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Portals to Other Worlds

Photos by Wild Don LewisIt is a perfect Southern California day, bright and crisp. I am looking for comic book stores. Good ones, mostly. But unusual will do. I have few criteria: organization, selection, geek behind the counter with an encyclopedia for a brain. A good comic book store is in harmony with its environment. A good comic book store invites you to linger. A good comic book store has easy parking. I start in West L.A., at Anime Gamers, across the street from the Westside Pavilion. The place is an object lesson in the modern Asian aesthetic of negative space, i.e. squish in as much stuff as possible until there is no space left. Plushies, posters, stickers, anime DVDs, J-pop CDs, dolls, art supplies and manga, manga, manga everywhere. Insane videogame music hums in the background. Recently, they held a massive “cosplay” (think costume, play and Japanese pop culture) party held on-site. It got so packed that they had to prop open the doors for air. A guy came dressed in a full-armored suit so big that he had to walk sideways down the aisles. Currently, they are running a Gundam model-building contest, and art classes on how to draw shojo (manga for teen girls) and shonen (for boys). In Japan, there are some 15 Anime Gamers, but in the U.S., only one. “A few of them are even megastores with four levels!” says sales clerk Tim, wistfully. Bespectacled Tim is quiet and lanky and Japanese and could himself have easily been an anime character. He deconstructs the manga: Chobits, about a country boy who stumbles upon a robot girl in the trash. Naruto — a delinquent child with no family or friends, who wants to be a ninja. Battle Royale — more delinquents who are dropped off by the government onto an island and forced to kill each other. “It is violent,” says Tim, “but emotional.” Comics Factory: Nerd-boy's dream House of Secrets in Burbank is swanky. An artist named Ragnar did the official House of Secrets poster in a slick, retro ‘60s spy-noir style, with a giant dagger and a sexy femme fatale in a black catsuit — poison bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. One whole wall is devoted to interesting vintage back issues. A $9.99 Mutiny on the Bounty. A $17.99 The Tomb of Dracula: Snowbound in Hell. The Count sprawls on an ice bed. A blond vixen is poised above him, stake in hand. What’s the deal with this one for 800 bucks? I ask, indicating a comic inside a glass case. There are insects on the cover. “That’s the first appearance of Ant Man,” says the guy behind the register. “Oh yeah? What can he do?”“Ant Man has the power to change his size. He also controls ants with his special helmet.”Nearby a man in a suit examines the rack of new Marvel and DC books. A briefcase is tucked underneath his arm. Hollywood execs and producers come to the store, I’m told, with some studios just a few blocks over. “Does Ant Man still exist?” I ask.“He’s still around. But he’s an alcoholic now. He beats his wife. He’s depressed. It’s a whole different thing.”“I guess the ants finally got to him.”“Yup,” says Register Guy, “They bugged him.” Comics Factory: Center for Art Center My next stop is near Old Town Pasadena on Colorado. Despite (or maybe because of) its prison-library chic — bare concrete walls, fluorescent lights — the Comics Factory is one of the best-kept secrets of the SoCal comic book scene. Due to the store’s proximity to Art Center, students hang out here and seasonally buy out certain titles from the illustration reference section. Crews of comics pros and semipros visit frequently: Jaime Hernandez of the Love and Rockets series, Tim Sale of Batman, Clarence Lansang of Witchblade, Jim Lee, Tone Rodriguez. Add in the science geeks from nearby Caltech, and it’s a junior-high nerd-boy’s dream-come-true. Proprietor George Huang is a shy, hulking teddy bear of a man. He explains that the store started out small but gradually gobbled up other stores on the block. Except for the Zankou Chicken next door, that is, with whom they exist in cheerful symbiosis. In the near future, Rob “the Register Monkey” Bradfield says, the staff of the Comics Factory is going to be drawn into a South Park episode, as one of the show’s top animators is a regular. Here, the staff will set things aside that they think you might like, and will never raise the price on comic books, even rare collectible ones. Also, they are nice. I am a sucker for nice. Right now, says the Register Monkey, customers are really into a DC crossover series called Infinite Crisis, to which Huang has devoted a good sliver of wall. In Infinite Crisis, the storylines of every single DC character converge. Batman’s world collides with Superman’s, which collides with Wonder Woman’s, and so on. The problems of one character ripple throughout the entire comic universe. Meltdown: Intimidating selection Meltdown Comics on Sunset is like that bar on Mos Eisley where Luke and Obi Wan meet Han Solo for the first time, you know, the one with the aliens. If there is a comic book or action figure that has been produced in the last 10 years, it has probably passed through Meltdown at some point. It has the largest collection of graphic novels on the West Coast, worlds of toys, magazines about comics, magazines about magazines about comics, and an intimidating selection of foreign comics. It also has what no other store I’ve been to yet has, namely lots of self-published zines, the Xeroxed, hand-stapled stuff about someone’s cat or field trip. A sales clerk with a vaguely European accent shows me an early Chester Brown zine. “Brown is responsible for an entire generation of comic book artists. He was pre-Emo Emo,” he says. He steers me away from a $200 Spider-Man toward U.K.-based artist Matt Broersma’s Insomnia. There is a train on the cover, going over a bridge. It is dark and moody. “In Europe, comics are elegant. They are embedded into the visual vernacular in a meaningful way, not like here in America.” As he talks, a group of Japanese exchange students, all girls, pour out of the back room. They are attending classes on the business of comic books. I ask the sales clerk who has a better selection, Meltdown or Golden Apple a few streets down. He shrugs, “Go there and see for yourself.” When I was in high school, driving out from the ’burbs to Golden Apple on Melrose was a pilgrimage to Mecca. It had everything: comics of every genre and subgenre, tchotchkes galore. These days, rival Meltdown may be more designerly, more artistic in presentation, but Golden Apple is old school, historic. It was the progenitor of the comic book store as megastore à la P.T. Barnum, with rock-star clientele and signings by pro-wrestlers, even. So when owner-founder Bill Liebowitz died last year, the entire industry mourned. Over the years the flagship Hollywood branch has gotten rough around the edges (a sister Apple exists in Northridge), but the big names still come to present their work. For nostalgia’s sake, I ask Mikey J, the “back-issue Czar,” if he’s got Zot, about a teenage alien boy who fell to earth. He pauses to think, reaches behind a stack of books on a bottom shelf, and presents a dusty Zot compilation. “Still got it,” he smiles. Hi De Ho: Superheroes and funny animals The oldest comic book store in Los Angeles isn’t Golden Apple, but Hi De Ho Comics across town in Santa Monica. It carries the most extensive stock of back issues, bar none. “In the ’70s, back issues were the reason for the existence of comic book stores,” says store manager Robert. “Comics were sold in liquor marts and mom-and-pop grocery stores, and they only stocked new releases. We have a reputation for back issues because we’re old and we kept them all.” He describes a Captain America #1 purchased decades ago for pennies, which is now worth $100,000. These back issues, I ask, they’re mostly of superheroes? “Them,” he says, “and funny animals.” My final stop is a tiny store in Culver City called Comics Ink. Ultimately, comics are about escaping into fantasy worlds, worlds more colorful and more dramatic than your own could ever be. Small local stores that sell them are portals into these worlds. The dude at the register, the one sucked into the latest X-Men or Punisher, is the guide waiting to ferry you across. Comics Ink, plain as it is, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a mini-mart, is one of those places. It is no-nonsense here, but perfectly serviceable in a refreshing, anti-hipster kind of way. As I sift through the stacks of standard-issue Marvels and DCs, an off-duty bouncer talks Star Wars versus Aliens with the register clerk. Nearby, a curious young man picks up a copy of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. “What’s this?” he murmurs, and starts to read. Anime Gamers, 10811 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 481-1410 House of Secrets, 1930 W. Olive Ave., Burbank, (818) 562-1900 Comics Factory, 1298 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 585-0618 Meltdown, 7522 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 851-7223 Golden Apple, 7711 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 658-6047 Hi De Ho Comics & Books With Pictures, 525 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-2820 Comics Ink, 4267 Overland Ave., Culver City, (310) 204-3240


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