A Marvel guy, a DC guy, and an Image guy walk into a comic book store
The Monterey Peninsula, 1975-1983
My early comics-buying life is like most others my age, and plenty a bit younger: the unpredictable spinner racks, here and there and wherever. I guess really urban people still had newsstands in the 70s, but for me, it was these things as I described them in The beginning. In my neighborhood, technically Del Monte Park in a hidden corner of Pacific Grove, there were no grocery or department stores. There was one tiny corner store we all just called “The Little Store,” which served pretty much any and everybody within a couple of square miles. For me that meant “Still only 25 cents!” When I suspected I’d missed an issue, that meant a bike ride in ever-widening circles to the other racks I knew about.
There were stores too, but all that meant, then, was a couple of cardboard boxes set out among bookshelves, whether in an old magazine/book shop or some kind of second-hand, who-knows-what shop. There were several of these; they came and went, and within each, the comics and Warren mags came and went too. I sold most of my comics, and those of an adult acquaintance, to one of these.
Stores which actually billed themselves as comics retail appeared right when I was able to travel independently by bike and bus; I know now that they were spearheaded by Comics & Comix up in Berkeley, but mine were right on its heels. They sometimes had back-issue bins, but their main draw was predictable availability: completeness, breadth, and consistency of titles. Consistent with the original model, it was absolutely the case that they’d carry Last Gasp titles or The First Kingdom along with Superman vs. Spider-Man. The one I attended (best word for it) in downtown Monterey was some prime real estate too, a nice open space on Alvarado Street, airy – not the stereotypical smell-hole at all.
This is all before the so-called direct market, a misnomer that meant bypassing the newsstand distributors and going to store-oriented distributors instead. It’s significant for comics because it meant disconnecting this product from the same paper and outlets used by newspapers, and thus putting the burden of their financing upon the product itself.
The history of comics retail has been well-documented, more than once. The names to conjure with include Phil Seuling, Bud Plant, Buddy Saunders, and Diamond distribution, but details aside, the key words are paper (comin’ in, goin’ out, the money is a-turnin’) and returnability. Not being bought wasn’t failed-sale – it was a whole dimension of tapdancing among compensated / claimed as a loss / sold-in-shadow. The latter went into high gear when people just a bit older than me decided they simply could not live without owning a full run of, say, The Fantastic Four or the 1958-1963 Flash.
Look, the little boogers just don’t pay for themselves in terms of store upkeep. The history of comics retail – documented as it may be – seems not to impart the lesson it should, that you need something besides comics sales underpinning your store’s continued existence.
Back then, though, it was early days, and spinner racks were still considered the primary venue. The stores were still “alternative,” and they preserved the catch-as-catch-can approach to comics content, which had been established in the culture by (1) decades of Hustler et al. sold openly at newsstands, (2) the long-established freedom of actual-prose books to say whatever they wanted, and (3) the strong presence of undergrounds as validators of comics’ legitimacy, as far as most customers were concerned.
My life in Chicago from 1983 through 1989 – my late teens to mid-20s – was rich in bookstores. At any point I was either within walking distance or right next to 57th Street Books, Powell’s, and O’Garas, and I frequently visited the uptown stores like Bookseller’s Rows; my very existence then is well-summarized as the middleman between my paychecks and these stores’ monthly upkeep. However, Hyde Park was strangely free of comics during that period. There was a legendary newsstand on 51st, but it had just closed. When I got back into buying comics some time in 1985 or early 1986, my friends John and Edd (see Moses and the Mosquito) took me downtown to the completely invisible and mysterious Loop Comics, on Wabash. You have never seen anything like it: you went into a skyscraper lobby, signed in at the desk, then went up in the elevator to the seventh floor – all with no trace or sign that any comics were in the place. There wasn’t any list of companies on the lobby wall. You just had to know about it and you just had to know how to get there.
It was an oddly-angled little nook with a displaced window, an interior by-product of some architect’s notion of aesthetics regarding the exterior corners of the building that yielded something you could stick a door on and call a “space.” There was room for one three-row shelf of superheroes and another of Turtles, The Crow, First titles, Comico titles, Eclipse, et al., and that was it. The owner, Greg, was scruffy and intellectual, managing to look bored and intense at the same time. He obviously had known John and Edd for years. I went there all the time, sometimes bringing people with me if I was in the Loop for some other reason, all of whom were probably convinced I was about to kill them and deposit their bodies in some closet when we went left-right-left-left through the Kubrickian skyscraper corridors. Greg turned out to be a real gentleman, putting women that I brought there at ease without seeming to try.
How he afforded the space, I have no idea. Grandfathered, somehow? Even more so, how the fuck did he get started there and how did anyone ever learn about it? It literally had negative sidewalk appeal; there was no way to find it. Was it primarily a mail-order outlet? Could word-of-mouth been the whole story? I never did learn how John and Edd started going there.
When my here-and-there comics buying went into “must get back issues” mode, though, I learned about Larry’s Comics, then quite a public transit hike from Hyde Park to Rogers Park, especially on a weekend if you missed the Jeffrey Express. I’d double-up on a visit to the Black Star Bookstore nearby. Larry’s is easy to describe, at first glance your stereotypical attic-at-ground-level dump, full of cardboard boxes with nary an issue bagged or tagged, as a couple older guys sort of brooded on their stools in the dimness. Then you realized … everything was cover price. Fucking everything was cover price, and only that, they had everything. Nothing was particularly organized until you found the right box, but once you did, you could walk out of there with several dozen continuous issues of a single title for twenty bucks. That’s how I was able to backstop all my First Comics series, having come into them in the company’s third year, and now I kick myself repeatedly for not swooping up all those Archie and Charlton superhero titles that were just … sitting there. I can’t even imagine what goodness from Warren or other 70s B&W mags I must have walked past.
I knew back then that something shady must have underpinned Larry’s, and now I know that most of those comics had walked outta distributors’ warehouses and been reported “sold” or “unsold” based on the bookkeepers’ needs of the moment – a long-standing tactic that makes a mockery of any/every “sales figure” ever reported by a comics company. It would soon become inviable once Marvel defined itself as a distributor and tried to control both the heat and the supply of the new collectability of the 1990s – and sure enough, by the mid-90s Larry’s had evaporated.
Chicagoan comics people are probably looking for a mention of Hepcats, but it closed moments before a friend took me there; or of Graham Crackers, but that was set up in the Loop after I left the area. There were glimmers of the future. Lined up on Western Avenue, and benefiting from some sort of zoning or tax dodge on that street, were three stores: one of which was Variety Comics with its cool mural and sometimes surprising inventory, and the others being the new-style massively boxed, bagged, boarded warehouses with their inflated Wolverines hanging around. The latter store found its ultimate in the hits-playing, hip Chicago Comics on Lincoln, and, I now know, in the stripmall phenomenon of Moondog’s. But I didn’t know much about these and was mainly loyal to Greg in the Loop, and willing to trawl at Larry’s, instead of paying top dollar for boards and bags.
Gainesville, FL, 1989-1998
In 1987, I first encountered the store Novel Ideas in my comics news reading, possibly in the Comics Buyers Guide, that it faced obscenity charges. I even think I first met one of the staff in Chicago before I moved to Gainesville, at the only Chicago Comicon I ever attended, when I stopped by their booth to express my support. By the vagaries of grad school selection and application, I ended up living there and adopting it as my store from 1989 through 1997.
Briefly: the owner, Bill Hatfield, had built up two locations with full-service comics, new and used books, and games, the latter managed by long-term employee John Marron. In the mid-80s, the store was booming, and they were selling comics in six-set bags without much attention to what was in them … and a kid bought a set with who-knows-what in the middle, Cherry Poptart or something, you name it. The mom flipped out, some local action group hopped in, and it turned into a sting: the local prosecutor scented blood: and the kid went back in with a wire, primed to hunt down a set with something similar in it, and to buy it.
I’ve written about the 1983 Meese Commission on Pornography before. Its conclusion a couple years later was a triumph of anti-sex fiat: “obscenity” need only be defined after charges are brought, subject to the “standards of the local community.” This is of course witch-hunt talk – no one in a community or justice system is going to dial back an accusation of obscenity based on definition, lest they look immoral or soft. The “local community” standards are therefore defined by whoever screams loudly about whatever they want to scream about.
Gainesville has a complex history, but suffice to say it’s multiple-membraned, subject to many unspoken power plays which created both libertine opportunities and strongly-enforced morality zones, each of which shifted seismically when some city council member died or when the university bought this-or-that bit of property. A lot like my original hometown, Pacific Grove in California, and my later hometown, Evanston in Illinois, in fact. In such places, popular but financially-tricky venues like blues bars and comics shops are easy to set up but also vulnerable to elimination. And (among other things) Gainesville was and is a classic example of liberalism + moralism run amuck.
Novel Ideas became the first humpback whale discovered by this newly-armed harpoon squad, and unfortunately the model, for how to “run them outta town” with no principled opposition. Cue the courts through multiple, multiple hearings and showings and inquests and all that stuff – and to cut to the chase, the store ultimately won the case. Of course, by then, the negative publicity and especially the court costs had taken Bill through at least one bankruptcy. My years in Gainesville are easily tracked by the store’s increasingly-desperate changes in location: University Ave, then to a quarter of its size elsewhere on University Ave, then a big space off 34th Street next to Bud’s Half-Price Beds (where I bought Magic: the Gathering and the dice I always used in playtesting Sorcerer), then I think another place north of there on 34th Street where the books part was sadly abandoned, and finally south of there, when it included an assortment of dubious videos.
I am finding nothing about this history on the internet, which is crazy – it was national news, a big deal in comics/obscenity history. One wrinkle that didn’t get coverage at the time was the crossover to the Danny Rolling killings in 1991, just a few blocks down from our department on campus. Rollings’ possessions included an issue of Mike Diana’s Boiled Angel, resulting in long-term career effects and its own set of legal proceedings as well, in fact, the first instance of a comics creator’s conviction for obscenity. But I don’t think that tied into the Novel Ideas case.
What we learn by this …
- Over-extension matters a lot, and comics retail is over-extended by definition; related to that, it’s not able to amass the clout to form alliances with nearby businesses or subcultures.
- The First Amendment died a thousand deaths. Comics retail wasn’t legitimately “books” enough to be protected as speech, and not fringe/back-room enough to fly under the radar.
- “Protect the children” brings the twin forces of progressivism and classic small-town conservatism down upon you with nary a thought to their competing first principles.
Throughout the 1990s, although I often got an earful about this or that distributor shenanigan or company policy from my comics-pro friends, I was really a boring, out-of-touch customer. I didn’t follow any of the trade mags or “it’s a hit” pseudo-news piped to the fanbase. So to me, the stores were still just one-guy shops, as I completely missed the strip-mall, glass-front, new-school comics chain store phenomenon, as pioneered by Moondog’s.
I like to think of it as the comics equivalent of Y. K. Kim Tae Kwon Do, and about as substantial, but to go by industry and fandom talk from the time, this was really it, “comics grow up” validated yet again, free from the fringe, blessed with normalcy and glowing in a Norman Rockwell haze … and yet also the venue for uniquely deluded speculation. Plain old sales weren’t good enough, for some reason; to be fair-and-square all-right-by-me, these stapled pamphlets had to make you rich. Collectability became, for a while, the legitimizer for comics, but it was very odd: no longer simply object-based memorabilia (“I bought this when I was nine!”), but also tied to content (“This is when Toad Lad squirted Glitz Girl!”), and dosed with the weird delusion that a comic could be designated by its publisher to hold considerably increased resale value.
I really shouldn’t have to explain that later resale value is set by entirely different variables. Anyone could have told you, correctly, that all those duplicate covers, foil covers, et cetera, and hyped events depreciated at point-of-purchase to somewhat less than used Kleenex. Briefly: if a product says “Collectible!” on it, then it isn’t. No matter how much you spend to keep it minty fresh.
The weirdness is that this wasn’t a mere case of cynical scam promotion, itself so ordinary as to bear no mention. No – the comics company executives, the distributors and retailers, and the comics pros themselves seemed to believe it! Bankruptcy, destroyed careers, stores up in smoke, confusion, soul-searching, recriminations, all abounded.
I mean … it wasn’t just spotty-faced fourteen-year-olds with a Liefeld fetish, who take way too much of the blame. Get this: par for the course for comics, enormous quantities vanished into private stashes between printer and store. And yes, this contributed to the illusion of mighty, mighty sales. But that’s not my point, it’s that … well … look, the parties responsible, insiders as they must have been, had no excuse not to know the whole thing was bogus. What were they thinking? When, and how, did it finally dawn upon them?
On a different note entirely, over in the UK, another sort of store was pioneered, beginning with Page 45 in 1994. I’ve written about them before too, and you can find out more here. If I had to summarize them for my present point, it’d be: to sell comics, you don’t try to mold them into the shape you want or approve of most, and you sell to people, not fandom.
Chicago north ‘burbs, 1999-2017
When I moved back to the Chicago area, the stores on Western were looking tired, and they closed one by one. The mall stores faded too – people who talk about “the crash of 2008” should have been looking at the canary commercial sector including start-up martial arts schools, comics stores, non-franchise student hangout joints, and other slightly-fringe, labor-intensive, direct-service type retail – most of it died hard by 2005.
There weren’t any survivors; instead, the stores that persisted or that started and thrived, were usually spins on Page 45, extremely well-tuned to clientele, location, and specific kinds of socializing. In my immediate area, that included:
- Comics Revolution in downtown Evanston, which apparently found a way to reconcile workers-solidarity and much left-intellectualism with prime real estate and prices to match. Good titles there, always.
- Third Coast Comics on north-north Broadway, one of the real gems of neighborhood comics buying, begun and run by my good friend Terry Gant. This is where you can be hip, enjoy your comics, and not get grunted at or condescended to.
- The Comix Gallery in Wilmette at the top of the CTA line, now a generational staple there, run by Vernon Wiley. This was “my” store until my recent move to Sweden, and as it happens, I’m also a good case for how it succeeded. Vern managed to provide the knowledgeable fringe insider personality and every sort of comics content, old or new, in what amounted to a total parent-friendly environment. You started buying your own comics there, then showed up with a baby in a belly-pack, then you brought your infant, then your toddler … and that kid was welcome to play with the toys all over … and then would be sitting and looking at the pictures … and you can see where this is going. There are parents in the store now who were those toddlers a couple decades ago. And Vern carries just the right amount of just the right titles, placed at the right heights and ways to access them in the store, to suit every stage.
It’s all about moi et toi
Again, this post isn’t intended to capture or summarize comics history; I’m not a journalist or pundit. What I am, is clearly sculpted by the state of comics commerce per unit time, indeed per unit purchased, to an extent from which radical Marxists would recoil, their praxis and materiality falling every which way. What the stores were like, what comics they carried, what “back issues” meant, what the damn things are to me … valuable and disregarded variables alike, it’s all right there in the history. Granted I chose to value X and to disregard Y, for any number of such pairings, but what X and Y were in each case – that, I did not choose.
You ought to do this too! Where did you get your comics, and how, and what was happening in each case that structured your choices? What “kind of comics fan” were you, and are you, and how was that identity shaped?
Many thanks to John Marron for sharing his memories of the events in Gainesville. He says it’s OK to describe his life during that time as Cheapass Games’ game Get Out.
Links: 1999 Chicago Reader interview with Larry Charet, Comic Bool Legal Defence Fund re Boiled Angel, Bill Hatfield’s website, Your comic books are worthless (and here’s why), Third Coast Comics, Comix Gallery
Next column: Is your hate pure? (June 18)
Posted on June 11, 2017, in Commerce and tagged Bill Hatfield, Boiled Angel, Comix Gallery, Edd Jones, John Hotchkiss, John Marron, Larry's Comics, Loop Comics, Meese Commission on Pornography, Mike Diana, Novel Ideas, Page 45, Terry Gant, Third Coast Comics, Vernon Wiley. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.