NC Comicon: Oak City

By Corbie Hill|  //  Photos by reDirect Photography

It’s quiet in Foundation’s Edge this Tuesday morning, but that’s only because the shipment hasn’t arrived yet.
    When that happens, all this week’s comic books will come in. And then, on Wednesday morning, these issues will hit the shelves and local comic book lovers will come get their fix, as they have at Foundation’s Edge since the 1980s. This little shop, which is tucked away a short walk down Pogue Street from Hillsborough, celebrated its 30th birthday in February. In its many years of business, some things simply haven’t changed, Brockton McKinney observes with obvious wonder. He’s excited about the wall of VHS tapes in particular – he’s enamored with gory old B movies, and he’s found a treasure trove here. Exploring this little store, an hour passes like ten minutes.
    “I’m looking through the VHS. I’m looking at the walls. I’m looking at toys I like,” he gushes. “I bought my daughter a dragon candle that the owner’s wife had made. It doesn’t get any more local than that – you can’t get that anywhere else.”
    McKinney is creative director of NC Comicon, which brings its NC Comicon: Oak City to the Raleigh Convention Center March 18th-19th (the Durham show, NC Comicon: Bull City, is November 10th-12th). Today, though, we’re driving all over Raleigh, taking the pulse of local comic book stores. Some of these businesses, like Foundation’s Edge, have deep roots in the area; others are only a few months old, but have already found their niches in the local economy. Shops like these and conventions like the Comicon support a community of comics-loving locals, one that not only thrives, but grows as nerd culture pervades the mainstream through big-budget cinema or shows like The Big Bang Theory, Daredevil, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
    “Because of the Marvel movies, because of the saturation in TV with DC and Marvel and all that stuff, people now are like, ‘Maybe I’m interested in comic books. I’ll check one of these little [conventions],’” McKinney offers. “And it ends up just being massive. They can’t believe all the stuff that’s in there.”
    At NC Comicon: Oak City, for instance, McKinney points out that Darryl McDaniels – aka the “D.M.C.” of Run-D.M.C. – also has his own comic book publishing house and will be one of the guests of honor this year. Previous guests at the Bull City Comicon have included luminaries like The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard and My Chemical Romance vocalist Gerard Way, who has ventured into comics as well.
    “You don’t have to be a comic book guy to go to a comic book show. You just have to have an interest in having fun,” says McKinney as we leave Hillsborough Street, headed north and east. We take Capital Boulevard completely across town, almost to I-540, where we walk into the Raleigh location of Ultimate Comics, which opened last October.
    In that new, airy shop, Amanda Wehrwein cheerfully greets customers. A man is here with his toddler, and the child wanders the store with wide-eyed curiosity as his dad buys comics.
    “It’s a really interesting market up here, because I would say 50% of the people that come in have either never read a comic or have never been in a comic book store before,” Wehrwein says. So she gives customers tours of the store, giving them an easy access point and introducing them to essential terms and concepts.
    Wehrwein, too, came into this world laterally: her husband is in charge of the volunteers at the NC Comicons, and she initially started working a few days at Ultimate Comics (which has the same owner). Now, she works full-time as assistant manager, which would be her comics-loving husband’s dream job.
    She’s sure, too, to encourage families to attend the NC Comicons. Many have preconceived notions of scantily-dressed cosplayers wandering around in revealing superhero gear. There may be a little of that, Wehrwein admits, but the Comicon is purposefully family-friendly.
    We cross town again, then, to North Raleigh’s Fight or Flight Comics, where we meet Daniel Foust. He and two business partners opened this store at the Shops at Falls Village two years ago. They’d all worked at Foundation’s Edge in college and immediately after, and they learned the business from owner Rick McGee. They wanted to start their own comics business, but didn’t want to compete directly with their mentor on Hillsborough Street. So they set their sights on North Raleigh.
    “Right where we are, we’re right in-between five schools,” Foust says. “We have a really strong young reader section, so I’m very pleased with that.”
    Some of these young readers stick with it and develop their passion for these characters on into adulthood. McKinney gets it – he’s a Godzilla superfan and has figures and statuettes of the Japanese monster decorating his home office. The writer of this story gets it – he’s obsessed with Star Trek and has a serious collection of toy and replica starships at home. Yet the two of us are outliers, McKinney asserts as we cross Raleigh yet again. Most comic fans and nerd culture aficionados go for the whole package.
    “For the most part, those people who love comic books also love toys,” he says.
    So for our final stop of the day, we head west, toward the airport. At Crowemag Toys we find Jason Stephens working. He’s surrounded by everything from Star Wars figures and ships to Hot Wheels to vintage 80s Lego sets, and he loves his job.
    “I’m 37. I played with half this stuff as a kid, so now I get to play with it as an adult,” says Stephens, who collects Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman toys. “Every day is fun.”
    He’s not alone, either: he regularly sees adults come into the store and visibly turn back into children when they see some beloved toy they never thought they would see again – it’s a joyful, and almost innocent sort of nostalgia. “We had the G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg come in awhile back, with the box,” Stephens says, thrilled to have encountered the enormous mid-80s toy in the store. “I’ve seen grown men turn into 5-year-olds at Christmas when they look at that again.”
    The beauty of conventions, McKinney says as we leave, is that you get old school stores, sellers like Crowemag Toys or Foundation’s Edge, right across from newer entities like Ultimate Comics or Fight or Flight, and they exist together in harmony. It’s like a traveling neighborhood, he goes on to say, and many of the dealers who set up on the convention floor have known each other for years.
    “Those guys have wares you’re never going to see anywhere else,” McKinney says. “You’re not going to see them online. You’re not going to see them in stores.”
    And for lovers of comic books, of nerd culture, or even of pop culture in general, conventions are just plain fun, McKinney asserts. The NC Comicon brings creators, artists, celebrities and dealers; it’s filled with elaborately costumed cosplayers, local breweries like Big Boss make comic-themed beer labels, and there are dance parties.
    And for the people who go deep into the minutiae of these fictional universes, who could easily talk for an hour about the strengths of the fourth and final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, as a certain Midtown writer did in Foundation’s Edge one Tuesday morning in January, conventions and the local comic stores that feed them are a valuable place to find people who know as much about their incredibly specific interests as they do.
    “That is the great thing about comic book stores and, by osmosis, conventions,” McKinney says.


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