In 1989, the year Michael Keaton's "Batman" opened in theaters, "Atomic Comics" opened in Mesa, Arizona with the mission of creating a comic store that appealed to the general public's shopping expectations. In other words, it wouldn't be a scary, cramped hole in the wall with a single hairy guy running the register and giving off the evil eye. For over 20 years, Atomic Comics was a rarity in the comics retail business, spawning three more stores, regularly attracting the biggest creators in the business for signings and other events, and even being featured, with the same logo and employee T-shirts, in the superhero movie "Kick-Ass".
Today, with zero advance notification to its loyal customers and just over 12 hours notice to its employees, Atomic Comics closed its doors forever. I got word about the event on Saturday, before even many employees knew. (I know a guy who knows a guy.) But when it became official today, as evidenced only by the disconnected phones and signs on the doors of all 4 store locations, and one (former) employee's facebook post, it was still a blow. But not as hard hitting as I might have thought.
My comic book hobby has gone through a number of changes over the years. I've always been a big superhero fan and acquired comics here and there growing up. But it wasn't until after high school, when I got my first job and a steady income, that I became a true "collector".
Back then, "Atomic Comics" was "the establishment" comic store. They had employees with name tags and a bright, clean-smelling environment. But over at "Books Comics And Records" (or as I called it "Hairy Chest Man's"), a hole in the wall comic shop, I was elated to buy my weekly comics without paying tax, while also collecting back issues at insanely low prices. And back issues were a big part of my hobby then, since I was "catching up" on about 10 years of DC comics history. Despite the fact that the place smelled like cigar smoke (with maybe just a touch of urine) and was run by a guy who seemed to expose his chest hair through the same half-unbuttoned shirt every time I came calling, I had zero interest in giving my money to Atomic Comics... until about three years later, when "Hairy Chest Man's" closed.
A buddy of mine was kind enough to add my name to his "box" at Atomic Comics. (Or simply "Atomic" as most regulars abbreviate.) A box was a then-coveted spot in the store where they set aside comics from a list created by you based on what you regularly buy each month. You had to purchase a certain number each month to qualify, but the pay-off was being assured that the treasures you wait each month for will never slip out of your hands because someone else got to the store first. I wasn't buying enough on my own to qualify for a box, so I gratefully accepted my friend's help.
From here my hobby began to change again. After "Hairy Chest Man's" closing sale, I had pretty much every back issue I wanted, so I was just getting the new stuff now. As time passed, the extra money no longer spent on back issues began to leak into new book purchases. And a year or two later, as my friend and I began to fall out of touch, I took the plunge and requested my own box, which I have had at the original Atomic store in Mesa for over a decade.
Atomic changed locations once, and remodeled another time two years ago after a drunk driver plowed through their front glass wall. But their service remained the same. This was always the real reason I came back every week. Atomic employees made it a priority to know each of their regulars by name, on sight. Thinking about that store often mysteriously caused me to hum the theme from "Cheers". ("Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name...") The employees often knew their comics better than you did, and always enjoyed talking about their favorites as well as ranting, or letting you rant on the stuff you hated.
My life changed more than Atomic did. Four years ago my wife and I had our first child, and last year we added our second. Little boys this age are many things. What they are not is "easy to take out with you". And with time to myself at a premium, the most economical option has been for me to take one or both boys with me on my "Atomic runs". And while a new policy at Atomic recently started saving me 20% on all of my comics, the company of my boys on each trip still didn't allow me to appreciate the browsing or social experiences of going to Atomic, which were a large part of the appeal. Soon my weekly trek became a chore.
Add to this the fact that Atomic seems to attract young employees who don't stay very long. A trend that became more dramatic and noticeable with each passing year. In the last 3-5 years, it seemed only ONE person knew my name when I came to visit. And that person wasn't always working on Wednesdays. In the last 6 months, the "Wednesday Crew" changed once again, meaning I was suddenly yet again just a box number until the new guys learned my name. But this latest crew didn't seem interested in learning my name. Maybe it was a sign of the end.
As I've considered my options, I've decided to enter the world of mail order comic subscription. With the company I'm planning to go with, there's no long term commitment (as there is if you order direct from DC Comics), you just have to place your order two months in advance. I will also save over 30% on comics, with no tax added on. And although shipping does add some to the final cost, I will still get my comics twice a month without investing that total of 40 minutes in driving each week. And after all the number crunching I'll actually save over $10 a month! But that only helps with the comics I start getting in October, and September is no ordinary month this year.
DC Comics is relaunching all of their main titles to number 1's and rebooting their entire continuity. A massive, almost unprecedented event. The issues selling in September will go extremely fast if DC's strategy is successful. Fast enough that "walk in" customers are far from guaranteed to get the issues they want. With Atomic I was sitting in security. But with Atomic closing without notice, I'm suddenly outside the inner circle and among the ranks of "walk in" customers!
Thankfully, after some quick research and a couple of phone calls, I was able to secure a "box" with a "hole in the wall" comic store just five minutes further from me than Atomic. I explained my situation and the owner was kind enough to hook me up, even knowing he would not retain me as a regular customer after the end of August. I could still save 20% a month with him, but the extra drive time just can't be overlooked in my stage of life. Hopefully he'll still be around when my boys are both in elementary school.
So my collecting habit is safe and should proceed without any serious bumps from here. But what about the "Cheers" factor? Can chat rooms ever replace talking to a real fan face to face, sharing excitement or despair over what has happened or what is rumored to come? I don't think so. I think the death of the comic book store is easily as significant to hardcore fans as the death of arcades once was for regular weekend quarter-pushers. But as with video games, the hobby of comic books has been evolving, and I'm stepping into a relatively new way of approaching it that many have already entered into. Counter-side conversations with whispered "spoiler-filled" highlights will be replaced by comic news websites and newsletters, and possibly a forum (if I can find some nice enough people). Scanning the "new release wall" will change to scrolling on a monitor. And yapping my rants and raves on the latest comics news will have to be directed toward a podcast. (Good thing I host one of those!)
I've been amazed that the death of my comic store has not been a bigger deal to me than it is. I look forward to the future of my hobby with a sense of renewed expectation. With DC comics offering all of their titles in both print and digital form on the same release day(starting in September), we could be looking at the rebirth of the industry as new fans who wouldn't brave those scary comic shops before now safely enter this amazing visual world on their mobile devices.
If DC Comics is ready to go out on a limb and risk approaching production in a brand new way, it seems somehow fitting that at the same time I re-imagine what my favorite hobby could look like and enter into a new era of comic book collecting. I can't wait to see what happens next!