Lifestyle

Last of comic book stores standing strong

An Archie comic has been taken off shelves for depicting same-sex marriage. Such bans aren't the only problem for local comic book culture. SUE-ANN TAN (suetan@sph.com.sg) speaks to possibly the last three Western comic book stores left

Comics World is one of the few remaining comic stores left. Ironically its owner once had a hand in banning some beloved titles here.

In the 1970s, Mr Bill Teoh, owner of Comics World on Selegie Road, was invited to sit on the censorship committee.

It can be strange to think that titles such as X-Men, The Avengers and Spider-Manwere banned in 1969 for being an unhealthy influence and containing themes of "horror, violence, suspense and fantasy".

Despite having a hand in such bans - some of which he says lasted into the 90s - Mr Teoh, now 80, was never against comic books.

He was raised on The Beano and Chinese comics before graduating to US adventure titles like Batman.

"I always loved Batman. As a (former) police officer, it spoke to me."

At one point, his comics collection was so large he estimates it was worth US$35,000 (S$43,660).

He decided to open his store 27 years ago to keep comics affordable to genuine fans.

It was an era when comic books were treated like stocks and shares. If an issue was deemed special enough, its price could shoot up.

"The price could go from $2 to $15 in a day. I decided to offer more practical prices," he says.

In the time Comics World has been open, many comic book stores have opened and closed - Leisure Craft, Comics Mart and Comics Asylum to name a few.

The other two stores left are Absolute Comics and GnB Comics, which began in 1991 and 1998 respectively. Today, all three face numerous challenges to their business.

The rise of digital comics - both pirated and legitimate - threatens to overwhelm them

There is also rent to pay, and children do not read comics as much as they used to.

"I have less than 20 teenage readers. But the smart ones keep reading," asserts Mr Teoh.

He recounts the story of an eight-year-old boy who started reading comics from his shop.

"When the boy was 16, his mother came in to shake my hand and told me that reading comics made his English language rank among the best in his school," Mr Teoh says with pride.

Mr Bernard Ang, 33, who owns GnB Comics in Rochor Centre, acknowledges that the best times for comics sales were in the past.

"The golden age was in the 90s. The print runs today, globally, are much less" he says.

An additional challenge for GnB is the question of the store's future.

Rochor Centre is set to make way for the North-South Expressway. As yet, Mr Ang says, he has no definite plans.

There are a number of theories as to why other comics-based businesses failed - poor location or simply over-stocking.

But their closure has had a bittersweet effect on the remaining businesses.

The owner of Absolute Comics in Plaza Singapura, 42-year-oldLim Beng Ann says: "Following the closure of Comics Mart in 2010, some of their customers came over to my store.

"But we were friends with Comics Mart. We even recommended them to our customers".

The past few years have also seen an increasing shift in customers preferring to buy collections rather than single issues.

Collections that larger bookstores have taken to stocking.

Mr Teoh is holding on to the belief that the old-school comic lovers will always want physical copies to flip.

"You have to hold it in your hand. Browsing is part of the basic joy of comic-reading. Some customers don't even want their comics delivered because they want to browse in the shop."

All three owners agree that the key to survival is the regular customers - some of whom have been coming for decades.

Mr Ang says: "Sales are pretty consistent thanks to them. It's more like a club house with friends than a retail store.

He adds: "We organise movie nights, free comic events and guest artists for meet and greet sessions."

Mr Teoh recalls an incident when three comic fans had a debate in his shop that lasted three hours.

"It is about interacting with people and enjoying their companionship," he adds.

The recent comic book-based movies have also boosted sales.

Mr Lim explains: "Before the movie release, people want to know the plot and who the characters are. After the movie, they want to find more information about it in the comics too."

All three believe that the comic culture will still prosper despite the challenges.

"I think the National Arts Council has been very supportive of the comic scene by bringing acclaimed comic writers like Neil Gaiman, Mark Waid and Gail Simone.

This shows that the comic culture is more widely accepted now," says Mr Ang.

Passing it down

BOND: Mr Benjamin Foo and his son Ryan share a passion for comics.  PICTURE COURTESY OF BENJAMIN FOO

Comics are more than stories of superheroes to him - they also symbolise a bond between father and son.

General manager Benjamin Foo, 50, has been a regular customer at Comics World for more than 25 years - since he was a student.

Such is his dedication to comic books that even when he moved to Shanghai for work eight years ago, Mr Foo had friends send him the latest editions of his favourite comics.

"It is like my long distance love affair," he quips.

His love for comics has been inherited by his 18-year-old son Ryan.

"It was not forced on him. He just picked up comics I left lying around and naturally took to it. He also started drawing because of them," Mr Foo says.

The father and son have even made the pilgrimage to the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, thought to be the world's biggest comics related event. Mr Foo adds that going with his son was a long-held dream come true.

"It felt like I was passing on the hobby."

The pair share recommendations: While they both enjoy Batman and X-Men titles, Mr Foo says he likes left-field books such as Alan Moore's Watchmen; while Ryan goes for more mainstream titles.

In his youth, Mr Foo had thousands of comics, accumulated from weekly buys.

But the collection became too large and he went through the challenge of paring it down.

He now has only about 800 favourites.

Comics are just as important to Mr Foo now as they were when he was a child.

"Comics are still a form of escapism from the hum drum of life. They keep me sane," he says with a laugh.

He also retains an old-school reverence and love for the physical comic, shunning digital copies.

"Comics have to be held, kept and discussed. The need to physically hold something will never go away," he says.

Mr Foo admits that the numbers of comic-readers have shrunk, but also notes that there has been renewd interest over the last decade because of the many super-hero movies.

The bonding continues as the Foos go to these movies together.

"For me, I have been reading such comics for over 20 years and to see the material come alive from the page was something I never thought possible. These are exciting times indeed," he says.

All about Archie

Who is Archie?

Archie Andrews is one of the longest lasting comic book characters. (At 73, he is just two years younger than Batman.)

There are many Archie titles, including a zombie comic called Afterlife with Archie. More than 2 billion Archie comics have been sold to date.

He's pretty big...

Amazing, given that the character is not extraordinary. Created in 1941 by Vic Bloom and Bob Montana, Archie was a nice American teen who got into fairly innocent scrapes.

The only real trouble he seemed to have was that his car would break down, he'd get into awkward situations with best pal Jughead Jones (notable for always wearing a party crown); or that he had to choose between his two love interests, blonde Betty Cooper and raven-haired Veronica Lodge - but all in a very chaste, wholesome way.

He's world-famous?

Sort of. Even if you didn't know the character, you would have heard his song.

He graduated to TV in 1968 and like all cartoons at the time, had a band - The Archies. The series spawned a genuine worldwide hit with Sugar, Sugar in 1969.

Why is he famous now?

Two reasons: He's dead and barred.

Last week, Archie Comics revealed that Archie would be shot dead protecting his gay best friend.

Shortly after, it was revealed that Media Development Authority (MDA) had taken the book Archie: The Married Life Book Three off the shelves.

It had made the decision back in March to take the book, published last year, after receiving a complaint and found it to have breached the guidelines with "its depiction of the same-sex marriage of two characters".

The book, about Archie's post-high school life, depicts the marriage of Kevin Keller, the first openly-gay character in the series.