Random Reflections: Seeing the Future, Longing for the Past

This past weekend, I decided to journey into a relatively new comic book shop in Brooklyn that had been featured in an episode of one of my favorite shows, HBO’s Bored to Death. When I walked inside, I was blown away by the store’s aesthetics: buffed hardwood floors, wall mounted book shelves housing graphic novels and trade paperbacks and intricately arranged wall racks featuring the most recent comics for sale. In short, not what I was looking for.

The shop has been described by some comic book enthusiasts as the “future” of the industry and I believe it – it’s a super, high-gloss representation of how the local comic book shop has evolved over the timespan that I’ve been a collector. When I was a teenager, there were a good three or four comic book shops near my house where I could walk in, buy the most recent issue of Spider-Man, and then go exploring the boxes of back issues to find stuff that had come out years before. And then, behind the register would be the “good stuff” – usually a small selection of Silver Age goodies from the 60s and 70s. It was at these local comic book shops that I got some of my favorite issues of all-time: ASM #121, the Death of Gwen Stacy (Spidey’s first girlfriend and a landmark issue in comics history); ASM #42, the first appearance of Mary Jane (the future Mrs. Spider-Man); and ASM #102, the second appearance of Moribus the Vampire, an awesome “tweener” character who wasn’t quite “evil” but wasn’t exactly good. Simply put, without these shops, I would never have been able to build any kind of foundation for my collection.Most comic book shops today, especially those that have opened the past few years don’t value the “comic book collector” the way the ones I shopped at as a teenager did. Instead they cater to readers and enthusiasts of comic book culture. Old issues behind the register have been replaced by paperback anthologies. Back issues in boxes have been replaced by assorted graphic novels. For those that do want to make some kind of “investment,” these shops often offer original art panels or action figures. But if I wanted to find a copy of one of the 30 issues I have left to collect of Amazing Spider-Man, I’d have better luck doing a search on eBay. It seems so cold and impersonal, but I don’t have many options left.

I’m sure when I get to the point where I’m no longer a “collector” I will be more enthusiastic about the “future” of comic book shops. I do enjoy reading comics: I’m part of the growing masses that believes Watchmen is one of the best works of fiction in the past half-century. The Marvel “Essential” series is a great way to read through the earliest issues of series like Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, etc. My wife loves Neil Gaimen’s Sandman series.

But I also wish there were more brick and mortar places where I could walk in, chat-up the shop-owner, and then make a deal. I often wonder when I finally complete my collection if I’m going to buy my last issue of ASM from a human being, or through a wireless Internet connection. Given it was person-to-person contact that got me hooked on Spider-Man in the first place, I guess I hope that one day I’ll walk into a new shop and be shocked by the site of yellowing cardboard boxes filled with merchandise, and 50 year-old comics tacked to the wall.

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