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Comic Book Men Revealed

You've seen the new AMC reality program, now read about the guys behind Comic Book Men.

No one likes Mace Windu.

It's noon at and Mike Zapcic is behind the counter fielding calls while Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the television overhead. It's a pivotal scene. Windu, a Jedi master, is fighting Palpatine, the ultimate bad guy, the Sith Lord.

Palpatine hits Windu with some force lightning, sends him flying out the window and to his death. Zapcic acknowledges the tumbling Samuel L. Jackson; says something we probably shouldn't print here. He's likely seen this movie, this scene, plenty times before. Suffice it to say he's still not surprised that Windu got it in the end. Good guy or not, he just sucks.

This is comic book store conversation. 

At the end of the comic book, action figure and memorabilia-lined shelves, Bryan Johnson and Ming Chen are doing the same kind of thing, just to a larger audience on the Tell 'Em Steve Dave! podcast, an award-winning internet show recorded in the back of Secret Stash that regularly attracts hundreds of thousands of downloads. None of this is hastily put together for entertainment purposes. This combination of characters isn't the result of a test screening or market research. 

This is reality, some version of it at least. And now, the comic book conversations and the guys who make them, often relegated to a society sub-genre, like so many non-canon Batman comic book stories and alternate timelines, are breaking through.

These are your Comic Book Men.

AMC aired the first episode of its new reality series of the same name Sunday night, giving its first foray into the unscripted side of television the wow-I-can't-believe-we-get-this-slot-and-that-this-is-our-lead-in treatment with a prime 10 p.m. airing time that immediately follows the network's zombie hit, The Walking Dead.

Billed as a comic book Pawn Stars by show creator and store owner Kevin Smith, Comic Book Men, in its first episode at least, is less a portrayal of the business of buying and selling comics and more a focus on the personalities and off-the-cuff conversations that regularly take place inside the Broad Street shop.

And herein lies the show's hopeful hook. Yes, you'll likely find out more than you ever thought you wanted to know about comics from Zapcic and longtime Secret Stash manager, Walt Flanagan, whose combined knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic, but that's hardly what this is all about. 

The appeal of the show isn't just its subject, its stars say, but the promise of something familiar.

"Everyone is a geek for something. That's really what it boils down to, where do you wear yours," Zapcic said. "Growing up around here, my friends all read comic books and at one time or another we all, all of us, played with toys. Everyone, especially at our age, would like to buy a little bit of their childhood back."

In some ways, the guys at Secret Stash have been able to postpone growing up. Or maybe they've just redefined what a grown up is. Flanagan and Zapcic are comic professionals. Zapcic joined Secret Stash in 2000. Flanagan, who, along with Johnson, is a longtime friend of Smith and said to be the inspiration for Mallrats' Brodie, was with the store when it opened in 1997 in its original location on Monmouth Street.

Chen hosts the I Sell Comics podcast with Zapcic - the Smodcast Podcast Network has more than a dozen regular shows - and is the web guru for Smith's View Askew Productions and has been ever since his Clerks fan site caught the young director's eye in 1995. 

Johnson, well, he's Johnson.

"My role, since I'm not into comic books, is to be the audience member," Johnson, who is not an official employee of Secret Stash, said of his reason for being included in the show. "I ask the questions I think they might want to ask. The other half is me making fun of Ming."

The rapport exhibited between the Comic Book Men isn't phony or forced, either, and - they've already had to answer this question in every interview they've been a part of in the past month or so - nothing in the show is scripted. The conversations about which comic book heroine is the most attractive, or which Terminator movie is better, or why Chen would ever read a Richie Rich comic are all too real.

The fact that these men are friends in real life is nice to know when Johnson makes fun of Ming, or when Zapcic makes fun of Ming, or when Flanagan makes fun of Ming.

"I've seen reality shows and many of them seem to be scripted," Johnson said. "A lot of it (what makes Comic Book Men unique) comes down to the humor of the show. You wouldn't hang out with the Pawn Stars guys, you would hang out with us.

"I've been preparing for this my whole life growing up in Jersey. That's how it goes, you talk, you bust chops."

The Comic Book Men are hoping it's their accessibility that drives the show to success. In some ways, in some niche markets, these guys are already celebrities. They've got hundreds of thousands of listeners downloading their respective podcasts. On Friday, a couple of people came into Secret Stash to watch a podcast be recorded and to ask for autographs. Even before the television show was announced this wasn't too rare of an occurrence. 

Flanagan and Johnson have also appeared in Smith movies, as too has Chen, though you'll miss his split second appearance in the stripclub scene in Dogma if you don't have the widescreen version of the DVD. 

"I never aspired to be on the TV or radio, but crazy things happen when you hang around Kevin," Chen said.

What Comic Book Men will bring the local cast in terms of celebrity remains to be seen, though none expect to be spotted on the street or hounded for autographs just yet. Personally, Johnson said the show could be a huge hit, or it could bomb, neither outcome would surprise him. Chen and Zapcic are a little bit more optimistic in their thinking, hoping that the show is successful enough to warrant a second season.

For the time being, they'll be minding the store. Stop on by if you hate Mace Windu, too.

alex parmentier February 13, 2012 at 07:11 PM
I watched this and it was an alright show in the vein of Pawn Stars. But Bryan Johnson -- the fat, ugly, hairy troll of a man is hard to watch. He is a large man on the outside, but such a tiny, pathetic man inside - he is so clearly jealous of never attracting women and other insecurities I'm sure, like wondering if he's funny enough or smart enough to make up for his ugliness - but to be such a blatant asshole as to smash Ming's plates at the Flea Market really pissed me off. It's a turn-off and I doubt I'll be tuning in to this show again - that sort of pathetic attitude is hard to watch when it isn't vilified and frankly, not even funny. To sum up this show: overweight, pathetic men taking their insecurities out on skinnier, younger, shy men.
Toad February 13, 2012 at 11:06 PM
alex parmentier, did Bryan screw your girlfriend and/or mother? If not, I don't see why you had to type a paragraph summing up how moist your undies are. If a tv show makes you this livid, I recommend that you check out mentally and physically (or move to Iowa). To sum up your comment: pathetic, insecure, internet man lashes out due to mental stress originating from girlfriend/mother tomfuckery.

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