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AMC niftily turns over a new leaf with Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men

Kevin Smith (center) and his Brand X band of merry men. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Kevin Smith, Walt Flanagan, Bryan Johnson, Michael Zapcic, Ming Chen
Produced by: Kevin Smith, Charlie Corwin, Jay Peterson, Elyse Seiden

Rough-hewn Kevin Smith is still belligerently big as a house, can afford to live in a mansion and has an upcoming book titled Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good.

All of which make him likable as hell, both in the flesh at a recent network TV "press tour" appearance and on-screen in AMC's new Comic Book Men.

It's an unscripted departure from the likes of AMC's Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, with Smith presiding over his Smodcast Internet Radio podcasts in the company of four chums who run his New Jersey-based comic book shop, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash.

The action shifts back and forth from banter on the podcast to the shop itself, where bearded, sardonic hanger-on Bryan Johnson asks at one point, "Do people ever come in here to buy anything?"

"It feels like no," replies Walt Flanagan, the store's chief buyer of collectibles ranging from a mint condition Six Million Dollar Man doll to a poster of the action hero Thor.

There are elements of Auction Hunters, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars. But these guys are more fun than any of those guys. And Comic Book Men is also handsomely produced.

Talkative, drug-addled Jay, played by Jason Mewes in a series of Smith-directed movies (Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, etc), is nowhere to be seen or heard in Comic Book Men. But Smith, who was Silent Bob, is a talkative presence in what's now become his standard uniform -- an oversized "S.I.R.! hockey jersey.

Smith's lifelong addiction to comic books is both genuine and entertaining. But he's a little too busy to run his New Jersey shop, instead leaving it in the reasonably capable hands of Walt, Bryan, Michael Zapcic and Ming Chen.

AMC has ordered a half-dozen one-hour episodes of Comic Book Men, which should get a big boost Sunday night from the preceding return of The Walking Dead. Zombies, comics and pop culture paraphernalia pretty much go together. And that's underscored by a guy who strides into the Secret Stash shop with a Dawn of the Dead movie poster and a companion set of movie cards, for which he wants a princely sum.

As in other basic cable treasure hunts, Walt and his crew call in an expert to assess the value. And professional collector Rob Bruce is a no-nonsense stripper-down who quickly downgrades the items.

"It's like watching a wolf hunt. It's like watching a lion devour an elf," Walt later marvels on the podcast.

The boys also feast their eyes on a vintage Detective Comics issue and companion Batman drawing autographed by the Caped Crusader's deceased creator, Bob Kane. Their awe is genuine. "I wouldn't take less than $10 grand for it," Walt tells the prospective seller, who intends to auction it off.

A trip to the nearby Collingwood Flea Market, which Smith considers the ultimate mesh of mankind and cheap merchandise, pits Bryan, Michael and Ming against each other in a selling match. The grand prize is a couple of weekends off. Ever the dour dude, Bryan trash-talks Ming before getting off the show's best line: "The whole place reeks of desperation, yet somehow you stand out."

Bryan's act -- which probably is no act -- gets a wee bit old over the course of this first hour. And it's a little too easy to make Ming the butt of most jokes. Still, there's a reasonable facsimile of a happy ending to their flea market warfare. And Rob Bruce, "The Fifth Beatle" as Smith calls him, has something to do with it.

Comic Book Men is a pleasant surprise and an overall splash of fragrant cologne on the smell test-flunking reality genre. The inhabitants of Secret Stash, and its enthusiastic owner, are knights of the round table compared to most of the front men for cable's out-of-control collection of unscripted eyesores.

It's amazing, though, what some people think a Chucky doll is worth.