Monday, December 21, 2020

Maybe, sometimes, comics will keep your heart going

I'm not on Facebook as much these days. That, combined with Facebook's truly messed up algorithm, means I didn't find out that Jason Conway died on December 17 until today. Which meant I spent most of this morning absolutely floored. 

For many people in St. John's they knew him as the guy who ran Downtown Comics. My first encounter with Jason was in high school. Jason and I didn't run in the same crowds. I didn't have many friends my first couple of years at Booth and Jason tended to run with the recreational pharmaceutical crowd. But we did share one class together....Grade 11 math.

For dignity's sake, I won't name the teacher. Sometimes you get the teacher that inspires you to be better. Sometimes you get teachers that are meh. And sometimes you get one's who are clearly only doing this for the summer's off and punching the clock until retirement. Welcome to my Grade 11 math class.

It should have been intolerable. He was actively bad at teaching math. But several times a week, this slow, drawing voice would call out from the back of the class...."Sir, should x=3 and not 7?" Or, "Sir, doesn't 50 plus 33 equal 83 and not 88?"

The teacher hated Jason. The rest of the class found it hilarious and we were grateful for the break. Honestly, Jason could have taught that class and I would bet solid money my grade would have been better.

Somehow, through that, Jason and I discovered we were both huge comic book geeks. This was the late 80s so right around when Timemasters opened. And thank God, because the only other place in town to buy new comics was from a bookstore out on Topsail Road run by a real piece of work. But we talked comics, and I sometimes bought books from him because he had an amazing collection. (He grumbled for years about selling me Iron Fist #14, which featured the first appearance of Sabretooth, and Iron Man #55, which featured the first appearance of Thanos).

And that's how it went for a few years...running into each other on and off. Eventually, we also both had the same bright idea....that people would sometimes dump really valuable comics at used bookstores around town (this was when the 90s comic speculator market was insane). Someone would dump a Spawn #1 at Afterwards on Duckworth Street and get a dime for it. Afterwards would sell it for 50 cents (45 cents for me and my student discount card), and then you could go into the Avalon Mall flea market and sell the same comic for $5 or $10.

This was a good racket. We decided to pool resources and share a few tables at the Avalon Mall flea market and for 2-3 years we were in there most Sundays selling comics. We called ourselves Mercs, for our mercenary habit of hunting comics at used bookstores. I had a lot of fun weekends at that flea market. Jason had a dry, laconic sense of humour, and was insanely knowledgeable about comics.

In '96, with the comic book speculator market crashing and me wanting to try and do something to jump start my life, I went to South Korea to teach English. When I came back 9 months later, Jason had opened Downtown Comics in the basement of a building next to Fred's Record's on Duckworth Street. Of the two of us, he made the better choice by far. Although no one saw it that way at the time. Timemasters was just down the road and ruled the roost for comics in town. But Jason saw an opportunity and went for it.

I bought my comics from him until 2005 when Cathy and I moved to Nunavut. But every time I was in town I dropped in to see how he was doing, if he was around, and buy something.

I don't think it's a secret that Jason had mental health issues. And comics can be hard on you. One of the most famous artists in the business, Jack Kirby, is once alleged to have given the following advice to an artist -  "Don't do comics, kid. Comics will break your heart."

Running a comic book store is not an easy gig. There's competition from others stores. The market changes all the time. Back issues used to be huge, but trade paperbacks and digital did a number on that. You're competing with big chains when it comes to toys. And I can't imagine what it was like keeping things going this pandemic year. There was a couple of months this year when major publishers simply didn't put out anything for stores' like Jason's to sell. Keeping that store opened for 23 years was a goddamn miracle.

And yet, the outpouring of grief on the Downtown Comics Facebook page is immense. Hundreds of people expressing sympathy to his daughter and to Wallace Ryan, who has been helping Jason at the store for years now. Many are sharing stories about how Jason sold them their first comic or helped shape their lives by his love of comics.

My first comic book was at a drug store at the Avalon Mall. But for 23 years, kids have walked into that store and that's been their first comic book experience. It must have been overwhelming, seeing so many comics, so many toys and all their heroes in one place. I bet more than one kid was dragged out of there by parents before they had to buy the whole store.

I don't think you do that gig for 23 years just to make a living. There are easier ways of doing things. Sometimes, comics will break your heart, but you keep on loving it anyway. And maybe it loves you back in ways you never expect.

Rest in peace, my friend....