Over the past few months, I’ve accumulated an ever-growing trade collection stack of fondly regarded funnybook runs. The whys and wherefores surrounding this development will probably be addressed in an upcoming dedicated feature (once the RPG one has been put to bed), but all that matters for this specific post is that scored a secondhand copy of the Dirty Pair: Plague of Angels paperback collection.
The original miniseries was the third domestically-produced licensed manga outing for the devastating duo of sci-fi troubleshooters, and the last before the franchise jumped from the ailing Eclipse Comics to Dark Horse. According to the collected editions’s indicia, Plague of Angels was originally released in 1990. The small existential crisis that revelation triggered was drowned out by lucid memories of picking up the third issue when it hit the stands.
I can recall it so clearly because it was weird as hell. My high school buddy Damian had some unspecified “business” to take care of in Wilmington and I tagged along for the ride. One of the stops was at the site of the old Trains & Games arcade, which had closed up shop and been replaced by an utterly doomed comic shop. I say “utterly doomed” because nothing about it gave any suggestion of permanence. The bulk of the floor space was given over to a couple of dozen longboxes filled with bagged but unsorted back issues, stacked on or under the type of fold-able tables normally associate with a function hall’s basement.
The store was, for all intents and purposes, a convention’s dealer’s room display with a commercial real estate lease, right down to the cashier’s uncertainty about whether he could make change for a two dollar and twenty-five cent funnybook paid for with a fiver. Ironically, the sheer absence of character or atmosphere is why I’m still able to recall it nearly three decades later.
It was an extreme example of the strange of class of very short-lived comics shops that emerged in the immediate pre-Image boom period. They weren’t part of a dedicated trend as much as independent offshoots drafting off the “sports cards and collectables” frenzy gripping the speculator set. Optimism about “rising tides lifting all boats” and all that jazz married to romantic visions of a fanboy’s dream job, and further buoyed by recession-reduced commercial rental rates.
I didn’t have a preferred place to purchase the handful of titles I still followed during those years. If I passed by some place during my punk rock wanderings, I’d go in, scoop up whenever issues I’d missed, and be set for another month or two. I rarely hit the same place twice, and I doubt I could’ve even if I wanted to. Previously empty storefronts would briefly sport a Wolverine standee and “Marvel Comics Sold Here” sign before reverting back to the yellowed-newspaper-taped-to-glass aesthetic the next time I passed by the location. There was a strong indentikit vibe to the places. They’d been set up quickly and cheaply, sported the same ensemble of publisher-issued promo posters, and never lasted enough to develop any sense of material character — just various configurations of longboxes, bagged books, and an overloud boombox, plus the scent of whatever takeout combo the proprietor had for lunch that day.
They were so short-lived and nondescript, I can’t any of the shops’ names. When I think of them, it’s always in terms of locations “the place along Mass Ave” or “the one next to the Medford post office.”
There was one that I genuinely did appreciate and miss when it vanished. It was on Main Street in Winchester opposite the Swanton Street intersection, not that far from where I currently live. The owner took the pains to make the place feel like more than some funnybook selling Flying Dutchman. The new release racks and back issue bins were made of hardwood, and lent a distinct fragrance to the place. He was also friendly and knowledgeable, and eager (but not too eager) to offer suggestions. He also had the finest quarter bin stock I’ve ever seen in a shop — a smorgasbord of unbagged but otherwise pristine Bronze Age overstock that never failed to pad out my order by a few bucks during my visits. It was a good enough place to make me want to bike there every Saturday morning during the summer of 1991, and it hepped me to several books that became regular reads and enduring favorites.
…and I still couldn’t tell you what the store’s name was for the life of me.