Atomic City Comics

Early in February of this year, The Comics Journal ran an interview with Eric Partridge of Fat Jack’s Comicrypt, a venerable Philadelphia comic shop lately fallen on hard times, and resorting to a crowdfunding campaign in order to recover from mounting debts. During that interview, Partridge struck a tone that was, if not quite funerial, nevertheless suggestive of a retail environment that was becoming increasingly exhausting and demoralizing for those within it.

It wasn’t long after that the Journal received an email from Michael Yates, the partner and co-owner of another Philadelphia shop, Atomic City Comics. Michael had read our profile of Fat Jack’s, and he had some visceral reactions he was inclined to share: “I’ve been selling comics on South St in Philadelphia since 1987 and am the owner and partner of Atomic City Comics,” he told us at the time. “I gotta say the idea that you can’t get new customers any more is a bit ridiculous. We’ve been getting new customers and new families buying books from our shop for years.”

I was curious to know why and how Michael had such a different perception and emotional response to the state of the comics market, and I reached out to him later that day for an interview of his own. What emerged in that conversation was an alternate, wildly divergent view of who comics readers are, where they can be drawn from, and what the role of a local comic shop can (and perhaps ought to) be. 

These differences may be due in part–as Michael himself will acknowledge–to Atomic City’s identity as one of the first Black-owned comic shops in Philadelphia, or anywhere else. That’s a fact that perhaps has something to do with the visible effort that Atomic City has put into its public face, as well as its deliberately broad base of customers. At least, that is the image the store sought to convey during our conversation - but even this is testament to Michael’s commitment to the way Atomic City presents itself to the media and the world.

None of this is to say that either narrative, be it the one told by Atomic City or the one told by Fat Jack’s, represents the “true” state of comic book retail in Philadelphia. These are two equally true stories of what it means to own and operate a local comic shop in 2023, at a time of convulsive transition for an entire industry. What Atomic City’s story suggests is that the transition we’re in may, just possibly, be for the better.

-Zach Rabiroff

The Comics Journal: Tell me about how Atomic City got started.

Michael Yates: I've been in comics and Philadelphia since 1987. I started with a shop called Comics and More. From there, I went to another store called Showcase Comics. Around 2001, Mike Clark, who I’m still friends with from Showcase, [decided he] really wanted to get out of Philadelphia, and my partner Martin King and I bought the shop and turned it into Atomic City Comics. Unfortunately, Martin died around 2004, 2005, and we also brought in a new partner Darryl [Jones] and his wife Miyuki. 

Tell me about the part of Philly that Atomic City is in? What’s the local flavor like?

We’re on South Street. South Street is kind of like Greenwich Village in New York. We’ve been through things. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were the hip street to be: we had TLA [the Theatre of The Living Arts, a live music venue], we had the punk scene, we had the goth scene. We had everything. And in some ways, we were victims of our own success. And because we got so popular, things like Tower Records came in, and it was big. And then we got a Gap. 

And one of the things that happened is, the landlords started seeing bigger money, so they started charging bigger rents. And because of the bigger rents, a lot of the small, cool stores which South Street was known for, they all kind of got kicked off the street while things like the Gap and McDonald's and stuff came in. And the street started to lose its charm - you know, because people were coming down to see the punks, and it was starting to look like your average strip mall.

I always wanted to have a different kind of shop. I really liked comics, but my thing was, even back then [in the ‘80s and ‘90s], there was still that kind of fanboy attitude, you know? You had to like what I like. And the philosophy Martin and I had was an even playing field: everybody gets to play. So you have little kids, you have moms and dads, you have girls, you have everybody in the shop. 

And no, you don’t start quizzing people that don’t know what’s going on, and not making them feel welcome, you know? My thing was, comics are for everybody.

So, how would you summarize, to your own mind, what that classic comic shop fanboy attitude is? And how did you try to approach things differently?

One of the things Martin pointed out to me was, when you would go to comic shops, you’d always see the same thing: you’d see moms, girlfriends, and sisters all standing outside - waiting for their husbands, their brothers, everybody to come out. And a lot of times, you know, [the shops] tended to have a lot of posters; they weren’t that well lit. You had to know what you were doing to go in there. And, you know, it was kind of a club, but at the time being a nerd was bad.

And Martin and I made a vow that we wanted “mommy money,” as we put it. So, when I first started [at other shops], all the comics were what I would have called ghettoized, because there was the DC section, there was the Marvel section, there was the independent section. And to me, that meant you didn’t see anything new: if you were just a Marvel-head, you just went over to your Marvel section. Mike [Clark at Showcase Comics] had the idea I wanted to do–which most shops do now–which is put everything in alphabetical order, because then you see everything.

The other thing we did when we got to South Street, we changed the way we designed the store. We didn’t preach to the choir. My new comic wall isn’t right in the front of the store - it’s further into the store. Because my thing is, I could put Batman and X-Men comics in the back of my store in a hole with a rock over it; I’m still going to sell, because the fans are going to come in and go: “Mike, is the new Batman in?” 

“Yeah, it’s under the rock in the back.” 

But in our store, pretty much first thing is kids' comics. If you want new customers, you’ve got to grow them. You can’t wait for them to walk through the door. So we always have kids' comics and family-friendly comics, so when moms look in the window, they don’t just see naked women and blood, you know, like old Witchblade posters and stuff like that. 

What are the kids' comics you’re putting out there these days, by the way?

Archie was our chief evergreen for a very long time. We used to be able to go to newsstand distributors and get lots of bulk Archies. We would put Batman Adventures out. As ridiculous as it sounds, old reprints of EC Comics. And we would buy them in bulk, and what would happen is, when moms and dads were coming in the shop because they would see those, the next thing that Martin and I would put out on a big wall is anything that was being covered in newspapers, magazines, television, NPR. We would put all that stuff out in front, because we knew people remember things visually more than they remember titles, so they were looking for something they saw in Rolling Stone or on television. 

We also put manga up there, and those were all the things in the front that were more friendly to families. And then, once you got in, there were the new comic books. And we also said “hi” to everybody who came in. When Truth: Red, White & Black [a critically-praised 2003 Marvel Comics series introducing the idea of a Black Captain America] came out, Joe Quesada came to our shop to do a signing. We had press, we had TIME Magazine, we had ABC, we had all the networks. Joe looked at us and said, “Good lord, you have more press here than we had at Marvel!” 

And he also said–because he had done that speech years about being upset with being nerdy–he goes, “You have the shop I said doesn’t exist anymore. Because you’ve got families in here. You have grandmothers bringing in their grandkids. You just have to make it friendly to them.”

What were you doing that was managing to get this kind of attention, aside from just layouts that attracted walk-ins?

We did PR all the time. Every week we sent out a newsletter to every news station, every radio station, everything that was covering comics. We kept putting our name out there: any time there was a news story about comics, we wanted them to go, “Oh, wait a minute, what’s that weird store that sends us something every week?” You have to go out and do it yourself.

I also dress well, you know? Martin and I always kept a shirt and a tie and a jacket in our office in case the news walked in to talk to us, because we’re about to go out, and let’s not look like guys that never grew up. And that probably comes from the fact that we’re Black. You know, we were, as far as we knew, the first Black-owned comics shop in Philadelphia and maybe the country. [Note: This is something of a disputed title, but Atomic City is doubtless among the earliest shops that can count itself among that number.] 

We started running homework clinics every once in a while in the store. We did stunts the first time we did Free Comic Book Day: we hired some of the college students that came to the shop all the time to picket the store, so when people came down on South Street, they saw these kids picketing the store that they were the Society Against Illiteracy, and they spelled “Illiteracy” wrong. Martin and I joked that we ran the store like a bar: we know your name, we know what your drink is, and if there’s a new drink we think you’ll like, we’ll throw it in for you. 

Our thing was, you have to make a connection. You have to be friendly. When a kid comes in and you’re talking to them, get down on your knees, make eye contact; don’t make the kid have to look up at you. We’ll take a book that we have, like, “No, here, it’s free to this little kid.”

So, give me the age breakdown of your customers as it stands today.

We’ve got our older customers. We get a lot of college kids that come in. We also get schoolkids that come in. And we have families that regularly bring their little kids in here because we also have those little vending machines - because that’s another thing, when you come in you see those little vending machines. I think our main thing is, we just went for the people that everybody says weren’t there. Back when Truth came out, one of the things that Joe said to us is, he had seen more women in our shop in one afternoon that he had seen in all the shops he had gone to.

And one of the things we did was manga. Martin, before he passed, ran [one of] the first anime convention[s] on the East Coast in the ‘90s, called Anime East. Because he even spoke and read Japanese, when Martin and I took over the shop, one of the things we used to do is once a month, we would drive to New York and New Jersey, and we would hit all those secondhand bookstore and used book shops in Chinatown, and we would buy all these books even though they weren’t translated. We could pick them up for like a buck or 50 cents apiece, and we would bring them back and maybe charge $2 and put that on the wall. We have one of the largest sections of manga in Philadelphia.

And one of the reasons we also have it, is that you hire people that know what’s going on. I also go with Scholastic books - we’re selling shitloads of that stuff.

So when you think about manga or those YA graphic novels, which are obviously incredibly popular, how have you met the challenge that we’ve heard from other retailers about competing with Amazon, or any other place that can stock all of those books with massive discounts?

Well, we talk to people. And we’re excited about stuff. I know people are probably still buying stuff from Amazon, but I also know that people are still coming in and buying it from us. You can’t talk to Amazon; you can talk to us. And I think we also try to give people an experience. When we did our subscription service, Martin was like, “Ok, not only is this a subscription, but we’re going to call it Atomic City Citizens.” And, you know, citizenship has its privileges. 

Tuesday is the slowest day of the week. Up the street, one of our pals had a pizza shop. So Tuesdays, we’d shut the shop early, and our pal would bring down a bunch of pizzas, and we’d buy a couple of cases of soda. We put the [Diamond] catalogs out on the tables. And we’d run it that this was a Citizens Only Event: so if you were a subscriber and you had your little membership card or your Atomic City pin, you could get in the door, walk around the store, and have pizza and soda.

Did you ever find that these strategies were alienating to the sort of “traditional” comic fan you were describing, or did they stick around, too?

I think they did, but at the same time, you know what? If you’re going to be mean to people, we don’t want you here. If your main idea is to come into a shop and talk down things that other people are enjoying, and you get mad at us because you won't let you talk somebody down - I mean, I don’t think we did, I think we were just fun. I mean, we were the same store, you know? We weren’t charging any more. It’s just that, yeah, it’s a bright store. If you’re a regular comic buyer you’re probably not noticing that instead of the new shelf being right in front of the store, you have to walk deeper into the store to get there. 

What we do with new comics is, everything is color-coded. New books are on the yellow shelf, going through a very long line of shelves until blue. All the back issues we keep, pretty much - six to eight months of comics on the shelf at cover price at all times. Because since we’re not paying any more for them, there’s no reason that we really need to make you pay any more. So if you suddenly get interested in something, and you want to go get the back issues, there’s a good chance you’re going to be able to get at least seven or eight copies of the backstock for cover price.

You haven’t found that the recent preponderance of different distributors has made it more difficult to get those discount rates to make that possible?

It is difficult, but at the same time, back in the day, we did the same thing when we were ordering books from Cold Cut, Last Gasp, Capital City and Diamond. 

So this is, I guess, an area where it helps to have come into the business before Diamond had a monopoly.

I remember back before the crash [in the mid 1990s], I saw the same thing. Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass to do all the breaking down of the math to see who’s giving you the best price, but it’s worth it.

So I take it that having come into the business in those years would probably give you a little bit of wariness when it comes to avoiding speculator markets.

Yeah, funny you say that. Back in the day, I can’t remember what the book was – either it was a Punisher book or, I’ll just say the Gen13 book came out with 22 different covers. And this guy came in, and he’s like, “I want three sets.” And I was like, well, you can have two copies, and on Sunday, if I’ve got anything left over, you can have whatever you want. And [other retailers] were like, “You chased out a sale?” I’m like, no, I didn’t chase out a sale. The idea is, this book is popular. I am going to sell this book. The argument is, do I went to sell that book in five minutes, or do I want to sell it over the weekend, and make sure my customers got that book? Because this guy’s not going to be back next week.

I think the thing is, you kind of have to change. You’ve got to look out and see what’s going on. Same thing with Marvel right now. When Riri Williams showed up, we had her little action figure in the front of the store - you know, because we go the movies. And I see little girls getting excited. Guys are like, “Nobody wants Captain Marvel.” No, you don’t want Captain Marvel. But I’ve got to make sure the store is welcoming to your sister. We always have women behind the counter who recommend things, too. Like I said, it goes back to the idea of a bar. If you’re good to your customers, they’re good to you.

You reached out because you had seen an interview we did with another shop in Philadelphia, Fat Jack’s Comicrypt. They were saying in that interview that they really weren’t finding it possible to reach new markets, and that they didn’t have a lot of optimism about the direction comics retail was heading. Why do you think other shops are finding it much more difficult to do the sorts of things you’re talking about here?

First of all, I went to Fat Jack’s as a kid. I love Fat Jack’s. I think the difference is, one, you have to stay passionate. I think a lot of people are burned out. We just went through a really bad scene, and a lot of people were going to hand-to-mouth as it was.

When you say that, you’re referring to the COVID shutdown?

Yeah, yeah, that was rough for people. We lucked out because of something Daryl did 10 years ago: since we had a deep well of trades, we were able to kind of surf on that. 

But that’s an advantage that comes from diversifying, right? You had something you could survive on because you weren’t focused on just, say, new superhero comics.

And that was it. I just think if you’re really into pop culture, if you’re really into things, there were enough little signs to tell you there was an audience out there other than the choir. 

So if you were to imagine five years in the future, what do you think your shop is going to look like? What do you think comic shops in general–or the ones that survive–are going to look like?

I think we’re going to have much more trades. I admit, one of the things I was worried about was the digital stuff. I'm subscribed to both DC Universe and Marvel Unlimited because, you know, you’ve got to keep an eye on your competition. And that's my competition. For a while, I didn't even tell anybody about it. But what I found is some of my customers are subscribed to that stuff, but they're still buying new stuff. And if anything, a lot of times, there's stuff [that they find on digital services] that they want to have.

I think there's probably going to be more of a tie-in to video games. I think we're going to start seeing video game comics. I think they're going to tell stories video games can't tell. I really think trades are the way to go, because that's what you're going to sell the people that are watching movies. Most of the people that are watching movies really can't twist their head around the idea that [they] come in every month and [they] get eight pages or whatever. But I can sell them three trades.

Considering that it’s trades, and manga, and YA graphic novels that are really booming for you, do you think there’s still a future attached to traditional, monthly comics?

I think it's still going to be there, because that's really the only way a lot of smaller press people can do stuff. And I think there's always going to be a market for that. I think there are new voices that can’t always do trades, and even though they do Webtoons and things, they still want to put something in their hand. I think it’s still going to be there.

I think we’re going to see a little bit more of a step back into the old underground scene. You know, because that’s how I used to be able to sell weirdo stuff all the time. But the more I see new zine sales - right here in Philly, there’s a little collective that puts out every month a newspaper, about an 8-16 page foldable newsprint book, that they give out for free.

I think that’s really what we’re going to start to see. And if Diamond was smart, they’d be getting more into it. You know, Diamond got rid of a lot of the indie press for a while: that’s why we used to go through Cold Cut, and things like that. If Diamond was smart, they’d start looking at more of these independent guys out there, because they need a place to go. And lord knows Disney and Warner Bros. aren’t interested in keeping Diamond afloat.

Everything’s got to change and evolve. I mean, they've been screaming that television was going to die for years, and it still hasn't. I know it’s changed for me. Just the idea that Captain America is Sam [Wilson] is amazing to me. I never thought I’d see that, and now I’m going to see a movie like that. You know, Black Panther was a movie I could show my 80-year old mother. And I think that’s healthy.