Saturday, February 14, 2015

REQUIEM FOR A COMIC SHOP or THE MAGUS OF MIDDLE TENNESSEE

The former site of CENTAUR BOOKS AND COMICS.


I was six years old when I first started reading comics, and they came from grocery store spinner racks.

It was a haphazard method of picking comics; very often they were chosen at random by my parents, or older siblings. It was a mix of known standards like Spider-Man or Richie Rich and licensed properties like GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS. Archie was another favorite, with his bell-bottoms and other left-over fashions from the late seventies.

At a certain point, around age ten, my interest in comics was not only expanding in intensity and volume, but also in specificity. I understood that some comics were better than others. I turned ten in 1986, and if you know anything about comics, that year will strike a chord. If you were young and impressionable, and your tastes were being molded, 1986 was a year that took that mold and lovingly attacked it with an over-sized wrench. The comics I had read just a year before were no longer going to make the cut. Everything was changing, and even in rural Tennessee, in the days before the internet, it was obvious that the grocery store spinner rack was no longer representing the high-water mark for comics as an art form.

Meanwhile, one town over, there was a comic shop. It was thirty or forty minutes away, and situated in a truly depressing strip of commercial real estate in the center of town. It had no distinguishing characteristics, and the sign was barely visible from the street. You had to know it was there. Inside, there were piles of strange paperbacks and used books with faded spines stacked everywhere. The comic selection was perfectly respectable, but it was an afterthought, hastily thrown into displays in the front of the store. The back end of the space was lit with a single fluorescent bulb, and the walls were floor to ceiling shelves of disorganized fantasy novels, and books about secret societies and the occult. It was like heaven, and it was casually called CENTAUR.

Like many a young person who is excited about pop culture, I had older friends with eclectic tastes, and I took their suggestions and advice with religious dedication. It was through them that I was introduced to CEREBUS, HEAVY METAL, DREADSTAR, FLAMING CARROT, DALGODA, and a particularly grim series called TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. All those and many more were available only at Centaur, and the few times I was allowed in there in my pre-adolescence (my parents were disgusted and mortified by it) I dug through the stacks and long-boxes of back issues like a crazed groundhog rooting out a burrow.

I read this when I was ten years old. The religious satire was not subtle and it terrified me.

The owner (manager? it was never clear) was a bearded man in an over-sized flannel shirt named R.T. He was impatient, surly, and pretentious, and by age twelve I thought he was the greatest guy on earth. While I had only a few fleeting interactions with him, my friend Garry spent many hours in that store, being sold copies of  the ILLUMINATI! trilogy, and listening to conspiracy theories. Garry was lucky enough to subscribe to R.T.'s mimeographed newsletter, which was a mix of "new releases" from Eclipse and Pacific Comics, and news from the world of psycho-magik research.

A telling selection of books R.T. compiled on his website. Image yanked from http://www.dbr.nu/books/AbsoluteElsewhere/intro.htm


The story of Centaur Books & Comics is a familiar one; it was sold to (well meaning) nerds who turned it into Centaur Books & Games, all the weird esoterica was liquidated (or thrown out) to make room for Role-playing Games and RPG paraphernalia, and there was a mighty boom and bust in the 1990s comic book collectors market that killed thousands of comic shops dead. Centaur rests in that graveyard.

That part of the story is sad, but not notable. The interesting part is revealed 20 years later.

Recently, I was in Tennessee visiting my family, and my bride and I took a trip to see the aforementioned Garry. While reminiscing about the forces that shaped us, Garry mentioned that a casual google search had recently proven that R.T., now deceased, was apparently a figure of some note in the nascent days of the internet, among devotees of mysticism, conspiracy theorists, and fans of occult, fringe, and visionary literature. The fact that he owned one of the few comic specialty shops in the southeast was barely a footnote.

Even stranger, admirers of his have managed to recreate or otherwise preserve his early internet writings. Several sites cite and reference his influence, and by all accounts he loomed just as large on metaphysics oriented Usenet groups and Geocities pages as he did in my developing comic tastes. Some of his writings are still out there today, and if anyone manages to come across them (like I did recently, on Garry's suggestion), R.T.s influence is still alive, and still creeping people out. (See links below!)

This was a man who grunted approvingly when I bought Moebius translations, and rolled his eyes behind filthy coke-bottle glasses when I plunked down CLASSIC X-MEN. His particular brand of snobbery infected my brain like the bug that Khan put in Chekov's ear.

He mentored Garry into a world of weird pulp fiction, including Lovecraft, Derleth, and Robert Howard. He sold him on the world of 1970s and 1980s psychotropic sci-fi, and suggested comics that were part of the wildly important self-publishing movement of the day. This was then filtered down to me, occasionally through my cousin, who added his own twists, inspired by deep cut prog-rock and sword-and-sorcery fiction. It all circles that little shop like comets.

Reading about R.T. now, it astonishes me that someone (who could be seen as an over-educated trust funder with an inexplicable love for tarot cards) that passed through jobs with very little interest and laying down few roots, could be such a massive influence on the lives of so many people. He was like Johnny Appleseed, except instead of planting trees (stupid), he left an obsession with weird shit in adolescent brains. I am quite sure he had no idea what he was accomplishing, and I'm doubly sure he wouldn't give a fuck.

RELEVANT LINKS:
The Life and Times of R.T. Gault
The Quixotic Dialectical Metaphysical Manifesto
Absolute Elsewhere: Fantastic, Visionary, and Esoteric Literature in the 1960s and 1970s

UPDATE 3/1:

Garry details his memories of CENTAUR and RT Gault here:  http://the-southcumberland-reader.blogspot.com/2015/02/to-mountains-of-madness-there-back.html

I recommend it highly.