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As Variety Comics Closes, 1 Hour Inside Beloved Shop Saved for Posterity

By Patty Wetli | October 30, 2015 5:11pm | Updated on November 2, 2015 9:29am
 Variety Comics, 4602 N. Western Ave.
Variety Comics, 4602 N. Western Ave.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — After opening in summer 1974, Variety Comics is closing its doors for good on Saturday, and with the store's passing a little piece of history would be lost if not for a pair of fanboys' efforts.

Imran Javed, a graphics designer and comics collector, couldn't let the shop's story fade away. So he convinced his podcasting partner, Anthony Krzyzak, to agree to a major departure from their typical recordings.

Instead of chatting about TV, movies and comics like they normally do, the two took their show on location to Variety, 4602 N. Western Ave., where they hung out with the people who have shopped at, worked in, owned and loved the store for decades.

Originally Javed intended to conduct interviews in the improvised "studio" set up in his Lincoln Square apartment, but after popping into Variety he realized the store itself was a character.

"It's like time has not moved there in 40 years," he said. "I love places like that ... but they're starting to go extinct."

The resulting hour-long episode of "The Jock and Nerd" podcast — Javed's the "nerd" to Krzyzak's "jock" — plays like a love letter to what Javed called "a dying breed."

"People forget these stores used to be just about comics," not T-shirts, toys and games, he said.

The goal of the podcast is "to preserve some of the store and some of the memories," Javed says at the beginning of the recording.

Hear Victor Olivarez, who took over the shop with Vin Nguyen when long-time owner Rick Vitone passed away in 2009, talk about the days when the comics store was half its current size, before it expanded into what was once a neighboring beauty shop.

Listen to Nguyen confess that he was drawn to Variety not for the Batman or Superman comics but rather its display of Pokemon.

Read more about Variety Comics' history and its decision to close

"I've never bought a single comic book in my life," Nguyen tells the Jock and Nerd.

Mike Dennler, who started shopping at Variety in the early '80s, shares how he and Vitone bonded over their mutual love of "Archie" comics.

"Rick's father used to give him money .... He'd say, 'What do you want with those joke books?'" Dennler recalls.

Javed himself has been addicted to those "joke books" for as long as he can remember and began seriously collecting in the mid-'80s as a tween.

"I liked Spider-Man before I could read," he said. "He's so relatable, he's so everyone."

Growing up on Devon Avenue, the son of immigrants from Pakistan, Javed would jump on his bike and ride to one of any number of comics shops.

"I just remember them everywhere," he said. "There were lots of stores, none of which are still around."

In the podcast, Nguyen says popular issues of a comics series used to sell in the millions, a figure that's more like 100,000 these days.

"Fans of these superheroes [movies] are not even reading comic books," Javed said. "They don't even know the comics still exist."

The comics culture, which can seem daunting to the uninitiated, is partly to blame, he admitted.

Newcomers either walk into a store and see issue #694 of a series and wonder how they could possibly catch up, or they never get past the front door of a shop like Variety because it looks too much like "one of those secret places you go only if you're in the know," Javed said.

What they're missing out on is what Javed considers "the best form of storytelling."

"All the way back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, those are just little comic strips," he said.

The medium combines what Javed called the "theater of the mind," inner monologues via thought bubbles and a reader's own sense of pacing.

Delving into the creative process behind comics and other forms of art has become an increasing focus of "The Jock and Nerd," which debuted less than a year ago. The podcast grew out of conversations Javed and Krzyzak, who are co-workers, would have while making weekly runs to the comics store on Wednesday release days.

"We would talk about TV shows and comics and have these great discussions in the car," Javed recalled. "One day he was like, 'Dude, we should do a podcast.'"

Two weeks later Javed, who has a background not only in design but also sound mixing and music, had purchased all the necessary equipment and was ready to record.

Initially they simply reviewed shows like "The Flash" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," but have now "baby-stepped our way up to guests," he said.

A fair number of interviewees are former classmates of Javed's from the Pratt Institute — people like director Erik Sharkey whose documentary, "Drew: The Man Behind the Poster," tells the story of Drew Struzan, the artist responsible for the "Star Wars" movie posters among others.

Tune in to the next episode of "The Jock and Nerd" to hear Sharkey talk about his newest film, "Floyd Norman: An Animated Life," the trailer for which was a fan favorite when it debuted at Comic-Con. Norman was the first African-American hired at Walt Disney, and his career as an animator spans films from "The Jungle Book" to "Toy Story 2."

In a digital age where readers would rather scroll through a comic on an iPad than hold a paper copy in their hands, introducing listeners to artists like Norman and shops like Variety is one way for Javed to maintain a link between comics' past and its future.

"I still love the art, it's such a human hand-drawn art," he said of comics. "All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil and your imagination. It always starts with a sketch."

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