Sunday, March 1, 2009

Would You Like Flies With That?

I had only been in New York—or Jersey City to be exact—less than a year when I got the call from Barbara, my boss and head of the Personal Appearance Department (actually, at the time, she was the department!). The gig was for a comic-book retailer, Jim Hanley, who owned and operated a comic shop on Staten Island, appropriately titled Jim Hanley's Universe. Jim was hoping to convince the mall management to allow him to operate one of those ubiquitous cart/kiosks—that specialize in selling a variety of the same object, whether it be bangles, personalized caps or scrunchies—that clog the walkways but nonetheless have become de rigueur of malls.

At the time, comic books did not have the cachet they have today and were still viewed with a certain degree of disdain as being nothing more than fodder for delinquents. Thus, Jim couldn't simply rent a cart, but rather had to prove to management that the comics and related paraphenalia he wished to sell was worthy of the mall's illsustrious standards. Being the savvy and progressive comic book retailer that he is—to this day recognized as a pioneer in the industry who still runs the original Staten Island store and a New York City location around the corner from the Empire State Building that is acknowledged as one of the best shops in the country—Jim decided to hire a Spider-Man to promote his cart on four consecutive Wednesday evenings during this probationary period. Knowing me to be a huge comics fan, information gleaned from my initial interview at Marvel, Barbara offered me the job. I leapt at the chance (pun intended).

I soon learned that Jim was not only a good comics retailer, but also a great person. He called me at my home in Jersey City, and offered to pick me up and drive me personally to the gig. I would otherwise have had to take New Jersey's PATH train to Manhattan, switch to the NYC subway going downtown, then hop the Staten Island ferry, a trip that would have taken a good two hours, if I was lucky. Jim insisted, saying that it was a quick and easy trip over the Goethals Bridge, which spanned the Hudson River connecting New Jersey with Staten Island. Upon arrival that initial Wednesday, I couldn't help but notice an unpleasant stench in the air surrounding the mall. This was my introduction to the Staten Island landfill, the biggest in New York, which has since been closed to more dumpings. But back in 1987, it was in full swing and on a warm day, if the wind was just right—which I learned was every day—the smell could bring tears to a glass eye. I hurried inside before the heady aroma started me hallucinating.

The Jim Hanley's Universe cart was directly beside the food court and I was directed to roam freely throughout upon my return from the changing area in a nearby office. I was still new at the Spidey thing and was a trifle uncomfortable not having a designated area in which to greet fans and sign autographs. As with most mall food courts, this one was busy, more so in the evenings, and I couldn't help but also feel intrusive hopping about the tables while people were trying to enjoy their meals. But the mall patrons were nothing but friendly and inviting, and I was quickly put as ease. It was customary for Marvel to provide Spider-Man comics for appearances and this gig was no different. With the tables continually full, I took to signing the books atop the garbage cans that were generously scattered about, positioned beside the mall's support columns. The one negative moment of the entire four Wednesdays occurred during one such autographing session. I was suddenly and painfully startled by the impact of a fist on my upper back, though I gave no indication of the attack to my audience, who didn't seem to notice, as I was beside a column and my stealthy adversary crept up behind me using the column to hide his actions. I kept my composure and nonchalantly turned to confront my attacker. There stood a young teenage boy with a horrified look on his face. "They dared me to do it," he stammered pointing to a group of other boys who were cowardly fleeing the area. I drew my face close to his ear and quietly said, "Whether you believe that I am real or not doesn't matter. Don't ruin it for those who are enjoying!" He's probably still running.

As the mall's 9:00 PM closing time drew nigh, the crowds thinned, so I took it upon myself to visit some of the shops in the area. I'd bound up to clothing shoppers and help them with their selections. They'd ineviably ask what Spider-Man was doing at the Staten Island mall. "Just taking a break from fighting the Green Goblin," I'd reply. At the Friendly's restaurant I'd sit with younger fans and ask them what they were getting. I would suggest flies as a topping or a side dish, regardless (The reaction to which is wonderfully captured in the accompanying photo above.).

After the final Wednesday, Jim took me to see his Staten Island store—this was after my pleading to do so over the four weeks. It was a better comic shop than many that I had encountered over the years, belieing the commonly held belief of the general public that comics shops were dark, dusty, disorganized and unwelcoming. He was also the first comics retailer to bag complete runs of limited series and offer them for sale at special prices. Such hard to find, seldom talked about, but worthy series, such as Silent Invasion, Silverblade and Stig's Inferno could be purchased complete without the hassle of hunting down individual copies. A simple mention that I had wanted to read Silent Invasion and before I knew it, Jim was placing it in my hands to take home, refusing payment.

Comic-book retailers order books on a non-returnable basis, which means that whatever they order, they receive at greater discounts BUT cannot return any items that do not sell. Book sellers like Barnes & Noble get a slightly lower discount, but can return whatever copies they do not sell for a full refund, reducing their risk to virtually nothing. They can order a million copies of a book and after several months return every single issue if they desire to do so. A comics retailer swallows every cent that goes into an order. This lopsided practice did not go unnoticed by me when Jim gave me the twelve issue run of Silent Invasion gratis.

I participated in many events over the ensuing years at which I had the pleasure to see Jim and talk about the industry. He remains at the top as a professional and a person. For a guy whose spent most of his life in the dumps, he's one of the happiest I know.

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