Things You Can Learn in a Comic-Book Store

Right now Buck Rogers is in suspended animation in a coal mine near here.

There’s a tiny store called Copacetic Comics in Squirrel Hill. It’s on Asbury Place, just around the corner and across the street from the Northumberland police station, and it’s easy to overlook. No big sign. The name is on a flier in the front window.

Then, wow, once you’re inside, it’s a cube about 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet. You’re surrounded by books and CDs and DVDs and comic books in boxes, on shelves, on the floor, in front of you, and behind you, down half a level, up above the window. There are surprise selections behind the door, by the cash register, everywhere. It’s sensory-overload at first, then it reveals itself to be a tempting, ingenious and wacky use of space.

This is Bill Boichel’s world. "People can cross-pollinate," he explained to me. "Come in for a comic, get a book, get a movie. It’s a pop-culture mini-mart."

For many years in the 1980s and ’90s, this tall, skinny, curly-haired bookseller owned and ran a huge comics store called BEM (an acronym for Bug-Eyed Monsters and all that it implies) in Wilkinsburg. Before that, he was the program director for Pittsburgh Filmmakers and booked movies for the screening rooms. But now, thanks to the kind of marketing and access the Internet provides, he’s shrunk the store space, but he’s kept samples of all the things that he still gets passionate about. "I’m always sort of evangelizing," he told me, "propagandizing comics as an art form that’s more than just superheroes."

I asked Bill if any of this is still surprising and fun for him. "Oh yeah," he said, "I learn stuff all the time. There’s a great new collection of the early Buck Rogers comic strips that just came out, and in there I found out that [the character] Buck Rogers started in Pittsburgh! He got trapped in a coal mine! It’s all in the first two strips. I put them on my Web site,, but I’ve been telling all my friends too. I never knew Buck Rogers was from around here."

Bill sells the book too: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, published by Hermes Press in New Castle! It’s a handsome, large-format book with the comic strips reproduced slightly larger than original size, and sure enough: in the very first strip (see below) it’s 1929, and there’s Buck, age 20, trapped and losing consciousness in the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh. In the next panel, he wakes up 500 years later in the middle of a battle. By the end of the second strip, we find out that "Ancient Pittsburgh" was destroyed in A.D. 2029, and Buck has been in "a state of suspended animation." Before long, Buck is accepted by the good guys, who all belong to something called the "Alleghany Org."

It’s like finding out that Tarzan lives in Tarentum or that old man down the street with the sunglasses used to be Dick Tracy. Because he won’t wake up till 2429, we have to remember that young Buck is right now underground in suspended animation somewhere near here. And in just 20 years, this "Ancient Pittsburgh" we know and love will be toast. Till then, we all might as well read more comic books.

Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.

Categories: Rick Sebak