Graphic Novel Friday: I Read Comics at Shopsin's and Survived
While attending Book Expo America 2011 in NYC last week, I made sure to pack plenty of comics and plan a downtime itinerary. One of the items on my to-do list was to finally--finally!--eat at Shopsin’s, the (in)famous, tiny diner located in the Essex Street Market. I loved 2008’s Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin and eating there has become somewhat of an obsession for me. The restaurant is notorious for the fearlessness of its owner/chef, who manages a 900+ item menu and expects his customers to strictly adhere to his rules lest they be kicked out (no substitutions, no pictures, no phones, etc.).
I woke up early to beat the rush and brought a copy of Yeah! by Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez with me to read as I ate. I was the first to be seated that morning, and I nervously followed the lone server to my table (one of the rules forbids diners from seating themselves). I ordered the Nutella Mocha Malt and Crispy Corned Beef Hash and then turned my attention to the comic to avoid inadvertently breaking a rule.
Yeah! opens with a self-effacing introduction by writer Bagge, who states that the book began as a test for him. Bagge set out to create a Comics Code-approved, all-ages title that harkened back to the days of Josie & the Pussycats comics--when female-led titles could be successful without relying on irony or exploitation. Alas, Bagge admits that the Yeah! was a sales failure when it was originally published in single issues by DC Comics in 1999-2000.
Yet this first-ever collection (published by Fantagraphics) made for a fine breakfast companion. The 208 pages of black and white comics star three girls, Krazy, Woo-Hoo, and Honey, as they tour the cosmos in their intergalactic band Yeah!, much to the delight of their adoring alien masses. The trouble is that their efforts and profits do not translate on Earth, where they toil in anonymity. They struggle with creepy managers, poor-paying gigs, rival bands, and day jobs all while lamenting their good fortune in outer-space.
Peter Bagge fans expecting some sort of skewering parody will be disappointed, as it’s all face-value--like a new chapter in a classic Archie comic, and artist Gilbert Hernandez maintains this tone by channeling his inner Dan DeCarlo. Characters are often agape and bug-eyed, with Hernandez economically conveying expressions with trim lines and simple designs--but the cartoonish nature does offset a surprisingly dense read. I finished only the intro and first chapter during my hefty meal at Shopsin’s. There is plenty of text--Bagge’s teenage dialogue is sharp and true--and Hernandez packs humorous details into the corners of panels, rewarding those who linger. Yeah! is a curiosity in the careers of both creators already known for curious endeavors (see Gilbert’s latest, Love from the Shadows, for a far more adult and bewildering read).
At the end of my meal, I overheard Kenny’s son, Zach, yell in the kitchen: “Hey, go tell table number 9…!” but he trailed off and was soon walking towards me. I braced myself.
“I saw you reading comics," he said. We have a s--t ton of them in that box over there. Help yourself.”
Then the server came by and grabbed my plate: “Good job, dude." I had cleaned both my plate and the malt canister--I actually pulled out the straw and tipped back the metal tin to devour every last drop of that ice cream goodness. What sort of alternate-reality Shopsin’s had I entered that morning, where the server was complimentary and the chefs were giving away comics with a smile? Anyone who has read Eat Me will know that underneath the gruff reputation, Shopsin’s is really about something greater than a huge menu of delicious food: it’s about family. I exhaled and thanked them both. The food, of course, was stellar--unlike any breakfast meal I’d had before--and as I exited the diner, I made sure to grab an issue of Hellblazer out of the box that did indeed hold a “s--t ton” of comics. Maybe it was the chipper attitude of Yeah!, the bellyful of corned beef, or the elation of making it through the entire meal without a scolding, but I walked back to my hotel feeling as part of the Shopsin’s family for a quick moment. I will be back as soon as I can to try their pancakes, and I promise to bring a comic or two to add to the box for another lucky customer.
P.S. For more on Shopsin's, see also the documentary I Like Killing Flies, which takes viewers inside the diner and the lives of its owners and customers.