Swamped as we are with information and its contradictions, we find solace in quiet spaces and humble crafts. So we find ourselves newly infatuated with the comic book, an unassuming, increasingly mainstream art that has long reconciled warring snippets of image and text. “Comic art,” guru Scott McCloud explains, “is a medium of fragments—a piece of text here, a cropped picture there” that somehow form a “continuous experience” and “make reading feel like living.” Even the literary set agrees: just last month during a reading at NYU, writer Zadie Smith touted Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth as the best book since 2000.
A salient feature of comics is their attachment to place, in particular how inseparable they are from the stores that sell them. Until the arthouse graphic novel, comic books were too niche, underground, and disparaged as an art form to show up in libraries, for instance, and their textural, visual details militated against mail/Internet orders and digital viewing (although the iPad may change this). Still, the strong social element engendered by comics’ natural habitat will persist—not merely in the stereotypical sense of role-playing tables and adrenaline-crazed boys acting out scenes from Superman, but in the quieter sense of standing beside a fellow nerd who has rushed to the store for the latest issue of Chew.
As a kid, I wasn’t exposed much to comic books, which seemed inaccessible, drenched in a masculine, cult magic. But I was keenly aware of them, raised near the early stomping grounds of Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, and Gary Larson, who attended my high school. Comics, like coffee and grunge, apparently flourish in Western Washington; but they are just as at home here, in alt-arts Brooklyn.
There was a time, I am told, that you could open the Brooklyn Yellow Pages to “Comics” and get two or three pages of thriving shops. Today, there are just seven unique stores or store groups, each as idiosyncratic and endearing as the next. I recently trekked all around Brooklyn, visiting these shops and getting to know their inhabitants.
One of my first stops is The Stand, at 1410 Gravesend Neck Road in Sheepshead Bay. When I call to introduce myself and ask when I might come by, an abrupt man coolly hangs up the phone. I call back: “Uh, hello again, I think we got disconnected,” I stammer. “Nope,” he says, “I just hung up on you,” being nothing if not direct. A week later, I show up on a sunny Thursday afternoon, entering a dusty joint full of preteen boys browsing cards, figurines, and old superhero comics. Christine, the owner, refuses to be photographed, but doesn’t snub me completely. She introduces me to her partner Gary, who shakes my hand and apologizes for his telephonic diss (at least he remembers). Since 2000, The Stand has met the needs of neighborhood kids, which explains why pricey comic books wrapped in plastic are vastly outnumbered by role-playing paraphernalia and hand-painted models of uncertain provenance. In the back, I watch a game of Yu-Gi-Oh! as high-stakes as any poker tournament, the boys squinting in consternation as they spin entire worlds.
At the other end of the spectrum is Williamsburg’s Desert Island (540 Metropolitan Avenue), whose placard famously reads “Sparacino’s Bakery: Italian French Sicilian Bread And Comic Booklets,” a playful add-on betraying an artistic worldview. Desert Island is Brooklyn’s arthouse comic book store, owned, curated, and constantly manned by Gabe Fowler, an M.F.A. grad and former art-handler. I speak at length with him and Bill Kartalopoulos, a comics/illustration professor at Parsons, who are co-organizing the December 4 Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. A distinguishing feature of Desert Island is its sale, on consignment, of up-and-coming artists’ handmade, self-published artbooks, prints, and minicomics (full disclosure: mine was once on the rack). On my recent visit, I witness Gabe bartering with a local artist, trading a new experimental comic for the skinny young man’s abstract illustrations. The customer leaves with a spring in his step, having the satisfied look of someone who just found the toy in his cereal box.
Not far from this artsy spot, a sign for “COMICS” in Circus-like font surprises Hasidic passersby off Flushing Avenue. Northside Comics (265 Lee Avenue), which is paradoxically located on the southern edge of Williamsburg, has spent 16 years in a boxy storefront with no reliable phone line. I take a chance and ride my bike there, finding the window shuttered by a metal gate but the door propped open. Gingerly I go in, coming upon sparsely stocked shelves and the chatter of two large men, owner Peter Pierre and manager Victor Vendrell (comic book names!). Five minutes into our conversation, Peter has told me about the store’s backroom inventory (100,000 comic books), his father’s health problems (diabetes-induced leg amputation), the future of the comics market (aside from superheroes, “everything else is just a fad”), and the neighborhood’s rising rents (“Businesses keep turning over so quickly”). For good measure, he explains that he has “the gift of gab.” Victor is more reserved, all business: “I understand why Peter doesn’t charge much, even though he should,” Victor says. “It’s from the point of view of the comic buyer and lover that he is.”
Hank Kwon, another such lover, is the go-to comics guy in Flatbush. Bulletproof Comics, at 2178 Nostrand Avenue, has been around for 18 years, ever since Hank’s mother pushed him and his gargantuan comics collection out of the house and into business. The day I visit, a teenage boy is arguing the finer points of the Stallone movie blaring from the mounted TV. “The way his neck gets broken is crazy,” he tells employee Chris McGuire. “You can’t break a neck like that . . . is that even possible? I don’t think so.” Chris, who prefers the Hulk to Sylvester Stallone, chuckles blandly. While comic books are the store’s priority, Hank has diversified his wares and opened two other stores in Brooklyn. He greets nearly every customer by name, being the kind of guy who will fix your Playstation, give you change for the bus, kiss your baby, and recommend any number of comics to fit your tastes. But Hank worries about the affordability and digitization of comics. “We’re at a crossroads in the industry because of the Internet and downloads. We will end up like record shops in five years,” he says, a chilling forecast that I choose to forget.
From Flatbush I travel to Park Slope, home to Galaxy Comics at 429 5th Avenue, which opened 10 years ago and now has two more Brooklyn locations. Brian Montalvo has worked at the main store for seven years and is known to all the regulars. His thick forearms decorated with Spiderman and the X-Men, Brian greets a man in a wheelchair, a weekly customer who shops for Marvel and DC and “now more independent stuff.” From the other side of the store, a pubescent girl in braces and turquoise stockings calls out, “Brian, how much is it for all this?” He smiles and totals up her selections, mussing the hair of her companion, a sweet, lanky boy in oversized jacket and backpack. “The greatest kids in the world,” Brian says. “They come in every day!” The store has no sign but gives itself away, the front window plastered with comics posters and covers, an institution that needs no introduction.
Bergen Street Comics (470 Bergen Street) sits in a ritzier section of Park Slope. The realized dream of owners Tom and Amy Adams, it has the feel of a secret smoking room, with dark wood furniture and walls of midnight blue. Comic books, high and low, are shelved neatly and stacked upon a central display table—on my visit, featuring works such as Black Hole, Hellboy, and Scott Pilgrim. As I read a book by Seth, I observe a clientele consonant with the neighborhood: mostly editor-like bearded men, fashionably balding, with black-rim glasses. These are serious but unintimidating adults, not unlike Tom, a shy enthusiast, who checks inventory and makes himself available to shoppers. In early November, Bergen Street sponsored KingCon, a mini-indie convention held in the crumbling Brooklyn Lyceum, where I picked up a few comics and inhaled a lot of ambient dust. Active in the comics community, Bergen Street also hosts in-store readings and events.
St. Mark’s Comics (148 Montague Street) in Downtown Brooklyn is, of course, improperly named. Its original, eponymous instantiation, “the downtown store,” has been in the East Village for some 28 years, but the Brooklyn shop holds its own. I arrive on a weeknight, the store sign and geometric window lighting up the second floor of a neat commercial block. The rectangular space is lined in worn carpet and jam-packed with goods, from the Life in Hell calendar that catches my eye up-front to indie comics and rows and rows of superhero collections, all organized by publisher. Connie, a punk-styled saleswoman, calls the place an “old-fashioned comic book store,” in contrast to “newer ones, which are very glitzy.” “You won’t find a 50-cent bin or a Debbie Harry Barbie in the new stores,” she says, showing me the boxed doll, “but here, old guys come in for the nostalgia factor, and little kids can get into it, too.”
Connie, I think, gets it exactly right—that feeling of old and new, familiar and strange, that comics evoke. My journey through the shops of Brooklyn leaves me ever-appreciative of the bizarre, enduring comics enterprise, and hopeful about books culture in Brooklyn. Even the most ardent critics of capitalism would be charmed by these small businesses and their storekeepers, who come across not as aspiring chain-store magnates but as comics devotees.