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Chicago is Comic-ly Inclined

A smartly dressed man unbuttoned his suit coat before taking off to the far corner of the store. He peered over his thick-rimmed black glasses at the new arrivals and, from the right angle, could’ve been mistaken for the alter-ego of the hero whose latest story he eventually purchased.

The lunch hour at Graham Cracker Comics on Madison Street is prime time to see a mixed bag of customers, according to store manager Matt Streets. “The cool thing about this location is that the clientele is completely mixed, top to bottom, across the board,” he said.

After 11 years of working for the company, Streets has noticed that, unlike many other comic book stores, the downtown Chicago location is unpredictable. Business men like the Clark Kent look-alike, students and every race, creed and gender  can be found perusing the store’s thousands of titles.

Slideshow by Bryce Coachman.

Just blocks from Millennium Park and other popular tourist attractions, the store is a hub for international comic fans as well. Streets and the other six employees of the store have sold to fans from Spain, Australia, Germany, among other countries, as well as citizens of most of the 50 states. The store is also in the center of multiple urban campuses, which draws many college students.

The company has been in business for 30 years, and the downtown location has been operating since 1999. The other eight locations- Naperville, Downer’s Grove, St. Charles, Plainfield, Edgewater, Wheaton, DeKalb and Lakeview- are alive and well, and have been since the Naperville store first opened its doors.

Though the Illinois business is making profit all around, the downtown store is a guaranteed money-maker. According to Streets, though there was briefly a comic book stand in block 37, they have basically no competition downtown. Large-scale bookstores were their only worry, and with the Borders on State Street gone, Graham Crackers is a one-stop shop for comics and graphic novels for anyone in the South Loop and the surrounding areas.

There’s even a market for non-comic book fans. Tourists that enter the store love asking questions about the iconic characters and the photos on the wall, said Streets.

“We get all the questions- is Superman stronger than Thor, all of that.” Streets says one of his greatest pleasures is educating those people and creating new fans.

The business of comics is booming all on its own, though. According to last year’s statistics, Marvel and DC comics– two of many publishing companies- grossed over $16 million a month in 2011 according to their reported sales. It seems not even a recession can defeat Batman.

“Like anything, we’re bound by the ups and downs of the economy,” said Streets, “but you can look at comics as a form of escapism. You can relate it to the movie industry- sometimes is does better during a bad economy because people don’t want to think about it. They want to escape into a different world.”

Those different worlds are endless, even within the confines of the store. All of the popular names are there- X-Men, Superman, Spider-man, Batman. The hottest sellers are predictable, though they can change from time to time.
“It might change if there’s a certain creator working on [a certain comic] or if there’s a movie,” Streets said. He commented on the fervor movies cause and the accuracy of Hollywood’s portrayals of the beloved characters.

“If there’s a movie, people will get excited all over again,” he said. “But for the fans that read comics the whole time, they take the movies with a grain of salt.”

Movies like the X-Men pictures, Green Hornet, and the Hulk generate interest in non-comic lovers. When the first Spiderman movie came out, Streets remembers what he called “Spiderman mania.” People who had never heard of the Green Lantern before Ryan Reynolds’s portrayal were suddenly buying the series. The Dark Knight movies never fail to create a resurgence of DC sales, but as Streets said, “Batman never really goes out of style.”

The fans of these comics are willing to keep up with them, no matter the price and no matter the economy.
“Comic fans are very loyal; (comics) are like soap operas,” Streets said. “You have to know what happens next.” And cost is no obstacle in finding out a hero’s fate or what came before.

The die-hard fans are even willing to go above and beyond; the Graham Crackers on Madison sold a copy of the 1962 Amazing Fantasy 15 (the first appearance of Spider-man) in the fall; a mint condition version of that issue sells for over $1 million. The store is accustomed to selling collectibles in the $2000-3000 range.

The Overstreet Comic Price Guide is the bible of pricing items like Amazing Fantasy 15, and the employees at Graham Crackers have the 40th edition at hand. The “industry standard,” according to Streets, Overstreet is also the company that grades and prices baseball cards, stamps, coins and other collectibles.

“For old, famous comics like that, they’re appraised by desirability, scarcity and what they’ve sold for,” Streets said. “If a comic sells for this much money, obviously someone is willing to pay that.”

Stores don’t just happen across famous comics; they buy and trade collections with other stores and fans to mix up their stock. Comics aren’t a stale business, however; every Tuesday, new comics are shipped to stores all over the country, and by Wednesday morning, customers have a whole new selection of recent editions to choose from.
Streets said “it’s like Christmas morning every Wednesday.” The employees unpack on Tuesday nights, set aside copies for their subscribers, and stock the issues for the next morning. Just like in the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, “New Release Day” is like attending church to avid fans- it’s a weekly experience.

No matter how dramatized the portrayal is, one question always comes up: DC or Marvel?
“We’ve got a number of fans who only read one or the other. They actively just don’t like the other company. A lot of it is what you grew up reading and what their first comic impressions were,” said Streets.

Streets suggests relating the fan divide to Coke and Pepsi. The two gross roughly the same amount per year; DC is the older, more classic comics, while Marvel’s more modern. Creators and artists will work for both. There have even been instances of DC/Marvel crossovers in special editions. The most recent example is the Justice League of America/Avengers team-up in 2004.
At the same time, many people religiously read both companies, said Streets. The two capture the majority of the comic market, with smaller, independent companies like Dynamite Entertainment and Dark Horse making up the rest.

Many publishers have emerged in the decades since comics became such a literary force.
“Superman was created in the late 1930s and has always been more of a pure American icon that everyone can recognize,” said Streets, noting the original story lines and heroes as the inspiration behind the love for the characters.
The experience of working in such a beloved industry is not lost on Streets.

“It’s maybe not as glamorous or high-paying as some other jobs, but I talk to my friends that just bitch and moan about their awful jobs, and I’m like, well, I get to work in a comic book store all week.” Though it gets stressful, he said it’s one of the few jobs he’s worked where he doesn’t “dread” his daily grind.

As a fan and an employee, Streets is grateful to have a career in the midst of one of his passions. “I’m lucky enough to have a job surrounded by things I love; not everyone can say that.”

The Graham Cracker Comics downtown location is at 77 E. Madison Street, Chicago, IL, 60602, or call the store at (312) 629-1810.

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