In Kevin Huizenga’s rich, dynamic story “The Curse,” from his collection, Curses, a suburban man, Glenn Ganges, and his wife, who has just given birth, try to understand the flock of European starlings that has invaded their trees. The “curse” of the title is this foreboding feathered infestation, which has upset the balance in the new family’s otherwise hopeful existence. With pitch-perfect tone, Huizenga unwinds the birds’ back story, tracing the flock to its original North American sin: the day a man named Eugene Schiefflin, a member of a group called the American Acclimatization Society, uncaged 80 or so members of the species he had carried from Europe in order to introduce to the continent “foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdoms as may be useful or interesting.”
Big mistake (there are now an estimated 200 million of them here), and with confident pen and a cinematographer/novelist’s mind, the author manifests his invaders, captures their patterns of movement and their noisy menace. The birds chatter from telephone wires and trees, shit on the Ganges’ homestead and wake their baby. Inside Glenn’s head we begin to see his desperation. Bottle rockets are employed, but the curse merely lifts into the sky, swirls in graceful arcs and settles back onto the branches. Huizenga tells the story so eloquently that you want to slam the book on the righteous desk of your snobbiest literature professor and tell him to pay witness to the depth and intellect of the 21st-century comics revolution.
Yeah, it’s been said before and probably better: There’s more to comics than Superman and Watchmen (not to take anything away). But the inspired variety of stories being told by the grand triumvirate of hand, ink and brain gets more thrilling with each passing year, as innovation begets evolution begets infinite selection begets a pack of comix addicts. The pastime is an addiction, for sure, and wandering the city examining the bounty can be an expensive habit. But it’s reassuring to know that shops trading in pen and ink are not only surviving but thriving in an age in which we wander aimlessly with mouse and cursor inside our virtual iCages.
Best Comic Store: Meltdown Comics and Collectables
If you’re in a hurry on a new-release Wednesday and don’t have the time or desire to make the rounds to the many small suppliers that dot the city, Meltdown is your one-stop shop, the Amoeba of the L.A. comic scene. Walk in and drown in the colors that pour from each rack, the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the sound system, visuals bombarding. At Meltdown, each subgenre — underground, classic, graphic novel, superhero, manga, whatnot — is represented. Rejoice at the bounty of Tin Tin posters filling the west wall, and appreciate the depth of the employees’ enthusiasm. The beautiful Chris Ware display in the back holds the artist’s geometric work. An entire shelf is devoted to the Optic Nerve series by Adrian Tomine; another to the many moods of booty-loving Robert Crumb. Peruse the wildly successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer series in all its glory.All the Krazy Kat reissues are lined neatly in a row (drawn by the genius George Herriman, who spent his last days just up the road from Meltdown in the Hollywood Hills), a graphic affirmation that life is worth living.
But if that crap’s too brainy for your sci-fi-loving ways, Meltdown also offers only-in-Hollywood temptations like an $18,000 limited-edition bronze Darth Vader statue, Clive Barker–approved Demon in the Blue Grass prints, all the DC, Dark Horse, Marvel and Vertigo comics you can put your French-fry-greased fingers on, and a very deep and imposing selection of Japanese manga. (Manga is a world in and of itself, and wise is the writer who admits his relative ignorance and moves along.) And, of course, all of L.A. Weekly’s recurrent comic artists are represented: Lynda Barry’s newest thrill, What It Is. The freako-surrealist Kaz strips, Tony Millionaire’s boisterous Maakies series. There’s even Meltdown University, a 13-week course in the craft of pictorial storytelling, so you, yes you, can be a major player (and soon thereafter, major chick magnet) in the glamorous world of comic art.
7522 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 851-7223 or www.meltcomics.com.
Best Comics Curators: Secret Headquarters
In addition to having the best comic-store name, one that captures the mysterious allure of the comics underworld and the warped brains that inhabit it, Secret Headquarters at Sunset Junction is a mighty little store that manages to fit a surprisingly deep catalog into its compact confines. It opened in 2005 with the goal of scratching many diverse itches rather than, in co-owner Dave Pifer’s words, sticking with “the narrow nerd world.” It’s a clean, well-lighted place for the true headz, with two comfy chairs for slouching into while contemplating possible purchases. Whether you’re gunning for the hottest superhero titles (“It’s what pays our bills,” says Pifer), the classics (up-to-date volumes in the ongoing Complete Peanuts reissue series, and both volumes of Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland in full-size Sunday reprints), or the cream of the fantastical tales (the weirdly brilliant Fables series), Secret Headquarters will lighten your wallet with ease. Its new-release wall features the latest DC and Marvel volumes, a lot of the recent Ignatz Awards nominees (I bought Ted May’s fantastic Injury series last time I was here) and, best, a lot of titles that I’ve never seen before. Secret Headquarters is the kind of place that, regardless of your subgenre predilections, you can walk in with a twenty and leave with something or three that’ll get you through the night.
3817 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 666-2228 or www.thesecretheadquarters.com.
Best Fine-Art Comic Store: Family
It’s a distinction that enthusiasts will probably quibble with — each comic freak is convinced that his genre of choice features the “finest” “art” (well, maybe not manga obsessives, who surely must acknowledge that the majority of its practitioners employ a lesser, more regimented pictorial delivery system) — but for our money, Family on Fairfax is the best place to take aforementioned dismissive literature professors (and snobby art critics) to argue your point that graphic narrative is an equal form of storytelling to nonpictorial fiction. Browse the shop and you’ll soon be convinced that the art’s most important creators deserve as much critical attention and celebration (and museum shows) as painters, photographers and sculptors. A roundabout way of saying that, aesthetically, Family Bookstore’s keen eye will blow you away. Family opened in early 2007 as a little literary bookstore that treated classic literature, new fiction, comics and experimental music with wonderful equanimity.
Owned by David Kramer and Sammy Harkham, the shop is obviously the product of a few highly discriminating minds. Harkham, in fact, is one of the most celebrated new brains in the fancy comics world; in his Kafkaesque studio above the shop, he creates the exquisitely rendered comic Crickets, about a man peppered with arrows traveling through the forest with a compadre: a silent, hulking Golem. He also creates the jaw-droppingly beautiful Kramers Ergot, a somewhat annual compendium of comic art whose forthcoming seventh issue will be a huge 16 by 21 inches, the same broadsheet dimension of early-20th-century newspapers.
“A book that size is kind of insane,” acknowledges Harkham, but he realized, after he started thinking about it, that to offer such a broad canvas to artists used to working with less space would be a great gift, and could yield amazing results. “Even artists you might be familiar with would feel a little different. And when I started thinking about that large size, I realized that I could ask back people I’d used before, and I could ask a whole bunch of artists that I’ve never asked because I never thought they needed to be in an anthology — people like Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine — but they’ll look completely fresh.” Also included is new work by, among others, Matt Groening, Kevin Huizenga, Chris Ware, Paperrad and Dan Zettwoch.
You can find a lot of the artists represented in the book at Family, but the shop isn’t a place for completists. It’s for those looking to snag the cream of the crop, both nationally and internationally. Even better, Family stocks the work of some of L.A.’s most interesting aesthetes; recent gems include a collection of director Mike Mills’ Fireworks drawings; the new comic by filmmaker Michel Gondry, We Lost the War but Not the Battle; Miranda July’s art and writing; Ron Rege, Jr.’s precisely drawn joy; and beautiful limited-edition records by the Sads, No Age and the great Teenage Teardrops label.
436 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 782-9221 or www.familylosangeles.com.