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Television review: Kevin Smith's 'Comic Book Men' know their stuff

AMC heads into the comic book world via Kevin Smith's Secret Stash shop, where staff and visitors alike know what they're talking about, even if it feels staged.

February 11, 2012|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • "Comic Book Men" will feature Walt Flanagan, left, and Mike Zapcic as store clerks in Kevin Smith's reality show set in New Jersey.
"Comic Book Men" will feature Walt Flanagan, left, and Mike… (Dane Potter / AMC )

"Comic Book Men" is a new retail reality show from AMC, a network not commonly associated with reality shows. It is different from other retail reality shows in that it comes from and features Kevin Smith, the movie director and Hollywood refusenik, who owns the Red Bank, N.J., comic book store in which it's set.

And though this adds a kind of cultural legitimacy that networks more deeply invested in such programming find not in the least necessary, it is still basically a nerd version of "Pawn Stars" — as in that show, the proprietors mostly buy things instead of selling them — and has been put together by the same folks who bring you "LA Ink," "The Rachel Zoe Project" and "Swamp People."

Although an open casting call was originally issued seeking men and women who "live and breathe the comic book lifestyle," the series finally was built around people already part of Smith's life or work.

Walt Flanagan, a g-droppin' New Jersey regular guy who has run Smith's Secret Stash since it opened in 1997, and Bryan Johnson, a caustic slacker who hangs out there, have appeared in small parts in several Smith films ("Mallrats," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"). Flanagan also illustrated the Smith-written comic series "Batman: Cacophony." Mike Zapcic is another longtime store employee. Ming Chen works on Smith's online endeavors; press materials describe him as the "go-to whipping boy," and while he is made fun of ("Ming, you look like a donkey wearing a straw hat"), it is actually never funny.

Smith has established a secondary, or perhaps a primary, career as a kind of comic rabble rouser and alt-guru — the question-and-answer periods at his public appearances can last several hours — and his followers may be relied on to peek in.

Those who have been waiting for a show in which the relative sexiness of different Catwomen is discussed without embarrassment will also find themselves at home. When Flanagan, offered a Six Million Dollar Man action figure (with "bionic eye"), declares, "My most cherished memory as a child is sitting down in front of the TV and watching Steve Austin rip off Bigfoot's arm," everyone knows just he what's talking about, and just what he means.

The action in the store is framed by segments representing a "Comic Book Men" podcast, in which Smith takes part. (There is no such podcast, but Smith's Smodcast Internet Radio station does broadcast a show hosted by Chen and Zapcic and another hosted by Flanagan and Johnson.) These sequences are a nice variation on the usual cutaway to a single talking head describing what he or she feels about what just happened.

The cover of a 1940 issue of "Detective Comics" picturing a hypodermic needle leads to a discussion of a 1970s Green Arrow story arc in which the hero's kid sidekick shoots heroin ("It's still shocking to this day when you see Speedy shoving that needle into his arm"), which prompts an examination of the propriety of a superhero smacking sense into an underage sidekick who is not legally in his charge. "Are you allowed to bring Robin in to fight the Penguin and the Joker?" Flanagan rhetorically asks, half-settling the question.

Indeed, these scenes give you a better sense both of the subject matter and the staff than those taped at the shop, where everyone is acting out a role. Much of what goes on there is clearly staged, or at least stage-managed, if not technically "scripted." Still, as in "Pawn Stars," or for that matter, "Antiques Roadshow," there is real pleasure to be had from watching people who know what they're talking about talk about the things they know about. Knowledge is always attractive — even a knowledge of Chucky dolls.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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