Jennie Michalski – Teacher, Gamer, Female
It was either dice or heroin, really. Luckily, none of us were cool enough at a formative age to know where to buy drugs. Ron bought a snack baggie full of oregano one time. So, the pen-and-paper thing was our habit, you know? You keep doing it because you keep doing it. And, yeah, I like being with the guys and having fun with them. We’re all friends. They’re my person, or whatever.
I do it for the camaraderie. I think we all do. God, nobody likes it for the spreadsheets and the math, right?
Well, nobody except Martin, right?
When last we left our brave adventurers, Ron had been defeated by Samantha Case. Sam was that most dangerous of all creatures – the Ex – and Ron was powerless against her. Or so his friends thought, and Ron did little to disabuse them of that thought. Instead, he lived with Dreiser, who had been his best friend since the fifth grade; he spent more time with his friends gaming, watching movies, hanging out. They rallied around him protectively – Matt, Jennie, Dreiser, Cory and even weird Justin.
Once, when nobody else was in earshot, Matt admitted it was good to have Ron back.
Three months passed like that.
Ron’s life was good. Sometimes, he felt infused, revivified, unyoked from Samantha’s leaden weight. Most of the time, though, Ron was haunted by a simple truth:
“Being single sucks.”
Transformers: The Movie was on and the love triangle between Arcee, Springer and Hot Rod was the trigger for this particular instance of this particular conversation.
Across the room, perched on the Swopper chair at his desk, Dreiser just kind of looks at his friend for a beat and mumbles something. Whatever it is that Dreiser said, it sounds like “Hunh.” He pushes his pencil into the electric sharpener, inspects the newly-sharpened point and returns to plotting out Thursday night’s encounters. The party was pursuing the ghost of Nicodamion’s son from the future and giant iron golems with trebuchet arms were the latest obstacles in their path.
Dreiser always said “Hunh.” It was his inscrutable catchall reaction. For a week after seeing Watchmen, he said “Hurm” instead, but it got old really quickly and he didn’t stop until Jennie monologued about Rohrschach’s myriad terrible qualities. Everyone was thankful.
“The thing I hate about the new edition,” Dreiser says, completely ignoring his roommate’s angst in favor of a bracing discourse on the mechanics of pen and paper role-playing games, “is that it’s like the Michael Bay version of the game. Level one and you can make things explode. They should just let the rangers drive Humvees through Cuban shanty towns as a daily power. I mean, where’s the challenge when you’re awesome from the start?”
The New Edition had been out for about a month, and Martin had not just read it, he had absorbed it as if he were in utero and he and the game were ill-fated twins. He’d downloaded scans of the leaked pre-press galleys, bought the hardcovers, and then got a legitimate .PDF download. He said the latter was to account for any errata between the two digital copies. People talk about how piracy is bad for sales, but those people don’t know anybody like Martin Dreiser: like most gamers, Dreiser is a completist, and completists will pay twice for everything they steal.
Sometime after his eightieth readthrough of The New Rules, Martin pronounced to his troupe of gamers that they (the rules) were horrible and wrong and that he (Martin) hated them (the rules and possibly the troupe of gamers as well). He’d been running their weekly game using the new system for about two weeks by then, and all of the characters had been converted over under Martin’s dungeonmastery eye. Dreiser’s first impulse was to restart the game using The Old Edition, but Jennie really liked the new rules. Martin (and Justin, too, but he wasn’t running the game and had few friends among the group, rendering him almost totally unimportant) really liked Jennie – was in love with her, in fact – so he swallowed his pride and kept slogging through the “unbalanced, unplaytested, unbearable mess” that his most beloved role-playing game had become.
A little annoyed at the preemption of his sulk, Ron leapt into the discussion, ready for bloodshed. “I think it evens the playing field for everybody.” Ron was accustomed to letting Dreiser be right most of the time – it went easier on everyone – but Ron’s ire was up and, besides, he really did like the New Edition rules.
Pushing up his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and theatrically throwing his hands up, Dreiser looked at his newly-defiant roommate, eyes wide with exasperation. “Ron, no offense, but you are exactly the gamer this panders to. You’re Mr. I’ll Solve Every Problem With Evocations And/Or Swords.”
“Hey,” Ron countered, “I’ve played a cleric before. Remember? Barten Dwor?”
Martin sighed the way that some people punched. “Barten Dwor was a Sword Cleric. And Matt still sulks about how Hodo Houndstrider died because you were too busy attacking the mother frostagor to heal him.”
Unmoved from his perch on the couch, Ron smirked and gave his friend the finger.
And then Dreiser was back at work, scrivening out hit points and armor classes.
Robots were fighting on the television, Stan Bush crooning in the background either that you could in if you dared or confirming that you have got both the touch and the power. Bored after six minutes, Ron cast his glance back at Martin. Martin was the same Martin he met when they were ten; it was comforting. No matter what happened, Martin was wrapped up in his lists and tables and his plans, God help him. He really was, Ron thought, the only one of them who played for the math.
Dreiser was inscrutable, but Ron saw something in the diligence of his pencil on the graph paper that signaled…irritation? Matt joked that Dreiser didn’t feel, but Ron knew better than that. Martin simply tried very hard to keep others from noticing.
“Dreiser, making everybody formidable from the get-go isn’t bad. Look at how useful mages are now. You really prefer casting your one spell for the day and then cowering behind some meat shield of a warrior with a two-handed axe? Everybody should have something to do every round.”
Martin rests the pencil in the crease of the pages and looks up, waken from his reverie of treasure tables and dungeon maps. He is not inscrutable in this moment. “That’s not how the world works,” he says, and then meanders into the kitchen. Ron listens for three, four, five minutes and hears nothing.
It is not how the world works, it’s true. Which was one of the reasons Ron role-played – to have a few hours of not being subject to the real world. Martin Dreiser, on the other hand, is never not a stickler for authenticity.
As Ron sits on the edge of the couch, the ‘best friend’ impulse to succor combats the ‘bro’ impulse to avoid feelings. He is still in detente when the refrigerator opens, followed by the clinking glass sound that means beer retrieval. Then Martin drops onto the far end of the couch and smiles, the subject forgotten. “What’s on Deadliest Warrior tonight?”
“Saxon Vs. Mecha-Saxon.”
“You know, I’m not quite sure if you’re joking.”
Ron and Martin spent the rest of the night like that – quips and questionable programming. Ron made fresh popcorn and they talked about comics, about epic fantasy novels, about baseball and, of course, about the game. Martin even made a few snarky comments about Justin, his rival for Jennie’s affections within their clique of gamers. Unfortunately, with the very brief exception of Ron, who held hands with Jennie for two weeks in the eighth grade, she only dated outside her little circle of friends. Meanwhile, Martin has liked her as long as he has been aware of girls. For the two weeks that Jennie and Ron were a couple, he refused to talk to either of them. At the height of the animosity, he wrote “Judas” in pen on Ron’s character sheet on the line where his Class should have gone (a barbarian who went by the name of Varshak Cleaveskull). “Ask her out,” Ron tells him. Ron tells him this every day. Every day, Martin shrugs and mutters something about how it’s a conflict of interest because he’s the game master.
‘Meddling fool!” Nicodamion snarled. Limned with arcane lightning, his fingers tracing the sigils of the Infernus Charm in the air before him. “You will not keep the Eye of Thaumastor from me!” Spittle flew from his upper lip, dewing in his scraggly necromancer beard.
Cannick Candlecrown somersaulted clear of the wizard’s fiery blast. He was scuffed, bruised and slightly disoriented, but not seriously harmed. Rex, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well; he was blown into the palace courtyard’s far wall by the explosion, collapsing in a heap of clockwork, broken brick and dust. Though Rex looked like a gnome – mostly – he was an automaton, and his gears whirred and clicked as he attempted to regain his feet.
“CANNICK,” the gnomebot intoned, “REQUEST: AFFECT DEFEAT STRATEGY. SUBJECT: EVIL WIZARD NICODAMION THE NIGHTWISHER.”
Crouched behind a bronze statue of a rampant hippocorn, Cannick assessed the situation. Mere, the warrior, was down. Axel the dwarf was hunched over Mere’s unconscious, armored bulk, trying to get him back on his fumbling feet. Nathalie and Drasus were engaged with the wizard’s bugbear henchmen and Rex…well, Rex was typically useless anyway. It was risky, but there was no other way. Cannick had to defeat the Nightwisher singlehandedly. He hated wizards.
Muttering a quick spell to invoke his own wizardly gifts and smirking at his own hypocrisy, the mage/thief rolled between the hippocorn statue’s legs and sprung forward at the enemy caster. He was counting on winning the opposed Bluff roll, which would give him a tactical advantage that made it easier to hit his intended mark and to also deal bonus damage. The pale blue fire of his enchantment danced up the blades of his twin mastercraft longswords as he drove the +3 weapons, which were gifted to him by the master of his old Thieves’ Guild (an organization that Cannick now opposed in the wake of his alignment change), in for the kill with a wicked SLAM.
STOMP. STOMP. STOMP.
We all looked up from the table.
The noise was the heavy, deliberate tread of someone descending the stairs into Dreiser’s basement. I knew who it was. Looking around the table, I saw that everyone else knew it too. Corey mouthed, “Something wicked this way comes” as we made eye contact. Dreiser made himself busy, scribbling notes behind his Dungeon Master screen. Jennie made herself small, her body trying to will itself into inconspicuousness. Ron just kept looking at Cannick’s character sheet, d20 held firmly in his right hand, ready to throw the die just before the interruption. The tension in the room was half concern for Ron, half concern that the week’s game session had just been ruined. At least, that’s what I was feeling. He just keep looking at Cannick’s sheet, at Dreiser’s hand-drawn maps, at the initiative chart Corey had jotted down for reference. Looking up acknowledged that something was wrong. Looking up gave her the win.
The footsteps stopped. She was here now. Five and a half feet of torment, dressed in Forever 21 and a permanent scowl that could kill the Nightwisher for us. Sam.
Dreiser dared to peek up from behind his screen, proffering a weak wave. “Hi, Samantha.” Sam, thin-lipped, spat out “Martin” as if it were a gypsy curse, then leveled her glare at Ron. “We need to talk. Now.”
“We need to talk,” is the last cigarette of male-female relationships. It always comes about a month too late for actual talking to do any good. It meant, “I’m about to destroy you verbally, but let’s call it a talk so you can save a little face.” I’m married, so maybe I’m not qualified to talk about failed relationships. But they didn’t all work out, right? I know a little something about this maybe.
There’s a pause. The air’s got weight to it. We were all not looking at Samantha so hard that it’s like we were staring straight at her. She cleared her throat.
This is how much of a bitch Sam is. She can’t even wait until this encounter is over before dumping our striker.
Wordless, Ron pushed his chair back, stood and let the die fly onto the table with an air of forced nonchalance, like being called out in the middle of ‘guys’ night out’ by his fiance was not a huge deal. He was already heading up the stairs – the plodding gait that shouted “Dead man walking!”- when the d20 stopped spinning, the ’20’ face up.
A critical hit.
While Sam was outside eviscerating Ron, Cannick Candlecrown was doing the same to the Nightwisher, his enchanted blades driving into the ancient wizard’s gut, the last vestiges of his unnatural life spilling out onto the base of the bright metallic hippocorn in front of him.
Justin, who we all just ignored a lot of the time, let out a whoop. Which might have been the second most awkward moment of the evening. A few minutes passed in silence and a round of anxious glances. Dreiser and Jennie and I were the ones who’d known Ron longest – we’d picked up Justin up in college and Corey less than six months ago when he moved here from Brooklyn. The two of them looked at us for guidance on what to do next. I looked at Dreiser because Martin was Ron’s best friend. Dreiser looked at Jennie because she was the only person in the room smarter than he was and also the only one who might know Ron better than he did.
I was fed up with inaction, so I said, “Axel uses his Axe of Severing to behead the wizard’s corpse.” That thing I said about me knowing things? Disregard that.
Jennie smacked me in the back of the head and stage whispered, “Shut up, Matt.” Dreiser made more notes.
Ron came back fifteen minutes later. Having decided to roll for treasure next week, we were packing up for the night when the basement door opened again. He looked drained, like he’d just fought a ghoul. The opening was there for us to ask him how he was, but we weren’t the kind of friends you talked about your feelings with. We were the guys.
Justin explained the outcome of the fight to Ron, who seemed completely detached from the whole thing. Justin high-fived him and Ron put on a fake smile and doled out the customary hand slaps and respect knuckles that came with the defeat of a major antagonist. We could pretend all was right with the world.
(Click to download. Or click here.)
1. Merry Christmas, Batman! – Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy
2. Charlie Brown Cut-Up – Colossus
3. Last Month of the Year – Blind Boys of Alabama
4. Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects – Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
5. Santa Came on a Nuclear Missile – Unknown
6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love
7. Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy – David Bowie and Bing Crosby
8. Father Christmas – The Kinks
9. Winter Wonderland – Booker T and the MGs
10. Ralphie… Melinda Dillon
11. Hot Christmas – Squirrel Nut Zippers
12. St. Stephen’s Day Murders – Elvis Costello and the Chieftains
13. Mr. Heatmiser – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
14. The Christmas Song – The Raveonettes
15. Why Do We Have to Have a Holiday Season? – Charlie Brown
16. Last Christmas – Florence + the Machine
17. Merry Christmas Baby – Otis Redding
18. What Christmas Means to Me – Stevie Wonder
19. Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! – Sufjan Stevens
20. Step Into Christmas – Elton John
21. I Wish it Was Christmas Today – Julian Casablancas
There was a natural meadow between Camp Lavery’s arts and crafts hut and the old staff campsite. Full of high, thick grass and wild plants and brush, it was rough ground that didn’t reward an offensive surge over it, and that was why Wayne chose it as the field for the closing battle of the war.
Absentmindedly, he mused that it might also be the final battle of the Battle Country, too. Among his ranks, murmurs about the death of the game were spreading and some players were even researching where they were going to play next season. Katie, the de facto leader of the Arbor Elves, was so mortified by her kidnapping that she and her tribe of wannabe-Wiccan followers were in the midst of designing their own game, splintering away from Darren’s game and wicking off another rivulet of players with them.
Terra Elva, Katie was calling it. In a stroke of either sheer onanism or marketing genius, all of the player characters would be one of several varieties of elf. According to one of the young dark elf players, there would be wood elves and mystic elves and steel elves and dark elves and water elves and frost elves and fire elves and rock elves and at least four other types of elves. Terra Elva, according to Fat Chris, sounded like “a complete shitshow,” but Wayne knew it would last at least a few seasons. Hell, he thought, it could even thrive under the right circumstances.
Seven Skulls orcs, dwarves, dark elves and gnomes stood in ranks across the meadow. Behind Wayne’s army, the camp truck sat, a working catapult erected in the bed. A team of engineers had built the thing with hand tools, expert knotwork and lots of duct tape. The catapult would launch massive foam balls wrapped in thick, double-sided tape. The missiles would, in theory, stick to whoever they struck and serve as an annoying distraction from their charge; they were a gnomish innovation.
Wayne felt a bit of a pang. Not guilt, not really, but nostalgia maybe. If Battle Country was doomed, he was sad that it was his hand that doomed it. That was never his intention, just sowing chaos and trying to change the game up. Just to have some damn fun again.
That the game wasn’t fun anymore was exactly why Darren had convinced Wayne and the rest of them to leave Ioun and start their own game.
“It’s just politics,” he told them, as they drove Darren’s mother’s minivan back from an Ioun weekend. “The nepotism is really starting to get obvious – it’s all the same clique becoming staff and they reward their friends with everything.”
“We have to drive two hours just to get there,” said Tom Courts in the back seat. Wayne and Darren had met Courts in “Survey of the Renaissance” during freshman year, and he got an invite to weekly D&D and, soonafter, to LARP weekends, and he was quickly becoming one of the guys, taking Jimmy Yeung’s spot now that Jimmy was at Princeton. “Seriously, we can’t just come down here to hang out all the time just to curry favors.”
“I would be okay with just nothing but one big battle all weekend, honestly,” Wayne piped up. He sat shotgun with Darren and was engrossed in the important task of keeping the music going. He was going through a hefty pleather folio, looking for Darren’s road trip mix from that summer.
That was where the name came from.
Every LARP that Wayne had ever played, seen or heard of was the byproduct of infighting or outright collapse at some other LARP somewhere else, as though LARPers were whirlygigging seed pods, sprouting up new pool-noodle swords and handmade costumes where they landed. If so, how did the first live-action game start? It seemed that each LARP was a literal child of divorce, with all the dysfunction that came with it.
At any minute, Darren and what was left of his loyalists would march on them and attack. They would walk straight into an ambush: while they were being harried with arrow and catapult fire, Aldomar’s wizards would come in from cover and cast a devastating combination of spells that would debilitate and kill the enemy as well as making it more difficult for them to come back to life.
But if the Seven Skulls did kill off the staff’s characters and the in-game government, what next? The staff was still the staff and they still called the shots. Wayne had no plan to replace what he was tearing down, and he was acutely aware of that as he stood at the head of his army.
Behind Wayne, Chris and Aaron, in full makeup and costume, worked the ranks of revolutionaries, stirring them into a frenzy. The crisp air was alive with shouts and chanting.
The chants and shouts died out, though, as the sound of drumming and singing grew. Coming down the wide path, with The Count’s golf cart at the head, the Hawk riding on the back, one arm hanging onto the roof while the other waved the Battle Country’s flag, the loyalists’ diminished numbers marched in lock step, their voices raised in hastily improvised battle hymns.
It was eleven o’clock Sunday morning; while the world slept, brunched and clipped coupons, the fate of a world hinged on an unseen, imaginary war.
Without preamble, the Country Guard charged across the meadow. One of the charging guards was knocked onto his back by the impact of a catapult strike. The gnomes scrambled onto the camp truck, resetting the slapdash siege engine and loading another foam bullet.
Worked up into a frenzy, Aaron roared as he led a half-dozen insurgents in a premature counter-charge, oblivious to the plan in the heat of battle. Wayne saw Aldomar leading his spellcasters in front the left flank, ready to unleash hell. They paid no heed to the small band of orcs and dark elves.
Another shot from the catapult took down a member of the Hawk’s detachment just as they came into melee with Sniksnak’s party. The teenager and the guardsman clashed – FWAP! FWAP! FWAP! as foam and tape met foam and tape. The Hawk swung a devastating roundhouse blow with his two-handed sword; Aaron struggled to parry the blow, catching the blade on the crux of his crossed swords. With a sneer of frustration, the guard captain delivered a knee to the orc rogue’s solar plexus.
Aaron doubled over with a shout; the loyalists advanced over him carelessly.
Aldo was nearly in position and the front ranks of the charge were almost out of spell range.
From behind Wayne, Fat Chris ran forward, snarling in rage. With a whirlwind blow, he knocked the sword free of the Hawk’s hands and dropped his massive axe and punched the Hawk in the face. Blood fanned out, spattering Chris’s tunic and those closest to the melee heard the crunch of the guard’s breaking nose. With a squeal, he dropped to the ground. Chris lumbered over to Aaron’s side, shoving aside a gargoyle who was about to trample him.
Aldomar raised his arms to give the signal to his mages. Wayne stared on, watching helplessly as his lieutenants – who was he kidding, his friends – were caught in the line of fire. This was, he thought again, supposed to be fun, right?
Above the din of the fight, Wayne’s voice bellowed out “HOLD!” and, instantly, the war paused.
Aaron had a sprained wrist to match the Hawk’s broken nose. Nobody knew just who trampled him. Under other circumstances, there might have been finger-pointing, and maybe there still would be; the immediate concern, though, was getting first aid for the wounded combatants and getting them to an emergency room. A couple of players who were also Scouts took charge as soon as the hold was called. As they worked, Wayne sat on the ground next to a bruised and crying Aaron, holding his good hand while his wrist was splinted. His green orc makeup was streaked from tears and sweat and marred by sneaker treads in places. Wayne apologized five times.
Across the camp, in an abandoned campsite, the dark elf guards untied their prisoners and released them on the orc chieftain’s orders.
Play did not resume.
As Wayne watched Chris drive the Hawk – Steve, he finally remembered – and Aaron out to civilization, Darren approached him quietly. He was in his street clothes, a frame backpack slung over his slight shoulders containing his costume and gear. He looked exhausted.
“The orcs,” he said to break the silence, “are getting a seat on the Council. I just talked it over with Tom Courts and the rest of them.”
Without turning to face him, Wayne replied, “That’s surprising, actually. It should go to Chris. He’s a good guy.”
“I was hoping it would be you, man.”
Wayne turned, glanced at his friend, looked at the ground beyond them. Looked at the volleyball court where his rebellion began earlier that weekend. “Darren, I nearly ruined your game.”
Darren reached out toward him, but Wayne cut him off.
“No, dude. I know what you’re gonna say, and it’s not the way you think it is. This wasn’t about ideals or principles or equity. That was convenient after the fact. It got the right people on my side. I just wanted to stir some shit up, exert some force. And it got people hurt. I need to do some thinking about that.”
“Maybe so, but you didn’t do it all by yourself. Those tensions were there. We were being too cliquey. We were playing favorites, marginalizing people the way we hated being marginalized at the old game. You acted out because you were frustrated. I get it; everybody gets it. The problem, you know, with any collective is that everybody is ostensibly equal, but someone has to be the guy who takes out the trash. Not everybody gets to be the king; someone has to be the peasant, you know?
Wayne dared a knowing grin. “The peasant problem, yeah. I’ve heard it before. So…I’m not being kicked out?”
Darren chuckled. “Not yet. But we’ve lost our Arbor Elf playerbase, so we might need you to switch characters for awhile.”
“Okay, so you just hate me.”
Darren sighed. “Wayne, I don’t. You’ve stuck by me since we were kids. This? This isn’t real.”
It wasn’t real. Wayne knew that, but there were times when you could almost suspend disbelief and forget it.
Wayne stuck out his hand; Darren grabbed it, and his more rotund friend pulled him into an awkward, bromance-y hug.
“I’m glad you don’t hate me,” Wayne confided. “You’re my ride home.”
[This essay originally appeared in the second issue of Grok, the Alert Nerd ‘zine. You can follow along in Google Maps here.]
“He wanted to be a grown-up, not
ridiculous, and he did not realize you could be
both at the same time, and oftentimes are.”
– Peter David, Tigerheart
So I’ve caught myself reminiscing about the geography of my youth – the wheres that I grew up in. Sixty days shy of 30 – the demarcation line – reminiscing seems to be the thing to do. I mean, 30 is old to begin with, but in geek years, it’s practically incalculable. At least, that’s what I’m told.
Which leads me here. Testing the Thomas Wolfe Theory, I toured the arcades, comic shops and gaming haunts of my youth,
comparing them to what was, seeing how they’ve grown and hoping they’ll tell me a bit about how I’ve grown.
By all estimations, it’s a life misspent from a very young age.
The General Hospital Hospitality Shoppe no longer sells comic books; it’s where I got my first, a Frank Miller issue of Daredevil with Stilt-Man and Heather Glenn. I was 4 years old, and though I was an early reader, I didn’t understand much of what was going on except that Stilt-Man was the best villain and that Daredevil may have been the most awesome hero, even more awesome than Batman. I didn’t know who Wolverine was.
The book was 60 cents, a miscalculated bribe on my grandmother’s part – it was supposed to keep me quiet. She was pulling double duty, watching me and her husband, and neither of us made it easy on her.
Today, the prominent features of the shop are the BOGO sale on WebKinz, the expansive selection of Vera Bradley bags, and the portmanteau smell of cafeteria food that wafts into the Shoppe. There are magazines and crossword digests, even the odd coloring book, but the magazine rack full of comics isn’t in the store any longer.
From my gram’s house, Koronkiewicz’s Pharmacy was two blocks’ walk, and when she’d fill prescriptions, I’d tag along and usually have scraped together enough change to buy at least one book – 65 cents now – from the spinner racks. Haphazardly restocked and
guaranteed to be ransacked by older kids before I could manage to make it in, I wasn’t left with much – random issues of Star Wars, Uncanny X-Men and Dreadstar I somehow managed to rescue from that period are a testament to my blithe unawareness of issue-to-
issue continuity. I didn’t know what Secret Wars was, but the editors’ boxes talked about it a lot. Wolverine was a jerk.
Today, the pharmacy is a law office. The spinner racks are gone.
Around age 6, I found my first real comic shop within walking distance of school. Gema Books (so named for the married ex-hippie owners Gene and Mary) was the kind of comic shop that makes people not want to go to comic shops. Gema was a haphazard, poorly-lit holein- the-wall with an aloof staff, a layout that borders on the archaeological, and no discernable community attached to it aside from insular cliques of what we now know in this enlightened age as trolls and fanboys. For years, it was the shop of record in Northeast PA.
The store, such as it was, was cramped as hell. Back issue bins, new release shelves and spinner racks all struggled for real estate in the front half of the shop, while the toys and statues, the cash register, New Age books and baubles and the thinly-camouflaged adult section consumed the back half. As a little kid, I found it difficult and exhilarating to navigate, looking for hidden gems and secret history in exactly the same way that an older me would one day pore over marginalia, journals and letters from writers who were “better,” but never more important than the ones on display in that little labyrinthine comic shop. I discovered the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe here, and was absolutely certain that the final issue was going to reveal all of Wolverine’s shadowy past to me (Wolverine, by this time, was awesome – definitely more awesome than Batman and Daredevil combined; he had claws). I count it as my first great Wolverine-related disappointment in life (to be followed by many, many more – including, some 15 years later, Paul Jenkins’ Origin).
Through the direct market, I discovered the Legion and the Teen Titans and I dutifully combed through the bins until I had as much of each team’s back matter as I could manage. I remember thinking that it would be “the best idea ever” if Batman and Shining Knight could team up and fight Gorilla Grodd. Being owned by ex-hippies, the shop was well-stocked with various incenses, crystals and other arcane devices. Even at a young age, I knew that these were a) utter bullshit and b) to be avoided at all costs.
Today, the storefront houses a chiropractor’s office. The store moved a block away, into an actual basement, a move that managed to
make it even less inviting than it was previously. That store is now vacant.
Just after “Inferno” – like any true geek, I measure time by crossovers – my parents put their foot down and forbid me from buying
comics. It affected my grades, they said. Over the next few years, my grades suffered a slight dip, and though I won’t claim that it was a manufactured middle finger to parental authority, the notion is a pleasing one. It wasn’t until about 1993 that I returned to comics.
Riding the wave of the speculation boom, a sport card/comic shop opened up near my grandmother’s house, and each weekend I
stayed with her, I’d walk down to that store and buy a new Liefeldian wonder without understanding just how bad it was. Cable #1
($3.50) was the first. Not surprisingly, the place vanished not long after the Return of Superman. Now it’s a tanning salon.
It’s a disturbing trend.
The cramped, smoke-filled arcade where I learned the intricacies of Kung Fu and Space Harrying? Now it’s a pool hall with only a pair
of outdated arcade machines.
The cool, well-stocked arcade that got me through my early teens? A Japanese restaurant.
The ironically-named Phoenix Comics across from my college call-center job? It sells clothing and shows no signs of rising from the
The Wizard Site, the card and role-playing game store that survived the harsh scrutiny of The 700 Club? Today it sells spa products, a fate shared by Dragons Inc., the all-purpose gaming store launched by a pair of my high school friends.
The landmarks of my youth have all grown up. The buildings are all still there, but now they’re inhabited by doctors, lawyers, beauticians and the bitter realization that the places where I learned to be a geek have all moved on and that I have not.
It’s supposed to be the other way around. I mean, in Europe, there are castles that have been castles for centuries, and I would feel much better about being a nerd for decades if my comic shop still sold comics hundreds of years later, just to offer some sense of scope and a tacit nod of approval via its longevity.
“It’s easy,” the proprietor of my current local comic shop tells me, “to run a business like this badly.” It’s the beginning of a digression in a discussion about Marvel’s post-Civil War landscape that involves practically every warm body in the building. Despite two moves and nearly 20 years in business, The Unknown still manages to grow its community and generally keep its head above water. Because not only is there room for frivolity in adulthood, there can’t be adulthood without the shoulders of frivolity to stand on, and the trail of failed geek meccas in my wake simply couldn’t grasp the balance between the two. And so, when I think about packing the comics up and donating them to charity, eBaying the gaming books and hiding the other nerd paraphernalia and writing off the past 20 or so years as misspent, I stop and remember the 6-year-old poring through back issue bins and it’s hard to feel it’s been misspent at all.
And then, I think about telling the little brat that Wolverine is an overhyped editorial mess with no real depth, but I doubt I’d have listened. Wolverine has claws, you know.