He made fun of her when he saw her in the neighborhood, too.

I'll call the woman Ellie. Ellie was middle-aged and "slow," but very industrious. She, like Leo, did odd jobs, collected deposit cans, delivered newspapers. She walked the streets with this very purposeful but slightly mechanical gait.

Leo kept picking on Ellie, calling her "ugly," baiting her, calling her "stupid". Then one day, Leo didn't show up at the store at his usual time. And later, we found out that he was in critical condition in the hospital.

It turned out that Ellie's brother, a rather big fellow, beat the shit out of Leo. The details varied depending on who told it. Some say Ellie's brother did it alone, some say he did it with a group. The big story was that Leo was allegedly sodomized with some sort of long implement. Again, the details varied. Some said it was with a tennis racket, some say it was a baseball bat. I think the most commonly told tale involved a long rubber hose. This part might be apocryphal; but it was a big hit at the store.

But what was not debated was that Leo's head was bashed in. It was described as when you have a deflated football that somebody stepped on. That was how his skull looked like.

There was both shock and a sick sense of excitement in the shop over hearing news of Leo's predicament. That was the ambivalent nature of the social environment at the shop.

Eventually, that ambivalence turned on me, and my days with the shop had come to a close. Before I left the store for the final time, I told my ex-boss that a year from now, the place wouldn't even be there. According to his closeminded ethnic shorthand, he took that to mean a threat from me; I was Italian, after all. Maybe I "knew people."

But that wasn't it at all. It was just a matter of simple economics. My boss:

1. Hated children
2. Provided a shabby, disorganized store
3. Had poor, almost non-existent business sense
4. Encouraged an unhealthy environment full of hatred, gossip, and dysfunctional behavior.

Sure enough, within a year, the store was gone. Leo survived, but had some brain damage.

Ellie, who is probably in her 60s, still walks with a great sense of purposefulness up and down the streets of the neighborhood. I'm not sure of what she does, but she does an awful lot of it and seems content.

And me? Well, after I left that store, I swore I would never get dragged down in that sort of environment again. I entered college, swore off superhero comics, and only read the independents I purchased at Forbidden Planet. I would trek all the way to Manhattan just to buy my comics, avoiding my neighborhood and the surrounding ones entirely.

Anything that could take my mind off those grinning, leering patrons of the old store, hunched over the long boxes and scratched glass cases, unable to hide their amusement at the fact that their "friend" Leo the commando was in the hospital. They loved the drama. That's why I think they came by the store every day. Not for the comics; not even the comic book collectors for the comics. There were better stores in the area. Better lit, better stocked, cleaner. But they wanted the drama. And it was inevitable, given how they conducted themselves, that drama was to happen. It was a closed circuit that fed off itself.

image from Satan's Laundromat


  1. I think I must have lucked out. I found my current comic book shop from a flyer left at the local supermarket. I wandered in and discovered that a comic book fan had talked his parents into going into business with him to open the shop. He, his brothers, and his parents ran the place. Years later, I still drive a little farther to go to a store where they recognize me as I walk in. I still remember the first time I was in the store after my mother died. I hadn't said anything to them about her illness (I was reading comics partially to get away from that), but they had a condolence card waiting for me with my pulls, signed by the staff. I suppose that sort of care explains why they're still in business when so many other shops have gone under.

  2. Never really had the "bad" comic shop. The two that I've frequented, despite one being a chain that was eventually bankrupt due to its incompetent, thieving owner, were both staffed by good people who liked comics and the work they did.

  3. That's not a "bad" comic shop.. that's an "evil" comic shop

  4. I really liked reading this post... it felt like an episode out of a Ghost World kind of comic (for my lack of better adjectives).

  5. I hope I am not misconstrued to be rude or insulting, but after reading between the lines, and given the events of the past few posts - Val, do you feel that this is what has happened in the comic blogosphere? In your blog? All the drama, drama, drama lately?

    Could be way off base, though.

  6. You've got the framework for a solid GN / short film there, dude.

  7. My experience has been that its difficult to distinguish between a good and bad comic shop until one has been in a truly excellent one. All throughout school I would make the rounds at neighborhood shops without much consideration as to whether the business model could be done better. They were all so similar, staffed by seemingly the same awkward and inept people, that I never realized that comics-as-successful-business was possible. When I finally found a great shop, I came to realize what what I had been missing and why I'll never patronize a bad one again (hopefully).

  8. My hometown has a completely incestuous gamer/comic culture, too. Every store in town is related to every other by way of some convoluted chain of hirings, firings and one legal-gray-area gambling operation from the 80s.

    It's had dropouts, burnouts, racists, predators, bullies, crazies, fistfights, shouting matches and one legendary push fight that came about because neither combatant was slender enough to reach the other with a closed fist.

    I'm a grown damn man; I don't have time for this Wayback journey to the eighth grade.

  9. I guess I was lucky. The comic shops of my youth were usually run by charming old couples who would trade me signed posters and stuff for my lousy artwork. I only ran into one sharpy type but he went out of business fast. The only comic shop in my hometown now is a nice, well-lit place in a strip shopping center.

    The people who run it are super-nice and asked me a billion questions about living in Japan last time I visited. One of the customers went out of his way to find a comic I was looking for. A customer! They don't carry the Fantagraphics stuff I crave but they'll order anything... and they keep the kids' comics right up front near the door for a family-type atmosphere.

    But my current comics shop is Blister, in Shibuya. It's the only place in Tokyo I know to get current monthlies, but you pay about twice the cover price. I cleaned them out of Batgirl, so Cassandra Cain fans here in Japan are just out of luck!

  10. Oh... fantastic observations, though! I agree with Dean- you've got the basis for some manner of art here!