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Secret origins: Comic book store assembles league of its own

July 15, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Like most origin stories, this one starts off with the mild mannered becoming something far greater.

For Rush Holcomb of Fulton and Terry Comer of Fawn Grove, it was a barn loft that acted as their radioactive spider bite . their dose of gamma radiation . their swim in a puddle of ooze. Pick your (super-power-inducing) poison. It’s what made them, them.

“I never bought a comic book until the day I bought 100,000 of them,” Comer said as he boarded and bagged one book from a thick stack of comics.

Sitting behind a small table inside BRAT Comics and Collectibles in Tupelo, Holcomb, who co-owns the store with Comer, takes a break from going all Frank Castle with his pricing gun to laugh. He’s obviously heard the joke - heck, he was there for its origin story - but it’s still funny and true. Of the two of them, he’s the “comic book guy,” the dude who grew up with longboxes packed with sleeved books, as if each were some treasure destined to be worth the Wayne family’s fortune someday.

Comer said he was more of a sports guy, and when he said it, there was a distinct note of apology in his voice.

“I knew all the stories, but it just wasn’t my thing,” he said of comic books.

Now . well, now they are very much his thing. Not just out of necessity, either.

On a relatively quiet Friday afternoon inside their store, surrounded on all sides by comics, designer board games, a small selection of D&D manuals, Funko POP! Vinyl figurines and no less than two framed issues of magazines featuring cover stories about Michael Keaton from back in his Batman days, the two friends (and siblings by marriage) describe how they got into the funny book business.

It was pretty much Holcomb’s fault, which makes sense. He was the “comic book guy,” after all.

In 2014, Holcomb and Comer traveled to Tuscaloosa to check out a comic collection a fellow educator at Hamilton High School, where Holcomb works, had in storage from when he and a friend bought out a comics and sports collectibles store. For more than two decades, the books had been in storage inside a barn loft. Word was, the collection was a sight to behold.

Even knowing the collection was impressive, Holcomb said he was shocked when he actually saw it. More than 330 longboxes of comics were stored in that barn, tens of thousands of books. It was like stumbling onto a dragon’s horde . albeit one in which there was bound to be a fair mix of worthless junk mixed in with the treasure. The collection was a mishmash of the common and the rare, the practically-worthless to the jaw-droppingly valuable.

“I was there for an hour, just walking around,” Holcomb said. There was no organization to any of it.

The collection’s owner said he’d sell the lot at a good price. He just wanted to be rid of them.

“There was no way you could buy them and know what you were getting,” Holcomb said.

Both Holcomb and Comer knew if they were going to buy the collection, they’d be doing so blinder than Matthew Murdock. They haggled about the price, shook hands and came out as owners of an entire comic book store’s worth of merchandise. Just, without the actual comic book store.

They began sorting or selling the books however they could: online, hocking books at local cons, even letting people drop by their homes to dig through the lot.

“That’s what we’ve been doing for three-and-a-half years,” Holcomb said. “We’ve been selling books.”

“By any means possible,” Comer added.

Not to oversell it, but it’s been kind of a life-changing experience for the two of them.

“We’ve met a lot of good people,” Holcomb said. They’ve made friends they never would have met if not for comics. “It’s kind of opened up different avenues (for us).”

In the backs of their minds, however, Holcomb and Comer knew they’d eventually need to open a store. Holcomb said they were constantly toying with the notion, just looking for the right time and opportunity.

Comic book stores are unique, Holcomb said.

He meant it literally. There’s no national chain, no corporate behemoth equivalent. Every comic shop is a local comic shop, defined by the people who run it and frequent it.

“You don’t have a ‘Comics Express’ that sells comic books all over the country,” Holcomb said.

That’s why, he said, it’s important to do things right. Comics may be fun, but selling them is serious business. Without a base of regulars, a shop will sink faster than The Thing in a leaky lifeboat.

In the few months since they opened their store on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, Holcomb and Comer have worked hard to grow their business, all while maintaining their full-time jobs. Their secret identities, if you will.

“It’s a lot different than when we first opened up,” Holcomb said of the shop. They opened with only a single row of tables, each lined with boxes of carefully organized books. Now, there are several rows, plus toys and games and other collectibles. There’s a room in the back where customers can dig through scads of dollar books. They’ve recently started accepting subscriptions, the “Earth’s yellow sun” of the comic book business.

“You’re only going to be able to sell so many old books,” Comer said. “Your survival is based on the number of subs you have.”

Holcomb estimated that BRAT is the largest comic store in Northeast Mississippi, which is probably a safe assumption. Pickings are slim. They don’t have any competition nearer than Amory, and having such a huge collection of old issues from the outset put them at a huge advantage. Most comic shops open with only a handful of titles. BRAT opened with 60, and over the past few months, have expanded their offerings to more than 150 titles.

“I’ve had people come in, flip through books, say, ‘Yeah, you’re legit,’ and walk out without buying a thing,” Holcomb said with a laugh.

They aim to keep that reputation, too. They may be relatively new to the world of comic collecting (well, Comer at least), but both of BRAT’s owners take their side business seriously.

In truth, the secret to running a successful comic book business isn’t a special serum or electrified chemicals or an atomic hairdryer. Nothing like that. The secret is less Superman and more Clark Kent.

“It’s just like building a house: We’ve laid the foundation, and now we’re just adding on top of that,” Holcomb said. “We want to do this right.”

As Stan Lee and Steve Ditko famously wrote in Amazing Fantasy #15, “With great comic book collections come great responsibility.”

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