Thursday, 14 July 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Nineteen)

While we're on the subject of interesting former customers who do little for the image of comics, let's delve a little deeper.

Of course, for every ten completely normal people that can walk through a comics shop door and become part of this culture, there are going to be people like the ones I mentioned earlier – varying degrees of people with serious social interaction problems. Some overcome it, while some never escape Narnia. If I had to throw a generalisation in I’d say that only a small percentage of comics fans are weird (some others might be fucked up, but they aren’t weird). However the greater the involvement, the more likely they are to slide down the scale of normality. Rattling round the bottom somewhere was Rick – Scary Rick to some and Rick (with the silent P) to others – he was (and probably still is) one of the strangest people you could ever wish to meet. He was, without equal, the best advert for not allowing your children to be influenced by fairy stories.

He was friendly enough, in fact too friendly at times, he also wasn’t strictly into comics – he was into everything that you could label fantasy or ‘sad’ depending on which side of the fence you are. The first time I met him he wandered into my shop and after over an hour of just ogling at stuff he wandered over and started to tell me, without introduction, that he’d just seen a pirate video copy of Batman 2. This was pretty amazing as it was maybe a year after Batman had been released, and while we all knew there would be a sequel, it hadn’t even been given its Batman Returns name yet. You don’t tend to disagree with strange strangers in comics shops, so I just nodded and made polite conversation. He disappeared and I hoped that would be the last we ever saw of him. Two hours later he returned with two carrier bags full of old, tatty comics. I thought he was trying to sell them to me, but he was in fact just showing me his comics collection because he thought I might like to see it. He did spend money in the shop, but not that much. Sometimes he bought Star Trek comics, but never new ones because he felt they were too expensive, sometimes he bought Star Wars, Transformers, even the occasional X-Men and Spider-Man - despite having already seen his entire comicbook collection, he still told whoever would listen that he had a complete X-Men collection. But his favourite comics were anything to do with the martial arts and that meant we had someone to target a load of 1970s Master of Kung Fu comics – at ridiculously low prices, I might add. But more disturbing than anything else, he used the shop as a place to come and try out new fantasies on people. It was obvious that he rarely spoke a word of truth and most of what came out of his mouth was hypotheses and fantasy that he was hoping would garner a positive reaction. He was so dysfunctional the only way he could function socially was to make up stories to impress people and they were rarely impressive.

Then after 18 months of having to deal with a man who made Billy Liar look like a man of honesty and integrity (and quite well grounded as well), Rick disappeared. We didn’t see him for months, but we didn’t lose track of him. On the other side of Wellingborough’s small town centre opened a shop that specialised in martial arts equipment and the organiser also was a Kung Fu instructor. Rick made a beeline for him. I got to know the owner – he bought all the Master of Kung Fu comics that Rick never seemed that interested in. Andy, the owner of the Kung Fu shop, took evening lessons at the scout hut down the road from where I lived and Rick had paid up his fees and joined.

Andy told me that for the first few weeks Rick was very quiet, but had obviously had some form of training in some martial art because he looked right – he knew a lot of what Andy was talking about and understood it. However, he was always late and as the class was over 20 people Andy didn’t have the time or the inclination to spend a lot of time with Rick. So Andy was surprised when Rick came to him near the end of the lesson and asked if he could give the class a demonstration on the correct use of a samurai sword. Andy, not really knowing what to expect, reluctantly agreed. The end of the session arrived and Andy told the rest of the group that Rick was going to give them a demonstration. Rick, who had been in the toilet for twenty minutes, then emerged wearing full samurai body armour, a face mask and wide brimmed wicker hat. He looked like the real McCoy. Strapped to his waist was a sword sheath and after bowing to the assembled audience he drew the sword and proceeded to do a number of exercises, which Andy questioned as being nothing other than things from out of Rick’s slightly warped imagination – they certainly had nothing to do with samurai swordsmen. Sensing the boredom (incredulity?) in the group and the fact that Rick was doing nothing but poncing about with what looked like a genuine samurai sabre, he stepped forward to call the ‘demonstration’ to a close. Rick who was at the other end of the hall (a small selection of integrated port-a-cabins with a very low ceiling) saw Andy step forward. Sensing he was about to be stopped and without any warning at all Rick lifted the sword high in both hands, and letting out a blood-curdling scream charged down the centre of the hall, straight at Andy – without realising that the sword was smashing all the line of fluorescent tubes lighting the hall, all along the path he ran. Just before he reached Andy, he stopped dead, threw the sword in the air, and then grabbed it, almost gracefully, by the handle, spun it round, missing Andy’s face by inches, and with one hand holding the samurai’s holder, and the other with the blade poised at the opening, he started to sheath the blade.

But he stopped and hesitated for a moment. Andy looked down at Rick’s hands and saw that the tip of the blade had struck against the webby piece of skin between the thumb and the forefinger. Andy glanced at Rick and Rick gave him a steely grin and pushed the blade back into the sheath, ignoring the fact he’d just sliced open his hand. He bowed, let both hands drop to his side, including one dripping blood on the floor, looked Andy in the face and as straight-faced as you could possibly believe, said, “A true warrior must always draw blood when he draws his weapon.”

Andy stood there, covered in the dust from inside the fluorescent tubes, in the half light of the remaining, unbroken, tubes, looking at Rick, who turned on his heels and walked straight for the exit, straight through the doors, in full combat gear and away – he never returned to the Kung Fu club again. Instead he came back to haunt my staff and me.

Not only was Rick a peculiar fellow, he also looked a bit mad as well and it soon became obvious from information given to us by a voluntary organisation up the road that he had some form of learning disability, he also probably had some insecurities, mainly because he seemed to want to impress everyone he spoke to, like he desperately wanted to be accepted, and the ironic thing for Rick was all he needed to do was stand around and not try to impress people – my customers accepted anyone; impressing them wasn’t on the agenda.

Then we sold shop space upstairs to a couple that wanted to open a film memorabilia shop and within a couple of weeks Rick was a permanent fixture in their little shop, to the point where the young owner came to me after a rather difficult Saturday for him. He asked if there was anything we could do about Rick, as he didn’t seem to take much notice of being ignored and if you asked him to not interfere he wouldn’t for a couple of minutes and then bother you again. Someone suggested banning him from the memorabilia shop and the following week when Rick made the first of his regular visits the guy upstairs told him straight that he didn’t want him in the shop unless he was going to spend any money. Rick bought a Forbidden Planet key ring that he’d had his eye on for a couple of weeks and left the shop and never came in again – any of them.

I saw Rick again a few years later, he was on the front cover of the local newspaper, was dressed as a Klingon and he was the mascot for the Northamptonshire Star Trek Society’s first convention – held at a seedy hotel in a small backwater town in Northants called Rushden (spiritual home of Mammary Lass!). Rick had been made the conventions official mascot because … get this… he could speak fluent Klingon…

We also had this guy at the shop called Andrew, he suffered from a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome – not the raging sweary kind, but it was enough to make him very self conscious of his ticks and twitches. Andrew was devoted to Star Trek, in fact he often used to get involved in heated debates with Scott, the Saturday lad, about how much better Star Trek was to Doctor Who – it was as sad as it sounds, but if you could imagine a short, twitchy guy and an enormous hulk of a man standing ridiculing each other for their specific SF tastes, then you can imagine how silly it looked at times. Andrew could speak Klingon, well not speak it, but he understood it and he told me that what Rick spoke was basically the equivalent of someone with really bad phlegm trying to do a Mr Punch impersonation and that it was probably just made up on the spot with a few actual Klingon words thrown in. Rick’s favourite Klingon word was ‘Gakk’ which I believe is a sort of living worm soup.

Honestly, comics fans are not all like Rick (with the silent P) but he’s the kind of guy that the press would (and did, in the event of the Star Trek convention) go looking for.

Because of the nature of Squonk!! we often had to suffer lurkers; people who came into the shop, didn't spend any money and worried the assembled customers and staff. We had a few of them, some I enjoyed talking to, and others confirmed that people are strange. One such person was a man who I discovered was called Aseef, but we called him the Bag Man.

The Bag Man first entered my world about six months after we opened. I was attending the till, Monty was bagging and pricing old stock and in he walked; a slight Asian man carrying a bright carrier bag, the contents of which we never discovered. My policy of approaching new customers was one of give then a few minutes; if they want something they'll ask and if they don't, then you approach them - if they're hanging around they must want something. so that's the approach we made with Bag Man. He made no acknowledgement of either of us and was standing in front of the back issues looking at our wall display of mid-range expensive comics and hot books. I motioned to Monty with my eyebrows that I felt now was a good time to ask if he wanted anything in particular, so Monty duly obliged.

"Can I help you at all, mate?" he asked.

"Mmmmmmmm," came the reply. Monty waited, but got nothing else. He looked at me and shrugged and I urged him to try again.

"I've not seen you before, what kind of comics are you into?"

"Mmmmmmmm," Monty looked at me slightly wigged out and walked back to the desk.

"You can deal with him," he said quietly, but I didn't. Monty wasn't the only wigged out person.

Bag Man spent another ten minutes wandering around, almost drinking the contents of the walls, he seemed to spend so much time just staring that Monty and I got even more disturbed and then he walked out. We figured we wouldn't see him again, but the following Friday afternoon he came in again, and then the next week and the week after. Bag Man came into the shop, stood staring at the walls, occasionally uttered the odd "Mmmmmmm" from time to time and left.

Phil Christian, whose folks were shrinks, started to become a permanent fixture in the shop around that time and eventually one of his Friday truancy days led him to the shop when Bag Man was there. With it came a partial explanation as to who he was. Bag Man was a schizophrenic, who had served time in a high security mental hospital, possibly Rampton, for all manner of nasty crimes against his former wife and children. He hadn't spoken for five years and was heavily medicated, but lived in the community at local sheltered housing (the company who I worked for in 2005). He wasn't considered a threat to the general public, but Phil wasn't convinced - but then again he was addicted to The Punisher.

Comics Lesson 12:

Confused about comics yet? Let me confuse you even further… You have a stack of comics, you know nothing about them and you presume that because they’re all in reasonably good condition that they’re ‘very good’?

A comic in ‘very good’ condition isn’t. It is not in very good condition, which is why it is classed as ‘very good’ or ‘vg’ condition. Make any sense? No, I didn’t think so. A perfect comic is an almost unheard of thing; most comics suffer from some form of minute damage either in printing or transit, but essentially if something is in ‘Pristine Mint’ condition it cannot be in better condition – it is perfect. Therefore you’d think that ‘very good’ should feature pretty high up, after all aren’t most things ‘very good’ if they’re not perfect?

Pfah. After ‘Pristine Mint’ comes ‘Mint’ (someone please tell me why comics dealers have murdered the English language?). ‘Mint’ isn’t mint condition, because by definition if it’s in ‘mint’ condition it can’t be any better, but we already have ‘Pristine Mint’ so ‘Mint’ is only second on the list. Then it’s very good, surely? No, next comes ‘Near Mint’, which is almost ‘mint’ but not quite. There might be some tiny defect that only a watchmaker with special glasses can see, but it’s enough to downgrade it. Next, very good? No, next comes ‘Very Fine’ or ‘VF’ this is not quite ‘Near Mint’ and a long way from both ‘Pristine Mint’ and ‘Very Good’. Then you have ‘Fine’ which is not very. It is a better grade than ‘Very Good’ but considerably worse than ‘Very Fine’. ‘Very Good’ means average (?!) and ‘Good’ means poor. ‘Fair’ means worse than ‘Good’ and ‘poor’ means condemned. The mess is further muddied by the fact you have + and – grades in between! So a comic that is ‘VF+’ is almost a ‘NM’, but not quite, but a ‘VF-’ is more like a ‘F+’ than a … you get the picture? Do the words pathetic and anally retentive feature high in your mind at the moment?

The genius that came up with this grading system probably went on to write local government by-laws. And bites the heads off of live chickens for his personal amusement. You’ll be pleased to know that this grading system has been replaced by another, supposedly less complicated system that dispenses with Pristine and allows you to grade books from 0 to 10 with .1, .2, .3 etc gradients, effectively giving you 100 grades from 0, which I presume is very poor to 9.9 which is almost perfect but someone breathed on it with halitosis.

So, let’s get back to Fascist John, who wanted nothing lower than VF condition at worst and if that meant spending twice as much, then so be it - it was only money and he had nothing else to spend it on. He was as concerned about the condition of his ‘investment’ as he was about his favourite characters. The problem with back issues and conditions is simple, the lower the condition, the substantially lower percentage it is worth against its ‘Mint’ condition price – all comics are graded, in price guides, from ‘Mint’ through to ‘Fine’ and then ‘Poor’. Poor normally equates to about 10% or less of the mint price. Most new comics are either near mint or mint, the older the comics get the more difficult it is to obtain them in ‘as new’ condition and subsequently these comics became ‘hot items’ due to the condition. But this is one of the few wrinkles in the skin that can be overlooked. It applies to such a small percentage of the industry and mainly to specific comics, we’re talking details even anoraks will think are anoracky.

John eventually went to college in London as a mature student, but lasted barely 6 months. He didn’t get on with the people in his local comics shop and he found it difficult to make friends in the culturally different big city. He returned and got his old job back and took his standing order over to the new shop in Northampton when it opened, about a year after I shut.

[I went for a drink with John and Monty in 2008 and while Monty was the same old Monty but with slightly more restraint, John had changed beyond recognition. He still had his boyish looks and dressed like someone from Happy Days, but his politics and opinions had changed almost diametrically. He was still a conservative, but very much with a small c. He even said he would vote for any party that opted to turn the UK into the new Norway and not want to be the world's Deputy Dawg. It was great to see that even the most hardened people can mellow and change. He still reads comics.]

Next time: concluding a scenario bordering on obsession...

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