The best spandex in town

A&E finds the coolest comic stores in the Twin Cities.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY LIBERA

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY LIBERA

Tony Libera

Every now and again, some big wheel in the literary criticism game will marvel at the fact that comic books, unlike delicious Trix cereal, are no longer just for kids. ItâÄôs a veritable fact that they havenâÄôt been for a long time; graphic opuses like Frank MillerâÄôs âÄúThe Dark Knight Returns ,âÄù along with the more recent Hollywood adaptation invasion, prove the point. Yet mainstream America is, by and large, still reluctant to treat the comic as the artistic medium it has proven itself to be. For those who simply feel a crippling unfamiliarity with the comic world âÄî diving into the ocean of decades-old mythologies is daunting âÄî there is hope. A&E is here to help the comic-curious navigate the Twin CitiesâÄô scattered subculture reservoirs. Where to Start The best place to begin a voyage into the heart of comic darkness is, of course, at a comic book retailer. Places like Barnes & Noble and Borders do stock comics and graphic novels (way in the back), and their familiarity probably makes them the most readily accessible places to buy. However, their respective selections are hardly up to snuff, and the average staff member is undoubtedly lacking in their comic knowledge. Franchise bookstores are fine for a quick taste or for a more popular work like Alan MooreâÄôs epic âÄúWatchmen,âÄù but to truly infiltrate the comic subculture, one must trek beyond the droning lure of chain stores to the mom-and-pop shops that fleck the Twin Cities. DreamHaven Books & Comics Founded over 30 years ago by the entrepreneurial Greg Ketter, DreamHaven Books & Comics , as the name suggests, is a place where comic-seekers and bibliophiles alike can take refuge from the world of mainstream literature and delve into the uncanny lands of dragons, demons and spandex-clad damsels. DreamHaven stocks an impressive selection of not only comics but also fantasy and sci-fi books that are hard to find anywhere else. The staff is well-versed in the more popular comic brands (DC, Marvel , Dark Horse), making DreamHaven an easy locale for investigating the secret world of comics. DreamHavenâÄôs one downside is that it carries mostly new issues; this is acceptable for beginners with little regard for back issues, but those looking for a more comprehensive catalogue might need to expand their search. The College of Comic Book Knowledge and The Nostalgia Zone Uptown is home to one of the better comic shops in town, The College of Comic Book Knowledge. ItâÄôs been around since 1974 under various guises and management, and if its rhyming, pseudo-academic name doesnâÄôt impress authority, the erudite staff most certainly will. Comic store staffers are often stereotyped as omniscient nerds, dangling their endless knowledge above the heads of lesser mortals and aggressively dismissing the uninitiated with bitter verbal jousts. Thankfully, this is not the case with The College of Comic Book Knowledge; the staff is not only kind but also promethean with their knowledge, helping patrons find the issues they seek and dispensing kernels of comic wisdom along the way. The store itself is tiny, bordering on cramped, but the walls are, contrary to all laws of spatial reasoning, loaded with a surprising number of recent titles and beloved graphic novels. While itâÄôs not a place to kick up your feet, the selection makes The College of Comic Book Knowledge indispensable. The College of Comic Book Knowledge also shares its walls with The Nostalgia Zone, an overloaded mountain of back issues and hard-to-find comics dating back to The Golden Age (late âÄô30s to late âÄô40s, roughly). The sheer number of comics in this overflowing room is enough to intimidate even the most avid connoisseur, but the staff, refusing to be pigeonholed as comic snobs, will happily play the Tenzing Norgay to your Edmund Hillary. The tandem of these two stores makes 32nd Street and Hennepin Avenue the ideal spot to explore the new and rummage through the old. Big Brain The name Big Brain says it all: The staff here knows a thing or two about comics, and they arenâÄôt afraid to tell you about it. Big Brain offers a sprawling assortment of comic books, graphic novels, trade paperback collections and enough collectibles to undermine the legitimacy of comic books as art. But the downtown shop balances the scales with a rich collection of nonsuperhero titles appealing to the broad spectrum of mature readers who care little for action figures and costumed derring-do. Stan Lee still lines the shelves, but he shares the space with everyone from Neil Gaiman (âÄúThe SandmanâÄù) to Dan Clowes (âÄúGhostworldâÄù) to Art Spiegelman (âÄúMausâÄù). When you boil it down, Big Brain doesnâÄôt necessarily go above and beyond the likes of The College of Comic Book Knowledge and The Nostalgia Zone, but it supersedes its contemporaries in environment, providing an uncluttered layout and inviting space to while away the hours and immerse oneself in the comic scene. Source Comics & Games The Source is one of the few shops that your average Joe might have heard about, and thereâÄôs a reason for it (besides their poorly produced TV ads). While the Source offers the standard variety of comic choices, it sits at the epicenter of the St. Paul comic world due to its bountiful event calendar. Aside from hosting an insane amount of role-playing tournaments, the Source holds interviews with prominent comic and fantasy writers (the most recent being Margaret Weis, âÄúDragonlanceâÄù), artist panels and even a fellowship for area Christians looking to discuss both secular and religious comics with their fellow man. With events this diverse, the Source looks to be a good candidate for those who truly want to learn comic customs. Newcomers to the scene could be turned off by the intense saturation of nerdiness here, but those who stick it out with an open mind will understand more about comics than they ever could have imagined.