IN THE TRENCHES: Alternate Worlds

IN THE TRENCHES is a rotating column told from the perspective of comic book retailers across the country, and their experience and insight into what it’s like on the other side of the counter.
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Danny Nolan sat down with Alternate Worlds co-owners Joe Italiano and Peter Hughes, to talk about the shop and a fascinating history of Australian Comics in the last quarter of the 20th Century.

 

My first visit to Alternate Worlds (AW) was a pleasant surprise on so many levels.

Back in 2013 I had, while researching something totally unrelated, read an article that I found via a link via another link of the best local comic book shops in Melbourne. Much to my surprise one of the most highly recommended was just two streets from my current employment. This was too good to be true, so I jumped in the car and promptly couldn’t find what I thought would be an obvious landmark. You know, a shop front with lots of colourful poster and a large sign.

Nope. I was travelling on a main thoroughfare down a very busy Bayswater Industrial estate at lunchtime. I then realised the shop was in one of the estates. So, I turned into what I hoped was the right driveway and checking either side of the road making not to collide with errant forklifts, that’s when I saw it. Sandwiched between a car upholster and to this this day I’m not sure what the guy on the other side sells but it seems to still be old newspapers, unregistered cars and broken electric motors. In the corner was a door with a small sign above it ALTERNATE WORLDS. I parked the car in one of the many spots available and walked towards the heavy solid door. The sign said it was open.

Now here’s the thing. Alternate Worlds is an optical illusion, which adds so much to its appeal. Its location belies what is on the other side of the door. Because it has no visible office or windows it appears as it is a back door to one of the neighbouring premises but as you enter you feel like any one of the Doctor’s companions the first time they enter the TARDIS.

It’s a lot bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside.

Alternate Worlds is a warehouse with over 400M2 of floor space, divided into several areas. The entry where all the new releases are, the toys and collectables to one side and huge bookshelves of Graphic novels and art books and Manga to the other. Whilst down the back is the game playing area and the massive collection of over 2000 boxes of archived back issues and rare comics. Being a Thursday, as I was later to find out, new release day (actually it’s usually Wednesday night, but the plane was held up this time) and the shop was quite busy with regulars getting their fix. I just walked around for about half an hour soaking it all in.

For a guy in his early fifties, rediscovering a passion for comics long dormant due to …. basically life, this was nirvana. I had fallen back in love with illustrated stories thank to Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and was playing catch up thanks to the likes of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Watchmen,WE3 , the Crossed series among many others. I had even had a few scripts published with some very understanding artists. The star had aligned. No more long trips into the city to inspect the shelves. And I have been a regular visited every Thursday lunchtime ever since. Some people go to the pub or the Pokies once a week. I go to my local comic book shop.

Move ahead a few years.

The Upholster has moved and Alternate Worlds has taken over the building, signage is a lot more prominent and I still don’t know what the guy next door is selling. My guess is rust and wet newspapers. It’s now my new haunt and I feel very comfortable there, so I took the opportunity to take a moment and sit down to talk to co-owners and operators, Joe Italiano and Peter Hughes about their own and the shop, and what I got was a fascinating history of Australian Comics in the last quarter of the 20th Century.

Alternate Worlds is Melbourne’s (Australia’s) longest established comic book seller, having it’s roots back in the early 1970s from Joe Italiano’s house where Joe, a passionate comic book reader started bringing in comics from overseas to satisfy his own appetite for new comics which evolved into supplying others with the same interest who were also looking for missing books from their collections.

In 1977 the genesis of Alternate Worlds evolved from Images Images. During this period Joe took over The Australian Comic Collector (TACC) to bring attention to new comics and to use as a vehicle to sell and trade comics. This was funded by a Science fiction and comic club Joe started at RMIT (which is still running under the name Science Fiction and Gaming Club) Along with Moris Sztajer and likeminded people from the club – this led to the Comic Art Show held in St.Kilda in 1978 which was the precursor to the first Comic Con held at RMIT campus in 1979. This was supported by the Club and the venue supplied free of charge by the University. Though there were no big name overseas names, there were plenty of artists, primarily newspaper comic strip and political artists.

During this period Joe met his future business partner Peter Hughes in Melbourne’s Space Age Books and struck up a friendship after bonding over an issue of Captain America -issue 215 to be exact according to Peter- and other mutual interests. A busy period ensured from this point Peter joining with Joe to process and pack Images Images mail orders and producing TACC and in 1980 Joe, Moris and Peter staged COMICON II at Sheraton Motel in Melbourne. Once again there were no overseas talent, but they managed to get one Peter Ledger, who was gaining a name as a colourist in big name comics overseas. It was also one of the first times Cosplay was introduced to a convention.

These conventions continued in different venues and guises during the 1980s these tended to be more Science Fiction based under the name Phantasacon. During that period TACC was handed over to others to produce to the work load of running Images Images and the conventions. After giving up TACC, they found they missed it and created a more newspaper styled affectionately named Baby TACC which eventually morphed intoAlternate Worlds Pre Oder Catalogue which is still published every month till this day and is one the first of its kind pre dating the larger US publishing house editions. IT was also during this time Joe wrote a Super Hero RPG Super Squadron which was released in 1983 and for a while was distributed in the USA. It is during this period you can see some of the work Peter and Joe contributed as aspiring artists themselves. For Peter it was a four part series BLOODSWORD with Robert Shaw in the original REVERIE by Gary Dellar from 1983 and Joe cover art for TACC No.1.

Due to various circumstances within their professional and extracurricular pastimes, it was decided to expand the mail order business into a fully-fledged a comic book shop, though at first they were hesitant to make their hobby their job. However good sense prevailed and then in 1988 the Images Images name was changed to Alternate Worlds and the shop was opened at 40 Chapel St. Windsor. ten years later saw a move up the road to 76 Chapel St to bigger premises. This was augmented with another store opening in the mid-1990s in Bourke Rd Camberwell but closed when the introduction of the GST made it an unproductive venture. When the prestige of a Chapel St address pushed rents to stupid levels Alternate Worlds found a new home in its current location at Malvern St Bayswater in 2011. Closer to home for the owners and a large warehouse space to house the massive collection of rare and back issue comics and cards.

Though more settled these days, Joe and Peter are still passionate about their work, both have a keen sense of what is happening in the Industry and the scene in general. Joe still attends and supports the big Conventions with a large stall of stock. He was recently a guest at the regional Gippsland GeekFest as special presenter. Peter not so much these days, he‘d rather look after the shop.
The lack of shop front and a main street or Shopping Mall position does not phase the owners, stating that finding such a location would be cost prohibitive, especially with the amount of space the require storing the stock they want to carry. Joe believes they are one of the only true “comic shops” in Australia where you can get all current editions, along with variant covers and have a good chance of finding recent and long discontinued lines in the store. Not just what is currently available and not to be seen again once the run is over. By moving a little off the main thoroughfare is not an imposition for foot traffic, if people want to come, they will come regardless. Plus, on the weekends parking is plentiful. Both men are collectors and cater for collectors and the current set up is the perfect solution.

To enhance that last point Alternate Worlds has begun a new monthly program where on the fourth Saturday of each month boxes are opened, and treasures unearthed from its collection of over half a million issues with the introduction of PREMIUM ACCESS COMIC DAY. Where the vast collection of rare comics dating back to early last century, Australian and US underground, Golden and Silver age tiles titles as well as magazines and early popular titles. Each event is different and surprise to behold. On the very first one I attended I found my Holy Grail, A RAT’S satire magazine from the early 1970s. Pure gold. Something I was convinced no longer exist, not even an image on the internet. So, believe me, there are surprises aplenty.

On a parting note I asked both Joe and Peter after forty years were they looking at slowing down or you up for another forty?

Both replied simultaneously:
Peter: We’re not going anywhere.
Joe: No way. Bring it on.

ALTERNATE WORLDS is located at 11 /13 Malvern St Bayswater Victoria and trades Seven days aweek opening at noon.

alternateworlds.com.au

 

About Danny Nolan

Danny Nolan
Danny Nolan is a writer from Melbourne who has contributed to such Anthologies as The GAME of KINGS project and ALL THE KING’S MEN and has written stories for DECAY, RETRO SCI-FI, FUTUREQUAKE WOMBAT COMICZ and PHATSVILLE among others. He also writes articles like this for his local newspaper.

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