Loving the Funnybooks

Originally published in Justifications on December 10, 2007:

This past Saturday night I was huddled near an electric spaceheater in a makeshift room of a live/work loft in the Vulcan Studios community in Oakland, just off San Leandro. Charlie was clinging to a vanishing pang of nostalgia, something he remembered loving about being a boy… something about growing up and the way things were. Unable to properly recollect the memory, he resorted to a description of a typical day growing up with two brothers and a sister: wake up, fight, read comics, fight… “it was so great.”

He asked me if I read comics growing up. “I still do.”

My love affair with comics is similarly rooted in those carefree days of youth. Both of my parents worked when I was growing up, so, during my elementary school years, my grandfather would often pick me up after school and take me to his house in Cow Hollow. At least once a week we would walk down to Chestnut Street – a place decades removed from today’s trendy nightspots and Apple stores – and wander into Jack’s, a magazine and tobacco store between Scott and Pierce. Nonno would set himself up in the back, elbows on the counter, and talk to whom I can only imagine was Jack himself, leaving me at the entryway of the store to peruse the comics racks.

I always left with one comic, carefully selected from the myriad display of four-color superheroics. I can’t say for sure if it was my first comic, but it’s the one I remember most vividly. Avengers #189. Hawkeye became my favorite character, Marvel my favorite company, and an afternoon in my mom’s old bedroom in the hours before dinner, surrounded by Spider-Mans, X-Men, and Shogun Warriors, one of my happiest places in the world.

Not sure if it’s the approaching holiday season (my grandfather died over winter break six years ago) or just my own sense of nostalgia building up in my advancing years, but I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. We all hear stories about people we only knew as children, a time when four-foot perspectives were formed through rose-colored backseat windows, but we sanctify certain memories of people and places, unaffected by the passage of time and impervious to future influence. It’s with the same wistfulness that I tracked down a Bing Crosby LP this weekend. Silly Santa hat and ridiculous holly bowtie. Fond memories.

To this day I immediately trace any discussion relating to a lifelong infatuation with comics to Paul J. Mammini; he of the perpetually sagging slacks and unkempt gray hair, who even in later years, after I discovered the wonders of comics specialty stores and the satisfactions of bags-and-boards, would drive me around town and wait patiently in the car while I indulged my adolescent fantasies. There are lots of reasons to love and miss friends and family who have passed on, but in many cases the reasons that get neglected pertain to how influential these people were in shaping the kind of people we are today. He may not have realized it, but my grandfather helped instill a passion that gets indulged (many would say overly so) to this day. Thanks, Nonno.

I discovered, not long after first writing this, that the site of the original Jack’s is now an upscale men’s clothing store bearing the original name.  The website has this to say about the storefront’s humble beginnings: “Our Chestnut Street store is located in a classic art deco building and a shop that has been named Jack’s since it was built in the 1930s. The original Jack’s was a magazine and tobacco store for most of its life, with a colorful history of also housing a notorious betting and gambling hall upstairs. The legendary Herb Caen wrote to bemoan the demise of Jack’s when the original tobacco shop closed. He referred to it as a ‘beloved San Francisco landmark.'”

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