My history of comic book stores

My friend, Ron Edwards, writes a great comic book blog that is a mix of comics, politics, history, and autobiography. This week, he posted about the comic books stores he has frequented over the years. I felt compelled to do the same.

When I was young, we lived pretty far from anywhere alongside a high-traffic two-lane road. Biking anywhere would be taking my life in my hands for five solid miles of dangerous drivers. In elementary and middle school, I got Star Wars and G.I.Joe comics directly from Marvel via mail order subscription. Seeing that brown paper wrapper in the maillbox was always a treat.

In 1987, my mom saw an ad for a local comic book shop and took me and some friends. Beachhead Comics was in a cramped converted house in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They had a cool mural on the wall featuring Batman, Spider-man, Cerebus, and She-Hulk: http://www.fortressofbaileytude.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Beachead-Comics-1024×681.jpg As an eager thirteen-year-old, I was amazed by the oodles of things I had never heard of packed into their place. While the staff was polite, they had a bit of a “go away, kid, ya bother me” reaction to our youthful ignorance. (I went back in a few years ago, in my late-thirties. The store seemed exactly as I remembered it, except dustier. The phrase “old man’s comic book shop” still fit.)

Soon after, a store opened much closer to where I lived: Cap’s Comics Cavalcade. Cap’s was my store all through high school and I was there almost every week. They were in suburban strip mall with a nice, airy space. They had huge tables of back issues in the center, new comics on the one wall, role-playing games on the other wall. There were shelves in the back with a few toys and collectibles. I think they focused primarily on superhero comics, but that’s all that I wanted in those years. I was there almost every week and developed friendships with several of the staff, who didn’t talk down to a high school kid who was far too eager about all this stuff. I still miss Cap’s. I fell in love with comics and with superheroes in that store and with role-playing games in that store. I bought boxes and boxes of mainly Marvel superhero floppies (including an embarrassing number of crossover events and variant covers of X-men #1).

I went to college in a western Pennsylvania town far past its prime. The only comic shop I knew of in Johnstown was in a nearly-abandoned strip mall that was completely inaccessible without a car. And they were only open Saturday mornings or something like that. I think I made it there once, but with a tiny space crowded with cardboard boxes of poorly-organized trade paperbacks, it was no Cap’s. My mom was too indulgent of her only child and continued to pick up my pull list from Cap’s and mail them to me every month or so. She had better friendships with the staff than I did in those days. I remember reading Death of Superman out of those manilla post-office envelopes from my mom. The quality of the superhero books I was reading declined over my years at college, and I crossed them off my pull-list one-by-one.

After college, I did a year of graduate school at Penn State. Comic Swap was a cool little store half a block from campus. In a college town where retail space was at a premium, it had two big rooms below street level. Comic Swap carried a little of everything, with walls of comics in the front room and a few back issues and games in the other room. It was cramped (like everything in downtown State College) but tidy and welcoming.This was where I started shopping for comics with my then-fiancee, now-wife. I learned that she is much more talented at finding new series than I am. She discovered Strangers in Paradise at Comic Swap, and Poison Elves. I remember that the owner had just started doing comic book reviews for the local free weekly newspaper. During one trip, I overheard someone complimenting him on using is platform to “Promote the good stuff.” His response stuck with me. “Well, the crap sells itself. It’s the good stuff that needs a little help.”

I moved back to my hometown after that, but by that time, Cap himself had retired and sold the store to a guy I didn’t really get along with. The culture of the staff changed from “professional and enthusiastic” to “cliquish and condescending.” If you weren’t friends with one of the staff, you got talked down to, no matter how thick the pile of comics and games you were lugging to the counter. This particular attitude is rife in comics shops in this area. It’s driven me away from any number of them over the years.

I took my business to a former rival of Cap’s called Comic Masters. They were set up inside a shopping mall that was slowly failing. When they opened,they were across from a Waldenbooks. As the mall was remodeled around them, they moved into the old video arcade: https://s3-media2.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/EX88kpbe9IDhIAmae9Ls7A/o.jpg They’ve always had a very clean, well-lit store, as you’d expect for a mall. They’re heavily focused on superheroes, and have scads of collectibles and T-shirts right up front, along with kids’ comics (which is a nice touch). Walls of graphic novels, trade paperbacks in the back, with tables of back issues. The staff has always been very positive and helpful (except for one thing which I’ll get to).

Comic Masters is where I bought most of my Sandman trade paperbacks. It’s where my wife discovered Transmetropolitan and Preacher. It’s also where I figured out what kind of comics shopper I am. Every trip to the store, I have to buy something extra. Maybe it’s a trade of something I’d read about online. Maybe it’s a few floppies of new series that look promising. I can’t just get my pull-list items and leave. Because of this compulsion, when money was tight, I often wouldn’t go to the store for months at a time. Which was good for my budget, but when I’d show up, some of the issues that should have been in my pull-box weren’t there. It really irked me after a while, as reordering them or hunting down the missing issues in back issue boxes at other stores was a big pain. That drove us elsewhere.

Dreamscape comics was a little more focused on all different types of comics, beyond simply selling superhero titles. They had a sizable space a few blocks from downtown Bethlehem, with a dizzying amount of inventory. Anything you wanted, you could find it at Dreamscape. Probably 80% comics, 20% games and collectibles. My wife discovered Liberty Meadows there. Still the funniest comic I’ve ever read. The owners were friends of friends of ours, which gave each trip something pleasant to talk about. We were happy with Dreamscape for years, until their mass of inventory got the better of them. The shelves got fuller and fuller. Cardboard boxes of trade paperbacks and collectibles started to block the walkways. Aisles became dead ends. We physically were unable to browse any more. Our pull list atrophied as series would end and we hadn’t found anything to replace them with. I was sad when I canceled our pull list there, but it was necessary. The owner died quite unexpectedly four years ago, and the store is closed now, although the big sign still hangs over the empty storefront: https://favoritesightsandsounds.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/dreamscape-comics.jpg

After trying a number of shops in the area and being repulsed by their cliquishness, we ended up back a Comic Masters. In the intervening years, they seemed to have gotten a handle on the pull-list problem. Even though it’s more superhero-focused that I prefered, I was happy there. I like that they completely rearrange the store every year or so, experimenting with placements of the cash register, collectibles cases, new comics, etc. It keeps it fresh. When my wife got laid off and I called to cancel my pull list, the owner was very grateful for the call, but it was a sad day. I haven’t been in since.

My job sends me to Manhattan every so often, so I have done some browsing there. Midtown comics is convenient to the bus station, and packed with everything you could want, but kind of sterile and even a little corporate. St. Marks Comics has the cool, weird layout you’d expect of the NYU area, but also has that dust-covered patina I think of as “Old man’s comic book shop.” I liked Jim Henley’s Comics on 32nd street, even it’s a bit out of the way. It also has the weird layout, but a greater focus on independent comics. They shelve their trade paperbacks alphabetically by author, which is kinda cool. Jim Crocker’s Modern Myths is a great store, with a clean, welcoming layout. But requiring 45 minutes and two different trains to get to, it’s the farthest store I’ve been to in the NYC area.

These days, when we go on trips, I’ll often look up local comic shops. Sometimes they are cramped and dusty, like somebody’s attic. Often they are clean and colorful, like someone bought a mass-produced “comic book store starter kit.” I am often disappointed. Rationally I know that in the age of the internet and my decades of experience, I should not expect to be surprised by something I see in some little shop somewhere. But somehow, my heart still holds onto the hope that in some little, out of the way comic shop out there, I’ll find something amazing. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back.

Thoughts on Old and New Styles in Comics

I’ve been unhappy with superhero comics for a number of years. Part of it is due to a lack of a browse-able comic book store in the area. As titles I liked came to an end, I wasn’t able to find new things to like. Every now and then, I’d pick up the odd issue of something or other, and feel disappointed when I was done reading it. Surely the “good stuff” in superheroes couldn’t have been all used up before the mid-90s?

So, I subscribed to Marvel’s online digital comics site. For $10/month, you can read as many comics as you want. They don’t have everything they ever published online, but they do have hundreds (maybe thousands) of issues. It’s only a few days, and the little poking around I’ve done has shed some light on why I’ve been disappointed all this time.

I read Uncanny X-men #136-137 (climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga) from 1980 and Captain America #1-14 from 2005. Wow, what a difference!

Pacing

Modern comics are really written with the graphic novel in mind. They take a slow, cinematic style to build up mood, and put in a mystery that isn’t addressed for a half-dozen issues. A mystery at the heart of the plot, mind you! I mean, I’d say that 6 issues of a modern comic equal the plot of 2 or 3 of the comics I grew up with. It’s strange. There are fewer costumed goons knocking over banks and jewelery stores, but somehow there’s more meaningless fights.

Thought Balloons

And the thought balloons are almost entirely missing. I know that they’re usually rendered as captions these days, and I don’t mind that. But there are so very few of them! They’re almost entirely contained in quiet, introspective scenes where the hero is reflecting on the battle to come, or the villain is plotting.

I suppose the idea of more modern style is that the pictures are supposed to give context of what’s happening in the fight scene, and we’re supposed to understand the hero’s predicament from that. In the older comics, the thought balloons and word balloons would often reiterate what was going on in the panel. They often illustrate that inner self-talk that everyone does everyday.

A modern comic might show a villain punching the hero through a wall. It might take several panels, possibly an entire page for the attempted dodge, punch catching the gut, hero flying through air, going through wall, wall collapsing, hero pulling himself from rubble. The older style might show the same thing in a single panel, with a thought balloon like: “He’s so quick! Caught me nappin’ and this wall’s paid the price! Gotta keep on my toes.”

Coloring

Modern coloring techniques have completely redefined the look of comic pages. The strong, clear black lines of the flat-color era are gone. Since computerized coloring allows so many shades and textures, it seems like the colorist does much of the job that the penciller and inker used to do. The colors are so muted, but uses a lot more single-color saturation, where a dozen different shades and tints of one color are used, often to convey mood. The older style had a more limited pallette of colors, and had to use contrast to make things stand out from their background.

Detail

The new coloring techniques have opened up the way for greater “realism” in illustration styles, as well. Captain America has pretty much always worn an armored shirt as part of his costume. In the older comics, this would be show by a few half-circles scattered here and there on his torso. The actual outline of his chest and arms remained that of a naked human body, colored red, white, and blue to differentiate it from all the other characters with the same sillouette. Now, Cap’s scale mail shirt is illustrated in each and every panel, with every single scale deliniated. The outline of his upper body shows the ridges that the scales make. His cowl has two seams that run down the back, where it used to be illustrated as smooth. Seams on a superhero costume!

And the facial expressions! With the subtleties of modern coloring and the larger panels, newer comics can show greater subtlety of facial expression then the older line drawings. I guess this is also a reason for the demise of the thought balloon.

There are fewer panels per page, but each panel is rendered in greater detail. Part of it is probably due to a greater availability of reference images to artists via the Internet. Part of the Captain America storyline was set in Philadelphia, a city I’m familiar with. I was expecting that the only thing that would let us know it was Philly was a caption, some dialog, and maybe a sketch of Independence Hall in the background. Boy, was I wrong! The sequence starts out with a jet coming in low over the Philly skyline, and it’s actually the Philly skyline! The buildings whose names I don’t know, but whose outline I’ve seen every time I head into the city are right there, drawn in every detail.

Conclusions

It’s kind of strange that as most other types of media are speeding up (compare a fight scene in an action movie from 1980 to 2010), comics are slowing down. I can see how the change in technology has made this possible. At this point it’s primarily an interesting observation, and a warning to myself. Don’t expect as much from a single issue. The trade paperback is the unit of story these days, not the issue. I wonder if telling the same story within a larger page count is a symptom of the influence of manga upon American mainstream comics?

Of course, my sample size is extremely limited. I’m going to be reading more. Are there other comics I’m missing that buck this trend?