Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out

In Cometbus #51, “The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah,” Aaron Cometbus examines the history of the 2400 block of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA, where a handful of forceful personalities settled to form businesses that would influence the course of book retailing and publishing, and would also impact more than three generations of culture in the Bay Area and the world beyond.

Cometbus starts with Morris “Moe” Moskowitz, whose bookstore Moe’s is legitimately legendary, and his brief partnership with Bill Cartwright, who opened Shakespeare & Co. across the street after their turbulent falling out. Those are the places that I started my relationship with Telegraph, and in exactly that order, in 1996 when I was an 18 year old kid crashing on the dorm floors of friends going to Cal, which is what locals call UC Berkeley. At the time, I was languishing at a crummy Cal State school in my home town of Northridge and figuring out what to do next after market forces chloroformed my teenage enterprise Feature Magazine.

Back then I was jealous of the vitality of the Bay Area, and Cometbus’ history gives a brilliant encapsulation as to why. On that one block of one street, you not only had Moe’s and gimpy, jilted ex Shakespeare’s. There was Amoeba Records, which was the greatest record store I’d seen up to that point in my life. Across the street from that was Cody’s, a huge and well-regarded independent bookstore. Moe’s was next to Cody’s and beside Moe’s was Reprint Mint, a poster shop spun off from the failed partnership that was Print Mint – one of the first, and most important publishers of Underground Comix. Shambhala Books was next to that, and it was still there when I started visiting Berkeley. Shambhala started out in a corner of Moe’s and went on to revolutionize a corner of the book business by developing a model for retailing and publishing new age books. I’m not gonna step on Aaron’s story anymore, because it’s really good, and you should buy a copy. But it did get me thinking about what a powerful force the Bay Area, and the East Bay in particular, has been in my life and in the life of the comics industry.

Back in ‘96, Comics & Comix was still there, kitty corner to Shakespeare & Co. on the next block of Telegraph. By then C&C was there in name only, but there were plenty of former staffers around, many of whom went on to be players in other important enterprises, who would tell you about how it was back in the heyday.

Comics & Comix was established in 1972 by John Barrett, Robert Beerbohm, and Bud Plant. The latter just last summer announced his intention to retire from running an amazing mail order comics and art book retail business. Wikipedia tells me that those guys put on Berkeleycon, the Bay Area’s first comic book convention, on the Cal campus a year later. At the same time, across the bay, Gary Arlington’s San Francisco Comic Book Company was a focal point for artists and fans of the flourishing Underground comix scene. You can be certain that every major underground cartoonist we revere today set foot in Arlington’s store. Last Gasp was going strong by then, as was Don Donahue’s Apex Novelties, and the aforementioned Print Mint. Dan O’Neill instigated the infamous Air Pirates collective, and was beginning the fight of his life against Disney around the time that Berkeleycon opened its doors. I have no idea who was at that show, and I don’t know that I’d believe anyone who claimed to remember the guest list either, but if local talent did show up, you could have seen anyone from Crumb to Spiegelman to Trina Robbins, Rick Griffin, Spain, Greg Irons, Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, S. Clay Wilson, or any of the dozens of incredible artists who lived or passed through the area at the time.

Even though the underground comix business fell apart in the aftermath of the 1973’s Miller v. California obscenity test, comics never left the Bay Area. When I finally moved there in January 2000, it was home to three of the country’s most influential comic book stores: Comic Relief, Comix Experience, and Flying Colors of Concord being the most established and iconic at that time. Isotope had either just started, or was just about to start out in the Sunset district in San Francisco. And the place was as lousy with cartoonists then as it was 30 years prior. I hung out at the local art nights, which we’d now call Drink & Draws, I guess, and you’d see folks like Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, Jesse Reklaw, Ben Catmull, Erik Nebel, Trevor Alixopolous, Shaennon Garrity, Fred Noland, Andrice Arp, Andrew Farago, Thien Pham, Gene Yang, Shannon OLeary, Derek Kirk Kim, Laurenn McCubbin, and others I’m not including either because my memory sucks or because I’m not sure whether they were in the area then or moved in later.

Within a few months of moving there I was working days for Derek McCulloch, the comic book writer and co-founder of the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, doing word processing at a science firm, which, for the most part, meant that we typed about dirt. At night I was hustling freelance working for’s The Splash, Calvin Reid’s quarterly PW Comics section, and anywhere else I could sell an article. One day Ron Turner from Last Gasp called me at work on a matter related to an article I was developing, and I answered “Word Processing.” “I could use some of that,” he said, and so I picked up a first shift night job as a publishing assistant for Ron as well. Back then, the Bay Area was the kind of place where you could go and, as Alec Longstreth is fond of saying, “comics will love you back.” It certainly looked after me, albeit in that low wage way that is enough to satisfy a young person who won’t be dissuaded from pursuing a certain path.

Probably no one looked after me better than Rory Root, the founder of Comic Relief, who I still deeply, deeply miss. Rory was cut from the same cloth as Moe Moskowitz, and like Moe, was a true Berkeley character. If you never met him, he looked exactly like a cross between Oski, the Cal Golden Bear mascot, and the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons, but with longer hair and fewer teeth. Moe presided over his store, sitting by the window chomping on a cigar and lording his domain. Rory perched himself on a stool outside, wearing his ubiquitous hat and a worn out oversized Comic Relief t-shirt, while chain smoking Camel Filters and guzzling gallons of coffee from a travel mug bearing a very well-worn Beanworld sticker.

Rory loved talking what he called SMOF, or Secret Masters of Fandom, stuff – deep comics art and business calculus. To this day there still isn’t a single person who moves as freely between retail, creative, industry, and library circles as Rory did. The job title on his business card was “schmoozer.” That guy knew everyone, and he made you believe he knew everything. He knew a lot, he loved to share it, he loved to learn more, and he gave a damn. His style of giving a damn was to be voracious in all things. If you were a cartoonist or enthusiast, he’d carry your book (on consignment, of course), and if you needed work, he’d probably try to accommodate you. CR’s creator alumni list would make an acclaimed anthology: Ed Brubaker, Landry Walker, Eric Jones, and Dylan Williams, to name a few. He wanted to carry everything, especially if he could brutalize you on the discount. For all the pejorative tales of Rory’s thrift, management weaknesses, and gluttony, however, most people I know have fond memories of the time they got to spend with him, and of the contributions he made. Rory really established the model of the comic bookstore in the United States, and was a champion of all kinds of comics. There are artists who have only become viable since his death that he took an inventory position on when they were first starting to make comics. That’s pretty admirable. I miss the late nights we’d spend sitting in his shop after hours smoking cigarettes and drinking Bushmills, and still appreciate the times when I couldn’t afford a decent meal that he’d make up a reason to take me out for one. He wasn’t a saint, and there’s plenty of folks who’d tell you that, but he was a genuinely sweet man who was a true believer in comics and the people who make them.

That’s the thing about the Bay Area: it invites true believers, it pushes them into each other’s company, and then it gets out of the way and lets things happen. Rory came from Best of Two Worlds, the store Beerbohm opened after Comics & Comix. So did Brian Hibbs. I’ll let you ask Brian about those days, but certainly something was in the air that those two guys would go off and open up stores the way they thought a comic store should be run. And damned if they weren’t right.

Diana Schutz came from Comics & Comix, where she started in 1981 by working behind the counter, and within a year moved up to establishing and editing The Telegraph Wire, a bi-monthly 32 page magazine distributed at the seven C&C stores. Her hardcore work ethic and insightful interview questions put her in contact with some of the most important creative people in the business and set the stage for them to think of her when opportunities arose on the editorial side of comics. She’s since gone on to be one of the best, and most important, editors in the field.

Larry Marder likes to talk about the time, back in 1984, when Berkeley hosted the sole Petuniacon, a Cerebus and alt comics focused show that he credits as his “Passage From Virgin to Bride” where he walked in a fan and walked out a pro. The talent there was something else: Dave & Deni Sim, Los Bros Hernandez, Gary Groth, Jim Valentino, Chris Claremont, Trina Robbins, Mike Friedrich, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, and others. Check out this scan of the program, you’ll plotz. Larry may have been one of about 9 fans who walked in. Sometimes there’s magic in disasters because a vital community has gotten together, and the fact of getting all those people who believe together is what makes the moment special.

Sure, these things could have happened anywhere, but in the Bay Area they happen so frequently that it defies the law of averages. Something else is at play. In highlighting one small block of Berkeley, Cometbus was able to demonstrate how a few personalities can change the world, and how that area is able to facilitate their doing so. There’s something in that place that behaves as a kind of life force for art. It ignites torches that are passed down and able to burn long.

And the fire, thankfully, continues to burn.

Last weekend I was talking to Eric Stephenson, Image’s publisher, about the Cometbus story. I told him he needed to read it, because now he was a part of that history. “That’s a weird thought,” he said. But it’s true. Image is the latest publisher to take root there, and to attract true believers from the community to make things happen. Eric has some incredible members of the Comic Relief diaspora on his team: Ed Brubaker and Derek McCulloch on the creative side; Todd Martinez, Branwyn Bigglestone, Sarah Delaine, and Tyler Shainline in the office. Bay natives Erik Larsen, Jimmie Robinson, and Al Gordon are part of the company’s creative DNA. Image has been named best publisher in the East Bay several times, and is part of a history that includes Print Mint, Apex Novelties, Star*Reach and Last Gasp. They’re part of the current generation of what makes for singular Bay Area publishing.

This weekend they’re having a convention I’m glad to be going to -- Image Expo. The show’s conceit is that it’s a celebration of creator owned comics, honoring Image’s 20th Anniversary, for the local community. I dunno if it’s gonna be another Petuniacon, or if it’s gonna be the birth of a hit, like the first few WonderCons back when Joe Field & Mike Friedrich were putting that show on. Either way, it will certainly be one hell of a gathering of incredibly interesting people, where I’m sure lots of new ideas will be born, and I’m sure at least a few folks will walk in fans and walk out pros. You just can’t have a show like this in the Bay without lighting some fires.

Eric’s disquiet at the notion of being part of the history Cometbus wrote leads me to a pretty solid statement Aaron popped into his conclusion: “By the time you’re ready to take on your elders as equals, they’re dead. That’s the deal. I get it. But, every time I enter Moe’s, I wonder why it took so long to ready ourselves. Was I – and the rest of my generation – coddled & slow, or were Moe and the rest of the ‘colorful characters’ so patronizing and so generous with their judgment that they never gave us room to grow.”

I’m glad I came from comics and not punk, because I didn’t have that problem with my elders. Hell, Rory, Ron, they made sure I had work, food, alcohol, and company; they shared their knowledge; they nurtured the flame. But for me, probably for Eric, by the time you’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with those elders as equals, they’re out of the scrum. So what you’re doing is ensuring the flame doesn’t go out. You’re paying it forward.

Who knows what the next chapter of the Bay Area’s comics, art or cultural history will be? I do believe that it’ll be positive. Way too much interesting stuff has happened against incredible odds. Too many interesting people have settled or passed through there and done influential things. When I’m at Image Expo this weekend, I’ll be thinking of the time I lived there, of the friends I’ll never see again, and I’ll honor them by keeping an eye open for the next generation coming through with that spark in their eyes. I’ll do my best to pay it forward. That’s what those guys did for me. That’s the least I can do for them.


Image of Rory Root & Brian Hibbs, presumably at the grand opening of the second Comic Relief location, was ganked from The Savage Critic.


PapaDogDuvalier said...

Great post, Charles. I really have to pick up that issue of Cometbus now.

I'll add my own little bit of lore on the confluence of that block of Telegraph and the history of comics. Back around 1990, my good friend (and future Image artist) Shepherd Hendrix happened to meet a guy who was going to open a comics store in Berkeley. I asked Shep not half an hour ago about this, and he had to confess that he couldn't remember how me met the guy -- or even what his name was -- but it seems likely that it had something to do with Shep's time as a display artist for Tower Records. Anyway, the guy was looking for an artist to design a logo for his new store, and Shep happily took the assignment for, more than likely, a flat hundred bucks. The store of course was Amoeba, which opened up in the spot that had been occupied by Comics & Comix when I first moved to Berkeley, and eventually went on to cover the greater part of the block. After 22 years of Amoeba bags, store signs, print advertisements, and so forth, Shep easily lays claim to having created the single most reproduced illustration of any artist I know.

Diana Schutz said...

Charles, your post brings back so many warm memories of Rory -- thanks for those -- and of the Berkeley years, Comics & Comix, Petuniacon, and all. Those really were transformative years for me: the then-unpublished Mike Mignola and Arthur Adams regularly stopping by the shop to show their hopeful drawings; meeting Dave & Deni, back when those two names were always said as one, on their official "First American Tour 1982"; discovering Beanworld and then Larry, in that order; the long, long line around the Best of Two Worlds block, for Frank signing Daredevil #181, Beerbohm pissed off that I'd squirreled him away to lunch, when we'd just met the day before; Harlan, Schreck, Dean Mullaney, all the people who would find a spot in my heart and make themselves a home there for good. And Rory, whose friendship survived the enmity of our respective bosses, despite their ridiculous edict forbidding us even to talk; the after-work drinks we shared in secret, looking over our shoulders down The Avenue, as Telegraph was referred to in those days and maybe even still is. Rory always wanted to write a book about the war between Beerbohm and Barrett, between Best of Two Worlds and C&C. He got as far as the title: Store Wars.

When I go back to the Bay Area to visit, I am always rocked by a tremendous sense of loss, for all that I left behind there, the impossible energy of those years, the excitement of the early days of the direct market and of self- and independent publishing.

It feels good to know that light hasn't gone out, that it keeps shining on successive generations, kids who are hungry like I was, still am, to give something important and maybe even lasting to comics. I wish Rory were still here to see it, but I guess he'll always be a part of it.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this post! Growing up in the Bay Area, it was easy to be completely oblivious to all the history-making aspects of everyday life around here. My mother created Petuniacon and did her level best to "put on a show" that would be worthy of the guests and attendees. (Whether she was successful, of course, depends on who you ask -- but I had a great time working there.) Later, convincing Bob Beerbohm to hire me at Best of Two Worlds was probably one of the most daunting tasks I'd ever accomplished as a teenager in Berkeley, and I met some lifelong friends there: Matt, Emil, and Rebekah have all gone on to other things, and I love them all still.

And then there's Rory. He was a family friend for many years before Comic Relief opened, and our friendship somehow survived the several periods of time that I worked for him. Rory was a human gateway - to comics, to gaming, to an astonishing array of people, to all kinds of books and music and foods. I miss him still, sharply and often. That big thermos of his, though? It was full of tea, not coffee.

I still love comics. I still want to be a part of this amazing, creative, clever, and funny community. This post sums up so many of the reasons. Thank you for the reminder.