Wednesday, March 03, 2010

COLUMN: The comic books that came in from the cold

My family and I went to an actual, real-life bookstore the other night. I like to do this every so often to support the publishing industry, given that the vast majority of my books are purchased used on eBay. You’d be amazed at how little you can pay for a book if you’re not one of those people distracted by unidentifiable stains.

Anyway, during this visit I was surprised to find an entire wall devoted to nothing but comic books. They called them “graphic novels,” but I know a comic book when I see one — I can tell by the little boxes, and the drawings of people with bodies attainable only through the unlicensed use of gamma rays.

I can’t say exactly how I feel about comic books being given such prominence in legitimate bookstores, though. I know when I was a kid, finding your favorite comics was a challenge. They were such an afterthought that most drugstores were more likely to have those magazines on the top shelf wrapped in brown paper than they were to have comic books. (I never found out what was in those magazines, but I suspect it was articles about adult topics, like escrow.)

As I recall, it took me years to find a regular supplier: I finally discovered that Kurtz’s Stationery in my little hometown of Carmel, N.Y. had one whole shelf devoted to comics, nestled in the back of the store among the tobacco products. I use the term “back” loosely, since a grown adult could walk the entire length of the store in about four strides; if you were 10 and sprinting breathlessly toward the comics, it probably took about six.

The width of the single aisle would have been a tight squeeze for most modern air travelers — there was barely enough room to fit a single customer and the ever-present owner (Mr. Kurtz, I presume), an ancient man in giant horn-rimmed glasses and flannel hunting shirt, perched on a stool behind the penny candy bin. The store’s been closed for years, but somehow I picture him still there, silently waiting for someone to just try to pocket a Tootsie Roll without him noticing.

It was an interesting sensation being in Kurtz’s. What it lacked in space it easily made up for in utility — not an inch of wall space was unused, its shelves stacked to the ceiling with magazines and newspapers of all sizes and stripes. On a particularly dim day, walking in gave you a distinct feeling of having burrowed into a newsstand from the bottom up.

The store was on the route to the deli where my father bought bagels every Sunday, so we worked out a system; he would drop me off on his way, and I’d have approximately 12 minutes to flip through every new title and make my purchase before he pulled up on his way back. That probably sounds like plenty of time, but not when you only have $2 and have to narrow it down to five comics when there are at least 10 you want.

So who got left out? The Fantastic Four? Ghost Rider? Daredevil? Certainly not Spider-Man, and he probably had three or four different titles devoted to him at that point. (I could name them all, but I don’t want the bullies from my elementary school to track me down and give me wedgies. With Facebook I think that’s possible.)

Which brings me to my concerns over my bookstore visit. Back then, I think part of the joy of reading comics was that the effort you put into finding them made you feel like you were part of an exclusive club. A club full of slightly chubby, nearsighted boys obsessed about whether it would be cooler to have super strength or be able to walk through walls, but a club nonetheless.

Finding them in a major bookstore, so easily accessible, seems to take some of the fun out of it. Sure, I enjoyed reading them for their entertainment and educational value — for instance, from “Savage Sword of Conan” I learned that there was a period in our history where women wore nothing but metal bikinis — but I think my fondest memories are of tracking the comics down, whether lucked upon at random or during my regular Sunday run. I even thought about buying a few the other night, just for old time’s sake.

Not in the bookstore, of course. I’m sure I could find them much cheaper on eBay.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

No comments: