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A Comic Life

A tribute to Tom Tepley

TomTepley
By Richard early
 
For nearly a quarter century, I had been friends with Tom Tepley. He passed away in early may 2019. I spoke at his ceremony of life and subsequently was asked to provide a piece for Noel Anderson’s Art Riot tribute issue. Whether you knew Tom or not, i thought it was important to share and you can see the story of people who love comics and the importance of their relationships and friendships.

You wanna get to know someone? Really know them? That takes time. That takes commitment. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that with a whole lot of people through running Paradox Comics for 26 years now. When it comes to Tom Tepley, I got to know him week by week, comic book by comic book. He was my friend, he was my competitor, he was a part time mentor, he was family, and like me he loved comic books. Maybe I can explain that love to you and tell you something about him from my perspective, through the lens of a comic book lover.

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For well over 20 years, I was Tom’s comic guy. Think of me as bartender. No, that’s not right. How about your salon person? Your therapist? Your family member? Some parts of all of those. That person you see regularly, who gets to know you and your family and your business pretty intimately, and is always there for what you need them for. No matter where Tom had been last or was headed next, through business expansion, contraction, legal troubles, health troubles, comics were always there.

It started in the mid 1990s. Disc was selling comics, too, and we were competitors. He tried everything. 50% off comics, building his own back issue bins, over ordering. And he ordered what he loved, lots of indie books. Alternate art, underground culture, and that is part of what makes comics so awesome. Every shop is different. They are all driven by the personality of their owners. You could see a part of who Tom was by what he chose to bring in. Back then, I was a young fan boy of mainstream super hero comics so it was really alien to me. I knew right away there was something different about Tom.

I had a business partner back in those days and Tom was much closer to him than to me. So much so that Tom nearly lured him to work for Disc. That was a really dark time and nearly destroyed Paradox. But while that inevitably caused the end of my partnership, I managed to stay afloat and Tom stuck around. I didn’t understand at that time in my life, but Tom saw something in me. I get that today. That’s Tom. He could tell when people needed him and which ones to encourage and I must have been one of those wayward souls he chose to believe in. 

My ex-partner was a lapsed drug user and alcoholic and I had no idea. At first I hated him for what he’d done—cheating on his wife, stealing from our shop, and leaving me deep in debt for nearly destroying the business, and mostly for leaving me alone to hold the pieces. I barely kept the store together, I went through the most intense depression of my life, clinging only to the idea that that store could save me or keep me going. And it was Tom who explained to me that hating my ex partner was missing the point. It was Tom who taught me the first lesson of compassion.  Alcoholism, drug use, those are diseases, he had to explain to me. They are things some people can’t escape. But don’t hate the people who are taken by those diseases. Give them your empathy and your compassion because they need it. Can you imagine saying that to someone who had experienced that black hole of addiction, the effects of it? I could not understand why he was telling me this at the beginning, but his words stuck with me. Honestly, he gave me something I really needed because he taught me about forgiveness and empathy and he did it at a harsh time instead of coddling me over my losses. 

After that, we slowly became friends. We talked business and family and life and comics. We talked goals and dreams and ideas. We were completely different businessmen. I was always content with my little single store and selling comics while Tom was always executing plans for growth and expansion and was never limited to what he might do. I was terrified to borrow money, to risk capital on big ventures, and Tom had an indomitable will and thirst to risk and risk. We were both winners and leaders. We both succeeded at the way we went about it.

I lead with my heart and so did he. I watched him build an organization, a way of doing things, while I stumbled along. I watched him impact the lives of his employees and admired it. Tom seemed to never flinch in taking risks and making decisions. I always knew where I stood with Tom because he was honest. He could look you in the eye and say he was going to destroy you or he could find a way to make your situation better but you always knew.

When Disc got out of comics, he sold me everything from the books to the fixtures. He and I went to his storage sheds in that big truck of his and we went through every box, every comic. He showed me the stuff he loved, talked about the history of reading them, and so much more. And he let me buy all that stuff in store credit. For years, he came to Paradox and we just rang him up and kept track of his purchases.

That’s where our relationship really turned to friendship.  Every Wednesday, he was there. And there was always something going on. It used to be the Grand Forks store or the Perham store or the Bismarck store. There was the skate shop and the skate park. There was Magic the Gathering or expanding pipes. Then it became his pride over Almost Famous. He was flying out to another trade show, talking about borrowing money for a new venture, or planning to sell any number of different buildings.

But he was always interested in Paradox. He always had advice. I wanted to move to south Fargo and he adamantly opposed that idea. I wanted to fire this staff or that staff and he told me all about the cost of training and the reasons to invest in good people. I wanted to open more stores and he offered to put me in East Grand Forks

And then there were the comics. Tom bought so many new comics from me over those years. Through the latest relaunches to the newest creators to the strangest things on the fringes. He kept coming back for the love affair of comics. But mostly he loved the comics of his youth or even earlier than that. I watched him buy classic Fantastic Four comics and saw the absolute pride when he completed that run. I saw him become most alive when talking about classic back issues with other customers or with me or staff. And I watched him build those collections only to sell them for investment capital in his businesses and then to build the collection all over again. Just weeks before his death, we were texting back and forth over collections we were both buying. I remember thinking about why someone who was facing terminal cancer was still buying comics. I remember my wife asking me what I would do with comics I was collecting, why I had them. I don’t know if there’s answers to those questions but I think the fact that he was still buying them tells you everything you need to know about how deep a love of comics is.

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The last time I saw him, it was at Paradox. He came to buy new comics. I’m not kidding. This was just weeks before he passed. He couldn’t talk and he didn’t have to. He gave me a deep hug. It was hard to see him go and the feeling of dread that came with it was overwhelming. But even then he had to get to the comic shop for that week’s new issues. Yeah, by now, our relationship was that of family.

I don’t know if I have ever known anyone quite like Tom or how to sum him up. Stan Lee once said that a hero is someone who does good deeds not because it’s easy or they have the ability. They do good deeds despite their flaws because that makes them human. That’s probably a good way to sum up Tom Tepley to many of us. 

I’ll never be what Tom Tepley was. I’ll be me. But I’ll carry a part of him. He put love in the world and he was always showing me how to do it. Now I carry that responsibility with me as I begin to see what I want to really do with my life. I’m honored he did that for me and proud to be just one of many who can say the same.

But I’ll never forget one particular sentence he said to me.

He had beaten throat cancer back in the early 2010s and I saw someone genuinely grateful to be alive. There was something sparkling in him, an energy, a true love of life, and I remember I was telling him about some customer or business relationship that was really sour and he said the following and I’ll let them be the final words here:

Life’s too short for f*(!heads.