We've all heard the same depressing argument: Instead of providing a promised salvation, the Internet has ruined everything.
Sites like Twitter and Facebook purport to bring us together and connect us to friends all around the world. But "social networking" just encourages us to stay holed up inside our bedrooms, tap-tap-tapping away at our laptops.
Sites like Amazon.com and Google make every consumer product and newspaper and magazine available at our fingertips. But those sites have also eliminated the need for brick-and-mortar bookstores, coffee shops and libraries -- places where you might run into a friend or stranger and feel, if only for a brief few moments, part of a larger community.
Meanwhile, in somewhat-secret headquarters, a group of brave heroes with unusual powers have gathered to save the day!
I speak of the old-fashioned comic-book shop, a vestige of Norman Rockwell America that has somehow managed to hang on and even flourish into the 21st century. Like most retail operations, comic-book shops have had their share of troubles over the past decade: According to a recent article in Business Week, there are now 3,000 shops operating in America, compared with the 10,000 that thrived in the 1990s.
But the ones that have lasted -- including a handful of superbly run shops in Dallas-Fort Worth -- are proving more valuable now than ever. The owners of these places have managed to do something beautifully anachronistic in the iPad era: They're building actual physical communities, not virtual ones. They also help make sense of what can sometimes seem like pure comic chaos to the average person -- the movies ( Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, The Losers), video games ( God of War, BioShock, Mass Effect) and new media (Japanese anime, social media gaming, more iPhone apps than you can count) that steadily flood the marketplace.
"I get to know my customers and their tastes," says Craig Clements, of Fort Worth's Y2Komics. "There are so many new, amazing books out each week, and it's my job to predict and set aside issues that will appeal to various regular readers." Hobbyists know this process as 'the pull list' -- subscribers of particular series can expect their scheduled releases as well helpful recommendations shopkeepers know they'll love.
Chris Powell, general manager of Lone Star Comics, adds, "Our role is expanding into all things interesting." Indeed, if you're a comic newbie, you'll probably be surprised by all the cool merchandise the fan community has to offer. Weird underground DVDs, Uglydoll plushes, experimental card games, animation cells, even customizable dolls and miniatures (think Mr. Potato Head with limitless possibilities).
Then there's the experience of stepping into a comic shop. Because so many store owners are fans first and businesspeople second, it may feel a bit like walking into a friend's office or tricked-out man cave; to a large degree, a shop's look and inventory reflects the owner's tastes. (For example, you need easy navigation and access? Hit Y2Komics and Titan. If aesthetics are more important, go to Madness and Zeus.) Once inside, you're almost certain to have fun. The competitive market has all but eliminated those drearily lit, dungeonlike stores where squirrelly guys behind the counter suspiciously track your every move. At a shop like Lone Star Comics, you're much more likely to encounter a friendly debate about Ryan Reynolds portraying both Deadpool and Green Lantern in upcoming flicks, or a weekly gaming tournament unfolding in one of the back rooms.
Now for the best news of all: As spring turns into summer, we enter into a state of being that can only be described as fanboy nerdvana. This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day across the country, and the Metroplex is no exception -- all of the shops in our survey purchased new "FCBD-Edition" comics (with their own expenses), and will be giving them away to their customers. (The annual event was started in 2002 by representatives of the comics industry, in the hopes of raising awareness about comic books and reaching new fans.) Make sure to get there early; as you can imagine, the best free comics go fast.
May 7 brings the release of Iron Man 2, the much-awaited sequel to the hit Marvel Comics adaptation, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. This summer also promises the likes of Jonah Hex (based on the DC Comics series, starring Josh Brolin and opening June 18), Predators (July 16) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (based on a graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley and opening Aug. 13).
And while some people complain that fanboys are taking over the universe, know this much: There isn't another community of oddballs in the world who open their arms so wide to neophytes.
Says Powell, "We love to tell others why we love the world of comics so much and to help them find a comic that will make them lifelong fans too." Most shops owners believe that there is a comic book out there for everyone, even those snobby readers who subsist solely on a diet of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. (In fact, a number of successful adult comic series, such as Fables, Persepolis, Ex Machina and Maus have been the subject of a great deal of academic study.) Sure, readers can get their books online or in the paperback collection at a big corporate bookstore, but half the fun is the experience, the people and events like this Saturday.
So join us on a tour of what we regard as the six best shops in the Metroplex, where you can bone up on the universes of Green Lantern and Thor before the movie versions descend upon us, where you can treat yourself to a new board game for a rainy day or where you might just meet your soul mate -- a fellow nerd traveler who thinks he's the only person alive who likes Jim Starlin's Dreadstar.
Take it from a true fanboy: Wonders await inside each of these places.
5276 Trail Lake Drive, Fort Worth, 817-263-5888
Origin: It was once part of the Generation X chain of comics shops but went independent after former customer Craig Clements bought the place Jan. 1, 2000.
Should be your first stop if: You are a horror fan, enjoy collectible card games, are looking for solid role-playing game books, are a bargain hunter or love helping independent storefronts.
Why it's cool: Fort Worth's only indie comic shop can special-order anything in a timely fashion -- and its location just off Interstate 20 and Trail Lake Drive is close to everything.
The owner: Craig Clements is a quiet but knowledgeable community-centric shopkeeper who lets regulars use the store for lots of weekly gaming events.
Specific goodie in stock: A beautiful update on the classic board game Axis & Allies Pacific: 1940, $90.
Regular events: Pokemon tournaments Fridays; Games Workshop tournaments and open gaming Saturdays.
Lone Star Comics
Various area locations, including Fort Worth, Arlington, Hurst, Dallas and Plano; www.mycomicshop.com
Origin: It began as a mail-order company in 1961, and its first brick-and-mortar store opened in 1977 in Arlington; the chain expanded rapidly during comics' boom years of the 1980s and '90s.
Should be your first stop if: You need a quality gift quickly, you aren't sure where to begin inside a comic shop or you want to entertain some younger kids.
Why it's cool: Lone Star Comics is the largest comic-store chain in Texas -- and one of the most successful in the nation. Its website lets you pick up your order in-store so you can avoid shipping fees and do most of your browsing online on your own time. (On the downside, it tends to have a little less personality than an independent shop.)
Specific goodie in stock: Buckyballs (a set of tiny magnetic balls used to make customized shapes), $29.99
Regular events: In Fort Worth (many other stores have similar schedules): Warhammer Tournament, 3-7 p.m. Monday; Yu-Gi-Oh tournament, 4:30-7 p.m. Thursday; Magic: The Gathering tournament, 4:30-7 p.m. Friday; HeroClix tournament, 1-5 p.m. Saturday; Family Game Night, 5-8 p.m. Saturday.
Special events: Iron Man 2 release party May 6 at Studio Movie Grill in Arlington (get tickets at any Lone Star Comics store).
Madness Games & Comics
3000 Custer Road, Plano, 972-943-8135
Tweet 'em: www.twitter.com/madnessgames
Should be your first stop if: Geek clothing, board games or war games are your bag.
Why it's cool: The fastest-growing section of the hobby shop is board gaming, and Madness' selection is the best in the region. Plus, the store's new comics and back-issue sections are vast and gorgeous.
Specific goodie in stock: Sideshow Collectibles Classic Iron Man statue, $400
Regular events: Gaming tournaments throughout the week
Special event: The grand opening of a new store (across Custer Road from the old shop) is May 8, with Deadpool Corps writer Victor Gischler and Shield artist Dustin Weaver signing.
Zeus Comics & Collectibles
4411 Lemmon Ave., Dallas, 214-350-4420www.zeuscomics.com
Origin: Launched July 21, 2000 -- and descending from Mount Olympus to bring comics and toys to us worthy mortals from its first store on Oak Lawn -- it moved to Lemmon Avenue in March 2008
Should be your first stop if: You seek a premium comic shopping experience; love statues, busts, toys and action figures; or need solid reading recommendations
Why it's cool: Zeus sets the bar quite high in geek-display elegance, and the excellent web series The Variants (www.thevariants.com) is shot there.
The owner: Richard Neal is one of the nicest guys in the community. He could also use your support these days -- shamefully, his amazing store has been broken into twice in recent months.
Specific goodie in stock: 1977 Farrah Fawcett doll with washable hair, $100
Special events: For Free Comic Book Day, Zeus is hosting a going-away party for local webcomic icon Scott Kurtz of PvP ( Player vs. Player), with David Hopkins and other local comic pros signing in-store during the day.
3701 W. Northwest Highway, Dallas, 214-350-4420; www.titancomics.com
Should be your first stop if: You have a hole in your comic collection and a ton of time on your hands.
Why it's cool: Titan has the largest back-issue collection of comics this fanboy has ever seen. If you need a book, chances are it's there. If not, owner Jeremy Shorr will get it for you.
The owner: Shorr is a local comic-scene fixture, with a wealth of comic knowledge. He also supports comics-related nonprofit organizations like the Hero Foundry (which donates comics to children's hospitals and libraries) and Art Love Magic (which stages a live art event series by comic artists) with fervor.
Specific goodie in stock: Detective Comics #43 (1940), $600
4750 N. Jupiter Road, Garland, 972-414-7760; www.thecomicasylum.com
Should be your first stop if: You are a Magic: The Gathering nut and/or are in the market for original comic-book artwork.
Why it's cool: As one of the newest shops in the area, Asylum has made a name for itself as a place to spot comic pros in town for a con. A hub for card games and Warhammer miniatures, the store really shines, partly because of owner Mark Hay's other occupation: original art dealer/representative for comic artists around the world.
Specific goodies in stock: Nearly a million Magic: the Gathering single cards for sale, with prices ranging from 25 cents to $300.
Regular events: Magic: The Gathering tournament Tuesdays, D&D Encounters on Wednesdays, Warhammer open play Thursdays, other games during the week.