When Bruce Ayers started Capital City Comics on Monroe Street in 1975, he had a backup plan.
“I had a lot of energy and I thought it would be fun, at least for a while,” Ayers said. “The worst thing that would happen is I’d go back to being a short-order cook.”
After 38 years in business, it’s beginning to look like he may not need that alternative career.
Over the years, Ayers, 66, has built a steady business that has turned his shop at 1910 Monroe St. – just a couple blocks up from his original location – into something of a mecca for comic book enthusiasts.
“They frequently refer to us as a Monroe Street institution,” he said. “I never realized I’d become an institution when I wasn’t looking.”
On his way to institution status, Ayers has seen a handful of competitors come and go as the comics business experienced the inevitable ups and downs.
And while the business has enjoyed a gradual growth over the years, its appeal has always been somewhat specialized.
“It’s a niche market, a niche hobby,” Ayers said. “I never thought of it as mainstream.”
The closest comic books come to that mainstream is when some of their superhero characters are turned into blockbuster movies. Those movies tend to boost comic book sales.
“It doesn’t hurt when they make movies that do extremely well at the box office,” said Bob Moreau, manager of the West Side store of Madison’s other comic book retailer, Westfield Comics. “They wouldn’t have the movies without the comics, and it piques the interest of people who want to find out where the characters come from.”
The transition from the comic book pages to the big screen is a natural one, Moreau said.
“There are some comics you can look at and they’re so well done you could literally use them as a story board for a movie,” Moreau said. “You’re looking at what the camera is supposed to see, how it’s framed, what angle it’s at, what the lighting is.”
Westfield, like most of the 3,000 or so comic book stores around the country, primarily sells current comic and graphic novel releases.
Westfield Comics also was started in 1979 by Ayers and his then-wife Sherill Anthony as a mail order business, which was taken over by Anthony following their divorce. The West Side retail outlet was opened in 1991 and has been at its current location at 7475 Mineral Point Road since 2008. It also opened a smaller East Side store at 944 Williamson St. about three years ago.
Capital City also sells current issues, but the focus is on older back issues, which account for about half of its sales.
“I’m really interested in the history of comics,” said Ayers, noting that maybe 10 percent of the shops with an antiquarian emphasis. “It’s a relatively new medium – it’s only been around since the 1930s – and it’s such a uniquely American medium. It can be argued that jazz and comic books are America’s two indigenous art forms.
“Comics are just words and pictures together and they’re about a lot of different things. Everyone assumes that comics are just about superheroes, but people buy entirely different things.”
Some of those things are rare, early comics that have become quite valuable. A Stevens Point area woman, Maggie Thompson, recently made national news when she decided to sell off a small portion of her vast collection at auction and netted more than $780,000 from the first 86 issues sold.
But the notion of getting rich is seldom the motivation for people buying comics, Ayers said.
“Comic books are an investment in the same way antiques are an investment, or stamp collecting or coin collecting or book collecting is an investment,” Ayers said. “An enthusiast is an enthusiast. They collect because they’re interested intrinsically. It has value and meaning to them, more than just monetary value. I always say there’s a little bit of investor in every collector because everybody gets a kick out of seeing something they bought at a modest price go up in value. But that’s not why they bought it.”
Count Madison attorney Phill Violi among those whose childhood treasure trove of comics long ago fell victim to a basement cleanup project. Now 39, he’s spent the past 10 years rebuilding his collection, making regular visits to Westfield Comics to pick up his latest favorite titles.
“They’re still writing the superhero comics for people my age,” said Violi. “My age group is the primary active comic book collecting age group. They still write these stories for us, rather than teenagers, which is nice.
“This is America’s mythology. It’s taken over pop culture. It’s a unique form of storytelling, too. There really is no other way that combines words and pictures like comics do.”
The comic book industry is dominated by two major publishers – Marvel and DC – which combine for about two-thirds of the market.
Since 2000, those two publishers have produced all but one of the top 144 selling comics, with only Walking Dead, published by Image, breaking the spell at No. 2, behind Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man.
Joining Spider-Man on Marvel’s roster of superheroes are Captain America and the Avengers, while DC’s lineup includes Superman, Batman and Justice League.
According to Comichron, a website devoted to comic book sales data, North American comics stores ordered $50 million of comics and graphic novels in October, the highest value since the company began tracking in 1997. Year-to-date sales are up nearly 9.5 percent.
Virtually all comic books are distributed by Diamond Comic Distributors, which in 1996 bought out its chief competitor, Capital City Distribution, a Madison-based company that Ayers helped initiate.
“The market was much healthier when there was competition,” Ayers said. “As a result of that healthy market, we enjoyed a boom period from about ‘85 to ‘95. Once the consolidation began, we had a shrinkage of the market.”
Ayers, whose taste in comics runs from the mainstream superheroes to esoteric books like American Splendor by famed underground artist Harvey Pekar, believes contemporary writers could learn from their predecessors.
“I think today’s writers are terribly lazy,” Ayers said. “Visually, comics are as impressive as they’ve ever been. I think they get more impressive every decade. The best writers are still awfully good, but I think there’s a cheap quality to a lot of the writing that resembles bad TV.”
Still, he has no regrets about having devoted his professional life to the world of comic books and has no plans to retire.
“I’ll probably die at the desk here,” he said. “It’s too much fun. I enjoy the customers, and I enjoy the product. I decided at an early age that if I was going to work for a living, I was going to do something I enjoyed.”