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Comic Cave owner Josh Roberts says his Fremont Center shop houses some 20,000 comic books, including a Green Lantern collector item valued at $300.
Comic Cave owner Josh Roberts says his Fremont Center shop houses some 20,000 comic books, including a Green Lantern collector item valued at $300.

Business Spotlight: Comic Culture

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Wedged among retail establishments and restaurants at the Fremont Center on Battlefield Road, Josh Roberts’ The Comic Cave LLC is tapping into a resurgence brought on by film and television to make a living out of his lifelong hobby.

“It became almost an obsession,” he says of his early collecting days, filling his shelves with the likes of Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer and Jack of Hearts and DC Comics’ Batman and Superman. “It just grew my knowledge of the whole comic industry over the years.”

A nearly 20-year industry veteran and former comic and store manager at Vintage Stock, Roberts set out on his own in August 2013 to make his mark in a category he says is the best it’s been in a decade thanks to box-office busting films and late-night television series. So, what do “The Avengers” and “The Walking Dead” have in common? They’re based on comics.

Roberts says there’s more room for comic-inspired media, and the popularity and proliferation of such movies as “Batman,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have inspired fans to geek out and seek out the origins of characters at shops like his.

“It’s gained a lot more interest for comics,” Roberts says. “It’s also provided – with things like the success of ‘The Walking Dead’ – a larger variety of comics for people to read – different genres, different eras.

“A lot of people associate comics with just superheroes, but right now, there’s a comic book for pretty much anything you can think of.”

Popular pages
The Comic Cave runs the gamut from household names to obscure titles, which Roberts says has created a niche in the market his customers expect him to fill.

“There aren’t a lot of comic book stores in Springfield anymore, unfortunately,” he says, noting while his previous employer, Vintage Stock, for instance, still has comics, it has put more of an emphasis on video games. “It seems like most of them do other things besides just comics.”

Roberts points to Missouri Comics & Records as supplementing its book sales with vinyl, and others include Cosmic-King Toys, which sells comics, video games, toys and phone cases, and Games, Comics, Etc., which has comics to support tabletop board games. At least three other comic retailers have closed in recent years: Rublemizers Sports Cards, Comic Books and Collectibles on South Campbell Avenue, Top Notch Toys & Comics on South Glenstone and Dragon’s Lair on West Battlefield.

Sifting through a collection of nearly 20,000 of the graphic works at his 1,600-square-foot shop, Roberts pulls out a rare comic from 1960 featuring the superhero Green Lantern. It’s priced at $300, the most expensive currently in the store.

“Key issues don’t typically last too long,” he says, noting the previous weekend he sold a comic featuring antihero Deadpool for $350. “If a character becomes really popular, then first appearances and origin stories are the issues that typically will become the most valuable.”

A key metric for Roberts is the store’s subscriber count, which has grown to nearly 400. These customers have first rights to comics and early knowledge of books coming down the pike.

“It assures they don’t miss out on the title they want, and it gives me a better gauge of how much to order,” he says.

Among Comic Cave’s subscribers is Tanner Hartley, owner of Ozark-based commercial window cleaner 417 Windows. A comic collector since April 2013, spurred by director Christopher Nolan’s recently popular “Batman” films staring Christian Bale, Hartley says he spends about $60 a week at Comic Cave and has purchased over 2,000 comics from the shop.

“It’s by far the best comic shop for subscriptions,” Hartley says, noting his former store of choice, Vintage Stock, could be careless with the merchandise and might not have his comics in stock after he reserved them. “In comics, condition is everything.”

Holy smoke, Batman!
In his first full year of operation, Roberts generated $350,000 in revenue, with comics making up nearly 80 percent of sales, supplemented by toys and other miscellaneous items.

Prices range from $3 to $5 for new comics brought in by Diamond Comic Distributors Inc.’s Memphis, Tenn., distribution facility, and Comic Cave buys and trades issues, as well.

“New comics rule the day,” he says, noting independent titles from such publishers as Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics are current favorites.

The week before Free Comic Book Day on May 2, Roberts will prepare for the nationwide event that last year represented his best-selling day of the year. Publishers provide free comics to fans, and Comic Cave discounts its merchandise.

“It will probably be, for the month, maybe as much as 20 percent of sales,” he says.

“I’m still growing at a good enough clip that I don’t really know what to expect this year.”

Industry trends suggest fans could be chomping at the bit to buy comics as they wait for the next box-office hit or TV episode.

Estimates by industry analysts Comichron and ICv2 put North American sales of comics and graphic novels at $870 million in 2013, up from $265 million in 2000. Among the top 300 comic books, the 85 million print units sold in 2013 was the highest volume since 2007.

Recent Comichron data estimate 6.77 million copies of the top 300 comics were sold in March, a 9 percent increase compared to the same month a year earlier. Sales figures in the top 300 titles rose 10 percent to an estimated $25.2 million for the month, a typical low-selling season.

Roberts expects the figures to increase if Hollywood further utilizes comics as source material.

“I feel like the comic industry is still greatly under-tapped as far as movies go, because there’s so many properties out there,” he says. “It hasn’t even exploded yet.”[[In-content Ad]]


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