Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In My Tribe, or We'll Always Have Swamp Thing

Websters Online describes a culture as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a specific group. It's a matter of background, shared experience and knowledge, common language, and a sense of belonging. Sometimes people are brought up in a culture, and sometimes people choose one of their own.

I grew up as a military child, and as such had a somewhat shifting, unstable existence. I didn't grow up in a culture of extended family, because our relatives all lived far away and my parents both had issue with their parents or siblings on some level or another. We didn't really have a religious identity, because my mom was Catholic but didn't always go to church, and my dad had no religion whatsoever and only went on Christmas and Easter when my mom hassled him. We didn't really have an ethnic heritage because my parents both come from pretty mixed families, and while there were some predominantly Italian influences from my mother's side, there wasn't really an overriding nationality. I didn't have a hometown because we moved every three or four years, and I didn't have long term friends for the same reason. That there are people now that I speak to and have known for ten, twelve, or twenty years still seems a little odd to me.

The constant in my childhood was comic books. The first sequential comics I bought were "The Saga of Swamp Thing" number fourteen and fifteen. I picked up the first when I was seven at the flea market, where my mom liked to go on weekends and would bring us along to, and it ended on a cliffhanger. I brought it to my dad and asked where and how I could find out what happened next, and he got me to a grocery store with a spinning comic rack the next month so that I could get the second half of the story. From there, a love of comics was born, and the steady act of purchasing them became a habit.

In Tennessee I got comics at the grocery store and the flea market. We moved to Alaska next, and I got them originally on base at the shopette, a convenience store on base that stopped carrying comics after the general's son saw an issue of "Dakota North" that had sex or swearing or something in it. After that we had a grocery store and also, once a month or so, a trip to the comic store two and a half hours away, one way, when mom and dad made their monthly visits to Sears and McDonald's. Moving from Alaska back to New York, there were grocery stores and bookstores, and when I got to college the comic store at the mall when I could convince a friend to drive me there. At about the time that I got out of college, comics moved out of grocery stores, so it was good that I had a car, since it was comic stores from then on.

As I've gotten older, the comic store has become my cultural center, for better or worse. It is the seat of my tribe, the place where we can gather to discuss our shared experiences and speak our language of retcon and reboot, of company wide crossover and variant cover, of Earth 616 and pre-Crisis continuity. My friends may not have been constant, but my knowledge of the various incarnations of Supergirl and the complete list of dead Teen Titans always is. Comics have been a point of stability in my life when I have no others, and my comic store gives me something to look forward to and somewhere to go no matter how badly everything else is.

This is my comic store:

Triad Comics

Moving here from New York was kind of stressful for me. Two weeks before I moved, a drunk driver hit my parked car and totalled it:

remember when?

On top of that, I was moving off campus for the first time ever. My parents, who normally call once a week, were calling six and seven times a day despite repeated requests to please stop doing that. I had to pack everything I owned, move away from the place I had lived for five years (the longest time I have ever continuously lived in one place in my life), leave all my friends, and come to strange city where I didn't know a single person that wasn't a future coworker. I didn't have an address, or a phone, or furniture, or a car, or a grocery store, or cable, or internet, or a comic store, and I set about trying to remedy those things as quickly as possible in the two weeks I had before my job started.

I got an apartment:

lving room/kitchen

I got a bed:

big bed

I got a car:


and I went looking for a comic store.

My first attempt did not go well. I went in, explained that I had just moved from New York and would like to find a new comic store, and began to ask questions. The answers to all of my questions were "no", and also "Thursday".

"Can I set up a subscription, or a pull list?" Most comic stores have these. You tell them what comics you regularly buy, and they pull them for you and keep them in a folder for you to come pick up.


"Can you special order a trade paperback if it's available and you don't have any in the store?"


"Are new comics ready on Wednesday?"

"No. Thursday."

It was horrible. I'm not sure if the guy hated Northerners, fags, or just customers in general, but he did not seem at all interested in having me spend money there on a regular basis, and I was crushed. What if the other stores were just as bad? What if they were somehow worse? Where would I buy my comics? I might as well just move back to New York if this was how living in the South was going to turn out. I posted this note for my friends and then fell asleep in my big people bed:

" *tears* The comic store was ok, but not perfect. Also, comics here come on Thursday, rather than Wednesday. Before I go back tomorrow I'm going to check out the other store in town."

Dejected but hopeful, I headed out the next morning to the second of three comic stores in town. This is the note I left for my friends when I got home:

" *sunshine* *sunshine* *sunshine* The comic store was wonderful! They had everything I want, and they do a pull list so that I don't have to come in the day they come out, and the guy was so nice! It was so much better than the store I went to yesterday. *sunshine* *sunshine* *sunshine* "

The nice guy was Mike. I walked into his little store next to the paint store and the coffin store and gave my speech about moving from New York and needing a new store, and he responded with a "Welcome to Tennessee!" and then started running down everything his store offered. He asked how I was settling in, what brought me here, whether I was enjoying it so far, and didn't once make me feel like a filthy carpetbagging Yankee. I felt accepted and welcomed, and over the past four years I've continued to feel that way. Mike and his wife, Tess, ask about work, offer sympathy, listen to complaints, answer emails, and offer a place where people like me can discuss Beppo the Super-Monkey and the final issue of Dazzler ("Because You Demanded It!") in an environment where it is not only welcomed, but encouraged.

I didn't have an address, or a car, or a bed, or a couch, but I had a comic store, and everything else would fall into place. Once again, comics were a refuge of familiarity and stability at a time when my life was completely in flux and I was convinced that I was going to die alone in the rain, probably at night, and Mike and Tess are the people who provided that. They're not just the people who take my money and give me comic books and Aquaman figures; they're also friends, and when they announced via the mailing list two weeks ago that they had to close the store for family obligations, I felt like I got punched in the gut. I've had two weeks to cycle through my stages of grief combined with a hefty dose of "Where will I get my comics now? I can't go back to that first store!" selfishness, and today was the last Wednesday that I will pick up comics at my store. On Saturday, they will close forever, but it won't just be my store that's gone.

The regulars will scatter. We may see each other at our new stores, but the other people there won't know us. It will take them a while to learn our names and our likes and dislikes. We won't feel comfortable jumping into discussions in their stores when we walk in, and they won't feel comfortable including us at first. For a while, we are going to be strangers in strange places, and the things we took for granted will be questions, not certainties, but for a while we were also a tribe. We had a culture, and a way of life, and a home, and I want to thank Mike and Tess for giving us that. I wish them the best, and they will be missed.


Liz said...

Beautifully written and so true. These people are your tribe and in a curious way that comic shop becomes temple and hearth. Saying that, I'm reminded how in many cultures the God/dess of the Hearth is very often and simultaneously the oldest and most sacred in their respective panthea. They are also - to modern scholars - often the least understood. Perhaps that is a clue to our failure today to love our fellow man.

Be sure to let us know how the other shops treat you.

Lauren said...

Oh wow. This is so sad, Joel. Thanks for writing about the journey.