by Bob Calhoun
Gary Arlington’s comic book store on 23rd Street in San Francisco’s Mission District seemed more like a feat of engineering than the truly historic place that it was. Stacks of comic books and paperbacks were piled all the way from the floor to the ceiling. No discernible structure appeared to be keeping the columns of pulpy periodicals from tumbling over and crushing Gary as he sat there in one of the few patches of space left in his little shop. And before he had to close his San Francisco Comic Book Company due to health problems in the early 2000s, Gary was always there in his spot by the door, always ready to hurl an insult at you as you made your way from the bar to the taqueria and back again.
“Man, somebody should poke you with a pin and let all the air out of that big stomach of yours,” Gary once told me as I clawed at those stacks of comics, trying not to knock them over. “You’d be so skinny if somebody did that.”
“Gee, thanks Gary,” I replied with a grimace, “How much for this ‘Marvel Team-Up’ #7 with Thor and Spider-Man?”
“I can let that go for $6.00.”
And that’s how it went with Gary. You just took it for some reason. His clearly visible tattoos of the EC Comics logo and the Crypt Keeper may have had something to do with it. Those things showed a fandom that was raw and deep with him. But there was something else about Gary and his store that actually had me looking forward to going back there when I was in the Mission, even though there was another comic book store only two doors down from his shop in the same building. I doubt the guy who owned that store would’ve hit me with the fat jokes, but I returned to Gary’s store not in spite of his barbs, but because of them. If Gary took the time to joke at you, it turns out that it was because he cared.
It was only later that I realized that The San Francisco Comic Book Company was the first comic book store in the country, and almost the first one in the world if a store in the Netherlands hadn’t beaten Gary to it by a month or two. Think about that for a minute or two: the first comic book store in America! Consider how big a role comic book stores have played in our lives, and then wonder where we’d be without Gary opening the first one just to “have a place to put my comic books” as he unpretentiously put it to comic book publisher Don Donahue (1942-2010) in the foreword to “I Am Not of This Planet” (Last Gasp, 2010), a collection of Arlington’s later artwork.
But Gary’s revolution didn’t end with retail. After opening in 1967, his store quickly became a meeting place for such underground comics innovators as Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez and Bill Griffith. Arlington also launched a publishing company under the San Francisco Comic Book Company name and printed some of the first works by Rory Hayes, Melinda Gebbie, and S. Clay Wilson among others. His early contributions as both a seller and publisher of what was coming out of the underground earned him the title of “the spiritual father of underground comix.”
“Gary made a cultural contribution in San Francisco in the late ’60s, through the ’70s, ’80s & ’90s that was more significant than he realizes,” Robert Crumb says in a blurb on the back of “I Am Not of This Planet.”
“San Francisco was the capitol of comix culture in the ’60s and early ’70s; and Gary Arlington’s hole-in-the-wall shop was, for me, the capitol of San Francisco,” Art Spiegelman adds in the text lines that accompany a sideways photo of Gary’s memorable gaze.
The last time I saw Gary was at an exhibition of his art that his good friend Ron Turner of Last Gasp put on at the Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco in 2011. The San Francisco Comic Book Company had been closed for a while by this time, those precarious pillars of comics that had loomed over Gary’s head for 35 years had long since been disassembled. As I approached Gary to buy a copy of “I Am Not of This Planet,” I braced myself for the jabs and jibes that he used to pepper me with, but instead he was genuinely glad to see me, and I was only an occasional customer of his. This had me thumbing through his collection of self-portraits done in sharpie and faux comic book covers on the train ride home with a smile on my face instead of the usual grimace I had after talking to Gary. (My favorite piece of Gary’s in this book has to be the cover for “We Are Only a Speck Comics” with a 10¢ cover price. “See Specks Make Love” it promises.)
When news of Gary’s passing started to fill my Facebook feed last Friday (Gary passed away the night before on January 17th), I pulled my copy of “I Am Not of This Planet” off the shelf. It had been a couple of years since I looked through it, and I had totally forgotten what he wrote in his dedication to me.
“I still like your big wonderful stomach,” he wrote in big, bold letters, just like a comic book.
In a typewritten note from Gary printed on the last page of the book he wrote, “My name is Gary Edson Arlington. I know you. You know me. I am very pleased we know each other.”
I have to admit, I got pretty choked up reading all that.
Gary Edson Arlington (1938-2014) is missed by all of San Francisco and everyone who’s ever enjoyed an alternative comic or a trip to a comic book store. We would not be who we are without him.
[Bob Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (Obscuria Press, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.]