Kevin Smith’s ‘Comic Book Men’ Is a Compelling Argument Against Comic Book Stores [Review]
Last Sunday, Comic Book Men premiered on AMC, sliding right into the time slot right after the comic book-based Walking Dead series. It’s a reality show masterminded by filmmaker and occasional comic book writer Kevin Smith that follows four employees at his New Jersey comic book shop, the Secret Stash, as they deal with the world of comics retail. If the intent is to show comic shop employees as anything other than obnoxious walking sterotypes, it’s a complete failure.
If, however, it’s meant to be the most compelling argument I’ve ever seen for never setting foot in a comic book store, I have to admit that it’s a smashing success.Believe it or not, the person who comes out best in this whole train wreck of a show is Smith himself and, to a lesser extent, his longtime friend and collaborator Walt Flanagan, who manages the shop. As much as I might not care for his work, it’s impossible to argue that Smith’s not a witty guy, and the scenes where he’s around to direct the conversation are the closest things get to actually being entertaining.
Even those parts, though, are mystifying in terms of why anyone would think they were a good idea to put on television. They’re set up as Smith and his cronies recording a podcast about the show, and while I respect the desire to do something a little different than the confessional-style shots of someone talking into a camera that are the standard for reality TV, the end result is that you’re watching a bunch of people sit around talking about things you’re watching them do, and adding nothing to it. Except for the part about three minutes in when they start talking about which super-heroines they want to have sex with, which is a nice way to confirm every negative image of comic book store employees right at the start.
And that’s what they do for the next hour, because while Flanagan seems like a nice enough guy who’s doing his job — and doing pretty well at it — the other three cast members are just awful.
It took about a half hour before I was sure that I hated every one of those guys with a passion, but it would’ve happened a lot sooner if it wasn’t for the weird way the show’s been structured. Despite the title of the show, it doesn’t really focus on comics. It doesn’t really focus on retail at all, in fact; there’s not a single Secret Stash customer shown in the entire hour. Instead, the first episode operates on the obviously contrived Pawn Stars gimmick of people coming in to sell telegenic collectibles.
I freely admit that I’m probably the only one who was looking forward to watching somebody drag in a dusty long boxes of “Death of Superman” tie-ins that the cat peed on and demand a thousand bucks for the whole lot of rare collector’s items, since that would be a pretty accurate portrayal of what it’s like to work in a comic book store. Instead, the very first customer who wanders in just happens to have an original Bob Kane Batman sketch that they’re looking to sell.
That has got to be the luckiest coincidence of the century, even though it leads to Flanagan talking about how maybe Kane drew this thing on the back of some rare, undiscovered Bob Kane creation. It turns out to be a press release that was just handy when Kane was doing the sketch, which ensures that this segment leads off with a massive anticlimax.
And it only gets more contrived from there. At one point, a guy comes in literally dressed like Steve Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin with a polo shirt buttoned up to his throat and a stack of Megos. He’s even got a 6 Million Dollar Man figure, which gives Kevin Smith, the writer of Kevin Smith’s Bionic Man, the chance to talk for a few minutes about how awesome the Bionic Man is.
Far be it from me to knock a guy for staying on his hustle — after Clerks, Kevin Smith’s most successful project has always been Kevin Smith — but to pretend that it’s anything else is just bullsh*tting the audience. Which, in the end, is what that segment’s all about.
We all know there are weirdos out there hoarding collectibles and wandering into shops to demand outrageous prices for them — when I worked in a comic shop, I once dealt with a guy who claimed that his comic had to be worth a million bucks because it was even older than Superman #1, except that it turned out to be 1994’s Superboy #0 — but those are such obvious setups that they might as well have just billed it as a sitcom and had Smith script lines for everyone directly. Even worse, it’s boring. Was anyone really super interested in watching Walt Flanagan talk a dude down to $75 for his Thor poster?
That said, it’s still better than the other half of the show, which focuses on the employees and just how infinitely hateable they are.
It has a standard reality show challenge, which in this case involves dragging a bunch of dead stock to a flea market and seeing who can make the most money. For Comic Book Men, it’s structured clear attempt to echo Clerks, to the point where it even has the white-on-black title cards dividing up sections. The difference is that while Clerks pit two affable friends against an army of jerky customers, these guys are just constantly being a**holes to each other.
Look, I worked in a comic book store for six years. I get how it is when you’re at a job that requires a lot of standing around and doing nothing, and that tends to lead to guys busting on each other and having dumb conversations about favorite super-heroes and who could beat whom in a fight. It’s why I can’t really get mad at the sexy super-heroine conversation at the top of the show, because that’s a conversation I’ve had more than a few times while I was propping up a counter. But with these guys, it’s the only thing you see, and it never stops.
I don’t know how much coaching went into it, or if they just came in one day and a producer decided one of them was going to be the jerk, one was going to be the toadie and one was going to be the bland one that nobody really cares about, but these three guys fall pretty naturally into those roles. Every second they’re onscreen, they get a little less likable.
The worst by far is Bryan, a dude who looks like he’s trying so hard to be Ed Greenwood that it’s actually painful to watch.
This dude… There’s a part during the flea market competition where he just starts smashing these collectible plates that one of the other guys is selling as part of some kind of aggressive sales tactic, and also so that the other dude can’t sell them and beat him at the contest. A nearby senior citizen sees this and walks over to yell at him for being a dick, and he immediately backs down and pays for the things he broke. Then the old man leaves, and just as quickly as he backed down, Bryan gets tough again and demands his money back until the other guy shuffles like a kicked puppy and hands it over.
Everything he’s shown doing in this show goes down like that, with this guy coming off as the smarmy alpha nerd prick with an unearned sense of superiority that everyone who goes to a comic shop tries to avoid. He’s also the first one to say that the shoppers at the flea market look like they were banned from going to the mall and that the corseted goth girl who tries to sell a Chucky doll looks like she’s “mentally ill,” which is why I have no problem saying that he looks like Dumbledore f**ked a mushroom.
And the thing is, he’s presented as less of an a**hole and more of a lovable rascal. I guess it’s because they’re all in this together and he can always get some support for bashing on the freakshows that come into the shop with the other employees, but he’s also the first to lead the “hilarious” discussion of how the other guy wears nice jeans because he’s having sex with Richie Rich, so, you know, whatever.
I know guys like this. I’ve seen them at cons, and I do my best to get as far away from them as possible. But despite the show’s premise that these are the everyday heroes down there fightin’ in the retail trenches, they’re not. These are the guys that work at the shop you only go to when the store you like sells out of the comic you want, that you do your best to deal with as quickly as possible because they don’t even wait until you’re at the door before they start smirking at your purchases.
I don’t know. Maybe when the cameras are off and they’re not dealing with a string of scripted goofballs bringing in collectibles that were hand-picked for the show because they’re all tied into movies, these guys are at the top of customer service. Maybe they’re not an embarrassment. But that’s how they’re being portrayed, and by extension, how AMC sees comics in general: A bunch of guys standing around trying to sound like a Kevin Smith movie but failing because they’re not as clever.
That’s apparently how even people in the industry think comics should be seen, and as a result, this show isn’t just bad. It’s depressing.