Kalamazoo Comix

The comic boom in my childhood started with turtles, four teenage mutant ninja turtles to be exact. I remember seeing the cartoon on television for the first time and was hooked by these green bad asses fighting rat kings and talking brains. Television was one thing, these little magazines that started it all, was another monster that would consume my life for two decades.
Fanfare was, and still is, the main comic shop for our city. Wedged in between two cities, Fanfare caters to a population of 120,000 and manages to survive while shops across the country continue to go out of business. I didn’t know about Fanfare at first, my own exposure to comic books came from grocery shopping at the local Jewel Osco, waiting by the magazine rack while my mother filled the cart. Every month the titles changed; the shop appeared to be getting the leftovers from the comic book distributors. One month, Captain America was on the shelf, six months later he would reappear with a different story and a different villain. I needed a better source.
Every week we drove past Fanfare to do our weekly shopping at Meijer. The shop was small, stuck in the back corner of a mall with three parking spots. I looked at the new issues of TMNT and other comics that I wasn’t familiar with. They even had something called Samurai Squirrel and Hamster Vice. These titles didn’t take off and were later grabbed out of the quarter bin. I remember the first time I went and my mom pointed out the quarter bin. The selection was over whelming and while I debated what comic I could get with my money I realized that I could leave with a handful of comics instead of just one. I found a story from Detective comics (batman) where he was fighting Clayface and from that moment on I was a Batman fan. My collection grew and as my interest expanded my parents encouraged me to buy the old ones because they would be worth more money. It was like taking stock advice from a communist. I had the heroes I was looking for and of course I was going to take care of them, I would want to read them again and again.
Like any other hobby, comics has a level of peer pressure that encourages one to stay up to date with new stories forcing you to buy comics new paying out insane amounts of money for stories that you don’t know if they are good or not. The prices continued to go up and while I was happy shuffling through the quarter bin, I found myself subscribed to multiple batman titles and Daredevil. The way these companies were writing the series one had to follow a dozen titles to know what was going on. In total we had: Batman, Detective comics, shadow of the bat, legends of the dark night, Robin, Nightwing, birds of prey, Catwoman, Gotham Nights, Anarchy, and I’m sure I am missing a few. Add in the rising cover prices and eventually I was done. What was once the hobby of poor kids with no father figures in their lives had turned into a money pit of despair.
There was something better than the big three companies happening in town. Local shops started to carry independently published comic books, printed of from the local Kinkos. I grabbed whatever was on the shelf and started to follow this movement with a sick obsession. The number two shop in town, Discount Hobby, put some money into self-publishing their own collection of local comics and that was how Kalamazoo Comix was born. Anyone could submit their own story, up to three pages in length and in the second issue I joined the ranks of local legends like Stew Miller, Dustin, Paul Sizer, and Aaron Warner. My story was infested with spelling errors and the art work was below subpar. There was a release party for the issue and when my job wouldn’t let me have the night off to go, I called in sick.
My friend Dennis was in that issue as well and we hung out that night with other local artist listening to the DJ for Radio X, Kalamazoo’s alternate radio, which later turned into a country station. All night I waited for my Girlfriend to appear and she didn’t. I had already made the rounds and while I should have been enjoying myself, I didn’t have anyone to share it with. I flipped through quarter comics, grabbed discounted Crow merchandise, and listened to recommendations for titles that I should be reading which of course sounded like all of them. I don’t know how people have this much time on their hands or money to keep up with this hobby.
Later that night, Christina stopped by the house. She apologized for not being there after she said she would and when I asked her why she didn’t go she replied, “I didn’t want to.” We went back and forth on what happened. I went to her football games to watch her in the marching band when I didn’t like football, or marching, and in return the one night I asked her to show up to something she brushed it off as something stupid. Ya, I’m still pissed but mostly at myself. I continued seeing her after that acting like the codependent turd that I was.
Comics would remain a part of my life into my twenties and after that a man has to let go of childish things. When I do read comics these days it tends to be graphic novels, how comics were meant to be read without the pricing scam. The older titles appear to be the sweet spot for good story telling. I can’t stand Batman’s son, Daredevil is a train wreck these days, and from what I’m told Wolverine can’t keep his dick in his pants. The comics of my childhood have been flushed down the toilet and now rest in a septic tank with the lowest of the low reading this trash. Yes, I’m old, I’m grouchy, and I want people to stop whoring out my childhood superheroes to the lowest common denominator. I will admit, as a kid we always wondered how the X-men didn’t have some kind of mutant orgy going on with all the freaks and weirdos living in one big Hugh Hefner style house. We talked about it but it didn’t happen in the comics. That was for us to discuss and wonder about, it was part of the magic. Now we have 50 Shades of Jean Grey and there is no going back. There are no more ladies on the streets but freaks in the sheets, everyone is a whore now and it’s hard to clean that image up after it happens.
In college I became the comics page editor for the Tower Times, a rag tag band of motley crew rebels who above all else fought for the right to legalize pot and explained the dynamic details of rap lyrics to the white masses. The paper had its ups and downs and while I can say I had my moments, as time went on it only continued to go down. Not only was my comic strip turning into that part of the paper you ignored or glanced over so was my career as a college student. I couldn’t afford classes, I couldn’t afford comics, I could barely afford rent. Welcome to life, it’s not a superhero comic, there aren’t any spandex clad women coming to bail you out, your friends don’t have your back, your arch nemesis is yourself, and there is no such thing as superpowers, you are as useless as the next guy.
I once thought of comics as the mythology of our times. The new religion that would help young men become adults showing them a path to greatness. Like anything else in life, it has been hijacked and turned into something perverted, something I don’t recognize anymore. I have heard of some people trying to keep it on that path but when the market is overwhelmed with shit who wants to shift through it in search of those few diamonds not knowing if they are in there?
In my basement I still have my collection. The one box of TMNT comics, the mirage series not that Archie crap. Batman fills most of the shelves alongside Daredevil and the Punisher. I don’t know if my daughter will be interested in them one day or not and I will likely never read them again. I guess it’s the memories that are important. Riding my bike to the comic shop and filling my backpack with reading material for that week. I will never forget cruising down Bronson Boulevard and seeing a man hanging out of a car window with his arm stretched back. In a split-second water exploded everywhere, something hit me in the chest and I struggled not to lose control of my bike. My shirt and pants were soaked. By the time I looked back the car was gone. I was the victim of a drive by water ballooning. The things we go through for comics. If there is one thing that the average comic book reader should take away from those stories it’s sacrifice. We all gave up something. In the end we have to decide if it was worth it. Eventually most of us gave up comics in order to have something better and those poor bastards who don’t I feel sorry for them. The point wasn’t to stick with it but to transform you into the man you would become. The average comic reader is Peter Pan without a Wendy to aid him into adulthood. Go with Wendy my friend, become a man and see the real world for what it is.

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Rob’s Lament

I don’t remember where exactly I met Rob for the first time. I assume it was in the parking lot of the Meijer supermarket we used to work for. We spent long hours walking back and forth pushing rows of shopping carts into the store. It was mindless manual labor and for a young man of that age it was exactly what I needed at the time. I didn’t fit in with the other kids I went to school with, not for a lack of trying from some people to bring me into the loop. Having a job is joining a tribe with a goal. Most people fail to understand this. When people aren’t pulling their weight and the chief of the tribe doesn’t appear to care, the tribe can fracture and you end up with sub groups within the tribe. I hated bagging groceries and so my tribe ended up being the cart retrieval crew, a group of young men wearing reflective vest, sunglasses, and carrying nylon rope to hold the row of carts together. We had our own language and culture out on the pavement. We were doing things with shopping carts most people had not seen until Jackass aired on MTV. Cart surfing was a fun pass time, riding the side of the cart and balancing on two wheels while cruising down the hill.
For safety we were paired up and sent out in teams. There had been multiple stories of abductions and assaults in that parking lot so were wore beepers that would sound an alarm with security if we saw something that needed their attention. Rob and I would team up, grabbing carts, talking comic books and movies, our taste in many things were almost identical. This was during the great comic boom or the roaring 90s, that time just before the crash when people had invested thousands of dollars into over printed magazines with fake fans and inflated prices. Rob and I were some of those shmucks that bought into the boom with hopes of cashing in or joining the ranks of those in the industry. I wanted to be an artist but found my calling with writing instead. Rob on the other hand possessed a natural talent for art and even sold pictures at work to co-workers with the cash. Juvenile cartoons with a hint of realism were his trade. One bagger paid him twenty dollars for a commissioned piece of a man penetrating a squirrel. It sounded funnier at the time. While I studied art and graphic design at the local community college, Rob sat at home with his sketch book learning on his own how to draw.
There was a sad mood that hovered over Rob. When you looked at him you would see a young man, dirty in appearance, malnourished, and a sense of style that could have been pulled from a Quintin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film. To look at him one would not thing he had much to offer, to listen to him was to find out otherwise. He was smart, a sponge of useless knowledge that would vomit from his mouth and leave people mystified and feeling dumb. There were people that loved him and others who despised him for the reason of wasted potential, but that was all of us. To be a young man without direction wandering out into the world could only lead to three things, self-destruction, sloth, or success. At any given time, we were guilty of all of these things.
Rob grew up out west on an Indian reservation. I won’t pretend to remember which state he lived in because I don’t remember. I had no idea he was native American until he told me, he could have passed at Italian or Greek. His parents weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and had a long list of horrible mistakes in their past that they expected their children to fix. I was hanging out with Rob one night when he asked to stop in to see his family. I was the only one that owned a car at the time. We pulled into the Airport Inn where his mother, father, two brothers, sister, and nephew were living in a one-bedroom hotel room. His mother didn’t speak much an had a scowl on her face that would make the average Russian woman of the Stalin era appear chipper. It was up to the kids to pay their way and most of them had dropped out of high school to find jobs. Rob earned his GED at 16 and therefore had an advantage over his other siblings. Paychecks were handed over and money was used for rent, food, and cigarettes. When big purchases were made the parents were the soul decider and the kids were to keep their mouths shut. For the life of me I can’t figure out what his parents were thinking. The kids left one by one as they discovered their independence causing a divide in the family. Whoever left was shunned and not allowed back until nobody was left. The youngest brother left first when he was hired in at a local factory. When their parents demanded the pay check he told them to “fuck off,” found an apartment, bought a van, and moved out. The pressure to make up for the loss was put onto Rob and while he supplied the family with money it wore on him and eventually, he was kicked out. That was how he ended up as my roommate.
Let’s back up shall we. Rob had met Nate before I started to work at Meijer and Nate left not long afterwards. I didn’t remember ever working with Nate but he was fond of telling me they thought I was a stuck-up asshole when I first started working there. Rob was a follower and while he had the potential to be so much more, he decided to be the side kick to Nate’s world of debauchery. If they could be compared to anyone Nate was Jay and Rob was Silent Bob with it being unclear who was leading who. It was the easy path and it was the road we all preferred at that time. We didn’t have a cause, a great war, something to motivate us to do anything. Nate and Rob were caught up in the MTV world of seeking out “bitches and money.” The cold war was over and there was no 9-11, all we had was a blow job in the White House and people constantly reminding us we were poor. Fight Club would later become our religion.
Coming from a nomadic people, Rob was constantly shifting through jobs, leaving and coming back always thinking the new job was going to be the big one, the money maker, the job to solve all of his problems. The job itself never mattered it was the pay that was motivating factor. In between, Rob would pick up shifts at Olga’s as the dishwasher and in his words, “I get paid and there is free food.” He wasn’t referring to screwed up orders from the kitchen either.
I think there is a time in most people’s lives when they are permanently scarred and while they don’t realize it, they never move on. Rob’s taste in women goes back to the reservation, a place with little to offer and few options for the young. Rob had a girlfriend when he was 13 and they soon found themselves pregnant. Trying to do the right thing, Rob took a job at the local Seven Eleven to save up for his coming family. The naïve delusions of youth can be a powerful thing until your world comes crashing down. While leaving work Rob passed the dumpster, heard something inside, and found his girl inside, wrist cut and bleeding to death. He climbed inside with no help on its way and watched her die taking their child with her. Later, he would try to join her and was sent to a psychiatric institution. I learned all of this years later on a drunken night where we tried to out do one another on who had the shittiest story for a game I would like to call Victim Porn.
For a while it looked like we were all getting our shit together. Rob was out of his parent’s home, he had a car, a union job at the local trash company, and there was talk of him becoming a tattoo apprentice. I landed a job at one of the local hospitals. Nate was still being Nate and that was what needed to change. The moment any of us started doing well the hammer would fall and we were beaten back down to the lowest position in the group. If Nate wasn’t doing well nobody would feel like they were doing well. Of course, it was a woman who would end the group. I met my ex-wife at the hospital and while we all hung out together there was a divide taking place. For Nate and Rob to be single while I had somebody was unacceptable. Rob sided with Nate trying to make Christie feel like shit and it was over. One night, Nate and Rob stopped by and while Nate stayed in the car Rob came to the door asking if I wanted to hang out. “Oh, porking the pig?” he asked seeing Christie walk to the kitchen. “Fuck you Rob.” I said before telling him not to come back. Nate stayed by the car yelling some crap about “bros before hoes” and they never came back to the apartment.
Rob and I once attempted our own comic book, an action crime thriller with vigilantes and drug kingpins. I wrote the script and worked on inking while Rob drew the panels and penciled the characters. We were about three pages in when Rob stopped working on the project. To this day I still have those pages filed away just in case…
I ran into Rob years later. His first question was “so when did you get divorced?” At the time his assumption was wrong and Christie and I were still married. Meanwhile, Rob told me about the stripper he married named Scarlett and how they split when she went back to work to pay their mortgage. There was a pattern, a lifestyle that Rob was accustomed to, and it wasn’t feeling secure. Rob had finally started that apprenticeship and was on his way to become an artist. A few years after that, when I was divorced, I spotted Rob at a local coffee shop. He had large gaged earrings, multiple tattoos, piercings in places that looked uncomfortable, and a perfectly shaved head. I don’t know if he recognized me as the new bald man that I was. We never spoke and to this day I wonder how far he had gone on his adventure to become an artist, the only one of us still following that path.

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