When I moved from New Jersey to California in 1985 to pursue Graduate School I worked hard to lose my accent. In 1999 when The Soprano’s premiered on HBO it seemed like every other person I met walking down the street in Northern California greeted me with a “Howyadoing”--imitating the vernacular that I had buried deep in my past. It was then I realized that I needed to embrace my Jersey-side rather than be ashamed of who I am, how I acted and the weird way I pronounced things. And so, I was more than thrilled in February 2012 when I learned that there was going to be a “reality TV show” featuring the daily antics of the staff of a comic book store in New Jersey.
In my less-than-humble opinion, New Jersey is the most influential state in the Union. Perhaps you have heard of the electric light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures, Abbott & Costello and Frank Sinatra—All Jersey hatched. But for this Jerseyites moolah, the most influential export is director Kevin Smith.
When Smith’s first feature Clerks hit the silver screen in 1994, it was the first time the world got to experience the day-in-a-life balls out snarkiness, hilarious rambles and immediately identifiable characters of the Kevin Smith universe known to fans as the View Askewniverse. The dialogue, posturing and rapid-fire dialogue between Quick Stop employees Dante Hicks and Randall Graves was like returning home to this Jersey expatriate. The stoned out shenanigans between Jay and Silent Bob (Smith’s mostly mute film character) were wild exaggerations of characters from my High School and familiar in a way I had never experienced from any other film I had ever seen.
Smith’s movie career has careened wildly between cult classic status and big budget sleepers, but one thing has always remained true to the Smith credo: Support your friends, include your friends in your world and when able, put your friends on the big (and little) screen.
So it was with middle-aged anticipation that I first heard about the new reality TV show called Comic Book Men. It is filmed in Smith’s comic book store in Red Bank, New Jersey and focuses on the New Jersey ball-busting banter between the staff and each show features the hidden treasures fans bring in to sell, or just to show off.
Some of the criticism of the show is that it is like a Pawn Stars for comic book geeks and promotes the inherent cash value of comic books and related items rather than the amazing world that reading comics opens up for kids, young adults and those of us who have been inspired throughout the decades. But watching people come in with a box they found in their grandmothers attic is as satisfying to me as watching American Pickers or Antiques Roadshow. It amazes me to see memories from my childhood paraded around in mint condition. Frankly, old Marvel comic books, Batman cowls and original Jack Kirby artwork is cooler to me than old belt buckles and crystal wine glasses.
Unlike the Pawn Stars store in Las Vegas where upon visiting one finds little that resembles a typical episode of the show, visiting The Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey is literally like walking onto the set of an episode.
Consider that Kevin Smith actually worked in the Quick Stop that Clerks was filmed in, working all day and filming all night when the store was closed. From the very beginning Smith kept his work and his lifestyle close to his hockey jersey. So it should be no wonder that The Secret Stash is exactly as it appears on the AMC television show. There is something so incredibly hardcore New Jersey and neo-Blue Collar to walk off the streets of the gentrified Red Bank and see Walt Flanagan and Mike Zapcic, from Comic Book Men, busy restocking T-shirts and the latest new batch of comics, answering the phone and dealing with customers.
Two of the main characters of Comic Book Men are Smiths friends from way back. Walt Flanagan had several roles in Clerks, was the inspiration for Brodie in Chasing Amy and is the manager of the comic book store. Bryan Johnson (who was not at the store the day I was there) was the inspiration for the seminal Clerks Video Store clerk Randall Graves and is the director of the Smith film Vulgar. Mike Zapcic is the resident genius on all things comic related and along with fanboy turned Comic Book Man, Ming Chen (also not present), turn each episode into a New Jersey comic book geek fest.
I read Yelp reviews of the store before I went that vacillated between love and hate. I can only imagine walking in to a well honed group of Jersey guys with a chip on your shoulder with something to prove about how much you believe your precious comic is worth only to be turned out on your heels. I went in as a fan and left an even bigger fan of Smith, his universe, friends and store.
Between the actual labors of running a comic book shop, making sure fans don’t disrespect the museum-like atmosphere of props from Smiths movies and being present for people walking in as curiosity seekers or comic geeks there is still the need to maintain the integrity of a working relationship with your colleagues. The dialogue I overheard between Flanagan and Zapcic sounded like a riff from one of the Comic Book Men episodes.
Mike: Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is back on Netflix.
Walt: I’m not getting Netflix.
Mike: It’s only $8 a month.
Walt: I don’t care. Do you know how many DVDs I have that I haven’t watched yet?
Add in the quick clipped resonance of a Jersey accent and even ordinary conversations are tinged with that certain kind of Jersey humor that thanks to Kevin Smith, is not only for those from the Garden State.Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash is located at 35 Broad St, Red Bank, NJ 07701 or online at http://jayandsilentbob.com
Comic Book Men appears Sunday nights on AMC (after the Walking Dead) check your local listings for times. http://www.amctv.com/shows/comic-book-men