Because she grew up reading comic books, Jessica Pruett-Barnett is no stranger to fantasy. But certain twists in life have exceeded her own wildest imaginings. Never in a million years, for example, did this Manhattan resident expect to appear on a reality TV show in New Jersey.
Yet on a rainy November morning in downtown Red Bank, she was preparing to do just that. “Pretty crazy,” she said, standing outside the front door of Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, the comic-book store launched in 1997 by Kevin Smith, the far-out film director, himself known for capturing odd scenarios in cult hits like Clerks and Dogma.
Smith’s shop is the setting for Comic Book Men, a new show on AMC, the network behind the highly regarded series Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and The Killing. Comic Book Men premieres February 12, after the return of The Walking Dead.
Pruett-Barnett’s role—she appears in just one episode—involved lugging a box of collectible comics the size of a microwave oven to the store, where she hoped to turn the comics into cash. The collection was a gift from her father; her motivation to let it go to the three guys behind the counter—Smith’s buddies Walt Flanagan, Michael Zapcic and Ming Chen, the show’s main characters alongside another Smith friend, Bryan Johnson—was nothing unusual. She needed the money for college tuition.
Nice-guy Flanagan, a comic savant and Secret Stash’s longtime manager, explained to Pruett-Barnett that her collection might be more valuable than she realized. Does the deal go down? We’re not telling.
A lot of deals do go down at Secret Stash, a mecca for old-school Marvel and DC comics as well as memorabilia from Smith’s movies. There is also weird stuff like giant Kiss band-member dolls in faded boxes.
The premise for Comic Book Men is similar to the History Channel’s Pawn Stars. People come in with dusty superhero- or villain-emblazoned treasures from the attic and try to get the best price.
Those who tune in won’t be seeing much of Smith in the show. He grew up in Red Bank but now lives in Los Angeles. Still, Smith is pleased to be part of a made-in-New-Jersey reality series that he can relate to. “I’ll be able to turn on the TV out in L.A. and watch my friends and see the real Jersey,” he says. “Not that other Jersey, not the housewives, not the Shore. Just normal Jersey dudes and their comics.”
Smith did return to Red Bank in mid-November to record episodes of what is described as a podcast with Flanagan, Zapcic, Chen and Johnson. Video of the podcast sessions are woven through the show, connecting scenes like the one with Pruett-Barnett and other customers. Several transaction scenes take place per episode, some with random walk-ins and others with sellers.
Co-executive producer Brian Nashel of Short Hills calls the podcast, in which the guys banter about goings-on at the store, “very Seinfeldian. They just have that way about them. It’s how they talk.” In addition to the podcasts, Nashel and the crew shot Smith playing street hockey at the Red Bank YMCA during his November visit. (Smith’s current directorial project is Hit Somebody, a hockey movie that reportedly will be released in two parts. Smith also will be seen February 2 in a live question-and-answer session at more than 300 movie theaters across the country.)
Smith apparently had little to do with getting Comic Book Men off the ground. Its appeal to the honchos at AMC, who initially ordered six hour-long episodes, is based almost entirely to the real-life Secret Stash crew, he says.
“The dudes that run the store, Walter and Mike and Bryan, these cats are funny and wicked smart,” says Smith. (Chen, of Eatontown, is the store’s junior salesman, but he also handles graphic design for Smith and is the resident techie.) “When I knew AMC kind of liked the idea of a show about comic-book culture, and then when I knew they’d need to shoot a pilot, I thought, That’s where I can be useful. Because we have the store there and we also have the talent.”
The pilot, shot over a couple of weeks last June, “had this appeal to it, this charm,” Smith says. “The guys are proud without being egotistical. They keep their heads up about working in an industry most people dismiss as being for children. They slam-dunked it. They rocked it so hard. They went and did something phenomenal, and I thought the best thing I could do for the show was to stay out of it.”
The podcasts, he says, “are funny, and I’m glad I got to sit down with them and do them. But they’re really just a framing device.”
Although Smith’s on-screen time is minimal, Comic Book Men won’t lack for outsize personalities. Real customers include one who traveled to the store from Queens to sell what he called a homoerotic-Superman-poster. “He said there were subliminal messages in the way Superman’s foot was positioned,” says Nashel. “The guys had a lot of fun with that.”
But, says Red Bank resident Flanagan, “I don’t want to paint a picture that everybody who comes in here is eccentric.” The owner of the Superman poster “just seemed like a passionate dude. Mostly we get normal, decent, down-to-earth people.” That includes packs of comic hounds who line up outside the store every Wednesday when new issues arrive, and Smith fans who travel from as far as Australia to browse the store for a glimpse at some of his movie props.
Zapcic, who lives in Long Branch, says he has been blindsided by the reality of doing a reality show at his workplace. “What are the odds of this happening?,” he asks. Chen says he “never thought it would happen, but I’m having a blast.” The other guys feel pretty much the same.
As for Smith, he’s thrilled to be involved. “You know, very rarely does lightning strike twice,” he says. “Back in the day, I was lucky enough to hook up with Miramax in its moment of ascendancy, when it was the place to make great films. And now here I am with AMC, the network of ascendancy, like Miramax was in the ’90s. The analogy I think of is a hole-in-one. In terms of being in a place you want to be, this is the place I want to be.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.