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Atomic Age Comics celebrates 2 years at Pape and Danforth

As previously reported, I am known far and wide as the guy who never notices anything. In the summer of 2005, this manifested itself while taking a walk down Pape with my then-girlfriend, seeing Atomic Age Comics, and remarking "I never knew there was a comic book store here!"

Thankfully, in that case, I wasn't flying as blind as usual - Atomic Age had just opened at its cozy location about four blocks south of the Danforth. (The conversation that followed, where I remarked that I'd come back later because they probably weren't open, whereupon the large "OPEN" sign out front had to be pointed out to me, was less excusable.) Atomic Age is celebrating its second anniversary in the neighbourhood this week (Tuesday through Saturday) with sales and specials in the store, making this a perfect time to check it out.

For a comics fan and sometime collector, there are few things more convenient than having a comic shop within stumbling distance of my own front door. I've been into the store frequently since that fateful June day two summers ago, happy to peruse the racks and get advice on what I should be reading from the owner, the always-personable Gene Lee. I'm also glad to say that there are always kids in the store when I visit - a good sign that the comics industry is staying strong and appealing to the next generation.

To commemorate the current anniversary, I fired a few questions in Gene's direction about the store, comics, and life on (or slightly off) the Danforth. Here's what he had to say:

Let's start with: it's your second anniversary at 497 Pape, and you're one of the few comic book stores in the area. What brought you to Pape & Danforth?

That's a very good question and the answer may surprise you. It was actually a personal decision rather than a business one that brought me to the Pape and Danforth area. Firstly, my sister and brother-in-law have lived in the area for over 20 years and have 2 kids who go to school here. Because of that, I know what a great area this is and what great schools they have. More importantly though, my father, who is turning 80 this year, was losing the ability to drive himself around. Now, when he wants to visit his grandsons, he can just walk over rather than drive down from Scarborough. Also, working from home gives me the ability to keep an eye on him through-out the day; make sure he gets a good lunch, that sort of thing.

Besides comics, is there anything else you specialize in at Atomic Age?

I've got a lot of different types of products and services but I don't think we really specialize in any one product line. I know people say this a lot, but our speciality really is customer service and trying to reflect the community as a whole. For example, we have a special kids section with lots of discounted kid-friendly titles because of the high percentage of young families who live in the area. An example of a service would be our birthday registry. There's no charge for it, and anyone who buys something off the registry saves 5% on their purchase.

What's your favourite current title? What should every comics fan be reading right now?

Ooh. Tough question. There's a lot of really good titles out there right now. I think that has a lot to do with the import of writers from outside of the industry. (i.e. TV, movie, novelist) I'm not going to pick any of the event comics such as World War Hulk or Countdown, not that they aren't good. They're excellent, but by their very nature they're transient. If I was forced to pick a favourite title (which apparently I am), I would pick All Star Superman. It only comes out every two months but it's worth the wait.

[Matt interjects: YES YES YES. All Star Supes is easily one of the best titles on the racks right now, and worth every tormentuous moment of waiting for it to come out.]

I picked All Star Superman for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he's the first real superhero and has, for the most part of his 70-odd year run, remained fresh and entertaining. There were a couple of decades where he looked pretty grim but I've blocked most of that out. The other reason I think All Star Superman is one of the best titles out there is because it is a great re-imagining of Superman as a character. (It's not a re-telling because he's already an established character in issue #1.) A quick example would be issue #6 where at the very end, we find out that Superman, with the help of others, travels back in time to spend a last few moments with his "Pa" before Johnathan Kent dies of a fatal heart attack - something he was unable to do the first time around because he was off fighting a monster that was terrorizing Smallville. In that issue, Grant Morrison took Superman, one of the most powerful and God-like characters in the DCU, and made him as human as the rest of us.

On a side note, All Star Batman is a laugh-riot to read.

Boy is it ever! And not just because it took a whole darn year for issue #5 to come out. Now, predictions on the summer - what's going to be the hot seller? Will World War Hulk live up to the hype?

I generally don't like to tell people what I think is going to be hot because everyone has different taste and expectations of comics. The best advice I can give to people who are thinking of starting a collection is to pick something they like rather than something they think will be "hot". That way if it goes up, great; if it doesn't go up or goes down, you've got something you cherish.

As for WWH living up to the hype, I think it will be a fun and entertaining run. If it doesn't live up to the hype, I hope that people will step back and say, "Okay, it wasn't the knockout I thought it would be but it was still a great read. I think I'll stick with it.", because it really has been a consistently good title for the last few years (since around issue #30 I think).

Any side stories about collecting?

A few years ago, when I worked at another comic book store, a mom and her son came in wanting to know what would be a good investment for her son comic wise. I gave her the advice I mentioned earlier. Her son took my suggestion and picked up Ultimate Spider-man #1 (the white variant cover). I hope he took care of it.

Also, last year, a semi-regular came in and asked me how much Detective Comics #2 was worth. His friend's dad had given his friend a copy to read. For the record, he was maybe 14 and he, his friend, and his friend's dad had no idea how much it was worth. From his description, it was mint. I was honest and told him it was worth about 20 grand. He later told me they sold it on eBay for about 20 grand.

Now, I know there are a bunch of collectors who are about to jump out of a building after reading this but before you do, remember the moral of these two stories. Both of these individuals weren't concerned about the monetary value of the comic. They both were interested in the reading value of the comic. Okay, somebody should probably have smacked the dad for letting his son read a first edition copy of Detective Comics #2, but no harm was done so...

What made you want to open your own comic book store? What kind of store do you want Atomic Age to be?

In the comics, there are two types of comic book stores. There is the store run by the fan boy who will kick you out of his store if you win a argument about who would win in a fight, Batman or Captain America. And then there is the store run by a faceless corporation where everyone dresses the same and the bottom line is all that matters. When I first opened Atomic Age, I wanted something in between. I wanted a store where I'm more than willing to talk to you about the merits of Batman having green Kryptonite at his disposal, but I'm not going to get mad if we disagree. Also, if someone (whether they be a regular or not) picks up an issue of Spider-man that I thought wasn't particularly good and they'd be doing me a favour if they bought it, I'll tell them it was not very good. Basically, I want a store where people know I have their best interest in mind.

As for the type of store Atomic Age is now; it's a very family oriented store. I do carry mature toys (Twisted Fairy Tales) and mature titles (The Boys, Chronicles of Wormwood) because they are very good reads but I keep them out of reach. Atomic Age is also a very community based store.

What I mean by community based is that my store is probably one of the first stops schools make when they are looking for items for their silent auctions or prizes to give away during their fun fairs. I probably give away over $100 in product to each of these schools (there's about 4 or 5 of them this year) and I usually leave flyer's at the events but the truth of the matter is that I would get a better return if I spent that money in product on advertisement during Christmas or free comic book day. But that's okay because it's not about getting a return on investment; it's about investing in the community.

Atomic Age is definitely heading in a direction I like. In the future I hope that my current customers will bring their kids in and introduce them to Superman, Spider-man, and the wonders of comics. Ultimately, I would like to have more than one location and I would want those other Atomic Age's to be entrenched in their communities and actively involved in community events. I want people to think of Atomic Age not as just somewhere to shop but as a part of the community much like a school or civic centre.

To wrap up, I'd like to share with you some things people have said the first time they've entered the store.

"You wouldn't think it would be so quaint on the inside"
"I thought it would be more expensive"
After staring for a little bit: "You don't sell cigarettes, do you?"
"Is your gas and hydro protected?" (I usually nicely ask those people to leave.)
"I'm glad my son/daughter dragged me in here."
"Wooooooow! Wooooooooow!"

I'd like to thank Gene for his time, and recommend stopping by Atomic Age to see the store in person. It's at 497 Pape, a short walk south of Pape station.


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