Last weekend I went on a road trip to Los Angeles, ostensibly for a new comic book launch party, but it turned into a full-on tour of some of the greatest comic stores in LA. Driving all day to go to a party in Los Angeles would be excessive, even to me. However, this wasn't just a trip for a party, but also a bit of a fact-finding mission. Despite living in California for years I haven't spent much time exploring southern California, so this seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Driving in on Friday to attend a fundraising party for a youth theater group (possibly the only non-comic book related activity I engaged in all weekend), this left me the whole day on Saturday to roam Los Angeles and have my friend Mike Romo show me the important sights - the comic book stores. Now I don't think this was the plan, but we visited five different comic book stores in one day. It just worked out that way because each neighborhood had a completely different comic book store and each store became somewhat emblematic of the general feel of the area itself. It never stopped being interesting to look around at the different stock and talk to the different owners.
First up was DJ's Universal Comics in Laurel Canyon. This classic comic book store is a little tricky to locate, (or at least it would be if my friends hadn't said "Just go up the stairs and turn left.") On the second floor of an outdoor shopping mall/strip thing, a little sign at the bottom or top of the stairs wouldn't go amiss. I'm not sure if the absence of signage is because the store recently moved from a street level location a little further along Ventura, or it could be because only people who are already in-the-know really need to know about the store. I get the impression from locals that, with the proximity to Studio City, this store already has a pretty loyal clientele. Loyalty is understandable; the store is clean, well-lit and organized, and very much as the feel of a classic comic book store with the talkative, friendly proprietor available for advice and news. The store has breathing room and space for a good little selection of statues and even some unusual jewelry pieces for sale. The owner was approachable, keeping one eye on his mischievous two children in the back while we chatted about recent events in the comic book world and the difficulty of getting his kids to chill out (can you imagine having a dad who owns a comic book store? If that were me, I'd have been the best behaved kid in the world!)
Popping in to Meltdown for a quick look around we found that this was probably the physically largest space, although only half of it is purely comic books. The other half of the store is more of a design and toy store, with a lot of rare statues in glass display cases with racks of design books arranged around them, it almost had the feel of a museum store. This is a great place to anonymously browse in, as the large space leads to a less hands-on approach from the people working there and the range of books is so wide. Like the bigger chain bookstores, Meltdown has the space to really encourage quiet contemplation and the store creates a laid back, no pressure atmosphere.
A stop in Silverlake for some excellent coffee and window shopping naturally led to a visit to the gorgeous Secret Headquarters. Immediately different from other stores, Secret Headquarters visually sets itself apart with well-designed, unique furniture and prominent displays of alternative and independent comic books. Compact and pretty as hell, the interior of this elegant little store is designed with a nod towards a kind of 1930's Americana office chic, a dash of steampunk, all topped off with some appropriately fetishistic organization. The dark wood shelves and racks provide ample space for the comic books to breathe, as well as allowing the bright colors to really shine. The atmosphere is very friendly and relaxed, to the extent that when my friends and I admired the prominent display of Shaolin Cowboy, the owner quite casually let us into the back room to see the lovely piece of original Geoff Darrow art from the series (a shark with the Shaolin Cowboy himself.) All in all a surprisingly satisfying comic shopping experience and I even discovered a couple of manga and independent comic books that I hadn't seen before.
By now it was getting late and time to attend the party at Golden Apple Comics. On first glance, this big store looked like an unlikely location for the Freakshow #1 launch party, because with the incredible selection of back issues the store packs in I wouldn't have thought there would be space for a party too. With more back issues than I've seen in one place in years, I was surprised at the large stock of current comic books and even comic magazines. However, despite the full shelves and bins, the store still manages to pack in the party crowds and dish out drinks. The charming owner Ryan genially handed out jello shots and answered a broad range of questions from customers, while authors David Server, Jackson Lanzing and Joe Suitor chatted to folks and signed hundreds of copies of their new book. Darick Robertson was on hand too, as a guest cover artist on Freakshow, drawing and signing away for his fans. When we got there he had just finished a raunchy commission of a woman dancing with a snake, equal parts sassy Vargas Girl and confrontational barbarian, this was classic Robertson - clearly people were asking him to draw what he does well. Later Lanzing and Server told me that they'd sold out of Freakshow entirely, so if your local comic shop still has a copy, pick it up now.
Leaving Golden Apple Comics for some much-needed sustenance, we walked past Melrose Music and Comics, which (despite our hunger for dinner) demanded a visit with a heady mix of music and comic books. This last stop on our day was the smallest of the stores we'd seen, having the feel of the hole-in-the-wall comic stores I remember from my childhood. With the little store divided evenly between music, comic books, comic-related merchandise and a really huge amount of cards, I don't think I've seen that much Magic The Gathering in a while. Since I was there for the comic books I can't say I paid much attention to the rest of it, but I was happy to see a good range of Ame-Comi figures. Right now I'm trying to curb my toy buying (the clutter in my apartment is starting to really bug me), but I can still appreciate them. Despite the limited space, Melrose Music and Comics manages to stock and display most of the mainstream new comic books and even a few trade paperbacks, with the other half of the store definitely appealing to a music aficionado. This seems like a pretty good place to listen to new music while browsing for reading materials and I appreciate the combination.
Dinner was excellent, as was the company with fellow comic book fans like Chunk Kelly (production manager of the upcoming Transmetropolitan art book), Mike Romo (writer at iFanboy, actor, all round computer genius and amazing LA tour guide), Lindsey Lea and Will Strode (the creators of the now complete weekly web comic Goodbye Blue Monday, so now is the time to read it from start to finish.) Obviously dinner was abuzz with comic book talk. Apparently the Transmetropolitan book is definitely going to get printed - they've reached their kickstarter goal and if they make more then they can increase the print quality. Now that Goodbye Blue Monday finished, we can look forward to Lea and Strode's next endeavor called Vapor Trails, I have no idea what it will be like, but if it is half as surreal and funny as Goodbye Blue Monday was then I can't wait. Mike Romo is the man responsible for the whole crazy comic book tour of LA day and I can't say enough good things about him and our friends, who showed me such a great side of the city. We all spent a great evening fiercely debating whether the Human Torch could really die, what makes a really good pork belly, and why we choose to loyally return to one comic book store over another. I can safely say that I explored the hell out of comic book Los Angeles and I like it.
Postscript: My apologies for not taking photos of each individual store, but if you check out the url's for the stores, you'll find plenty of info on each of them.