A Fugue in Four Colors

Most fugues only have three movements.

Origin Stories: Everything is black at the beginning.

My favorite comic book team while growing up was the New Mutants, AKA the lesser known teen squad who had been destined to take over when the X-Men retired. Or, more likely, when some Earth-shattering event squashed them into mutant goo. I’m pretty sure that I liked the New Mutants more because they were more a cross between the high and mighty X-Men, disdained by the world, yet respected by it, and some of the more cockamamie episodes of Degrassi High. The X-Men were saving the world while their proteges were busy figuring out how how to fit in with a crowd (either among humans, or among themselves), balancing saving their neighborhoods and saving face with the cute boy at the end of the row who may or may not think the same. The characters fit my personal brand of teenage narcissism:

Sunspot was the haughty guy whose super-strength hid his equally-formidible super-insecurity.

Cannonball was a rube who just didn’t understand social mores whatsoever.

Wolfsbane was the innocent Scots lass who was defined more by her boy-cut and ultra-Orthodox Catholic innocence than her werewolfery.

And Mirage, AKA Danielle Moonstar. She was my favorite of the bunch by far, because of all the characters, she was the one who captured my personal zeitgeist as a young kid just starting to feel out the edges of being a) not White in a white-dominated world, and b) being a sort of first generation American for whom the schism of old world sensibilities bracing against new technologies, new social strata, new importances.

All these characters spoke to me as a high school freshman who had to learn about Chicago’s EL system, and how to not be picked on, and how to kinda maybe sorta talk to girls–or maybe not.

Too bad, then, that the series ended in 1991, replaced by the not-to-be-mentioned-in-polite-company series called X-Force, guided by four-color wunderkind, Rob Liefeld. Yes, he of the big guns, big boobs, no brains, and no feet kind of comics for which the 1990s are best known. Not my most favorite time in comic fandom.

Still, I went out and purchased New Mutants back issues with the little money I had, and treated each issue as new when I got it. Upon completing the series four years later, that was more or less my signal to back away from comics for a while. I kept tabs on the various characters via internet sites that specialized in comic news, like comicbookresources.com. But for all intents and purposes, I was out.

Until 2000. I was a junior in college up at Loyola University Chicago. The following news came across the wires: “Chris Claremont returns to the X-Men.” It was like Jesus had sent out a press release to say, “BTW, I’m back suckas.” Back in 1991, he left Marvel Comics at its absolute height when a spat between him and editorial got ugly. Left with his hat on and his lunchpail still full, but without his life’s work–the X-Men. Oh, I tried to keep tabs on his work after that, which included a couple of franchise tie-ins (Aliens/Predator, Star Trek) and a couple of titles that failed to catch my interest (Sovereign Seven, WildC.A.T.s). But nothing stuck. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

Fast Forward nine years: Well, I thought, this might be a good time to get back into things. Only, I had no idea where to go. My neighborhood comic shop–where I had spent many hours poring through longboxes, and spent many dollars on comics with sparkly covers sporting “#1 Collector’s Issue!” on the front–had boarded its doors a few years earlier. Without a home, I searched online for another shop that might suffice. I wasn’t looking for a multimedia nerd-gasm, a la New York’s Forbidden Planet, Kevin Smith’s own Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, or Chicago’s own Chicago Comics. I just wanted a place where I could plop down some cash on the counter and take my comics without much ado.

Oh, I got that.

Within walking distance of campus, adjacent to a Checkers turned drive through Cash Loans on Car Titles joint, there was Larry’s Comics. At least I hoped. I’d see the plain-lettered sign in the storefront window, plastered with sun-bleached posters from the 1970s and 80s. I figured it was worth an investigation. If it was closed, then I lose nothing. If it was a real functioning shop, then I still lose very little–$2.99, the price of a single comic in the early 2000s. I can’t say that I wasn’t scared walking up to that heavy wooden door, its glass clasped by security bars. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say I was pretty terrified. Informed only by the pristine, T n’ A saturated comic shops of my youth, this place seemed like the inspiration for the comic shop in the Simpsons, only not as welcoming.

Still, it was Claremont. Claremont was worth it.

Bagged and Boarded: All comics eventually fall to the yellow abyss of doom.

In the beginning, there was Larry. Along with Joe Sarno, who opened his grand shop, Comic Kingdom, in 1978, Larry was Chicago’s comics pioneer. Larry’s Comics, once located at 1219 W Devon Ave. near the intersection I affectionately call the Broadway-Devon-Sheridan clusterfuck, opened in 1972 as the the city’s first dedicated comic shop. From what I can gather, it had started as a dusty hovel where you could pretty much find any comic you want, dependent on your determination and a little bit of luck. And it never strayed from that business model.

I am now convinced that Larry’s true contribution to humanity is whatever quantum singularity he discovered to cram that many comics into that little storefront. Walking in, you were pretty much assaulted by stacks of longboxes against the right wall. To the left were two spinner racks that sometimes held comics, sometimes held classic sci-fi novels from the 1960s and 70s. Further into the store was where Larry always located himself–in a chair right next to the phone. Often when I’d walk in–every Wednesday, which was the day new comics were delivered–he’d be staring into space, or on the phone brusquely answering questions about this collectible or that. Sometimes, he’d have friends over to his shop, and they’d be engaged in loud, boisterous conversations. These were the only times that I remember seeing Larry animated. One time, even, I saw him smile.

Most of the time, Larry scared the shit out of me. He did not have an imposing frame, at around 5′ 10″, with long hair, a mustache like the bristly end of a custodian’s broom, and a pair of thick glasses on his prominent nose. But he was so taciturn, so grumpy-looking, that approaching him was akin to stepping up to an open iron maiden. I once considered asking him once about a specific comic coming out, but overheard another patron (foolish, foolish man) do it before me.

“If it’s not on the rack, it didn’t come in,” Larry blurted out, cutting him off. At the time, I thought that he may have been having a bad day. But now I think that Larry cut off the customer because he knew exactly what question he was being asked. No use in pussyfooting.

Most folks approached Larry with questions about pricing. Larry’s back issues rarely had price stickers on them. Sometimes, prices would be written on the inside front page in faded pencil. Other times, he’d flip the comic over, leaf through the dog-eared pages, and then decide on a price on the spot. The Larry price was always lower than the list prices (which I had memorized out of my Overstreet Guide, as part of my life as deal-hunting Geek Reinhardt 2.0), causing me to wonder if he was still stuck on pricing in 1980s money, or if he didn’t really care what I paid for the issue as long as I relieved him of it.

Perhaps the latter is more likely, as he seemed to hate comics. Larry rarely spoke to a customer in anything but a curt, gruff thrust of breath. He never went on for more than a sentence about anything, and he never seemed to want to discuss comic minutia like the younger proprietors of other stores. It was hard for me at the time to figure out why in the world he would subject himself to something he disliked so obviously.

I think now, with a bit of space and perspective, I can understand a little better.

We create little fantasies to get ourselves to do things we think we should do. At the time I discovered Larry’s, I was in my second year at university as a computer science major who hated the discipline AND sucked at it, too. The Claremont announcement came just in time, as I was desperate to find some sort of mental escape from the arrays and booleans that festooned my days. Only, when I delved back into my comics fandom, I found that the comics climate had changed. In the 1990s, which I had sat out, the comics economy went sky high before bottoming out. By 1997, nothing of what I remembered from the late 1980s was detectable under manga-ized art, ever-rotating writers, and continuities so rife with retcons that nothing made sense to me.

Still, Claremont was back. If anyone could fix the X-Men and bring back the New Mutants, it would be him. And I was back on board to ride that wave–but not as as little fanboy that I was. No, comics to 20-year-old me were more than kids’ stories. They were sequential art. (This is the part where you groan and shake your fist.) I would spend the little money that I had to study the art of sequential storytelling, to understand the nuances in pacing that make comics a more viable mode of storytelling than plain text in many cases. Yeah, I sold myself this hoity-toity line to really cover up that I wanted that yesterday back when I didn’t have to worry about careers and what I would be. I wanted to just worry about what was before me on that day, and just how old was that Wolverine fellow?

Maybe that’s the same reason why Larry sat there every day, looking thoroughly displeased. At the very least, he was immersed in a world he once loved, even if that world had mutated to an extent that the love was gone. Perhaps he had the hope that the fellowship and nicheness of comicdom’s early days would come back.

Or, perhaps, he had weighed his alternatives and found them much more intolerable.

Third Eye: Those with magenta auras have artistic drives.

The Chris Claremont-helmed “X-Men Revolution” was anything but. Just a short (mercifully short) nine months later, the entire project was more or less shitcanned. I’m not sure what happened. I mean, I’d gone back as a twenty-something year old and read the whole run of X-Men and New Mutants from the 1980s. That stuff was good–excellent, even, for what it was: long-form, serialized fiction that belied its kiddie pop roots. Only, this time around, Claremont’s predilictions (insanely verbose characters in thought and speech, a complete lack of subtlety with characters whose names don’t rhyme with “Kagneto”) outshone his amazing imagination and his ability to know just how much melodrama to pour into a situation.

I came to Larry’s every week during that stretch to check for any comics featuring those old New Mutants characters, but it seemed that either Claremont had forgotten about them, or that Marvel editorial kept him busy enough with the X-Men’s principals–Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, and the like. No room for the also-rans.

I kind of wanted to ask Larry about what he thought about all this. After all, these were comics’ most well-known characters after the “World’s Finest” duo of Superman and Batman. And Claremont for more than fifteen years had written every X-Men script, resulting in an iron-clad–if a bit convoluted–continuity. I mean, it should have worked according to my simplistic understanding of the comic book world. You get a great, proven writer, a quality artist, and characters everyone loves, and you get success. Two H’s and an O make water every single time. Alas, not under the right kinds of heat and pressure. I was never good at science.

Perhaps Larry would have put me in my place, explained a few things about the comics biz from a guy who’s been in the trenches. He may have waved me off with a platitude like “every writer has a shelf life” or “sometimes they lose it” or “maybe you’ve changed.” But I’ll never know because I never asked. Larry, with his scowl and his arms crossed just stooped silently on the stool in his corner. Dejected with the state of Marvel’s Merry Mutants, I started to spend longer times in Larry’s shop. I’m not sure why. I may have been looking for the right time to approach Larry himself. I may have been looking for a fix of nostalgia buried in the back issues. I remember hunting through through box after box, all the while Larry watching me T.J.-Eckleburg-style as I foraged for something-I-wasn’t-sure-what.

It was during that time that two things happened. 1) My fervor for comics died down as my expectations waned from their high. 2) I became more interested in Larry than anything else in his store. Of course, due to my anxiety over talking to him, any information I gleaned was piecemeal. He was most talkative when his friends were around, and that’s when I’d eavesdrop bits and pieces of his life–how he spent time in Vietnam, logistics of how he transported all the comics from his shop to the various conventions around town, anecdotes about people who called about selling him collectibles they insisted were too valuable to pass up.

Get him in a certain groove, and he was apt to charge full speed into a topic, which led me to wonder if he–in his quieter periods–was silently judging the people in his shop. I suppose most store proprieters do this as a safety mechanism. After all, you’re supposed to profile your regulars and take note of the newbies. All the better to sell to both of them. But Larry never tried to sell you on anything. Ever. Unlike flashier stores that enticed you with posters and sexy, impossibly-boobed pinups, Larry’s Comics just gave you the fucking comics. You decided if it was worth your time and money.

I should have seen it coming to an end.

I graduated from Loyola in summer 2001. First class of the new millenium. In the last couple months of the semester, Larry opened up his even dustier back room and posted fliers all over his shop. “Any issues in the back are five for a dollar.” Well, as a cash strapped soon-to-be-adult, I couldn’t turn away from that opportunity. I went in whole hog and pored over the pile looking for underpriced gems. I found a few–some early 1970s Avengers and Fantastic Four–that Larry didn’t even blink at.

He counted out my haul in batches of five, did the math in his head, and spat out the number. I paid. I left.

The term for blue: Cyanosis, a complete lack of oxygen.

After leaving the big X-Men titles post-“Revolution,” Chris Claremont did some time with some of the lesser titles (such as the unfortunately named “X-Treme X-men”). In 2009, he was given what few get in their lives: a chance to wipe the slate clean, to redefine his creations disregarding the stories others heaped upon them in his absence. He helmed “X-Men Forever,” a series that was supposed to show the comic-reading public what he would have done had he not left the X-Men in 1991. It lasted sixteen issues before being cancelled in 2010. Of the current mainstream comic marketplace, Claremont stated in a recent interview:

“Things change, grow and evolve, and you don’t necessarily like them, but that’s what makes it a horse race. Or, you can find a way to do it your way, but better. And then find some idiot publisher. But that’s the nature. The main challenge of mainstream, and the creators in mainstream, is that you have to reinvent yourself every X amount of times. The challenge now is the hope that there’ll be an audience out there to appreciate the work when the latest version takes place.”

After graduating from college, I immediately started working. I wore dress pants to work every day, wore a keycard on my belt. I worked in a highrise–Prudential Plaza 1, what used to be Chicago’s tallest building. I gradually lost the tenuous hold on my comics addiction and the even more tenuous hold on non-adult-hood. Even so, I remained fascinated with Larry and his shop, and repeatedly promised myself that I’d take that express bus straight up to Rogers Park and see what was going on. Only, when I did, I found it closed. Like for good.

Not with a big bash blowout, not with a going-out-of-business extravaganza. From what I could tell, Larry just decided one day not to unlock the door. There were still comics inside, I believe–that, or the cardboard longboxes were still there, stacked impossibly, like they sat on the moon. Not even a whimper. Maybe a gasp. Maybe no sound at all.

A year later, I decided that I would volunteer at the local comic convention. Chalk it up to my weakness for nostalgia, or for the love of that unmistakeable smell of decades-old newsprint–the stink of a disintegrating yesterday. With a gaudy orange shirt, I walked the aisles between the booths and kiosks set up to entice young, financially ignorant children to surrender their parents’ money for that latest ceramic bust of Hellboy. I remember turning the corner and being surprised to see Larry between two tables, those yellowed longboxes set up like castle walls around him. He looked exactly as he did before, no sign of age or wear.

This was it. My chance.

“Hi,” I said to him, searching for any notion that he recognized me from his store. I saw none. He only glanced up at me through his thick glasses and waited for me to form my thought. “I, uh, was wondering about your store.”

“I had to close it,” he said in a huff. “There’s just no money in it.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. There’s just no money in comics. I don’t know what else to say.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah. So…” He ended the sentence not with any more words, but with a resigned shrug.

I looked around his booth for a bit, more out of courtesy than anything else, and then I went along my way.

Post-Script: Here’s Chris Ware’s take on Larry’s.

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