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A desperate and personal journey through Austin's comic book scene

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Austin Books and Comics Courtesy of Austin Books and Comics
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Austin Books and Comics
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Capstone Comics Courtesy of Capstone Comics

I'm looking for Fear Itself #5.

There's a part of me that's embarrassed about this. No, I'm not embarrassed that I'm scrambling around the city in a mad and slightly desperate search for a superhero comic book—you reach a point in your career as a bumbling geek that you stop feeling shame for enjoying what you like—I'm embarrassed that I've fallen behind in the Fear Itself crossover event and can't properly enjoy the newer issues of other ongoing series that tie into it.

This is the epitome of a First World Problem, but damn it…this is my First World Problem.

My first stop is my local comic haunt, Capstone Comics, one of those places you initially gravitate towards because of proximity and convenience but slowly but slowly and surely fall in love with. I've been coming here for a few months now, ever since I graduated from collecting trades and started pursuing individual issues. Most of the employees recognize my face by now. (A few of them know my name.) I suppose I'm almost regular by this point, but I'd wager that it'll be another month or two before that becomes official. Eventually, I suspect that the rotating cast of employees behind the counter will be able to see my ugly mug coming from across the store and have my hold folder ready before I can ask for it. After all, I'm in here every Wednesday to pick up that week's new releases. Sooner or later, my name has to sink in.

Capstone is the definition of a neighborhood store, a small shop tucked into a strip mall, wedged somewhere between a liquor store and an Indian market. The windows are covered in old comic displays and advertisements from years past. The store interior is busy, potentially confusing to the non-regulars but charming nonetheless. If half of the fun of comic shop is getting lost and exploring, Capstone succeeds with flying colors.

But they don't have Fear Itself #5. I ask if they'll be getting more in. They're not sure. They sure hope so.

For those of you with social lives that involve going outside and getting sun and meeting attractive members of the opposite sex, here's exactly why I'm so riled up about not being able to track down this issue. About once or twice a year, a comics company (generally Marvel and DC, the two major players on the block) will have a major "event" where the characters and the storylines from all of their various series converge and tell one big tale. In the case of Marvel's Fear Itself event, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the rest of that super heroic crew are facing down the latest threat to the planet Earth: a resurrected Norse god whose power grows as humanity suffers.

Whether or not events like these, which tend to split the "complete" story across numerous issues, series and one-shots, are a chance to tell a story that normally couldn't be told within the confines of a regular series or a chance for the publisher to line their pockets with fanboy money by asking them to seek out every last issue pertaining to the tale at hand is a question that remains up for debate. Go hang out in a comic book shop for fifteen minutes and do a little eavesdropping. Whether or not Marvel or DC is only interested cash and doesn't care about the long-suffering fan is a common topic of conversation. It comes up whenever you breathe.

I go south. My next stop is Dragon's Lair. It's a weekday afternoon, so it's pretty quiet inside. If I came here in the evening, I'd have trouble finding parking and the store would be packed with rentable folding tables and dozens of tabletop gamers, gathered in their Church of Nerd-dom to duel with Magic cards or test each other's might with Warhammer matches. Unlike Capstone, Dragon's Lair is catering to new audiences with enough crossover that they'd warrant a Venn diagram: one half of the store is comic books, the other half is board games.

My loyalty to Capstone means I rarely purchase my comics here, but it's the best place in Austin to satiate my lust for designer board games. When it comes to what games grace my table, my tastes tend to run toward "massive, quasi-RPG strategy games with multiple boards, dozens of decks of cards, stat sheets and more than several available expansions." I also play Monopoly, but come on…everyone plays Monopoly. Not everyone plays story-driven exploration games based on the collected works of HP Lovecraft.

And you know what? They also don't have Fear Itself #5. They have plenty of Fear Itself #6, but that's not going to help me much. They take my name and promise to give me a call when it comes in.

"If it comes in!" I scream before overturning a nearly shelf and sending hundreds of Japanese Manga collections to an uncertain future on the floor. That doesn't actually happen, but I wouldn't put it past me. I kinda want to find this book.

When people ask my about my experience with comic books, I'm quick describe myself as a rank amateur, but this isn't entirely true. I've been reading comics casually since about 2005, back when I felt the desperate need to hide it from my friends and family for fear of…well, I don't know. For fear of something. For fear of them thinking I'm a huge dork? For fear of people thinking that I, a huge movie and literature buff, was betraying "real art"? When you hear people who don't read comics talking about comics, you hear a lot of absurd statements. You hear it described as an inherently trashy medium. You hear described as kids' stuff. My personal favorite? I heard reading comics described as "watching someone else play a video game."

Comics may have started as kids' stuff and yes, far too many of them are trashy and juvenile, but a disappointingly small number of people realize where this really medium stands. It's the missing link between books and film, standing at the cross section of the written word and moving image, borrowing the beauty of visual art with the longevity and emotion of a prose story. Truly great stories are being told with comics. If you're willing to look, you'll find beautiful, funny and exciting work that is truly one of a kind. You'll find smart science fiction satire. You'll find hard-hitting noir. You'll find quietly epic autobiographical love stories.

You'll also find plenty of the Incredible Hulk smashing things, which may not lend too much artistic credibility to comics in the eyes of some, but I can speak with firm authority when I say that you really don't need artistic credibility when you have the Incredible Hulk smashing things. Hulk smash your artistic credibility.

My third stop of the day is nothing short of a local institution. Austin Books and Comics doesn't look like much from the outside, but it's impossible to imagine a geek not stepping through the doors for the first time and not wondering what pagan god he's accidentally pleased to deserve this. The store is huge, sprawling and even slightly intimidating if you're not sure what you're looking for. They keep more back issues on hand than any other store in the city and their library of trade collections for sale feels about as exhaustive as any I've ever seen. Capstone may be my store, but if I'm ever in the area, I always find an excuse to stop by and get lost in here.

If anyone is going to have Fear Itself #5, it will surely by Austin Book and Comics. Surely.

I take my time heading to wall of issues, perusing the aisles of trades. For the uninitiated (i.e., the people out there probably getting laid considerably more than me), trades are bound collections of several issues, generally five to eight of them. Most comic fans will agree that trades are a great way to discover series from the past or to catch up with something ongoing. Others will take time to inform you that by buying trades, you're killing the industry and that real fans buy issues. These people are snobs, represent the ugly face of the geek lifestyle and deserve to be destroyed.

There's a reason why geek culture was a shameful secret for decades before finally exploding into the mainstream in the past decade: the loudest geeks often tend to be the most punchable. Geeks in general tend to be sweet, thoughtful and smart, the kind of people whose attraction to the fantastic is rooted in their being a dreamer, someone who accepts others because he wants to be accepted, because he wants to belong and to be loved. Still, there's about 14% of us who actually deserve to have the snot kicked out of us by jocks.

Austin Books has dozens of #4's and an exhausting backstock of #6's, but Fear Itself #5 is sold gone. Gone. Kaput. They employee at the counter is as baffled as me. He shrugs: "Sometimes, certain issues just sell out and disappear." Like at Dragon's Lair, he takes me name and promises to call me when more arrive. I'm not taking any chances here.

The really sad thing here is that the core Fear Itself miniseries isn't even that good. It's fine, passable superhero entertainment at best, but I feel compelled to finish it. I want to know how it's going to change the status quo of the characters and the stories I really care about. The fact that I'm stressing out over completing this series is substantial evidence that I have a very real and very serious problem. I temper these thoughts by reminding myself that it's a whole lot healthier than meth addiction.

I'm worried that my journey will have a cliffhanger ending, a total non-resolution that will only frustrate readers and cause them to grumble about how shortchanged they feel while simultaneously planning to return next month to see what happens. Thankfully, my adventure is comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Spoiler alert: I find Fear Itself #5. I have to venture all the way across town to a small shop called Tribe, but I find it. In a wonderfully cinematic turn of events, it's the last copy in the store, but I grab it and it's all mine.

Tribe is Austin's south side answer to Capstone, a small neighborhood comic shop with a small selection but a friendly vibe. It's the kind of place where where the owners' dogs trot around the store and observe you while you shop. I know that if I lived down south, I'd be a regular here. They'd know my name in no time.

As I pay for the issue, I regale that the man at the register with the tale of how I had to hunt this thing down, not realizing until it's too that that saying "I'm glad you have this because you are the last place I looked" is a backhanded compliment if one ever existed. If the clerk was insulted, he does a terrific job of not letting me notice. He smiles: "Sometimes, it helps to be the smallest shop in town."

As I leave Tribe, all I can think is how lucky I am to live in a city that offers me so many chances to indulge my geeky urges. I think of all of the poor, starving nerds in small towns across Texas and I try to work up a single tear in their honor. However, I quickly realize that I can't cry on demand and just decide that they should just get their act together and move to Austin already.

I go home and read Fear Itself #5.

Eh, it's okay.

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