Walk into any corner comic book shop, and you’ll be greeted by infinite fantastical worlds to explore. From Wonder Woman to Spider-Man to Spawn, a reader with any taste can find something to enjoy.
Screen adaptations such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe have brought many of these characters into the mainstream. But in Nebraska, two decades-old comic book stores are trying to keep the source material for these properties alive and I thriving.
Trade A Tape Comic Center, located about a block southeast of the Haymarket on the corner of S Ninth and N streets in Lincoln, was opened in 1975 by Lee Arohnson — who co-created long-running sitcom “Two and a Half Men” — according to current owner John Doan. Arohnson only owned it for a few years before selling it to Larry Lorenz in 1977. Upon his retirement in 2018, Lorenz passed ownership of the store to Doan.
Doan has worked in comics for almost 36 years, he said. He worked at Trade a Tape’s competition, Cosmic Comics, for 16 years before he was hired by Lorenz in 2002 when Cosmic Comics went out of business, according to Doan.
An avid fan of comic books, Doan vividly remembers the first comic he read: “Lost in the Andes!,” a Donald Duck story written in 1949 by Carl Barks. Doan said the story immediately grabbed him.
“Just because it’s Donald Duck doesn’t mean it’s not full of adventure and fun,” Doan said.
Dean Phillips opened Krypton Comics at 2809 S 125th Ave. 28 years ago in Omaha with “$5,000 and a prayer.”. Phillips, who worked various odd jobs before starting Krypton, said that comic books, and the characters and stories they contain, have become much more mainstream since when he first opened his store.
“It used to be when I was in grade school and high school that just nerds collected comics,” Phillips said. “Well now the nerds are the ones with all the money because they’re the hardest working ones. ‘Regular’ people, they enjoy comic books also, because everybody wants to escape once in a while.”
Doan echoed Phillips, as he said the industry has lost a lot of younger readers as the internet and digital media has grown in popularity.
The emergence of TV shows and movies based on comic books as uber-popular media has changed how people consume these characters. Take Phillips’ brother, who, despite being a big fan of The Hulk, has never once asked his brother for a Hulk comic book.
“That doesn’t mean that they don’t like the character,” Phillips said. “It just means that they celebrate their geekiness in a slightly different way.”
Doan said that TV shows based on comics such as “The Walking Dead” and “The Umbrella Academy” have brought new fans to the source material. But the multi-billion dollar grossing movie franchises? Not so much.
“I think because [the movies] are done so well that you don’t really feel the need to go past that,” Doan said. “The answers are all there on the screen.”
Phillips described the challenges of running a comic book store, which is a very inventory-heavy industry. Stores like Krypton and Trade A Tape have to be stocked with countless options to appeal to all consumer tastes. He also called the comic book industry “hot and cold,” as business often depends on how much disposable income locals have from month to month.
Doan and Phillips also mentioned that the primary distributor in the industry for the last few decades, Diamond Comic Distributors, was abandoned by DC Comics in 2020 and then Marvel Comics earlier this year. This industry shift has complicated the lives of comic book store owners, as they now have to work with multiple distributors to receive product shipments instead of just one.
The industry as a whole was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to both Phillips and Doan. As stores shut down due to pandemic-altered profits, the publishers also stopped operating for a few months, causing even more store closures. Krypton and Trade a Tape, with their large selections of comic books, were able to survive.
Phillips said comic books can also bring people together, as fans with common interests often bond at stores or comic book conventions.
“Everybody feels the clubhouse aspect in most comic book stores,” Phillips said. “A lot of people know each other, a lot of people meet each other on new comic day and happen to be there at the same time as other customers. So they get to know each other and it kind of builds like that.”
Having been in the Nebraska comic book community for decades, both Phillips and Doan have gotten to know regular customers well. The connection that they have with customers will last longer than the books and characters they bond over.
“Some customers I have known for years and years and years,” Doan said. “I’ve known them since they were little kids, watching them grow up, have families. It’s very rewarding.”
One of Phillips’ favorite parts of operating his store is participating in Free Comic Book Day, a worldwide initiative to introduce comics to new readers.
“Just seeing little kids light up, getting their first comic book, even if they never step foot back in the store, they’ve got one, they’ve got a comic book sitting there at home,” Phillips said. “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘oh, wow, I got my first comic book on Free Comic Book Day.’”
Phillips and Doan said they aren’t aware of many comic book stores in Nebraska outside of Lincoln and Omaha. In fact, Phillips said he is closer with comic book store owners in other states because he isn’t in direct competition with them.
Though the short-term future of comic books is not in jeopardy, red flags such as distributing issues and paper shortages are currently at the top of the minds of store owners like Phillips and Doan. The specter of digital comic books also looms, though Phillips said he feels physical comic books will remain relevant as long as people like to collect.
“As long as all of these people have the collectible mentality — I personally find it fun to organize things, to alphabetize things, that’s just what I do,” Phillips said.
No matter the shifts in the industry or in consumer’s tastes, Doan is optimistic comic books will continue to live on.
“I’m always a very positive person,” Doan said. “So I think the industry will still be around, and there’s so many genres out there. There’s always going to be somebody reading comics.”