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If TIME magazine can be considered a cultural barometer, then anyone who wants to call himself “cultured” had better start reading some comics.
A few months ago, right alongside its lists of the best music and film of 2007, the magazine published a list of its “Top 10 Graphic Novels” of the year for the first time. It was filled with everything from individual issues of “Superman” comic books to little-known, underground comics.
But chances are, if you’re the average American, you don’t even know what “graphic novel” means. The term tends to refer to either bound collections of individual issues of comic books or actual novels written in comic-book format.
TIME is hardly alone in assuming that the country is ready for comic book culture. This summer, Hollywood will try to replicate the success of recent movies inspired by superhero comics. “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Incredible Hulk” will all shoot to become the next “Spider-Man 3” at the box office.
So what’s a cultured Harvard student to do? They don’t teach you about the hottest underground comics in your English classes, and you don’t learn the secret origins of Iron Man in Chemistry.
Luckily, Harvard students have a rare set of resources at their disposal.
In and around the Harvard campus, there are four treasure troves of comic books, unique to the area and unseen by most Harvard students. And behind them lie four decades’ worth of history, mystery, and rivalry.
THE INEXPLICABLE PILE
The most puzzling of Harvard’s comic book resources is paradoxically the easiest for students to access. It’s free to anyone with a Harvard ID, it has over 10,000 individual comic books, and it sits in the Quincy House Library (the Qube), waiting for perusal.
In large white binders filling numerous shelves in an alcove of the Qube are thousands of comic books parked in plastic sleeves. Inside those pages sit stories about Batman, Spider-Man, World War II adventurers, and any number of other action-packed tales from the world of comic books.
For instance, there’s a yellowed copy of “World’s Finest”—a now-defunct series about team-ups between Batman and Superman—from 1970, containing a story called “DIG NOW, DIE LATER!” On the cover, the two superheroes are telling their sidekicks to dig their own graves, while Batman wields a rifle, ready to kill them off.
As with all the comics, it sits untouched, unpoliced, and at the ready.
“The collection is impressive. I wish somebody would look at it,” says Kimberly D. Hagan ’09, a desk attendant at the Qube.
James J. Talbot, a local comics expert, former comics store owner, and current head of a semi-annual comics convention, says the value of these comics lies not in their resale value but their content.
“I see guys with collections like this all the time,” he says. He picks up an issue of mid-90s superhero comic “Spawn” and points at it. “They’ll come to the convention and sell issues like this for maybe fifty cents.” Even the rarer ones, like the “World’s Finest” issue, wouldn’t catch much at auction due to wear and tear.
But that’s not really the point. Private collections might be this comprehensive, but this collection is one that’s open to any Harvard student, free of charge. “It’s a reader thing!” Talbot says. “You know, it’s good that kids can just come in here and plow through this stuff.”
While no one is quite sure how the comic collection got to Quincy, what seems clear is that it all began in the 1960s under Stephen M. Agli, who was the house librarian at the time. When Agli died in 2007 he took with him his knowledge of the collection’s origins.
In the late 1990s, the collection doubled, reaching its current size, though the details of this event remain spotty as well.
“During my time at Quincy, an alumnus of Quincy House donated his entire comic book collection,” Timothy D. Foley ’98 says. But neither he nor the librarian of the time know who the donor was. Back then, Foley was a so-called “comic book czar,” a short-lived title given to the student who managed the comic book collection.
But somewhere along the line, money for purchasing new comics stopped coming in. Since Foley’s graduation and Rubin’s departure, the line of the “comics czars” has gone the way of the Russian ones.
OF ‘DABBLERS’ AND COMPETITIVE COOPERATION
“They’re just dabblers, man!” yells Stephen D. Bacon. He’s a clerk at Million Year Picnic, one of Harvard Square’s three comic book stores, and he’s talking about one of the store’s competitors—Newbury Comics. “People will ask them about certain comics, and they’ll just say, ‘Huh? Yeah, uh, it’s pretty.’” Bacon is only half-joking. He goes on to say that he regularly refers customers to Newbury if they’re looking for an item that Million Year Picnic doesn’t sell.
Basic economics should predict that someone like Bacon would have even more competitive vitriol. After all, it’s not often that three comic book retailers coexist in a one-mile radius—much less coexist for decades, as these stores have.
Yet, according to the people who work at those three stores—Picnic, Newbury, and New England Comics—that kind of friendly competition and cooperation makes their stores particularly friendly to comics newcomers. As Bacon says, “Every store suits a niche.”
Picnic, located on Mt. Auburn St., is probably the most overtly newbie-friendly of the three, featuring a special binder for anyone with zero comics knowledge. Each page has a heading like “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Comics” or “Great Superhero Comics.”
Below each heading is a short list of graphic novels and monthly comics series that fit the description—a starter set for anyone intimidated by the world of comics jargon and history.
“Whether you’re six or 60, you should be able to come in here and find something you like,” says Tony F. Davis ’84, the soft-spoken owner of Picnic.
Apparently, people have found things they’ve liked—the store has been around since 1974, making it one of the oldest comics shops in the country.
The store is small, but every wall and crevice has a different kind of literature that you could call “comics.” There are shelves and shelves of individual issues from the two largest publishers of superhero comics, Marvel and DC, and people regularly shop there for such comics. And Picnic stays on top by filling other niches, as well.
“We probably have more underground comics, comics by local creators, and reprints of old classics,” he says. “We have more humor, more collections of newspaper-strips,” he adds, pointing to an entire shelf of such collections, containing strips as old as “Dennis the Menace” and as new as “The Boondocks”.
Those “underground” comics are also a big selling point. In one corner of the store, you can find books of abstract comic art, critically-acclaimed fictional graphic novels, and works of autobiography.
The idea of going the extra mile to give information to an interested but uninformed buyer is key to Picnic’s business. “With underground comics, we took a different tack,” Davis says. Take the cult hit series “Eightball,” by Daniel Clowes. “The idea was to say, ‘Did you like ‘Eightball’ #5? We have #1, too.’ That way, we could build readership.”
“We get a lot of people who read about a given graphic novel in the Sunday New York Times or in The Boston Globe,” Davis says, adding that he welcomes a diversity of patrons—including college kids. “When I started, we had a ton of 14- to 15-year-old boys. Now, it’s people in their early 20s to their early 60s.”
IN THE KNOW
Literally around the corner from Picnic, there’s another comics shop with buyers in the same demographic, but they’re often seeking something completely different.
If you’re looking for a wide collection of stories from publishers like Marvel and DC—creators of hit movies like “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins”—then New England Comics is ideal.
Larger than Picnic, New England Comics has shelves of individual titles from those publishers. But more importantly, it has just as many shelves of collected editions from them. If you want the back story on most superheroes, you can easily find it there.
Manager Matt P. Reyes says he tries to order “indie” comics, but the more mainstream titles are far more prevalent. He also says people come in to say what comics they’ve read and ask for recommendations, but that such walk-ins are not their bread and butter.
“How we stay afloat is by branching out more into pop culture,” Reyes says. “You can sell a $3 comic to someone, but we’re right across the street from the Charles Hotel, so if you have a tourist who sees a $20 toy in the window, we want that toy sold.”
Reyes does not rely solely upon selling accessories like toys to compete. Instead, subscriptions from student and professional fans are one pillar; the other is tourists needing their comics fix.
“People who are into comics know how to find these places,” he says of stores like his. “We advertise a little, but not a lot.”
MORE THAN JUST A NAME
If you’re a Harvard student, chances are you’ve seen the best-advertised supplier of comics in the Square. Even if you’re a comics virgin, you may well have shopped there, mere feet away from shelves that could give you your comics baptism.
The store, of course, is Newbury Comics.
“People are surprised that we actually have comics!” says assistant manager Thomas J. Flanagan.
The store—part of a regional chain—is better known for its wide selection of music and DVDs. Nevertheless, they maintain a wall of comics at the back of the store that gets refreshed and reorganized every week.
“The owners take comics as part of our history,” says Erik J. Scott, the employee in charge of maintaining the comics section. The chain started 30 years ago, when two Boston-area comics fans named John Brusger and Mike Dreese started a small comics shop.
The chain’s priorities have changed since then, but comics remain on the racks. Herein lies another economic mystery: why keep selling comics when specialty shops with more comprehensive selections are a scant few blocks away?
“New England Comics is Marvel and DC,” Scott says, “Million Year Picnic is indie, and we’re a one-stop-shop.”
The store sells some “licensed goods”—comics-related merchandise like action figures and posters—but more importantly, it can afford to maintain its comics section because people who buy their comics also buy their DVDs, and vice versa.
“Comics is in our name,” Scott says. “If you lose the comics, you lose the history. It’s just ‘Newbury’ without the ‘Comics.’”
The recent boom in superhero movies is not the first time that comics became profitable for non-fans. In the mid-1990s, there was a bubble in the market for comics as collectibles. Comics with “limited-edition” cover art or comics billed as “landmark first issues” were bought up by the armful. People were starting comics shops in airports and malls, just to cash in on the craze. The owners of the Square’s shops derisively remember such “speculators.”
Then, the bubble burst. There was a slump in the industry. How did these three stores, all of which have been around for more than 20 years, survive?
“People here in the Square didn’t buy for the reasons the speculators were buying,” Scott recalls. “The educated nature of people in this area means they weren’t speculators.”
If there’s one thing the Qube and the three stores offer, it’s an opportunity for those “educated” people to easily expose themselves to the cultural resurgence of comics.
“It’s weird to say this,” Reyes laughs, “but comics are cool again.”
—Staff writer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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