I didn’t see a lot of positive reviews for it, with the most common criticism being that it reinforced stereotypes about the masculine dorkiness of the comic book store, a stereotype that many other retailers have spent years trying to overcome in a bid to welcome new demographics.
And there was certainly some of that, but I still tuned in every week, and enjoyed every episode, because I can never get enough of seeing comic shops on television.
In that same clean-out that turned up those painful old diaries, I found a stash of video tapes I hadn’t watched in years and years. I had to have a look at them, just to see what was there, and found a lot of them had weird music videos and movie trailers and news items about geek culture from the early to mid nineties.
I had taped the first mention of Pulp Fiction on Entertainment Tonight and movie montages from the Academy Awards and the trailer for Casino, which I think is still the first great movie trailer I ever saw. There was tonnes of this stuff.
Most of it is on YouTube, but a lot of it isn’t, so a lot of those videos avoided going into the rubbish skip. There is one Oscars montage in particular, from somewhere at the turn of the century – a collection of great documentary moments, scored to the Beatles’ Let It Be – that I have an unbelievable fondness for, finding it an accurate summation of the 20th century, from the horrors of war, to the noble humanity of the fight for freedom, to the beauty of humanity’s greatest art, to the eccentricities of individuals like R Crumb.
(I should digitise all those clips, but even though I do look like a total nerd, and do have a vaguely useful natural ability to use computers, I don’t know shit about technology or IT, and have actively avoided updating my tech knowledge for more than a decade now, and I can’t even use my iPhone properly, and it’s all because nothing drives me into a rage like computers that don’t do what they’re bloody well supposed to do and I have no idea how to turn video tape into a digital file. So I hold on to the tapes.)
As well as crazy slices of pop culture like that Oscars montage, I also obsessively taped any news items that mentioned comic books, and there were a surprising amount of those.
There were the dudes at Mark One Comics in 1992, talking about the Death of Superman, and there was the NBC story about Rob Liefeld doing a terrible comic inspired by the Rodney King riots.
At the time I taped these filler news stories, I had an obsessive relation with comic shops. I’d only been to two ever in my entire life, and I almost mythologised these stores I saw on TV, and would go back and forth on the tape, trying to recognise the comics on the shelves behind them, and being blown away because I recognised a Love and Rockets cover for a comic I had never read (and wouldn’t for another good decade).
Even though geek culture is now everywhere, and even though I’ve now been to literally hundreds of shops all over the world, I still do this – if I see a news story about comics on the TV, I’m checking out the background, to see if I can recognise any of the comics on the shelves.
I have done this when the story has been about a shop I go to every single week, which is just wrong, and I certainly still do this when the camera goes roaming around Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash.
Even though I still have an inordinate fondness for Kevin Smith (except when he does superhero comics) , there are things I really don’t like about Comic Book Men – I never like the moment when somebody who thought they had something really valuable finds out it’s only worth a couple of bucks, and the way some people can’t hide their complete disappointment is always a tiny bit heartbreaking.
And there is too much dude humour on the programme. Despite some laudable efforts, comic book shops are still incredibly male places, and that amount of dumb testosterone in the room means there is going to be a lot of toilet humour, usually at the expense of their fellow man. That sense of humour doesn’t always translate well into a television format - people who have been giving their friends shit since they were all in grade school might seen like the funniest people in the world, but they just seem like bullies when you only see them for less than an hour a week.
And the little missions – heading to the flea market, putting on a zombie sale - they come up with every week just come off as the gratuitous padding they are. Sometimes it feels like the show would work a lot better in a half-hour slot without it.
But there are also moments in the show that I do genuinely enjoy, and it’s not just the same old little thrills of recognising that issue of Hellboy that Ming is flicking through.
Because in a show like this, you can’t fake a genuine enthusiasm for something like comic books. You either got it or you don’t. In his introduction for Jonathan Ross’ Turf comic, Mark Millar writes about how you can tell when somebody is faking geekiness, and how it’s always obvious. It’s right to be suspicious of anybody who starts saying how much they love Jack Kirby’s Spider-Man (unless they are talking about the King’s brief role in the character’s genesis).
And the Comic Book Men might be occasionally obnoxious and rarely funny, they do love their comics. When somebody comes in with some gorgeous original John Buscema Silver Surfer art, there is nothing staged about the way store manager Walt breaks out in the cold sweats, or the goggle eyes on Mike when somebody whips out a copy of All-Star Comics #8
That’s the pay-off for all that crushing disappointment when somebody finds out their Aliens doll isn’t worth shit. Somebody comes in with some old comics that they don’t know anything about, and find out they’re walking around with a box worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of comics in it.
Bloody hell, even I got a bit excited about seeing some guy comes in with a Detective Comics #38, and there was nothing phoney about the way the Store staff barely contained their shit.
There was another part of one episode that I really liked, because it was so painfully familiar.
They’re rummaging through a pile of random comics at some yard sale, and it looks like the usual nineties painfulness, and then they stumble across a lovely little vein of fifties and sixties Jimmy Olsen comics, and Walt the manager’s slightly less comic-geeky friend is trying to talk to him about some other dorky thing, and Walt looks at him for a second, blinks, and then says ‘yeah, yeah’ and just totally ignores him, because he’s busy, damn it, seeing what other little beauties are in the pile, and doesn’t have time for any other bullshit..
Man, I have done this to my poor friends and family far too often, and I always feel bad about it afterwards, but when there is just enough time for one more look around the store, they can wait, damn their eyes!
It's these little touches of painful familiarity that I like so much about Comic Book Men, but I also like it when people come in with real treasures. And I like the show because comic shops are my favourite shops in the whole world, and I’m always keen to hang around one for a while, and see what they got. Even if it’s just on television.