The Geek Closet


If I had the summer before seventh grade to do over again, I probably wouldn’t bike down the highway for comics, even with parental consent.

For the most part, when I was growing up, my parents always did right by me. They never chained me to the radiator or anything, never made me sleep out in the rain on the dog run because I wouldn’t eat my peas. Still, every so often my folks made some moves that, when I look back on them with adult eyes, seem like the kind of thing you hear the anchorman talking about while they show footage from the kid’s memorial service or arraignment. There were some, shall we say, counterintuitive parenting decisions. More than a few of these, like my jaunt down the highway, centered around comics.

Mom and Dad were supportive of my comic buying habit at first. G.I. Joe comics, after all, were cheaper than G.I. Joe toys, and like all those library books from earlier years they fell under the “at least he’s reading” rubric. I did my best to act as Propaganda Minister for the medium; whenever I used a vocab word that impressed Pops, I made sure to mention I saw it in an X-Men comic instead of giving any undue credit to (shudder) school. Mom took me to Book Busters for my fix whenever I asked, and like a lot of well-meaning parents who assumed no reading (or comics) could be bad for you, she never gave a second thought to what I might be seeing between those covers. The image on the left is from a book my parents bought for me as a gift. That character’s on the first page. Wouldn’t have been hard to stumble across.

Eventually, it became clear that any urges I should have had to score a touchdown or dribble anything were not going to assert themselves. It also became clear that the comics were not going away, and that I was going to beg to be taken to Book Busters every single Thursday after school (New Comics Day was Thursday then, at least in my corner of the universe) and that, once I got there, I was going to spend every penny I had, very possibly on something prominently featuring a “She-Thing.” It was at this point that reading began to irritate my parents.

“I don’t understand why you have to spend so much money on comic books,” my mom would say en route every week, acting in her capacity as my parent to encourage me to read less. My answer at twelve was essentially what it would be now:

“I’m twelve. How should a twelve year old spend his money, packs of smokes? Mutual funds?”

Mind you, these were the years between Atari and Nintendo. If I were twelve now, I’d probably be saving up for an imaginary bass that taught me nothing about playing real bass.

The Thursday ritual was just about the limit of Mom’s patience for this hobby without end. But then, once a year, came the Book Busters’ Summer Super Sale.

Book Busters was where I learned to love comics, but it was also where I learned to get in the Geek Closet. Technically, I didn’t have a comic shop growing up; Book Busters was actually a used bookstore that sold dog-eared Harlequin romance novels and picked-over Stephen King on its way to someone’s yard sale. The place was owned by a kindly older couple who at some point had realized that ratty Louis L’amour paperbacks were not going to snag them a condo in Florida any time soon, so they stocked a huge supply of comics in the back of the store and three shelves of porn up front. (I know, you’d think it’d be the other way around, but they wanted whichever little old lady was working the register to be able to keep an eye on the pervs who came in just to thumb through the smut. The watchful eye of the little old lady never stopped a single perv, by the way. No web back then. Different time.)

Those of us who bought our comics there were treated better than the front-shelf deviants, but only just. Every time some teenager complained to the old woman about the condition a comic had arrived in or a group of us clawed each other’s eyes out for that seventh printing of The Killing Joke, I would see a shadow fall behind the owner’s eyes, a shadow that said, “I did not sign on for you people. All I wanted to do was spend my golden years giving people store credit for used Clive Cussler.” They gave me the distinct impression that I was doing something I shouldn’t let other people know I was doing, and that I was wrong to enjoy what I was enjoying quite so much. I can still remember the summer morning when I got there before they’d shelved the new comics, and as I hovered behind the old man unloading the boxes he gave me a look like I’d come to his barbershop and asked to keep all the swept-up hair. They were never mean to us, and they always seemed to know as much about the comics they stocked as someone born in 1925 could have been expected to know, but whenever they rang up my purchase I got from them a harder-edged version of what I got from my mom on the ride over: “my God, you kids are mental patients.”

In this spirit, Book Busters had an annual Summer Super Sale that should have been called the “For the Love of Christ, Please Get All These Boxes of Old Comics Out of Our Grown-Up Bookstore, We Had Dreams Once” sale. The savings were so mind-blowing that the regular Thursday trip was not enough for my friend Derek and I; we pestered my mom every day, as we finished reading our purchases from the previous day and had to go bin-diving to find out why Optimus Prime was killing all his own guys. It was after several days of this pestering that my mom reasoned, “Well, Jim is mature for his age. He’s a bright, responsible young man who needs to get out of my hair before I lose it. If these boys really want to go to that store so much, at the moment I see no reason why these twelve year olds can’t just ride over there on their bikes, even though I know the store is 2.5 miles away down a four-lane highway. Yes. That seems reasonable.”

It did not seem reasonable when we were doing it. As I crossed all four lanes in a go-for-broke, end-of-Braveheart attempt to get into the parking lot, the thought that I would have to ride all the way back home afterwards made me want to just plow into oncoming traffic and get it over with. Luckily, Derek and I lived just long enough to share the moment that I think of every time I think of reading comics as a kid.

We parked our bikes (no locks; different time) and made our way past the pervs to the 20+ long boxes that adorned the back of the store. For not being a real comic shop, Book Busters had a selection I have never seen matched since, and we were licking our chops to find some hidden gem when Freddie Scheidt suddenly peeked up from one of the lower shelves.

Freddie and I had been close friends when we were tiny, but when junior high came along Freddie became the second most “popular” kid in school and we stopped seeing him around. (As I remember junior high, the definition of “popular” was “the guy everyone hates unless he’s talking to them.” That whole system probably needs a second look. Just the idea that he had a rank– which he guarded jealously, by the way– is hilarious now.)

Freddie was a talented athlete and exceedingly preoccupied with appearances; his yearbook quote when we graduated was “Don’t touch my hair.” (Because karma exists, Freddie resembled Lex Luthor by the time we were 25, but that’s not important to the story.) He had kept up appearances so well as a popular athlete that it never occurred to Derek or I that a guy like Freddie would have the slightest interest in comics, and when our eyes met it was clear that Freddie had liked it that way. His eyes got big as barstools and took on a desperate quality; he looked like we had walked in and caught him with his nether bits in the keister of a billy goat. Of course, he had an armful of those Marvel Star Wars comics with the giant space rabbit in them, so in hindsight I guess I can’t blame him.

“Hey, Freddie!” I said. “Good to run into you! I hope you didn’t beat us to any of the good stuff. Whatcha got there?”

“Um, nothing!” said Freddie. “Nothing really. I was just heading out. Hey, hey guys, listen. Listen. Um! Okay. Could you do me a favor, please?”

“Uhhh,” we said, giving each other a what-the-hell glance, “sure, Fred. What’s up?”

“Could you not mention to anyone that you saw me here, please?”

As the request sank in, I deflated. “Sure, man,” I said. “No problem. Happy reading.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.” He darted out of the store, looking over his shoulder as if making sure we didn’t head for a pay phone.

Freddie was the first person to deliver the message with sharp clarity: what we were openly doing for fun was, for anyone who wanted any social standing at all, a blackmailable activity. Kiddie Time was over. Anyone with Freddie’s sense was in the Geek Closet, and the light was not on.

Riding home down the highway with my purchases, I felt like I was parading down Main Street wearing a sandwich board that said “Big Loser, Visible From Space; Also, Negligent Parents,” but looking back I’m glad that afternoon happened the way it did. Freddie would never know it, but he gave me a lesson that afternoon in How Not To Be. He made me feel bad about myself for about an hour, but I realized he was so desperate to be liked, and had such a bizarre understanding of what that meant, that he was terrified to be caught with a couple of Star Wars comics at twelve. I’ll remember the look he gave us for the rest of my life; he was miserable. Since that day, I’ve never made any bones about how much I enjoy comics, or anything else I like, and I’ve never lost anyone who was worth having. In fact, being unashamed has even drawn some people out of the Geek Closet, though usually only to furtively ask me something like “whatever happened with Cyclops’ baby?” when nobody else was around. The older I get, the more I realize that the key isn’t denying your geekdom; it’s acknowledging it while remaining a normal, well-adjusted human being. Which I assume I am.

 


Jim Mroczkowski still wonders if Book Busters was shut down by the 90’s speculator crash, or if it was just shut down by the fact that its owners were 70 in 1987. He can be found sounding less like a Wonder Years episode at Jimski.com or Twitter.

 

 

Comments

  1. I am really enjoying these "blasts from the past” journeys I don’t think I ever felt like reading comics was a terrible thing, but I did not talk about with many since I quickly realized that not many people I knew read comics apart from my best friend. These days I read my weekly books openly at work and buy comics for the kids at my work. I think that these days it’s not as scandalous as it might have been in the past but hey if they want to call me a freak for reading comics, I say let my freak flag fly.

  2. This is an amazing article.  And any week when I get to have the "Cyclops’ baby" conversation with someone is a good week.  I’m reveling in the popularity of "Iron Man" because it turns out I have social currency with the geekdom-challenged.  

    I’m sure it will pass. 

     

     

  3. Superb article. If there was a Pulitzer Prize for comic book articles, we would be awarding them every week here on iFanboy.

  4. Awesome. but real a four lane highway? have you ever crossed the Queens Boulevard of death? 10 lanes and old people die all the time.

  5. @Bigyanks – At least Queens Bouelvard has lights.

  6. Nicely written. I was visiting my parents back home this weekend, and we were talking about my comics.  My mom said, "Ben, it’s ok to sometimes let out your inner geek."

    I thought, "Inner?"  I’ve been reading comics, playing video games, and debating the merits of science fiction since I was in first grade.  What’s so inner about that? 

    Parents can be very funny that way…

  7. i kinda miss when being a nerd meant actually being a nerd. you know, back before it became trendy. original nerds didn’t dress with the intention of being nerds. they wore what they had. unlike now, where Janeane Garofolo and Rivers Cuomo have made it all the rage and you can pick up all your  nerd gear at the mall.

    before nerds had a list of all the things nerds must do (i.e. watching Star Trek, collecting comics and being good with computers) and they were lining up to become part of the pack. when a nerd was the last thing you wanted to be. back when you didn’t decide you were a nerd, your peers did.

    why there even exists a hierarchy among nerds now, making some nerds cooler than others based on their nerd accomplishments. doesn’t this render nerd authenticity somewhat void if you’re perceived as cool?

    coming out of the geek closet’s nothing like it used to be.   

  8. @FACE, that sounds like something a nerd would say;)

  9. @conor – They only added the lights to Queens Blvd so that all the murders caught on traffic camera would be more clearly visible.

  10. @fred @conor to further add to our case. this sign is actually on the crosswalks. http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1407/1032659961_ec012e8a18.jpg?v=0

  11. Quick question.  I love Batman, I have Batman figures in my apartment,  I own every Batman movie (even Batman 1966) but if I got a Batman tattoo, would I be entering a black hole of geek that I will never escape from? Yes, I’m still one of those who worry about image.  I usually wear a hat into the comic shop, and I never mention to my friends that I read anything other than Batman for fear of ridicule.  But I want to be a true hardcore fan and nothing says hardcore more than a tattoo, I just fear I’ll be ostracized from the crowd I hang with because I don’t fit in well with nerds. 

    I’ve also considered a Justice League tattoo but my girlfriend says that might be overkill.  And after some thought I reconsidered.  But Aquaman is still on the table.

  12. @Kory – Seems like you’re already in a black hole of self-loathing.

  13. @Conor- Ya think. And the only reason I wear a hat into the shop because it’s next to a bar that employs scantily clad women.

  14. an Aquaman tatoo ? not sure about that, say the guys that counts the days until he turns 18 so he can get the Lost numbers tatooed (4-8-15-16-23-42)
    Anything that makes you happy, really.

    People call me geek, even if its in a loving way, they do. And I think that people may find my "geekness" sometimes annoying, but people should just respect others persons passions. I mean, what is geek, anyway. The difference between the "cool kids" and the "un-cool kids"…? I think I’m cool, so I’m fine, no?

    I’m a lot into movies, tv shows and comics and my friends sometimes get annoyed because I tend to talk too much about them, but it’s ok, it’s hard to keep a balance, but sometimes you have too. Not everybody cares about Don Coscarelli anyway.

    Amazing article, its nice to see how it was back then. Yeah, and if I’m a loser from reading comics, then be it, comics are more fun than those who call us losers, anyway.

  15. @Tittom- The Aquaman part was’nt serious.  I love the guy, but I love him because everybody hates him.  I’m crazy, but I’m not insane enough to get an Aquaman tattoo.

    You’re getting the Lost numbers done?  Now that is hardcore fandom.

  16. Have you watched American Teen yet Jim? I was blown away by how restrictive the roles are in US high schools. It really opened my eyes to how important labels were for my friends growing up.

    In retrospect, I guess I’m lucky to have grown up in London. Even if no one else really understood comics, it also didn’t really matter either. 

  17. I was touched by the honesty, insight and humor of this articles.

  18. *stands and Claps* Middle School was terrible.

  19. @kory : man I’d like that, yeah. Like neat and clean, on my wrist or something. Or a Dharma sign somewhere. Haha, and for Aquaman..I don’t hate him..he’s just, say, lame.

    I’m in high school right now and it’s not that bad. But I’m still "the geek" but its not in a bad way. Actually people come to me with stuff like "hey, I really like the Punisher, do you know a comic that I could pick up?" funny.
    I actually got 2 of my good friends into comics, wich is pretty cool.

  20. @s1lentslayer – yeah, and this green lantern wrist band i’m wearing now seals the deal.

    @Kory – now and forever more all tattoos inspired by "the" bat shall be known as "Battoos", thank you  

  21. Nothing like Jimski artivle to cheer you up after a long day. I wondeer waht the owners would think of Lost Girls.  So much enrgy is lost in self denial. Also am I the only one who wanted to join Oscar in his trash can just to see what awesome things he stashed in there. I always thought he was hording a veritible Alice in Wonderland esque universe of unaplogetic cynicism.

  22. "If I were twelve now, I’d probably be saving up for an imaginary bass that taught me nothing about playing real bass."

    The first time I read that sentence, I thought, "Why are you saving up for an imaginary fish?"

    And I’ve PLAYED Rock Band.  It’s definitely a Monday.

    Anyway, this is a fantastic article.  I’ve been proudly admitting to what others would call "guilty pleasures" for my entire life (my friends and I cleared the dance floor when we requested "MMMBop" at an 8th grade dance in 2000, but we danced our 13-year-old hearts out).  But once you’ve found a comfortable geek community, it becomes easy to forget the social pressures that still exist.  I’m teaching middle school in the fall, and I plan on announcing my geek interests on the first day of school; if it lets just one kid feel comfortable coming up to me to talk about the X-Men, I’ll know I’ve done my job.

  23. Once I’m done with the 12 step program hopefully I will be able to embrace my inner geek.

    @FACE- File "battoo" next to "G-Mo".  That’s a good one.

  24. jim such a great article. i have often felt left out and not comfortable with my comic love and im glad i found this site and these great people who understand my love for comics and who agree with me that its a way of life and now i feel a lot better now that ive found these guys and a friend who loves comics as i do

  25. Great article Jim. I love the link to the Oscar the Grouch vid on YouTube. You guys are knocking it out of the park with the articles about growing up. It’s cool how everyone on this site has a lot of similarities. Keep up the good work.

  26. Holy crap jimski! that was excellent. i was discussing a similar topic with my girlfriend yesterday. She’s started reading some comics i lent her and i told her she’ll end up being a bigger nerd than me. when she asked how, i told her it’s because she won’t be ashamed to tell people she reads comics while me, on the other hand, remain in the "geek closet." i usually keep it to myself. maybe i should take your advice and embrace the inner geek. As my girlfriend told me yesterday "Why should you hide who you are. If people don’t accept you for you, Fuck ’em." Damn right, fuck ’em.

  27. I dunno. Pretty sure I should be ashamed to have bought X-Men Origins: Jean Grey @ 30 years old.

  28. @Labor   Well, it depends on what you did with it.   Writing "Labor <3’s Jean" on the pinup pages with glitter marker was probably a tad excessive.

  29. @Labor – If there’s anything cool in that issue post it on the "Sexiest Panel of the Week" on rev3.  Posting on the thread has been sparse.

  30. @ultimatehoratio  She’s like 14 in most of the issue, dude.  Just so you know.

  31. Hey if Vanity Fair can take sexy pictures of Miley Cyrus then 14 year-old Jean Grey on iFanboy is fair game.

    I was being sarcastic about the "Sexiest Panel" thing anyway.  😉

  32. I ain’t an inner geek. Its just normal to me.

  33. I toyed with the idea of posting some of my fanart and /fic from Spider-man Loves Mary Jane, but held back for the sake of decency.

  34. @ultimatehoratio – you make me laugh.

    and i quote: "ah ha ho ho ha hee hee"

  35. @ultimatehoratio  Hah, sorry.  My irony-detection skills aren’t at their strongest today.

  36. Fantastic article. I think this really sums up the type of experience one has with their first shop and also realizing that comics are more than a passing hobby. This could so be in a book of essays, imo.

  37. overall, I never had to deal with any kind of negative opinions of comics and their readers. For some reason, it just didn’t matter in grade school. Come to think of it, that held true all the way through high school. There were no cliques or groups in my high school except for maybe the marching band, but they were just weirdos.

  38. This was a great article, good work Jimski! I never cared much as a kid, as I was painfully aware I wasn’t going to be one of the cool kids. I’d rather have stayed in and watched The Goonies then go and play some sport. It was only when I started reading properly again in my twenties that I wondered how it might be seen by others. Luckily, most of my mates were what you’d call ‘geeks’ anyway and liking comics was seen as a good thing.

    @FACE – By the way… "Battoo"? Round of applause for you, sir!

  39. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I don’t have any clear memories of being made fun of for liking comics.  But then I was always sort of private about my interests.  Whenever I’m on the train I’m paranoid about people hearing the music from my headphones or seeing the title of the book or magazine i’m reading regardless of how cool or nerdy it is. No idea where that comes from.  

  40. Oh jr high.  The black hole of my existence for all intents and purposes.  Like you, I was blissfully ignorant about just how important being cool was, and that I… wasn’t.  Then my best friend since 3rd grade didn’t invite me to her end of the school year party.  Little awkward since we lived 3 blocks away from each other and got off at the same bus stop.  We had a figurative and literal parting of ways at just the same time as she turned the corner with a bevy of buddies and I kept going straight, right back to my house to cry into my giant teddy bear (yes at 13.  I was uncool on so many levels.)

    High school was a funny thing though.  Any interest that might seemed nerdy to some actually had a hidden sexiness to it.  Kind of the stereotypical Band phenomenon, you know those kids were the dirtiest MF-ers in school.  The theater kids got me drunk, the choir kids were horny as hell, my first puff of weed was on a Model UN trip and taking programming classes made me a god among men as I showed kids the easiest way to bypass blocked sites on the library computers.  Don’t get me started on my accolades for getting away with writing an essay about Spider-man and chocolate chip cookies in AP english or for pioneering the Great Women in History Cards drinking game (Margaret Thatchers high, Marie Curies wild.) 

    Maybe it was just that I was at this age on the cusp of the "I heart Geeks" movement, but the people who were trying to hard always seemed to be the butt of the ridicule, not the supposed outcasts.  Being sure of yourself in whatever oddness you adore always seemed to do right by me and my friends.  If I’m wrong, please just let me live in ignorance for the rest of my days.

  41. i hated jr. high.  i was a complete outcast.  since my school was in Oakland, the overwhelming majority of students were into music like the Commodores, Earth wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic.  Not me.  Strictly Rock.  Fromo the Beatles and really into KISS, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith.  i was different because it was clear to me that if a person looked a certain way, then they should follow a certain trend and have similar tastes.  Bullshit.  If my music choices weren’t enough to isolate me, I would spend my lunches reading comics and  wrestling magazines.  I always used comic characters in my Creative Writing classes and always got A’s, furthering my "geek cred".  In high school I grew about 6 inches and gained about 45 pounds of muscle, played on the football team and for each road game I was reading comics on the bus.  It got to a point that about half the team would be passing them around on road trips.  I refused to change for anyobody.  There were times that someone would mouth off a bit too much and I would have to "deal with them" or become a target.  Kick enough asses and eventually they get the message, its not about being in any closet, if comcs are your thing then enjoy them passionately and if anyone has a problem with it, the middle finger still works best.  Never be ashamed of what you like, and never change to simply "fit in" 

  42. Where I grew up there wasn’t such clear labels of who are the cool kids, or who are the geeks, I think that’s more of an American thing. I always read comics, wore comic t-shirts to school, but I was never teased or picked on. I played sport everyday, & didn’t think of myself as a "geek" or a "nerd" for reading comics, it was just something I did. None of my mates or anyone I knew in my whole school read comics, but it wasn’t something I even remember people talking to me about or mentioning. To me, it was the same as reading a book, or watching a movie, it was just entertainment, and it didn’t label me as a person or define what I am. I still think of it the same way.

  43. My grade school was really small, I went through eight years with the same 25 kids give or take a guest-star so I never really felt the class thing about comics since everyone kind of just assumed roles (the brain, the jock, the money guy) and mine was the off-kilter comic fan.  But my brother who is seven years older than me is very much like Freddie about it in a lot of ways.  Growing up he didn’t want anyone to know about his love of the floppies despite being the one to get me into it with his huge collection.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.

  44. The thing is, I have no memory of anybody ever actually picking on me. In my class I had the (*compleeetely* undeserved) reputation as the brainy bookworm, but everyone’s attitude seemed to be, "Well, every class needs one of those, and thankfully Jim is doing it so the rest of us don’t have to. Keep up the good work, highpants!"

    There was just this perception that you were going to get in "trouble" for doing these uncool things… but there was no enforcement arm for these imaginary policies. If anyone had asked, "So, what happens to me if I’m uncool? Do we have a popularity jail?" the whole thing would have fallen apart.