Thursday, January 27, 2011

Retail Therapy Part V: Chicago Comics

(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about it here!)

Location: 3244 N Clark in Lakeview
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Clark (22); Nearest train is the Belmont Red/Brown/Purple line stop.
Monday: 12-8
Tuesday: 12-8
Wednesday: 12-8
Thursday: 12-8
Friday: 12-10
Saturday: 11-10
Sunday: 12-6

I can still remember my first trip to Chicago Comics when I was a teenager visiting from the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. This was not your small town comic book store. I was blown away by the many remarkable items on display; kitschy collectibles adorned with pulp pin ups, patches and pins, art books I'd never seen before, comics I'd never heard of at that point. My wonderment was soon accompanied by considerable feelings of inadequacy. I was 16, reading far too many X-Men titles, and surrounded by a whole world of comics I had not known to exist. I'd like to think I'm a little more informed about comic books nowadays thanks in part to stores like Chicago Comics, but my awe and intimidation still exist when I visit this store.
You'll find most of the small press books in the back of the store near the back issues.
Chicago Comics is only number five on my list for retail therapy, but I'm certain few stores will be able to rival their selection for independent works. The self published section is impressively large, but they go the extra step by having additional sections for Zines and Minis, too. Well known independent creators have their own shelves like Jason, R. Crumb, and Harvey Pekar. The area dedicated to independently created work is large enough to be its own store. The rest of Chicago Comics attempts to be similarly organized, but some sections aren't as successful. For instance, the area of the store where new individual issues are displayed is a little hard to navigate. There is the "Vertigo" section and the "Superhero" section. I think the store got to a point where they decided to change the Vertigo section to just Independent but forgot to change the sign.  You'll find Dark Horse, Image, and IDW along the Vertigo wall, but you'll also see Buffy and Invincible under the Superhero banner. If they want to organize by genre it would help if they had more than one. To add another confusing element to the mix, they put the trades on the same walls as the comics, too. But not all of the trades, just the independent ones. The superhero trades are alphabetized on separate book shelves instead. If they could apply the same clarity to the mainstream comics as they do to the self published section, it would greatly benefit confused shoppers. To be fair, I did not so harshly criticize Evil Squirrel for having a similar system. Because they do not explicitly label any section by genre, you are left to assume rather than debate their organizational choices. They also don't offer near as many indie titles as Chicago Comics, leaving less opportunity for confusion.
It's obvious that Chicago Comics doesn't do much in small quantities. They have an abundance of toys, t-shirts (for men and women, thank you), magazines, mangas, kid's books, and even hard to find specialty DVD's. The back issues may be easy to miss, but only because they are stored in attractive black drawers in the back of the store rather than your usual tattered cardboard boxes. If you happen to come into the store on a slow Wednesday, it's dangerously easy to find other items to replace your comic book budget. The Star Trek flask was particularly tempting during my visit. No matter when you come into the store, expect the shopping experience to be a self guided tour. The staff here is not particularly warm, but for shoppers that like to avoid small-talk at all costs, it can be a blessing. The check out counter is raised just a foot above ground level, but it's enough to create a disconnect with the employees. In all of my visits throughout the years I have never seen an employee on the floor of the store (unless they have an automated restocking system, then they have to come out from behind that counter eventually). My interactions with employees have always been polite, but I feel like I'm usually doing most of the talking. Raphael, one of the store employees I spoke with on Wednesday, was happy enough to answer my questions and he even posed for a photo next to his recommended title, Morning Glories. This encounter was probably the longest I have ever spoken to anyone at Chicago Comics.
Raphael poses with his recommended book, along with his review posted in the store.
The store's unofficial mascot is a female mannequin deco-paged with yellow discarded comics, a goddess that has stepped out from between the pages of the funnies. She's perched high above everyone in the store, with toys strewn at her feet like offerings (actually she's just put on the same table where figures are displayed). It's a fitting representative for the store's atmosphere. She's strange, beautiful, exotic, and imposing. Much like the store, she can be a little scary to approach, but then again, isn't that the power of fascination, of allure? Chicago Comics has these in spades, and I recommend this store for those who don't mind asking for what they want. The mistress of Chicago Comics is definitely high maintenance.
Alex Ross's print seen left (exclusive to Chicago Comics) does the store mascot justice.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Retail Therapy Part IV: Variety Comics

The store still has their original display cases.
(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about it here!)

Location: 4602 N Western Ave in Lincoln Square
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Western (49B), Montrose (78), and the Lawrence (81); Nearest train is the Brown line Western stop.
Monday: Closed
Tuesday: 12-5
Wednesday: 12-6:30
Thursday: 12-6
Friday: 12-6
Saturday: 12-4
Sunday: 12-4
Website: None, but if you have questions their number is 773-334-2550

Visiting Variety Comics made me a little nervous. Words like dark, dank, and haphazard were thrown around by those who had been there. The store's owner had a reputation for being testy, and the hours were known to be sporadic. It is now too late for me to form my own opinions of Rick. He passed away last year after having owned the store for 30 plus years. The new proprietor is Vinny, a lifetime customer of Variety Comics and close friend of Rick's. Not only did I miss the chance to meet the original owner, but I have been missing out on countless opportunities to scour the store's surprisingly impressive collection of new and old comics.

Many of my observations about the store can be seen as valid criticisms by shoppers. The store is definitely a mess. There are stacks upon stacks of books, trades, magazines, and boxes. You will feel the need to wash your hands after going through the back issues. Advertisements on the wall encourage shoppers to pick up "new" titles such as Lady Death from Chaos Comics. Promo stills from Batman (1989) grace the walls, and you can still pick up the premiere issue of Comics Foundry, a superb magazine that began in 2007 and has been canceled for at least 2 years now. I am so glad this store is a mess. It allows ample opportunities for finding treasures, and I dare anyone who comes in to not find something they want or need to complete their collection. It's not just the back issues holding hidden gems; the newer issues stay on the shelves here a lot longer, too. If there's a hot new issue that's selling out everywhere, your chances of finding it here are better than most. The same goes for trade paperbacks and hardcovers. The selection of new titles lean more towards the mainstream of DC and Marvel, but they carry the indie heavy hitters as well like The Walking Dead and League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
Variety's reluctance to modernize will definitely put off some shoppers, especially those who lack an appreciation for wood paneling. Unlike the burbs, there aren't many "old school" style stores left in the city. You hear stories about places like Larry's Comics, but Variety may be the last of a dying breed. Stores where you don't see statues or t-shirts, where there is absolutely no seating anywhere because lounging is discouraged. Club pull lists consist of telling Vinny what you want, and he'll "set it aside for you". The time warp back to 1982 will be very comforting for shoppers that miss the former exclusivity of the comic book world, before comic book characters were bigger in the movies than on news stands. Kids today have Spider-Man shoes but have never read a comic book. Things are different and there's no better reminder than places like Variety Comics where little has changed since 1975.

Seen above left, Rick in the store in 1977.
No one is better suited to carry on Variety's legacy than Vinny. He's the kind of guy that has no Facebook page, and he was reluctant to be photographed for the blog. For those who may have stayed away from Variety because of Rick's reputation, Vinny doesn't share many of the previous owner's colorful personality traits. He's friendly and willing to make reading suggestions, but happy to let shoppers browse in peace. When you talk to Vinny, it is obvious that he has the utmost respect for the store's history. When customers suggest that he update the posters to reflect newer titles, he simply states that he likes things they way they are, they way they were when he came in as a kid. Vinny has in fact never been to another comic book store in his entire life; knowing this makes it easier to understand his resistance to update the store. The extent of changes to come in the future may be a replacement of one of the paintings outside. Spawn may be replaced soon by a more recently popular character like Green Lantern or Hellboy. But don't expect anything too drastic; he is in talks with the mural's original artist to create the new addition.
The lack of organization can be a discouraging for some, but for others it's the perfect opportunity for discovery.

Whether you love or hate Variety Comics (and I doubt there are many in between), you can't deny that the store deserves respect. Despite a changing industry and a changing world around it, they have stayed true to themselves, and as Vinny proves, loyal to their longtime customers. I recommend this store, and for more reasons than nostalagia. It is a comic book store within a vacuum, a shrine to the reverence we once held for comic books without the frills. You may not have many more chances to visit a store like Variety Comics, so experience it while you can.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review: Buffy Season 8 Finale

Season 8 puts Buffy through the ringer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #40
Publisher: Dark Horse
Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: Georges Jeanty

Warning: This review includes ample SPOILERS. There's no pussyfooting around the ramifications of Season 8.

I've just finished BTVS #40, the final issue of the ongoing series of comics dubbed Season 8, and I am pretty bummed to see this story come to an end. Since I am a rather late comer to the Buffy franchise, this is the first time that I have finished anything within the Buffyverse without having something to immediately follow. I didn't have to wait months between seasons, or years between the end of the show and the beginning of the comic. I didn't even have to wait long for the first 30 issues of the comic either; I read those in trade paperback and only recently read the comics issue to issue. A few years ago I would have said that I didn't read the comics because I didn't think they could possibly live up to the quality of the show. Deep down I knew really just wanted to wait so I could read them all at once.

Last Gleaming concludes a few months after the events of the battle between the slayers and Twilight. To recap, Buffy won the battle by destroying the source of power for both sides - all magic within this dimension. To say she has created a few enemies from these actions is an understatement. The army of potentials-turned-slayers are furious with Buffy for eliminating the future of their recently discovered heritage. Wiccans the world over, including Willow, are equally pissed off over the loss of their powers entirely (unlike the army of slayers, they did not retain their powers post-magic since it was something they wielded rather than inherently had / were like vampires and slayers.). People are predictably pissed off, but in Buffy's defense, the war that began in Season 7 was much like a war between two limbs on the same body. As Willow states in this issue, magic was the heart of the world, and slayers and evil were just an arm and a leg on the same body, constantly fighting but both drawing power from the same well. If there was ever a theme that drove these last 40 issues, one that could have easily been drawn from the events at the end of Season 7, it is that the slayer army and their opponents are two sides of the same coin. The re-balancing Buffy aimed to achieve by empowering the potentials had the unintended consequence of making herself and her fellow slayers into something that more closely resembled what they were fighting. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than the character of Simone, the rogue slayer (and future villain for Season 9 from the looks of this issue) who has always had preoccupations with guns and power. One corrupted slayer can be easily identified and contained; a whole army of corrupted slayers presents a much more dangerous threat.

I kind of went on a "Season 8 Themes" tangent; just to clarify where we are in this issue, Buffy is a waitress again. Xander and Dawn are living together (!!!) while Buffy sleeps on their couch. Willow has dumped Kennedy because she finally realized Kennedy was the rebound girl. Giles is dead and he's not coming back. Angel is in a catatonic state after (kind of) killing Giles. You would think such a downer issue wouldn't be that enjoyable to read, but leave it to Joss Whedon to make you laugh, cry, and squeal all in one issue. No one writes the witty banter between characters like Whedon. Dawn even calls herself the Scrappy Doo of the gang. Willow and Buffy know each other so well they can have an argument and still manage to hold hands while they do it. We even get a classic Spike / Buffy moment where he predictably plays the role of cheerleader for Buffy that ends with him getting rejected. Everything is different in the world of Buffy, but it's kind of the same.

The writing for this series has taken a very meta turn in its conclusion; much like Buffy's realization that you don't change the world over night, Joss Whedon also shows that he has realized he can't change BTVS over night either. The strength of the series, and the connection it has with viewers / readers, is because of the flawed humanity of the characters. Their relateability stemmed from their struggles to deal with with life under extraordinary circumstances (one of my favorite quotes from Whedon concerning season 6: "Life is the big bad!"). Even while she dusted vamps, slept with vamps, and saved the world, Buffy still had to deal with things like getting a job and not knowing how to drive. Given the unlimited possibilities for the series in comic book form, he took these characters to places where they never could have gone in the show; the story became about an organization of globe trotting, time traveling, magic-weilding super-heroes. Once these desires were indulged (and the zany adventures were enjoyable to an extent), it became clear that getting back to basics and fighting the good fight is where Buffy and the Scoobies belong. Losing sight of this came at a dear cost to Buffy in the death of Giles. I didn't really deal with him dying until this issue. I was hoping for some kind of comic book wackiness where he stands up and walks away, laughing with Buffy at the absurdity of death (because they can share stories about crossing over now) and everyone would be happy, the end. The possibility of his resurrection disappeared as I read about everyone's lives continuing without him. His absence is acutely felt once everyone numbly assumes the roles of aimless 20-somethings (oh how I relate!). Giles is no longer there to help steer the course of their fates, the older and wiser ones are gone.

Comic book Buffy is kind of a better actress
Confession: I hate the fact that they killed Giles. But that has little to do with how they did it, or why, but only because I love Giles so dearly. A lot of my favorite episodes are very Rupert heavy (Band Candy, Passions), and the comics never quite got the tone of his dry humor. Instead of a loving but stern father figure, the comic book Giles took on a distant role as he spearheaded the black ops on Buffy's behalf while he investigated his suspicions about the growing threat of Twilight. What we get in return is a strengthened relationship between Giles and Faith, the extent of which is shown when it's revealed that Giles has left his entire estate to Faith. Sort of like leaving everything to the wild step-child. Even after losing her mentor, the faith of her best friend Willow, the (kind of) betrayal of her lover Angel, and gaining the ire of a legion of super-powered former slayers, the truth of Gile's final wishes is what reveals Buffy's heartache. The moment is perfectly rendered by Georges Jeanty in one panel showing the shocked, blood shot eyes of Buffy. At the end of the day, leaving Buffy the one possession of his watcher's book Vampyr, is the last lesson for his student, and Whedon having written it as such, is a final message for his fans. It's time to get back to basics.

Buffy and Angel's love is forbidden and better unrequited. Willow Rosenburg is not the sum of her parts. Xander is the normal one. Dawn is Scrappy-Doo. And Buffy. Well, she kicks ass. I may not have anything new to experience in the Buffyverse, but I have a pretty good idea where I should go next. Season 1 anybody?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Retail Therapy Part III: Dark Tower Comics & Collectibles

Owner Mark Beatty with one of his two dogs, Koko.
(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about it here!)

Location: 4835 N Western Ave in Lincoln Square
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Western (49B) and the Lawrence (81); Nearest train is the Brown line Western stop.  
Monday: 2-8
Tuesday: 2-8
Wednesday: 11-9
Thursday: 12-9
Friday: 12-9
Saturday: 11-7
Sunday: 11-7

I miss living in close proximity to Dark Tower Comics & Collectibles, a homey store that quickly puts one at ease. With their flexible hours and extensive $1 back issue selection, this was one of my favorite stores for bargain hunting on lazy Sunday afternoons. (When you have a 9-5 job Tuesday through Saturday, you  appreciate the businesses that stay open on Sunday and Monday. Many-a comic book stores and Thai restaurants have broken my heart over the years.) Since moving to another part of the city, I had not visited this store in well over a year and I was pleasantly surprised by some of their recent changes. They've done some rearranging that has given the store a more open feel. For one, they moved the counter to the back of the store. It used to be right by the entrance which was a little awkward for incoming and outgoing customers. The new layout has no aisles and instead opts for a donut shape, with delicious back issues in the middle. You'd be surprised how much of a difference a change in layout can make. It's always been a well organized store with plenty of merchandise, but now it is more inviting to browse with everything in easy view. The toys, trade paperbacks, and comic book paraphernalia take up the majority of the right side of the store, back issues are in the middle, and new issues are arranged by publisher on the left wall. The individual comics are uninterrupted along the wall which makes for efficient browsing. You won't have to go searching for the indies or guess where they keep the Vertigo books since they are all in close proximity. I came in on a Tuesday when they were making spaces for the new books for the week. Plenty of stores use card holders with the issue number and title of the book, simply for their own sanity when making spaces and keeping track of what has sold out, but the large clear print of their signage has obviously been done with the customers in mind. These signs also show the discount available for subscribers. Most stores offer "club discounts", but it is not always clearly advertised.
Yes, that is a custom Captain America statue made from motorcycle parts.
All of these observations (open all week, wide range of merchandise to browse, well organized) demonstrate why this is a good comic book store, but they don't show how this is a unique comic book store, and Dark Tower is definitely special. That all comes down to the friendly staff and the atmosphere of the store. I came in with the hopes of visiting a few more shops nearby afterwards, but my afternoon was quickly consumed by long chats with owner Mark Beatty. Everything from comics to real estate were covered in conversation. A heated debate about the merits of Step Up 3-D were discussed with another employee. Books were recommended (Locke & Key - I really need to read this), websites were suggested, and stories about the Chicago comic book community were shared. Dark Tower even hosts the recordings of Around Comics, a popular podcast featuring fans and creators alike. 
You could go here for years and not know the dogs, Koko (bottom) and Daisy (top), were quietly sleeping behind the counter.
You don't need to stay all afternoon in the store to get an idea of what Mark is like. Just looking around the store will tell you a few key things; he is a big Captain America fan; he loves his dogs so much he brings them to work with him; and he has a wide taste in comics judging by the merchandise in the store. What you will get out of those long conversations, what you can't get from visual cues, is a genuine reciprocality of interest. Mark wanted to know more about the project, as most store owners do once I mention it, but he also wanted to know what I was reading, what I thought about Ultimate Captain America #1, if I liked the new layout of the store. Most store owners are chatty people, but Mark is a conversationalist. He is willing to give you the time you offer in return, and that is rare. It's not like the guy doesn't work, you just don't get the feeling that you are taking up his precious little time. You can certainly pick up your books at Dark Tower and be on your way, too, but chances are you'll be compelled to stick around a little longer than you planned.
Mark has a lot of his Captain America original artwork displayed behind the counter; seen above is a Jeffrey Brown re-imagining of Captain America #1
The stereotype of "Comic Book Guy" is still fresh in popular culture's memory, and it's something that many fans and store owners alike would rather forget. There are still a few stodgy know-it-all proprietors out there (I think?), but going in the opposite direction isn't much better either. I'm talking about employees that barely take notice of your existence. They ring up your books as if they were candy bars and soda at 7/11. They could care less about comics or they could have impressively extensive knowledge of your favorite titles and you wouldn't know either way because your conversations have never gone beyond "Cash or Credit?". Perhaps in our desire to distance ourselves from stereotypes, we as fans, customers, and store employees have become reluctant to "geek out", even in the most appropriate of settings. Shopping for comics in person is under-appreciated in the digital age, so it's refreshing to meet store owners like Mark that aren't afraid to get enthusiastic on various subjects. That may have seemed like an overly-long tangent, but my point is that Mark, and Dark Tower, offer the unique experience of making you feel as welcomed as your small-town store, but without the detachment that can come with big city burnout.

Now that my affection for this store has been reignited, I'll be sure to resume my Sunday back issue hunting ritual. Therefore I recommend Dark Tower Comics, especially for those of you who may need a little extra TLC from your retailers. Mark has plenty to give!
Don't just take my word for it; here's Jeffrey Brown's own glowing description of Dark Tower Comics, complete with adorable renderings of Mark (click for larger view).
Some readers have been curious about whether I ever have anything negative to say about the stores I visit; I'm not sugarcoating my views of these stores, I just have not gone to any that I don't like yet. But I'm sure I will, and when I do, I won't hesitate to say why! Just enjoy the positivity while it lasts.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Christmas 2010: An Overview

Last year saw a lot of Buffy related presents, and this year Joss Whedon continued to make my house a little happier. Not all presents were Whedonesque, but they were all awesomely nerdy. Here's a rundown of the presents that were received (and given) for Christmas and also my birthday.
1. 8 Bit Heart Ring from Aldo
This chunky pixelated ring was a self-picked present purchased from Aldo. If I happen to get into any scuffles while wearing this ring, it'll make a pretty good substitute for brass knuckles.

2. Carnivale Season 2 DVD and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Blu Ray DVD Combo
The husband really delivered this year. Now that we have finished the Angel: Complete Series DVD box set from last Christmas, we can enjoy Carnivale as well. For those who don't consider this to be a nerdy gift, keep in mind that this is the series that writer / producer Ronald D. Moore made in between his work on Star Trek: Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica. It's an overlooked Depression-era series that focuses on the lives of traveling carnies. It's a slow burn, and from what I hear the series did not get a proper finish, a la Firefly, but I'm sure I will enjoy it nonetheless. If you aren't sure how I feel about receiving Scott Pilgrim vs. The World for Christmas, just read my review.

3. Women of Marvel Tote Bag and Nintendo Boo Hat
I've used this tote bag once since Christmas and I've already been given several compliments on its awesomeness. What makes it so great is the fact that it features somewhat obscure characters, at least for those who don't regularly read comics. There's Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Woman, and Elektra. If I'm feeling especially proud of my nerdiness, I can go out wearing my Boo hat at the same time. It looks really great when worn in the snow, and it's warm, too!

4. Framed Star Trek: Next Generation Season 1 Stickers
I found these at the Graham Crackers Comics in Lincoln Park and wasn't sure how I would use them; eventually I decided they were unworthy of simply being stuck on objects like sad Trapper Keeper decorations. No, these needed to be properly displayed. And thus hand-cut mats were made and secret Christmas-gift-making commenced. The husband was very pleased.

5. Buffy Tales HC and Buffy Season 8 Motion Comic DVD Blue Ray Combo
Did I mention how great my husband is at picking gifts? He pretty much got me exactly what I wanted. The Buffy Tales HC includes Tales of the Slayers, Tales of the Vampires, and a few extra one shots. Pretty much everything that is not included in the Buffy comics proper. These are series that I normally would have ignored as unnecessary tie ins, but they are actually kind of great. Some of the creators featured in these books include Tim Sale, Gene Colan, Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson, and Leinil Yu just to name a few. It's a must read for any Buffy fan that is curious about slayer history. Continuing with the Buffy gifts, I also got the Season 8 Motion Comic. This is one item that I would not have gotten for myself but that I have been very curious about. They did not secure the original cast members for the voices (let's face it, Sarah Michelle Gellar is the William Shatner of the Buffy Universe, and she would never do this). At the end of the day, the comics, though written by Joss Whedon, were intended for comic book form and are best enjoyed that way. That doesn't mean these aren't fun to watch. I just hope they work as intended and get curious fans of the show into reading the comics.

6. Close Up!
Feel free to click on the image to see the details of all of these wonderful gifts. I'm very thankful to all of my friends and family members that got me these items. You made my Christmas and 20-something birthday all the more enjoyable.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Retail Therapy Part II: Evil Squirrel Comics

 (This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about it here!)

Location: 6928 N Glenwood Ave in Rogers Park
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Sheridan #151 and Clark #22; Nearest train is the Redline Morse stop.
Monday Closed
Tuesday - Saturday Noon til Close
Sunday Nine til Close

Evil Squirrel Comics is another shop here on the North side of Chicago, and it is one I've been curious about for several months. I work in Evanston, so everyday on my way to and from work, I see this store from the Redline. It's located just next to the train tracks, and it's nestled in between an independent theater and a greasy spoon diner. I found the area was even more charming in person than it looked from high on the L train. Across from the storefronts are large, vibrant murals that extend the length of the street and wrap around to the Morse train station. The character of the neighborhood extends to the inside of the store as well. The first thing I noticed was how pleasantly it smelled, which is unfortunately rare in the world of comics. I think they still had some holiday scented oils or candles, and festive decorations were still hung throughout the store. This gave it a very cosy feeling; that and the fact that you can see the entire store from the minute you step in the door. There are no hidden nooks, corners, or high shelves to lurk around. It's pretty much you to the register, and comics in between. Luckily the high ceilings made it feel more open than cramped. Evil Squirrel has a lot of unique aspects, most notably their shelves are not on slot wall, nor are they wire wracks. It's a very sleek setup of long metal shelves giving the space an organized and uncluttered feel. The bagged and boarded books are not separated by publishers but are instead organized alphabetically; except the indie and kids titles. Sort of a "Super Heroes" and "Everything Else" system. They even had some warnings next to titles unsuitable for children. I can imagine that would be appreciated by parents that may bring in their children to shop. My only complaint about the visually appealing display system is that the top shelf where new books happen to be kept is not exactly eye level for a person of my stature. They could easily mix the new titles in with the rest and use magnets on the metal shelves for "New This Week" signs. Then again, I have no idea what would be the average height of a comic book fan.
There store is very carefully laid out to maximize the small space, but it doesn't feel like a hole-in-the-wall.
One of the many things that pleasantly surprised me was the wide selection of back issues. For such a small store, they have used their space  economically and they have about 30 long boxes of comics sitting front and center. Not only that, but you can buy the "Superhero Back Issues" for $3 per pound. Since the average comic book only weighs a few ounces, you can really get some deals with this system. They have a pretty good mixture of old and new titles, too, so don't think it's all $.50 books. I probably would have spent more time browsing if the boxes were a little looser; some were too tight to even get a finger in. But since this project tempts me to buy a lot of things it's probably best that I avoided the bargain back issues. (When I go back to being a regular old consumer, I'll be sure to take advantage of the deals.)
My husband totally came back to buy me the Buffy Tales HC. Alas, it was already gone!
Enough of my subtle observations; I did eventually talk to the staff member working that day. He did not wish to be identified for the blog, and I can respect anyone's wishes to avoid having their picture / name posted online. I will say he was very friendly and extremely modest about his comic book knowledge. Thursday's are the store's Magic tournament nights, and he said that was more of his speciality, but all of my questions about the store and books were answered patiently and thoroughly. At one point I asked about the contents of the Buffy Tales HC and when he couldn't find the answer online he called the owner of the store himself (keep in mind that he did this before he knew I was writing a blog about the store). I considered his thoroughness above and beyond necessity, and it was definitely appreciated. Since I can't visit every store in Chicago on Wednesday, there will be plenty of shops like Evil Squirrel where I won't get to meet the owners. But this project is all about meeting the people behind the counters, and that is simply up to chance.
Our unidentified Thursday employee holds up a comic he has been enjoying.
In addition to the newer comics and back issues, they have a small selection of toys, t-shirts, and novelty items. They feel carefully selected, as if to say, "If you don't buy this, we'll still like the way it looks in the store." In other words, they don't appear to be selling items they wouldn't like themselves. That may seem like an obvious observation, but the wide selection of stores in this city allows shops to cater to specific customers instead of appealing to everyone. Continuing with the store's offerings, there are several original pieces of artwork for sale with the prices clearly displayed. This gesture must be appreciated by artists and customers alike since it can be awkward to ask. Little details like that are what make this store special. Decisions have been made for the space to be practical and visually pleasing. I appreciated the aesthetics in this small shop, but didn't feel overwhelmed by the selection. If the way Evil Squirrel looks doesn't appeal to you, then the products within may not be to your liking. But honestly, who doesn't enjoy over-sized inflatable die? Evil Squirrel earns my seal of approval, and I will definitely be returning, especially when I have a hankering for back issues and cheap diner food.

Comics Are Like, Art

The blog has been very Chicago-centric lately, but clearly this town has a lot going for it. Mark your calendars now for these current and soon to happen events!

Challengers Comics SIXTH GUN Weekend with Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt
Where: Challengers Comics in Bucktown 
When: January 14th and 15th

With all of the holiday hub-ub, I missed the first official gallery opening in December at Challenger's new art space, the Rogue's Gallery, but here's another chance to see fine art on display and also meet with the creative team behind The Sixth Gun. Did I mention this is taking place at a comic book store? Sure, stores have signings, but how often do you get to see the original artwork at the same time? The opening night even features a fancy dress reception. Social events at this store are a hot ticket, so get there early!

New Chicago Comics at the MCA featuring Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carré, Anders Nilsen, and Paul Hornschemeier
Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago 
When: January 8-30
This exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago will feature (among others) one of my favorite independent creators, Jeffrey Brown. If you are not familiar with his work, check out Incredible Change-Bots, his hilarious Transformers parody with a soon to be released sequel, Incredible Change-Bots Two coming in a few short months. Here's more info about the event:

"For the month of January, the MCA presents an exhibition of the work of four young, Chicago-based cartoonists and animators: Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carré, Paul Hornschemeier, and Anders Nilsen. In their own unique styles each of these artists expands and challenges the conventions of a visual art form for which Chicago continues to be renowned: the comic book."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Retail Therapy Part I: Third Coast Comics

Location: 6234 N Broadway in Edgewater 
Public Transit: Nearest bus is the Broadway #36; Nearest train is the Redline Granville stop.
Monday Closed
Tuesday 11:00 - 6:00
Wednesday 11:00 - 7:30
Thursday 11:00 - 7:00
Friday 11:00 - 7:00
Saturday 11:00 - 7:00
Sunday 12:00 - 6:00 

Third Coast Comics was a great place to start my comic book store project (more details here). It's a well lit, well stocked store with friendly staff. First off, I did not inform employees of the project until after I'd had a good browse around. Doing this gave me a better impression of how any customer off of the street would be treated as opposed to the girl carrying a massive camera and asking lots of questions (that comes later). I came in on a Thursday, a relatively quiet day, but several customers came and went during my walk through. You won't get a better impression of a store than by seeing how customers are treated and how they interact with the staff. One gentleman came in with his very young child, asked owner Terry to recommend a book, and purchased it without thinking twice. A few more regulars came in looking for their books on hold or special orders. In short, no one walked in without talking to Terry.

Here is owner Terry along with a few books he currently enjoys. Also shown are the Graphic Novel Reader MVP cards. It's similar to the frequent buyer cards at Dairy Queen, only you get a free graphic novel instead of a delicious Blizzard.
The store is colorfully decorated with a lot of personal touches without feeling cluttered. Click on any images in this post to view a larger version
After quietly observing for several minutes, I asked for permission to take photos and ask a couple of questions for the blog. You can see from the many pictures that I had a lot of fun showing off this store. They use a rather unique system for displaying their books, and it threw me off at first. Most stores stick to a pretty predictable filing system. Marvel, DC, everything else. Alphabetized. Trades. Not Third Coast Comics. You may have to ask to find certain books, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Like books are next to like books. Event titles are in one section, X-books are in another. Women who kick ass are in one section while Supes and Spidey share shelves. When asked what brings folks into the store, the first things Terry pointed out were the variety of titles and the store's aim to meet customer's specific wants and needs. If a customer wants Noir, there's a whole section for it. If they like local artists, there's a section for that, too. The "if you like this, try this" wall pretty well sums up the store. Another interesting point that Terry made was that about 48% of their regular customers are female (regular being readers with subscriptions). That's rather impressive considering the average number of female readers hovers around 20%. Having girls come in regularly says a lot about a store's atmosphere. You'd be surprised by how many establishments can still make you feel like a three-eyed freak if you happen to be a female comic book fan. Especially if you are looking for The Boys vol. 3. I'm sure it helps that a sizable portion of the store's employees are also female, as evidenced by their store recommendation section.
Jeffrey Brown x-mas cards? Yes please
As for the rest of Third Coast's offerings, there were a few kitschy items like Captain America shot-glasses, and Star Wars chop sticks (items I would totally purchase). But for the most part, this is definitely a store about the books. You'll have to special order your Batman statues and Marvel Select toys. As Terry pointed out, space is limited and they want to keep the focus on the comics. Even with the limited selection of novelty items, there was more than enough to browse. Girl size t-shirts! Love it.
A few examples of the store's unique signage.
Limited space does mean limited back issues
Finding things to complain about this store is a lot like that bullshit question in job interviews where you are asked to state your biggest weaknesses. You'll most likely get a bullshit answer, and the same is true here. They only carry Scalped in trade form? That's all I've got. This store has many regular events from an arts night (I love combining crafting and comics!) to a sci-fi book club. There are also signings at the store from time to time, and Terry hopes to schedule one for January. In other words, there are more than plenty of reasons to come out to this store during the cold winter months. Consider Third Coast Comics enthusiastically recommended!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Retail Therapy: Chicago Comic Book Stores

January tends to be a very slow time for retailers, and this year comic book publishers are attempting to give readers extra reasons to brave the cold and visit their local stores. The much talked about price cuts from DC will be going into effect this January, along with the Point 1 initiative from Marvel (cheaper intro books intended to attract new readers to low-number flagship titles), but many have noticed that there will be less books coming out in January and February than in past months, particularly from the largest publisher, Marvel. Less books = less incentive to come in. Those pull boxes tend to fill up during the winter months while readers wait, often for weeks at a time between visits to purchase their books. Post-holiday months have historically been leaner, but with so many record low sales for several months this year (at least three consecutive months failed to see a single book cross the 100,000 mark), there won't be much of a nest egg to cover operating costs. Particularly pessimistic individuals fear that some stores won't survive the winter.

I'm not quite so convinced things will be any worse this year than they have been the past two years, but then again I am not working behind the counter any more. I do know my buying habits, and budget wise there isn't much in the way of spending money to go around in January. But see, this here blog o' mine may be small in readership but it does attract some attention from time to time. I may not be able to buy much these coming months, but I can shed a little light on stores that are (and are not) worth visiting during the cold winter. My very possibly insane plan for the upcoming months is to visit every single comic book store here in Chicago. There will be a few guidelines for stores that qualify for a visit. They have to be within city limits, they have to carry new comic books as their primary product, and even if I have visited the store in the past I will be making a visit to them again in order to spotlight them in this series. I also don't have a specific end date for the project so that I may be as thorough as possible. I'd hate for the last stores to get shorter right ups because of a deadline. It is very likely this will continue into the spring.

So much of our reading experience comes from the stores we visit; if this isn't the case for you, it may be time to start making those weekly visits again. The conversations, the recommendations, just seeing what is on the shelves that you didn't plan to read but may browse; those are all the reasons one needs to rug up and brave Chicago winter to visit their store, not some event book or gimmick. The comic book industry is unique because the retail outlets are run by knowledgeable individuals with the same passion for the product as their customers. This is not a guarantee for most shopping experiences, where you'll most likely encounter under-paid, over-worked bitter individuals who (to quote my grandmother) "couldn't find their ass with their own two hands". I may still meet similar individuals manning the registers at a few comic book stores (and I will mention it when I do), but they will at least still have a passion and knowledge of the books. For store employees that don't wish to share these assets, I won't judge them for it, but I may be a little harsher critic of what they have for sale in the store. If we don't stay for the people, we gotta have something to keep us coming back!

Stay tuned as I will begin this adventure through Chicago comic book retail with a trip to Third Coast Comics!
Third Coast Comics is located pretty close to my house in Edgewater, hence they are first on the list!
As I continue with the project I will update links on this post.
Part I: Third Coast Comics
Part II: Evil Squirrel Comics
Part III: Dark Tower Comics and Collectibles
Part IV: Variety Comics
Part V: Chicago Comics 
Part VI: G-Mart Comic Books
Part VII: Challengers Comics + Conversation

And here is a google map showing the locations of all of the stores as I visit them:

View Comic Book Candy's Retail Therapy in a larger map

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cliche Beginning of Year Post

Here we are, another year older, wiser, and with lighter pockets. Twenty-ten brought a lot of changes to the industry, and this year will surely be remembered as a turning point. All major publishers are now offering an outlet for digital comics, and the growing popularity of the iPad and other digital tablets is a game changer with results yet to be seen. Many months posted lower direct market sales than last year, proving that no industry is recession proof, and that giant crossover events do help individual issue sales after all. Without Blackest Night to make many DC titles “must reads”, sales have slumped, a theory that I myself support considering I dropped all tie in books upon the crossover’s end. The return of Bruce Wayne hasn’t resulted in any shake-ups either, in stories or sales. (It might’ve helped DC if readers did not see this predictable non-event coming). Despite gimmick after gimmick (the new and vague Heroic Age, enough Deadpool titles to rival the X-books, vampire stories in not one but two Marvel titles), readers failed to embrace any series en-masse in the Marvel section. I have a hard time thinking of one “hot book” with sizable appeal this year from either of the big two. What do come to mind are many well written, standout individual issues, comics that will stick with me longer than your usual flash-in-the-pan hit. Publishers may be sweating over year-end sales figures, but I consider myself a very satisfied customer. If you found yourself feeling under-whelmed by the offerings this year, get out there and hunt these issues down. They will restore your faith in individual issues! And in no particular order....

Hellboy in Mexico
Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Richard Corben
Publisher: Dark Horse

This series has been consistently outstanding for the past two years, so when an issue stands out as one of the best amongst them, it's worth higher praise than usual. That being said, this may be my favorite individual issue of the year.  Mignola has struck a fine balance between telling stories that are enjoyable to long time fans and newer ones like myself. Every issue feels like a revelation, but without the use of cliched writing devices like plot twists or melodrama. It's just plain good storytelling. Hellboy in Mexico is a story within a story; while Abe Sapien and Hellboy are stranded in Mexico after a  B.P.R.D. mission, they come across a memorial covered in photos of Mexican wrestlers - with Hellboy standing shoulder to shoulder with them. He tells Abe of that first trip to Mexico in '56, and it's a heartbreaking tale of sacrifice that reveals as much about the character of Hellboy as you could get from years of reading his stories. On an interesting side note, the story shares many similarities with an episode of Angel in Season 5 called "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco". I'm sure it is strictly coincidental, but what are the odds that there would be two great stories in popular culture about Mexican wrestler brothers fighting vampires?

The Man With The Getaway Face
Writer & Artist: Darwyn Cooke
Publisher: IDW

You won't find a better deal in 2010 than this single issue preview of Parker: The Outfit. At $2.00, it's hard to believe that this lush, over-sized comic could make publisher IDW any profit. How can such a fantastic, ad-free issue possibly be produced for half the cover cost of one issue of Dark Avengers? Even though the content of this was later published in Parker: The Outfit, it is still worth owning just for the larger-than-golden-age size artwork. It takes Cooke's chic two-tone illustration from eye candy to work of art.

Black Widow #5
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Daniel Acuna
Publisher: Marvel

This final issue from creative team Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna concludes the well crafted mystery-tinged espionage tale "The Name of the Rose". Natasha has been secretly storing intel on the Avengers as a just-in-case-one-of-them-goes-evil scenario. But when an unknown enemy reveals this to the U.S. government, authorities who still question Natasha's loyalties turn her into a fugitive as she hunts for her adversary. What makes this issue one of the best this year can be summed up in a few short words: Brain. As. Weapon.

Officer Downe
Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Chris Burnham
Publisher: Dark Horse

Any book that begins by setting the location as "Motherfucking L.A." is guaranteed to be a bad-ass read. In this one shot we are introduced to Officer Downe, a takes-no-prisoners man of the law, as he fights his one man war against the  crime bosses of L.A. Only he isn't just one man. He's one man continually regenerated after each increasingly gruesome death that is brought upon him by ninjas, drug dealers, and other various psychotics. There's enough blood and guts in this book to make Paul Verhoeven proud. I'm not sure who is more diabolical: Joe Casey for writing it, or Chris Burnham for bringing this story to life. Let's hope we'll see more from the team's twisted minds in the future.

Click to see larger!
House of Mystery #27
Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artist(s): Luca Rossi and Brendan McCarthy
Publisher: Vertigo

Several issues of House of Mystery brought the lol's this past year, but issue #27 definitely tops the list for most memorable. The main story revolves around a war between witches, troll allies, and killer robots (enjoyable to just about anyone, but that part may be a bit involved for those who are new to the book). However, this title is very accessible to new readers because there are almost always self-contained stories told within each issue. "Long Strange Trip", the short story of this issue, is a standout moment for the series. A time traveling guide to our main characters explains how he first learned of the mystic arts during an acid trip in Vietnam that seemingly lasts for years. It's only a few pages long, but it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the book's humor. This under-the-radar title definitely deserves more attention, and this story is a prime example of why it is worth reading.

Scalped #35, #36, #42
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist(s): Danijel Zezelj (35), Davide Furno (36), R.M. Guera (42)

Oh, Scalped 42. You're so fun!

I probably could have saved myself the trouble and said, "Every issue this past year from Scalped" and had 12 fantastic books for you to read, but for variety's sake I have only included the three best issues from Jason Aaron and company for this list. And trust me, it was tough to narrow it down to just three. #35 is a standalone issue about an elderly couple who despite living far off of the reservation still can't escape the hardships that face their downtrodden people. Their unspoken anxiety is beautifully portrayed by Jason Aaron's frequent use of inner dialogue within the same panels. #36 is the first of a two part story about Shunka, a closeted gay hitman working for Chief Red Crow. It is a deliciously Noir tale that takes us off the reservation; even the male love interest is a perfect femme fatale. The subject of homosexuality in Native American culture was obviously researched for the story, another example of Aaron's meticulous storytelling. Lastly, issue #42 concludes the "Unwanted" storyline as two of our main characters face some very tough decisions that parallel the struggles of their parents. It begins with a heartbreaking "what if" scenario that is so hard to read because you know that no one in Scalped is ever that happy, even though they could be.

A scene from Scalped 35 that you should click to see larger!

That concludes my "Best of" list for 2010. I know that these things traditionally go up before the next year, but I thought I'd shake things up and do it a little differently this new year's. Actually, the whole blogging-without-the-internet situation is coming to a head. But that will hopefully be changing in the near future, so stick around, loyal readers....