The most interesting moment of the just-completed first season of Kevin Smith’s AMC reality series “Comic Book Men” occurred in its second episode. A customer comes into Smith’s store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, looking to sell some collectibles. He’s got a complete set of the classic DC maxi-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and a Batman print signed by artist Jim Lee.
As Stash manager Walt Flanagan and employee Ming Chen assess the collection, they ask the seller, a man in goatee and ponytail who bears a faint resemblance to a young Kevin Smith, why he wants to part with his prized possessions. “I’m just trying to make a little extra money to get a film camera,” he says.”Trying to be a film director and an editor. I’m selling off the past to pay for the future.” Flanagan chuckles, “That sounds familiar.”
That familiar story is now the stuff of indie film legend. Smith, a film school dropout turned convenience store register jockey, maxed out his credit cards, sold his own comic book collection and scraped together $27,000 to finance his feature debut, “Clerks.” The film went on to play the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, gross more than $3 million at the box office and establish Smith as one of the most distinctive cinematic voices of his generation.
But that’s the past now, too. Smith claims he will retire from filmmaking after one final feature; his future lies in podcasting, speaking engagements, heading his own film distribution company and, presumably, more seasons of “Comic Book Men” (as of this writing, the series has not yet been renewed by AMC). Budget aside — $27,000 probably barely covers the talent costs for an episode of “Comic Book Men” — the series is basically “Clerks: The Reality Show,” with a few crucial differences.
“Clerks” told the story of one day in the poetically vulgar lives of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), employees of Leonardo, New Jersey’s Quick Stop and RST Video stores. Dante, called in to work on his day off, finds himself assailed from all sides: his current girlfriend reveals a disturbing truth about her sexual history, his ex-girlfriend announces she’s engaged to another man, and Randal prods him to quit the job he hates and dump the girlfriend he doesn’t particularly like. Relationships are destroyed, friendships are tested and corpses are defiled in poorly lit bathrooms.
One of Dante and Randal’s customers — actually, make that several of Dante and Randal’s customers, since willing extras were in short supply and Smith cast him over and over whenever he needed a warm body to fill a role — was played by Smith’s old buddy Flanagan. Flanagan, a fellow die-hard comic fan, also appeared in several of Smith’s post-“Clerks” films, often as the embodiment of the stereotypically cranky comic book fanboy.
When cinematic success afforded Smith some financial freedom, he opened his own comic book store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, and hired Flanagan to run it. “Comic Book Men” follows him and several of his employees — Chen, Mike Zapcic — and a friend named Bryan Johnson (who doesn’t work at the Stash but hangs around anyway for some reason) as they go about their own less poetic, less vulgar lives (it’s basic cable, after all), making their way in the world of comic book retail. Smith doesn’t work at The Stash, but he stops by in each episode to record a Secret Stash podcast with the staff, which is interwoven into the show as a sort of geek chorus and narrator.
If you’re familiar with “Clerks,” you’ll recognize a lot of it in “Comic Book Men.” Like “Clerks,” scenes in “Comic Book Men” are often introduced by white-on-black title cards. Like “Clerks,” our heroes’ duties at work are frequently put on hold for disastrous hockey games and long, awkward car rides. And like the clerks of “Clerks,” the clerks of the Secret Stash seem a lot more invested in pop culture minutiae than their customers.
When customers do come in to the Stash, it’s not to buy stuff; they’re looking to sell. Several times during each hour-long episode of “Comic Book Men” — in a trope obviously inspired by the popular History Channel series “Pawn Stars” — Walt and the staff appraise customers’ treasured items and then haggle over the purchase price of said treasures.
On one level, the “Pawn Stars” sequences in “Comic Book Men” are terribly misguided. On “Pawn Stars,” the customers often have genuinely valuable items to sell. Though the Pawn Stars themselves are skilled negotiators, the customers frequently have the upper hand, and at least once every episode or two, someone walks out of that Las Vegas pawn shop with several thousand dollars more than they expected to. The bargaining is exciting and the outcome is often exhilarating.
On “Comic Book Men,” on the other hand, the customers are almost always let down by the value of their collectibles and if they walk out of The Stash with any cash at all, it’s barely enough to cover the gas they used to drive over to the store. Take episode five, “Con Gone Wrong,” which featured five haggling sequences. Though one collector walked out of the store with $600 for his replica Adam West Batman cowl, the rest of his fellow customers weren’t nearly so lucky.
One guy wanted to finance his trip to San Diego’s Comic-Con with a signed “Avengers” poster; Zapcic wound up offering him $130 for it, which won’t even cover a single night at the cheapest hotel in San Diego. Another would-be entrepreneur wanted to sell two items of Punisher memorabilia, a comic and a copy of a sketch; Flanagan offered $10 for the pair. One woman brought in a Halle Berry Catwoman Barbie doll, hoping to get $50 for it. Initially offered just $5 by Chen, she eventually accepted $10 because, she said, she just wanted to get out of the store and get rid of the doll.
These transactions are occasionally informative and consistently depressing; bargaining at The Secret Stash is exactly like Dante’s description of life in “Clerks:” “a series of down endings.” On some level, though, that actually helps “Comic Book Men” fit in with the rest of Smith’s oeuvre, since these sad transactions recall the working class despair embedded in so many Smith projects, from “Mallrats” to “Jersey Girl.”
What is strange, though, is how little “Comic Book Men” attempts to engage with that despair, even though it cuts to the core of nearly every single encounter between The Secret Stash and its cash-starved clientele. Here is a show about men in their 40s who still work as cashiers at a comic book store and who have seemingly no life outside of their jobs (they frequently work on their days off, selling toys at flea markets and comic book conventions, and unlike Dante, they rarely complain that they’re not supposed to be there) servicing desperate customers who need cash they’re almost certainly not going to get. Dante and Randal hated being clerks, and felt like it was an embarrassing thing for someone at their age to do — and they were just 22 at the time. The heroes of “Comic Book Men” feel no such shame.
Back to that first customer; the one who wanted to sell his stuff to buy a camera. In the Secret Stash podcast studio, Flanagan relays the young man’s story to Smith and asks whether he thinks it’s easier or harder for aspiring filmmakers to do what he did with “Clerks.” Smith says it’s both: it’s harder now to sell your comic book collection but easier to make a movie, because the barriers to entry are so low and cheap: Digital technology has replaced the expensive flatbed editors and 16mm cameras Smith had to rent to make “Clerks.”
That’s true — to an extent. From a technical standpoint, it’s easier to make your own movie. But realistically, it’s harder to break through now more than ever, and “Comic Book Men” is the proof.
When Smith sold his own past to pay for his future, the steep cost of entry was enough of a barrier to keep the dilettantes away. Now anyone with an iPhone thinks they can make a movie; if you’ve attended a film festival in the last two years, you know many of them have tried. Resources are easier, but the competition is much higher. If you want to stand out, you’d better have more on your mind than a witty look at life behind the register of a convenience store.
That’s true on television as well as on film. Cable TV is supposedly the great new frontier for storytellers, where auteurs are given resources and creative freedom to tell stories too challenging for movie studios or broadcast TV networks. But Smith had more creative freedom with “Clerks,” where Dante and Randal were allowed to simply be, dealing with their girl problems and watching hermaphrodite pornography. They didn’t need to engineer false drama into their stories by haggling with someone over the value of a Mark Hamill lightsaber hilt.
The aspiring filmmaker says he wants $120 for the comics and the print. Eventually, he sells — for a measly $30. Even in 2012, that’s not going to put much of a dent in his camera fund. Off he goes, into the New Jersey night, as “Comic Book Men” cuts to a scene where Smith, Flanagan, and the rest of the Stash crew play hockey, poorly and with very little motivation other than the fact that that was what they did back in the day.
The title of this episode, by the way, is “Life After ‘Clerks.'”