James Dale Cavanaugh and I didn’t agree on much.
Whenever I wrote a movie review for The Star, he’d tell me how and where I went wrong. Our politics were at odds. Books he read weren’t the books I read.
But, man, we both loved comic books.
As owner of Clint’s Books, Comics and Games in Westport, Cavanaugh, whom we all called Jim, lived and breathed comics. This year was the store’s 50th.
On Friday, a friend called to ask if I’d heard Jim had died in a robbery attempt. I hadn’t, but it sounded entirely plausible.
See, what’s funny, I guess if you can call it funny, is I always imagined Jim going out in a blaze of glory.
He was known to pack a little heat. He wasn’t in any way shy about telling customers his ideas about guns (something else we argued over).
So it was firmly planted in my mind that some day, he’d get caught in a shootout. Maybe a scene pulled straight from the black and white Westerns that ran nearly nonstop on the TVs in his store.
On Friday, a man entered the store and, according to witnesses, left with a handful of stolen comic books. Jim had suffered some heart problems over the years, but that didn’t stop him from giving chase.
Witnesses say that after some words, Jim pulled his gun. But a man with a gun sometimes can’t do much against a 3,000-pound automobile driven by another man in the midst of a terrible decision.
The perp’s car door knocked Jim over, bouncing his head off the concrete parking lot. On a picture-perfect Kansas City day, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, an icon of Kansas City was left to die in a puddle of his own blood.
If you’re of the nerdly persuasion, you live for Wednesdays. Wednesday, you see, is the day of the week when new comic books arrive in stores.
Folks in Kansas City such as myself plan our entire workweeks around that trip to Clint’s on Wednesdays.
We’ll skip lunch. We’ll work late. We’ll schedule doctor visits, dental appointments and car repairs on Wednesdays so we can make that side trip to the nerd store without anyone noticing. Hopefully.
Jim and I had our little routine each week. I’d ask how he was doing, and he’d say he was getting old. He’d ask how my family was doing, and I’d say, “Jim, they’re awfully mean to me.” And he’d tell me I probably overachieved in life anyway, and I’d agree.
On holidays, vacations and in the summertime, I’d bring the family along. On their birthdays, he’d give my two sons toys they never opened (one’s a jock, the other is much more interested in video games). My daughter is my geek. She’s an adult now, and the main feature in her college apartment is her “super shelf” of Batgirl figurines, half of which Jim found for her.
A few months ago, I showed him photos on my phone of students in my wife’s second-grade classroom reading from the stack of comics he gave her the week before. Jim was pretty good at playing the tough guy. He talked a lot about his rough-and-tumble younger days. But I’m pretty sure when he flipped through those photos of boys and girls focused on the Teen Titans, Finn and Jake, Scooby-Doo and Barbie, he got a little teary.
Our family wasn’t alone. When I called actor David Dastmalchian on Friday to get a comment on Jim’s passing, he related similar stories.
“I just saw him a few weeks ago, and he gave me all these toys to give to my son Arlo when I got home,” he said.
In addition to being a big-time actor with important parts in “The Dark Knight,” “Ant-Man,” and TV’s “The Flash,” Dastmalchian is a self-proclaimed “Clint’s Comics Kid,” growing up as part of Jim’s extended family of customers. The news had staggered him.
“I’m just gutted,” he said by phone from Los Angeles. “I owe that man so much.”
Here’s the thing about comic fans: We come back to the stores each week to see what happens next, but we know the stories will go on in perpetuity. Batman’s battle is never-ending. Wonder Woman and Thor are immortals. Our country might get a little bruised and battered, but Captain America endures. Iron Man died, but because it’s comics, he’ll get better.
Each week after I bought my stack of comics, I’d venture back to Jim’s desk in the rear of the store to say so long. He’d stop me and tell me the movies he was excited about or the old shows that were new on video or who he thought should play James Bond next.
After a spell, I’d make some dumb joke about having to get back to the paragraph factory and that I’d see him next week. And every week, without exception, he’d always say, “I’ll be here.”
Except next week, he won’t.
Jim went out resembling something like a hero, fighting some dummy who tried to steal a handful of comic books. At the end of the day, they were just colored paper with made-up stories about guys in silly costumes fighting guys in sillier costumes.
But to some of us, they’re everything.
They’re a memory of a long-passed grandmother who bought us an Archie Comics digest.
They’re a bike ride across town where we could sit and read and forget about bullies who spit on us or girls who wouldn’t look our way.
They’re a career at a newspaper because we wanted to grow up to be Clark Kent more than Superman.
For many comic readers, collectors, nerds and geeks in Kansas City and beyond, Jim made those moments possible.
If life were as easy as a comic book, I’d find some way to build a time machine and tell Jim that whatever that small stack of comics meant to him, they weren’t worth his life. I doubt he would have agreed with me.