The comic industry lost a good guy earlier today.
Rory Root owned and operated Comic Relief, a massive comic book treasure trove packed with more graphic novels than you'll find at some conventions. I discovered CR in my early teens; it was like discovering King Tut's tomb. Wall upon wall of books, old and new, from all corners of the globe: comics, criticism, art books, 'zines... everything from the rarest bande dessinée imports to McLuhan's Understanding Media. I later learned that Rory offered generous discounts to the professionals who shopped there. Even some of us lowly minicomickers were extended this courtesy; a much-needed boon, both to our wallets and our self-esteem.
I first met Rory in my late teens, while pitching him some of my comics to sell. Always frank and affable, Rory became a welcome sight at every major convention and during my visits to his store. He knew enough about the industry to maintain a healthy pessimism -- but that was tempered with hope, and a good-natured faith in comics folk to somehow muddle through the hard times. He threw his share of swell parties, too. Other comic shops had their own parties, but Rory was the host with the most. The beer flowed freely, the comic selection on all sides left every pro agape, and everywhere was Rory, welcoming guests with his ready grin, and spreading the warmth like a comic shop Fezziwig.
While writing this entry, I realized that it's impossible for me to sum Rory up with a pithy anecdote. Every encounter with him that I fondly recall falls flat when I write it down. It's like describing the magic of a Marx Brothers film by recounting the plot, or retelling a Richard Pryor joke when you're white. The best recollections I can produce about Rory are impressions with no real punchline; the warmth was in his face.
I recall him presiding over a gathering of cartoonists at his home, hatless and robed, fresh from a shower, sipping from his trademark mug and humbly sharing his thoughts about comics' appeal, haloed by his massive, wall-to-wall book collection, all of which I knew he had read.
I recall describing my latest project to him at a San Diego Con, amid all the hubbub on a Sunday afternoon. I remember his stare as I went on about my book for a couple of minutes, and finally his frank reaction: "I'm sorry; I didn't process a single word you've said. It's Sunday."
I recall shooting the breeze with him at his store one day, and his sudden remark about something I'd recently posted on a message board: "By the way, that stuff you posted at TCJ? You're wrong. I don't want to debate it; just wanted to let you know." That might have seemed hostile coming from anyone else, but from Rory, with his friendly smile and gentle way, it was an avuncular chuck on the chin.
I recall entering a cozy Italian restaurant in San Diego's Little Italy after a convention. The proprietor, who resembled one of the chefs in Lady and the Tramp, greeted me happily: "One of Rory's friends!"
"Yes...?" I replied, wondering how he'd connected me with Rory. Then I looked down, and noticed that I was wearing the Comic Relief T-shirt Rory had given me for my birthday. "Tell Rory we miss him!" said the jovial Italian. Now I know the feeling.
Rory had the traditional physique of a devoted comics dealer, but he'd been taking better care of himself lately -- eating better, shunning cigarettes -- so it's especially poignant that he was taken from us so soon. After all, he looked OK the last time I saw him... how is it that I won't see him again in San Diego this year, presiding over his store's vast wares with a tired grin, a friendly word, and a mug full of whatever-that-was?
P.S. Here's an audio of Rory and Scott McCloud discussing comics at San Francisco's prestigious Commonwealth Club, in August of '07. Panel moderated by Cartoon Art Museum manager Andrew Farago: