Off the Clock
Michael Scelfo on Comics
5.1.15 | Issue #16
In this column, we highlight the other loves of industry folk
in order to glimpse who they are when they're off the clock.
Comics have always played this weird, important role at certain times in my life. They’ve been integral to big things happening to me.
I started collecting them when I was eight or nine years old. They used to be on these little spinner racks at like, 7-11, and I remember seeing them and being caught by the visuals. The four-color scheme and the heroes and all that. It wasn’t as big a deal then as it is now, with the movies and the whole pop culture segment devoted to it. Then, it was a nerdy subculture thing, and that’s how I got into it. I just started buying them, at 60 or 75 cents apiece, and went for the covers that looked badass to me. Justice Society of America, and a lot of DC stuff. I didn’t even read them at first, honestly. I just would flip through them and look at the pictures. It was all about the art for me.
I don’t know how it took off from there, but I realized you could go to specialty stores where they sold only this stuff. When you go into a comic shop, there’s inevitably golden age and silver age stuff hanging on the walls, and everything is treated with such care. When you discover a place like that, you’re going to find the most passionate people. Everyone in there is a collector and totally into it. I got really obsessed with the Avengers, and started buying the individual books...I liked to buy the team books, because those gave you the most superhero bang for your buck, you know what I mean? They were all in there. On a lawn-mower salary, when you’re nine years old, you want to get as many superheroes into this fucker as you can. So Avengers and Justice League were the way to go.
In the summer of ‘86, we had a house fire. We were living in Missouri at the time, and we literally lost everything down to the shirts on our backs. I woke up in the middle of the night and smelled the smoke. I was the one who got everyone up, and out of the house, and got wet towels for everybody. The next day it was like this whole boy-hero thing. I was on the news. A few days later, we went back, to look over the aftermath, and I remember being so bummed because of my comics. I found them in a pile, and went to pick them up—and they were all in plastic bags—and they all came up in one piece. The plastic had all melted together, so rows and rows of them came up in a giant plastic waterlogged brick.
It was this very powerful thing. It was like, this is what it feels like to lose all your material stuff, but at the same time you see that that shit doesn’t really matter or mean anything. It was one of those catalysts in your life that sets you on a different path and shapes who you become, for better and worse. It puts things like burgers and tacos in perspective, for sure.
After all the adult stuff got sorted out, there must have been an insurance claim, because just before we moved to California, my parents took me to a comic book shop, and said, “Go get your collection back.” I’ll never forget it. It was the kind of thing you dream of. I was like, “How many do I get?” and they said, “Get em all. Get em all back.” They must have spent hundreds of dollars. I walked away with giant boxes of comics.
We moved to L.A., and I continued to collect them and got more and more serious about the stories. I got into the indie stuff in high school, and it became less about the artists and more about the writers for me. To this day, I’m really passionate about the writing. A good story can trump any visual in that book. It could be stick figures, but if that story is really good? That’s what is going to take you there. The combination is amazing, but it’s about the words on the page for me now.
When I was 18 or 19 years old, I had my first car. Since I didn’t understand the value of a buck, and all that, I hocked all my comic books to put the money into my car. I think I got like, $800 or $900 for em. It was a big collection at that point...my parents were like, don’t do this, you’re going to regret this, you’re not thinking. And I did it. Just dumb, egotistical, pushing 20-year old kid just did it, and got rid of them all. The car literally died a year later and I had nothing left. It finally dawned on me how important these things actually were to me, and I had just hocked them off.
After that, I got away from it, for years. Eventually, I came back.
Ever since then, I’ve binged. Every few years, I’ll go through a hardcore bout and I’ll read stacks and stacks and stacks and immerse myself. But then I’ll go dry for awhile, and won’t read anything. I’ve gotten more passionate about the nostalgia part of the collecting; a few years ago, I set out to find the ones that I got off that original spinner rack. I remember the covers, vividly, because those were the first books I ever bought. I ended up finding them for a buck or two. My boys are into it now, and it’s the same for them as it was for me at that age. They’re not reading them, they’re consumed with the cool pictures. I know at some point they’ll come around and start reading them, and when they do, then I’ll be able to be like, Hey. Here’s The Dark Knight. I’ll put something over on them that’s really important, like Watchmen or something, when the time is right. Something that is going to knock their socks off when they’re ready to really read something that will blow their fuckin’ minds. I’m waiting for that, because that’s when it’s going to get really exciting for me.
If you called me up and said you were looking to get into comics, the first thing I would tell you to grab is this book called Essex County by Jeff Lemire. It’s this small story that follows a few generations out in the country in Middle America. It’s a great emotional read. Saga is another one that I really like, and is something that’s really current and happening right now. Then for classic superhero stuff, I think everyone should read The Watchmen or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight or Daredevil, any of that stuff. That’ll get you hooked on some content that pushes it a little bit, that was way ahead of its time. That’s the kind of stuff that I like to get people to read first. Then if you want to get into the bang-pow explosion, bubblegum comic type stuff, that’s fun too. But good stuff first.
It’s always been a part of my life. It’s always been there as this escape that had nothing to do with food culture or that whole world. I think it’s huge to have something like that. The amount of time that we spend away from our families, consumed with the job and everybody else...the past couple of years have been eye-opening for me. Going through the process of getting [Alden & Harlow] open—it’s not really about me anymore. Now with Naco, and a third place coming, there’s well over 100 people that look to me now to take care of things. And then to have a family that kinda enjoys your company? You know, and doesn’t mind spending time with you every now and then? Trying to juggle all that is pretty challenging. To carve out an hour for myself to play a video game or read a comic book is a silly challenge, but sometimes weeks will go by and I won’t even have an hour.
Make the time if you can get it, I’d say, and try and do something or be with someone you enjoy. That’s the only thing that will get you through.
Michael Scelfo is the chef/owner of Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of the forthcoming taco joint Naco, and of a third, unnamed project in the works.