I’ve been thinking a lot about comic books lately. The driving factor is that the comic book store of my youth, whose sign over the door even today is one I hand painted many years ago, is closing up shop. Leonard Litteral the proprietor is retiring after 35 years in the business.
The things I discovered in Leonard’s shop Nostalgia Ink have shaped a great deal of my life. In small town America being exposed to culture isn’t exactly on the priorities list of the town council. There are no museums in which to view masterpieces, no cultural centers in which to be exposed to great thinkers. Yet in my youth there was the comic book store.
I started out when Leonard had just opened his shop in its first location on Mechanic St. Coverless and torn copies of Kirby era Thor from the ¢10 box was my original fix. Eventually my allowance grew to better conditioned pieces and broadened to the Avengers and Dr Strange with the occasional Spiderman or XMen in the mix. But about age 13 my tastes started to change. I happened upon what is arguably the first “steam punk” literature in the form of a black and white comic called “Baker Street” (punks rockers in a 70s Britain where WWII was won by Germany. Dirigibles in the sky, hound’s-tooth coats and black bowler hats on citizens in a gritty postmodern world fought with straight razors and irony.) This led down an increasingly narrow road – through Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, to the works of Alan Moore, Bill Sienkiewicz, Grant Morrison, and others more obscure and obscene.
Through the pages of these comics I discovered a taste for anarchism, for beautifully wrought panels painted and scratched, and a profound distaste for Reagan and Thatcher and the cold war that filled the minds of my generation in our fitful slumber. I discovered chaos magick, cockney rhyming slang, incredibly detailed nightmares that reflected a world beyond the one in which I lived. Yet more than anything else the seeds of an artist were sown into my soul by the words and the images I devoured as fast as my humble allowance would allow.
I remember the day that, a week before I was to go off to university, Leonard finally offered me a job. I was crushed to think that my dream of working there would never come to pass, as I was about to take flight finally from that small town. The irony of that last temptation to stay coming from the very place that fed my need to go still sits inside of me.
As I grew I continued to return even after moving away. Each holiday visit to my parents only an excuse to go see Leonard, to discover boxes of Drawn and Quarterly in a back storeroom, to raid his “adult” section of Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, and Robert Crumb comics – to fill out my collection with Zap, Weird, Fantagraphics and many other titles. I traded the sign above the door sometime in the early 90s for a box of first edition of Robert Williams comics.
In this age of internet boundariless society it is hard to understand the importance of the comic bookstore to a place like Jackson, Michigan. Comic book shops were vast repositories of challenging ideas, of endless masterpieces of aesthetics, page after page of imagery to feed the mind. Words that mingle with the emotions of youth to stir up untold potentialities. Libraries of uncensored revolutionary ideologies masquerading as merely heroes in capes, giant green men smashing things, Nietzschean superhumans as a caricature for modern governments. Comic book shops were the secret underground meeting places of generations of cultural revolutionaries. And Leonard was among the gatekeepers to this hidden world.
It is no exaggeration to say that I owe my life, the travels and experiences I have so far enjoyed, the heartaches and dramas that have unfolded, the desire to escape that small town and see the world that had so far only been framed in the exquisite panels of those comics, to Leonard. Just as a boy that yearned so much to visit one day the London of those comic book pages I now write from my garden in London as an adult. I would not be here if it wasn’t for Leonard and his shop. I would not be who I am today.
Thank you Leonard. For bringing into my and many other’s worlds a joy that has no equal. For lighting the path of a darkened town devoid of culture and providing us with access to the stuff that dreams are made of.
August 24, 2013