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Secret Origins 

The strange-but-true story of how a mild-mannored boy became a lifelong comics fan

If you didn't discover superhero comics when you were 12, you probably never will. As soon as you lose that childlike naivete, it's almost impossible not to ridicule the concept of grown men and women running around in what comics writer Warren Ellis calls skin-tight "pervert suits," superpowers or no.

Twelve years old is also just about the last age at which you're willing to accept the humiliation that comes with buying comics -- and I don't mean the blank stares you get from non-comics readers who assume that you're slightly retarded for spending money on "picture books." Of the many brutally honest caricatures that "The Simpsons" has contributed to popular culture, none rings truer than Comic Book Guy, the sneering, leering comics-shop owner who'd just as soon drive a customer away with an insult as take his money.

That's what makes a store like Barre's Comics Outpost, and its proprietor Mark Patterson, such rare finds. There's a reason the Outpost is celebrating 20 years in business this month: Patterson, now 47, is Comic Book Guy's polar opposite. He actually likes his customers. He wants them to have a good time in his store and to come back again real soon. And although he's sharp enough to deflate any ego with a precisely timed put-down, you'll only experience this if you're lucky enough to be his friend.

Mark Patterson is the reason I started reading comics and the reason I still read them today, at age 28. He evangelizes with the zeal of a true believer, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Somewhere in his early childhood, Patterson underwent a conversion experience and became a comics fan for life. He has a special fondness for a perfect only son sent to Earth by his father to save humanity. I'm referring, of course, to Superman, Patterson's favorite character of all time and the source of the middle name he adopted after living 30-odd years without one.

Like the radioactive accidents that gave practically every 1960s Marvel Comics hero his superpowers, my first exposure to Patterson's store was serendipitous. A friend convinced me to accompany him, in costume, to the Outpost on Halloween 1985, because the proprietor was giving away free comics instead of candy. At that time, two seminal comics works were being serialized: Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. These books would forever transform the landscape of the medium and propel it to previously unimagined creative heights. I scrutinized the array of issues on the shelves and carefully selected the decidedly non-seminal Transformers #13 as my free comic.

To say that a licensed comic based on Hasbro's "Robots in Disguise" toy lacked the cachet of Moore and Miller's epics would be an understatement. Transformers was damn near bottom-feeding, as far as serious comics collectors were concerned. But there's no accounting for taste, especially those of a young boy.

Had Comic Book Guy been running the register, I would have been subjected to a withering barrage of insults and exiled from the store. Instead, with a sincere wish for me to enjoy the issue, Patterson made me a comics fan for life, too, right there on the spot.

Introducing me to the art form I love above all others is really the least of the influences Patterson has had on my life. When I transferred from a private Baptist school to a public school at age 12, I suffered a severe culture shock. Having been educated up to that point in an antiseptic bubble of Christian kindness, I had an emotional immune system that was completely unprepared for common adolescent cruelty. I didn't have to deal with anything worse than the crap your average sixth-grader has to take from his peers. But I was a gawky kid with Coke-bottle glasses who didn't understand that trying hard in school, being polite to teachers, and getting good grades were not desirable qualities in my new social circle.

That's when I started inhabiting the Outpost. Despite the fact that my paper route wouldn't subsidize the purchase of more than 15 bucks per week of his wares, Patterson never insisted that I "pay rent" for the futon I occupied endlessly, reading back issues of The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk. On the contrary, we'd discuss superheroes for hours, and when Patterson pinpointed a blank spot in my knowledge, he'd pull out a stack of back issues, sit me down, and make me read them until I'd filled in that particular gap. Most of the happy memories I have from my middle-school years are of times spent at the Outpost. The dry, autumnal smell of a room filled with gracefully aging books can still drown me in a wave of nostalgia.

It's impossible to overstate the positive effect Patterson had on my teenage self. Barre is a tough place to grow up -- which should come as no surprise considering that its name was decided by a bare-knuckle fistfight. One day in seventh grade, I realized that I was the only person in the classroom whose parents were still married and living together. I knew kids my own age who became parents before reaching high school. Barre's rates of alcoholism, drug use, child abuse and violent crime are all higher than the state norm. Having a place like the Comics Outpost, where imagination and intelligence were prized commodities, was literally a lifesaver.

And knowing an iconoclast like Patterson, an open-minded agnostic whose moral code was based on the concept of doing unto others as you'd have done unto yourself, gave me the courage to find the beat of my own drummer and march to it. His example helped inspire me to move to northern California on a whim, where I lucked into a job at a video-game magazine. Today, I'm a contracted Random House author who works from home playing games for a living. Personally, I don't find that as impressive as carving out a niche selling comic books in a blue-collar quarry town for two decades, but it's at least as bizarre. And if there's one lesson I learned at the Outpost, it's that strange is good.

As cozy a refuge as the Comics Outpost was, however, it wasn't just a hideout. It was more like a clubhouse, where anyone was welcome as long as they behaved themselves. The Outpost is Barre's equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: It attracts a certain type of societal castoff and introduces them to others like themselves. Two dozen of the best friends I will ever have are people I met there. One of them is Tony Tower, a former Outpost employee who aptly describes Patterson as a "gateway drug."

When I started writing this article, I asked Patterson to have a few of his customers email me if they wanted to contribute something. Three days later, my inbox was flooded with messages from people falling all over themselves to tell me how much the Outpost has meant to them. Several of them have moved away from central Vermont, as I have, but still purchase their comics from the Outpost via mail order -- the comics equivalent of a junkie ordering smack online and patiently waiting a week for it to show up. This is the kind of loyalty Patterson engenders.

Whenever I return to Vermont, the Outpost is the second stop on my list after my parents' house. And if the store hadn't relocated from Granite to Main Street a few years ago, I'd swear nothing had changed in the last two decades. Simultaneously breaking balls and dispensing wisdom, Patterson still plays the role of exasperated shepherd to a new generation of young Turks hanging out in the back room. The same veteran customers still stop by every week without fail, as much to gab with Patterson as to pick up their weekly four-color fix. I like to just sit back and take it all in, just as I did when I was 12 years old and beginning to realize there was more to life than getting sand kicked in your face, even if you were a 98-pound weakling.

I don't know how Patterson has found the energy to survive 20 years in a business that's not exactly known for creating millionaires. I hope he's got another 20 in him, because somewhere out there is a kid who needs help. He's not about to be beaten up by a gang of thugs, nor is his school bus hurtling towards a cliff. Those problems could be solved with a quick shout for Superman. No, this kid is just lonely and feeling beaten down by the world, and the only way the Man of Steel can help him is if someone takes the time to put the comic book in his hands. This looks like a job for Mark Superman Patterson.

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Bryan Stratton

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