Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Comics in Parkdale - The Draw of a Good Comic Book Store

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Naben Ruthnum

by Naben Ruthnum

My interest in superhero movies has plunged to zero in the past couple of years, but I’ve found myself steadily reading more comic books. Thinking about this just after the recent Authors for Indies Day, when we all burn effigies of Jeff Bezos and justly celebrate local independent bookstores, I’m happy to admit that the spike in my comics-reading is due to the opening of a new comic book store in my neighbourhood: West End Comics, in Parkdale.

The owner, Kirk, and his Australian cattledog Satchel run a small store that is full of things that interest me completely (weird polybagged 70s horror comics) and others that barely register for me but are the main event for other customers (a large selection of action figures and sculptures). It’s the same general idea as every other comic book store, but as with a good bookstore, the curation makes it.

If there’s a defining difference between the bookstore-consumer relationship and the comic book store-consumer relationship, it’s the pull list. A pull list is the little file that the owner keeps for each regular client behind the counter, filling it every Wednesday (the on-shelf date for new books) with the titles that he or she is following. In my case, West End’s owner Kirk puts aside issues of Alan Moore’s H.P. Lovecraft comic Providence, Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s violent Biblical epic The Goddamned, and a couple of others.

Kirk also picks out new titles that he thinks I’d like, which I almost always try. Comics prices have inflated along with everything else, but a price of around 4 bucks to sample a new title is tough to resist. It’s coffee money for a venture into what could be a masterful display of a type of visual storytelling that is, incidentally, totally beyond my abilities as a writer. I’ve tried to write comics-scripts before and can’t quite make them work, somehow: perhaps because I can’t draw anything, not even those Stan Lee stickfigures that Jack Kirby turned into a fundamental piece of our visual culture.

Almost all of my comics reading takes place in the “creator-owned” arena of books: somewhere between superhero books and what we generally think of as the “independent” graphic novels and comics of the sort published by Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. If the comics I read were converted into novels, they’d be filed in the horror or mystery or crime section of a bookstore. Usually plot-rich, with the storytelling both streamlined and ornamented by the combination of script with graphic, they give me an experience of story that is unique to comics, and one that is both hard and annoying to explain to skeptics. It’s a different version of the done-to-death and quite dull genre fiction vs. literary fiction debate. I don’t bother, anymore, save to say that there’s a lot more to comics than superheroes, and that even the superhero books are more sophisticated and clever than a dismissive reader may think. Still, they’ll be there whether you approve of them or not. (I do have a couple of go-to recommendations for people who are considering their first comic: the currently-running Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, or Paul Chadwick’s Concrete. Let the title guide you to the book you’d prefer.)

As geek culture becomes increasingly indistinguishable from mainstream pop culture (it’s hard to feel individually possessive of properties that regularly gross a half billion dollars at the box office), it makes sense that an increasing number of casual comics readers should be drawn into the comic store, but sales figures don’t necessarily bear this out. The clientele at West End Comics is pretty diverse, thanks to Kirk’s talent for stocking titles that suit the neighbourhood, and a knowledge-base about vintage comics that brings serious collectors into the store to engage in dealings that I sometimes spy on. My own comics, unpolybagged and loose, but periodically sorted and ordered, are stacked on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookshelf. Mostly in good condition, occasionally water or coffee or beer-stained, they sit waiting for their second phase of distribution: lending them to friends who will likely never give them back. That’s fine, though; that pull-list folder fills up every week, and my shelf-space is limited.

If you'd like to see what Naben is on to in Parkdale, visit West End Comics' website by clicking this line.

Naben Ruthnum lives in Parkdale, where he writes literary and genre fiction. He also writes criticism, and was last year's Crimewave columnist at the National Post. Naben won the 25th annual Journey Prize for his short story, Cinema Rex, and continues to publish widely.

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