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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



It’s a hundred and six out in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. No, not right now, but yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Tell you the truth, it’s beginning to get a little old to try and walk the dog when the sun goes down and still have the mercury knocking on the triple digit door. Sure, all of you might enjoy the opportunity to test your endurance against the elements in such a way as to run around in the full sun with it bright enough to burn your skin to the consistency of an overdone potato chip, to boast of your manly or womanly prowess “Water? Fie upon that, mere mortal, for I am unto a god and the light of fair Phoebus matters not upon my lordly physique!” says you.

Me, I’d like a break. And what better way to take a break than to retire to the milder climes of the city by the bay, if not only for the better part of a morning? Luckily, Brian Hibbs and Neil Gaiman both knew of my need to flee the burning wasteland that summer visits upon the wonderland of El Dorado County, and they thus conspired to presenting an event that I could not resist, even if I wanted to.

Most big signings I’ve been to tend to be kinda mechanical affairs, bring the book, make chitchat within established guidelines, sometimes physical contact by way of handshake or terrorist fist bump, deep meaningful glances that are returned leading to hands held on the beach where the water laps at your toes, so close to those of the one for whom your love now blooms, wild and unbridled lovemaking by firelight… Huh. I got off-track somewhere. Ah, fist bumps. Most signings are, what’s the word, generic. This one was a little something else.

Firstly, this was a celebration of twenty years of Comix Experience. Now, I’ve only shopped there for about five or six of those, since I started going to shows in the Bay Area and since I started trying to promote a book there (as there are an absurdly large number of really good comic stores there, driven by the personalities of their owners—okay, there’s three off the top of my head and one of ‘em is in the East Bay not actually SF itself, you got me there). To be able to run a store for twenty years is an achievement. To do it and have to survive a Very Large Market Implosion as well as ride out smaller ones seems like a pretty big deal in my book.

I’m guessing that Brian Hibbs didn’t think twenty years ago that his book would be as much a bookstore as it was a comic store when he arrived in 2009. But then I’m pretty sure that nobody thought that books would be a major part of comics either. Twenty years ago, creator-owned books weren’t the big deal that they are today (though to be fair, there were plenty of the that had made their creators do pretty well, just ask Eastman and Laird.) Of course, twenty years ago, you could get PUMA BLUES comics every couple of months, too (I’d still like to read how that book would have finished). Then again, twenty years ago, only nine thousand people went through the doors of the San Diego Comic Convention. That number will shove through the doors in the first ten minutes this year.

Would be nice if those numbers translated into people actually visiting comic stores (or even buying comics from Amazon if need be) but that’s a lament for another time.

Twenty years ago, there was a little book called THE SANDMAN that DC put out that a few people read, but the truth of it was that you could march right up to Neil Gaiman (the author of said comic) after panels at shows and strike up a conversation without being swarmed by legions of cliché-costumed fanboys and fangirls.) Pretty sure that’s not the case now, since even his un-advertised midnight readings draw a couple hundred fans (at least they did the last time I went to one a couple years back). The man has a following, even a dedicated one, even a big, dedicated one. Rightly so, for SANDMAN was a pretty unique (despite the legions of imitators and spin-offs that followed) comic. Perhaps his novels are equally so, but I must confess ignorance of them since my reading of the co-written with Terry Pratchett GOOD OMENS (which should have been the best thing since spaghetti and ice cream) left me cold. Heretical, I understand. I’ve been called that more than once.

For instance, Ryan Higgins (he who is a child of the eighties and simultaneously runs Comic Conspiracy in the made-for-teevee-named town of Sunnyvale, CA) pointed out my belief in the superiority of the WONDER WOMAN story in the current WEDNESDAY COMICS is a belief held by me and me alone. But it’s true. As good as the other strips in that book are (and they are), only Wonder Woman is really doing something with storytelling on the page. So it figures that I’m the only one who loves it. But then, Ryan is an avowed fan of NEW WARRIORS, so perhaps his opinion in this subject is suspect. Even so, he’s a good guy, with some compelling (and contrary) opinions on running a comic store. Perhaps someone will someday give him a platform from which to spout them. We do live in an age of wonders, so best not to write off such a possibility.

Of course, the first thing he did after the customary handshake was to take my picture and Twitter it out to his tweeps or tweeple or whatever they’re being called this minute. Not the way to get on my good side.

But my foul temper would not last more than a picosecond. It was too beautiful outside to keep a raincloud over my head. Seventy-five degrees, dazzling sunshine, sea breeze to keep things fresh. Having lived within half an hour of the coast for most of my life, I do miss the climactic trickery that the ocean can play on even Old Man Summer. Standing in line was an exercise in neither drudgery nor boredom, but enjoying the picture-postcardness of it all and talking High Geek while waiting for a small-setting reading from Neil Gaiman. Not a bad way to spend a morning at all.

Comix Experience is a good store, but it’s not a large one. Which is fine when you’re there for being in close proximity to celebrity. I said before that I’m not a big fan of Mr. Gaiman’s longform prose. That’s the longform. His short stories, however, are much stronger. The adornment is minimal and unobtrusive and things simply crystallize into these little jewels. I’m not big on Mr. Gaiman’s novels, but I’d buy a book of his short stories in a second, if such a beastie existed.

After a half-hour or so of glorious sunbathing, the gathered crowd (which snaked down Divisadero a pretty good way) was ushered inside the store for the reading. And as I said above, it’s not a big place. The reason that this was an intimate reading was that you could only shove in about 110 people before the walls burst. As it was, I’m pretty sure the fire marshal woulda shut things down if he’d seen all the comics fans comically stuffed into the room.

Comically, perhaps, but reverent all the same. Reverent despite the quickly-building heat and resultant trickles of sweat and faintly stale air inside. Ah but that all adds to the authenticity, doesn’t it? Who wants to go to hermetically-sealed events with generic handshakes and the like? Certainly not me.

After opening comments from Mr. Hibbs (who speaks just fine, though it’s clear he’d rather be behind the register and not in the spotlight). Congratulations on twenty years, Brian.

Mr. Gaiman followed, appearing as (in his words as much as mine) a disembodied head with his immovable black wardrobe against black curtain. He does seem an awful lot like Alan Rickman playing Neil Gaiman at times. Is that unfair? I don’t see it as a bad thing. The first story he told was entirely true, that one regarding a misprinted run of SANDMAN #8 that was turned into a collectable by a number of retailers, but not by the aforementioned Mr. Hibbs. Get this, he actually, wait for it, used the misprinted comics to get new readers for the series, not to put up (in the days before Ebay) for sale at two bills each.

Crazy, I know.

Instead of reading from WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CAPED CRUSADER, which I guess he was ostensibly touring in support of, he chose to read from the new book AMANDA PALMER IS DEAD. I understand there’s people a lot more worked up about her performance in the Dresden Dolls than I am. That’s okay. The short stories work all on their own, well, I mean on their own in relations to the photographs, which provide the punchline. But the stories are complete, small as they are (which is a bigger trick than it seems—try it sometime). They’re like little jewels. Which is what I came to see, book signing or no.

I’m almost afraid that the stories won’t work when not read in his voice. So maybe it’s better than I haven’t seen a printed volume.

After the signing and farewells, I headed down the hill a ways to the Isotope where a copy of THE HUNTER was waiting for me (good thing I’d reserved one during the week, since they were otherwise sold out – but there were copies still at Comix Experience). No second week of WEDNESDAY COMICS though. Maybe I can still wait out the trade on that one…

Drove home through the heat-blasted landscape trying to eat a teriyaki burger with one hand and pay the toll with the other. Back home to the heat and the sere spread out under the sweep of drying oaks of high summer.

Read THE HUNTER later, in as close to a single sitting as the kids would allow. I swear I dreamed in gun-metal blue that night.

Back in two weeks. I’d say you could read my con report here, but I’m betting that it’ll be up long before then. 

Matt Maxwell

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