Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
It’s a Renaissance period for the comic book industry. Darrin Williams should know—he stocks 300 new titles each month and moves nearly 1,500 copies per week.
Like a superhero who masquerades as an unimposing civilian until he rips off his button-down disguise, the unassuming storefront on Asheville’s Tunnel Road offers little reason to suspect the incredible experience lurking behind the front door. Open that door, and Comic Envy bursts upon you with a kaleidoscope of color, a bewildering array of comics, posters, toys, masks, costumes, and action figures.
Front and center stands a life-size cardboard cutout of the new Star Wars heroine, Rey. And from behind the counter, the lord of this unlikely domain, Darrin Williams, issues a smiling greeting: “Hi. Welcome. Let me know if I can help you.” It’s a neighborly—not to mention family friendly—shopping environment he intentionally cultivates.
Darrin’s greeting usually includes the name of the customer, because most of the people who shop here are regulars. Many of them weekly regulars. In the comic universe, Wednesday is new release day, and on any given Wednesday you will find more than a dozen of Darrin’s most regular regulars sifting through the racks to find the latest exploits of their favorite fantasy creatures. They hurry in on Wednesday to be sure they can get their favorites before they sell out.
The customers have a wide array of characters and plot lines to choose from. The various comic publishers issue about 300 new titles every month, expanding on the adventures of their popular heroes. Most of the plots are serialized, so a complete story may cover as many as seven or eight issues. The comics themselves run about 32 pages on glossy paper, with a few full-page advertisements for related items. The cost varies, with most of the titles in the $3.00 range. The headline characters—not all of them are “heroes”—include such luminaries as Dr. Fate, Sinestro, Hangman, Hellboy, and Guardian of Infinity. The roster could dominate a Saturday night line-up in the toughest of police precincts.
Compared to the apocalyptic characters in the comics, the customers present a far different profile. They are a mild-mannered, well-spoken bunch, mostly under 30, often male (although females still comprise a healthy percentage of the store’s clientele), and quick to describe themselves with a smile as “nerdy.” They all have their favorite characters; they all admit to having comic collections of at least several hundred issues; and they all trace their attraction to comics back to their youth.
Speaking of which, youngsters (along with their parents) can usually be found browsing the aisles, including a display devoted specifically to kid-friendly titles. On a recent Wednesday, for example, one of the regulars, Tim Worsham, slid the latest Deadpool comic into a special protective sleeve. He got serious about collecting 10 years ago when his son was born, and today he has brought his two younger daughters out shopping with him. They are sifting through baskets of buttons showing comic heroes. Tim works as an auditor, and he keeps track of his comic investment, which he estimates at $2,000 to $3,000 a year. He says he’s assembling a collection for his son. “Maybe some day he’ll be able to sell them and buy a car,” Tim says. Comics have become a family affair; Tim’s wife is a Wonder Woman fan. “She got really interested when they announced a Wonder Woman film is coming out. Movies bring the characters to life.”
In a display of coincidence—or perhaps an unexplained cosmic reality—many of the Comic Envy customers reflect the manner and personality of their host, Darrin Williams. He presents a friendly face, soft voice, easy grin, and thoughtful attitude as he tries to explain the appeal of comic books. “It’s almost a love affair,” he says, and then pauses for a long moment. “I wish there was a word between ‘hobby’ and ‘cult’ to describe the phenomenon.” Darrin began collecting comics when he was 10, never guessing that by the age of 45 he would be the king of a successful comic venture.
“I was an Army kid,” he says, to explain his own comic roots. “We moved around every year. It was easier to go down to the PX and find a comic than to find a new friend.”
Once he grew up, he had no obsession with comics, and he doesn’t remember carrying any hidden dream to become a comic entrepreneur. However, necessity reared its opportunistic head when he and his wife, Laura, arrived in Asheville. Darrin took his history degree and retail experience out into the local job market, and quickly learned a sobering lesson: Asheville is a great place to live, but a difficult place to make a living. “There were just no jobs. We were expecting a baby, and fortunately we had some savings. I said to Laura, ‘If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it. And if we don’t do something soon, we’ll just have to leave here and go somewhere else.’ It was scary, but she was really supportive. We decided to go for it.”
Darrin’s wife, Laura, looks back at the fateful decision from the comfort of eight successful years. But in the beginning it was not at all comfortable. “I thought he was insane, but he was really devoted to the idea,” she recalls. “It’s hard to be discouraging in that situation, so I went along with the idea. I was four months pregnant when the store opened, and I was afraid that if it didn’t work, we would be dependent on our families for years.”
Laura not only supported his decision, it was she who came up with the puzzling name, Comic Envy. “I don’t remember how I arrived at that name. We both kept coming up with names that didn’t seem to work, and one day I was looking through an app store, and there must have been an app that prompted me to think Comic Envy. At first, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. People thought we were a comedy nightclub. We had a lot of calls asking, ‘When are your performances?’”
The original Comic Envy opened in an out-of-the-way, hard-to-spot location off Tunnel Road. The store, part of a small, sleepy strip mall, was so cramped that Darrin compares it to a walk-in closet. He stocked the place with the cartons full of comics that he’d been buying on eBay and that were beginning to fill every available space in their home. “That might be what convinced Laura to support the idea,” he says, grinning at the memory. “She wanted to get all those comics out of the house.”
I’m an optimistic guy, and I knew I could open a successful comic store in Asheville because Asheville is unique and so art driven and there wasn’t anyone here fulfilling that niche.”
”Those cartons of comics went into his tiny new store in 2008—just in time for the recession. “It was rough,” Darrin says, with a grimace that suggests “rough” is an understatement. “That first year was really tough. A new baby in the house and a new business that we didn’t know whether we’d make it or not. When the market was in freefall there was a point that I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I doing?’ But I’m an optimistic guy, and I knew I could open a successful comic store in Asheville because Asheville is unique and so art driven and there wasn’t anyone here fulfilling that niche.”
But success didn’t come without some harrowing moments. “When I first opened, I thought I was going to open the doors and everybody would be there.” He grins and shakes his head as he recalls an early mistake. “I ordered with that in mind, and I over-ordered so much stuff. I probably still have some of those comics. I quickly realized it’s going to be a slow build. I had to suck it up for four weeks, but after that I was able to get my orders down to a manageable level.”
He adds that it wasn’t until “towards the end of our second year when I knew we’d be OK. That’s when we reached 50 subscriptions.” He explains that subscriptions represent those dedicated collectors—the most regular of his regulars—who have a standing order for their favorite titles. When the new editions arrive every Wednesday, he sets the subscription orders aside. They amount to guaranteed sales, four or five (and maybe more) comics for each of those subscribers. The 50 subscriptions amounted to a base income that allowed him to breathe a bit easier.
Ever the entrepreneur, Darrin began investing his profits into expanding his product line. The sign outside his store advertises “Comics, Toys, and Nerdy Stuff,” and indeed, there is plenty of material here, from action figures and hardbound books to memorabilia and gear, to bust the budget of the nerdiest customer. The “Stuff” amounts to “50 percent of my sales by dollar amount,” he says. And then, with an expansive wave to underline his point, he adds, “And Star Wars is massive. Massive. In the last three months it has amounted to ten percent of my sales.”
Another significant component of Darrin’s product line is back issues. Along two walls of his store is a line of metal shelves, each stacked with cartons of comics, all neatly labeled with the year of publication and the title heroes. A quick count produces the estimate that this back-issue stock amounts to about 40,000 old comic books. Where did he get them all? He laughs at the question. “People come in every day wanting to sell me the collections they’ve had stored up in the attic since they were kids. In fact, it’s one of the hardest parts of my job. Most of them aren’t rare, aren’t even uncommon. They’re not worth anything. And I hate to be the one who has to say no.”
But some old comics are worth quite a bit. Displayed in protective plastic wrapping is a copy of The Amazing Spider Man #50. It sold for 12 cents when it was published in July, 1967; the price on Darrin’s copy is $200. Prices for rare originals can go far higher. Darrin is happy to recall the time three years ago that he sold a copy of the first X-Men comic—Volume One, Number One—for $1,500. “That was a day I’ll always remember,” he says.
Darrin put together enough memorable days that three years ago he was able to expand to his current Tunnel Road location. The store is about three times the size of his original “closet,” and it reflects all the time and energy that he puts into the venture. In one way, all the hours he works present a burden. “Yes, I’m successful, but part of my success is that I’m working all the time. I spend 45 to 50 hours in the store, and another 10 to 15 at home. I have two kids, and when I think about the time I put in working, that’s time I’m not spending with the kids.” He pauses, an uneasy look on his face that says he just doesn’t know how to change a perplexing situation.
But all those working hours produce some enjoyable moments. “Every Wednesday, it’s a little bit like Christmas. I get to open the shipment of all the new issues, and get the first look at all this new stuff to marvel at.” And beyond the routine joys of discovery, Darrin’s favorite moments come unexpectedly. “The most satisfying part of the job is when some collector comes in looking for some particular issue, and I have the last copy of what he’s looking for. It’s like I’m handing him a holy grail. The look on his face… it’s just great.”
Beyond the comics, the extra space in his new store has allowed Darrin to expand his product lines to every nook of the fantasy market. He says the other products, the puzzles, games, costumes, and assorted trinkets, now amount to nearly half his sales.
BAG AND BOARD: The plastic sleeve and cardboard insert most commonly used to store and protect single-issue comic books.
SINGLE ISSUE: (floppy, monthly) Typically a 24-page comic book that comes out once a month. Special editions may have a higher page count, or come out more often!
TRADE: A collection of single issues bound in a paperback or hardcover volume. Usually a completed story-arc of an ongoing monthly comic or a finished story.
GOLDEN AGE: Comics that were published from the 1930s until 1957.
SILVER AGE: Comics that were published from 1958 until 1970.
BRONZE AGE: Comics that were published from 1971 until the mid-1980s.
PULL FOLDER (subscription, box): A subscription service offered by many comic stores to regular customers. New single issues that come out are collected and held to be picked up by customers once a week.
PRE-CODE: A comic from the late 1940s or early 1950s, before a strict set of rules and standards had been set in place to regulate the comics industry.
GRADED: A comic book that has been reviewed by a professional grading company and assigned a ‘grade’ from 1.0 to 10.0. Most graded comics are kept in a hard plastic case.
THE BIG TWO: Marvel and DC, the two biggest publishers currently operating, producing mostly superhero comics.
But comic books are what ultimately drive the business. On a recent Saturday Lilah Welsch, an environmental studies major at UNC Asheville, is checking out with a coffee mug and a stack of comics. She says her enjoyment of the comic form runs deep, adding that she thinks of it as “cultural literacy.” She laughs as she admits, “I just spent $40 here. My favorite comic is Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.” (Yes, folks, there is a comic hero named Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.) “I have all 11 issues,” she says, “and a bound volume that includes all of them.” Her friend, a mass communications major who gave her name only as Gray, is also enthusiastically pro-comic; she announces that she would soon borrow Welsch’s bound volume so she could catch up on Squirrel Girl’s early adventures.
The customers mostly agree that it is not the art but the story that drives their interest. Daniel Hutchinson, who works in supply at Borg Warner, is fanning through some comics as he estimates his collection includes about 1,500 issues. He says his preference is for stories that “will take me out of this world. It gives me a new perspective.” He joins in the consensus that the story is more important than the art. “The writing is the most important part. If it doesn’t have a good story…” His thought trails off into a dismissive shrug.
At another rack of comics, Stefan and Joey Metcalf are culling a stack of titles down to a manageable purchase. The 26-year old twins are unnervingly alike in both appearance and thought process. They share their sentences with a rhythm that suggests each knows when the other is about to take over. They also share their 400-volume comic collection and their ideas on what makes the books attractive. “It’s the tangibility,” Stefan says, and Joey picks up the thought. “The comics are physical. You can go through them at your own pace.” They enjoy the art, but they agree that the story is the most important element. “Does it connect with you on a personal level?” Stefan says, and to no surprise, Joey agrees. They check out with about eight comics.
The checkout counter is busy, ringing up orders both large and small. One customer buys a stack of 19 comics and a bound paperback volume for a total price of $119.99. Floor manager Allison Jenkins says that an order that size is nothing unusual. Allison has worked at Comic Envy for six years, and she bubbles with energy when she talks about her job.
I get to talk about Batman all day. What could be better?” she says, quickly adding, “The people here are incredible.”
“Incredible” seems like a good word to describe everything about the place—particularly the annual extravaganza known as Free Comic Book Day, held the first Saturday of every May. For the event, the comic industry publishes unique, special-edition titles for the stores to offer for free to customers while supplies last. (The comics are not free to the stores, but the accompanying boost in business more than makes up for the cost.)
At Comic Envy, the day has taken on a life of its own.
“Last year we had 1,600 people here,” says Darrin. “I hired someone to direct traffic and got my neighbors to open up their parking areas. There were people outside dressed up as Star Wars characters. We have comic book artists here that day doing sketches for kids. It’s incredible.” (There’s that word again.) Darrin rides a wave of enthusiasm as he continues. “I ordered 4,000 comics to give away last year, and they all went. Even with all my expenses, it’s my biggest day of the year. It’s my Black Friday,” he says, comparing the event to retail sales on the day after Thanksgiving.
It was Darrin’s first Free Comic Book Day—back when the store was in the hidden strip mall—that convinced Laura the venture might be a success. “When we had Free Comic Book Day, I was amazed at how many people showed up. I looked at him and thought, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘There’s something here.’ He really has an instinct for it. He goes with his gut most of the time, and it all turns out right.”
As a professional social worker, Laura has developed a theory on the popularity of comics and on the devotees who contribute to that popularity. “I think it appeals to people who are smart, but have not found community as easily. Something about comics makes them feel less odd.” As for herself, Laura wasn’t necessarily a comic fan. “But Darrin loved them so much that I envied him for that passion.”
Darrin promotes another annual event, which has quickly become bigger than he had anticipated. He created a one-day festival called Comic Expo in 2011, and last October it drew 2,000 people to the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville. “We had 200 vendors; we had artists doing superhero sketches of people; we had seminars and lectures.” The only downside, he notes, is that downtown parking was so difficult, some customers gave up and went home.
Again, Laura was the reluctant supporter of the venture: “I thought it would be a nightmare, but he pulled it off. I said, ‘You’re crazy, it can’t be done.’ But he did it in a week. Now I trust him in whatever he sets his mind to. Every time I’ve told him he’s crazy, he’s always made it work.”
And now Darrin is turning his attention to another ambitious venture, one which Laura is confident he will achieve. His entrepreneurial spirit is pushing him from Tunnel Road toward the southern limits of the Asheville region. He wants to open a second store in the Hendersonville Road area. “I’ve actually looked at spots,” he says. He believes he can handle the additional responsibilities—with help. “I have great employees. And I know I can increase their hours here to give me free time to be at a second location.” He hopes to open a new store later this year, “But one lesson I learned from my first store is location, location, location. As soon as I find the right spot, I’m ready to go.”
By his own count, Darrin reads about 20 comics a month, stories that conjure fantasy worlds with outrageous perils and sumptuous rewards. And in this world outside the comic pages, he sums up his real reward: “I’m making a living doing something I love.”
The original article is below. Click to open in fullscreen…