For Want of a Hero #6

"Holy tramvaj Batman, get me the Martian Manhunter": One mere human's prolonged search for a comic book haven amid the cobblestones

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

Once while running down the stairs of the Muzeum metro entrance I caught a passing glimpse of the Justice Society of America. I halted abruptly. There they were assembled, presumably in their moon-base, on a poster inviting me to a techno club. Why the combined might of The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman insisted that I drop 500-crown blueberry rubbing alcohol while the syncopated beats of euro-dance rattled my ribs I will never know. A woman punched by angrily, and I left the low-resolution, dot-matrix poster behind me. Instead, I wish I had ripped down the poster and tacked it on the corkboard above my row of non-comic books.

As with all omens, I never saw the poster again. I suspect it was pulled down for rolling paper or greased under next week's DJ Tweedy-Slade poster. Regardless, it had awakened in me a fearful longing. I had left behind in Columbus, Ohio four comic book shops of decent standing. While they all had my patronage, only Laughing Ogre had my heart.

But Prague has no Laughing Ogre. In Prague the alleys are cluttered with crystal shops, nonstop casinos, and cheap beer. It is an environment more conducive to British lager louts than nerds. My much-mourned Laughing Ogre was now 4,473 miles away. Something had to be done.

Out of desperation I first turned to travel books. There is something distasteful in the very nature of travel guides. A cabal of pasty American or British publishers editing an entire city into an immutable set of recommendations and top picks is a loathsome thing. If Ford Prefect, alien visitor of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, could summarize all of Earth as "mostly harmless," what unseemly acts of simplification have been perpetrated on variegated Prague? Weighing these complaints, I knew sometimes Batman has to tag-team with Talia Al'Ghul, the seductress daughter of an evil criminal mastermind, in pursuit of the greater good. This seemed like one of those times. Soon I had a list of likely bookstores.

Following my list to Wenceslas Square, I bypassed the African immigrants offering marijuana-hashish and elusive Paradise, entered the proper shop, found no comics, and made an awkward exit. I double-checked the sign outside. It still said Knihy, which I had been led to understand was "books." Once past that, there was only a staircase leading to mounds of pornography. Perhaps one of the DVDs contained superhero characters.

Or maybe the whole pornography frontage was just a nerd-test. Only one truly passionate about comics would pass the stack of naked women to discover the inner sanctum. Undoubtedly there was a hidden room dedicated entirely to Lone Wolf & Cub, my personal favorite comic.

In a sealed case, guarded by a laser array, were golden copies of Watchmen and From Hell inked entirely in author Alan Moore's blood. I steeled myself, re-entered, got halfway down the stairs and ran back outside. The porn-guard had given me a suspicious look. Amidst the crowds in this, the center of Prague's New Town, the site of so much history, rebellion, and new beginnings, I suddenly felt very unwelcome.

As I trudged back to tram #11, I half-considered taking the street-haggler up on his Paradise offer. I reasoned that, if the name had any validity, Paradise must have comics.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reading a book without pictures. It was unsatisfying. Then, a fruitful hour changing my computer desktop background to various Superman covers. I settled on All-Star Superman #6. In front of a full moon, Superman contemplates his father's grave.

Krypto, the Superdog, stands loyally by, eager to ease his master's torment. It is both a reminder of the incredible burdens Superman carries and of his humanity. He is both the savior and the son. Jesus beat him to that shtick, but it doesn't change the image's power.

Eventually biological necessity beat brooding nostalgia, and I went out to the grocery store. The entire store window was covered in a Spider-Man mural. On my way in I took it as an insult. I swore at Peter Parker, or this curious Czech doppelganger, for mocking the day's failure and me. On the way out, pockets lined with Kinder chocolates, I read a more hopeful message in his empty, white eyes. Superheroes never give up. Here I was, in Prague, without a comic book for nearly two months. It was bad; it was really bad.

But Spider-Man lost his Uncle Ben and his first love, Gwen Stacey, to maniacal evil. In the face of such adversity I had no right to complain. Sure, newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson gets him down every once in a while with his anti-Spider-Man smear campaign, but Peter Parker always comes back to the mask. Plus, check it out: he's famous, and has his own grocery store mural and everything. To fortify my spirit for the coming trials I ate another three Kinder Buenos (they're stuffed with hazelnut and cream) as I climbed the stairs back to my apartment.

The next morning I caught a lead. An article in The Prague Post about the only dedicated comic-shop in Prague: Comics Centrum. I noted the street it was on, Štěpánská, and set off. Irish pub. Carpet shop. No comic shop. I kept walking. I turned down a side street, thinking perhaps, somehow, the directions were faulty. I found myself at a bagel shop.

I returned with a sidekick the next day. Marching up the same street, I crossed my arms and yawned. He ignored my petulance, so I upped the stakes and groaned, "I've already looked up here." This turned into a healthy debate: who was the sidekick and who the superhero? Certainly I was Batman, since I had done the brunt of the detective work so far. However, Batman would never need to follow Robin as I was following now. We passed the carpet shop I had seen the day before. Wheeling around, we passed it again.

"See there's a passage here," noted my sidekick.

Past the carpet store was a young Asian man. He stood in front of his counter and watched us watching him. If this was Comics Centrum, it was more tobacco shop than dream repository. Two magazine racks spun eerily in the wind coming down the passage. I approached tentatively, fear mounting at the apparently limited selection. The man hustled behind the counter, displaying excellent customer service, but for naught.

"Hey!" my sidekick yelled, "where are you going? It's up here."

Comics Centrum was roughly the size of a broom closet. Half of the room was taken up by an immense dark-wood desk with a computer monitor the size of a solidly built three-year old. A young woman lazily played with the computer keyboard as she ignored our entrance. Instead of a giant Martian Manhunter cutout that might welcome comic book hunters back in the U.S., there was a potted tree. My sidekick and I pushed aside the branches as if stepping into a jungle.

The comics themselves were contained on three bookshelves. Most were of the thick, expensive hardcover variety. Mercifully, there was no temptation to buy because these were all in Czech. On the third shelf were dozens of taped cardboard boxes. Looking for a gesture of approval but finding apathy, I went ahead and lifted a box down to the corner card-table. Each box was packed with English-language back-issues. After an hour of slow sifting I came up with a stack of familiars. Over half of what I was buying I had already read. Two issues I already owned; they were waiting for me in Ohio. There was not the new Ultimates or the most recent Ex Machina. There was just me, blinking in glaring light, purchasing a stack of naked nostalgia. Somehow I had envisioned this as a more noble pursuit.

I read the comics, placed them in my desk drawer, and closed my eyes. Why were these so important? It was just an endless stream of narrative, complete with advertisements. Cheap paper and men in tights is not exactly a romantic image. Even stranger, the hungry ache that had spawned this whole adventure had not abated. It was a feeling I knew from the past. Sometimes when driving at night, in between burning cities and over stretches of black, I would feel a cold eel ball itself in my stomach. I could never tell if the feeling was one of dissatisfaction or reflection. In these moments I would evaluate, coldly. My life would feel like an autopsy before me. Broken down, my mind seemed separate from my identity, and my body would handle the driving, and the eel would tighten. Sitting on a foreign bed in Prague, thinking about comic books, I felt that writhing ice inside. I decided to go out and get the eel drunk.

Down the street was Bar No. 59. The front lobby was all slot machines and darts. I never understood how darts had become a game to be played drunk. Swaying couples narrowly missed vulnerable necks and eyes. We pushed deeper inside.

The wall was covered in Batman murals; someone had hand-painted a series of passionate tableaux. I had entered the truest cathedral in Prague. On one wall was a near recreation of Batman's very first cover. Another seemed obviously inspired by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Entirely without beer, the easiest balm, my anxiety unclenched.

Here was distilled the essence of the superhero. What happens in the narrative, what is canonical, bears little resemblance to Batman of the real world. While I found no comics to satisfy me in the Czech Republic, I had never asked myself why I saw superheroes everywhere.

In Bar 59, Bruce Wayne is a man of the people. Even with the questionable heat-vision Batman possessed in one of the paintings, there was a sense of humanity in his eyes. Swinging, silhouetted against the moon, batarang at the ready, I could see that Batman knew the same cold ache I did. Sitting out on rooftops, watching Gotham constantly crumble in spite of all his efforts, Batman feels that wet ball of existence in his stomach. He knows how sometimes it hurts to just be. And when he saves another kid from another burning building, he knows how it feels to have that same eel unravel and lie peaceful. I don't know if the painter knew what I know about Batman. However, his brush spoke of hope and admiration. On the wall, in bold blues and blacks, was a modern Ulysses.

He had triumphed over odds beyond the human capacity. Yet he was of us.


Comics Culture

Andrew Whalen is in his third year studying English at Hamilton College. He is from Columbus, Ohio.

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