Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why Comic Book Stores Matter

One of my happy places

As I have discussed in this blog, I made the seemingly strange decision to get back into comic books at the ripe age of 39. It was a day during my spring break, when I traditionally take a day when my wife is an work and my daughters are in school to go to The Strand bookstore. After I left, laden with new books, I decided out of curiosity to stop a couple of doors down at Forbidden Planet. I'd walked past it a million times, and was intrigued by what this famous comic book store had to offer. I browsed the wall of new comic books and decided to take a plunge on the new Star Wars series, then I got hooked again.

We all need our distractions, and I find comic books to be the one that suits me the most. Reality television makes me even madder at the world than regular television, I care a lot less about sports than I used to, and my children make it hard to go to the movies. I can, however, find a way to cram in 20 minutes for a comic book. (Or even read one to my children at bedtime, which they often request.) There are a lot of creative people doing a lot of cool things in the world of comics these days, and the good stories are so much more interesting than what Hollywood tried to pass off as escapist entertainment.

I have found in the last two years, however, that one of the biggest draws to comics for me are comic book stores. Because of these stores I consume comics in their physical form. I own an iPad, so it would make more sense for me to buy my comics electronically, so that my cluttered house is spared even more crap. However, I could never do so, since that would mean cutting myself off from the centering experience of going to the comic book store.

More and more in this country, we are eliminating public spaces, and we are interacting in cyberspace. As small book stores and record stores have been eliminated, comic books remain as the one medium sold primarily in locally-own specialty stores. Each comics shop has its own character, and the people who run them do so out of a labor of love. (Since the comics bust of the mid-1990s there's no way anyone is doing it for the money.) In these shops I can still have spontaneous conversations with like-minded strangers, which is one of my favorite small pleasures in this world. It's why I hung out in diners and neighborhood bars when I lived by myself in Michigan.

There are lots of great things about the online world, but as social animals we need public, physical spaces where we can interact and have chance encounters. We need culture to not be in the exclusive hands of multinational corporations. DC and Marvel may be owned by massive conglomerates, and they make movies costing the budget of a small nation, but the humble comics themselves are sold in small, cramped stores off the beaten track. Those stores are also an ideal way for independent comics publishers to find an audience.

My local place is called Amazing Heroes, and it's located one town over in Union, New Jersey. It is a small space, but the owner has arranged it so that it holds an insane number of comics and graphic novels. He's a friendly guy, and when my wife, a total comics neophyte, asked for advice on what to read, he was helpful, rather than condescending. I bring my daughters with me all the time, and they love it and he's always welcoming to them.

I also frequent the much more storied Midtown Comics in Manhattan, since it is on my commute home. Even in that large and much more famous place there's still a feeling of having stepped into an alternate world. Sometimes I'll hear dudes trying to be King Fanboy pontificate, and it won't even bother me, because I am glad strangers can still have these kinds of conversations in public.

It is a strange irony that as Hollywood films become more homogenized, with comic book movies leading the way, comic books themselves are a medium that resists the forces of cultural homogenization. Comic book stores are the key element in that resistance, and I salute them.

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