Sunday, February 19, 2012

Comic Book Men: AMC’s Kinder, Gentler Reality Show

Kevin Smith (centre) and the rest of the Comic Book Men

AMC has come a long way since the premiere of Mad Men in 2007. Firmly establishing itself as a destination for original programming, the channel has had its ups (Breaking Bad) and downs (Hell on Wheels). But last Sunday, it stepped decisively into television’s 21st century with Comic Book Men, its first unscripted series. Yes, AMC now has a reality show.

For all the television that I regularly watch, I have to admit that reality shows rarely make the cut. I’ll watch (and enjoy) the odd episode of Amazing Race, but most of the unscripted shows currently on the air are often just too plain loud for me. The shows are too often populated by poorly drawn, unrealistic characters whose problems are usually the result of their own narcissistic reality distortions – quite simply not people I want to welcome into my home, at least not voluntarily. Nevertheless, the best of those shows can often be genuinely entertaining, and, like good film documentaries, can provide insight into people, worlds, and situations beyond the average viewer’s everyday experience. With Comic Book Men, AMC opens the door to the slightly mysterious kingdom of the comic book store. And now that it’s here, it feel almost like an inevitably. The world of comic book and sci-fi nerds is much more fashionable now than it ever has been. After all, the boys of The Big Bang Theory have been making comedic fodder of it for five successful seasons.

I myself came to Comic Book Men with few expectations, but I admit the show made me smile. My own nerdiness is still a work in progress, and has always tended more to television than comics. (Even my relationship to the deeper mythologies of the DC and Marvel universes has been primarily informed by their televised incarnations – which are often representative of the best of the animated series.) But whatever my enthusiasms, it has also never quite manifested itself into full consumerist mode, though this may stem from a lack of finances rather than passion. I do confess that I get a little frisson of pleasure as I sip my green tea from a “Disappearing TARDIS” mug every morning, and last month I spent a delightfully escapist afternoon at The Beguiling (Toronto’s legendary comic store) with the $50 gift certificate my girlfriend had given me for my birthday.

Walt Flanagan and Bryan Johnson
Unscripted shows – whether they are set in restaurants kitchens, pawn shops, motorcycle repair shops, or fishing boats – need to be accessible and entertaining to the general population. You don’t make a television series for insiders. (After all, Ice Road Truckers isn’t made for Arctic truckers, anymore than Deadliest Catch is made for extreme fisherman.) Yet in a way, this is what Comic Book Men seems to suggest it will offer. The show is a product of Ken Smith (Clerks, Dogma) – filmmaker, screenwriter, and Twitter-celebrity, and standard-bearer of witty nerddom – and set inside Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, the comic store Smith runs in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey. No doubt Kevin Smith’s geek cachet comes with a built-in audience, but AMC is certainly betting on a wider demographic. Smith has been the poster child for comic book geeks since the mid-90s, but comic book enthusiasts who tune in looking for an exhaustive exposé of life in the trenches of one of the country’s most famous comic stores are quite likely going to be disappointed.

While Smith’s previous products have rendered the everyday surreal, this show enjoys and relaxes into its environment. Smith may have made his mark by celebrating the banality of working retail, but in this show his team seems to genuinely love their jobs. Walt Flanagan manages the shop, and the rest of the staff includes Michael Zapcic (Walt’s extremely knowledgeable, longtime assistant) and Ming Chen, whose clearly the new guy. Bryan Johnson – all Gandalf-beard and ironic interjections (and apparently one of Smith’s oldest friends) – doesn’t actually work there but just hangs around, trading barbs with the staff and customers. Johnson and Flanagan have been recording a regular podcast (Tell 'Em Steve-Dave!) out of the store for almost two years now, and have clearly grown familiar with public performance. Their interactions are generally quite sweet: a nice balance of taking the piss out of your friends and geeking out over your favourite horrors films. The show offers an interesting window into the business side of a field dominated by deep love and nostalgia for childhood. (Well, considering the gender makeup of the main cast, boyhood really.) The personalities are low-key and the interesting stuff comes from the enthusiasm each has for the deep history of the graphic novel and science fiction.

Walt and Mike discuss the provenance of a 'lifesize' Chucky doll
With only one episode under its belt, the show is still finding its way. I left the first episode a little underwhelmed by Ming, whose on-screen job seems mainly being put-upon by the other guys. It will no doubt take some time before their personalities and relationships coalesce on screen. This first episode took them outside the store to New Jersey’s Collingwood Flea Market. The conceit of this segment is that Walt, eager to clear out some of the unsold and unsorted boxes of merchandise from the store, sets up a challenge: whoever moves the most stuff at the Flea Market wins. It unfortunately comes off as somewhat forced, like a bargain basement version of The Apprentice.

But at its best, Comic Book Men showcases the deep love these men have for the subject matter. When a 70s-era Thor poster comes into the shop, the guys suddenly shift from ironic banter to sincere appreciation; and I actually began to picture how awesome it would be to have it on the wall of my office. And I guess I’m just the right age, but the childlike glee that Walt demonstrated in handling a mint “still in original packaging” Six Million Dollar Man doll was contagious. One of the most entertaining moments comes when the boys are stumped by a customer, and they call in pop culture expert Robert Bruce to examine a vintage Dawn of the Dead poster. Here the show picks up a genuinely informative, Antiques Roadshow vibe for a few minutes. Notably, in the first episode, we don’t witness a single purchase. Everyone comes in trying to sell, not to buy. This leads Johnson to joke, “Does anyone actually buy anything here?,” and I actually had much the same question.

It is a gentle show, without excess and with few gimmicks. Comic Book Men is unlikely to feature the wrench throwing blowouts of American Chopper. There seems little risk of the comic guys even raising their voices (let alone cheating on their girlfriends in hot-tubs) and the most violence we see in the first episode is the destruction of an otherwise innocent Star Trek commemorative plate. But the environment is ripe for interesting stories (comic store clientele are some of the retail world’s most eclectic) and the relative mildness of the show’s stars is a genuinely appealing contrast to the rough, cursing, violent population of many reality shows. Will Comic Book Men forever change the general public’s image of the comic book nerd? Hardly. But it is a charming way to spend a Sunday evening, and a nice way to return to earth after the weekly zombie carnage of The Walking Dead.

A new episode of Comic Book Men airs this Sunday night on AMC, right after The Walking Dead.

Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. The only reason I watch this show is because it's on after Walking Dead. But I still watch it.

  2. When do we get a reality show about graduate students? Would satisfy the nerdiness quotient but be just that little bit more violent...

  3. Love Smith and the guys, this show is just what I needed right now.