I know how to get to Comic Book Heaven. It’s not hard to find. In fact, if you live in New York City, you can take the subway. Ride the Flushing Local to 49th Street in Queens, and walk to Skillman Avenue. Take a left, walk past the Indonesian Mosque, and look up: the sign above the store front is a little faded, but there it is – Comic Book Heaven.
A couple of books have been published delving into detail — critical detail — about the financial hardships and soap-opera turmoil experienced by big comics publishers like Marvel and DC before they were snapped up by Viacom and Disney. But the real burden of the perpetually depressed comic book market doesn’t fall on the shoulders of companies in skyscraper suites in Manhattan. It falls on the people who sell comics for a living, people without the support of a multibillion-dollar corporation, people who open up shop without a whole hell of a lot more than a love of comics and a dream of owning their own business. People like Joe, owner and sole proprietor of Comic Book Heaven.
I only met Joe once, in 2001, when Rex Mundi was first coming out from Image Comics, and I’ll never forget him. He’d been in business for a long time – the only thing thicker than his prescription glasses was his New York accent. Comic Book Heaven was only open five hours a day, five days a week. A musty smell was first thing that greeted me when I walked into the shop, and the floor space near the window had been given over to used books and thrift-store ceramic dolls and plates.
I went to Comic Book Heaven as part of my tour of every comic book store in Manhattan and Queens to “promote” Rex Mundi, which pretty much consisted of me wandering into a store and begging whoever was at the register to order a few copies. Joe wasn’t interested in my pitch; most of the smaller shops weren’t. I had to force him to take some free previews I had brought with me.
Not that I could blame him. Joe’s shop had obviously gone into decline since (as I later learned) The Great Comic Book Bust of the mid 90s. He had enough trouble selling X-Men and Batman – what the hell was he going to do with a weird little murder mystery comic about Jesus?
Failing to pique Joe’s interest, I asked him about his experience selling comics over the years, and he was more than happy to tell his tale. Hell, I thought I would walk into his store and sell him my story, but he ended up selling me his.
“I remember in ’93, my wife had to stand at the door and turn people away, my shop was so busy,” Joe told me. “I had twenty-five people in my store all day some days. This, of course, was before the crash.”
At that time I didn’t know anything about “the crash” of the mid 90s, or the history of comics in general. I had just finished working on a few film sets and decided making movies was not for me. My comics “career” started out as more of a means than an end, a way to tell a Hollywood-scale story with a punk rock budget.
When I asked Joe about the crash, and he looked at me as if I were stupid.
“You sure don’t know a hell of a lot about a comics for someone in the industry,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’m really in the industry,” I said.
“Well, listen,” he replied, visibly irritated, although I couldn’t help feeling he liked having someone to talk to. Throughout our entire conversation, no one entered the store. “It was Marvel that caused the crash. Them and DC. Your company [Image] was part of the problem too, but you can’t blame them, they just wanted a piece.”
“And what was the problem?” Joe gave me another Jesus-Christ-you-are-an-idiot look, but he continued.
“You know how many titles Marvel has out there now ? ’Bout 50. You know how many they had in 1996? 150. There was just too much. No one could keep up, there were too many gimmicks, too many holofoil-cover issues, too many titles. It used to be a customer could walk out of my store with a stack of eight comics for ten bucks. Now ten buys you, what, three comics? Can you believe they were charging five bucks for a comic?”
“Were there a lot more stores before the crash?” I asked.
“Of course,” Joe replied. His annoyance was beginning to melt away. “I was lucky, because I had some money saved up, and I saw the crash coming, so I didn’t order too much. I knew guys that made $10,000 orders for their stores for comics they could never sell. Still, I’ve got a basement full of comics. Marvel would sell a comic, and then not deliver it for months and months after it was supposed to ship. By the time it finally got here, there was no way to sell the damn thing. No one wanted it. Marvel didn’t have the right to do that, they couldn’t do that, but we didn't know. We weren't smart.”
“But do you think things are getting better now?” I asked. Joe’s reply was simple.
When I asked why he didn’t start selling video games to help turn a profit, he just shrugged. “I don’t need to sell video games,” he said. “I sell comic books. What’s with these video games? There’s no story, it’s just ya-ya-ya. The way I look at it, if you don’t read comics, you’re not an American kid.”
I’m not sure if Joe’s still around. I sure hope so. An Internet search dispelled some of my fear – Comic Book Heaven is still open for business. Things are a little better than when I spoke to Joe, for publishers, anyway. But the independent shop owners continue to bear the biggest share of the risk and the smallest slice of the returns. The fact that any independent retailers are still around is a minor miracle – so here’s to them. I don’t even care if a small shop has the clientele to carry my comics. That’s where I go for my funny books, and if it takes them a few weeks to special order whatever I’m looking for, then so be it. There’s a Comic Book Heaven in just about every town in America, and if enough of us readers give a shit, there always will be.
The second-and-final volume of the Rex Mundi omnibus editions is officially out and about. It's the way the series was meant to be read.
The best place to get Rex Mundi, of course, is your local comic book shop. If they don't have it, they'll order it for you. You can also get it on amazon, of course, but I'll bet your local shop (unlike amazon!) doesn't hire neo-Nazi security guards to intimidate its employees. If that sort of thing bothers you.
As part of the media/marketing frenzy leading up to the release of the two-volume Rex Mundi omnibus (doublebus?), there's a new interview with moi up right now at geeksmash.com. Find out about all the evil, despicable things I did working as a production assistant for Troma's Toxic Avenger IV!