Let's wrap this up...
Retailers, especially the independent ones, tend to be mavericks, but not in the James Garner mould. Not only do comic shops have to deal with the social outcasts and nerds, many of them have to deal with the thing we've touched on, fans with money to burn. You show me a comic fan who doesn't want his own comic shop and I'll show you a blue moon.
Retailing comics might work if you take the Forbidden Planet route, but if you want to stay loyal to the cause, you're destined to fail. If you're a newly-redundant welder who loves Marvel Comics, then investing your money into a new comic shop venture is not the best idea; even if you have common sense; if you were the kid at school always getting wedgies and having the piss ripped out of you because of your spots/fat/uselessness then it probably is even less of a good idea, despite the fact that you're likely to work harder because it would be your life.
But back in the 1980s and 90s, the majority of people who opened comic shops were the ones that was stereotyped in The Simpsons.
Here’s a slightly surreal take on the world’s perception of comic shop owners originally published in 2002 (used with permission):
Comics fans have loved the Internet like no others and over the last 15 years there hasn't been one area of the net that hasn't succumbed to its cloying embrace. Almost impenetrable areas of the net have been infiltrated, indoctrinated and metaphorically raped and pillaged by comics fans. It is believed that the idea of the computer virus was first thought up by a bored scientist watching convention attendees at the San Diego Comics Convention and Star Trek writers admit the Borg were created from what Majel Barrett claimed were Gene Roddenberry's two least favourite things: Goths and comics fans.
However, in the last few years there have been some distressing tales emanating from the information super highway. Comics fans have been increasingly 'hanging out' on Internet chat-rooms and, worse still, have been posing as normal human beings; even coercing young children into their seedy dens of iniquity. Chat room topics seen on an average week day night included: Who's got the biggest member - JLA or the Avengers? Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl - the world's greatest game of hide the sausage? And Mary-Jane Parker: you would, wouldn't you? It isn't just Internet chat rooms that have these suggestive possibilities; there are over 170,000 different groups or forums, such as Google, Yahoo, Topica and MSN, and of those 170,000 groups over 90% of them are comics related (the other lists mainly being Sci Fi, country and western dancing and how to sell unwanted children into slave labour groups – Porn represents the other 9%).
The 150,000 or so comics related websites cater to the 100,000 or so comics fans believed to exist in the USA and UK. Each of these 'comics geeks' as they are known, possess their own homepage, chat forum, and Yahoogroup and they just invite all the other owners of other groups into each others’ groups. Comics fans feel this gives their world both a feeling of a shared universe and some genuine 'real-time' continuity.
The growing comics fan problem came to a head recently in a small town near Augusta, Georgia. 13-year-old Craig-Beth Goodolboy not only struck up a friendship with 38-year-old comics geek Dwayne Aubergine, but he also agreed to meet the lonely bachelor at their local comics store – unaware of the potential danger he was placing himself in. Aubergine is not only a comic fan but also a collector of German war memorabilia, and a former schoolteacher of his said, “had he been born 30 years earlier he would probably have been a communist. He's a freak! A freak I tells you.”
Craig-Beth’s parents Craig and Beth Goodolboy suspected their child had become involved in something sinister as he began spending more and more time either locked in his bedroom on the computer or locked in the outside lavatory with a stack of his father’s Penthouse magazines. The distraught parents contacted local law enforcement agencies and ‘Operation Dirty Fucker’ was initiated. When Craig-Beth entered the comics shop – The Magic Tunnel – he was unaware that two SWAT and a crack hostage negotiation team were ready in case something went wrong. Fortunately for everyone Aubergine gave himself up as soon as he saw the police walk through the door. The bespectacled man with died black hair and downy facial hair and ginger eyebrows sank to the floor sobbing, “But he could become one of us, don't do this, there's nothing wrong with what I'm doing. It’s not illegal!”
However with Craig-Beth safely back with its parents, the situation at the store turned ugly. This following extract was lifted from Patrolman Steve Dull’s report: “I saw him reach for his weapon, he quickly jerked his hand towards the front of his trousers and I'm sure I saw his weapon. I just pulled the trigger. I really didn't expect his head to explode the way it did.”
Mr Aubergine had a urinary infection that meant his infected penis occasionally stuck to the inside of his underwear, which meant he continually had to adjust himself. It’s believed Officer Dull fired after seeing a Green Lantern key fob.
Regardless of this pointless, yet almost amusing, death it doesn’t excuse the fact that most comics fans are predatory individuals who act alone, yet love getting together and exchanging anecdotes rather than bodily fluids.
In a country that can prosecute mothers for attempted infanticide if they smoke while pregnant this stops being funny because you can actually imagine it happening - but that might just be my lack of faith in middle America having any common sense. Independent comics shop owners have always been outcasts, probably by choice, and they still have no real desire to be part of the norm and why should they?
The thing is comics shops attract kids and, oh dear, you start to see where this is going? But it needs to be said, even if just fleetingly. A comic shop, like a computer game shop, will attract young people and wherever young people gather becomes a target for paedophiles, heck, why would a grown man want to open a comic shop? A single friend of mine, a musician who also happens to like girls' comics, decided that he was a target during the newspapers' attempts at outing sex offenders a few years back. We live in a society now where the quiet unassuming guy who lives on his own and rarely speaks could be a serial killer; if he reads comics then we need to implement pre-crime right now!
Of course this isn’t the case with the now huge chain stores that exist, like Forbidden Planet. They look so much like the audio-visual section of a large Tesco that you’d be happy to let your infant wander around it for yonks. The staff are just as creepy, but it’s bigger, you have more places to run and hide.
My experience at retailing was, I think, a largely happy one. It helped create a classless society inside a shop front in the middle of Hicksville, Northants. I suppose, I could actually have written a book about the sociological benefits of the place; because for all the negatives I've painted about comic shops, the owners, the fans, the companies that are all inter-connected, a good comic shop is a rare thing in a world with so much prejudice. I'd be surprised if many still exist in this corporate retailing world.
Comics Lesson 13:
The Ages of Comics: some people will tell you that there are four ages of comics – The Platinum Age (anything pre-1939), The Golden Age (normally regarded as between 1939-1953), The Silver Age (from 1954 to roughly 1971), the Bronze Age (from 1972 to 1985), and the current Modern Age. This is a contentious point and as many people who agree with me will disagree, giving different dates and specifics why these dates or others should be observed. This is how I see it. It works for me it should work for you.
There are key books in most eras: The Golden Age has the two most famous – Action Comics #1, the first ever appearance of Superman, and Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman. Both published by the company that would become DC Comics and both comics are worth far more than your house.
The Silver Age is regarded by many as the halcyon days of comics and the number of essential issues are too numerous to list, but among these are DC Showcase #4, which featured the first appearance of the contemporary Flash; Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four #48, the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, one of Marvel’s most enigmatically popular characters.
The Platinum and Bronze Ages don’t have that many milestones. Comics before 1929 were different beasts and probably The Yellow Kid stands out because it was one of the first. The Bronze Age encompasses 13 years of relatively dull comics history and the Modern Age, where there are masses of memorable comics, including the oft-mentioned Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.
Most Golden Age comics are very expensive; you’d struggle to get change from a $100 for any comicbook from that era, unless the condition was abysmal and the comic is largely unknown or uninteresting. The problem for Brits is that these comics only sporadically arrived on these shores and usually as ship ballast. It was, for many years, a purely American marketplace. Over the last few years the same can be said for Silver Age comics, these have just shot up in price and you’d need a serious amount of disposable income if you fancied a run of Fantastic Four #1 to #100, especially if you refused to accept anything in less than Fine. The first issue of this old master is now estimated to be valued as high as £250,000 in mint condition - possibly more now that Amazing Fantasy #15 has sold for over a million dollars!
Market forces govern Bronze Age comics’ prices almost totally, there are exceptions to the rule; you can say the same about Gold and Silver, but generally Bronze Age comics are the most volatile and difficult to ascertain a true value. For example; in 1991 – 20 years ago - New Mutants #87 was worth upwards of £25. It was a key issue (although if you examined it now you’d seriously question why), but over the years it has dwindled in value. This kind of contradicts what I was saying about comics dealers never lowering the price of a comic, but with the advent of eBay and auction houses selling comics, some comics have dropped in value. The one in question can now be purchased for as little as £1.25. It also suggests that just occasionally comics retailers realise just how stupid they've been and rewrite history. However, this display of retailing common sense is anything but common.
Platinum Age comics are very rare, but probably not as rare as the number of people who are interested in them. This is a specialised area and there are probably less than 100 people in the world who know much about them without consulting one of the others books or articles about them.
This entire lesson highlights the sometimes pointless trivia that has been ingrained into comics and collecting. If you drifted off during that, I can't say I blame you.
Next week: probably the reason a lot of you have stuck with this so far. Things get interesting and I embark on a new career in comics journalism!