Comic Book Men: Exactly What You'd Expect

Two episodes in, I'm sad to say that I'm finished with Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men.

The reality show, which airs on AMC following The Walking Dead, follows the exploits of Smith's comic shop employees as they navigate the waters of demanding customers looking for deals and hoping to sell off memorabilia that they unfailingly believe to be priceless. So, it's basically like Pawn Stars with geeks. That's how it looked in the ads and, in spite of my natural disinclination to watch something like that, I gave it a shot because of Smith.

Back in 2000, Kevin Smith's first foray into primetime television--Clerks (the cartoon)--was appointment TV for me. I had just suffered a few hard personal losses and had dropped out of school, and the madcap, sketch-comedy style of the show was a breath of fresh air that reintroduced beloved characters without feeling derivative of the movie from which it drew its title. Later, after it was abruptly canceled and released to video, an episode even featured a fan at a comic book convention taking them to task for being too dissimilar to the source material.

Around that same time, another show with similar comic sensibilities and a similarly incisive eye for pop culture got the ax at Fox--but Family Guy's DVD sales were mind-bendingly good and the show returned to the air only two years after its cancellation. Clerks had no such luck, and it began a string of Smith projects that were profitable and enjoyed by his fans, but failed to live up to studio expectations. Meanwhile, his retail comics shop business was holding steady, his fledgling public speaking career morphed into a strange hybrid of stand-up comedy and podcasting, and he decided that his film career was not long for this world, as it was now more a source of  stress than it was worth.

The podcast empire he built, though, has led to AMC's picking up Comic Book Men, and once again I sat down to watch his show, this time substantially less sure that I was going to love it but hoping for the best. I'm not a fan of reality shows in general, and less so the subgenre of Antiques Roadshow bastard-children. When I've gone to the Stash in the past I've found Comic Book Men stars Walt Flanagan and Bryan Johnson to be standoffish and difficult to relate to (though not "smarmy, alpha-nerd pricks," as one reviewer tagged Johnson--perfectly nice guys with whom I just couldn't converse).

Their characters (which is what people become when they head to TV and are subject to editing, scripted interstitials and the like) are somewhat less so, probably because they've got an emotional and financial investment in being empathetic on camera or because I've encountered them on "off" days, but also less pleasant. The show takes the Stash--mythologized for many fans as one of those comic shops that you just HAVE TO VISIT if you're in the neighborhood--and transforms it into a kind of live-action version of the Android's Dungeon, where fans would have to love Smith and his films, or suddenly visiting and becoming potentially the object of their ridicule seems far less appealing.

The show, and the way Smith's employees/friends/cast is displayed in it, is a clear indicator of something the viewers of Vulgar and the readers of Smith and Flanagan's Batman stories have known for a while: that Smith believes his childhood friends to be creative minds at least close to equal to his own, and trusts them to do their thing on his dime. Your mileage may vary as to the effectiveness of this approach, but Jay Mewes--arguably the least talented of the bunch and yet the one must beloved by fans and most indelibly linked to Smith's work--popped into the second episode to throw the situation into sharper relief.

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Ultimately, though, it's not the titular comic book men who drive me away from the series (although that seems to be a theme among many reviewers and fans online). Rather, it's the fact that I went into the show with a certain, very low, expectation and hoped to be pleasantly surprised. I was not--Comic Book Men is exactly what you'd expect, based on the trailers and other pre-air promotional material.

Which might not be the worst thing, for people who anticipated falling in love with Smith's latest offering. But for the rest of us, it sure ain't good.