Thursday, September 17, 2009

For the Love of Comics #01: My Youth in Comics

Words: Seth Kushner

It’s sometime around 1976 and a young boy of three years old is riding in a white, plastic child’s seat on the back of his father’s bike. “Are we almost there yet?” the boy asks, as he watches his Brooklyn neighborhood fly by. “Almost,” the father says as he peddles. The boy is excited because the previous night his father showed him some things called “comic books” and promised to take him the next morning to pick out one of his own. He sees his favorite Pizza place on his right, then the Hot Bagel store on the left and knows the newsstand is just ahead. They pull up under the elevated subway tracks on Sheepshead Bay Road and dismount in front of the newsstand, which is built into the station. The father holds the boy’s hand as they look at the outdoor wall of magazine racks, finding two vertical rows of comics on the right. The D train rattles overhead, as the boy looks up and down, glancing at all the colorful covers and stops on a copy of Justice League of America. He picks it up and knows it’s the one to get, because it has all the superheroes he knows in one comic book. The boy watches his father hand the shopkeeper a quarter and a dime, then they get back on the bike and ride home where the father will read the comic to the boy.

I still have that Justice League comic today.

Between the ages of three and seven, my comics were picked up sporadically from newsstands and I got collected editions, treasuries and digests from various used bookstores. When my addiction started hitting it’s stride around the time I was eight, (Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Marvel Tales were among my favorites) I would get my comics from a musty smelling used bookstore, (which I think was actually called “Used Books”) located in a shopping center on Nostrand Avenue, in my neighborhood, the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. If I remember correctly, the used bookstore was a large shop with a counter on the right of the entrance, with older, valuable comics (mostly Silver Age) bagged and boarded and hanging on the wall behind it. Straight back on the right wall, were spinner racks containing the newest comic releases, and aisles of used books (the kind without pictures) beyond it – that’s where my dad would always be, looking at books while I looked at comics. On the left side of the store were more aisles of old books and one half-length aisle of used comics bins, all selling for a quarter. This was a time when new comics were being sold for sixty cents, so this was quite the bargain! I would always rummage through the bins and the best find I ever had there was a decent condition Strange Tales #135 (Aug. 1965) which featured the Kirby drawn story of Nick Fury first becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., (which I still have and it’s one of my most prized comics) and it was only a quarter!

There must have been lots of comic books stores around Brooklyn back then, but when you’re a kid, your world is small, so I only really knew my own neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, a middle-class, mostly white area of South Brooklyn, which is neither urban nor suburban, but something in-between. Luckily, there were several shops in the area, which were easily accessible by either my bike or my dad’s car. They were my comic stores. Chief among them was Bob’s Book Store on Avenue U.

Bob’s became my main source for comics starting when I was around nine. Like the used bookstore on Nostrand, Bob’s Book Store was primarily just that - a bookstore, but also carried both old and new comics. Bob - a middle aged man with a mustache– ran the store with his wife, and their twenty-something daughter. They were a friendly family and certainly not your typical comic book store proprietors. The small, cramped shop was mostly filled with used books, but there were several racks of new comics in the front by the register. Bob’s put out their new comics on Saturday morning, even though other stores had them available a day earlier. They did this because ALL comics in the store were bagged and scotch taped closed, prohibiting browsing, and certainly reading. Looking back on it now, the family must have spent their Friday nights obsessively sealing those bags – what a job it must’ve been!

When I started going to Bob’s I was getting pretty serious about my comics, buying several monthlies, and collecting back issues. I began collecting X-Men at #181, for example, but managed to collect back to #120, one back issue at a time. I did this for several of my favorites. All the back issues at Bob’s were located in long boxes and were shelved in the middle aisle of the store. The problem with having the boxes on shelves was that there was no way to flip through them, so Bob’s policy was you had to carry the box to a nearby table in order to peruse the box. This was of course a problem for a kid, who had to strain his small muscles in order to find the missing X-Men issues needed to fill in the gaps of his collection. I was always so nervous carrying those boxes back and fourth from the table, and inevitably, my skinny arms gave way one day and dropped the Teen Titans box and all the issues fanned out across the store’s floor. I was horribly embarrassed, but Bob’s wife came down from the plat-formed register and helped me pick them up.

The cool thing about Bob’s was the discount plan. Every time you spent twenty bucks, you got a free comic of their choosing, from a box behind the counter. Truthfully, it was never anything great, but the excitement lied in you never knowing what you were going to get.

I have warm, hazy sepia-toned memories of my dad driving me over on Saturday mornings to get my new comics. No matter how tough school might have been that week, I always had something great to look forward to for the start of the weekend.

There were two other comic stores in the neighborhood, which I frequented only occasionally. One was Silver Star Comics, a proper comics store, selling only comics and located just a few blocks down Nostrand Avenue from the Used Books. The owner, whose name might have been Rich, was a large balding, blowhard of a man with a moustache, who to this day I’m still convinced served as the inspiration for Comic Store Guy on The Simpsons. He would sit on a high stool by the register and preside over his kingdom of underlings, often insulting them. It was a long, narrow store with waist high rows of back issue bins running the length of both sides of the store, and a shelf above on the left side displaying the new books.
When I was young, Silver Star was never my regular store for new comics, but it was a destination for my friends and I to race to on our bikes. It was just far enough away from home to give a ten year old an exciting journey, but close enough for it to be safe.

The other local store was Comic Book Scene. If there was a place the “cool” kids in the neighborhood shopped for comics – and by “cool” I mean the coolest of the geeks – it was surely this store on Coney Island Avenue and Avenue R. I have no memory of the owner or staff, but I remember a dark store with movie and comics poster hanging on the ceiling. There might have been a few stand-up arcade video games in the back of the store – a staple of the 80’s – but my friend Martin, who grew up down the street from the store, insists this wasn’t the case.

The new comics were on racks against the left wall, and the back issues were in an adjacent room in bins. For some reason, they priced their back issues much more expensively than the other stores in the neighborhood. A three-year old issue of Daredevil might have been priced at seven dollars at Comic Book Scene, when the same issue would have been only two dollars at Bob’s.

Comic Book Scene was located just a block away from the Kingsway movie theater on Kings Highway, so my dad always got me a comic there whenever we went to the movies, as he did the day Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983. What did I get? The Marvel Comics adaptation of Jedi, of course.

By the 90’s the neighborhood comic stores of my youth were gone. Silver Star Comics remained open until some time in the mid-90’s and Bob’s closed around 1990, and relocated around the corner to a small store, selling just comics. By that time, the business was run by the daughter and her husband, and with the comics boom of the time, they clearly saw comics as their meal ticket, but the store didn’t last very long and although the old Bob’s was my regular store, I rarely shopped at the new one. I do remember popping in to pick up Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1, though that might have been the last time I went in there. I guess by that time I was buying my weekly comics at one of the several new shops, which were opening up all over the neighborhood, some even walking distance from my home.

The comic’s boom of the time had new stores popping up like wildfire; their shelves filled with flashy variants, chromium, die-cut, and/or holographic covers depicting sneering superheroes with big shoulder pads, big hair, big boobs, big spikes and big guns. Most of the new crop of shops didn’t stay in business after the collapse, and the few that did are all gone now. I can’t remember the names of any of them other than Bullpen Comics on Coney Island Avenue. There was nothing particularly special about it – small store, heavy-set owner, racks of new comics in the front, action figures and baseball cards in the back - but it had the distinction of being the shop where fellow Brooklynite Jimmy Palmiotti bought his comics every Wednesday. I once asked him why Bullpen was “his” shop, and he told me because it was close to his place and who wants to go all the way into the city to buy comics? That about summed it up.

Today, I no longer live in Sheepshead Bay, but I know from visiting my mom that the neighborhood does not contain a single, solitary comic book store.

By the time I started going to college in Manhattan, I was shopping at either Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley’s or Cosmic Comics, which opened right next to my school on 23rd St, so it became my regular store by default. Their discount plan, which gave the customer $20 credit every time he spent $100 was great, though it was somewhat soured by the fact that Cosmic’s proprietor was (and still is) the grouchiest man in the retail comic’s business. Regardless, I continued to shop there for several years post college before making Forbidden Planet my regular store for most of the rest of my 20’s.

I’m pushing thirty-six years old now, and I have a two-month old son of my own. It won’t be long before I’ll be looking to share my addiction and love of comics with him.

But, which stores will be his comic book stores?