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John Lamb, Published March 27 2012

Local comic book stores see uptick in sales, but owners say business still perceived as second-tier media

If you go

What: Avengers vs. X-Men release party

When: 7-9 p.m., Tuesday

Where: Paradox Comics-N-Cards, 26 Roberts St., Fargo

Info: Free. (701) 239-9505

FARGO - ‘That never happens. It’s unrealistic. The thing I don’t get is how anyone thinks it’s real. It’s so phony.”

That’s Rich Early talking about a TV show, but it’s not professional wrestling, or the paranormal reality series “Ghost Hunters” or even a Fox News broadcast he has a hard time believing.

No, Early, owner of Paradox Comics-N-Cards in downtown Fargo, is talking about the reality program, “Comic Book Men.” The show claims to be an “unscripted” look at life in the New Jersey comic book store owned by Kevin Smith, the actor/writer/director of comedies “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma,” who spoke at the Fargo Theatre earlier this month.

The show just concluded after running on AMC, capitalizing on the lead-in, “The Walking Dead,” which started off as a comic.

With those programs and the live-action adaptation of “The Avengers” hitting screens nationwide on May 4 and Free Comic Book Day the very next day, comics seem to have muscled their way into the pop culture consciousness.

But Early, whose store has been open for 19 years, isn’t buying all the hype.

During the opening weekend of “Iron Man 2” in 2010, he handed out 2,500 comics with a flyer and a coupon to Paradox. Only about 40 were returned.

“You can’t tell me it legitimizes the business,” he says. “We are perceived as second-tier media.”

While comic characters have been a staple of the summer blockbusters since Tim Burton put “Batman” in mega-plexes in 1989, Early says comic book sales have lagged in the last decade and have gotten progressively worse the past few years.

According to www.comicbookresources.com, February 2011 was the fourth worst month since 2003, selling 5,167,242 comics, down by 217,715 units from February 2010.

But the good guys are making a comeback. February 2012 saw estimated total sales of 6,086,689 comics, up by 919,104 units from February 2011.

“My store has never done better,” Early says, noting that despite nationwide trends, his business has grown steadily over the past three years and since last summer, sales have been up 50 to 100 percent, compared to the same month a year ago.

“I think 2012 is going to be the best yet,” he says.

He stays open because of the devoted comic and fantasy fans who shop there and only develops new customers when people move into town.

“We have to know the niche we’re in and fulfill the need of the customers in that niche. If you’re not a comic fan today, you won’t be one tomorrow.”

Not just masked men

For 30 years, Kip Marvig has been watching fans come and go from the store he co-owns, Comic Junction, located on University Drive South, for the past 18 years. He’s seen customers grow up and pass on the passion for illustrated stories to their kids.

“The 1990s were probably the heyday (for business), but if you know what you’re doing, you can still have fun,” he says in his upstairs shop.

The ’90s may have been best for business, but superheroes dominated the drawn landscape. Now, he says, there are more graphic novels to appeal to those who may not find spandex and capes appealing.

He points out that novelist Stephen King serialized animated versions of “The Dark Tower” and “The Stand.”

“If you love comics for what they are, this is probably a better time, there’s more variety,” Marvig says. “It is everything to do with art.”

But it’s an art that’s often misunderstood. While comic stories may be reaching broader audiences (the movie “Kick Ass” also started off as a comic and an adaptation of the hit TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lives on in colored print), Marvig says the general public still views comics as child’s play.

“The United States has always looked at comics as a kids’ thing. In Europe and Japan you’ll see a guy in a three-piece suit reading comics on the train to work. Yet here we have the market for collecting stuff. It seems like a contradiction.”

Illustrated investment

The market for collecting stuff is strong. Or rather, the view of comics as collectibles, and therefore valuable, has increased with “Comic Book Men,” Early says.

“Everyone under the sun is coming out to get their comic evaluated,” he says, noting that over the weekend he had three requests to have books graded, or valued.

The problem, he says, is people see someone bring in a legitimately rare find on “Comic Book Men” and cash in big. Most people only have popular titles that aren’t hard to find. And many personal collections aren’t in ideal shape.

“People bring in (the millions-selling 1992 book) ‘The Death of Superman’ and they think it’s worth a $1 million. We offer them a dime and they walk out offended. That’s what happens in a comic shop every day,” Early says. “If people want to do my job and sit around and deal with people trying to sell their (crappy) Archie comics, come on in.”

People look at eBay auctions and get inflated ideas of what a title is actually worth. He says a better gauge is to look at completed auctions, but also realize that may not be what a retailer will offer.

That said, there can be big bucks in comic books. He recently purchased the 1963 first X-Men comic for $500. While he’s not in the market to re-sell it – yet – he says it could go for up to $1,000.

Even some newer publications have been hot tickets, Early says, pointing to titles like Saga, Fatale and Hell Yeah, all selling off the shelf for the average $2.99 cover price then exploding in two weeks from $12 to $20 for re-sale.

(For what it’s worth, Early is “convinced” Hell Yeah will be made into a movie.)

Still, both illustrated dealers say collecting as an investment is a bad move.

“For my own collection, I get what I like. If it goes up, it’s a bonus,” Marvig says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533