A Metropolis for Comics History

For a look at the entire comic, please click on the image. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.

In 1842, the American company Wilson & Co. published what is now called the first American comic: an English reprint of the French comic “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck”. Published originally in French and Switzerland in 1837 by Rodolphe Töpffer, this comic tells the story of one Obadiah Oldbuck as he attempts to woo a lady of his fancy. He is fairly unsuccessful in this endeavor, and the aptly titled adventure that unfolds over the course of the comic, Obadiah is involved in all manner of slapstick incidents that result in myriad injuries to his person. At the time of publication, Comics Metropolis wasn’t even a dream of a dream. Of course, the idea of a comics shop wasn’t really a dream of a dream either, as the first American comics focused retailer was opened more than one-hundred years later, in the late ’60s. Which of these early comics shops was first is a point of contention, and some point even earlier to a store opened in the late ’30s. Dan Gearino, in a blog post on this very topic, points out the possibility of Harvey T. “Pop” Hollinger’s store. The release of the first Superman comic, written by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, coincides rather nicely with the opening of Hollinger’s store, having been first put to print in June of 1938; Hollinger did, however, sell much more than comic books, and (while this is something you can say about many modern comic shops) was almost more, as Gearino points out, of a junk shop than a comics specialty shop. So, sometime in the ’60s seems the most reasonable answer.

A mere seventy(ish) years after the opening of this pseudo-mysterious first comics shop, Laura and Albert Payne opened Comics Metropolis, LLC.  on South Third Street in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Comics Metropolis truly began about thirty-six years ago, when co-owner Albert was 12. He was, and still is, an avid collector of comic books, and has maintained an interest in the media form since his first foray into the medium in seventh grade. His move with his mother to London did nothing to sway him away from his love of comic books, and instead, his mother’s position as a teacher encouraged her to become more involved in her son’s interest. What young kid doesn’t like superheroes, after all? (I’m sure there are quite a number–I wasn’t into superheroes at all as a kid, but please forgive me this small generalization.) Perhaps one of the most interesting things regarding this store, and comics shops in general, is how little the past seems to have influenced the comic book market.

I speak first about the legal battles of the ’50s regarding the sale of comic books. Fredric Wertham’s 1950’s crusade against comic books is an historic event, even it seems to have had little impact on the current comic book market. The Paynes are certainly not bereft of business. In fact, they have the first comic shop subscription program I have ever encountered; for forty dollars a month, subscribers are offered a very nice ten percent discount on store merchandise; the most interesting thing about this subscription plan is not the offered discount, however nice it may be, but rather the fact that there are over one-hundred current subscription members. I suppose the offer of a personal comic cubbyhole is pretty tempting (it is). But no, Wertham’s campaign seems to have had little impact on the virility of Comics Metropolis.

In the mid-’50s, Wertham led a campaign against the violence and gore contained in many of the decade’s most popular comics: crime and horror comics. The covers of these comics alone were worthy of some attention, for the graphic depictions of violence and grotesque monsters. Wertham certainly had grounds to hold disgust and anger towards the comics being published by EC Comics, as many of the issues of series such as “Tales From the Crypt” did possess gruesome images. Jack Cole, for example, illustrated a scene in “Murder Morphine and Me” in which a woman is nearly stabbed in the eye by a hypodermic needle. Wertham called his campaign against these comics Seduction of the Innocent, and asserted that the stories told within the comics would encourage similar acts in the children reading them, as well as cause psychological damage to these same children. Wertham went on to appear before the senate in a series of hearings calling for legislation to be passed outlawing this sort of storytelling. While no such law was ultimately passed, a warning was issued, and comics saw a wave of voluntary censorship imposed by the publishing companies responsible for the crime and horror comics.

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Perhaps the lack of these comics as a presence in comic shops denotes a particular impact of Wertham’s “war on comics”, but, of course, there are modern comics being published with similarly adult themes as those being published in the ’50s. We can trace mature comics as far back as the ’80s with the release of comics such as “Watchmen” and “The Killing Joke”, both, interestingly enough, the work of Alan Moore. We return to Comics Metropolis in the present day, where you can find tucked away on the shelves and on proud display on the register counter numerous prints of “Watchmen”, and certainly Wertham’s assault on violence in comics held no sway over the content of “Watchmen” or its inclusion in the stock of Comics Metropolis. It is, however, important to note that while there are mature themed comics depicting the acts of violence and gore that Wertham disliked, the specific comics targeted in his campaign are not present on the shelves of Comics Metropolis.

The particular stock of the store lends itself to the definition of the place of Comics Metropolis. As discussed in previously, Comics Metropolis offers a unique conceptual presence to Lewisburg and the neighborhood surrounding the store by providing a specialized arrangement of products. Cresswell’s definition of place involves three different points; the one with the most import to this discussion is point three: the sense of place. Cresswell defines the idea of the sense of place as “the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (Cresswell, 7). Comics Metropolis offers ample opportunity for customers to forge emotional connections to the store and to allow it to form its unique and personal definition. As highlighted on the above timeline, Comics Metropolis participates in what is known as Free Comic Book Day. Free Comic Book Day is a pseudo-holiday celebrated on the first Saturday of May each year, wherein participating comics retailers hand out a selection of free comics to anyone who enters the store. The Free Comic Book Day site states that “this event celebrates the independent comic book specialty shops, thousands of which exist in North America alone.” Comics Metropolis is one such store, and the idea of Free Comic Book Day adds a unique flare to the sense of place within the Paynes’s store. Of course, this event is not the only thing that lends itself to the unique atmosphere of Comics Metropolis. The layout of the store plays an integral part in this; Comics Metropolis has a room dedicated to the playing of tabletop games. These range from card games such as Magic: The Gathering (a personal favorite of mine) to intense, multi-session role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (both, interestingly, created by Wizards of the Coast).

In a piece titled “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist” Jack Perry takes a look at his own experience with bookstores in capitalist America and communist Bulgaria. It is relatively easy to assume, and perhaps bountifully obvious, that Comics Metropolis is a capitalist bookstore. After all, it exists in America, and what is America but a capitalist country? Perry offers an interesting perspective, however. The main difference in the way these two economic principles changed the idea of the bookstore, Perry argues, is that in America, there is no real censorship in regards to what books are allowed to be sold, which results in an almost lesser appreciation for books. In Bulgaria, where there is strict censorship of what books are readily available, people are happy to have any new books afforded them at all. Perry makes the observation that “in a linguistic this small, the appearance of new books was an event, and the appetite for them remarkable” (Perry, 108). Certainly, this sets the Bulgarian bookstore apart from what we witnessed in Comics Metropolis, but I find that the store’s participation in Free Comic Book Day to be an integral part of bridging this gap; while there isn’t censorship, the promise of something new and free brings people into the store, and as Laura and Albert told us, 2018’s Free Comic Book Day was their biggest day of sales to date. And it is also true that the comics provided during the “holiday” are all written expressly for the purpose of being given out for free; they are unique to Free Comic Book Day, and this prospect of something new has people flocking to the store in a manner of similar excitement to that which Perry identified in Bulgaria.

The history of a book is always intrinsically tied to that book’s retailer, and Comics Metropolis is no excuse. The impact of the comic on American culture is widely visible in a store with over two-thousand comic books available for purchase, and the push-back of the ’50s is similarly reflected in what the store doesn’t carry. History made waves in the comic book market, and similarly, Comics Metropolis is doing the same in Lewisburg.

 

Sources:

Timeline embedded from Time.Graphics.

Photos

Comics Metropolis LLC. www.facebook.com/Comics.Metropolis.LLC/photos/a.1667114816863070/1772725596301991/?type=1&theater. (Image 2)

“FCBD 2019 Site Downloads.” Free Comic Book Day, www.freecomicbookday.com/Article/203520-FCBD-2019-Site-Downloads. (Image 5)

“File:Crime Suspenstories 22.Jpg.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Dec. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Craig#/media/File:Crime_Suspenstories_22.jpg. (Image 3)

Image 6 courtesy of Chris Naiman.

Piperson. “Jack Cole’s True Crime Comics.” The Great Comic Book Heroes, 1 Jan. 1970, thegreatcomicbookheroes.blogspot.com/2013/06/jack-coles-true-crime-comics.html. (Image 4)

Topffer, Rodolphe. “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck.” Samson Agonistes: Introduction, 31 Mar. 2010, www.dartmouth.edu/~library/digital/collections/books/ocn259708589/ocn259708589.html. (Image 1)

Texts

Cresswell, Tim. Place: a Short Introduction. Blackwell, 2010.

Perry, Jack. “Bookstores, Capitalist and Communist.” The American Scholar, 2001, pp. 107–111.

Online Sites

Gearino, Dan. “What Was the First Comic Shop?” Dan Gearino Writing and Reporting, 19 Mar. 2018, dangearino.com/2018/03/19/what-was-the-first-comic-shop/.