If you’re walking the streets of Pittsburgh at night, be prepared to encounter an intimidating gang of comic book artists. There’s Ed Piskor, who wears sunglasses indoors, has a different Public Enemy t-shirt for every day of the week, and who Rolling Stone calls “the next big thing in books”. There’s Tom Scioli, who stutters a tad with delight when retrieving a comics-related file from his encyclopedic mind, and whose work on Godland and American Barbarian is compared to that of the eminent, Jack Kirby. Then there’s indie artist, Jim Rugg, whose books Street Angel and the Eisner-nominated Afrodisiac have made big waves in the small press scene. He also co-hosts a podcast called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know with artist, Jasen Lex. BFFs since college, they grill folks, such as Hellboy’s Mike Mignola, on what it means to live and work as an artist.
If these guys are excited about something, so am I. So when they invited me to film them at a “special event”, I jumped at the opportunity. Then they told me the shoot would take place in a subterranean warehouse in the middle of nowhere.
Jack Kirby’s 2001 series, in the basement
“No, you see, this basement is legendary,” they said.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
Ellwood City, Pennsylvania is a small town 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. In 1895, it became the first place in America where seamless steel tubes were pierced. Nowadays, Ellwood City is most synonymous with the New Dimensions Basement Sale – a bi-annual event during which a pop culture treasure trove of over half a million comics and magazines is opened for public perusal and consumption. Comic lovers from Toronto to Alabama drive tractor-trailers over the Pennsylvanian landscape to buy and sell a store’s worth of illustrated matter. Each book is priced at one dollar, whether it’s a Jack Kirby back issue that will never again be reprinted or Prophet #4, one of the most sought-after books from the 90’s comic boom.
“The Batman” makes his 1939 debut.
The mastermind behind the Basement Sale is Todd McDevitt, a sprightly charmer who will tell you flat out that his interest in comics is not fandom, it’s business. McDevitt’s entrepreneurship is etched onto his DNA. He started New Dimension Comics as a senior in high school, and now, 25 years later, it’s grown into a small chain that’s sustained the majestic aura of national press (e.g. - The New York Times) it obtained back in 2007, when the world’s second-most valuable comic book, Detective Comics #27, landed in McDevitt’s hands. The 1939 comic features the first ever appearance of Batman and is estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars.
McDevitt knows comics well enough to spot a rare one, but his competitive edge lies in his emotional detachment from the product he’s selling. The object of another man’s childhood nostalgia is McDevitt’s grab bag fodder. In fact, he’s got a one-of-a-kind formula for the grab bag. The front of the pack is, “something moms can relate to”, the back is “not quite as sexy, but something semi-sexy…something shiny”, and the middle contains, “guts” – the bulk that McDevitt would all but pay to get rid of.
For a seasoned fan bounding in with a list of titles or a newbie browsing to build her first collection, the basement is a land of opportunity. For a comic book artist, every minute spent in the basement is one minute closer to an existential crisis. “On the way here there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” artist Jim Rugg said, with a laugh, “but by the time I leave, it’s just like, my dream is over.”
The Basement Sale happens on the last Saturday of September and January every year. Todd generously granted us pre-sale access, so we could document the gang discussing important comics unearthed. We managed to get the footage we came for, but some uninvited fear and loathing crept into the shoot too, as it’s wont to do.
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Julie Sokolow is a musician, filmmaker, and writer whose work has been acclaimed by Pitchfork, The Washington Post, and Wire, among others. She’s a 2012 recipient of a Creative Development Grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation towards her first feature-length documentary, Aspie Seeks Love. Her work has most recently been featured by Boing Boing, HTMLGIANT, and Chômu Press.