WEST PITTSTON — For Chuck Rowles, comics were an independent study. When he was young, he’d read the Sunday funnies and, when he was home sick, his mother would bring him a stack of comics to read. When Rowles reached middle school, he got into the habit of drawing comics of his class, then redrawing them when they were taken and torn by mean-spirited classmates.
A high school friend introduced him to the comic “Groo the Wanderer,” a parody of “Conan The Barbarian,” and he was hooked from that point. He didn’t just collect other people’s comics though; he continued to write and draw his own.
“I started doing ‘The Gods of Arr-Kelaan’ probably my senior year of high school,” Rowles said. “The first few pages came out and everything about it was bad, but it eventually pounded into something I liked over the course of another five or six years.”
Those five or six years were largely spent in college, where Rowles admits to tuning out or outright skipping class sessions in favor of drawing. Having moved to the area from Providence, Rhode Island when he was 9, Rowles graduated with a degree in general studies from Luzerne County Community College and was hired to do order entry at Intermetro Industries in Wilkes-Barre. He began writing and drawing a comic based on his experiences in the area called “Drawing From Life,” which was given space in the Times Leader during the mid-’90s.
“I did it for a year and a half but then I was canceled,” Rowles said. “I had gotten so far away from it being about the area. I had alien invasions and weird stuff that I was thinking off the top of my head. It was also a very difficult thing to do to come up with what was essentially six jokes a week.”
Rowles also worked at the Times Leader between 1996 and 1997 before starting a 14-year tenure at Pride Industries as a technical illustrator. While at Pride, he decided to take his still-active fantasy world of Arr-Kelaan into a new medium: print.
“In the mid-2000s, there was a site called Drunk Duck that made it easy to post comic pages,” Rowles said. “After a year, I put those pages together and asked people who were reading the comic if they wanted to pre-buy the book. It was enough for me to print twice as many as I had planned and I could sell those going forward.”
“The Gods of Arr-Kelaan” didn’t make Rowles a substantial amount of money, but it wasn’t about money for him; the nine books he has printed so far are products of a hobby he has enjoyed since his classroom comics from middle school.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Rowles said. “I like comics and I like being around comics. If there was ever an opportunity, it was something I’d think about. The chance came when the previous guy who had a comic shop here was going out of business, so I took over his subscription list and started my own store.”
Rowles named his shop after the most powerful weapon in the Arr-Kelaan universe — a harmless-looking magical rubber mallet wielded by Ronson, god of alcohol and apathy. Rubber Mallet Comics currently has over 400 regular customers, including 31-year-old Wilkes-Barre resident Clinton Matthias.
“It’s one of the few in our area and they’re nice and friendly here,” Matthais said. “Every time I come in, there are conversations going on and the staff doesn’t make me feel out of place.”
Minus Rowles, the staff of Rubber Mallet operates on a volunteer basis. By her own admission, 25-year-old West Pittston resident Nancy Recupero came with the store.
“I was helping out at the shop before (Rubber Mallet),” Recupero said. “It’s close to home and I got to know Chuck at the other store and he was really nice. I didn’t mind spending my free time here once or twice a week.”
According to Rowles, “The Walking Dead,” “Batman” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” have consistently been his best sellers since he took on the alter ego of mild-mannered comic shop owner almost four years ago. That title didn’t come with its own set of super powers though, so his inability to manipulate space may saddle him with a positive problem in the near future.
“I think if we grow much more, we’re going to have to be looking at more space,” Rowles said. “I don’t want to leave West Pittston. It’s a comfortable place; there’s decent parking and that’s a big thing with people. I like the area. I like being part of the parade every year.”
It’s fun to be here; it’s more of a ‘we’re part of the town’ sort of thing,” Recupero added. “We’re easy to talk to, friendly, we have conversations going on a lot. It feels like home.”
Rowles still reads a large amount of books every month (he said he averages 150), but now he can put the ones he doesn’t like back on the shelf. The comic shop owner’s comic creation career is currently on hiatus; he thought he’d have time to write and draw on Thursdays and Fridays, but he’s often too busy to focus on anything but running the shop.
Rowles said he’ll return to the world of Arr-Kelaan once he finds the right story, but with customers continuing to return weekly to Rubber Mallet Comics, Ronson and his pantheon may be waiting awhile.
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts