City Paper is not for tourists
Full disclosure: I’m sort-of-friends with one of the owners of Big Monkey Comics, in the sense that I’ve been over to his house to play a game in which teensy plastic Batmen fight teensy plastic Jokers. Shut up.
Big Monkey Comics has announced it’s closing its doors. The shop will only be open on the weekends for the rest of the month—-offering 50 percent off everything in the store.
Big Monkey was only the latest incarnation of a nerdly haven with a long—-and much-traveled—-D.C. history. The Monkey, as it was affectionately known, began life over 25 years ago as the comics and collectibles shop Another World, located on P Street NW in Georgetown. In the mid-’90s, feeling upwardly mobile, Another World changed its name to Another Universe and moved a few streets down to M Street near Wisconsin.
In 2002, Another Universe got bought out by Maryland chain Beyond Comics and moved back up Wisconsin Avenue, just below P Street—-essentially across the street from where it began. Three years later, Beyond Comics sold this Wisconsin location to new owners, who promptly changed the name to Big Monkey Comics and moved the store to what would become its final resting place on 14th Street between R and S, above an organic pet-food store.
The store’s recent history is nearly as colorful as the funnybooks it peddled. CP covered the 2006 legal/nominal nerdfight between Big Monkey and local chain Big Planet over adjective use. (The owners of Big Planet, whose Georgetown location was situated just 120 feet from Big Monkey, issued a cease-and-desist order to keep the “Big” out of “Big Monkey.” Further legal action was not taken.) In December of 2007, citing a need to cut costs, Big Monkey’s owners parted ways with the store’s longstanding and much-loved full-time manager. The split was something less than amicable, and resulted in a fair number of customers leaving with him.
Meanwhile, the Monkey stepped up its response to rising rents and the first signs of the economic downturn that would shortly cause even loyal customers to check their spending. Weekly orders were cut. Customers were urged to subscribe in advance to any and all titles they might be interested in. Backlist trade paperbacks, once sold, were not reordered unless specifically requested, and paid for up front. Browsing the increasingly empty shelves grew difficult.
But then, suddenly, several months ago, everything at the Monkey began to change for the better. Owners reorganized the store’s layout and, in so doing, fundamentally reimagined the shop’s organizing principle.
Big Monkey had long had a rep as the D.C.-area shop where an unabashed love for mainstream superhero fare—-Marvel and DC fights-in-tights—-held sway. Fantom emphasized its indie offerings, and Big Planet its tweedy bookstore vibe, but the Monkey was a place that embraced the superhero genre like it was going out of style.
But times had changed, and economics with them, so as far as the Monkey was concerned, it was now time for weekly superhero titles to go out of style. In an effort to turn their empty shelves into a strength, owners collapsed several racks’ worth of single-issue superhero comics into one wall of spandex-clad derring-do. Kid-friendly titles got even more prominent placement. On the now completely empty wire shelves, they set faced-out copies of trade paperbacks with accompanying one-sheet descriptions. These concise, well-written summaries placed each book within the context of what Monkey owners took to calling the “comics canon.”
It may have been a desperate attempt to make empty shelves look more full, but the net effect was impressive. The faced-out books were attractive to the eye, easy to pick up and leaf through, and the accompanying text invited browsing—-and purchasing. Moreover, the books selected for this treatment were a surprisingly diverse, indie-heavy mix.
It felt, to loyal customers like me, like the Monkey had turned a corner. But it was too late.
The comments on the DCist post about the Monkey’s closing are split, at this writing, between some variety of encomium and the predictable carping about comics shops as dank, insular, off-putting dungeons of thwarted male adolescence.
That may be true for some shops, but I’d humbly submit it was never true of the Monkey. Certainly the 14th Street location felt, if anything, like the anti-dungeon, with its bright, open space and friendly, if retina-sizzling, banana-yellow walls. (The shop was both gay-owned and well-decorated. I’m not willing to chalk that up to coincidence.)
Several other commenters have complained about visiting the Monkey on a weekend only to be put off by the spectacle of huge numbers of nerds blocking the shelves and hunching over tables to play a game in which teensy plastic Batmen fight teensy plastic Jokers. I’ve been one of those nerds myself (once again: Shut. Up.) and I gotta say: Yeah, okay, fair point. It’s tough to browse the shelves in peace when a dude with Funyun breath is haranguing his companion about how Aquaman can’t use a park fountain as hindering terrain for line of sight purposes.
Still, I’ll miss the Monkey. Fantom Comics’ Tenleytown location shuttered its doors in the spring, so it just remains for me to decide which of the two remaining D.C. comics shops I’ll visit for my Wednesday fix—-Big Planet in Georgetown and Fantom at Union Station.
As I mull that decision, I’ll wait for Planet Money and Ira Glass to tell me whom to blame for this injustice. I’ve narrowed it down to AIG or the Skrull.