Heading off to have a look around the world last month, it took the wife and I more than 30 hours to fly to London from Auckland. After getting there, it was necessary to hold off the exhaustion for a little while and stay awake for a few more hours to get into the groove of daylight on the wrong side of the world. The only answer was to go check out the comic shops.
Okay, not just the shops, otherwise the wife would have had my head, and arriving at our hotel in the centre of London at the start of May, we’ve got a few other things on our sightseeing list. We check out all the usual sights, but while my brain is loving the vibe of the South Bank, my heart is still with the comic stores.
In fact, the first odd thing we see in London is a line of people snaking around the back streets around the British Museum. Wondering if it’s a gig or something, we take a closer look, and five seconds after I realize they’re all carrying comics, I find out that it’s a signing by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book at Gosh Comics.
Exchanging a few pleasantries with Alan fuckin’ Moore and Kevin bloody O’Neill would be a good way to arrive in England, but the line is already incredibly long and the thought of standing for hours to get a glimpse of that massive beard that thought up From Hell and those hands that produced those stunning Nemesis comics remains a thought. It’s just too hard.
Still, this brush with the Magus’ presence is still enough to give the new day even more of an unreal sheen, which continues with free opera in Convent Gardens and flowing blood in the Thames.
It’s Free Comic Book Day, which means the comic shops have all had healthy traffic and when we stop by towards the end of the day, the store clerks all have a 100 yard stare and take a second too long to answer your questions. But even though I miss out on that free Love and Rockets comic I really fucking wanted, there are still plenty of back issues in places like Orbital to go through, and long-grating gaps in particular Grendel and Hellblazer runs are filled. Another piece of unfortunate timing means I also miss out, by a day or two, on the Brendan McCarthy exhibition they had in the back room of their new shop. Bugger.
Still, it was nice to see that, even after moving the store around the corner, at least they still have a seat for long-suffering wives to relax on while their geek husbands track down that elusive issue of Nextwave that they could never find.
The Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Ave is as busy as ever, although the stench of human sweat is almost overpowering in one section of the store, which is never a good sign for civilians. It might be another side effect of the free comics that were available, although it’s hardly the first time that particular scent has wafted through a comic book store.
But who cares if it’s smelly? I’m all about the comics. It’s tempting to load up on 99p Star Wars trade paperbacks, but they’re not very good comics and I don’t fancy lugging them around in a backpack for the next month, so I settle for a few recent 2000ads and a signed and discounted softback copy of Big Dave Bishop’s Thrill Power Overload.
Bishop’s book looking back at more than 30 years of 2000ad goodness is fucking excellent. Even after reading most of it when it was published in the Judge Dredd Megazine a few years back, the extended book version is incredibly fascinating. When the only hints of what was going on in the 2000ad editorial offices for many years were the pronouncements from Tharg in the opening introduction page, I drink all this behind-the-scenes shit right up.
Some of the arguments that destroyed careers and friendships can seem unbelievably petty years down the line, but everybody gets to tell their side of the story in TPO. There is even an argument against creator ownership of their characters that makes some kind of sense, the first time I’ve ever seen that.
I devour Bishop’s book in airport lounges, hotel rooms and buses over the next couple of weeks. Even though it is an incredibly meaty read, the prose zips through a 30-year narrative as the ex-2000ad editor puts all the facts together and picks the best anecdotes, and I have to space out the reading to make it last, to savour the reading experience.
Before all that, I’m still lost in London and trying to find a copy of that new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. Turns out Gosh is just about the only comic shop in the UK to get the book in on time. I finally get there the day after the signing and they’re all long gone, so I settle for a few issues of Tom Strong that I haven’t got around to getting.
While buying them, I have the geekiest moment of the entire trip when I recognise the sales clerk as Hayley Campbell, daughter of the mighty Eddie Campbell, after seeing her in one of her Dad’s comics last year. There really is no way to say something to her about this recognition without coming across as a bit of a freak, so I just pay for my comics quietly and leave, like a good little customer.
The next phase of our trip takes in Ireland and we go off driving around the green island for a couple of days without coming near another comic shop. I’ve got the stuff I got in London to read while we shelter in hotels on the windswept and interesting Northern coast of the island. And I know I’ve got one more day of comic shops before the Irish leg of the trip is done.
The day before we fly off to Egypt, the wife and I head into Dublin for a look around the city, to soak up the literature-soaked atmosphere and fine drinking establishments. And to look for Ireland’s finest comic shops.
I stumble across Sub City soon into the wander around the city, which is particularly fortunate considering it is currently in the process of moving. The new store is still a haphazard mess, with piles of random comics all over the place as the staff struggle to wrestle it into some sort of order. Even with the mess, it’s easy enough to find more Hellblazer and Tomorrow Stories comics that fill those blasted holes. I just have to resit the urge to put the store’s comics into some kind of vague order.
(I may have done this in other shops at times in the past. I can not confirm this, as it shows what a sad piece of shit I really am.)
It’s easy enough to find the local branch of Forbidden Planet, but I still haven’t found the one, great comic shop that I’m really after, one that will have comics I’ve never seen anywhere else, one that will be filled with crazy old back issues and rare oddities.
So when I do find it in Dublin, I’m so excited I forget to note its name. Somewhere in the Temple Bar area, it’s the Absolute Sandman books in the window that catch my eye and heading inside, it’s everything I love about comic book shops.
It’s a little dark and a bit smelly, and the dude behind the counter rolls his eyes in an exaggerated fashion when I ask if I can open up a bag to make sure it’s not a comic I’ve already got, so in that respect, it’s hardly unusual.
But it’s the stock that counts. Weird British fanzines from the early eighties, a glorious collection of 2000ad and Judge Dredd Megazine back issues and tons of comics I’ve literally searched the world for.
It shouldn’t have been so hard to track down a copy of The Punisher: The Cell as it turned out to be, but I find it there. I also get the obligatory Shade The Changing Man back issue, a small handful of 2000ads to plug gaps that have itched for years and a few other little bits and pieces, and my comic buying is done.
The last time the wife and I did some serious travelling, I got to go to dozens of shops all over the world, but on this trip, it’s all done after Dublin. There are few chances to buy comics while floating down the Nile in a felucca or gazing at the obelisks in the Temple of Karnak, and maybe that’s for the best. Without even the possibility of getting near some precious comic books means I can enjoy the experience of the now, and not worry about getting to a shop later.
I still keep an eye out for any odd comics in Egyptian bookstores and newsstands, but all I find is one issue from one of the ongoing Superman books and a few Archie comics in Arabic. Good old Archie, you can’t avoid him anywhere and its kinda nice to see how universal his antics really are.
The last time we travelled, I managed to poke my head inside dozens of stores all over the planet, but even though this time I only manage to visit half a dozen, I still get a few little gems that I can always associate with stumbling across comic shops on the far side of the world.
God, I love this shit.
So, next year we’re going to Las Vegas and Mongolia. Any suggestions for good comic places to visit in either of these locations would, as ever, be greatly appreciated. I'm sure Mongolia must have a kick-ass comic shop somewhere.