Comic Relief

Comic Relief

Where's a superhero when you need him? Try the shop around the corner in Bethesda

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It’s gotten harder and harder to save the world.

Just ask Joel Pollack, founder and co-owner of Big Planet Comics on Bethesda’s Cordell Avenue.

Pollack remembers when comic book heroes were improbably noble musclemen who didn’t get the girl but often got to save the planet. To the enthusiast—mostly the 6- to 18-year-old boy—the book’s art was the attraction; illustrators were idols, and a kid would buy a comic in order to follow his artist of choice. But once technology made graphics and design easier, the storyline became the star.

That’s when superheroes morphed into real people with real lives who often screwed things up like the rest of us. That’s when comics got into reality.

Now they examine the collateral damage to a city when there’s suddenly a guy in a silly suit fighting crime who gets carried away and smashes a building full of people or leaves a giant crater in his wake as he zips after the bad guy.

Heroes get bruised, find out their powers come from Satan, make choices they can’t take back. And the forces of evil get subtler and more human, too. Forces like a recession and the devastating introduction of the Internet that entirely change the principles of commerce.

So suppose someone—someone like Joel Pollack, say—had the ability to keep a locally owned store alive in the heart of downtown Bethesda through five presidential administrations, through seismic changes in the genre, through the impact of the Internet?

In the age of comic realism, that just might qualify him for the cover of a comic book, wouldn’t you say?

At 63, Pollack doesn’t look much like a Superman or an Avenger. He looks like a leaner, white-haired Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons as he stands behind the counter of a bright yellow room lined with bookshelves and comics racks, ready to advise a tall woman with an excellent haircut and raised eyebrows on what comics to get for her two nephews, ages 9 and 11.

“The grown-up comics are generally about PG-13, so I would say an 11-year-old who watches PG-13 movies or can handle PG-13 stuff would be OK [with them],” he says, watching the woman’s face for her evaluation of the kid’s maturity. Yes, standard Avengers for him.

The 9-year-old gets the junior version, which comes with a lot more words, at least in the title: “Marvel Universe Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

The junior-standard gap is huge. The Avengers’ lovable, alcoholic rogue, Tony Stark, is merely lovable in the kids’ universe; nobody really gets hurt, and nobody gets sexy. Wolverine, an X-man beloved by elementary school boys, still has his powerful claws; he just doesn’t use them on anybody. He could tear someone apart, which is awesome; but he doesn’t, which is nice. He’s a nice guy.

Joel Pollack was 8 when his mother bought him a Superboy (“The Robot War of Smallville”) to help him get through a bout of sickness in 1957.

“There was so much more in it than in the TV series,” he recalls. In the comic book version, the words, stories and pictures weren’t confined to the available actors or restricted by a budget for production sets and costumes. In a drawing, Superboy could fly without looking cheesy. All the magic could happen almost as easily as it does in the imagination.

Though Pollack lived in Silver Spring, an aunt in Manhattan was friends with Ira Schnapp, a designer at DC Comics. Thus a superfan was born.

In 1968, when New York had its first comics convention, Pollack was there (he still goes to the Baltimore Comic-Con and Bethesda’s Small Press Expo every year). He had fan letters published in two Detective Comics issues and even published his own artwork in fanzines before deciding he was too lazy to be a comics artist. He worked in the family drapery business in Silver Spring, but developed a network of contacts in the comics industry.

When the ’70s saw a drop in the comics market, drugstores and newsstands started giving up on them. But then an extraordinary thing happened: Dedicated comics shops started sprouting up, attracting a harder-core, niche audience—older now, with more money and higher expectations. They wanted comics that would reward their devotion with chewy plots, surprises, complexity, artistry. The local comic book store and the sophisticated comic book fed each other, both becoming mega-strong.  

Dedicated comic book stores bought comics from the distributors at a discount in exchange for giving up the ability to send back inventory that didn’t sell. That meant the retailer had to have detailed knowledge of his stock; he had to interact with customers and mold the store to what those customers would buy. And the employees had to know the stock, as well, in order to recommend what the customers might want.

“The comics store became a haven for the hopelessly nerdy arguments that used to take place on comics letters pages,” says Glen Weldon, a comics blogger for NPR’s “Monkey See” and author of the forthcoming book Superman: An Unauthorized Biography, due out in April from Wiley. “Suddenly, there was a place for like-minded people to gather and collectively obsess—‘collectively’ is the crucial bit, the thing we never had before. Now we could sit around and hoot over stories and characters we knew were goofy as hell. The rest of the world was outside the door. In here, it was just us.”

With the door sealing out the rest of the world, the comics genre had turned serious by the ’80s. DC Comics, a mainstream publisher, had begun printing “Suggested for Mature Readers” on its edgier magazines. Over the course of the decade, Batman would start killing criminals outright; the Joker would murder Dr. Ruth Westheimer and an entire studio audience (and be appointed Iran’s representative to the United Nations); and thousands of readers—mostly kids—would call 900 numbers to vote on whether Robin should live or die. (It was close, but the kids chose to kill him.)

The burgeoning movement toward darker and more complex stories and characters hit the mainstream in 1986, with Olney-born Frank Miller publishing “The Dark Knight,” in which a dystopian future Gotham pulls 55-year-old Batman out of retirement. At the same time, Alan Moore came out with “Watchmen” and Art Spiegelman published the first installments in his Holocaust biography-memoir-nonfiction-fiction comic “Maus,” which would be nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award five years later, right alongside the books for grown-ups without pictures, and go on to win a Pulitzer.

Meanwhile, careful saving from the drapery business had allowed Pollack three years of retirement at age 34. But in 1986 he was ready for something new, thrilling and scary of his own. He got married. He also got serious about comics, bringing Big Planet to a second-story space on Cordell.

The store has been a Bethesda fixture ever since, with four employees now. It has  changed location twice when developers knocked the buildings down, but stayed within a four-block radius. Last April, it moved back to Cordell.

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