Asbury Park, like Nebraska, tends to get a bad image from Bruce Springsteen. Just as Nebraska hasn’t produced many serial killers since Starkweather, Asbury Park has revitalized itself since the Boss sang about The Fourth of July.
But amongst the new constuction along the shore, it has kept some of that outsider charm, and that’s why it was a great place to hold a comic con.
Aside from tourbus visits to Atlantic City (where we never ventured from the casinos or boardwalk), I haven’t ventured very far into New Jersey. But Cliff Gailbraith decided to host a comics convention in a bowling alley not too far from the boardwalk in Asbury Park, and that was all the excuse this peripatetic explorer and comics fan needed to venture down the Jersey Shore!
After some stupid mistakes with Jersey Transit, I arrived at Asbury Park at about 1 PM. On the ride down a gaggle of teenagers was talking about Asbury Park, how dicey it was after night. But the city is rebirthing itself, and while there are many empty grassy lots surrounded by glittering chain link fencing, there is also a lot of new construction. I’ve lived in downtown Washington, DC; I’ve been a minority in minority neighborhoods of New York City. My “street smarts” radar never once activated. It was a pleasant stroll, both in the afternoon, and at eight o’clock at night.
The bowling alley… is a living-history museum from 1963. The big plastic booths for bowlers still exist, and the interior hasn’t changed much since it first opened. Aside from a stage set up over the middle lanes, the rest were pristine, and off limits to tables and street shoes. The show itself was set up in the public area behind the foul lines, creating an intimate experience.
How intimate? Thirty-five tables. Michael Carbonero had a large booth featuring all sorts of cool collectibles, as did The Comic Book Shop! of Wilmington, Delaware. The Artist (bowling) Alley occupied the performance stage, and while the quantity was small, the quality was spectacular! Jamal Igle! Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer! Steve Mannion! Stephanie Buscema! The comic book philosophers Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente had the table right next to the entrance (Fred was working on a late afternoon tan as the sun streamed through the doors), right next to Cliff “Rat Bastard” Gailbraith. (That’s the name of his comic. Cliff’s a great guy!)
How awesome was this show? Well, there was a 1960s Batmobile parked outside for photographs, along with a Romero Joker (not to be confused with a Romero zombie, or with Tillie), and “props” from the TV show. Did I mention the Con was housed in a 1963 bowling alley? Folks, it only got better! Talking with Cliff after getting wristbanded, a gentleman picked up some portfolios from Cliff’s table. They contained 1970s production artwork from DC Comics, including some nice Garcia-Lopez designs. What was the provenance? The current owner of the artwork was employed by Bantam publishing, which shared the same office building as DC back then . This gentleman worked in Bantam’s design department, and had a relationship with DC’s design staff.
As a collector of ephemeral comics, I found some fun stuff. Robert Bruce had an extensive selection of underground comics (Arcade #1, for example) and various magazines, as well as a plethora of toys. (I suggested he should make a poster of his class toy case filled with all sorts of strange toy figures!) However, C2E2, MoCCA, and rent had severely dented my discretionary spending, so I only bought a copy of The Comics Journal #87, with a cover by Don Rosa. (The cover article was also good. I wonder who wrote it?)
Another dealer had some PSA comics from the 1950s, so I added those to my collection. Then there was a dollar bin, where I found a copy of the Marvel/WiredKids Internet safety comic from 2005. (May “Spider-Girl” Parker downloads a virus, and her superhero address book gets hacked.) There were also some 1970s Shazam! comics, and Denny O’Neil is definitely worth a dollar! I bought Shazam #2, because it was a photo AND infinity cover, and it took place in St. Louis! (I didn’t buy more… I know they have been reprinted.)
The Comics Shop! had $3 bins, which I treat like a dollar bin : if the cover is interesting and the comic is old enough, I’ll take a chance! I only found a few… but over in the graphic novel bins there was a copy of “Taskmaster: Unthinkable” at half price! So while I served as a sunshade, Mr. Van Lente signed the book, which is not only a rollicking story (just wait ’til you see what he did with Hitler’s brain!), but a great superhero story. I’d love to see it on the big screen! While at the booth, Ryan Dunlavey had an advance copy of “Dirt Candy: A Cookbook”, which is a graphic novel cookbook due to be published in August. (I’m a big non-fiction comics aficionado…and can’t figure out why there haven’t been more comics cookbooks on the market!)
So after about two hours, I was done. The weather was fantastic, so I explored the boardwalk. The Paramount Theater was renovated into a modern shopping arcade (much like the South Street Seaport, but not as commercialized). The local convention space is also here, and it looks like the APCC will move here next year with more space and tables! An old Howard Johnson’s restaurant had been preserved, which contrasts with the 1930 Paramount Theater nearby.
Further along the boardwalk are new developments, containing small businesses which cater to the beach trade. Of particular interest is the Silver Ball Museum. I discovered it due to the kiddie rides outside (only fifty cents!) When I walked inside, I found a room filled wall-to-wall with pinball machines, all set to free play! Alas, admission costs $10 for an hour, and my budget was much too tight. (Either play pinball, or eat and drink.) A full list with game biographies can be found here.
The boardwalk has some empty lots, but the area is being developed and renovated, and there were quite a few people strolling, and a few people suntanning. (Would anyone have said anything if Patricia Krentcil had taken her daughter to the beach?) It’s a lot like Coney Island (without the rides), with the more interesting attractions featured at the bars and lounges along Ocean Avenue. (Even the Asbury Lanes bowling alley is a venue, with a burlesque show scheduled the evening after the Comic Con.)
So after getting some sun along the shore, I returned to the Con. I figured I’d read some of my new acquisitions, while cooling off with some cold Woodchuck Cider. (Hey, it’s a bowling alley! Of course there’s a bar! Is this the first comic con with a bar con in the same room?) Like all good bar cons, I was soon involved in conversation with other fans. One couple had met while serving in Germany (after Afghanistan) as part of a PATRIOT missile crew. He was now employed at Teeterboro airport, and she was working on a magnetic-based artificial muscle. She enjoyed naughty comics, and talking about XXXenophile led to Girl Genius, steampunk, and science fiction in general. I evangelized some comics she might enjoy, but the conversation was more general and inconsequential, like most bars. Another gentleman was a musician, and currently a producer.
We hung out until Six, when the show closed. Since I have a Midwestern work ethic, I offered to help, but everything was mostly under control and done by 6:30. The afterparty was held at Pizza Porta, a gourmet pizzaria/restaurant nearby. The pizzas were quite large for one person, so I opted for the Formagii e Salumi, a selection of cheeses and meat. Great conversation and great food, a perfect ending to a perfect day.
The organizers seemed happy with the attendance (I noticed a steady stream throughout the day; the $5 admission fee seemed to be affordable to locals). The exhibitors seemed happy with sales. There’s talk there might be one more show next Fall at Asbury Lanes before the show moves to the larger Convention Hall on the boardwalk. I hope they can keep the Asbury Lanes as part of the show, perhaps as a green room or as a venue for evening entertainment. It’s a great place (cheap food, cheap beer, with comics!) and worth another visit.
Whenever the next show is scheduled, I recommend a visit. The train is a bit challenging (trains every two hours) but affordable. The boardwalk and local scene offers distractions and destinations, some quite swanky. It’s a great excuse to escape The City and have some fun (and buy some comics!)