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Gutter Talk: Notes From the Road
posted December 21, 1997
Dec. 21, 1997 -- With my 10-year high school reunion safely behind me (no fights, only two drinks tossed on people, and the food was even decent -- success!), I moved into the lazy, loafing portion of my vacation. Meaning, of course, I had more time to visit comic stores. It's not so much my vacation revolves around visiting funnybook stores as the fact that most people having to work for a living (suckers!) meant I had to fill up my days with something -- including visiting a few shops.
The first shop I visited after the reunion was the main Comic Carnival shop, on Carrollton Drive off of Broad Ripple in northern Indianapolis. This was, I found out during the visit, their second location, but the one they've been in since 1980 or 1981 and from which they launched various other stores in what is now a small chain. Comic Carnival was an extremely important store to me growing up, as I found it right at the time I was growing extremely disinterested in Marvel comic books (age 11 or 12, for the record) -- the Claremont/Byrne X-Men
books had granted me a temporary reprieve after I had quit at age 9 or 10 -- and I was intrigued by the thought of other comic books more suited to my "sophisticated" tastes.
To digress even further for a second, I think one of the other spurs was seeing the Bud Plant ads he'd run on the back of magazines like Epic Illustrated
. We forget, living in an age where we're full of information about material produced in every last corner of media that just 15 years ago it took a monumental effort to even find out about anything vaguely different from the fat mainstream of American culture. At any rate, I can remember staring at ads for books from Dave Sim, the Pinis, and Jack Katz and thinking "I got to get me some of those."
And Comic Carnival is where I got them, exclusively for several years until they began to act as a sub-distributor for a shop or two in my home town. It was there, also, I bought my first copy of the Journal
It's still a decent, mainstream-focused but indy/alternative-conscious store. I was particularly impressed by their continuing efforts to stock and display a number of large trade volumes, such as the Terry and the Pirates
series. And the longtime store manager, Mike, was awfully nice. An Indiana-based Journal
reader reminds me that the store is still rather tiny (true) and my own brother reminds me how frustrating it was to find comics there when my tastes went more alternative and less "independent genre-based," but considering where it is and from where it draws its customer base, they do just fine. I wouldn't have any complaints if all stores were at least that good.
Sidenote: when I walked into the store, on a Tuesday afternoon, the managers were having a spirited discussion with their visiting Diamond representative. A good reporter would probably have stayed and taken mental notes; all I could think about was how awful it would be to be a Diamond store consultant and find out that the big fat guy scanning the racks was from the Comics Journal
. So I walked around the block until he left. If this ever happens to you, I can recommend the "Flealess Market" up Carrollton, and I've been told the Alleycat serves 75 cent Stroh's.
On Thursday the 11th, I visited Quimby's Queer Shop in Chicago for the very first time. When asked during my trip to Chicago Comics, I was unable to say why I hadn't been before. During my time in Chicago, I was a Halley's Comix patron (both at their location off of Belmont and their unfortunate second location up the road near that Jack Kerouac thing and near that lovely butcher), and when I visit, I never miss a chance to visit Chicago Comics. But Quimby's had always evaded me.
I feel like an idiot for not having visited sooner. This is another terrific shop. I'm not sure how new ownership (the Chicago Comics guys purchased Quimby's several months ago) has changed the way the store stocks itself, but it's now, easily, a full-service store for the alternative-minded reader with its other emphases on zines (it's really a zine-based store with a lot of comics -- their two best sellers are Sean Tejaratchi's Crap Hound
and Chicago-based magazine The Baffler
; Sean called during my time in the store and Quimby's ordered more of his latest issue, which I highly recommend) and alternative-culture books.
I spent about an hour there, buying comics ranging from the new Hellboy Christmas special to two missing Tom Hart mini-comics (the new Ramadan
, and the much older Prince Frederick's Feet
). It's such a good store that I found out about books I didn't even know existed, like a Manic-D Press collection of Keith Knight's work and some lovely handcrafted, high-ticket items from Cherise Mericle. There were some store-only perks, too, such as a display of six-eight paper model pieces by Chris Ware (who also did the store's striking outside design). The neighborhood, Wicker Park, which was the hot artists' community when I lived in Chicago the early-'90s, looked like it was in the midst of some decline (I could be completely wrong about this), but I would recommend anyone interested in the Journal
's outlook to visit Quimby's even if it were located in scary, bombed-out ruins. It's on North Damen. Look it up.
On the train out east, I read the New Yorker
cartoon special and Tom Hart's New Hat
(Quimby's is also a nice place to find books that were once in your collection but have since been swiped). I liked the New Yorker
issue, particularly the articles on Thomas Nast and William Hogarth (I'm not terribly versed in comics history) and the photos and slight background information on various artists. A couple of the pieces annoyed me. The fact that John Updike wanted to be a cartoonist at one point seems to me more interesting as a footnote in his career and not any great boon to comics. ("Hey, this respected novelist actually wanted to be a cartoonist." Uh-huh.) A piece on the infantilization of American culture - which is dead-on true, by the way - didn't offer much more beyond its initial observation and completely lacked any point of view as to what the effects of this cultural reality may be. But all in all, worth the $2.95, even if David Sedaris' taste in cartoons is slightly disappointing.
The Tom Hart book I liked even better this time around. A deceptively simple unfolding of three fantasy-tinged stories, New Hat contains some of Hart's most forceful writing to date. The ranting speech that serves as the book's opening chapter is stage-worthy. This was a Black Eye book, and they may still have copies.
After the usual fitful night of sleep on the train (God bless rail travel, but it's awful trying to sleep in those coach seats), I stopped off at Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Comic Store before heading to my Mom's house. I had purchased comics there when I lived in Lancaster in 1993 and 1994, and it's a decent, full-service shop. Chatting up the store's owner gave me much the same outlook as I received at Comics Carnival: business had stabilized after the last, few crazy years; some small stores in the area going out of business had helped their bottom line; and they could probably survive a cessation in publication from Marvel Comics if Marvel went Chapter 7, but it wouldn't be pretty.
I bought a couple of superhero record albums and some Jack Kirby 2001
's, and didn't realize until I was at the register that this -- novelty items and inexpensive back issues with nothing new on top - was my first "Old Man" purchase.
More Next Time. -- Tom Spurgeon
Originally Published in "Gutter Talk," TCJ On-Line #7, December 1997