— Mayor Greg Ballard proclaimed this past Saturday as Free Comic Book Day and few were celebrating as much as those at Downtown Comics.
Downtown Comics started with three friends from different walks of life trying to make it after college, putting together a business plan and opening a comic book store in Indianapolis. Then one day, they got a call. A comic book store owner on the westside had walked out of his location, leaving his inventory behind. And thus, a new adventure was born.
Downtown Comics was once located just off of Country Club Road, but moved to its current location at 10 Street and Girls School Road in December of 2010.
“It’s a nice area, a brand new location, and was a fantastic move,” said Doug Stevenson, one of two original owners still working at the stores.
When they started out, there were more than 20 comic book stores in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Now, other than their own locations, there are less than five, but Stevenson said the enthusiast base is as diverse and growing as ever.
“The comic community is more diverse than people give it credit for,” Stevenson said, adding that the customer base at his downtown store on the circle is primarily lawyers, politicians, and city workers. “There’s a stigma with comic book fans, or what has been changed and renamed to the geek culture. But geek culture takes people all across the spectrum.”
Jeff Himes is the company’s creative director, and he agrees, saying that video game culture and movies have contributed to widening the comic book enthusiast demographic.
“I think the exposure that television and film have brought to the medium give it more crossover potential,” Himes said. “Now there’s far greater diversity of genre in comics than there was 20 to 30 years ago. Superheroes are still a mainstay, but with video games and movies and so forth, there’s a greater influx of material now.”
Stevenson said the decline in comic book stores across the area had less to do with enthusiasm for comics and more to do with stores converting to include gamers instead of staying strictly with comics.
Himes attributes that constant draw even in the face of evolving technology to the erudition benefits of the industry.
“There was a study published a couple years ago and the short version is, they’d put words and then a picture in front of a child to see what part of his brain would fire off,” he explained. “Then they’d put a comic, which is a combination of the two, and their brains would light up like Christmas trees. My parents always looked at it as a way to trick us into reading, and there is educational value to it.
“The writing is the difference between a Saturday morning cartoon and primetime television. When you see that accredited universities are devoting a curriculum to (comic books), you can see it’s going to grow. Students from IUPUI say that they’re studying comics and illustration at their school.”
Stevenson added, “I think the reason comics have survived the digital revolution is because there’s some sort of aesthetic about reading sequential art rather than seeing it on a screen or tablet. The visual image and feel isn’t translated over. That’s not to say it won’t someday. They might come up with some way to replicate the esthetics, but for now, the comic industry hasn’t taken the hit that the magazine or newspaper industry has.”
Still, the demographic, story lines, and vernaculars have evolved over time. Yet the reason for loving them never changes.
“I think it goes back to people who enjoyed the escapism when they were young, and when they get older we see them move away from comics in their early 20s before coming back to them,” Stevenson said. “It’s nice to come home after a long day and jump into a little bit of escapism. Maybe you don’t want to make a commitment to jump into the Game of Thrones 1,200 page novel, but a 15-minute foray into an X-Men comic will do the trick.”
Himes added, “I would say that as far as the writing goes, now the average writer spins a far more complex story than when we were kids. Comics were always written at a higher level than the average newspaper, but the storylines and so forth were always a little more allegorical. The other thing too, as far as how that impacts perennial characters like Batman or Superman, is that each successive generation wants to put their own stamp on those characters.
“Any time they tweak a character, you’ll always have those dedicated fans that will cry foul, but when they do that, it actually gives an ‘in’ to the casual reader who may have considered the material to be too exclusive for them to get into. Traditionally, the super hero is a reflection of us, our society, what’s acceptable and not acceptable. It makes sense that those things get updated.”
Himes said Downtown Comics has teachers that come into the stores because more and more, they’re using comics as a learning tool in the classroom as a way to get children to read and expand their vernacular.
“We have a teacher that comes in and buys stuff pretty regularly, and she said that Sonic the Hedgehog is the most stolen book in her classroom,” he laughs.
Downtown Comics has engrained itself partly in gaming culture as well, because anymore they are going hand in hand. They host Magic Card Nights every week on Fridays and acknowledge the paradigm shift that resonates now throughout the industry as one that will continue to give it a long lifespan.
“There’s been a trend over the last few years where literary authors have crossed over into comics,” says Himes. “Stephen King books have been adapted. If anything, what I’m seeing now is parents our age are now bringing their kids in at 4 to 5 years old to get them interested. All of the most popular video games have comic book elements in them.
“We’ve got a lot of great customers out there. It’s nice to see regulars and new faces alike, but of course it’s nice to see kids coming in the store. We’re seeing an influx of the younger generation again, and thanks in no small part to the gaming events that we see out there. We get a lot more foot traffic through there now and it’s nice to meet people.”
Downtown Comics is not letting technology leave it behind, recently launching an online store.
“We also have digital comic portals on our front page, so if they don’t have time to come by the store and buy the book, or if they’re on the road, they can always read on their mobile or table,” Himes said. “I guess if anything, the point would be to strike that balance between the traditional comic reader and the modern comic reader, who basically came in because they watch “The Big Bang Theory’ television show.”
Now three stores deep and still going strong, Downtown Comics looks toward the future, many more Free Comic Book Days, and a genre they expect to only keep exploding.
“There will always be a place for the single issue and people who collect them,” Himes said, “and this is purely anecdotal based on observation, but I see readership growing over the next decade. It’s far more accessible. There used to be a stigma that only collectors read them, but I think that’s changing.”
Downtown Comics is at 7301 W. 10th St. The store can be reached by calling 271-7610 or online at www.downtowncomics.com.