‘Comic Book Men’: Kevin Smith’s insular world of supergeeks
By Hank Stuever,
Kevin Smith — 41-year-old filmmaker, writer, former Southwest Airlines passenger and esteemed guest at any sci-fi convention — is a talented man with one serious shortcoming: He has never been able to convey his deepest passions beyond the circle of friends and fans who already share them. This apparently bothers him not in the least.
But it’s certainly a drag on “Comic Book Men” (premiering Sunday night on AMC), Smith’s dullish, six-episode reality show about everyday life in a New Jersey comic-book store that he happens to own.
Rather than debunk a few stereotypes about such a place (and the men who would work there), the series steadfastly reinforces them with supergeek adhesive. It’s a missed opportunity to portray a particular subset of pop culture and describe its obsession to those who would dismiss such hobbies as juvenile or pointless. It’s a particular letdown for those of us who’ve ever nursed a comic-book addiction and tried to articulate that love to those who didn’t get it.
Smith’s first film, the 1994 indie hit “Clerks,” celebrated such marginal treasures as convenience stores, suburban New Jersey and Socratic dialogues on “Star Wars” trivia. With his geek bona fides, Smith went on to make many more films (“Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”), most of which suffered from the same myopic sense of storytelling.
All we’ve really learned over the years is you have to be a lot like Kevin Smith to enjoy his work. His memoir, coming out in March, is a guide to living appropriately titled “Tough S--- : Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good.”
When his directorial cred was near its peak in 1997, Smith bought a comics and memorabilia shop in Red Bank, N.J., and rechristened it Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, named after two recurring characters from his movies. (Smith himself played Silent Bob, the mute companion of trash-mouth Jay.)
It’s clear from “Comic Book Men” that Smith is happiest hanging out here, and it’s a shame that happiness doesn’t translate as a TV show. Instead, “Comic Book Men” relies too heavily on filming the conversations that Smith and the store employees have in the course of taping their podcast talk show. This works only on ESPN — making a TV show that consists of a bunch of men sitting in a radio studio jawin’ about something arcane. (Even Ricky Gervais and his pals, adapting their podcast as an HBO series, had the good sense to turn it into a cartoon.)
The rest of “Comic Book Men” takes place in the store, where Walt Flanagan (a high-school friend of Smith’s) works as manager. There’s also Bryan Johnson, who does not technically work at the store but sits behind the counter all day anyway. There’s Mike Zapcic, who is the store’s expert on all things comic books; and Ming Chen, the store’s tech expert, a Kevin Smith fan who became a Kevin Smith employee and is made to suffer verbal abuse from the other men.
Sadly, the only emotional transactions here are delivered in the form of insults. When not picking on Ming, the men of the Secret Stash razz one another about sexuality and perceived acts of extreme nerdiness — merely adding a fresh layer to the stereotype.
One way these comic-book men insult one another is to constantly lessen the market value of one another’s stash of toys and collectible artwork. A local memorabilia expert named Rob Bruce comes by at Walt’s request to evaluate some old movie stills that a customer wants to sell to the store for $800. Rob quickly devalues them by 75 percent, and the customer skulks off. Smith expresses his awe: “In a just world, all the stuff Rob knows [about pop culture memorabilia] would get him laid.” The implication is that loving comic books and toys means never having a love life, which Smith knows isn’t true.
AMC has pegged “Comic Book Men” to premiere after Sunday’s awaited return of the “The Walking Dead” (which began as a graphic novel series), perhaps hoping to attract the same crowd. But “Comic Book Men’s” idle chit-chat about comics comes off as remedial and boring. Are the citizens of Nerdland really still nervously cracking pedophile jokes about Batman’s attraction to Robin? Still explaining the graphic uniqueness of Kirby dots? Still fussing over whether “goggles Catwoman” was hotter than the other versions? Do they have anything new to say when ogling an original “Six Million Dollar Man” doll in its original box?
There’s always been a more melancholy angle to the comic-obsessed life, largely untold, about men who never can become the fantasy men they most admire. But life inside Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash feels stultified. They’re like action figures sealed behind plastic that shall never be opened.
Comic Book Men
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.