“We’re not taking anything. I’m going to tell you what to do with these.”
Face to face with the owner of over 200 long-boxes of comics, Michael shifts his weight slightly and gestures to the boxes corralling them in the storage unit. Box tops lean against dozens of open boxes at sharp, odd angles. After driving nearly three hours to meet the owner and another hour and a half assessing the collection, Michael has made his decision.
“Please,” the owner offers, sincerely. “You’ve spent so much time and shared your expertise. Please take any four boxes you want. I can’t pay you for your time and trouble, but at least that will cover the cost of your gas and tolls.”
The owner’s face is stamped with resignation and disappointment, softened a bit by a naturally gentle mien. He’d asked the man standing opposite to come and assess this collection that was his grandfather’s. Thousands of books from all the way back to the Golden Age of comics—a potential gold mine, though most of them, apparently, nearly worthless. The grandson had hoped to sell the collection and pay for his children’s education, maybe pay down the house and build a cushion against calamity.
Michael had given him some good news. There were about 10 boxes worth about $100 each – filled with books that had escaped the worst of the damage from years of ordinary storage. Sunlight, moisture, smoke and temperature fluctuations had taken their toll on the collection, with the result that for the rarest and potentially most collectible books, re-sale values had plummeted from thousands of dollars to pennies– thanks to foxing, fading, creasing and puckering.
Grateful that Michael had accepted his offer to visit the storage unit and assess the collection, the grandson was offering the expert four of the 10 boxes for his trouble.
“Ok, thanks,” chimes in the third person standing in the unit. Michael brought along a colleague. Company for the drive and someone who he thought may have an interest in buying a piece of the collection should it prove valuable. Michael’s colleague quickly walks towards his choice of boxes, bends down and starts pulling them towards the entrance, towards Michael’s car.
“No. We’re not taking anything,” Michael says emphatically. Then, in a softer tone, his words directed squarely at the grandson, “I’m going to tell you what to do with these.”
Something in his tone arrests his colleague’s activity with the four boxes. Puzzled, the third man looks up at Michael and the grandson who are still facing each other.
“No, really. Please, take them…”
“Listen to me,” says Michael, directing his words again, to the grandson. He looks into the other man’s eyes, something he does not often do– normally preferring to interact with people from a shielded position.
“You told us when we started looking through the books…that these are all you have from your grandfather, right?” The grandson shakes his head yes. “And the reason why your grandfather collected comics for his entire life since he was a very young man—you told us. He collected all these, why?”
Not breaking their gaze, the other man answers.
“Because when he escaped to America–from the Nazi concentration camp, they were the only thing that could comfort him.” The grandson’s voice is soft and full of emotion. “Reading them brought him hope and confidence in the possibility of a better world. Heroes and heroines that fought and won against evil….Gave him courage to start a family and continue living.”
The two men stand, eyes still locked. After a few moments, the grandson looks away, casting his gaze over all the boxes stuffed inside the steely interior of the storage unit. Perhaps he looks around thinking, ‘This is the last shelter for the imperfect remains of a beloved dead man’s hopes and dreams.’
“Right.” Michael’s voice interrupts the silence. The grandson looks back at him and smiles weakly, sparking a vehemence that Michael, the comic book man, rarely displays.
“Right! Your grandfather fought the Nazi’s. He survived. He escaped and came to a foreign land where he found work, raised a family and rebuilt his life – a good life. You’re his grandson,” Michael continues, voice rising. “Your children are his great-grandchildren. You may not be able to sell this collection for a lot of money, but it’s worth more than money to you, and especially to your kids.”
Now Michael is gesturing around the guts of the metal box, voice ricocheting off the steel and through the boxes. The other two men are following his movements with their eyes, their bodies twisting in place, taking in the expanse of the collection.
“These books are what kept him going while he put his life back together. They gave him hope and strength. You’re here because of what these books gave him and so are your kids. What you need to do is take these boxes home – at least some of them, open them up and read these stories to them. Let them hold these books and tell them stories about their grandfather. How amazing he was and how these books and his family are part of him and his legacy. That’s your value in this collection, and there’s no one who can pay you what that’s worth.”
The grandson brings his gaze back to Michael.
“No problem,” replies Michael.
Michael and his colleague stand by while the grandson closes the door and puts the lock back on the unit—but not before they help him load several boxes of comics into his car to take home.
This is a true story. Michael came home that night, exhausted. After having something to drink and some time to check email, Facebook and twitter, he told me the story – rather, he allowed me to pull the story from him. He’s practically guileless and he’s got an eidetic memory so I always trust his account of everything to be exactly as he relates it – if he can be persuaded to tell. Michael is an exceptionally private person and typically only reveals things on a need-to-know basis.
My memory, especially for conversations—though extraordinary– is, however, not as flawless as his. So I have, undoubtedly, taken some license with dialogue and of course, since I wasn’t there, my representation of movement and interaction is an interpretation based on information shared and my knowledge of two of the three people in the story.
I share this with you because it’s one of the most compelling examples (that I know of) of two things: 1. How powerfully and wonderfully the genre of illustrated storytelling (yes, that’s comics and graphic novels, too) can influence the lives people, and 2. Why Michael Zapcic is the most important and beloved of my spiritual mentors. Many of us, I think, would have taken those four boxes.
Ok, there’s something else. I got to watch Michael for a couple of hours on the set of Comic Book Men this week. Afterwards, I thought about the show, the stories it told last season and all the stories it could tell this season. AMC’s tagline is, Story Matters Here, and I like that tag line. I think there are many, many stories, like the one above, that illustrate and illuminate the lives of people who love the genre, collect and share and yes, dream in panels and word balloons.
There’s more to Michael’s job than buying and selling and stocking shelves. More than banter, bags and boards. More than any show could capture no matter how many episodes. I’m looking forward, though, to watching how Comic Book Men tries.
Comic Book Men, season II, premiers Sunday, October 14th on AMC at 11:30 PM. It follows the season premiers of two other awesome shows, The Walking Dead (two hour premier) at 9 PM and The Talking Dead at 11PM. After 10/14, the lineup will be, TWD, 9 PM, TTD, 10 PM and CBM 10:30 PM.