Back in the early 1990s, I worked in a comic book store aside from waiting tables, going to college full-time and running track. It was probably the busiest period of my life in terms of accounted-for time not in bed, and I only slept an average of 4.5 hours a night. Looking back, it's amazing I still had time to date girls. I had one day off in my final semester of college, that being Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, I had to drop the comic store job that December when they wouldn't give me time off to study for my pre-graduation finals. It's okay, since I was forking over more than 30% percent of my store income back to the owners since we had a bodacious employee discount.
I'll always cherish my time in the comic shop, since it was a chance to peek behind the curtain, as it were. Like most of my generation, I'd spent most of my young collecting life trolling the spinner racks at local convenience stores and pharmacies to get my comics stash.
With the advent of actual comics emporiums and small specialty stores in the Eighties, having my chance to work inside the business made me wiser about how the comics industry works. Additionally, I became acclimated with all the crossover products I had never accounted for in the past. In a hurry, I had to learn the entire Star Trek universe, since, my second day on the job, I was wrangled up to work a table for the store at a local Trek convention. Having only watched the original series as a kid on local UHF channels (old school, baby!) I'd looked completely stupid trying to service customers asking for anything with a Borg on it. William Shatner may be taunted by echoes of "Klingons!" but for me, the haunting reverberation assuredly rings to "Borg!" At least I got to say hello to DeForest Kelley on my break--boss!
I had to learn what rolling for initiative meant, since Dungeons and Dragons had become a way of geek life and I can't tell you many times I had to count sides on polyhedral dice to help a customer. Considering my fingertips were often blue from the carbon slips of those old knuckle buster credit sliders, it was even more of a comedic sight. The expected response from us clerks would be, "No, sir, I'm sorry, we don't have any 20-sided in stock right now, but the owners have some on back order if you want to check back next week."
To protect the innocent, I will name the store I once worked at Comics Shop X. We were a professional retail store and expected to wear shirt and ties. No Simpsons-esque Comic Shop Guy pissiness or elitism allowed. If someone you didn't have weekly rapport with thought X-Factor, Ravage 2099 and Eclipso were tops, you kept your contradictory opinion to yourself and directed that person to its alphabetized location on the rack. Don't forget to cross-sell Doom 2099, which started the following month. We had a set of brainy folks who kept Bone in their pull boxes and would take a couple months before picking them up, considering there were other brainy folks without a subscription service shambling around and muttering how our store sucked because we couldn't keep Bone on the shelf.
While I watched Kevin Smith's often hilarious Comic Book Men (the fanboy's real-time version of Clerks) I thought back to my time working at Comic Shop X and my comrades, whom I'll name Skip and Chad. It took them awhile to warm up to me, but we all had good times in the long run. The owners were older and again, they thought of their business as upscale-specialty for a would-be upscale-specialty demographic. Yes, we had classy customers, in particular a lot of business folk. We even had Rolling Stone critic J.D. Considine among our subscribers. That didn't mean the pinheads, dweebs and what I call the cock-sparrers (swiped from the old punk band) weren't regulars. What are cock-sparrers? The ones who will take you to the mat arguing Darkseid would kick Thanos' ass, or vice-versa.
So while I'm riding the rails of nostalgia, here are ten of my most memorable moments working at Comic Shop X:
1. The nefarious though bombastic "Death of Superman" arc. This was the comic book event of the early Nineties, never mind the ascension of Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee. Yes, this was the epic Doomsday clash beginning in Justice League and crossing over all of Supes' books, tragically ending at Superman # 75. We took pre-orders for the whole set of books, which included a deposit. Surprisingly, the gambit worked. We had people from all walks of life, many non-comics readers who were looking to cash in on what was purported to be the final stand of an icon. Psych!!!! # 75 went through multiple printings and we had a line down the entire strip center on Black Friday for second run. For me, the whole thing was a pisser since I was a regular Superman reader and had to adhere to the store's customers-first policy. I went to a competitor to get all the books, and I'm happy to say they're still my provider today. Their name I'm happy to mention, as they've taken excellent care of me: Cards, Comics and Collectibles in Reisterstown, Maryland.
2. I made a royal asshole of myself once when I was helping a customer browsing through our Star Trek pins when (still in the midst of learning the nuances of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) I cluelessly asked him, spotting the button upon his jacket, what planet used the pink triangle for their symbol. Lower forehead, upraise palm at fifty miles an hour.
3. Anytime I hear "Have a Cigar" on the radio or play Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here album, I chuckle at least once, thinking of all the times, myself, Skip and Chad would mimic the sliding synthesizers in tandem. Geeky to the bitter end.
4. I defy you to out-nerd the legendary fanboy scrums over the 1990s X-Men books. If the owners would've let us eat inside the store, I guarantee you I would've gotten fat on popcorn and Mountain Dew from those spectacles.
5. As I mentioned, J.D. Considine was one of our regulars and everyone, including the owners, would fall over each other to kiss his ass. Pretty nice guy, but I never sucked up to him. Instead, I would hover and re-arrange the stock so I could listen to his stories about music journalism. When I waited on him, I might bring up a band in casual speak, just to see what I'd get out of him. Often he was in a hurry, but what I learned from him being a silent fly on the wall led to my own career as a music journalist. Sidebar, he did remember me vaguely when I wrote him years later, now one of his peers. Thanks, mate!
6. The comic business is always full of gimmcks, variant covers being today's rage. Back then, bagged issues, foil-embossed and prism covers were the industry's cash cows. If you were a reader, you were guilt-tripped into buying two copies, one to open, one to leave sealed, since collectors dictated the market then. Yes, I opened my bagged copy of Superman # 75 so I could wear the stupid black armband in the attempt to be more elite than the elitists. I learned that exercise in futility from The Sneetches. Yeah, I had a second sealed copy too. DC Comics 1, Van Horn zip.
7. I can't tell you how amusing it was convincing newbie readers looking for "something more intelligent than superheroes in underwear" that a sword-swinging aardvark named Cerebus was fine art--which indeed it was!
8. The guy to girl ratio in a comic shop back then was a despairing 9 to 1. The few girls who did show were often mousy nerdette girlfriends who hovered silently at the front door, expected to wait up to an hour without interrupting her nerdboy in all his minute glory. At least the ratio in today's market has been whittled down 4 to 1 and, bless the contemporary female, they're involved in the scene.
9. I was there to watch the rise of the independents as viable competitors, i.e. Image and Valiant. Anyone who was anyone in comics fandom were scarfing up Youngblood, Shadowhawk, Wetworks, Spawn, Savage Dragon, X-O Manowar, Rai and Eternal Warrior. You could be looked down upon if you were reading Legends of the Dark Knight and no Image or Valiant books--even if you had Sandman, Akira, Hellblazer and Swamp Thing on your pull lists. Talk about Sneetchville.
10. Coming up with alternate superlatives amidst the hipper customers fifteen minutes prior to close to outmatch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' "radical," "tubular," and of course, "cowabunga" colloquialisms. Most of our substitutes shouldn't be repeated in polite company, but "gnarly" will suffice for retrospection.
And remember, kids...