Back in 2007, two months after I got married to the prettiest girl to ever smile at me, we left New Zealand to take a look around. She wanted to see the great wonders of the world, and soak in the culture of some of the world’s greatest cities. I just wanted to see what the comic shops were like.
It was a five-month voyage, going from Australia to Japan to England to Scotland to another 18 goddamn countries in Europe in 46 days to New York to home. It was a good little trip, taking in the sights, the architecture, the culture, the terrain, and, most of all, the comics.
A couple of times I failed miserably in my attempts to hide the fact I was more excited about randomly rolling across a comic shop than I was about going inside another bloody church, but I managed to keep my impulses submerged, for the most part.
As sad as it is, the comic book store, any comic store, is still a wonderful place for me. I'm not that jaded yet. I didn't step inside my first one until I was twelve years old, and didn't live in a town where I could get along every week for another eight years. The gaps in my collection are decades old and the opportunity to go inside a new store to see if they can help me fill these holes is overpowering.
So every time I arrived in a new town or city, I would have a look around. I got quite a good system going on, using the internet, phone books and sheer instinct to track down shops, eventually bringing home a sizable haul of comics, books and odd little magazines. (Although it didn't get as bad as a two-week holiday in Sydney in 2004, coming home on the plane through massive turbulence with a carry-on bag stuffed with dozens of 2000ad issues, getting the main luggage, and another sizable pile of thrill-power, in at just over the weight limit.)
Mind you, Sydney is where it started in 2007, heading to the crusty old King's Comics for the third time in six years, finishing off a demented attempt to collect all the issues of Keith Giffen's Heckler, while getting the Julie Schwartz tribute issue where Morrison does Adam Strange. Filling in days by the beach and pool with the odd Doctor Who novel, and more train trips into town with Doctor Who magazines to buy more issues of Shade The Changing Man that I don’t really need for $1 each.
There are other comic shops around the corner, but the glorious mess of Kings makes it my favourite. A filing system that seems intended to bemuse and the surliest staff who ever surlyed, but a good place to kill a few hours. A day trip up to the beautiful city of Newcastle finds one more, but nothing special to get here, and Japan, the next stop, is where all the real action is.
That's if I could read the language. But everything everybody says about the Japanese love for their comics is there, along with fantastic ramen, convenience stores that are actually convenient, ubiquitous vending machines and young girls serving food in a French maid's uniform. There are piles upon piles of comics at every train stop, entire forests in a short stretch of the line. I still buy one, just to have a look, and the stories inside seem to have something to do with baseball, haunted houses or ferrets with nun-chucka, but that's as much as I can figure out. Further investigation is curtailed when I accidentally leave the comic in the hotel room we stay in on our last night, before heading to the UK.
The first piece of reading material I ever buy in England is a brand new issue of movie magazine Empire, the only publication I've bought every month for more than 10 years. But the comic shops in the centre of town don't disappoint, from the mighty Forbidden Planet to Orbital Comics and Gosh, each offering up their own charms. Walking in the door of Forbidden Planet is an embarrassingly emotional experience, as the 12-tear-old inside that cried when he couldn’t get to the comic shop that appeared in a Nemesis photo-story in 2000ad finally got his reward.
The wife, on the other hand, liked Orbital Comics, because it had the comfiest couch in the UK, and she was able to commiserate with other comic widows as their men got terribly excited over comics like an issue of Swing With Scooter for 20p. I also finally track down the last issue of Sandman I needed at Orbital, filling a hole in that collection that has been biting at me for more than a decade.
(Two weeks after returning to New Zealand, I see that issue in two different comic shops.)
A quick sprint around the island shows that Forbidden Planet stores are fucking everywhere and that you should never pass up issues of NextWave and Ennis' Midnighter series if you see them for sale for 50p each. The best comic buy doesn't even come from a comic shop, after a chance encounter with the Cartoon Museum, (just around the block from the great British Museum), turns up an exhibition of Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland on the walls, so I have to buy a copy from there. That heavy fucker becomes a burden in my backpack, but it’s still worth it.
Over to the continent, and any reading material is seized upon during ten-hour coach trips through countries where service station people genuinely seem to despise you and there is nothing to see out the window except other coaches full of people heading to the same places you're going.
I still can't help looking in the bookstores of every town we stop in, and still regret missing out on buying a couple of issues of the Diabolik comic that seem to be sold in every Italian store. There are plenty of odd reprints, including Civil War in Spanish or some older Batman comics that look horribly unofficial, with new covers and exotic languages hiding the same old shit behind them. Still, at least the appeal of Batman punching the Joker in the face for the billionth time is universal, even if Bats snarls his dialogue in Greek.
After a month and a half of wandering around Europe, I finally stumble across the first comic shop to sell issues in English in Amsterdam. I hadn’t been looking at them in other European cities, content to soak up sun on the beaches and explore the glorious architecture of the grand former powerhouses, but it’s still nice to see something I can read.
It's a pleasing store to wander into in an Amsterdam haze and I find that one issue of Grendel Tales I've been after forever, and a ridiculously cheap copy (Thanks, exchange rate!) of a Tom Strong book keeps me happy. There is an unfortunate piece of paranoia during a dive into the stacks of back issues in the basement, where I end up convinced it's all going a bit Hostel, but it all works out nicely in the end.
After a quick return trip to London and back to those same stores for a look, it’s off to the home of modern comics and the grand old US of A. I fail to find anything in Washington, partly because it's the weekend and everything appears closed, mainly because there are spaceships in the Smithsonian to gawk out. A quick burst of the Amtrak and we're settled in Harlem for a few days, and it's the last burst of sightseeing, made a little easier by frugal budgeting on the earlier parts of the voyage.
Wandering the streets of midtown Manhattan I manage to miss comic shops I read about 20 years ago, but soon find Jim Hanleys by the Empire State, Midtown Comics and the ubiquitous Forbidden Planet. One planned visit is made to the mighty Rocketship in Brooklyn, where co-owner Alex Cox is busy celebrating a role-playing game victory from the night before, while making some shrewd points about retailing as he puts out the new releases.
It's in New York, on the last two days of our five month voyage, that I get fill in issues of Miracleman and Swamp Thing and The Demon, odd little individual issues that I've never been able to find before. Miracleman #6 is a particularly grand score, since I have been unable to find it anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, despite easy location of the rarer later issues in the short-lived series.
The hardest part of this leg of the trip is finding a comic that screams New York, so that when I see it on the bookshelf in years to come, I will always associate it with those few days in the world’s greatest city. In the end, I go for the first arc in Ennis’ Punisher Max story and the magnificent Tales Designed To Thrizzle, both of which are just odd enough to feel right, both of which are all about that incredible city.
And then that was it. I was heading back home. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t sleep. Still horribly hungover from the last night in Manhattan, cranky and heading back to a cold New Zealand winter with no job and no home, unable to handle the whimsy of Science of Sleep.
So I turned off the movie, got out my carry-on bag and started reading all of these wonderful, crazy comics. All around the world, they were one of my major targets, in cities I had always dreamed of visiting, in countries that staggered me with their beauty, it was these results of the global search for those issues I wanted that got me through the last part of the voyage and now sit proudly on bookshelves, taunting me with their foreignness, even though they’re exactly the same books that I can pick up from a comic store two blocks away from home.
And now it’s starting all over again, and the wife and I are off on another month long holiday. Back to London for 24 hours, another quick burn around Ireland and a few weeks in Cairo.
In two days I’ll be back in London for Free Comic Book Day, and I can’t fucking wait. The wife has already been warned that I will have to buy a copy of David Bishop’s Thrill Power Overload, an excellent history of 2000ad, although I will take on the full responsibility for lugging it around for the rest of the month. Along with a few other things I plan to pick up, it promises to be a massive pain in the arse when I’m living out of a backpack, but I don’t mind at all.
Because comics books from the other side of the world are worth it.
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The Tearoom of Despair will be closed for the next few weeks as I stumble through the Great Comic Shops of the World, so you’ll have to get your buttered scones, horror and futility elsewhere.
However, please stay tuned over the coming weeks, as the keys to the shop are handed over to Mr Smith, who promises to do horrible things with the premises, every couple of days or so.
In the meantime, if any loyal readers can recommend any good comic shops in the centre of London and Dublin, especially ones that have a decent selection of recent 2000ad back issues, I would be eternally grateful.