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Watch Now – A Life of Comics

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SAnother of the first comic books Robert Pilk remembers reading as a child was the Fantastic Four, a superhuman team that got its start in the 1960s.

“I enjoyed the humor and excitement of the Fantastic Four. It seemed like it was fun being a comic book character,” said Pilk, who still owns some of the Marvel comics from his youth.

“I loved them all, Spider-Man and Avengers. My goal was to get all the Marvels that had ever been released. I never got there, but I had fun trying,” he said. stated with a laugh.

But what he accomplished was equally impressive for the comic book expert.

Pilk and two of his comic book-enthusiast buddies, Wayne Richardson and the late John Stone, hit it off the hook and opened Mountain Empire Comics in 1984, never imagining that their small brick-and-mortar business would survive the lulls. industry, an economic downturn in the country – and even a global pandemic.

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But, he has, for 38 years, in fact.

Within a year of opening, the trio of business partners had successfully added two storefronts, one in Kingsport, which closed in the late 1990s, and the other in Johnson City, which continues to work.

For more than three decades, Pilk has kept the doors open at the State Street store he runs, sharing his passion for comics, an art form that seems to continue, despite competition from electronic gadgets and entertainment. on the big screen today.

Business has been so good for the local owner that he hosts an annual Rob-Con comic book convention, an integral part of comic book culture. After canceling the event in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, Pilk kicked off the annual event last month, welcoming up to 4,000 comic book fans from across the country.

Mountain Empire Comics is the brainchild of three friends who shared a love of comics and enjoyed showing the art to other people.

“It was so much fun when we first opened. I had never worked in a retail store before. Every day was about learning and talking to customers about the comics,” Pilk said, reminiscing about their professionnal career.

Each of the business partners juggled their time in the stores while working other jobs.

At the time, Pilk and Richardson worked at the Bristol Herald Courier and Stone ran the Cameo Theatre. “We each put up $600 in cash and some of our own comics to start,” Pilk said. This was during a time when X-Men, GI Joe and Transformers were top sellers.

The first store was located on Piedmont Avenue next to the Burger Bar. Since then, the store has moved three more times, ending up on Sixth Street across from the post office in Bristol, Tennessee.

The Kingsport site closed in the late 1990s. The Johnson City store continues to operate under the co-ownership of Diana Simpson following Stone’s death in 2017.

So what’s the deal with comics?

Comic book sales hit a record $2 billion market in 2021, according to Forbes.com.

The record number represents the highest total ever measured for sales of periodical comics, graphic novels and digital comics.

Pilk believes comics provide readers with an escape from normal life, but they also provide a unique form of entertainment for almost anyone, even if they’re not superhero fans.

It is no longer children or teenagers who read comics. Pilk welcomes a variety of people, of all ages and walks of life, to his store daily.

Her clients run the gamut from politicians, doctors, lawyers, ministers, stay-at-home moms and their children.

“We have clients who have been with us for 38 years. Some of them were just starting to date when we opened and now their kids are graduating from college,” Pilk said.

“We also have a lot more female customers now. When we started it was pretty much a one guy hobby. Pilk attributes the trend to an increase in comic books based on movies, such as Black Panther, Black Adam and Dr. Strange, and other comic stories such as Moon Knight and She-Hulk, published on the Disney Channel.

“This is Moon Knight. He just had a television series on the Disney channel. It’s hugely popular, Pilk said, flipping through a display of new releases in his store from Marvel and DC Comics, two of the most successful comic book publishers.

“Of course, everyone knows Thor. I tell people he’s the only Marvel superhero to have a day of the week named after him. Thursday comes from the time of Thor.

Other popular comics in 2022 are Amazing Spider-Man, Venom, Batman, Moon Knight, and Spawn.

The comics’ intricate artistry is one of the biggest draws for customers, Pilk said.

Graphic novels, which are comic book format books that resemble a novel in length and narrative development, are popular with many of its customers because they contain the full set of stories.

The ups and downs of the industry

While many businesses have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, the local bookstore owner saw sales increase after the pandemic hit in 2020.

“The comic book industry has had its ups and downs, but it’s actually been more stable than people think,” Pilk said. “I was certain that the pandemic would put us underground. They stopped publishing comics for about two months, so we decided to temporarily close the store during that time. It was a difficult decision to make. »

During the pandemic, publishers connected online with their fans via Facebook and Instagram, perhaps, appealing more to younger audiences during this time.

“Some people get into comics just to make money. I need to make money, but I also love comics and I encourage people to read comics and make them. When they walk into the store, they know there’s another fan here to listen and tell them about what happened in the last comic issue.

Chip Watkins from Bristol, Virginia started reading comic books when he was 6 years old. He thanks Pilk for introducing him to the art form.

“He got me into comics. After school I used to hang out with him at the store. He used to talk to me and give me tips on how to keep them clean and in good shape,” said Watkins, who has since collected as many as 15,000 comics over the years.

“He’s one of our biggest collectors,” said Zoe Hutchinson, a part-time assistant at the Bristol store.

Hutchinson was 14 when she walked from her home on Pearl Street to Mountain Empire Comic. It was there that she was introduced to comics by Pilk.

“I think comics are really good at telling stories that aren’t very good for novels, especially stories with a lot of visual metaphor,” she said.

Pilk himself has always been a big comic book collector, recently collecting as many as 17,000 comics. The store owner said he sold most of them, saving the most sentimental ones from his childhood. When he started buying comics as a kid, comics sold for 12 cents. Now the price has gone up to $3.99 and $4.99 each.

“It’s risky investing in comics,” Pilk warned. “But, if you find an old superhero comic book like Batman or Spiderman that’s in good shape, keep it for 20 years. You’ll make money.

Pilk attributes the boom in the business to the emergence of direct-to-market distribution in the 1980s. Direct sales meant that distributors bought comics in bulk from publishers, allowing them to sell directly to retailers. Prior to direct distribution, retailers purchased comics directly from publishers for display on newsstands and returned books that did not sell to publishers.

“With direct sales, we make a bigger percentage of profit and have the freedom to decide how much we want to buy,” Pilk said.

Direct sales, however, prevented the return of unsold comics, resulting in excess inventory for customers. This has actually helped create a growing number of comic book collectors over the years.

This has resulted in a whole new buying trend, Pilk said. More and more people started buying and selling comic collectibles.

Despite the ups and downs of the business, Pilk still believes there’s never been a better time to sell comics. At 69, Pilk does not know when he will retire.

“As long as they keep making comics and we can keep selling them and making enough money to keep the doors open, I’ll keep working,” Pilk said. “We’ve struggled over the years, but it’s fun every year. I always look forward to coming to work every day.

“I think I will never get tired of it.”

Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at [email protected]