Thursday, September 29 2022

He was happy to earn $5 a day when he opened San Francisco’s first comic book store in 1968. San Francisco Comic Book Co.’s storefront covered the entire 200 square feet of 23rd Street in the neighborhood from Mission, missing the foot traffic of the now fashionable area. peak of at least three decades.

“I didn’t think about the money. I was given the job of creating this unique little store,” he told The Chronicle in 1971. “All I ever wanted to do was pay the rent and eat. I don’t have big plans.

Arlington’s petty plans went awry and he became a legend, helping fuel the independent comic book industry and creating a retail model that hundreds of Bay Area stores followed. But his store closed in 2002 and has largely existed in the memories of his customers until now. This week, a cache of photo negatives – all but one ever released – was discovered in The Chronicle archives. They had been lost for 50 years.

The images show the store’s efficient genius, which used ladders and the tallest shelving in retail to maximize every square inch of the tiny store. Conversations and debates had to take place. It would be rude not to interact with other guests in such a compact space.

book store, founded by Gary Arlington, was one of the first comic book stores in the United States.”/>

November 17, 1971: A scene at the San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1971. The Mission District comic book store, founded by Gary Arlington, was one of the first comic book stores in the United States.

Clem Albers / The Chronicle

Arlington established its “underground comix church” in 1968 as a method of survival, after its parents died and the trunks full of valuable comic books in their basement needed a new home. At first, he accepted food stamps for comic books, using them to buy his own groceries, while keeping the more racy “comix” titles – which celebrated more mature themes, including sex and drug use. for recreational purposes – under the counter like contraband. Zap Comix launched by Robert Crumb was among its biggest sellers.

As business boomed, he also became publisher, the comic book version of the City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Arlington edited the San Francisco comic by recruiting the talents that had gathered in San Francisco, including Crumb, Bill Griffith, and Spain Rodriguez. He correctly predicted that the comic book industry, which had been impacted by the 1954 Comic Code Authority created to regulate graphic content, would grow more than ever.

“Comic books in America have been a suppressed thing. It’s always been seen as a kid’s thing. ‘This is shit! Get him out of the house! ” Arlington told The Chronicle in 1973. ”Here in Northern California you are seeing the revival of the comic book industry. It will be far superior to anything that has been done. »

November 17, 1971: Gary Arlington, left, talks to a customer at the San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1971.

November 17, 1971: Gary Arlington, left, talks to a customer at the San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1971.

Clem Albers/The Chronicle

His clients included Art Spiegelman, author of “Maus”underground comix titan Crumb, Last Gasp Comics publisher Ron Turner and future Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, among hundreds of other future comic book artists, retailers and superfans.

Spiegelman offered this tribute in 2012: “San Francisco was the capital of comix culture in the 60s and early 70s; and Gary Arlington’s hole-in-the-wall store was, to me, the capital of San Francisco.

As Crumb explained, “Gary made a cultural contribution to San Francisco from the late ’60s through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s that was bigger than he realizes.

The 1971 photos were taken by Clem Albers of The Chronicle, a legend in his own right, who had worked for the paper before World War II, taking a break to photograph internment camps in 1942 and 1943. Albers had a penchant for visual essays, capturing the store at 3339 23rd St. inside and out.

November 17, 1971: Gary Arlington poses outside the Francisco Comic Book Company in 1971. The Mission District comic book store was one of the first comic book stores in the United States.

November 17, 1971: Gary Arlington poses outside the Francisco Comic Book Company in 1971. The Mission District comic book store was one of the first comic book stores in the United States.

Clem Albers / The Chronicle

The comic store images were misclassified in a literary censorship category in the archives, instead of under the Arlington name or the store’s name. The photos show a small store where every square inch from floor to high ceiling is covered in comic book racks and comics wrapped in plastic wrap. Arlington stands like a bird on a perch, watching its customers on the low rung of one of the many ladders. A mixture of brooding-looking men and wide-eyed children run through horror comics, Tales of the Green Beret, and some early issues of Marvel X-Men.

The Arlington store has been erroneously described as the first comic book-only store in the United States (it may not even be the first in the Bay Area; two opened in the South Bay in around the same time.) But his influence was enormous nonetheless.

Over the next few years, the area boomed for comic book retailers and alternative comics and zines, many of which drew inspiration from San Francisco comic book publishers including Arlington and Turner. Today, San Francisco is home to the Cartoon Art Museum and continues to have stores known for innovation and community building, including Comix Experience, Isotope, and Mission Comics & Art in San Francisco; Cape and Cowl Comics and Dr. Comics & Mr. Games in Oakland; and Flying Colors Comics at Concord.

Gary Arlington takes a photo at his home on January 21, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Gary Arlington takes a photo at his home on January 21, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

David Paul Morris / Special to the Chronicle

Arlington continued as a retailer until the early 2000s and was recognized for his influence until his death in 2014 at the age of 75.

He spent his last days drawing his own comic book characters with Sharpie pens, writing in a journal and following the San Francisco Giants – living in supportive housing near the ballpark. He continued to read comics until the end.

“It’s a little weird to say, but I’d rather go home, sit in my room with all my good comics (than talk to a girl downtown somewhere,” he said. told The Chronicle in 1971. “…I can be home with my comics, and I know I’m going to have a nice trip.

Peter Hartlaub is the cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @PeterHartlaub

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