Fox's photocopied-and-stapled comic book is called Foxymoron. In it, he chronicles conversations about war with people who sound like they're quoting bumper stickers, his wife's frustrations with video-store patrons who don't understand the beauty of the widescreen format, and his fear of the snake that's living underneath his house. When he's not doing Foxymoron, he's drawing a strip for the Olathe Daily News. He's only 23. It's not the biggest gig in the world, but it's a start -- a good one.
He could stand to get a little more respect, though.
Fox was into superhero comics when he was a kid. He and his friends sold their own comics for a buck apiece in middle school, but by high school that was all over. As he got back into it, fellow art students at Johnson County Community College gave him a hard time. "People would be, like, 'Get away from the thick outline,'" he recalls. "Don't make it look so cartoony.'"
Now he doesn't worry too much about what people think.
Well, not usually. Last summer, he went to a San Diego comic-book convention, and out of that came "Convention Fun 2002," a chapter in the second installment of Foxymoron. It shows Fox approaching the admission desk to redeem his professional pass and discovering that his name isn't on the list. When the woman asks him to document his status as a professional, he shows her a copy of Foxymoron.
"Uh-huh," she says, skimming through it. "This looks a lot like Jim Mahfood's artwork, the humor is very Matt Groeningesque, and the title is a knockoff of Evan Dorkin's Dork. No dice!" She laughs so hard she can barely control herself, tossing the book over her shoulder and yelling, "Next!"
He bounces back by setting up a booth in the alley, lemonade-stand-style.
"Those bastards won't respect me as a professional artist," he tells his wife, Molly, who is drawn alongside him in most of his comics. "So I have to prove it out here, in the REAL artists' alley!"
Business in the real artists' alley begins booming when Fox starts selling beer. Matt Groening comes outside and pretends to reprimand him for copying a Simpsons episode, then reminisces about the days when people called The Simpsons a rip-off of The Flintstones and claimed that Futurama was just like The Jetsons.
Fox isn't the kind of guy to demand recognition. But "Convention Fun 2002" indicates that he might benefit from some sense of professional belonging.
Living in Lee's Summit, he didn't hang out in midtown haunts where other comics creators tended to congregate. Awhile back, he started getting e-mails from members of the new Kansas City Comics Creators Network, inviting him to sketchbook parties where he might get some feedback. But it was a long drive. He was happy enough working on his own, so he didn't get involved until about two months ago.
"I saw that Hector was on the board, so I was, like, what the hell!"
Hector Casanova writes a cynical little strip in The Kansas City Star called "Guffman and Godot," but that isn't the only thing that earns him respect. Casanova is considered an artist. In his Green Door Gallery, Casanova shows the work of emerging young artists, knowing people will attend his shows whether they recognize the artists' names or not.
One artist says that, although the local talent ranges from people who draw very, very well to people who look like they draw with their feet, Casanova "has God in his hands."
Fox admires Hector Casanova, a role model living in his own town. But Fox has never met him. And if a comics artist like Fox can't find his peers, how can the average Kansas Citian possibly know about the cool things these locals are doing?
Comic-book fans are quick to say it's because comic books are a dying medium. It's a mantra. Comics are dying. Comics are dying. Comics are ...
"I think the best comics are being made right now," says Free Comix's Rob Schamberger. "But the industry's driven away its customers, so nobody knows it."
The Misadventures of Jim Cavanaugh and Friendly Frank: Part One
It's a peculiar thing, this comics industry.
Take Clint's Books, the midtown institution at Main Street and Westport Road. Inside Clint's is everything you'd expect in a comics shop -- action figures, rows of musty comics stuffed in Mylar sleeves, superhero posters that swallow every inch of wall space.
The peculiar thing is the violence. The volatility. The death threats.
Here to explain it all is Jim Cavanaugh, sitting in the messy back room of his store, cataloguing the hundreds of movies he owns in a computer database. (Right now his screen is frozen on the works of Stanley Kubrick.) To his right lies a copy of Incredible Hulk No. 181 (in which the Wolverine appears for the first time), worth more than $1,000 in mint condition.
Cavanaugh likes to assert a physical supremacy. Practices several martial arts. Boxed in the Navy. So it seems peculiar that somebody would open a comics store across the street, in direct competition with him. Especially someone with such a pedestrian physique. "He basically threatened me physically," Cavanaugh says of his archnemesis, a man called Friendly Frank. "He's not as big as you are. Would you threaten me physically? I was a heavyweight champion in the Navy."
As he says this, two customers stroll around the sales room, passing a life-sized Spider-Man statue and perusing comic racks polarized by the industry's two biggest publishers: Detective Comics (Batman, Superman) along the north wall, Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four) to the south.
Four decades ago, when the store was opened by its namesake, Clint Murray, Clint's stretched into the space next door now occupied by a coffee shop. It housed an awesome collection of old comics, pulp magazines, trade paperbacks, "big little books" and other science-fiction and fantasy literature.
The story of how Cavanaugh acquired the shop begins in the 1950s, at the Time to Read newsstand on 12th and Main, where two grisly old men chew on cigars and look over a shop stacked with newspapers, magazines, bookie sheets and a whole section devoted to new comics. The old men let eleven-year-old Jim buy Playboy.
But the best thing is the All Stars, the Justice Society of America, the world's first-ever superhero troupe. The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Dr. Fate, Hourman, the Spectre, the Sandman, Johnny Thunder, the Red Tornado, Wonder Woman, Mister Terrific and Hawkman. At one point he collects every copy of the series, an entire set of All Star Comics. Then he collects another two sets.
Cavanaugh appreciates the finer things in comics, and that leads him to Clint's. In 1970, he walks into the shop for the first time. Five years later, his father, Smokey, buys the place.
Early on, the Cavanaugh family clears out much of the inventory at Clint's and focuses primarily on new comics, something nearly unheard of at the time.
Before, comics publishers sold new comics to newsstands, such as Time to Read, and gave refunds for whatever didn't sell. Not so bad for newsstands, not so good for publishers. But in the mid-'70s, a new breed of entrepreneur approaches the publishers with an offer: Sell to me at a larger discount and forget about refunds.
Publishers agree to sell their books exclusively through comics shops popping up around the country. Clint's is well ahead of the pack.
Not that Jim Cavanaugh experiences this. In 1982, just as the boom takes off, he leaves for Texas and doesn't return to Kansas City for nine years. What does he miss? Only a mid-'80s period as purely successful as any time in comics history, followed by an early '90s run that blows that out of the water. Massive interest in comics sends profits soaring, thanks to a new type of customer: the Speculator.
See, the Speculator reads about something like the "Death of Superman" in 1992 and buys as many copies of that issue as he can. Someday, he thinks, he'll put his daughter through college with the money from this investment -- never mind that DC, Superman's publisher, prints about 3 million copies to accommodate all the hype. The Speculator jumps all over the publishers' gimmicks, and comic-book shops ride the wave of sales.
More gimmicks follow. Marvel once again numbers its most popular books, beginning with a new X-Men No. 1, playing on the value of an original 1963 X-Men No. 1 that's now worth a couple of thousand dollars.
Of course, the bottom drops out. Like the dot-com bubble, the surge in comics speculation implodes when customers realize the true value of their investments. The Speculator disappears.
Thousands of stores fold. As Cavanaugh likes to say, the numbers don't lie. In 1992, more than 10,000 shops sell comics. Five years later, fewer than half that number are operating.
That's when Cavanaugh comes back to Kansas City. In control of Clint's is Rick Jarvis, who ran the place through its 1980s heyday and opened a second location in Johnson County. For several years, Jarvis has been the face of Clint's, attaining near legendary status himself. But Cavanaugh discovers problems. Taxes have gone unpaid, he says, and funds are missing. Overall, the store's debts stretch well into six figures.
Sounds bad, but Cavanaugh manages to keep Clint's afloat. He closes the Johnson County shop. Focusing on his midtown location, Cavanaugh comes to depend on the loyalty of his store's longtime customers. As new comics arrive each Wednesday morning, the store's regulars stroll in to collect books they've pre-ordered exclusively from Clint's. Hundreds of regulars, every Wednesday. Real customers, Cavanaugh says, not Speculators. Customers with children, who grow into new customers.
Still, Cavanaugh doesn't kid himself. No matter what anybody says, these are horrible times for comics peddlers. "Anyone who would tell me the industry is doing great ... they're either very stupid or very naïve," he says.
By the late 1990s, Cavanaugh heads a store that's performing its worst in 22 years.
So you can imagine Cavanaugh's reaction in August 2000 when he looks outside and sees a new comics shop, B-Bop Comics, opening across the street, not twenty paces from his front door. You can imagine the anger he feels when he realizes that the man behind this unethical move tried to buy Clint's just months before. "For some reason," he says, "the man is obsessed with destroying me and Clint's."
Jim Cavanaugh crosses his arms and says of the man called Friendly Frank, "He is more of a detriment to comics and the industry than anybody I've ever met."
The Ringleader Takes Matters Into Her Own Hands
Elizabeth Jacobson's work-in-progress comic Every Man is an attempt to document every man she's ever known.
But completion of the book becomes less attainable with each new male she meets, and other tasks demand her energy these days.
The 26-year-old Jacobson is founder of the Comics Creators Network, a nonprofit organization she started to support Kansas City artists. Before she moved to Kansas City in the mid-'90s, Jacobson had been a film student in New York, where she was a regular poetry-slam competitor. The slams gave poets a chance to perform, as well as a place to hear about other events and opportunities. More than anything, they provided inspiration to keep writing.
To promote a similar environment within the Kansas City comics scene, Jacobson has become Superorganizer. Her efforts translate into greater exposure for CCN artists and writers, whether she's displaying their work at out-of-town conventions or organizing a showcase for them in a West Bottoms art gallery. Perhaps most important, though, she's helping comics creators hook up.
"This time last year," says writer John Parker, "I knew pretty much nobody who was interested in comics or doing work that I really dug in the Kansas City area ... now I know, like, a dozen."
"The number of comics artists I know quintupled in the last few months," adds Casanova. "When you don't know anybody, you lose motivation ... it makes all the difference knowing there's somebody out there doing similar things who's interested in what you're doing instead of, like, your mom might want to see a copy."
Jacobson has new members to recruit, dues to collect, gatherings to plan, conventions to attend, books to promote and a Web site to update. At the moment, she's working to get 501(c)(3) status, which would allow the group to award $100 microgrants. "That's enough for an indie artist to get published," she explains.
She's also busy planning Sequence, a May exhibition that will fill four West Bottoms galleries with "sequential art" -- a term carefully chosen to attract as many entries as possible.
The Sequence flier is itself a minicomic created by Fox, Casanova, Parker, Josh Cotter, Duane Cunningham and Daniel Spottswood.
In it, a couple lies in bed. A clock displays 5:09 (the date of the show's opening reception). A distressingly hairy hand reaches to turn off the alarm. Later, a less-hairy hand sorts through mail, finding a letter that prompts the exclamation, "Comics as art? Comics aren't art!" Now the couple sits at a table. "Of course it's art!" the guy retorts, a cigarette flying out of his mouth. In the next frame, the man and the woman have an Akbar-and-Jefflike point-counterpoint. Then, suddenly, the guy and his lady friend have no eyeballs, and their faces are abnormally blobular; the man has only two teeth. They drive through a city where billboards advertise the Old Post Office Gallery, Panacea, the Green Door and the Fahrenheit; it's as though the West Bottoms were some kind of intoxicating red-light district for art. "I can't explain it," the man concludes. "You'll just have to see for yourself."
"A lot of them will end up in the trash," Jacobson says of the fliers. "But hopefully people will take them home and frame them."
The idea for the flier arose at a CCN get-together in March, where artists also talked about where to distribute them: coffee shops, record stores, bars, clothing shops, galleries, conventions. In other words, locations with a high rate of visibility.
Someone suggested they put the fliers in comics shops.
The room erupted in laughter.
The Misadventures of Jim Cavanaugh and Friendly Frank: Part Two
Behind the counter at B-Bop stands a wiry man from Gary, Indiana, named Frank Mangiaracina. He is called Friendly Frank, a nickname he's had since high school. Friendly. Clearly no match for a Naval pugilist.
Friendly Frank can tell that you want to ask the question so many others have asked since October 2000. Why? Why directly across the street?
The short answer is that Friendly Frank has a dream of restoring the glory of Clint's Books, and that means killing the current Clint's.
The long answer is all about pedigree. It begins in Lansing, Illinois, in 1986.
That's when a 22-year-old Mangiaracina opens his third comics shop in the Chicago area -- in addition to a wholesale operation he's been running full-time since he dropped out of high school.
One day, Mangiaracina gets a phone call from his Lansing manager, Mike Correa. From jail. The cops have busted the store for some of its adults-only comics, including a few books by Robert Crumb, a graphic novel called The Bodyssey by Kansas City artist Richard Corben, some issues of the racy cartoon Omaha the Cat Dancer, plus some copies of Heavy Metal magazine.
Suddenly, Mangiaracina is in the middle of an obscenity case.
Word spreads throughout the comics industry, and money starts pouring in to help Friendly Frank's ward off the First Amendment attack. In 1986, Illinois v. Correa reaches a courtroom in Cook County, where Mangiaracina argues that the same constitution that defended the rights of neo-Nazis to march in nearby Skokie, Illinois, certainly defends his right to sell Omaha the Cat Dancer. A judge disagrees. Mangiaracina gets a friendlier reception in 1989, when an appeals court overturns that decision.
By then, Mangiaracina's legal expenses have run into the tens of thousands of dollars. But support for his case is so great that he has plenty of donation money left over, so he and his supporters start the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which goes on to fight several other censorship battles -- winning some, losing others. Hero Illustrated includes him in its "100 Most Important People in Comics."
But the Lansing ordeal takes its toll on Mangiaracina. He loses his passion for retail and focuses mostly on his growing wholesale operation.
By the early 1990s, the distributor competition heats up. Mangiaracina opens more warehouses, in Detroit, Dallas and Kansas City. Eventually, Mangiaracina puts the only other distributor in Kansas City -- who happens to be Cavanaugh's ex-wife -- out of business. This puts him in business with Clint's Books. Clint's needs comics. Mangiaracina distributes comics.
So Mangiaracina makes a trip to Kansas City. He walks into Clint's, shakes Smokey Cavanaugh's hand and then reaches out to greet Jim, "the son." And then, according to Mangiaracina, Jim deftly explains that he could reach into Friendly Frank's chest cavity and retrieve his heart and show it to him while it's still beating, which is a pretty creepy thing to say.
Nonetheless, Clint's and Friendly Frank's do business, out of necessity.
Then the industry really goes south. The big publishers, DC and Marvel, strike exclusive deals with the large distributors, putting all the little guys -- Mangiaracina among them -- out of business. To make matters worse, the company that was supposed to buy his four warehouses of merchandise instead dumps it all at Mangiaracina's warehouse in Kansas City.
Unhappily, Mangiaracina moves to Kansas City. He spends a year liquidating comics and office equipment. Then, for the first time in his life, he looks for a "real job" outside the comics industry.
Now, in the comics world, at least the superhero world, there is something called a "crossover" -- a moment or story line in which one universe collides with another and two separate but related forces are thrown together with unpredictable implications, such as when Batman must do battle with the creature from the Alien films or when DC hero Superman crosses into Marvel territory to clash with the Hulk.
This story's crossover occurs in 1996, when the owner of a Northland comics shop called Comic Cavern -- a kind, honest and terminally ill man -- summons Mangiaracina, his former distributor, and offers to sell him the store. Mangiaracina accepts.
Within a few years, Comic Cavern doubles its inventory and adds the largest magazine rack in the Northland. There are setbacks, but for the most part, Mangiaracina puts the store back into the black.
"That's when I get this crazy idea in my head," Mangiaracina recalls. "Wouldn't it be cool to own a store in midtown? I love the Tivoli movie theater and all the kind of counterculture, artsy-type stuff. It really seems to me, the more I think about it, that this would be the neighborhood to sell the more artistic stuff, which Clint's, for the most part, doesn't sell."
When Mangiaracina listens to other comics enthusiasts, he hears more complaints about that once-cherished store. Clint's offers the big books, the superhero-Spandex stuff, but little else. It cares nothing about the small press, much less local indie comics. It's unwelcoming, too. Un-friendly, with those lame signs telling customers that the books are for buying, not for reading.
"My dream would be to make a store like Clint's was before the current management took it over," Mangiaracina says.
So the man called Friendly Frank approaches Smokey Cavanaugh, technically the owner of Clint's, about selling his store. "And he says, 'Yeah, but why don't you deal with my son, because I'm not really involved with the business,'" Mangiaracina recalls.
But Jim Cavanaugh doesn't play ball. First he tells Mangiaracina that he'll print up the store's financial statements so that Mangiaracina can get a better feel for the business. Then, when Mangiaracina calls, Jim Cavanaugh says he hasn't had time to meet with the accountant. Now he's met with the accountant, but he has to put the financial statements into an envelope. Got the envelope now but no stamp. Now the envelope is stamped, but he hasn't had time to go to the post office.
Nine months later, Mangiaracina pays a visit to Clint's one Tuesday afternoon, the slowest day of the week in the comics business. Jim Cavanaugh won't see him. He says Friendly Frank doesn't have an appointment.
Imagine Mangiaracina's frustration. Eventually, Jim Cavanaugh listens to what Mangiaracina has to say but rejects his offer to buy the store for $100,000.
Here's where the crossover might have ended, with Mangiaracina limping away, beaten but alive, back to his own universe. Instead, he checks into that space just across the street, the one recently vacated by a religious day care. He understands that opening a comics shop across the street from Clint's isn't the friendliest thing to do, but he feels his offer was fair, generous and friendly and that Jim Cavanaugh took that fairness, generosity and friendliness and used it to mess with Mangiaracina's head.
"I didn't open up just out of spite," Mangiaracina maintains. "I had a certain vision for what I wanted to do. But that didn't help things."
It's only gotten worse. "Jim has come over to B-Bop a few times and threatened to kill me," Mangiaracina says.
The Sparrow's Creator Issues a Call to Arms
In the mid-to-late '90s, the artists making comics in Kansas City had names people recognized: Jim Mahfood, Kelley Seda, Mike Huddleston and, in Lawrence, Travis Millard. Mahfood went on to early pro gigs illustrating an X-Men book for Marvel and then Clerks for Kevin Smith. Millard's work also had a recent stint on the back page of Spin magazine.
"It was an exciting time," Mahfood says from his home in California. "Everyone was just doing their own books and zines and getting them out there. My buddy Mike Huddleston and I formed 40 Oz. Comics at the time, and I still use that as my studio name to this day. Flavorpak and Koffee, two really great underground magazines, came out of this period as well. Even if people weren't making money, they were still putting out quality publications and cool shit."
Two years ago, Parrish Baker issued what's now known as his "call to arms," which chastised local artists for failing to pick up where their predecessors left off. Baker's comic is called Sparrow's Fall; he has drawn, photocopied and distributed it for free since 1996.
In what's essentially an introduction to the "Five String Serenade" issue of Sparrow's Fall, Baker writes, "1995 ... 1996 ... 1997 ... 1998 ... a golden age for comics in Kansas City. 40 Oz. Comics was alive and well, and, most importantly, here, Jim Mahfood's Grrlscouts and Cosmic Toast were in wide circulation, and Thereyago! Studios was about to produce the first (and last) issue of Meanwhile ... and other folks were busy drafting out comics and cartoons left and right.... People who could draw and people who had something to say walked and breathed amongst us, and we were willing to listen."
Baker is a loner, artistically speaking. He sits inside Broadway Café and draws.
Putting out 300 copies of each comic continuously for seven years and never expecting a dime, with feedback generally limited to watching people pick it up while they're waiting in line for coffee -- that isn't something many people are willing to do.
But there's a need for this sort of comics activism. It goes back to the 1954 publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book accusing comics of causing juvenile delinquency, spreading sexual perversion and promoting communism. Fearing that comics would be banned, publishers established the Comics Code Authority, ensuring that comics supposedly not fit for juveniles wouldn't see daylight. People like Jacobson, Casanova and Baker are still trying to undo the damage. Comics activists want more comics, more varied comics and more readers.
"I think Parrish is a goddamn genius, because he has absolutely no illusions about what he's trying to do," says Matt Fraction, a local comics writer who is nationally known as a commentator on the industry. "You have to go to a comics shop to find Superman, but you can find Sparrow's Fall anywhere."
Illustrator Scot Stolfus goes one step further. "Parrish leads by example," he says of Baker's guerrilla publishing style. "That's what I'd like to do."
He's already started. Night after night, Stolfus tosses his leather jacket over the back of a chair at Broadway Café, gets out his many pens and orders an iced Mr. Nutty. Then monstrous things begin to materialize. It starts with werewolves and black-clad demons hiding in dark alleys. Then there are big-eyed, perma-frowning women who won't take those creatures' shit. When he's not working on these characters, Stolfus draws Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.
As the head of Thereyago! Studios, Stolfus once put out a small local anthology called Meanwhile... The red-and-white booklet included his own "Twilight Watch" as well as comics drawn by friends and acquaintances. Putting out "Twilight Watch" again is at the top of his agenda.
"I used to charge," he says. "But partly due to watching Parrish, I don't think I'll charge this time, at least not for a while."
Stolfus isn't a member of the CCN. "I'm not a joiner," he explains. "Do I think there should be more of a comic-book scene? Yes. I'd love to see an entire rack of independent comics in Broadway. Eventually, we'll all get to know each other.... It doesn't have to be forced."
For his part, Fraction finds comrades in Internet chat rooms. "It's easier for me," he says. "I don't really do well with people." His first published comic, a three-parter called Rex Mantooth, came about when he and a comics editor started joking around by e-mail.
Mantooth was the editor's idea; he was supposed to have written the piece himself but ran out of time and assigned it to Fraction. The result is a book about a kung-fu spy monkey who dresses in drag and swears incessantly.
Out of that experience came the opportunity to publish something closer to his heart. After September 11, 2001, Fraction was distressed for obvious reasons, but he was also troubled by pop culture's sudden rejection of anything containing violence. "I'm not saying I wanted to see Die Hard on September 12," he says. "But I didn't want that option taken away from me because somebody thought I needed to heal."
Enter Last of the Independents, Fraction's soon-to-be-published book inspired by the action movies of the '70s. "There was this glorious period when anyone could be an action star," he says. "Most people aren't interested in the action cinema of Walter Matthau. It's a fuckin' tragedy. Last of the Independents is an homage to the era of the middle-aged action stars."
Rob Schamberger has taken his comics activism online as well. Schamberger, who lives in Overland Park, is a writer who published a suspenseful indie comic called Believer when he was eighteen. In November, he and his illustrator, Thom Thurman, started a Web site called Freecomix.net. People can download their comics for free, on the condition that they pass them on to someone who doesn't read comics.
As far as Schamberger is concerned, he, Baker, Stolfus, Fraction and members of the CCN aren't saving the medium; they're exploring uncharted territory. "I feel like a pioneer," he says. "Like I'm Christopher fucking Columbus here."
The feeling of isolation is evaporating in the weeks leading up to the Sequence show. Even nonjoiner Stolfus has been inspired by Sequence, and he's sent in a few pages of his drawings.
In fact, by April, with the show just weeks away, Jacobson has more than 180 pieces of work sheathed in protective plastic covers underneath her living-room futon. Four galleries seemed like a lot of space to fill when she started planning. Now it doesn't seem like enough.
Travis Fox delivered a gigantic red portfolio. Also in the stack are slick, apparently watercolor pages from Sparrow's Fall -- which Baker usually does in black-and-white. Josh Cotter sent in a beautifully detailed comic all about the Sequence show. In it, a distinguished couple scoffs at so-called art on the wall, calling the artist a piece of shit. Then the artist walks up ... and he's their son.
Casanova is contributing sculptural works that he thinks of as comics on some level -- because if he had a superpower, it would be his ability to transcend media. The makers of a highly experimental, local, comiclike zine called Icecreamlandia have submitted work. People from Lawrence, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Des Moines, Iowa, have somehow discovered the show and sent in thick envelopes.
There's art that won't arrive for a few more days because it's coming from an island off the coast of Spain. Columbus, Ohio, artist David Crosland, a major contributor to the smarmy and hilarious newspaper Tastes Like Chicken, sent in a huge stack of original work for his comic, Slop -- and a bundle of the April Tastes Like Chicken for gallerygoers to pick up. Ten comic strips appear in the back of Tastes Like Chicken, and two of the artists have Kansas City ties. The paper is about to move West to become that coast's answer to The Onion.
Jacobson is going to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit her grandmother. On her way, she will stop in Chicago to pick up a load of artists' submissions.
Three bands have been scheduled. Above all else, it's going to be fun; these are comics we're talking about.
The Misadventures of Jim and Friendly Frank: Part Three
Today, across the street from B-Bop, Jim Cavanaugh has his own version of how negotiations went for Clint's Books. "My story is real simple: He offered to buy our store. His offer was so ridiculously low it wasn't funny.
"What it basically comes down to is, at the time I didn't think we should entrust the goodwill of our customers, who we do have a great deal of feeling toward, to a man who we consider unscrupulous, who has no feelings or desire to create good feelings toward the marketplace," Cavanaugh says of Friendly Frank Mangiaracina.
Not that he'd kill Mangiaracina, Cavanaugh says. One day, he challenged his rival to a three-round boxing match. But that was no threat, he says. It was an "offer." (Mangiaracina remembers that offer being a fight "to the death.")
Cavanaugh knows there are people who believe he will fall on his face -- just like he did in Texas in the 1980s, they will say, when he ran three of his father's comics shops into the ground. Just like he did with the shop in Johnson County, which closed not long after his return to Kansas City.
Half-truths, Cavanaugh says. For one, he did not manage his father's stores in Texas; he only checked in from time to time. Back then, he had no business running any shop. "I basically got caught up in fast times and did a lot of things I shouldn't have done," he says. "Went through drugs, went through the whole bit."
But what does that mean now? "A lot of people think because I was inept twenty years ago, I'm going to be inept today," he says. "You are only inept if you don't learn from the things you've done wrong in life."
As for the store in Johnson County, his critics have that all wrong, too. See, when Cavanaugh came back to Kansas City, he discovered that Rick Jarvis had put the business at risk of collapse. Remember? Unpaid taxes, missing funds, six-digit debt. Cavanaugh prefers not to elaborate. It's all water under the bridge, he says. Because, with the backing of an affluent childhood friend, he's put Clint's back on stable ground. Because there's no sense in stomping on a man's grave. Because, one day in 1996, Rick Jarvis said a few nice words to his coworkers, then walked into the basement at Clint's and shot himself.
Cavanaugh says that Mangiaracina wanted to capitalize on the late manager's misdeeds. "The guy across the street knew about it and decided to try to take advantage of it and felt he could destroy us," Cavanaugh says. "And he really could have if it wasn't for one of my best friends, who's worth lots of money."
Cavanaugh says his store is the only reason there's a comic-book scene here at all.
"Almost everybody that has a store has either lived off of Clint's at one time or another -- which includes Frank, who was a distributor -- or was a customer," Cavanaugh says. "The industry has grown off of us. Even indirectly. Somebody can say, 'Well, I've never shopped there. I shop at 1,000,000 Comix.' Well, the guy who opened up 1,000,000 Comix originally was one of Clint's customers. They're all our children, in one way or the other."
The Perilous Adventures of the Mythical New Reader There were no children in Clint's when Jenn Johnson, who was in her late teens, stopped in for the first time several years back. More like leering old men. She had just been introduced to a few comics that she liked, and she hoped she'd find something to read. Instead, she found she had no desire to go back in.
Johnson is the mythical unicorn of the comic-book world: the fabled new reader.
Obsessed comic-book fans spend days and nights hypothesizing about her existence. If the only place to get comics is a comics shop, and comics shops don't attract anyone besides people who already read comics, how can artists who are doing exciting new things find people who appreciate their work?
John Parker's style is not heroic; it's quiet, contemplative, slice-of-life stuff. He doesn't really care for Superman, but he still believes in the power of his Superman T-shirt. Fellow comics activists think he's hurting the cause with his geek-boy attire, but he's convinced that the T-shirt reminds people of their nostalgia for comics, which is a good place to start.
"I was traveling around the country and had a lot of time and money on my hands, and the opportunity to be somebody different in every city I went to," Parker says. "So I just started experimenting. I wore a Superman T-shirt, expecting to just offer myself up to ridicule, which I got. But I also found that it raised interest, that it got people thinking about comics again and, in some cases, reading them."
After that, Parker started printing up what he calls "If you like ... " cards, then placing them in books at Barnes & Noble. "I'd basically think of a writer or book that I liked, a comic book or graphic novel that appeals to the same sensibilities, throw in information as to where somebody could buy these comics, slap my e-mail address on and stick it in whatever book I had chosen that week."
He's received some e-mails back, but he'll never know how many people might have checked out one of his recommendations without letting him know.
The point is, comics activists are taking shots in the dark, hoping that something works.
And somebody's tactics worked on Jenn Johnson -- a new reader!
The whole scene played out in a Perkins in Independence.
Johnson walked in and saw a guy about her age wearing a Sandman T-shirt. She recognized Sandman as a comic-book character but didn't know what he was about, so she asked the T-shirt wearer. "He was, like, 'Oh, you should read these,' and he loaned them to me," she recalls.
The shirt intrigued her because Sandman didn't look like the more familiar superhero-style comic figure. (She also thought the character was really cute, which helped.) Not that Johnson has something against superhero comics, but she never got into them as a kid and was even less likely to get into them as an adult.
Sandman was different. "It was the Death character that really drew me in," she says, explaining that the characters are all based on major, abstract parts of life: Desire, Destruction, Delirium and so forth. Death was a compelling female character -- something she had never seen in a comic book, not even that of the iconic Wonder Woman. She liked how much of Sandman is based on Greek mythology. "And the Sandman books didn't have much violence. That's another thing I really liked."
That's when she went to Clint's and couldn't find a thing.
Johnson's experience isn't unique; it's a problem throughout the industry. Since the '70s, when publishers quit sending new comic books to newsstands and planted them in comics shops, most of those shops have grown so tailored to the hard-core fan -- the one who shows up every Wednesday -- that the new reader becomes alienated almost at the point of entry.
Some of those stores support local work, particularly Elite Comics in Johnson County, where the owner, William Binderup, is himself a local artist. Others sell nothing but the big stuff. At B-Bop, Mangiaracina devotes a rack to the small press and local artists, but he knows those sales don't help much in his war against Clint's.
Mangiaracina knows his rivalry with Cavanaugh can't go on forever. He says his offer to buy Clint's still stands.
Across the street, Cavanaugh says he isn't going anywhere, that he's put the fear into Friendly Frank and that business is strong. "We make a profit," he says. "That's our number one thing: making sure our customers are happy and that we're making a profit."
Within these two stories, you understand, is the truth -- as well as enough falsehoods to make both stories legendary or meaningless.
This battle continues indefinitely at the corner of Westport Road and Main Street, even as the creative world around it changes shape, expands. Travis Fox produces his hilarious visual diary. Hector Casanova proves the difference between an artist and a comic artist is mostly perception. Elizabeth Jacobson urges the city's quiet creators to make themselves known. Matt Fraction will soon publish his Last of the Independents. John Parker keeps wearing that damn Superman shirt.
And Parrish Baker draws and draws and draws at Broadway Café.