Revealing Parts UnknownApr 18th, 2012 | By Charles Wood | Category: Feature, Sights
I bought my first comic when I was five during a family vacation to Ocracoke Island. We were at a drug store buying toiletries and I saw The Punisher War Journal staring at me from the comic stands near the magazines. It was love at first sight. When I moved to Greensboro, I became a semi regular patron of Parts Unknown, buying comics whenever I had some extra cash to spare. I’ve been meaning to interview the owner, John Hitchcock, for a while now and finally got the chance to sit down and have a chat with him.
What was the first comic you remember reading?
John Hitchcock: When I was growing up, I had siblings that liked to sleep in on Saturdays. I was one of those kids that would wake up at 6:00 A.M.. My brother said to me one morning, “Here’s a comic, read it and shut up.” That comic turned out to be Our Fighting Forces. I immediately fell in love with it, must have read it a dozen times or more. The first time I bought a comic from the stands it was Adventure Comics: Legion of Superheroes.
When did you realize you wanted to make a living off of comics?
I started collecting comics when I was in fourth grade. I never thought of it as way to make money until I started working at Acme Comics in 1983. Before Acme, I worked as a manager at a 711 for six years. After six years of working at Acme it hit me that I could make it on my own so I opened up Parts Unknown on August 9, 1989.
Who are some of your favorite classic comic creators?
Will Eisner [an early comic pioneer, the annual Eisner award is named after him] is on up there, especially his work on The Spirit. Steve Ditko [co-creator of Spider-Man along with Stan Lee], Jack Kirby [legendary artist and co-creator of Captain America], and Alex Toth all rank pretty high as well.
Speaking of Alex Toth, can you describe your relationship with the late artist?
To talk about Alex I first have to talk about Wally. The first comic artist I ever wrote a letter to was Wally Wood. He was one of the original artists for Mad Magazine. He created the red Daredevil costume [Daredevil originally wore a yellow and brown-red costume in his first appearance in Daredevil #1 and switched to the red one in #7] and also did a bunch of EC Comics [EC Comics were known for their horror and sci-fi themed books such as Tales Ftrom The Crypt]. He had an ad in the Comic Buyers Guide for his book Sally Forth, which also listed his address. I bought two issues of the comic and enclosed a letter. When the comics came two weeks later with no reply, I assumed he was too busy to write until we started up a correspondence the following week, a correspondence that lasted for 5 years. He passed away in 1981.
I started to write to Alex Toth after I saw a listing for him in the Comics Buyers Guide. Apart from Toth’s work in comics [drawing The Flash, Dr. Mid-Nite, Green Lantern, and The Atom] he did a lot of storyboards and character designs for Hanna-Barbera, namely Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Bird-Man. He was kind enough to write me back and we corresponded through letters and over the phone for 25 years, up until his death in 2006.
Alex was basically a hermit. When I started writing to him he hadn’t left his house in ten years. I was aware he was isolated. After a while I told him, “You’ve sent me so many letters, drawings, postcards, and what-not, let’s do a book together with the material.” He was excited about the project. Billy Ingram helped me put the book together. I couldn’t have done it without him. As we were finishing the book we found out that Toth was in intensive care. He passed away a month before the book came out but was able to see the final version before he died. The book, Dear John, was nominated for an Eisner. There was a Space Ghost DVD released recently and one of the special features on it was a documentary on Toth. A film crew came down and interviewed me for that.
Can you tell me about some of the conventions you’ve thrown over the years?
With the support of of John Butts and Tom Wimbish, the original owners of Acme Comics, I started throwing conventions in 1983. I contacted most of the special guests and did the panels. At the first convention we had Murphy Anderson, [known for his work on Hawkman and Action Comics] who grew up in Greensboro, as a guest. Archie Goodwin, who was Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics in 1976, made an appearance. The second year we were able to get Will Eisner and Jack Kirby was a guest for the third year of the convention along with Alex Toth and Al Williamson [known for his work on a number of horror, western, and sci-fi comics].
I left Acme in February of 89 and stared my own store. I will have been open for 25 years come August. After I opened the store I started to thrown my own conventions. The guests that appeared over the years included George Evans, from EC comics; Angelo Torres, who worked for Mad Magazine; Dave Stevens, who created The Rocketeer; Brian Bolland, who worked on the Killing Joke with Alan Moore; Bernie Wrightson, one of the best horror illustrators in comics and known for his epic stint on Swamp Thing; Will Eisner; and Kevin Eastman, who created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and appeared during the height of their fame when they were the number one selling toy in the country. All these amazing people came to Greensboro and people were able to interact with and get autographs from their heroes. It was an amazing time for Greensboro.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the comic industry over the years?
Trade paperbacks [multiple issues of a comic, typically of a story arch or run of a particular creator, collected in one volume] have gotten very popular. The first trade was the four issue Wolverine story written by Frank Miller [creator of Sin City and known for his legendary work on The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil]. Right now as much money, if not more, is made on trades because they can be sold anywhere, like Barnes and Noble for instance. People like trades because they’re able to read a whole story arch or run in one sitting without having to wait a whole month for the next installment.
Another change is the cost of comics. When I first started selling comics the average issue was 69¢ and now they go for about $2.99.
How do you feel about being located between a bar (College Hill), a head shop (Hypnotica) , and a bike store (Revolution Cycles) ?
I never thought the bar would help with business. That’s why we close around 7PM… so I don’t have to worry about intoxicated customers. We have a lot of children that hang out here. I don’t think there’s much of a cross-over business with the head shop [this author knows several people that actually fit both demographics, but that's for another story]. The people that work at the bike shop are very friendly. We all get along pretty well.
Have any of your employees or patrons gone on to achieve any success in the comic book industry?
Don Stroud, a longtime patron, works in the movie business editing and directing the special features on DVDs. I like to think I’ve turned on some college kids to some good reading that have had a positive influence on them.
Who’s your favorite superhero?
Spider-Man is probably my favorite, but The Spirit and The Fantastic Four are pretty high on the list as well.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love to be able to grab a comic and turn it into any other comic of my choosing. But for a real super power? Hmmm, I would probably have to go with flight. When you get older and your back and feet hurt, flying seems amazing.
Whats your favorite non-superhero comic?
Currently, it’s probably All Star Western. Criminal is another great book as well.
What are some of the more popular titles out at the moment?
DC’s New 52 [DC Comics recently rebooted their shared universe, actively starting over in an attempt to remove complicated continuity and attract new readers] is selling really well, especially Batman, Action Comics, and Swamp Thing. Batman is one of the better books coming out. It’s well written and drawn. Plus, I sell out of it; whenever someone asks what they should buy, I tell them Batman and they almost always come back later asking to buy more. Marvel’s Avengers vs X-men [a huge cross-over event that's been years in the making] is pretty hot. Ever since the TV show, The Walking Dead has been selling like crazy, especially the trades
How do you feel about the trend of the big superhero blockbuster?
Lastly, what are some new titles and talent people should check out?
Kick Ass is amazing, but definitely not a kids book. Hit Girl [a supporting character in the comic and film] is getting her own series. That should be interesting. Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books are something everybody should check out. Their detective graphic novels with incredible story telling.
IDW [a publisher known primarily through their licensed titles such as Ghostbusters, Transformers, and GI Joe] are releasing what they call ‘Artist Editions’. What they do is photograph the original artwork, complete with smudges and white-out spots, and print it full size [art production size is usually around 10x15 while the published page is 2/3 of that size] so the reader can catch all the little details. They’ve published a book on Walter Simonson’s run on Thor as well as one dedicated to Wally Wood’s Science Fiction Stories. The next one is going to be on The Spirit. I’ve had plenty of customers describe these books as “looking through the eyes of a genius.”
Photos by Katei Chan.