All in colour for a dime - the world of comic shops

MYSTERIOUS advertisements promised everything from working X-Ray specs and life-sized glow-the-dark skeletons to communities of “Sea Monkeys” (actually some sort of shrimp), giant cardboard submarines and Charles Atlas’ bully-bashing keep-fit routine…

Letters pages were filled with missives from distant corners of the United States, discussing characters and stories which hadn’t even made it as far as post-war Britain, while superheroes and villains fought one-page battles over such exotic fare as Twinkies and Hostess cream-filled cupcakes…

Sporadic issues could be found lurking in the corners of newsagents, their “To Be Continued…” endings never resolved, despite a desperate search for that illusive next edition and the solution to the Joker’s latest deadly trap.

In an age before comic shops became commonplace in town centres during the mid-eighties, British fans were limited to a drip-drip influx of American imports, with all but the biggest-selling titles almost impossible to find on our shores.

Instead, they made do with UK black-and-white reprints in such titles as Super Spider-Man, The Mighty World of Marvel and Avengers Weekly, or abandoned the America influence altogether in deference to homegrown books with such evocative names as Vulcan, Tiger, Action and eventually the likes of 2000AD.

Today’s comics fan has never had it so good. Not only can an endless array of new titles be picked up every Thursday from local dealers, but movies based on comic books are blockbuster hits, so you can happily buy T-shirts reflecting your favourite characters from the X-Men or the Justice League of America, and high end merchandise of every variety is there for the taking, from trading cards and action figures to statues and prop replicas.

With comics freely plundered by Hollywood and the growth of “geek chic” as an acceptable cross-section of modern culture, shops like Chaos City Comics in St Albans are managing to keep going despite the current economic slump.

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Chaos City was one of the first wave of the original comic shops to open its doors to an unsuspecting customer base back in 1992. Based then in what is now TK-Maxx in The Maltings, as part of an indoor market set-up called The In-Shops, it remained there until 11 years ago when it moved to a new location in Heritage Close, not far from the Abbey.

After the original owner sold up to partner Derek Watson, who had been with the shop since it opened, in 2003, he has kept it thriving in what is a rapidly changing marketplace eve since.

Derek, 47, a St Albans resident since 1984, has seen thousands of comic books pass through his hands since Chaos opened, but is confident there’s still life in the monthly titles despite a move towards digital versions and collected book editions.

“There’s little local interest in buying back-issues these days, as the internet has provided access to every comic in the world, and people are more interested in buying collected editions of the old series. I’d be lying if I said digital comics weren’t a major concern but I don’t think it’s the same as holding an actual comicbook in your hands, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right. Eighty per cent of our business is still in comics, it’s a niche market but I like it like that. People like to feel they are part of something that isn’t mainstream, that they have discovered something new, and you know that the easiest way to drive people away from a hobby is to make it widely available!”

New Comic Day at Chaos every Thursday is welcomed with an A-board announcement on the street, and sees throngs of fans milling around the shop before picking up their weekly fix of Marvels and DCs, something Derek relishes.

“It’s a community here, but not in a nerdy way. People come in to meet other fans and talk about what they’re reading. It’s not the same thing as just being on comicbook forums. I think that once people stop interacting face-to-face about their hobby they can easily lose interest.”

Derek boasts a rich customer base which includes a surprising amount of girls and professional workers as well as your more typical comic book fans, something he attributes to changes in attitude towards the genre.

“Comics no longer have the same sort of stigma as they used to, and they’re seen as a rich spawning ground for ideas in Hollywood. It’s a good time to be a geek.”