Last week, I was trying to get people to give a much less anticipated episode one a chance. Now? Well, it’s episode one of Kevin Smith and AMC’s Comic Book Men. As it’s the series opener we’ll be going over the format of the show a little, as it might not be what you’d expect from something with ‘comic book’ in the title.
Premiering on Sunday night after Walking Dead‘s mid-season pseudo-premiere – and right before its Bizarro follow-up Talking Dead – Kevin Smith has shown he’s the best there is at what he does, Weapon X-style.
The Clerks and Jersey Girl director has jammed himself and the crew from his Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comics store in Red Bank, New Jersey, straight into a gap between two of AMC’s most popular shows. Smith’s been unabashed in acknowledging Walking Dead around the store during the show and is almost Stan Lee-like in his strangely forgiveable charm. The former Daredevil, Batman and Spider-Man writer has chosen not to appear outside of the Comic Book Men podcast booth and leave the rest of the show to his friends.
You probably got abducted by X-Files greys and missed the ’90s if you’re unfamiliar with Smith and his sidekicks, the Secret Stash’s manager Walt Flanagan and rambunctious hanger-on Bryan Johnson. Smith was the slackers’ director-of-choice. Flanagan and Johnson made notable appearances as characters Walt Grover the Fanboy and Steve-Dave in the seminal comic-book-guy movie from back when Marvel had yet to go bankrupt and turn to film – Mallrats. Smith, Flanagan and Johnson have all worked in comics at various points, and now they’re in comic book retail peddling what they love. Very few comics stores have the pedigree necessary to pull off an entertaining ensemble reality show like Smith’s does.
Joining the tenacious trio are storehands Ming Chen and Mike Zapcic. Poor Ming gets roasted by the other guys, particularly Bryan, on a regular basis. It’s not surprising to note that the non-stop irritation that is Randall from Clerks is based on Johnson. Mike’s the quiet one who insistently claims Batman’s sidekick Robin is awesome, only to be met with Dick jokes and Johnson’s claim that he’d happily dress as a 10-year-old boy if a billionaire would adopt him.
It’s that kind of show, but if you’ve been in a British comics chain store you might not recognise the surly archetype from anywhere other than The Simpsons. The animated opening certainly plays up the geekery of the Secret Stash posse. Smith is turned into a Galactus impersonator hovering over a planet, Johnson becomes an Asgardian god, and Chen is a gestalt mech. It’s a far cry from the grim Walking Dead.
This week’s episode is called simply Junk. Knowing Smith, the episode title could’ve been meant in the other American sense of the word, as there’s certainly enough bullishness at the Secret Stash. It’s not an inspiring way to start a new series but probably sums up in one word what many people would consider the contents of Smith’s Secret Stash to be. All that junk is really pretty expensive though, and the memorabilia valuations interspersed through the show reveal the high price of being a nerd.
A lot of the action – or at least the action figure valuations – takes place at the Secret Stash’s counter. It’s difficult to not draw an analogy to Clerks for this element of the show. The Men crowd round any nerd that walks through the front door with interesting items.
Awesome and not-so-awesome treasures brought in this week include a 1970 sketch of Batman and Robin by creator Bob Kane, a life-sized doll of Chucky from Child’s Play, a copy of the first appearance of Blade in Tomb of Dracula #10 signed by artist Gene Colan, and a Six Million Dollar Man doll and 1970 Thor poster by Jack Kirby that the guys actually buy.
When a shady hombre dressed like George Michael from the Faith video shuffles in with a black bag handcuffed to his wrist containing ’70s Dawn of the Dead movie posters, even the cast give in and call pop culture expert Robert Bruce. Bruce schools them all with his professionalism and should probably be added to the Comic Book Men team, but surely has more valuable things to do with his time. Smith and crew lambast most of the chancers from the privacy of the podcast booth, which is something they’d be better off doing less of in my view.
Continuing the junk theme, Flanagan challenges Ming and Mike to sell as much as they can of the excess stock lying around the Secret Stash to the good people at the Collingswood flea market in Farmingdale – what we’d call a massive boot sale. Bryan tags along for presumably the same reason he’s always hanging out at the store.
The flea market brings the funniest scene this week, at least for anyone familiar with comics – watching Chen attempt to charm a middle-aged woman looking for a cheap breadmaker into buying a boxed New Teen Titans Jericho action figure that looks like her. It was cringeworthy to watch as people walked away from $20 trades of recent David Finch runs of Moon Knight offered by the Secret Stash guys for a dollar. Clearly, even in the comic book industry’s homeland, the general public still don’t get the value of comics.
This is where Comic Book Men already hops and skips towards a shark. There’s plenty of discussion about pop cultural doohickery and movies – anyone can see within the opening five minutes that all of the Comic Book Men know their stuff. Only a couple of times do any comics get discussed, and nothing particularly current beyond a brief mention by Zapcic of Will Pfiefer’s Catwoman – yes movie fans, another Pfieffer worked on Catwoman! For a show called Comic Book Men to ignore comics in favour of movies for most of its premiere episode is quite a letdown, and revealing about the audience AMC must expect.
The valuable Golden and Silver Age comics from the ’30s through to the ’70s pop up but there’s nothing about Fear Itself or Flashpoint, or even Crisis on Infinite Earths or Secret Wars. Hopefully the show will portray comics as something slightly less defunct. It’s certainly worth tuning in for the second episode based on the laughs found in the first. As Johnson gripes to Flanagan after one valuation, “Don’t you guys ever sell anything here?”
Fellow Den of Geek comics writer Jennie Whitwood and I watched this episode together and we agreed that it was funny but could do with some younger customers or a female opinion. Don’t jump the gun though and assume the show is, like the eponymous hair colourant, just for men. Beardy scamp Bryan Johnson, macho memorabilia-expert Rob Bruce and toy-boy Ming Chen could end up on a million housewives’ walls, if housewives postered their rooms with such things. Judging from the participants of the show that kind of behaviour is more likely from their husbands, but hopefully Comic Book Men‘s existence will help to break people out of that kind of thinking.
A lot of people will assume a bunch of adult males getting excited over rare action figures is sad or laughable, but isn’t it considered fairly normal and healthy for them to do the same over far more boring football transfers? Comic book fan stereotypes could do with being challenged in the UK. Sadly, it doesn’t look like this show’s going to get picked up anytime soon over here.
Expect a BBC homage at some point with Jonathan Ross, Mark Millar, Frankie Boyle, Andi Peters and the dude with the ‘tache from Antiques Roadshow who’s always stalling for time by turning a small, antique clock around like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. Meanwhile, we’ll bring you reviews of the five episodes left in Comic Book Men‘s first season. Excelsior!