A crudely painted Batman beckons you into my haunt of choice, Village Comics (”Entertainment for All Ages”), one flight up from Suzie’s Finest Chinese Cuisine on New York City’s Bleecker Street. An ominous clue to the unsophisticated nature of the store’s bread-and-butter patrons is given by the admonition on the steep staircase, written in large block letters, one word per step:
That unfortunate stairwell, wallpapered with sales posters for the Demon, the Butcher, Judge Dredd, and Barbie comics, doesn’t begin to suggest the genuinely opulent variety piled behind the windowless steel entrance door.
There’s a squalid melancholy surrounding comic-book specialty shops that reminds me of the grimy despair peculiar to X-rated porno stores. The floors in both these tribal male huts are sticky, the walls taped over with tattered, trashy covers. At least the self-conscious clientele of porno shops has the decency to gather in an embarrassed, introverted hush. Customers of comics shops — those socially maladroit victims of Marvelmania and high-risk DC users — endlessly and loudly debate whether the Punisher can beat up the Hulk. I long for a comics shop with the glamorous dignity of a good museum bookstore, but the carny vulgarity of comics makes it unlikely.
You see, comics are, almost by definition, little boxes crammed to overflowing with compacted information, and Village Comics is a three-dimensional analogue. The owner, Joe Lihach, fights a losing battle against entropy, continually trying to create taxonomies for the uncategorizable flotsam and jetsam that make up a contemporary ”specialty” shop.
The loft-size space is jammed tight with information: In addition to the obligatory four-color comics, new and old, there are lots and lots of the independent small-press comics like Dan Clowes’ Eightball and Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte that are my main event; an unsurpassed range of upscale graphic novels like Will Eisner’s To the Heart of the Storm and Max Cabanes’ Heartthrobs; and glorious reprints of classic old strips like Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals and V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop. (I’m glad to be alive in the Golden Age of comics reprints.) There’s even a full-service science fiction bookstore in a separate wing.
R. Crumb’s Charley Patton and M.C. Escher’s Tower of Babel T-shirts sway on hangers over yellowing underground newspapers and back issues of Rolling Stone. Classy (expensive) silk-screen prints by top European graphic designers hang above kid’s-eye level next to scores of sealed X-rated porn comics. (Yes, comics finally are for ”adults” as well as for Adults.) Desert Storm trading cards (ecch) share counter space with two-inch-high hard-rubber models of the Three Stooges and a 19-inch cardboard stand-up of ’50s bondage queen Betty Page. A book collection of William Hogarth’s complete engravings sits next to a copy of Bikini Battle 3D, and everywhere kitsch collides dizzyingly with Real Art. Every time I look up, I spot something that wasn’t there a minute before.
So, until the Museum of Modern Art builds a comics-shop annex, you’ll find me culling my weekly stack of reading litter at the back of Village Comics.
— Art Spiegelman is the cofounder and editor of Raw magazine. His book Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began will be published in November.