Sam McManis

Discoveries: The (toilet) seat of power is found in San Francisco

James Sime, owner of Isotope comic book shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, shows off some of his prized toilet seat art by illustrators.
James Sime, owner of Isotope comic book shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, shows off some of his prized toilet seat art by illustrators. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Artists can appropriate just about anything as a canvas, not the least of which is the humble commode.

From Marcel Duchamp’s modernist porcelain masterpiece, “Fountain,” in 1917 to Korean artist Do-Ho Suh’s recent polyester “Toilet” to scores of toilet-paper-roll art that clog up Pinterest feeds, inspiration often can be found on the pot. Sure, Rodin sculpted “The Thinker” sitting on a rock, but it sure looks like an early ad for Kaopectate to us.

You should know by now that we are not above potty humor here at Discoveries, so it shouldn’t surprise that we’d eventually find our way to the comic book shop in trendy Hayes Valley that houses the esteemed Comic Rock Star Toilet Seat Museum.

It began, as most brilliant ideas do, by sheer happenstance. James Sime, owner and visionary of Isotope, which dubs itself a comic book lounge, had invited writer and illustrator Brian Wood (“DMZ,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “X Men”) for an in-store appearance in 2002. Sime provided Wood with all he needed – fresh black Sharpies and ample alcohol – to begin a tradition that now resides in rows of illustrated white toilet-seat lids.

“We gave Brian a little more beer than he should have had that night, and he vandalized our bathroom, drew all over everything,” Sime recalled. “The walls? They were not so great. But the lid, that was awesome. When we were cleaning up, we wanted to save the toilet (seat) because we are (a) appreciators of fine original art; (b) fans of Brian’s work; and (c), it’s hilarious.”

They decided to take the seat off the toilet and hang it in the gallery with the rest of the original art, such as framed comic book covers and posters.

“Once we did that, Rick Remender, who did ‘Black Science’ and does ‘Captain America,’ stopped by and saw that toilet seat and said, ‘What do I gotta do to get one?’” Sime added. “I went to Home Depot that night and bought five. Just as a joke, right? But it’s grown and grown and grown.”

Grown so much, in fact, that the toilet seats now number more than 150. That’s way too many for Sime to display in his shop without completely transforming the space from comic-book store to a restroom large enough to service a sports stadium, so he rotates the works periodically, just to keep the images fresh.

Sime, of course, has heard all the toilet humor, even contributes some himself. Yes, yes, he was flushed with success after Wood’s initial offering, and he tries to keep the more explicit comic renderings tucked away, sanitized for your protection. Ardent comic-book fanboys often come in to get the straight poop on the toilet-seat offering from their favorite artists, the most popular being a mad rush in December to glimpse Brian K. Vaughan’s (“Ex Machina,” “Saga”) choice specimen.

Those who think comic book artists are just kids who never grew up – not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se – will have their opinion reinforced by gazing at many of the offerings hanging in Isotope’s gallery.

The legendary Jim Lee, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for penning the best-selling comic book of all time (“X Men,” 1991), drew a flying superhero with the inscription: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.” Mark Millar offered up Superman with a gaping, open mouth in the center of the seat and the caption, “Give it your best shot, Luther.” Adam Beechen, of DC Comics: “Do Not Disturb. Hack Writer at Work.” Mike Brennan (“Electric Girl”): “Foolish Humans! Robo Blammo Needs No Toilet!” Peter Gross (“Lucifer”): “Only two things are certain: death and toilets.”

Scan the scene, and a pattern starts to develop. Many draw their characters on the lid and punctuate them with scatological references too intense for your tender sensibilities. But some, like Paul Cornell (“Doctor Who”) wrote dialogue instead of illustrations:

Doctor and Pete are standing side by side in the Gents. They’ve been there a while. Now they’ve made eye contact.

Doctor: “I like the suit. Have I said I like the suit? Didn’t like the trench coat. But I like the suit.”

Pete Wisdom: “We’re going to be standing here forever.”

Sime cherishes all the offerings, and there’s a story behind each. Already a major figure in the comic-book world because of his popular shop – as well as his unique fashion sense, always wearing suits and sporting David Lynch-type vertical hair and a handlebar mustache – Sime has gained even more notoriety for the toilet art.

“We’ve gotten some unsolicited toilet seats, but not that many,” he said. “People really know the rules. The two rules are: You have to come into the shop and we have to love your comics. A bunch of creators all over the world ask me at comic conventions, ‘When do I get one of those lids?’ I’m like, ‘You have to come in the shop.’

“See that lid over there, the one of the guy playing the guitar? That is Italian artist Lee Bermejo. We had him for an in-store (appearance). At the end of the night – he’s a famously slow artist – he had the lid. I assumed he’d leave it in the cab on the way to the hotel, or maybe in the morning, he’d wake up and forget about it. I never thought it he’d take it to Italy to draw it. But a few years later – yes, years – he mailed it back to me.”

Once, when artist Darwyn Cooke visited the store, the crowd was so big and Sime was so busy that he forgot to give Cooke the lid before he left.

A few weeks later, Sime got a call from Cooke: “He was like, ‘So I gotta ask you a question, man? So you don’t like my art, man?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, you give these toilet seats to all these other guys and you didn’t even offer me one.’”

A few months later, Sime and his girlfriend went to visit Cooke at his home in Florida. Cooke’s partner and Sime’s girlfriend left the house to go “shopping,” and after they returned, Cooke excused himself to go draw. At visit’s end, Cooke presented him with a toilet-seat masterpiece.

“They made me take it back on the airplane as punishment,” Sime said. “I had to go through security with that friggin’ toilet seat.”

Cooke’s seat now hangs in honor on Isotope’s walls, a significant addition to the collection. But Sime is quick to point out that the collection is not complete. He’s missing a contribution from the old master, Rick Geary (who writes the Victorian Murder series).

“I’d love to have his toilet seat,” Sime said. “I’ve got to get it. He’s never been in the store. He knows, too. We keep telling him.”

Ultimatum to Geary: “Draw or get off the pot.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter

@SamMcManis

Isotope – The Comic Book Lounge

  • Where: 326 Fell St., San Francisco
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m -6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
  • Info: isotopecomics.com
  Comments