Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 7, 2011

Alt-Comics Reacts To News Of Criminal Records’ Closure


The news of the imminent closure of Atlanta's Criminal Records yesterday hit comics in general: all comics stores are important right now, let alone the long-running ones with a national identity. Alternative comics was struck by the news harder than most. Not only was Criminal Records one of that region's leading accounts in terms of consistently carrying alternative comics material as part of their product mix, and not only was that even more important in the 1990s when material from publishers like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf wasn't widely available in bookstores and selling a lot of comics on-line was still a dream, Eric Levin's Little Five Points neighborhood anchor shop was a certain type of comic store that was key to those comics' development and self-conception: the combination music and comics store.

It seems strange to talk about this now, but there was a very recent time during which basic coverage of or even penetration into entire regional areas was a huge concern for alt-comics publishers, and ways to distinguish what they were doing as something other than a crude, taboo-busting variation on superhero comics production proved few and a far between. Retailers like Criminal Records and Seattle's now-defunct Fallout Records, Books & Comics placed an imprimatur of cool on the comics they carried. They also provided a place for signing stops and creator appearances that may have been a little more friendly to those works' natural audiences than some of the stringently mainstream-focused comics shops might be. There was a time in the mid-1990s when visiting a city's comics shops you also had to check the local alternative culture-savvy music store and in more than a few you'd find a rack or shelf's worth of comics there. While this never settled into a long-term trend, and stores selling physical copies of music have been hit even harder than comics shops in the post-Internet retailing world, a place like Criminal Records survived and over the years remained a vital outlet for a lot of alternative and art comics, in addition to quirkier mainstream efforts. With Criminal Records now on its way out, it seems likely that it and stores like it will take a place in whatever historical imagination exists for the alternative comics movement the way that the head shop has become a legendary fount for the undergrounds.

CR contacted about a dozen potentially related parties last night, and while not everyone was able to provide commentary the ones that wrote back did so with a forthright regret that I think is worth reading in full.

Eric Reynolds, Associate Publisher At Fantagraphics: "Well, it just sucks. Criminal is one of those places like Comic Relief or Fallout Records or Quimby's, etc., that helped define my generation, in not only the types of culture we consumed but how we discovered and engaged it. They were -- and are -- tastemakers, even more in music than comics (which I always liked; working with Criminal was cool). I always naively assume a place that special will live forever, so I was really shocked to read about this today.

"I first worked with Eric Levin over 15 years ago, and Fantagraphics was working with him well before that. I actually only met him in person for the first time last summer, and we joked about how hard business was in this modern world but we were both still happy to be at it. That guy knows his business as well as anyone, he's got great taste, he's a huge ambassador for music and comics and art, and it just makes me kind of despair that a place like might not be viable anymore, in a city as big as Atlanta."

Alt-Comics Heavyweight And Occasional Musician Peter Bagge: Criminal Records is a fantastic store owned by a fantastic guy. This is tragic news -- and what makes it worse is that I'm part of the problem. I used to live at stores like this, and lordy knows if I'd ever have had the career I've had without them. But like everyone else now I never leave the house other than to eat and drink, and even that's like once a week. Thanks to the internet the world is now at my fingertips. I wish Eric the best, and hope he does well with whatever he plans to do next."

Cartoonist Rich Tommaso, For Several Years A Resident Of Atlanta: When I think of Criminal Records I think of the years 2001-2003, back when the comics section was run by ex-long-time employee -- and pal-o-mine -- Rick Jackson. Week after week he would persist in recommending comics to me that were the polar opposites of the usual art-house stuff he knew I preferred: he'd shove copies of "mainstream" comics in my face like Brubaker and Cooke's Catwoman, Milligan and Allred's X-Force, Mignola and Davis' B.P.R.D., Dixon and Pulido's Batgirl... to which I always just waved my hand at, shooing them away, saying, "Nah, I don't read that stuff!" If only I had listened... I could've enjoyed those comics as they hit the shelves every month! That's what I imagine; an alternate universe where I could've -- not just stood in Criminal and glanced at those comics--but bought them and enjoyed them and talked about them with the clerks, every week. So I will miss that shop if not for anything else, but for those days when they'd tried so hard to get me to stop being such a goddamn comics snob."

Atlanta-Area Cartoonist Justin Colussy Estes: "We have a frick-ton of great cartoonists, but we lack a critical mass of excellent comics retailers. Criminal Records is the exception. I remember seeing Dan Clowes and Pete Bagge there when they did their tour back in the nineties, and the Bros. Hernandez sometime in the decade before that. They regularly supported local cartoonists, and made an effort to balance the 'mainstream' comics and gns with 'art scene' and 'general audience' works." -- Justin Colussy-Estes

Top Shelf Publisher Chris Staros: This is sad news, indeed. Criminal Records was one of the few shops in the nation that, when they opened, catered to all the Indy comix, zines, and minis, and racked them next to all their CDs and Vinyl -- legitimizing comix in the mainstream eye years before others did. They will surely be missed."
posted 4:20 am PST | Permalink

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