by Richard Lezin Jones, New York Times
So where, exactly, is a superhero when you need one?
Apparently not in Manhattan this weekend when, the police said, a
rifle-toting robber entered a comic book store on the Upper East Side, tied
up its clerk and made off with more than $20,000 worth of rare comic
At last word, there were no men in tights on the case. Just the
detectives from the 19th Precinct.
Included in the robber's haul from Action Comics, 337 East 81st Street,
was a hard-to-find copy of the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, the
police said. The comic, which sold for 12 cents when it was first published
in March 1963, had a list price of $6,500. Copies that are in pristine
condition have sold for more than $40,000.
While the concept of high-priced collectible comic books is certainly
new, the Saturday afternoon robbery was noteworthy because of the extreme
one might say cartoonish lengths that the robber went to
Particularly galling to those in the city's comic book community was
fact that the robbery occurred on something akin to a holy occasion for
hard-core fans: the opening weekend of "Spider-Man," the movie.
And for the more literary-minded, it also undoubtedly raised the serious
question of just how much any book could be worth when its message is
conveyed through word balloons.
"You're sitting there in the police station and the form says what was
stolen, and you write down `collectible comic books,' yeah, you feel pretty
stupid," said Stuart Bowler, 35, the Action Comics clerk.
"But it's just like anything else that's valuable," he said. "If you
watching `Antiques Roadshow,' and you wonder why somebody would pay
something for such a small item it's valuable to someone."
And valuable enough, the police said, for the gunman to risk being caught
in broad daylight in the crowded Upper East Side.
The police said the robbery occurred just after noon, when Mr. Bowler
opened the store. The clerk said that moments after opening, a man entered
behind a young mother and son, who had come in take part in a free comic
The man stood out immediately, Mr. Bowler said, because he was carrying
an unwieldy duffel-type bag that threatened to knock over merchandise as
made his way through the store's narrow aisles.
So, like the keeper of a china shop who had spied a pair of bovine horns,
Mr. Bowler asked the man to place the bag on a nearby countertop. The man
complied, Mr. Bowler said, and the next few moments were uneventful. "He
very polite, very cordial," Mr. Bowler said. "He was even chatting with
kid in the store about the `Spider-Man' movie."
Then, the boy and his mother left the store. And the polite man turned
his cumbersome bag.
"He said, `I have to show you these things,' " Mr. Bowler recalled. "I
thought he was trying to sell some books, because everyone's always trying
to sell books, but then he pulls out a gun."
It was a rifle, in fact, and while an incredulous Mr. Bowler watched,
man calmly began loading it.
"He said, `Now, I want you to go over there and open the showcase,' "
Bowler said. "I'm, like, `Fine, no problem.' "
What followed, according to Mr. Bowler, was a robbery more peculiar than
frightening and involving a lengthy exchange with the gentlemanly robber
later even apologized. After Mr. Bowler opened the display case, he said,
the man ordered him into a corner and tied his hands with a pair of flexible
"I saw him get them out, and I said, `Don't do it too tight,' and he
didn't," Mr. Bowler said. "He saw me squirming in them and said: `Oh, are
you all right? They're not too tight, are they?' I said, `Oh, no.' "
Then the gunman went for the display case, grabbing handfuls of comic
books sealed in clear plastic covers and backed with small pieces of
cardboard to keep their shape.
It was that moment, Mr. Bowler said, that jolted him the most. Not
because of the rifle. Not because of any threat of violence. But because
the rough way the robber handled the prized comic books.
"I pity the books," Mr. Bowler said. "He was just shoving them into this
paper bag he found."
Curiously, the robber ignored items of equal or greater value, including
an extensive collection of baseball cards and some comic books that were
even older than the ones he took.
All the while, Mr. Bowler said, the man seemed almost apologetic. "He
said: `I'm sorry. I hate to have to do it this way, but I really need the
"He was really very nice," Mr. Bowler said. "He wasn't intimidating at
all except for the gun."
Finally, after what Mr. Bowler figured was about 10 minutes inside the
store, the robber left but not before pausing to unload his
"He said, `I don't want to go out with a loaded weapon,' " Mr. Bowler
recalled. "I said, `Well, that's considerate.' He kind of half-smiled at
And then he was gone. A few more moments passed before Mr. Bowler was
able to free himself and call the police and the store's owner, Stephen
It was a routine, Mr. Bowler said, with which he was somewhat familiar.
While the job of comic book store clerk may not seem particularly fraught
with danger, Saturday's robbery was his third in 12 years of working behind
the counter, he said.
About a decade ago, a man swiped a few comic books that were hanging
wall of the store when it was at East 84th Street and ran.
A few months later, a group of teenagers one with a gun
grabbed a few books from the East 84th Street store, smacked Mr. Bowler
took off. Both times, though, the robbers were caught.
Mr. Bowler said he hoped Saturday's culprit would be, too. The police
described him as white, about 5-foot-7, 160 pounds and wearing faded blue
jeans and a dark red shirt.
But even without a description, comic book fans said the man might be
recognizable if he ever tried to profit from his high-profile robbery.
"Where are you going to find someone on the black market to buy it?"
asked Christopher Scott, 31, as he stood in line for the "Spider-Man" movie
in Midtown. "It's like going to steal a van Gogh and then trying to sell