...in which a young Ashley comes to terms with the limits of his fandom
I knew a girl in high school who worked a variety of mall jobs. First she worked in a chain store called The Petite Sophisticate (known in mall-shopper parlance as “The Little Bitch”), then she worked in the Spencer Gifts next door, and finally wound up down the hall at the Peanut Shack. She and I began to refer to this career maneuver as “moving left in the world.”
This didn’t seem remarkably different from the resume I was developing in those days, moving from one cash register to another in a failed rebellion against gainful employment. The moves weren’t even initiated by me. I’d be sitting there at some shop counter, babysitting unsold Beanie Babies or Raisinettes, and, as generally happens to white folks, somebody would just come along and offer me my next job. And this is exactly how I wound up working in a comic book store.
For the previous year or so, I’d been clerking for a regional indoor newsstand called the Pseudonym Bookstore (so called here because I don’t want to name the actual store and because Pseudonym Bookstore is a damned good name for a book outlet for which I would like to claim sole credit). One day, a comic book store owner, with whom I was only vaguely acquainted, walked in with an offer to work in his store instead. I figured selling Flash comics was no different than peddling Field and Stream, so I got up from the Pseudonym’s stool to go try out his. (Working life often being just one stool sampling after another.)
Now, it’s true I was pretty deeply engrossed in the cartoon arts at the time. And yes, at nineteen I was even a published cartoonist, having landed a penniless indie imprint for my incompentently-drawn comic book series about interdimensional demons and other pot-inspired brilliance. But this did not mean that my dream job was hobnobbing with Trekkies amongst the long boxes all day. I may have had some internal justification that working in comics retail would inform my own cartoon hucksterism, sure that I could forge a path to publishing greatness by thumbing through The Justice League, boning up on my Metamorpho. Whatever the rationale, I accepted his offer to move left.
The owner was Martin Kutlis, and his store was called Warp Factor Nine. (These are also both fake names and both better than the ones owner and store were saddled with in real life.) The store was in an aging strip mall, in the slot where the H&R Block used to be, which had previously been a Fashion Bug, which used to be the Singer outlet, which is now Vape Emporium, and it was just down the street from my then-current gig. As I came to understand Martin better, I could see that his offer was less a compliment to my expert chair warming at the Pseudonym and more the cutthroat scheme of a small-time retailer who considered stealing employees from a larger competitor a notch on his headboard. It should go without saying that taking pride in hiring away someone like me is pretty pathetic.
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Martin was like many comics shop owners of his era, a combination of juvenile fantasy fandom and businessman machismo. I’d known several comics retailers of his ilk, all with varying personality disorders, all decidedly unsuited to function among the norms. Warp Factor Nine was Martin’s personal empire, his fluorescent kingdom, where he was lord and tycoon of the dork domain. His opinions on all matters, from the managing of investment portfolios to the best inker on Sal Buscema, were not only the most important opinions but the only opinions that mattered, dazzling as they did the dumbstruck comics fans who could envy nothing more than the Man Who Owned All the Comics. For a four-color entrepreneur like Martin Kutlis, a comics shop patron didn’t simply have Punisher posters to browse, but an Audience with the King, where they were enlightened by his proclamations on Marvel’s business practices and which actress should play Catwoman.
Kutlis was a stubby guy, perpetually acne-faced and sporting an eighth-grade mustache. He appeared a bit undercooked, as if he needed a few more months in the incubator, or at least a beach vacation. It was easy to imagine him receiving deep wedgies from his childhood classmates, getting bullied for reading Star Trek novels, as was standard procedure in the days before geeks took over the country. He was eager to attain Alpha status, and could easily do so among the poindexter comics nerds who were not butch enough to own their own store. His look was the textbook illustration of “stunted,” yet his was the strut of the self-made fan.
If nothing else, he was articulate. Martin delivered his ideas and observations with rapid-fire clarity, revealing the sort of advanced intellect that is so often wasted on the study of Klingon. He was generous with these monologues, eagerly submitting them to anyone within earshot, regardless of their interest. Often a distributor or other comics-business cog would call with a quick question, only to be held on the phone for forty-five minutes while Martin breathlessly exhibited his knowledge of Aquaman. This was in the landline days, when long-distance calls cost actual, per-minute money. I would cringe in empathy with the poor bastard trapped in Martin’s inside-comics lecture, wishing he would deliver his spiel to me instead so I could take one for the team, for all of humanity.
And often I got that chance at heroism. Kutlis spewed braggadocio at me for hours on end. His winning techniques with women, his star turn in the high school play, his football prowess – all of it delivered with confidence, all of it doubtful, and all with the caveat that none of these achievements would be expected of a guy who was so short. The puffed-up posturing was sad, but I couldn’t help admiring his “nerd boy wins in the end” narrative. He once related a long story, later verified by others, where he got revenge on a former boss with such grand theatricality that it remains the most inspiring job-quitting story I’ve ever heard. (But it is his story, his short-man’s victory, so I will let it remain his tale to tell.) We shared the inherent understand that quitting your job can and should be the best day of your life.
I could endure Martin’s brag sessions because, as it turned out, I was very good at being patient with long-winded lunatics. This made me ideal for a career in customer service, and for Warp Factor Nine in particular. Naturally, the comic book store is mecca for the lonely fan-child, who craves a safe space to unload his theories about hyperspeed without fear of toilet swirlies. And as far as they could tell, I was all ears. What I learned about dealing with a fantasy freak: Telling him (in those days, it was always a him) you’re not interested in the comic/film/sci-fi novel/video game he adores is an open invitation to have it explained in excruciating detail. Not into Daredevil? Here’s what’s been happening in every panel of the last ten issues. Not interested in Robotech? Let me give you the complete background on the Macross Saga. I would maintain affability while these poor souls blathered on, just as I feigned agreement when King Kutlis would rant about distribution schedules and bad story arcs.
I would say that this patience on my part was rewarded by the pleasures of being neck-deep in comic books, but sadly, Warp Factor Nine carried almost no comics I coveted. This was strictly a superdude store - no Pekar or Crumb comics available – and I was quickly losing my curiosity to know what She-Hulk had been up to lately. This was The Year of Our Batman, 1989, when the two major events in the geek world were the Tim Burton Batman movie, wildly anticipated and pre-critiqued, and a Batman comic book mini-series called Death in the Family, in which readers were invited to vote, Nero style, to decide whether or not the Joker would beat Robin to death with a crowbar. (Spoiler warning: “Beat Robin to death” won in a landslide. Everyone hates Robin.)
All this to say that, during this period, comic patrons discussed Batman a lot. A lot. Arguments about the casting of Michael Keaton, complaints about what the fictional Batman did that “Batman would never do,” debates about who the Joker should have killed in addition to Robin, intense anger over the length of Batman’s ears in Jim Aparo drawings, ad infinitum. People called every day to inquire about the current value of the Death in the Family comics, that year’s hottest investment. Understanding the basic mechanics of Batman from childhood, I could hold my own reasonably well when conversing with these super hero junkies, but living in the Batcave was starting to feel pretty dank. Contemplating the motivations of fictional men in capes who beat up clowns did not seem, to put it mildly, like an adult concern.
But Martin’s lust for expansion could not be satisfied with simply maintaining this Bat Family think tank. Another local comics shop, a rival store more well-established than Factor Nine, was in the business of role-playing paraphernalia – gaming modules and twelve-sided die and monster manuals – and Martin wanted some of this action. Having no experience in the gaming world, he nevertheless ordered tons of Dungeons and Dragons merchandise for Warp Factor’s shelves.
And it was here that the clientele went from impassioned comics fans to the certifiably disturbed. The role-playing crowd of 1989 was not, for lack of a better word, socialized. Where the Batman fan was an outcast, happy to be in the company of like-minded enthusiasts, the role-playing patron did not generally acknowledge the existence of the actual world and preferred not to adhere to its rules of social engagement. Theirs was an alternate reality, an interior world far more colorful than that of we commoners. My polite, friendly-shop-clerk inquiries of “how’s it going?” inspired updates on “the campaign,” complete with invented words, threats to conduct levitation spells, and a refusal to acknowledge that our current location was a musty retail store and not a dragon farm on the Seventh Moon of Nocturnia. Customers began arriving in full druid wardrobe, purple crystals affixed to their walking staffs. One guy made a purchase wearing some sort of homemade armor, his battle helmet perched on top of his skull as he rattled on about teleportation pods and battle droids, eyes blazing like a speed freak.
I began to get desperate. I badly wanted someone among this menagerie of fanatics to talk with me about a clogged tub drain, a bad breakup, a shitty work schedule – anything pertaining to actual, ordinary existence. I could only nod and smile so much when Gunthar recited his magic incantations, and I began to question whether this was the best way to deal with a wizard. Previously-verboten phrases like “needs a good hitch in the army” began emerging in my brain. (Not that it would help – many of these nutjobs were already active military.) I started to consider that nerd emporiums like this one were only making things worse for the terminally fantasy-prone.
And I began to realize something about myself: I am a realist. A boring, pedestrian realist, unimaginative and stodgy before my time. Whatever interest I had in spinner-rack fantasy worlds had dematerialized with puberty. Working in a comic book shop, balls-deep in mutant cyborgs and radioactive ninjas, would have been heaven when I was ten. But now the thrill rides of fantasyland made me queasy. I had changed. I would henceforth remain the type of pedestrian dullard more curious about how a clock radio works than about time travel.
It’s funny how grand awakenings like that always make you want to quit your job. Maybe not with the flamboyant bridge-burning that Martin spoke about, but at least with the sudden self-awareness that this life is not The One. It was a clarity that suggested a cue to exit, another move leftward, if not up. As it was, the handwriting was on the wall for Warp Factor Nine anyway. Martin instituted a permanent “not in” status whenever the phone rang, because the calls were always demands for payment. He owed money to the distributors, he owed money to the landlord, and oddly enough, he owed a particularly hefty sum to the phone company. The people on the phone were always angry now. Martin’s father demanded to know where he was. Callers didn’t like hearing that Death in the Family had decreased in value.
Martin found an excuse to fire me, but I suspected it was because he couldn’t afford me anymore. We had a misunderstanding about the schedule. I told him I couldn’t close that fateful night because I had a date with Lori Underwood. Martin said I could keep the date or keep my job. I had maintained a stalker-like obsession with Lori for a couple of years. Breaking the date was not an option. This was fated to be yet another “best day of my life.”
So I gave up the gig for the girl, but it didn’t matter in the end. There was no future for Lori and me. She said she just couldn’t take a guy seriously who wore nothing but comic book t-shirts. I tried to explain it was a work uniform, but then I remembered that I didn’t sit on that particular stool anymore.
It was a different time. Try to find an adult male in America today who isn’t sporting some comic book nerdism on a t-shirt. Or a girlfriend who even notices. The whole of mainstream culture looks like Warp Factor Nine now, and one’s Boba Fett fashions are no longer grounds to end a relationship. This triumph of nerd culture has definitely been a positive turn for Martin. I looked for him online recently, and there he was, on Youtube, spouting his opinions about the collectibles market to no one and yet to everyone, the world wide web his captive audience. He looked very happy. Finally, the world was ready to listen. And with no long-distance charges!
I also looked up the current value of the Death in the Family comics. You can get them for about a buck apiece.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, firstname.lastname@example.org, where he longs to hear from you.)
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The Robin death phone poll was not a blow out, but very close, less than a hundred votes difference. However, you're very right about the Robin who was killed. Readers hated Jason Todd.
I love your story, but you have touched my Sal Buscema nerve.
The best inker for Sal Buscema was Sal himself. Sal's a really interesting person; his TwoMorrows interview book was really good.
I worked at a comics shop in 1994, and...yup, that was what it was like. I hope it's better for modern comics workers.