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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Learning to Love Comics


Just over a year ago, something amazing happened over dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Okay, maybe it wasn’t amazing by most standards, but the conversation over that meal changed my life. Sort of.

We were discussing the fact that I had decided to read 100 books in the course of a year - big books with the occasional beach read thrown in. My companions were making recommendations of books I HAD to read when one fellow suggested was that I should read a few comics. This seemed like a silly idea to me, comics would be such quick reads and besides, they weren’t real books anyway. Not in the way Maugham or Tolstoy were at least. Plus, only really nerdy guys were into them. Like, really nerdy.

Word to the wise – never say something like that when dining with three avid comic readers.

By the end of the meal that had convinced me that comics went beyond the floppy singles of Betty & Veronica my parents had supplied me with on family road trips as a child and the clichéd and sexist superhero movies my ex-boyfriend would drag me to.

Now, truth be told, my comic book reading actually goes back to that ex and I read some good stuff. I guess I should thank him for that. That summer we saw terrible movies. Ang Lee’s The Hulk. Daredevil. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It was that last one that caught my eye. I mean, it was a terrible movie. God-awful. But the concept. Oh, that concept of literary characters existing as double-oh-seven spy-like government agents. That was brilliant. The ex mentioned it was based on a comic book and picked up a copy for us to read. If only the movie could have lived up to what was on those pages.

After we broke up I discovered that the library had a small selection of comics and that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had a sequel. And there, right next to it was a huge compilation book of Maus I & II.

But as far as I was concerned those were exceptions to the rule. Most comics weren’t like that. After being told over dinner that there were plenty of other comics that would live up to what I’d already read, I stopped by their apartment on my way home and borrowed a copy of Watchmen and the first trade paperback of Fables. A comic book fan was (officially) born.

That’s not to say I didn’t still have my reservations. Thanks to my friends, I now had a list of things they thought I should read – basically anything by Alan Moore was right at the top of the list. That Scott Pilgrim thing they kept going on and on about, well that just sounded hokey.

Over the next few weeks one of my dinner companions started lending me books and emailing me about this new comic book store that was opening down the street from my apartment. At one point, while cat sitting, I flipped through a copy of that Scott Pilgrim thing that had been left out – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

At Barnes & Noble to listen to an author reading one night, I stumbled on the “graphic novel” section. By this point I was starting to realize that “comic” and “graphic novel” were the same thing, the difference being how much of a literary snob you were. The selection was rather small; two shelves that barely reached my shoulders with most books face out. Here I found Preacher and The Maxx (“Hey, I know this! I use to watch this on MTV!”) and discovered that picking out my own comics – as overwhelming as it often felt – was not much different than deciding what book out of the myriads of genres out there.

A few weeks after that new comic book store opened, my friends Ryan and Heather offered to show me around. The idea of going into a comic book store was still frightening. Every stereotype of what this store would be like filtered through my brain. I’m pretty nerdy myself (all those model rockets? the Star Trek blog I’ve since started? Yea. Nerd.) but … comic book people? Again I had slipped into believing in exceptions. Between the two of them, Ryan and Heather have a rather large collection of comics and neither fall into what I would categorize as the Hollywood portrayed pathetic comic book nerd. So why I was thinking this way is beyond me.

Bergen Street Comics blew my mind away. It was far from anything I had imagined. Instead of florescent lighting, badly tiled floors and intimidating shelf upon shelf of comic books I was in a quaint mom & pop store that reminded me of a rather colorful coffee shop. Unlike Barnes & Noble with its corporate sterilization, this was a place where I wanted to sit down and flip through a few books. There were lovely prints of…gorillas fighting in WWII?...on the walls and nary an action figure or twenty-sided die in sight.



The great thing in having two people show me around and talk to me about their favorite comics was that I left that night with a lot of things to think about – was I interested in Superheroes? Crime stories? Fluffy animals? Admittedly, some of what I saw disturbed me, illustrations that tugged at my heart strings and said “Don’t read me, you will cry. A lot.” Other things looked really cool, disturbing, intriguing. Basically just a long list of adjectives. Ryan liked Ultra, Heather thought it was degrading towards women. Both of them loved Pride and had their own copies. I went home with a long list of things I might like to read.

The borrowing continued until one day when I was scheduled to go up to Boston by bus. In between work and my departure time were a two hours and the Grand Central location of Midtown Comics. The problem with comics compared to my beloved books was the damned cliff hangers and by this time I was well into the Fables storyline. Buying my own copies of the next book sounded like a great way to spend the three-hours on a crowded bus crawling through traffic.

But oh the HORROR! So far, I’d never had to actually find any comics, I just sort of relied on blind luck while browsing and on my friends hand me things they thought I might like. From what I understand, that location isn’t nearly as large as the one in Times Square but I still felt overwhelmed and lost. Sure I could have asked for help, but do you watch The Big Bang Theory? During “The Hofstadter Isotope” Penny goes into the guy’s comic book store and it’s one of those record-scratching stop moments as every guy in the room looks at her with a zombified “giiiirrrrlllll” look on their face. Walking into Midtown Comics was sort of like that. But instead of being the hot girl, I was just the out of place preppy encroaching on their turf and the staff didn’t look particularly approachable. 10 to 1 they thought I was there to pick something up for my boyfriend/brother/son/nephew. After turning in a few circles, eyes like a deer in the headlights, I finally gave up and left empty handed.

******

Every June, Coney Island boasts the Mermaid Parade. My friends go every year and it’s sort of an excuse to wear not much more than wee amount of spandex and glitter. The whole day is sort of like a comic book convention, LARPing session, or cosplay for normal people. OH!, NO!, we’d never dress up as some “character” and go out in public, but here we are once a year walking down the boardwalk as mermaids. I was actually disappointed two months earlier by the lack of, well, anyone, dressed up at the MoCCA Comics Festival. Where were all the costumes?!?!



After the festivities we head back up to Park Slope for dinner and drinks to continue the celebrating. While waiting for our food, I turned to Ryan and told him I was finally ready to stop borrowing comics and buy my own. And, hey, Bergen Street Comics was right around the corner! How convenient. Also convenient was the fact that I’d started reading Scott Pilgrim and Ryan was missing the next issue. I HAD. TO. HAVE. IT.

Wearing a blue wig, a spandex and sequined bikini, and way too much body glitter, I went into a comic book store and purchased my first comic. Oh the irony.



Owners Tom and Amy were working and were so amazingly friendly. Not for one moment did I feel judged for my naïveté as I explained my new obsession with comics. In fact, they were glad to make recommendations to further hook me. Man, they are good sales people.

I’ve since become a regular at the shop. It’s easy to find something specific or to just browse. The books here are organized by genre rather than publishing company which I think is a key factor in making comics accessible to people like me – people who are new to comics and don’t know what they are looking for much less where to find it. We need a friendly face to help us, not an elitist fanboy who questions our taste (or lack there of) when we admit to our limited knowledge. Then again, I’m in awe of their manager, Tucker and the insane amount of knowledge he has whenever I need a recommendation. He hasn’t steered me wrong yet and always knows just where on the new releases wall to find the latest serialized copy of Cinderella – my first floppy (although, I did find the most recent copy all on my own – so, go me!). Amy always asks me what I thought of my previous purchase and most recently, Tom has offered some suggestions as I dip my toe into the superhero side of things.

It’s a silly notion, but I’ve been afraid to try one since there is so much by way of back stories and material. Admittedly, I was a bit lost as I read New Frontiers: Vol 1: “Who on earth was this Hal Jordan guy? Huh? He keeps getting mentioned, he HAS to be a super hero!” But it was accessible, it provided an introduction for me whereas had I been in any other shop, I don’t think they would have recognized that handing me any old thing wasn’t going to turn me into a fan – it had to be something that I would get without having that hidden reserve of knowledge that comes with long time reading and something that would make me want to come back for more.

More often than not, my trips last an hour as I stand around talking about anything from comics, to events in the neighborhood, to whatever happens to be new in the world. Going to the events and parties the store holds has banished all those pre-conceived notions I had about the types of people who read comics. The store is so community oriented that the mix of people is incredible, everyone mingling and forming new friendships. I’ve also run into people I know through the book industry, neighbors, and friends on my visits. For all the “go to sports bars” advice I’ve received in regards to meeting men, I’ve actually learned that these events are a much better way to get a date!

On the weekend of the store’s anniversary, I told Amy that if it weren’t for Bergen Street Comics, I probably would not have become a regular comic book reader. Most likely, I would have borrowed a few more things from friends and then moved on to some other shiny new obsession. Instead I found a welcoming place that wants me to return – not so that they have another customer, but so that they can share their love of comics with new people.

4 comments:

  1. Hey Christina--Great stuff! I'm always interested to hear how people get interested in comics when they weren't brought up on Batman.

    I have to say that as somebody who has often made this mistake, I think that trying to start newbies with Alan Moore is sometimes a mistake. I'm glad it worked out for you, but I know a lot of people who tried to jump right in with Watchmen or V for Vendetta and were subsequently turned off. He may be a god to comic book nerds, but for the uninitiated, it's often not the place to begin. I recently got my girlfriend to start reading comics, and it was Scott Pilgrim and Jonathan Ames' The Alcoholic that did the trick.

    And yeah...even as a boy-nerd, I find Midtown comics to be a bit inaccessible and dreary. If I lived closer to Bergen Street comics, I would ALWAYS go there. Instead I usually find myself at the St. Marks Brooklyn-branch for my weekly floppies.

    If you're ever out sampling new stores, you should definitely check out Desert Island Comics on Metro (right off the G). It's a strange little shop, but if you get the guy behind the counter talking, he's knowledgeable and friendly. Plus, they have some of the WEIRDEST (and least-known) comics around. I always leave there with something good and strange.

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  2. I love me some Desert Island. It's the shop I always wanted to go to when I was younger and reading comics, for all the love I have for Marvel/DC, I'm more in love with the really bizarre and unusual books.

    But for overall pleasant store experience, Bergen can't be beat.

    Where is the Brooklyn St. Marks? Is that all the way over past Downtown Brooklyn? I want to check it out one day, write up an article on all the stores in the area.

    K

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  3. Brooklyn St. Marks is on Montague street in the Brooklyn Heights / DUMBO area. I think the exact address is 148 Montague

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  4. I'll definitely have to check these out - thanks!

    I definitely don't go recommending Alan Moore to other people like me who are just getting into comics - Fables tends to be my default as I get requests for suggestions mostly from chick-lit loving women. The background is familiar enough that it seems to make a good gateway.

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