Tuesday 21 November 2017

Life: The Big Bucks theory - comic books are booming

Comic book fans used to be seen as an underground clique, but geek has become chic and business is booming. Chris Wasser goes where many men have gone before ... and it turn's out, a lot of women too

Doc and Jason are excited about the comic craze
Doc and Jason are excited about the comic craze
John is also excited about the comic craze.

Chris Wasser

Remember when Penny, Amy and Bernadette took a trip to the boys' favourite comic book store in the insanely popular US sitcom, The Big Bang Theory? David 'Doc' Huysmans does. Co-owner of Dublin City Comics & Collectibles, Doc was sitting behind the counter of his Bolton Street store last year when, out of curiosity, he decided to check out this 'controversial' clip online.

"It makes my blood boil when I watch it, it's that insulting," he recalls. "Basically, a couple of girls go into a comic shop, and all the guys in the shop suddenly seize up, like, 'We've never seen a girl before!' And it was that whole stereotype ... "

Indeed it was. Doc looked up from his monitor that afternoon and went back to serving his customers. One of them was collecting their weekly comic stash; another was purchasing a Wonder Woman figurine. Two more were perusing the shelves. They were all female.

What are we to do, then, with this persistent stereotype that those who love comics are solely of the male nerd variety? You know, comics are for boys, superheroes in tights are for 'losers' – is the joke not past its expiration date? After all, Hollywood's lucrative love affair with masked avengers continues unabated (this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier took in $700m (€514m) at the box office), so could it be that the world has gone comic crazy without even realising it?

What's it like to go back to the source of these epic, billion-dollar franchises? Are comic retailers reaping the benefits now that Robert Downey Jr has officially made Iron Man cool? Maybe. Whatever the case, superheroes have gone mainstream. Dublin's comic book store owners are still coming to terms with what it all means.

"It's cool to be seen wearing the stuff", says Doc. "There was a hilarious incident here about a year after we opened. A guy walking by in a Superman T-shirt looked at the shop, and he was with his mates, and he said, 'Ha! Comic shops are for nerds!' So, people identify with [comics] as being cool references, but it's like people wearing band T-shirts and not having a bloody clue who the band is."

Doc runs Dublin City Comics & Collectibles alongside his best mate, Jason Flood. Both in their 30s, they've been avid collectors and fans of all things sci-fi since they were kids (Jason's dad ran a model shop in Phibsborough). The Bolton Street hideout is exactly that. On the first floor, you'll find a collection of graphic novels, action figures and limited edition 'Hot Toys'. Downstairs, however, is the 'Geekeasy', a cosy, fully-equipped basement dwelling, complete with framed Batman comic covers ("it's artwork"), widescreen computer monitors and a film projector. This is where the fans – for the small price of a tenner a month – come to play.

"We set up down here because when I was younger, I never had anywhere where I could hang out," says Doc. "You could go into a comic shop, but if you're there for more than an hour, you overstay your welcome, so we wanted a communal space where people could come and draw and just talk about [comics]." Indeed, the independent Irish comic book label, Lightning Strike, was formed here.

Jason and David have made a name for themselves as the guys who can source even the most difficult to find collectibles. It's about the "thrill of the hunt", and customers of all ages continue to splash out in what the lads call a "comic renaissance".

"We have girls coming in at the age of six looking for Wolverine," nods Jason. "The Dark Knight movies – we couldn't keep the 'Bane' figure and Batman's 'Tumbler' on the shelves. People who wouldn't drop 20 quid on a CD or DVD, as soon as they saw the Tumbler (€500) they were throwing money over!"

In Dundrum Town Centre, John Hendrick of The Big Bang comic book store insists that comics have never been just for lads. "One of the things I can't stand hearing from parents is, 'Aw, it's a shop for boys," says John. "It's not a shop for boys. Forty per cent of our clientele now is female."

John (33) has spent most of his adult life working in retail (he previously owned a comic store in Temple Bar). He opened The Big Bang in 2011, moving to Dundrum in order to carve out a better market share. Earlier this year, it became the first Irish comic book store to be nominated for an Eisner Award in retailing ("the Oscars of our industry").

On May 3, more than 2,000 customers queued outside the store from 6am to avail of international 'Free Comic Book Day'. So, business is good. It's all about creating a welcoming atmosphere for both hardcore and casual fans. "Comic stores, record stores and tattoo shops are three businesses that, if you walk in, it can be a pretty unnerving experience," says John. "I didn't want to be that guy that if someone came up to the counter and wanted to buy a book, I'd go, 'You're buying that?' That's no way to improve the market."

"Do you Remember Spaced, the Simon Pegg show? Bill Bailey – his character Bilbo had a comic book store ... yeah, that's not us. But that 'comic book guy' stereotype in The Simpsons – that is completely deserved. Trust me."

Ah yes, the famous 'Comic Book Guy' – a bearded, overweight collector, store-owner and fully-fledged member of the Klingon fan community. John's met a few of those characters – we all have.

John (whose kids are now starting to take up their father's interests) also runs the annual Dublin International Comic Expo (D.I.C.E.) in Dundrum every September. Unlike the inaugural MCM Ireland Comic Con, which attracted huge crowds in the RDS in April, it's purely a "comics-led" event, featuring artists, writers and editors.

Meanwhile, the second annual Dublin Comic Con returns to the National Show Centre in Swords this August. Lifelong movie fan and collector Karl Walsh is one of the brains behind the convention, which includes guest speakers, actors, replica movie sets and retail stands. Surprisingly, Karl doesn't own a store. In fact, he's a Garda in Pearse Street. "We're fans first and foremost," says Karl (28). "You know yourself, especially in your workplace, or even among your friends, you might be that guy who likes Star Trek or Star Wars, but at this event, you're one of thousands."

Last year's DCC attracted 6,000 punters. This year, Karl and co-organiser Derek Cosgrave are aiming for 10,000. "People say 'Jaysus, you spend so much money on this', and I'll say 'Well, what about you sitting in front of a telly screaming at a football team, and spending money on their kits?' That's the same thing. There's no difference – it's just a passion."

Of course, when people think of comic book stores in Dublin, the first place that might spring to mind is Forbidden Planet on Crampton Quay. FP is part of an international chain – the megastore of the comic world. And Dublin manager Kevin Lyons (40) insists that, even throughout recessionary times, people still buy comics. "Very few people would have stopped picking up comics altogether," says Kevin. "Yeah, there was definitely a slight shift, it happened to everyone, but anyone who has a standing order – what we call it here, they put comics by on a regular basis – they kept their account open."

According to Kevin, comics have always been cool. Robert Curley at Sub-City might agree. After 20 years on Exchequer Street, Rob finally moved his business to its shiny new home on Dame Street in March. He needed a bigger store – simple as. And it's opened up a whole new market. For a start, there are more tourists popping in.

Rob insists that it's not just the movies that entice customers – popular TV shows based on comics (Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) are also attracting new readers. "You see directly with something like The Walking Dead – the sales of that graphic novel now are phenomenal. It does bring people into the shop, so yeah, I think it has a definite positive effect."

There's competition between these stores, says Rob, but it's healthy competition. Everyone's got their own area, too, so it's all good. And why wouldn't it be?

"At the end of the day, it's guys in tights running around!" laughs Jason. "Basically, not growing up paid off ... "

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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