Long Weekend on the Road

Since everyone else in the comics world is in San Diego this weekend and I'm not, I thought I'd talk about some comics encounters in other parts of the country.

Specifically, some things I ran across while we were on our road trip.

Now, you wouldn't think there'd be many comics to be found on a meandering jaunt through isolated mountain towns and backwoods rural roads... but once upon a time, comics were HUGE in the Cascade mountain country.

Seriously. Every little roadside gas station and country store had a spinner rack, it seemed. My first encounters with Savage Sword of Conan, the Defenders, Captain Mar-Vell, the Brave and the Bold, and the Goodwin-Simonson Manhunter, among others, were all on road trips -- they came from rest stops in backroads places like Brightwood, Zigzag, Rhododendron, and Cougar. In fact, the only place I ever SAW Marvel's magazine line back then was on Mt. Hood; most all of mine originally came from the Brightwood General Store.

And there were usually bookstores and secondhand shops along the road as well. Brian was asking about flea market finds the other day, and boy howdy, there was a time you couldn't throw a rock in a Cascade roadside town without it hitting one or two "antique" shops. Invariably such places had, amidst the musty piles of junk, a crate of old books and another crate next to it of old magazines and comics. Almost always, it was a gold mine. I found amazing stuff there -- the original UNCLE paperbacks, Mike Hammer, loads of Science Fiction Book Club hardcovers... I could go on and on.

Sure, the Cascades are a wonderful place to hike and ski and camp and so on, but the great secret I learned when I was younger is that those are all tourist things. Residents get so sick of the continual crappy weather that they stay in and read, and mountain folk liked disposable paperback stuff like Mickey Spillane and Mack Bolan and the Destroyer. And comics. Thus, their secondhand shop discards became my treasures, because God knows I didn't give a damn about skiing or hiking when our family went on vacation. I think I was the only kid excited to visit the mountains because of what I could find indoors.

So I was interested to see if any of these places survived. I wondered, with the changes the direct market brought, is it even possible to be a comics fan outside of an urban area today? And were the loggers and their families still quietly getting their geek on?

We were determined to stay off main highways and interstates as much as possible, so this shouldn't be regarded as any kind of scientific survey or anything like that. This is all anecdotal. But I have to say it was pretty damned bleak compared to what I remembered.

Our idea, since it was our anniversary, after all, was to take a route we'd been on once before back when we were dating. The first time it had been with a woman named Frances, who had sucked all the joy out of the trip. She was such a wet blanket she made Eeyore look like Tony Robbins. At the time I'd said sourly to Julie, "You know, we should do this again and leave Frances behind, and really take our time."

Four years later, we were finally doing it. Setting out on Highway 12 to Packwood, then further south for a couple of days in Hood River, then down the Gorge to Portland before turning to home. A long loop with as little time on the main roads as possible, taking four days instead of two, and determined to stop at everything that looked like it might be interesting. Though sometimes we didn't venture into the more eccentric-looking establishments.

This fellow offered Confederate flags at $8 a pop. But we had a hunch the sales pitch would have been a little too frightening, and besides, we're Northerners.

Anyway, we had quite a few adventures, but this is supposed to be about comics and related reading, so I'll confine myself to that.

As I said before, it's gotten pretty bleak on the bookstore front in the intervening years since we'd been on the road. To be honest, it was depressing how many things are just... gone. The secondhand shops that were once a staple of these isolated rural towns just aren't there any more. Over and over we saw boarded-up storefronts where our regular stops used to be, or worse, old favorites that had been erased completely off the map in favor of tiny strip malls anchored by a Subway or a snowboard shop. Granted, brick-and-mortar bookstores have been hurt by online dealers everywhere, not just the mountains, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. But it was still a bit of a shock, and we were getting vaguely sad after mile after mile of seeing nothing where you used to be able to count on at least one thrift shop in every town.

It wasn't until we hit Hood River that things started looking up.

Hood River's main businesses, apart from catering to the outdoorsman, are fruit farming and fleecing tourists -- sometimes even simultaneously, at upscale wineries and the like. "Downtown" Hood River, such as it is (it's only about six blocks square) is mostly restaurants, sporting goods, and gift shops.

But there was one rather magnificent bookstore and I am going to plug it here because it's AWESOME.

ArtiFacts was an oasis. It's one of only two bookstores listed in the Hood River phone book, I discovered later, and the only one that deals in any kind of comics.

The slogan over the door, "Good Books and Bad Art," led us to investigate. What it really reminded me of was one of the indie bookstores in Seattle like Left Bank or Fallout or something like that. But in Hood River! I felt ridiculously vindicated and relieved... rural geek readers weren't extinct after all...at least, not completely. They even had a zine section, which pleased me enormously.

I am a zine guy from way back, as regular readers will recall, and we were happy to invest a few bucks in supporting small-press comics. We were especially pleased to see a bunch of Snakepit stuff from Young American Comics, because they'd been our table mates from Emerald City Con a few years back. (Their giveaway mini-comic about the ill-fated journey of the "YACmobile" remains a favorite with my cartooning students to this day.)

I ended up falling for a couple of issues of Snakepit, which is always entertaining -- the ongoing autobiography of "Ben Snakepit," a young Texan punk rocker whose misadventures make for endlessly hilarious reading. I know there are a zillion slacker autobiographical comics out there, but there's something endearing about Ben's determination to keep doing his comic no matter how bad it makes him look. And it's often pretty good.

There are even a couple of Snakepit trade collections, available through the Young American website linked above.

The last one in the photo, HISTORY MAgA-ZINE! isn't really a comic, but it was only fifty cents so I took a chance on it. Like most 'zines, it lacks craft but has enthusiasm to spare. It's unsigned but it is subtitled: To show I was forced to study history during a year abroad with my parents. Judging from the zine, not many of the lessons stuck. Overall, it looked pretty lame -- one suspects it was an angry response to some kind of home-school assignment, it was so cursory in places. But it did make me smile a couple of times, and hell, it was only fifty cents. I'd support a kid's lemonade stand that far, and I'd rather see kids doing zines-- even bad ones. Considering how much money I've thrown down the drain on mainstream comics I ended up disliking... well, let's not go there. Suffice it to say I was pleased with my purchases, especially Snakepit.

To be honest, though, my favorite acquisition in Hood River was a gift.

These were giveaways and I found them to be enormously entertaining. Logan Force is superhero stuff, but with a punk 'zine sensibility. It's a hoot and a half.

Logan Fish, "millionaire badass comics artist," hires Hood River's greatest superheroes (yes, there are apparently quite a few) -- specifically, Max Action, "extreme action guy," Dolly, "indestructible zombie doll-woman," Dora Shade, "magician," Jill Hat, "world's smartest P.I.," and Wonderfull Assassin, "hit man" -- to be the Logan Force, protectors of Hood River and the surrounding areas, setting them up in a Parkdale skyscraper headquarters. To get a sense of how hilarious this is, it helps to know that downtown Parkdale is barely a block long; the mountain picture heading off this column was from a Parkdale road, as is this one.

Nevertheless, there are many major super-threats to be found here that the Logan Force must contend with -- zombies, giant blob monsters, and an evil clone of the President, among others.

I went back to the shop a bit later to get a picture of it for this column, and it was there that the clerk, who turned out to be named Logan himself (not a multi-millionaire, obviously, but he did look a bit like his fictional avatar) gave me issues one and two along with the third one I'd glommed on to during our first visit. So now I have the complete set.

I found the book to be raw but nevertheless great fun. There's not much technical skill to the drawing and the writing is rather breathless (spelling needs work too) but somehow there's a synergy here that makes this comic more than the sum of its parts. The rollicking sense of adventure and the wry humor takes it several notches up from typical superhero fanfic (I loved the little asides like the blob monster blurting out "Oh! I've been burnt away to nothing! Shit!" when Logan Force takes him down.) Especially, I noticed that while Logan has a lot to learn about drawing at a purely craft level, he's got great instincts -- a terrific grasp of how a comics page should WORK. He knows how to emphasize things with the inking, and the panel layout works very well. Each page tells the story and is an actual designed unit, which is not something you see all that often in the zine scene.

And hey, it was free. Can't beat that. If this is something you are interested in checking out, I'm afraid there's no web link for you, but the address for ArtiFact Books can be found here. I imagine a buck or so to cover the postage would get you hooked up with your own set of Logan Force. Tell him it's that comics-column writer guy from Seattle that sent you. (Logan, if you should happen to see this, now you know I wasn't just blowing smoke when I said I thought your book was fun -- but for God's sake, kid, slow down and check your spelling, okay? It gets distracting.)

That was it for comics and books till we were just outside of Troutdale, approaching Portland. There I stumbled across a couple of nice hardcovers in a Salvation Army thrift shop.

Modesty Blaise: The Silver Mistress and an old SF Book Club pick, The Best of Edmond Hamilton. Anyone reading this column probably is familiar with both authors' comics pedigree if not these particular books, and there's really not a lot to say about them other than that I recommend both unreservedly: especially the Hamilton, a career-spanning survey edited by his wife, the equally-talented SF author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who contributes a nice introductory essay.

There was a funny moment when the clerk, a sour middle-aged woman, was ringing us up. She tapped the Modesty Blaise and gave me a knowing sneer. "So what's this one about?"

Little did she know that she was dealing with the Human Nerd Index. "Modesty Blaise? She was sort of the female James Bond. Got her start in newspaper comic strips in Britain, then in 1965 the writer, Peter O'Donnell, decided to try a Modesty novel. It did really well so he did more of the prose novels along with the strip. This one is a little bit of a rarity, a hardcover limited edition from the Mysterious Press. If it didn't have those library stamps it would probably be a pretty pricey collectible for a rare-book dealer. As it is I'm happy to have it. ...uh, that was probably way more answer than you wanted or needed," I added, noticing the woman's face had gone even more sour.

"Yeah." Without further comment she handed me the books and we made our escape.

I dunno, maybe I ruined her plan to embarrass me as a pervert or turn me in to Dateline's To Catch a Predator or something. But jeez, if she was so sure Modesty Blaise was evil pornography than what's she selling it for?

On our way through Portland we stopped at Future Dreams, where I'd had my pull list years ago.

I was a little appalled at their new quarters. The place had always been a bit dusty and hard to navigate, but it was still a bookstore, a retail establishment you could walk around in. And their 22nd and Burnside location had, I thought, been a nice step up for them -- a real store with windows and everything, attractive to passersby. Julie was charmed by it on our first visit there together, three years ago.

But their new location on 18th reminded me more of some kind of underground speakeasy... you have to go around to the back of the building and down a long flight of stairs to a cramped little basement room that's a fraction of the floor space they had before. I can only imagine that they got a real deal on the rent and that they're still unpacking, or perhaps concentrating on their online business, because the floor layout was really almost impossible. Certainly we preferred the old location in pretty much every way.

Anyway, I wish them luck, and we did find a few things. I was able to plug some holes in my Marvel magazine collection:

It was nice to find the Holmes after mentioning it in the column a little while ago. Apparently the mojo is still working.

And I was also pleased to find this: Conan the Savage, the ill-fated successor magazine to the once-proud Savage Sword of Conan. It only ran ten issues or thereabouts but they are all pretty good, if a bit thin in page count compared to the original. Lots of good talent worked on it though. This particular issue has nice work from Mike Baron and Val Mayerik, who also did the cover.

And Julie found me this, from the old First Comics revival of the Classics Illustrated comics line.

I'm the first to admit that you have to be over a certain age to have any real affection for the old Classics Illustrated -- it's comparable to the inexplicable affection boomers have for "Schoolhouse Rock" -- but First Comics really did the concept proud by getting star artists to work on their revival of the line. You can read more about the whole Classics Illustrated endeavor here at Don Markstein's invaluable reference site Toonopedia, but suffice it to say that I was delighted to score this book. I used to love Snyder's work on Prowler and Conrad's The Secret Agent is the perfect vehicle for his dark, moody drawing style.

And that was it. Not a bad score over the four days, but... I don't know. It's nothing compared to the armload of stuff you used to be able to bowl out of those roadside mountain towns.

It's hard to sum up the feeling. I read Greg Burgas' essay on the new Golden Age with interest when we got back, and he makes a lot of good points. Without question, this is absolutely the best time ever to be an adult comics fan -- a comics fan who's an adult, I mean, not a devotee of naughty books. (Though I gather you can do better there now than in the Tijuana-bible days, too.) There is a smorgasbord of wonderment out there in comics... if you know it's there and are willing to go looking for it and spend whatever cash it takes to get it.

But what bothers me is this nagging idea that we're IT, we're the only people reading this stuff and that our number gets smaller with every passing year. As diverse as comics are these days, the fact remains that without some kind of retail gateway, comics will never be a mass medium again. Now you can argue whether that's good or bad -- I tend to think it's bad, whereas our other Greg makes the case it doesn't matter that much -- but I don't think anyone contests the idea that even though geek culture rules the media today, the comics themselves that gave rise to it are less visible than they ever have been.

You need the initial retail visibility if you want people to find comics. That's why it's bad to lose the newsstands. And what I saw last week on the road is that we've lost a lot of them. I hope they're being replaced with something else -- online merchants, maybe -- but I know that if we don't somehow meet that need for visibility with something, we're in trouble. I love that there are cartoonists like Logan in Hood River determined to get their books out there... but I wonder how many more of those young people we'd see trying comics as their outlet if the newsstand books were still there to inspire them.

See you next week.

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