Monday, April 2, 2007

Confessions of a Reformed Comic Book Thief

Oftentimes, I smile when I reflect on the nickname that Wayne Beamer has given me on Illustrated Fiction: the San Diego Superhero.

Partly because I appreciate his friendship for me, and also because it’s ironic considering whom I used to be as a teenager.

Was I Public Enemy Number One? The criminal scourge of Lisle, Illinois? Not exactly.

But back in the day, I was a would-be Artful Dodger. I never picked anyone’s pocket, nor was ever pinched by the man. But I was a casual thief. Not of purses, but of comics and role playing games (RPGs).

My hunting ground was confined to one place, a hobby store in suburban Chicago which served as my first exposure to the world of comic collecting, and later, petty crime. In retrospect, it was a nice place, with a decent selection of new and old comics, in addition to railroading and RPG supplies. However, the store’s owner must have been the inspiration for Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons,” as like that character, he was fat, arrogant, and not above belittling customers. Indeed, he was the lord of his wee corner of geekdom, and seemed to relish reminding us kids of it. Plus, he also had a maddening habit of writing prices upon each comic back issue (in pencil), and bristled at any question posed him – as if he was too slick to be bothered.

Yet as his was the only legit comic store in the area, I was bound to it, despite the owner’s lame Napoleonic attitude. Besides, I figured as long as he kept stocking my “Moon Knight” and “Power Man and Iron Fist,” my purchases could be made quickly enough and I’d go home.

These store visits went on for years, later becoming such routine that my father drove my brother Scott and I to the store every Wednesday at 4PM sharp.

Yet not long after, three key incidents struck that changed this entrenched schedule: 1) my parents got divorced; 2) I got a driver’s license, and; 3) Scott introduced me to his new friend: Bill.

Let’s take these in order.

As a result of the first two incidents, Scott and I had a newfound freedom, allowing us to visit the comic store (or anywhere else) whenever we wished. Or at least as far as five bucks worth of gas could take us. And though our weekly comic purchases were still limited to a few spare bucks, it was still nice to browse the store at will, and inhale the delicious smell of newsprint.

But regarding the third incident, meeting Scott’s friend Bill, we learned that in addition to being a comic and RPG geek himself, he was an accomplished shoplifter who delighted in showing off his stack of hot nudie magazines, game books, and comics he’d acquired, mostly from the same comic store I frequented.

At first, Scott and I were taken aback by Bill’s “hobby.” And though he’d encourage us to steal with him, Scott and I would decline, opting to visit the comic store and legally buy a book or two. As for Bill, he’d always walk out empty-handed. Or so we thought. As when we returned to the car, Bill would bust into laughter and pull something purloined from his jeans: a comic, a game module, maybe a box of gaming figures for painting. It was amazing how much he could stuff in his Levis, and exit the store like a cool breeze.

After several weeks of this, Scott and I at last succumbed to sin. If Bill was able to procure so much “free stuff,” it almost felt foolish not to cash in on it also. I’d like to say the first time I ripped off something from the store was exciting, and it was to some degree. But more so, I realized that Bill was right. It was too easy. So much, that before long, all three of us would regularly shoplift the store as if it were a game, casually picking through long boxes of old comics or books. And then meeting in a blind spot (hidden from the store’s security mirrors) where we covered the booty with our shirts, and left without so much as an arched eyebrow (much less a guilty conscience).

Even more brazenly, we would all marvel in the car (parked directly behind the store) about what we’d done, and casually inspect our loot. Never mind the store owner could have walked around the corner, and busted us at any moment. We were so pleased with our new property that we had to read it immediately; we were that stupid. Or perhaps the owner himself was.

This same series of events happened so frequently I can’t recall the total. Thank God our mother no longer lived with Scott and I, as there’s no doubt she would have noticed the new piles of comics and gaming books on our beds, and pressed the criminal truth out of us. But as our father was busy working the equivalent of two jobs, he was too busy and tired to notice the difference.

Jesus, we were little bastards, weren’t we?

Yet you may be relieved to learn, I soon quit stealing from the comic store. Mostly because—as easy as it was--I figured the law of averages (or the law itself) would eventually catch up with me if I didn’t. It’s a good thing too, as not long after Scott—unbeknownst to me—decided to lift a copy of “The Lost Boys” movie soundtrack from a local Sears, and was nailed as we left the store. I won’t bore you with extraneous details, but suffice to say it put a speedy end to his shoplifting career.

But all told, I’d wager Scott and I had relieved the comic store of roughly $600 worth of inventory. Maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more.

Later, the store closed in 1988; rumor had it because the owner was losing too much stock from shoplifters like us. But whether that’s true or not is unknown. For all I know, the owner was just a lousy businessman, or flushed his profits away on hookers and gold-plated gaming dice.

But discussing all of the above raises a legitimate question: Do I feel guilty about all this today? The answer is “a little.” The shop’s owner was indeed a jerk, but it gave us no right to steal from his bottom line.

It was morally wrong.

But on the other hand, my former mini-career as a comic book shoplifter was a helluva lot of fun, albeit one I would never repeat today.

I’ve gone straight, swear to God.


onlythor said...

Chris I bet I know which Comic Book Shop you are talking about. I heard that it closed down due to tax evasion. So he was stealing from the man. So don't feel too bad about your actions.

Anonymous said...

It closed down after his second son was born. Pathetic criminals such as the author made it too difficult to support a family, so he returned to teaching.

Christopher Hugh Varney (CHV) said...

Thanks for the info, but to clarify:

a) I'm not a pathetic criminal; I'm a reformed one.

b) So what was the name of Lyle's Russian mail-order bride who was desperate enough to have sex with that slug in order to immigrate to America?

c) Oh, Christ. I can just imagine Lyle as a teacher. What was his subject? Industrial Arts?