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Kevin Smith Gets Real (Again) with AMC’s ‘Comic Book Men’

In a nutshell, I really enjoyed the pilot episode of AMC’s Comic Book MenKevin Smith’s reality series about the everyday goings on at Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, the comic book store he owns in Red Bank New Jersey. It’s a mixture of Pawn Stars (only with likeable people) and a quasi-sitcom starring Secret Stash employees Ming Chen and Michael Zapcic; View Askewniverse alums Steve Dave and Walt the Fanboy (Bryan Johnson, and manager, Walter Flanagan); and Smith himself.

For those who question whether or not what happens in a comic book store might be the stuff of good reality television – rent one of Smith’s Evening with… videos. Kevin Smith is an entertaining storyteller, even when he’s just being himself, by himself. A movie director with the soul of a standup comic. Also, having worked a little over four years in a comic book shop around the time reality TV was getting huge, I can’t tell you how many times I heard “They should put cameras in here and tape you guys. I’d watch that show.” [Too bad none of the people who said it was a television producer…] AMC finally got hip to what we geeks already knew: many of us are a smart and interesting people, and not all comic book fans and comic shop employees are Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. We are Comic Book Men… and Women!

From left to right: Bryan Johnson, Walter Flanagan, Kevin Smith, Ming Chen, and Mike Zapcic

The framing device for the episodes is the Secret Stash podcast — the podcast formerly known as Tell ‘Em Steve Dave — on Smith’s Smodcast Internet Radio network, in which the fellas basically discuss what happens at the shop and, naturally, this leads to any number of tangents involving the world of pop culture. A refreshing change up from the all too familiar reality device of the confessional – which wouldn’t really work on this show, because confessionals involve talking massive amounts of trash between and by the “cast”. The Comic Book Men are longtime friends – which is not only in their bios, it comes across onscreen as well. Whether talking about some of the people we see on the show, or a quick debate about whether or not Robin is a universally recognized character on the same level as Batman, or how easy it would be for Donald Trump to adopt a ward to help him fight crime – they are, at the root, friends just bullshitting about stuff they love. A shorter, concentrated version of the banter you’re likely to find in a comic shop.

Another big part of the show is the delicate dance between inflated expectations and harsh realities (at one point, even punctuated by tango music) – the cornerstone of the vulture-oriented action you see in Hardcore Pawn and the like, but with a spin that is both unique and faithful to the what happens in a real world comic shop. Once again, relating it to my personal experience, I’d almost consider this aspect of the show to be a public service. Ever since Action Comics #1 sold for $100,000 in the early seventies, the misconception about comics and related merchandise is that everything is “worth money.” Partially true, but the larger question is how much money is it actually worth? People also forget that what you see a collectible go for on eBay, or what it says in a price guide, is almost certainly not what you’re going to get from a comic book store, because that person has to make a profit.

Flannagan (left) and Zapcic (right) try to explain to a would be seller that her Chucky doll isn't worth $500

The difference in CBM is that the exchanges were good natured, and never ended in hostility. Out of the four transactions I can recall off the top of my head, only one person walked away from the transaction a much, much richer person. And even that wealth was potential, as the item in question was a Batman sketch by the late, great Bob Kane – worth an upwards of $10,000. Since it was a little too high-ticket of an item, for many reasons, to sell in a “brick and mortar” comic book store (even if it’s owned by a pop culture icon like Kevin Smith), the seller was referred to a couple auction houses.

The area that needs most work, so far, is the “sitcom” aspect of the show – the relationships between the guys as characters resolving some kind of conflict, or meeting a challenge rather than the mostly humdrum reality of working in a comic book shop. Take away the cool stuff and the crazy conversations, and it’s a pretty dull gig with lots and lots of downtime, regardless of how popular the store is. Creating conflict, and as a result, story, is a somewhat necessary “evil” in reality TV – usually accomplished by populating the cast with people who are on a trajectory to butt heads at some point in the future. Since the starting point for CBM is that it’s a group of people who like each other, and in some cases grew up with each other, mud-slinging and fistfights are highly unlikely.

In the pilot, the “conflict” comes in the form of a contest between Chen, Zapcic and Johnson. With the Secret Stash’s space rapidly dwindling from too much product coming in, but not enough going out (razzin’ frazzin’ economy…) Walt makes an executive decision to send the guys to the ass-end of the collectibles industry in New Jersey, the Collingswood Flea Market. Whoever got the most money for their assortment overstock got two consecutive weekends off. While not a bad premise, it came off as more or less forced, especially when they were blowing out graphic novels and trade paperbacks, that retail at anywhere from fifteen to twenty dollars, for a buck a piece. It’s either that, or I really need to get to a flea market.

Not the only spot in The Garden State to get your comics, but certainly one of the best!

On the other hand, a positive, and perhaps another “public service” the show provides, is to show another end of the collectibles industry. Since the boom in specialty shops in the 80’s, the retail game, for comics has changed quite a lot. Most shops, for instance, don’t have an extensive catalog on the premises, if at all. As I said in the previous paragraph, the average shop has to take space into consideration, and with so much in the way of comics and related merchandise coming out each and every week, that most shops almost have to devote most of their floor to new product. And on a practical level for bargain conscious fans, it showed that if you want to get those really sweet deals, you’re going to have to forsake the clean, well lit shops and get your hands dirty at the flea markets, swap meets, and even garage sales – a truer reflection of how pop culture product moves in this country.

The bottom line is that it’s a show I will watch again, and not just because of AMC’s pitch perfect positioning of the show – Sundays at 10 p.m., between new episodes of the zombie horror/drama, The Walking Dead, and the its uber-fan companion chat show, Chris Hardwick’s The Talking Dead. While there isn’t a lot of conventional dramatic mileage, because the people are likeable, and like each other, it’s a fun, positive slice of life piece populated by interesting characters. You know, like a Kevin Smith movie…