Comic books still pack a punch at Emerald City

Behind the scenes at one of the bay area's best comic retailers.

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click to enlarge COMIC HEROES: Emerald City staffers Arthur J. Powers and Bryan McKee. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
COMIC HEROES: Emerald City staffers Arthur J. Powers and Bryan McKee.

Like a kid in a candy store.

I know it’s a cliché, but that’s exactly how I felt when I entered Seminole’s Emerald City Comics & Collectibles — dazzled by the sheer pleasure-inducing variety of the place. A Star Trek Phaser Battle game, copyright 1975. A Superman figure exactly like the one I’ve had since the late 1970s. Vintage dolls from The Wizard of Oz. (The place is called Emerald City, after all.)

And, of course, comic books. Row upon row of them in sturdy white cardboard boxes, labeled by title and era. Graphic novels, too, and handsomely bound comic collections.

An adjacent space is the “game room,” where groups meet for Role Playing Games (RPGs) and similar events on weekends. But on May 5, it’ll be transformed into a kind of comic book mini-mecca: This is where Emerald City staff will display the goodies they’re giving away on Free Comic Book Day. Held annually on the first Saturday of May, this nationwide effort to bring new readers into the fold and celebrate independent comic book shops is now in its eleventh year. Emerald City owner Neil Johnson calls Free Comic Book Day "a fantastic idea," one that has helped a troubled industry promote itself.

“The comics consumer is a dying breed,” Johnson says.

But Emerald City is still pulling in readers of all ages. On a recent Saturday, Seminole store manager Bryan McKee, who looks like a Central Casting version of “graduate assistant working toward his doctorate,” helps a boy about 10 or 11 find the section of graphic novels he's searching for (much to the relief of his mother). The next day is busier, and geekier: somewhere between five and 10 customers are perusing the aisles, and a staff member is telling a story about his futile attempt to explain to a nonbeliever why Spider-Man is a worthwhile superhero. In the game room, a Yu-Gi-Oh card game is about to begin.

McKee, who's worked at Emerald City for five years, says the store can expect to see a hundred new faces on May 5, many of them youngsters. Many perhaps not so different from the 30-something McKee himself. “I was a customer here from when I was a little kid."

McKee says many younger readers are first drawn to comic books by the cartoons. That was the case for him — He-Man was a favorite title, as were those perennial faves Batman and Superman. Neil Johnson, 49, also started young: He began collecting comics as a 10-year-old, attracted to the “good vs. evil” nature of the stories, and opened Emerald City’s Seminole store in 1989, stocking it with the comics and toys that took up two rooms of his home. He had gotten the inspiration and courage to start his own shop from working at Wilson’s Book World, the venerable St. Petersburg bookstore.

“I was crazy worried,” Johnson says about whether the business venture would last. “My mom and dad were worried.”

Just five years later, Johnson would open Emerald City’s second store, in Clearwater.

But the comics business now faces increased competition for its audience's attention. To bring readers back into the fold, publishers have added more high-profile authors, including Stephen King, who is behind comic-book treatments of his The Stand and Dark Tower series.

“They keep bringing in new writers to keep us stimulated,” Johnson says. “[The storylines] can’t just be two guys beating each other.”

DC’s relaunch of its entire line is a gambit that Johnson says has increased business. Publishers are also updating old titles, bringing back characters like Flash Gordon, Tarzan and The Shadow.

“They put a new tire on it and try to see if it will work,” he offers.

Clearwater store manager Chad Rivard, 41, has been with Emerald City since 1994. While he recognizes that the new generation of readers will dwindle as kids become teens and their interests change to extracurricular activities and dating, he sees that shift as temporary.

“Once their time and money is taken up by other things, we’ll lose them for a while,” says Rivard, “and then they’ll come back.”

That’s a big part, if not the main part, of the push behind Free Comic Book Day. With the free selections, Rivard says publishers try to target all ages and tie them into upcoming stories.

To attract readers beyond the free offerings, Rivard says, “We’ll put out stuff we think is pretty good right now — and we’ll put out the first volume.”

McKee, who says he reads a lot of science-fiction titles, is quick to dispel the notion that comic books are the exclusive domain of superheroes.

“That’s a misconception we like to correct,” he says. “It’s just as diverse as any medium.”

That diversity is reflected in the store’s stock. “You can’t really specialize too much,” McKee explains. “You have to have a wide range to keep a store.”

With Marvel Studios’ The Avengers set to hit the big screen on Friday (check out Joe Bardi’s review here), I ask if Emerald City will see a concurrent spike in sales. Because it’s a well-known product, Rivard says the store will sell a few more related titles. He notes that Marvel’s new Avengers vs. X-Men series has been selling out. Along with the devotees of certain titles come the completists, for whom the content isn’t as important as ownership.

“There’s people who, if they have issues 1-150, have to have all of them even if they don’t read them,” Rivard says.

Our talk about comic book issues jogs a memory of a Spider-Man storyline from over 30 years ago, one whose conclusion I never read. Rivard finds it for me in a bound collection, but the black-and-white reprint can wait. I want to continue strolling among the boxes, taking in the variety of comics before me. My son, who has just turned 7, is drawn to a graphic novel that promises to explain the origin of the Red Hulk. Though I wonder about the value of three issues for the hefty sum of 20 bucks, I can’t say no.

I also pick up a single issue of The Dark Knight for myself. It’s priced at nearly eight times what a comic cost me as a 9-year-old. Seen through adult eyes, however, $2.99 seems like a worthwhile investment for a few minutes of entertainment.

As Rivard said — eventually we come back.

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