Comic Relief may have been the best comic bookstore in the world. It was well-stocked with the latest graphic novels, local mini-comics, and vintage comic books; it was spacious; and it was internationally renowned. But the ultimate proof is that, since closing earlier this year, Comic Relief has spawned not one but two near-simultaneous sequels: first Escapist Comics, with Comic Relief's stock, the store cats, and a whole lot of former employees; then Fantastic Comics, with the roomy brick-and-mortar Shattuck location and another former employee running the show.
On a recent summery Sunday, the cozy Escapist (3090 Claremont Ave., Berkeley) was sparsely trafficked but impressively stocked with everything from The New Yorker (read it for the cartoons!) to Dragonball Z. Employees were as willing to untangle superhero timelines with a ten-year-old shopper as they were to help a grown woman recall the name of the creator of Hopeless Savages (it's Jen Van Meter). The combination of less space and Escapist's location on a leafy Elmwood street make for a much different vibe than once enjoyed by Comic Relief. It feels more akin to an antiquarian bookshop or a private library than a bustling downtown emporium. (Plus, as one employee whispered: "No bums.")
"The name is a double entendre — both the literal meaning and an homage to Michael Chabon's character the Escapist," said Jack Rems, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Jay Sheckley. The pair also run science-fiction/fantasy/mystery bookstore Dark Carnival next door. "Dark Carnival, similarly, was both a cool and suggestive name for a cabinet of literary wonders and the name of Ray Bradbury's first book. And both names are resonant with circus imagery, magicians and magic, worlds of wonders and tawdry show business."
Rems and Sheckley were friends of Comic Relief's late founder, Rory Root. The two stores also had an employee in common: Jim Friel, who worked at Dark Carnival three days a week and at Comic Relief two. "Jim was devoted to Comic Relief," said Rems, "and like many people was involved in the many fervent efforts to save that store during Rory's lifetime and afterward." Those efforts included Dark Carnival's unsuccessful attempt to take over Comic Relief's financials. After the store's closure in March, they made an offer on the stock and the fixtures; the offer was accepted, and Escapist was born two doors down from Dark Carnival.
"Rory Root was a huge part of what made Comic Relief so great," said Friel, who now works at Escapist full-time. "Not just his personality ... but the big idea that he had, which I think transcended him: the comic shop as a bookstore."
"None of us is Rory," Friel admitted. "But Jack Rems is in his own way as formidable a figure, the kind of guy that publishers' reps ask for advice. I hesitate to call him a mad genius, but he's been running a science fiction store for 35 years — and he's not merely still in business, he's just undertaken this project as well."
"It's exciting to see how much people love the new store," said Rems, who also wished fellow upstart Fantastic Comics nothing but the best. "They like the neighborhood, they like the free parking. They love finding things they didn't know were available. Our stock and buying style melds perfectly with what Rory was trying to build. It's scary, certainly, but equally every day is thrilling.
"As my wife says: We don't really own the bookstores," he added. "They own us." 510-652-6642 or EscapistComics.com