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.
No one loves America quite like France. Hold on! I'm serious. We dither away a lot of time over here complaining about the snootiness of the French, but in some ways they understand and appreciate American culture more than we ever will. Take Michel Houellebecq, one of the most well-respected contemporary French writers. He did an entire book on H.P. Lovecraft. An entire book! How many smarty-pants American writers have even bothered to read Lovecraft, never mind appreciate him? Who're the real snobs here?
Hervé Scott-Flament, Houellebecq's fellow countryman, is one of my absolute favorite fantasy artists. He's as obsessed as I am with Clark Ashton Smith, an American writer, a contemporary of Lovecraft. Like Houellebecq, Scott-Flament is the perfect case study of a French person savoring a piece of American culture we Americans have by and large overlooked. How Flament learned about Smith, I'll never know – Lovecraft has a pretty durable cult following, but Smith is virtually buried in time. I guess we'll just have to chalk it up to Flament being French. He's cool like that.
As far as world-building goes, no one can touch Smith. He doesn't get into the hyper-obsessive detail of Tolkein, but he doesn't need to. Painting with broad strokes, implying more than his words state, is what he's best at. His creations range from Hyperborea, a lush, tropical and ice-doomed Antarctica of the distant past, to Zothique, the Last Continent, withering in the glow of an engorged sun tens of thousands of years in the future.
Before seeing Scott-Flament's paintings I thought it was impossible to depict Smith's worlds in paint. But by golly, Scott-Flament does it, in droves. His medium of choice is oil on wood, and it gives his images a beguiling, hazy murkiness that perfectly captures the weirdness of Smith. Scott-Flament is interested in all kinds of outlandish organic forms – fungi, jellyfish, female reproductive organs – and all kinds of uncomfortable juxtapositions. But everything comes together seamlessly into wonderfully chaotic, gleefully baroque and utterly majestic depictions of alien worlds that somehow manage to be eerily like our own.
Certain paintings of Scott-Flament depict children encountering weird, alien beings and plant life with… well, the innocence of children. It's as if Scott-Flament is inviting the viewer to engage with his art in the same way, with wonder instead of revulsion. Sometimes it takes a while to find the people in his paintings, and when you do, hoo boy! The scale of the painting is always surprising. Tiny gardens become vast jungles, and vast jungles become tiny gardens.
Scott-Flament keeps alive the glory days of Heavy Metal magazine, when "Adult Fantasy" meant something other than chain mail soap opera or Massively-Multiplayer Online Skinner Boxes (MMOSB). I, for one, am very appreciative. You can check out much more of Scott-Flament's art on his site.
All the above images are Hervé Scott-Flament's, of course. I'm posting them with the assumption the artist doesn't mind me doing so, but if he does, I'll take ’em right down. Scott-Flament is on facebook; friendship request sent!
Edit 1.15.13: He doesn't mind! Whatta mensch.
It's hard to attach labels like "horror" or "science fiction" or "fantasy" to his stories because Hodgson wrote before such epithets properly existed – in the early 1900s, the age of jolly, slimy old King Edward.
The Night Land, Hodgson's longest novel, is literally the most brilliant thing I've ever read. It's the seed of virtually every genre of science fiction, from cyberpunk to space opera. Part medieval romance, part post-apocalyptic epic, part cosmic horror allegory, part utopian fantasy, the story is set in the world of the unimaginably distant future, in which the sun has died and humanity lives in a massive, pyramidal fortress, surrounded by demons but sustained by a mysterious force called the "Earth Current". Hodgson wrote The Night Land 100 years ago, but it will still be just fresh and strange and wonderful 100 years from now. And beyond.
But the best thing about Hodgson's writing, for me, is his complete and utter lack of cynicism. Hodgson believed in the power of love and courage above all the cruelty, horror and desolation of modernity. He, like HP Lovecraft, was writing a counterpoint to the materialist, "relativist" world of the emergent 20th Century. But unlike Lovecraft, who saw only madness and self-annihilation, Hodgson saw the triumph of hope and the human spirit. His stories are not only beautiful works of the imagination, they are beautiful works of the spirit.
I freely admit Hodgson's not the easiest writer to get comfortable with. The overall style of The Night Land is... strange. Virtually every paragraph begins with "And", for instance. But, for me at least, the strangeness of the style only adds to the story. Hodgson frequently wrote in the first person, in the voice of someone not accustomed to writing but with an intensely passionate need to tell their story. Every sentence of The Night Land drips with that unadulterated passion, which more than makes up for the occasional – and intentional, in my opinion – awkwardness of the prose.
Nor is The Night Land Hodgson's only masterpiece. The House on the Borderland is the first piece of his that I read. Like The Night Land, it changed my perception of reality, permanently. In some ways The House on the Borderland anticipated Einstein and general relativity. And Hodgson's Carnacki stories are utterly magnificent – so magnificent, they deserve their own post.
This is my 100th entry on Arvidland, and I can't of a better way to celebrate than with a post on William Hope Hodgson, the forgotten master. Hodgson died in 1918, in Belgium, in the muck and smoke of The Great War. He never made very much money off of his stories, and he's been all but forgotten. But his spirit lives on in those few people who read and understand. Amor vincit omnia, William.
I say, Old Chap! Turns out there's a real-life Greystoke Castle in Northern England.
The "History and Heritage" page of the castle's Web site reveals some interesting – and sad – tidbits, especially how the British Army confiscated the estates during World War II to train tank crews and later to house Polish POWs who fought for zee Germans. Reminds me a little of the fate of Brideshead Castle in Brideshead Revisited.
But what fun! You can hire the estate for "conferences, open days, product launches and other events". If only I had a conference to throw or some Polish prisoners of war...