I recently had a rainy afternoon to kill in Athens, Georgia, so I stumbled into Bizarro-Wuxtry, one of the last indie comic strongholds of its kind.
Your very presence in the shop is reason enough to go. Wuxtry functions as not only a comic stand, but a decent head trip for the uninitiated. It's like stepping inside the anime film Paprika if it were crammed into a southern hotel building from 1875. The floor slats have worn down to pirate ship status. There are entire side rooms that jut off like a Scooby-Doo house, covered from floor to ceiling in toys, tees, or monster mags. One room has the kind of checkered linoleum floor that haunted barber shops before shopping mall salons wiped them out. Now those malls themselves are mostly gone.
But Wuxtry endures, indelible and dusty, quietly blistering with color and cool. It is a temple to generations of pop art that fits in your hand, from Bazooka Joe to Yu-Gi-Oh.
Your childhood is here. And if you don't find it, the childhood that you always wanted is also here.
The manager, Devlin Thompson, greets me at the door. He asks what I'm looking for, an eager master of the horde. I tell him I want Real Stuff by Dennis Eichhorn as if I might be throwing a curveball. By the time I put down my umbrella, he has disappeared into a side room, and when I join him, he has pulled the largest collection of Real Stuff I'd ever seen.
Devlin has thinning shocks of hair that run over his shoulders and a long salt-and-pepper beard that cascades from under his mask. He gives the rundown of the shop's history, which, like him, is somewhat fuzzy. The record store downstairs had comics since it opened in 1976, with different iterations that moved into neighboring spaces over the decades. Thompson himself has been a lifer since the early nineties. "This is the only job I've had since I was 22," he muses. "Before that, I was at [local convenience store] the Golden Pantry."
Three side rooms are dedicated to back issues, antiquarian homes to forgotten publishers like Whitman, Charlton, and Gold Key. The edges of their long boxes have worn soft from decades of resting elbows.
The rear parlor is for markdown comics: the orphans of bad superhero crossovers and the less popular works of Windsor Mackay. There is an "auteur" section tucked away in a corner with plastic dividers for Mary Fleener, Los Bros. Hernandez, and Darwyn Cooke. An old hot water pipe runs up the length of the corner wall; it radiates with ancient heat, warming up your arm as you get closer to the comics by Alex Toth.
Part of the flavor of Bizarro-Wuxtry is not in the organization of these books, but in the wanton stacks of crap that hang out beneath the proper displays. If you bend down in the right spot, you will find creeping mounds of stray magazines, sooty scotch tape, and sticker sheets with half of their colored dots taken away. These items are never celebrated. This is paper purgatory, the sleepy junction between estate sales and a collector's hungry hands.
It's the kind of charming chaos that one would expect to see in a Harry Potter book if Harry Potter were occupied by people who eat Hot Pockets.
It's good shopping. And look, I don't buy collectibles from the internet. As I've stated before, it's lazy and dangerous. I still buy single back issues of comics because there is joy in the blind dig. For three bucks, you have the freedom to try out any new artist or writer you want. If you only buy full trade paperbacks, you cheat yourself out of the sweetness and tradition of random, physical discovery.
Devlin Thompson takes pride in this inventory and would rather sell statuettes from Fantagraphics than Funko. "It's predicated on my notions of what I like and what I think should be here. There are minimal concessions to the trendy market overall."
'60s garage rock gurgles from a speaker over the cash register. Between The Sonics and Wanda Jackson you hear the manager ask folks if they want a receipt, or a lollipop if they have brought along any kids.
Spinner racks are scattered around, slightly rusted and still groaning from their drugstore days. A white one in the toy room makes a little "squee-squeeee" sound like a seagull as it comes to a stop. I catch myself spinning it again, smiling as a different seagull calls out.
This is why we go to comic shops. This kind of shit doesn't happen on Amazon.
I ask Devlin if such online competition has endangered this space.
"Actually, the pandemic was pretty good to us. Sales have been steady since lockdown and we're still going strong."
A sense of community has always been key to the legacy of Bizarro-Wuxtry, bridging the red clay of Georgia to hubs like Brooklyn and Portland.
The manager lights up when listing the regional talent who have sold their work on the premises. "We've had stuff from Eleanor Davis and Joey Weiser. Some incredible artists went to school out here. Joshua Ray Stevens came out of UGA and there's a guy in town named Klon Waldrip who is solid."
Thompson points a ruddy finger to tour posters of Adrian Tomine with Seth, Evan Dorkin with Sarah Dyer, "and we're just coming up on the 30th anniversary of when the [Daniel Clowes'] Eightball tour came through."
I ask if the passage of time in the grand illustrated community has felt weird.
"Oh, I guess. Sure." he ponders. "Some of my street urchins who ran errands are now lurching towards middle age."
And what a lurch it has been. We find ourselves in an era of swift cultural change, a stuttering path that can consume the very institutions that shaped it. In this, every day that Bizarro-Wuxtry is open is a blessing. This archive of strange paper is a far softer version of the blunt toxic nostalgia that so often floods our digital lives.
I bring up the prospect of Devlin not running the shop someday. He snorts, waving my question off with a bag and board.
"I'll keep doing it 'til I can't do it no more."
Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.