I traveled to New York City recently to cover the International Toy Fair, an event where creators of toys and games meet with buyers of all sizes to attempt to get their products into stores. Just covering this event sort of sets me apart from others that trek to the Big Apple, but I’m further set apart well because of what I like and the lengths to which I’ll go to investigate the things I’m a fan of. So, what’s a geek do in New York City? Well, pretty much what anyone else visiting for the first time does, just with a geeky spin on it.
Sure after spending several days playing with toys at the Toy Fair I planned to see Chinatown and the Empire State building, but I also had to find Midtown Comics. When I visit a city that I’ve never been to, if at all possible, I have to try and find that area’s comic book shop. It’s just a requirement, OK? Well Midtown Comics is special because this is one of the few stores that fans have actually heard of that aren’t in the city. The store is successful enough that it has actually been able to advertise in major comics-related publications and in high profile comics. Most comic book shops are mom and pop style and exist on shoe string budgets, so they can’t afford to do big time advertising. People generally know about these stores just by word of mouth or maybe by some local advertising.
Midtown Comics doesn’t disappoint. It’s a large store, sort of split level in design with the main floor featuring graphic novels, games, and action figures, and the second floor focused on t-shirts and bin after bin of bagged comics. Stepping into the store brings forth the good and bad of a great comic book shop. That familiar musty smell of old comics is there in full force, but the store is also a successful retail establishment so unlike many stores of this type it’s organized and clean. In order to get inside the store you have to climb a set of narrow steps, making the whole thing feel sort of back alley, which is kind of exciting and fun. Entering the store reminded me of the old days of finding that really great hole in the wall music shop that was full of hard to find independent music, sometimes even on LP! The whole independent feel of getting into the place is not only fitting but appreciated, if only there were a few more home brew comics on the shelves (that’s a whole other article). A Wal-Mart style street sign and entrance to a place like this would have just simply been depressing.
Many comic book shops have diversified what they do in order to stay profitable, usually by bringing in videogames or tabletop games, but Midtown Comics is still simply a hardcore comic book fans shop. I will say that I was disappointed a little at the lack of super unique finds in the store. Yes, Diamond Select toys were available in full force and the expected mini mates were all on display with the squashed head X-Men still making me laugh. Come on, the Wolverine figure looks like it has been tapped on the head with a rubber mallet. That’s funny, it really is. There were also stickers, buttons, and bookmarks all tied to comic books and fandom pop culture. What I love to find though are those super unique things that you just don’t see in chain stores or in every other comic book shop. What I can say though is that the selection of typical comic book fan obsessions was as deep as I have ever seen in any shop I’ve been too. In other words, that extremely busty Wonder Woman bust you saw in the Previews catalog will most assuredly be available at the store rather than you ordering it waiting for super endowed heroine to be ordered by another store.
A quick visit to Times Square at night can be a fairly dizzying affair. It’s one of only maybe two places in the world I can think of where people come to literally take pictures of advertising. Sure the LED displays are quite impressive, but they are still ads for movies, food, clothes, cars, and other wallet-draining wares. I don’t mean to be overly negative though because it is pretty amazing that this area of the city is so bright at midnight that you feel like you’re walking around in the middle of the afternoon. I took plenty of pictures of those ads myself, come on the car in that Buick ad was actually twice the size of the real car!
Hitting Times Square at that time of night on a Saturday is, to put it mildly, a unique experience. There’s apparently a fantastic barbecue place in the area based on the smell because that’s the first scent that hit my nose entering the area and it stayed with me throughout my walk. The radical pace of the people, both local and tourists, is something to settle into but once you’re there it’s kind of rhythmic and easy to stay with, just move fast. I like to walk, and I walk fast, so in a strange way I felt at home here. It is sensory overload there with the food, the sea of people, the constant peddlers attempting to provide you with that one trinket you just can’t leave the city without, and the hucksters coaxing you into their establishment to see the comedy show with dueling pianos. But remember, I am geek, so what stood out? The marquee sign for the Spider-Man live Broadway show called Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Of course the geek in me was somewhat curious to see the travesty that this show has to be and the daredevil in me had me wanting to sit in the audience and see if I’d have to dodge a falling set piece or some other disaster during the performance. The frugal side of me won out though when I checked the ticket prices so that show was a no go. It was still satisfying to see Spidey up there alongside Mary Poppins and all the other Broadway shows lighting up the sidewalk.
No visit to New York would be complete without a visit to Chinatown. There’s a ton of cheap t-shirts, jewelry, snow globes, scarfs, and other typical tourist trap type goods literally pouring out of stores onto the streets. The eagle-eyed geek can easily spot Captain America and Spider-Man shirts in nearly every store, whatever the popular geek movie there is you can find a cheap t-shirt for it in Chinatown, along with knock off watches, handbags, and perfumes. Out of the mosaic of this and that, between the statue of liberty coin banks and the I love New York ball caps, where did I stop? The obvious answer is a small table overflowing with bins of comic books. The seller was proud to show me his bin labeled Marvel Comics #1’s which featured Action Comics, Justice League, and Green Lantern. There were actually some Marvel Comics in the bin and they were #1’s, but they were first issues of story arcs that were just a few months old. He wanted $2.00 each. I couldn’t help wondering if he had picked these comics up from the Midtown Comics $.25 bins. These comics were even bagged and boarded. I wondered if the guy would whip out some cups and play the shell game with me for his Silver Surfer #1.
There are other comic book shops, notably Forbidden Planet, arcades, and of course if you’re going full on geek tourist there’s a pretty great planetarium, several notable museums, and even a couple of arcades. There are other types of geekdom out there including sports geeks, which New York also has a lot to offer to, and food geeks. I don’t follow sports, but I do follow food (then I catch it and I have to go to the gym a lot) and was lucky enough to be introduced to some spectacular restaurants. To give most of the places I was lucky enough to visit a try you’ll need some deep pockets but if you’re a food geek then you already know this. New York is known for pizza. Ironically I had some really mediocre pizza in Little Italy. The best pizza I tried, and the best pizza I’ve ever had, I discovered in a little 90-minute detour to New Haven Connecticut. [Editor's Note: For shame!!! Next time, come to Brooklyn for the best pizza in land.] The place is called Frank Peppe’s Pizza and if you go, order the white pie. Tuna Tar Tar at the Gotham Grill and anything at Sushi of Gari are also outstanding in Manhattan.
I did catch some touristy things, but I was lucky to hit the ground running with a local so I experienced the city in a way that most first timers don’t. I didn’t go to the Cake Boss bakery for my pastry, I went to Veniero’s, a small local Italian pastry place in the East Village that’s been around since 1894. There I had the best bear claw I’ve ever had and I was taught how New Yorkers eat a potentially messy item and keep their clothes clean. As much as I loved throwing Frisbees and playing with remote controlled helicopters (and damn, I really loved that) at Toy Fair 2012, I’d loved to have had more time to get geeky with NYC because I only scratched the surface of what my people do in the city that never sleeps.