Walking into Comic Envy is like entering an Alex Ross book with all the colors from thousands of saddle-stitched, glossy booklets: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Manga. And there are just as many from less mainstream publishers: Top Shelf, Fantagraphics. For every Spiderman or Spongebob Squarepants there is a 10-foot-tall homunculus in a flat cap and dockworker’s getup chomping a cigar.
Among shelves that brim with special editions, collected volumes and companion books, a Millennium Falcon model (Star Wars) hangs from the ceiling beside a reconstruction of the Helicarrier (The Avengers). The inventory fits the store’s unofficial motto, displayed on a placard by the counter: “Comics, Toys and Nerdy Stuff.”
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘This is great! It’s about time Asheville had a comics store!” says owner Darrin Williams. “I used to explain how long we’ve been open, but now I generally just agree.” Williams opened Comic Envy in November 2008, right after his family moved to Asheville.
“I got here and couldn’t find a job,” he says. “I had always wanted to open a comics store, and it got to the point where I would either open the store or we’d find another place to live. Of course, right after we opened the recession hit.”
The recession wasn’t the only setback. The store itself seemed to go against the first rule of business (location, location, location), secluded as it was in the corner of a strip mall off Tunnel Road.
Even so, after a glacial six months, the store started seeing small profits, relying on the most time-honored business-growing model: word of mouth. Eventually Williams was able to move down the hill to the former location of Dancing Bears Toys, right on Tunnel Road, adding visibility to the store’s good reputation.
Stand by me
Contrary to what the average fan of The Simpsons might expect of a comic-book shop proprietor, Williams seems to have boundless energy as he pivots between wrapping old editions, escorting customers to a specific shelf and running the register. He has passion for his vocation and approaches his post with excitement.
Williams first got into comics when he was 11. Teen Titans and Spiderman were his favorite. The realm of comics offered some consistency to a child of a military family, continually on the move. “I was always the new kid,” he says. “But the comics on the newsstands were a constant.”
He created Comic Envy to be as inclusive as possible, especially to children, the backbone of the entire industry — a backbone that has largely been neglected for the past 20 years, as collectors’ editions inflated prices and old standbys like Superman went “dark” to appeal to an older audience. Comics themselves migrated from newsstands to harder-to-find specialized stores. It was a sweeping transformation that took hold in the late ’80s, and despite declining sales and growing indifference by consumers, there’s been little course correction.
“Other stores I looked at, I just thought there was a lack of variety,” Williams says. “Straight Marvel or DC. Or the atmosphere simply wasn’t inviting. I thought there was a niche open in Asheville for a more inclusive store.” Williams estimates children comprise at least 20 percent of his base. For those making a living with comics, the old adage rings true: Ignore the future at your own risk.
Yet it wasn’t just an unexplored market that made Williams believe Asheville could support a self-proclaimed “nerdy” store. ”Asheville is great about supporting locals,” Williams says. “It has a recognizable culture and feel. Very artsy; a lot of the product I carry, I carry because I know Asheville wants it — art books in particular. People can buy the comics online, but in Asheville, you know they like local. You know they’ll come in if they have a good experience. In turn that leads me to pay it forward. Like, I know I can probably get business cards printed cheaper online, but I get them done locally. It’s a way the local businesses support themselves.”
Williams seeks to bring what he terms the “somewhat fragmented” nerd culture of Asheville together. In 2012 he started the Asheville Comic Expo, partly to give artists, especially of the comic variety, a venue to show their work. The Expo got a good response, enough for Williams to hold it again this September (see info box).
In the end, though, it’s about catering to the whole audience, to those who have read comics for 20 years, and to those who come through the door for the first time. “You can’t be condescending, especially to kids,” says Williams. “Kids know when you’re talking down to them. And you have to invest; stores don’t have the money to carry dead stock, and collectors’ stores tend to focus on a diminishing audience.”
But in an era of constant stimulation, what about comics is so appealing? What will make people come back for more? What, indeed, makes comics so great? Williams’ face lights up at the question, his hand twirling in small circles, as if attempting to pull a concept from the ether.
“The best thing about comics,” he says. “Is when you see a writer and artist working together, mashing perfectly. And what you get is different from a movie or a book. It’s a new experience. You are seeing a truly unique form of art.”