53 Wednesdays: Column One

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Colonel: You're half-Kree, Half-Titan, and all bastard. Do you know that, Captain Marvel?
Marvel: Yes, sir.
-Captain Marvel #4

Jan. 1-7: My local shops

Since this series is a look at how I read comics, it's best if I first look at where I buy comics. I've moved around a lot growing up, and I've seen a lot of different comic shops. This week, after re-visiting the comic stores in my area, I've come to the following conclusion: The best comic shops are found near college campuses.

Think about it: College students are an ideal audience for comics. It's a literate audience that's burned out on "real" books after reading hundreds of pages in textbooks. They tend to come from middle-to-upper class families with just enough disposable income to drop $20 a month on funny books. Coming out of high school, many feel they're out-growing superhero books and are willing to check out more off-beat, independent books. Finally, college students tend to be "nerds" or sci-fi geeks; groups that gravitate towards comics.

Or it could all be a big coincidence and I'm just talking out of my ass.

Nevertheless, my all-time favorite shop was the one I went to when I went to college. Back at Purdue University, just two blocks away from the main campus, was Von's. Von's was a collection of stores that took up the entire ground floor of a building, plus the smaller, one-story building next to it. It was this building that housed Von's Comics and Video, the combined comics shop and video store. The front of the shop was all comics. Dozens of boxes of back issues; bookcases of TPBs and graphic novels; and 5 shelves that displayed the newest issue of every series they sold. And what a selection! It seemed like they had everything Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse ever published. Dozens of b&w books I'd never heard of. Sci-fi serials, nostalgic comic strip collections, trashy humor books, and Japanese porno comics, a.k.a. hentai.

But what I remember best was the couch. It was an old brown vinyl two-seater set up in the back of the store where the videos were kept. You could pick a book off the shelves (the clerks were very cool about letting you read the books), plop down, and read while the wood-paneled 19" TV played some odd tape. (Tapes included episodes of the cartoon Dangermouse, David Lynch's Eraserhead, and a version of Faust that combined live actors with marionettes and actors dressed as marionettes. This variety made it the most popular video store in the city.)

In other words, Von's was a friendly place where the staff encouraged you to try new books in a comfortable atmosphere. It was my Cheers, and I was their Norm.

I've yet to find another shop like that. I can't even find a place that lets you sit down and read the books you've just bought. Still, there are good stores here in Western PA. Problem is, getting customers can be an uphill battle in this area. The local economy's been soft ever since the closings of mines and steel mills in the 70s and 80s. The most successful business is the hospital system. Pittsburgh also has one of the lowest percentages of young people in the nation. Add to that a collection of small mining towns cut off from one another by hills, valleys, and a piecemeal freeway system that makes the Jersey turnpike sound simple.

So, in this land of small towns divided by highways and hazardous terrain, dominated by an aging population, I am looking for a store to fill my weekly graphic literature needs.

I found four. And they're all at least 20 minutes away from my home. By freeway. Does anyone else think it's wrong to have to drive on the freeway to find a comics shop?

The closest shop is Phantom of the Attic at the Parkway Center Mall in Greentree. This is the second smallest shop I've ever seen. Wedged between a shoe store and a nail parlor, this shop is still packed with lots of comics and comic merchandise. Their selection is mostly the mainstream books, though they do have some manga for local Japanese readers. All of their back issues are 30% off every day, and they have a large collection of TPBs and graphic novels; many of which have been out of print for years.

In these times, with the shopping mall being the new Main Street, USA, they're in the right place. Well, sort of. Parkway Center is what's called "the other mall", the mall people used to go to until a newer, better mall opened up. But with the random development and haphazard urban sprawl of this area, there are people who still shop at Parkway. And I've often seen kids at Phantom. They're buying Pokemon cards.

My favorite shop is also called Phantom of the Attic. (No connection to the other one. At least not anymore.) It's located in Oakland, near the Pitt University campus. They're only a block away from the Carniege Library, which has the best collection of graphic novels I've ever seen. (More on libraries and comics books in another column). THIS is the smallest shop I've ever seen! Shaped like a shoe box, there is barely enough room to move between the shelf-lined walls and the back issue boxes in the store's center. They manage to put out a wide selection of comics every week, including small-press, independents, and magazines like 'Alter Ego' and 'The Jack Kirby Collector'. They're also very cool about letting you read comics in the store.

The clerks are very friendly. I always see them talking with customers. If you want a back issue that you don't see, they'll check their "warehouse". Seriously, these guys keep the bulk of their collection at another location. You can see why; space is at a premium.

One other thing that distinguishes this Phantom from other shops: The Weekend Crew. I've only met these guys a handful of times (usually come in only on Wednesdays), but they seem to have a sardonic sense of humor. Everything I know about them comes from the wall. Every week, these guys hang up a dozen comics that share a common theme. You don't win a prize if you guess that week's theme; it's just something fun to do. When the new 'Youngblood' comic was announced, they put up a collection of Liefeld-drawn books and called Rob the greatest artist of all time. Another collection spelled out the secret message: "We're smarter than you".

There's a fine line between self-effacing and self-loathing.

The oldest and largest store in Pittsburgh is Eide's Entertainment. Like Von's, Eide's sells all forms of entertainment. They're located in a three-story building across from the bus terminal on the edge of what you'd call the seedy side of town. (Although these days, all of Pittsburgh is looking pretty seedy.) Videos are on the top floor, CDs and magazines when you walk in, and comics and toys in the basement.

That's right. You have to go down a narrow flight of stairs into a windowless basement to find the largest collection of comics in Pittsburgh. Sure, they have a great selection, and their prices are reasonable. If you're looking to complete a series, track down a rare comic, or just get your weekly fix, it's a good place to go. But just being in that basement, feeling all the dust on the comics' bags reinforces the feeling that comics are an entertainment ghetto. You get the feeling the rest of the store is embarrassed to be selling this stuff. They sell porn mags on the top floor in full view of the video section, but there's only a simple sign pointing you downstairs to the comics. Just being there makes me feel like a loser.

Which brings me to the last store: New Dimension Comics. Smaller area than Eide's, but same selection. Two opposing walls covered in new and recent books. Windows across the front to let sunlight in. It's a big, open store that feels friendly and welcoming. The only downside is it's so far away. I have to drive north 45 minutes to an hour to get there! And yet I'm going there every week. Why? Because last week I sold them some of my books for store credit. And now it's my cheapest source for new books. I could have sold them at the other shops, if I hadn't bought them there in the first place.

I've seen other, smaller shops listed in the phone book, but I never see them. Maybe I'll take the time to find them all. I've seen ads for an all-Japanese store called "Japanimation". Maybe I'll see them for a column on manga. But for now, I'll drive an hour each way to get my new books every week until I run out of credit. Hopefully, I'll have found some part-time work and have the cash to buy the books locally.

To summarize, comic shops have atmosphere. A store shouldn't make you feel guilty about what you do, nor should it remind you that you're partaking in an unpopular hobby. The best stores welcome you with friendly attitudes and fine products. The worst stores are embarrassed to be selling the very thing keeping them in business. One of the toughest obstacles in changing the public's mind about comics is just getting them to the people. That will either mean more comics in bookstores, or more comic shops. If the latter, they'll have to be inviting, clean, and staffed by people who can at least pretend to like you, just like all salesmen.

Think Barnes and Nobles would be interested in backing a national comic shop chain?

Here are the new books I read this week, and what I thought:

Lone Wolf and Cub Vol. 28 - Koike/Kojima/Dark Horse -
The conclusion to the greatest graphic story of all time ends in death and honor. I'll write a column for it next month, after I've re-read the entire series.

Edge #9 - Various/Crossgen -
This was just plain fun to read! We've got action, drama, humor, final confrontations, new beginnings, recaps, surprise twists, and babes (confident, intelligent, powerful women who just happen to also be beautiful). Negation soldiers crop up in 'Sigil', Ethan meets his family in 'Scion', Archard and Lightbourne square off in 'Ruse', Boon Sai Hong faces the Khan in 'Way of the Rat', Giselle shows she's no fool in 'Mystic', and a new war brews in 'The First'.

Alias #18 - Bendis/Gaydos/Hollingsworth/Marvel -
Still one of the best comic books you can buy, thanks to Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. The coloring of Matt Hollingsworth should also be commended. Jessica's search for Mattie Franklin (Spider-Woman), turns up a solid lead. We also see her passive/aggressive relationship with Matt Murdock, and her romance with Scott Lang starts to sour. It's great to see comic book characters as real people. By that I mean with flaws, bad attitudes, and sometimes being just plain assholes, but not hating them for it.

Captain Marvel #4 - David/Reis/Sotomayer -
Strange, strange comic. Joining the Kree army has not helped Genis' growing madness. Matters only get worse when he sleeps with his colonel's mistress, a Shi'ar spy. Genis' loyalty is tested resulting in several deaths. Meanwhile, Rick Jones has become a rock superstar in the Microverse thanks to mystery woman called Epiphany. And we finally see the mysterious "No One", who looks like Eternity's younger brother. This is a strange, strange book, and I love every page of it.

Uncanny X-Men #417 - Austen/Asamiya/Marvel -
This is probably just a comic, but I'm an old 'Generation X' fan, and I like seeing one if its characters, Paige Guthie, back in a regular series. There's also a lot of little character moments that could grow into something big. Angel's just starting to deal with the loss of Psylocke, while his business acumen is called into question. Stacy comes on too strong to Nightcrawler, we get a clue as to why Annie might fear mutants, and Northstar is his typical arrogant self. The villains of this piece are human-killing mutants led by Maximus Lobo, proof that all the good names have been taken. The usual credits for art and editing aren't found anywhere in this comic. Doesn't that violate someone's contract?

Daredevil #40 - Bendis/Dodson/Dodson/Hollingsworth/Marvel -
This would have gotten if it wasn't drawn by the Dodsons. Their fluid, open style is completely wrong for the mood of the story. I'd rather Michael Gaydos drew this, or Sean Philips, or even Igor Kordey; someone with a grittier style. The ending hits you hard in the gut. Even when you see it coming, you hope to God it doesn't happen. It's hard to watch, but you can't look away. Brilliant stuff.

And finally, the old comics and trade books I read this week. I'd review them, but who cares about old stuff?

Daredevil #227, Wolverine #75, Ultimate Spider-Man #1, Amazing Spider-Man #121, Giant-Size X-Man 31 (all part of the "100 Greatest Marvels" reprint series). X-Men #1, (1991), Classic X-Men #43, Daredevil #200, Marvel Milestone Edition: Amazing Fantasy #15, Marvel Milestone Edition: Fantastic Four #1, Mekanix #1-3, The Sentry TPB, Lenore: Noogies TPB, Essential Howard the Duck, (Howard the Duck #1-4, plus excerpts from Adventure into Fear #19, and Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, 5)

And that's my first week. Damn, I read a lot of books.


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