In Search Of . . . Gargantua

So back in April, I added the two hardcover collections of Madman comics to my Amazon wish-list. I used to read the Tundra issues of Madman back in my college days, and thought it would be nice to catch up on almost 20 years of work from Mike Allred.

Problem was, the newer volume, Madman Atomica, is still in print, but 2007’s Madman Gargantua isn’t. Its list price for the 850-page book was $125 but used sellers were asking around $150 and higher. I could afford it, but it wasn’t that big a priority. Maybe it’ll get reissued sometime, I thought. And maybe it’d be more fun to stop in or call comic stores and see if they had it in stock.

Now, I have no idea if normal people experience anything like this, but for a comic reader, there’s a great joy in finding This One Book I’m Looking For.

I don’t even know if the thrill is gone, since we live in a world of near-infinite, and infinitely available, entertainment. Everything can be ordered online, or downloaded for immediate gratification. Do back issues matter anymore, if everything’s been collected in a reprint?

And it wasn’t just comics for me; I also used to hunt down books with the same in-person fervor. Of course, there’s a greater disappointment in finding the book you’ve been searching for, because of the realization that it’ll take a lot longer to read than a long-sought comic will. There’s also the disappointment of finding the object of your quest in a boring location. In my sophomore year of college, I finally stumbled across a copy of William Gaddis’ first novel, The Recognitions, on the shelves of a Brentano’s Books in a suburban NJ mall. No dark, dingy used bookshop or literary salon: just fluorescent lighting and blue-gray carpeting in a mall of Rt. 206.

One of my best finds was in my college years, when I stopped into The Paperback Exchange, a since-closed comic store in Nanuet, NY, on the way home from college. I asked the owner, “You got a comic by Kyle Baker, called, ‘Why I Hate Saturn‘?” That one was impossible to find, but every cartoonist I liked was praising it to the heavens that year.

He said, “We’ve got one in the back room, but it’s a little dinged up. You still wanna buy it?”

“. . . Sure,” I said, trying not to betray the fact that I was ready to knife the guy and run into the stockroom to find that book.

I bought it, and was the envy of my geek pals back at Hampshire, until the second printing finally came out a few years later.

I have no idea if people still prowl for out-of-print comics and books. I mean, I’m allegedly a grown-up and don’t spend a lot of time hunting for comics, so none of this is meant to reflect the attitudes of the comic-reading world at large. But seeing “Available from these sellers” on Gargantua’s Amazon page reminded me of how I enjoyed scoping out shops for That One Book. I decided to make it my not-too-imperative mission to find that book.

Over the last few weeks, I called a number of NJ and NY comic stores about the book, but no one had it in stock. I didn’t expect much luck from suburban comic shops, since they tend to be mainstream-oriented. But they tend to have just one or two little unappreciated gems on the shelves. Perhaps the owner took a flyer on a certain paperback, figuring that one kid might buy it when he’s back from college. But it was to no avail. Shop after shop in the area hadn’t seen the book since it was first in print. Understandable, since a $125 book in a non-returnable market is quite a commitment for a store-owner, and it’s not like Madman was a household name or had a movie coming out.

On Tuesday evening, Amy & I went out for dinner. While she was in the restroom, I flicked through the Twitter feed on my iPhone. A tweet from Madman creator Mike Allred scrolled by: “Any comic shops out there still have MADMAN GARGANTUA at cover price or below? I know has a picture of it on a shelf…”

Then one of his followers tweeted “funny books in lake hiawatha new jersey does! I just saw it there”

I didn’t recognize the town, and immediately typed it into my Maps app. It was about 20 minutes away from the restaurant, and 30 minutes from my home. As Amy returned to the table, I searched the store online. Without looking up, I said, “We may be making a detour to Lake Hiawatha. It’s not too far out of the way.”

“What’s there?”

“A comic store that has This One Book I’ve been looking for.”

I can never tell if her knowing glances are as filled with pity as I think they are.

I called up the store’s site and discovered that it’s closed on Tuesdays. (That’s a standard practice for comic shops; since new comics arrive on Wednesday, Tuesdays tend to do the least business.) I decided to hit the store immediately after work on Wednesday.

Before calling the store in the morning to make sure they had the book, I started thinking about how high I’d go over cover price. After all, $125’s already pretty steep for a comic collection, and he did have me over a barrel, since it’s not like I could just go to another store down the street to buy it. I concluded, if the price got anywhere near the used sellers on Amazon ($165 today), I would bail.

Around 10:30 a.m., I rang the store up. I asked the owner if he had the book in stock. “Sure do! Now this is the first one, the out-of-print one,” he said.

“That’s the one I’m looking for. What time are you open till tonight?” You must understand: I actually thought that either Mike Allred or some fan was going to swoop into this little town in suburban NJ and buy this rare treasure if I didn’t make the trip that very day.

“Nine p.m.”

“Great! And how much is the book?”

“Well, the list price is $125 . . . but I can let you have it for $100.”

God bless comic shop owners and their failure to grasp supply-and-demand.

After going home and walking and feeding the doggies first, I drove down to the shop. It was one town over from where I occasionally bought comics in high school. The owner took the copy of Gargantua out from the counter — yes, I’d asked him to put it aside when I called — and gave me the brief tour of his shop. It was small, but well frequented on New Comics Day, with several customers coming through during my 10-15 minutes there. He tried to gauge my interest in LOST, the Captain America movie, and DC Comics’ impending relaunch of 52 (!) of its titles, but soon figured out that my interests were on the indie side of the scene, not the superhero end of things.

He showed me a shelf or two of books that were part of his 50% off FAIL SALE, and I scoured that for overlooked treasure. I wound up with a recent Trondheim children’s book (I hear it’s not great, but it is Trondheim), a Beto Hernandez collection I didn’t own (hard to believe), and KIRBY FIVE-OH!, an oversized book collecting pieces from the 50 years of Jack Kirby’s career. Nothing I needed, but lots of things that I’d enjoy, esp. at half price.

As he rang me up, the owner tossed a freebie comic in my bag: it was a preview of the aforementioned relaunch of DC’s titles. I looked in horror at the cover of the preview — a new, “modern” Superman, who apparently wears patched jeans, leather boots, and grey knee-high socks (?) — tumbling into the mix with my purchases. I figured that six months of Kirby’s career showed more creativity and vitality than all of the 52 “creative” teams and titles previewed in that comic. At home that evening, I flipped through the preview and revised my opinion: two months.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get to the ginchy adventures of Frank Einstein . . .

One Reply to “In Search Of . . . Gargantua”

  1. I am looking this so bad but as I live in Mexico its very veeery difficult because I can only buy it online, and no one its selling it at retail price. But your story has inspired me and I will try harder, and maybe go to San Diego and see what I can find.

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