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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

May 06, 2002
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A Job for Spider-Man, But He's in a Thief's Clutches

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 books.

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 not new, the Saturday afternoon robbery was noteworthy because of the extreme — one might say cartoonish — lengths that the robber went to obtain them.

Particularly galling to those in the city's comic book community was the 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 were 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 book promotion.

The man stood out immediately, Mr. Bowler said, because he was carrying an unwieldy duffel-type bag that threatened to knock over merchandise as he 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 was very polite, very cordial," Mr. Bowler said. "He was even chatting with the kid in the store about the `Spider-Man' movie."

Then, the boy and his mother left the store. And the polite man turned to 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, the man calmly began loading it.

"He said, `Now, I want you to go over there and open the showcase,' " Mr. 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 who 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 plastic handcuffs.

"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 of 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 money.'

"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 weapon.

"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 that."

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 C. Passarelli.

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 on a 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 and 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 it on eBay."






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