Poplife: Issue #10

Thu, April 11th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

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PRETTY PACKAGES

[Mars]
Let's do it. Do what, honey? Moooove to Marrrrs.

I'm back from LA for a night and off to NYC to surprise Kelly Sue at her going away party at MARS 2112. I don't know how familiar you are with the many and various theme restaurants of New York City, so forgive me if this is redundant.

MARS 2112 is a restaurant whose theme is Mars. Really. You wait in a snaky EPCOT-style line to ride on a shuttlecraft from Manhattan to Mars. The restaurant is cavernous, rocky. Grown men and women dress up like aliens and wander around while you gobble down goofily-overpriced cheese-fries. They have air hockey and a bar you can smoke at.

But mostly they have grown men and women who dress up like aliens and wander around.

Understandably, it is one of Kelly Sue's favorite places.

In the world.

I oversleep. Badly. This is understandable, given my last few weeks I think, but unfortunate. Xtop calls me. We bust ass to get to KCI, and I've got about half an hour before my plane leaves. This is, in all of my recent travels, the closest I've cut it. I rush to the customer service counter, as I have no bag to check. I am informed that my flight has been oversold. The best I can do is wait to clear security and see if there are any no-shows on the flight.

The plane is boarded already by the time I get to the gate. Waiting for the ticket-counter-attendant-women to figure out what seats are left where, I strike up a conversation with two girls who had been apparently waylaid since the night before, delayed in KC because La Guardia had been fogged in. We're chatting as the Ticketlady says that there's a first-class passenger that didn't show up and I should take his seat. "These girls have been here since last night," I say. "Yeah, well," the Ticketlady says, "You're actually SUPPOSED to be on this flight, so you have to go."

I look over to the girls and mouth "I'm sorry."

One mouths back "Fuck you".

Recently, MK12 have bought themselves PDAs. I have, loaded on mine, DOPE WARS and Vindigo. Vindigo is pretty cool. It's a city reference guide. You tell it where you are and what you're looking for, it tells you where to go from there. I am looking forward to relying on it to get around this weekend.

Oh, and apparently you can store phone numbers and shit in it, too.

As I'm racking up millions and millions of dollars wheeling and dealing heroin through the five boroughs, my battery dies. Okay. No problem. I will get more batteries.

Apparently, you're not supposed to take out BOTH batteries at once, otherwise the magic hooha machine dies and loses all of the shit you told it to remember. No one told me this, and my Palm was therefore utterly useless on my trip. It took every ounce of self-control not to hurl the fucker into the East River.

I was about to ask the driver to pull over into the far left lane so I'd have suitable chuck-osity for my Palm when-I swear to god-I realized we were behind a van driven by a guy I used to live with in Chicago.

Fuck these stupid little machines.

The going away party: I'm tired, but I still have to kick Peter Aaron Rose's ass on the Air Hockey tables.

[Try not to touch the other player.]
Try not to touch the other player.
Peter, my colleague at Artbomb, fancies himself Air Hockey Hardcore. Last time we were here, Kelly Sue and Peter's wife Grace witnessed me driving Peter before me, whooping the holy shit out of him three games to one. It became so fierce that the women pulled themselves away from the table; unable to watch the unrelenting horror I rained down upon Peter. Of course, they SAID they were bored, but I think we all know that the ladies were merely being polite so as not to crush Peter's very spirit before its time. Poor Grace. Poor, poor Grace.

I think I may have beaten him more times than that, like it was 15 games to 1, but we'll be kind. Needless to say, the man's been itching for a rematch and if I have any hobbies at all, they're Air Hockey and making grown men cry. Lucky for me, then, as this night will combine both.

[Fraction.]
Fraction.
We made up Street Rules Air Hockey at school. The only rule is Try Not To Touch The Other Player. Our games were violent. And, yeah, I know-it's Air Hockey. But we made it violent.

Those boppers hurt when you get pegged in the face with them.

The game was just too boring, too slow. It wasn't fun. So we improvised.

I tried to impart this on Peter, but I don't think he believed me.

[Peter Aaron Rose.]
Peter Aaron Rose.
On not one, not two, but THREE separate occasions, the puck got lodged in his goal. Peter would back away from the puck and look at it, acknowledging that it was indeed jammed. "Hey, look!" he'd say, or something similarly nave. So I'd throw my bopper across the table and knock the puck in. "HEY!" he'd yell, all angry and whatnot. I'd laugh. Repeat.

Peter didn't think this was playing fair. Nor did he think me stopping the puck with my wrist and reserving it was fair, either.

Fair is great, fair is fine, but I was too busy beating Peter's ass to worry about fair.

So anyway: rematch.

[Lauren says Hi.]
Lauren says Hi.
I tell the story about trying to move to a table of people. I get so worked up about it that I start to twitch and, if I recall correctly, I began shouting obscenities. I became fairly embarrassed and excused myself. I was out of cigarettes anyway, and the fresh air would maybe calm me down a bit.

On the way back into Mars, I run into Lauren, who's leaving with a gaggle of folks in tow. I say my polite goodbyes, and she threatens me on behalf of Kelly Sue's well being. I'm uncertain now as to Lauren's exact phrasing, but I'm pretty sure she intimated that if I treated Kel badly, she'd 'kick my motherfucking ass' or some such fancy Finishing School talk.

I like Lauren.

The thing about Air Hockey is that it's all angles. There's a sweet spot on every table that if you hit just right, the puck goes into the goal nice and neat. Figure that spot out, and you can figure out the others that lead up to it. Sure, you can get the puck in all sorts of ways, but there's that one angle that does it every time. The game gets reduced to that one spot, and the rest is just theatrics. Hammer the puck as hard and as fast as you can across the table to freak the other guy out. As long as you have the presence of mind to keep the bopper in front of your own goal (which I don't, as much or as often as I should), you should do fine as long as you know the sweet spot.

Of course, if you get your opponent worked up enough and used to dodging left and right to deflect bum shots, you can just slam the fucker straight down the line nine times out of ten. Which is always fun, and stings a little harder than most goals.

I am, of course, giving away all my secrets so the next time Peter and I play he'll know what I'm going to do.

With that said, it'll be time to start throwing the bopper at his face.

Sitting around talking when one of the Martians comes up to us.

As I said earlier, MARS 2112 is a place where grown men and women are made to wear alien costumes and are paid to wander around tables and generally accost diners. Alien-Man moves like he's under water, large fake gloves waving at us all, goofywalking around as if he were a bull in a china shop. Cecil decides to pre-empt the guy's gig.

[Asshole John.]
Asshole John.
"Look, man, we're all fucking adults here. No kids. Why don't you fuck off and go bug someone else?"

The entirety of our table reacts as though John Cecil has just not only murdered a puppy but giggled while doing it. Cecil, who has somehow figured out a way to do nothing but watch Goodfellas all day long and get paid for it, doesn't understand why we've all turned on him. The Alien-Man slumps his shoulders, slumps his head. We lay into John, we apologize to Alien-Man and chastise Cecil for being such a huge dick to the guy, who was just doing his job.

Cecil is re-christened "Asshole John" for the night, which perks the Alien-Man up visibly.

Peter and I take to the tables and neither one of us are really into it. I'm blank, exhausted. Peter is getting over some bizarre strain of Mongolian Swine-Flu he'd acquired eating dodgy shellfish for cheap in the fish markets of Chinatown. He was pasty-white (or more-so than usual) and flushed with sweat. We unenthusiastically knocked the puck back and forth a few times, neither one of us really giving a damn about the game.

We started talking about Artbomb.

The problem with Comics, Peter and I agree, is this:

We Are So Very Fucked.

There's no magic bullet solution to be found. The entire industry is fucked up across the board. Companies are selling fewer and fewer books each month. No new readers seem to be coming in. No one gets the word out. Lots of readers are unwilling to leave the familiar genre-ghettos they're used to. Diamond is a weird mess monopoly with a stranglehold on the direct market, and even they can get their asses rocked when a book like Transformers outsells New Xmen and no one saw it coming. Retailers are hit or miss in terms of quality and competence. Publishers are cutting back, flailing, or outright failing. And the publishers publishing the most interesting, the most vital comics seldom have the money to attempt any sort of real outreach into the world, and must rely on cannibalizing the pre-existing comics audience, which is getting smaller and isn't getting any fresh blood.

How do you fix comics?

I have no idea. There are just so many things wrongwith comics that I don't know where you start. A huge pile of money that you don't care about losing seems to be a good place, but who has that?

This past week has been pretty amazing. The comics community mobilized, largely online, and pulled together to help out a great publisher that was in trouble. And we did it in about 24 hours time.

Think about it: an email is sent out. People begin circulating the mail back and forth to sympathetic ears. Message boards and news services ignite. Web pages are pulled up; credit cards are pulled out. A tremendous amount of business is done near-immediately, and Top Shelf comes out a winner, and all of us that ordered what we could afford to spend got some absolutely phenomenal comics out of the deal.

In this, our glorious Year of the Shithammer, a bunch of likeminded (or at least open-minded) comics readers came together and moved a mountain. In spite of the massive money problems the industry faces, the snarled web of fuck that is Diamond, the brambles and briar s of retail. In spite of everything else wrong with the industry, we all managed to do something Good. Not just good for Top Shelf, or for Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, but good for Comics. One of the most diverse and idiosyncratic comics publishers will continue to publish and ship their wares, keeping the medium complex, colorful, and diverse.

And what did it cost?

Well, I spent a hundred and thirty-five bucks. That's probably more than some, not as much as others, and more than I personally should've, but what the hell.

A lot of you felt the same way, obviously.

Staros didn't spend anything to send out that email. All of us who spread the word, we maybe lost a little time, but I didn't spend anything getting the Top Shelf distress call out there where I could.

We all went to the web, which costs next to nothing.

And so we circumnavigated Diamond. We circumnavigated shitty Retailers. We circumnavigated Media and Advertising in lieu of direct word-of-mouth. We invented a solution to a problem that no one thought was possible, and the only money it cost was what we wanted to spend. A hundred and thirty five bucks is, as far as I'm concerned, a small price to pay to keep Top Shelf afloat.

I think we just found the sweet spot.

Just imagine what could happen if there wasn't a crisis situation directing us all to look for it. You want to save your hand? Sometimes it means losing a few fingers.

The table was on a timer. We'd talked so much that the table shut off as our match was tied three-all. We acquiesced to a gaggle of children and went back to Mars to see my girl off, our heads full of strange, new, terrible thoughts.

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