Misspent From the Outset

Misspent From the Outset

Nov 19

[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
ashes.

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.

2 comments

  1. Great piece, sir. Remind me a lot of one I wrote for a local paper here moons ago: http://www.lasvegasmercury.com/2003/MERC-May-29-Thu-2003/21340985.html

    Have you ALWAYS lived in that little nook of PA?

  2. Yup, always.

    You know, I gripe about it, but it’s not bad. Close to NYC, close to Philly, close to Baltimore and DC and 5 hours to Boston with good traffic.

    At this point, I feel like that Patton Oswalt thing about college towns – you have to either leave immediately or stay forever.

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