Digital Advocate MARK WAID Buys Into Brick-and-Mortar Comic Book Store

Alter Ego - Waid
Jason Pierce, Christy Blanch and Mark Waid in front of their store
Credit: Mark Waid

Alter Ego, indeed.

Ever since Mark Waid became a digital publisher, launching the innovative digital comics outlet Thrillbent, he's often been called an "enemy" of print comic books and retailers.

But now, it's going to be a little bit harder to attack the comics creator for embracing digital, since he just became a storefront retailer himself.

"Yes, Mark Waid, enemy of print and hater of brick-and-mortar, has gone and invested in a comic store," Waid told Newsarama with a laugh.

The shop — Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. — was a pre-existing store, but it's now moving to a new location after an investment by Waid and life partner, Christy Blanch. An adjunct professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Blanch has been studying comics and teaching about them at the college level, including her recent high-profile "Gender in Comics" class.

The two are now equal business partners with Jason Pierce, the prior sole owner, who may be familiar to long-time Newsarama readers, since he did a series of articles for our website when he was first trying to open the shop about nine years ago.

It may seem like Waid is too busy to really spend time at the store, since he writes comics like Daredevil, Hulk and Green Hornet, as well as his Thrillbent comic Insufferable. But the creator/publisher posted on his blog that he's "logging inventory on Tuesdays and running the register on weekends and navigating the ordering process."

The store just recently moved into its new space in downtown Muncie, Ind., an area that has been going through a revitalization the last few years. The move not only expands the floor space, but thanks to Waid's addition of some of his own memorabilia, the store now sports a full-size Phantom Zone projector and a scale-model replica of the Batcave. The store, located at 111 E. Adams St., Muncie, Ind., will have its grand re-opening on September 21st, with signings by Waid and other creators, including Art Baltazar and Mike Norton.

So what motivated Waid to get involved in a brick-and-mortar store in Muncie, Ind.? What does a female shop owner offer to the mix? And why did Pierce join leagues with someone who publishes digital comics? Newsarama talked to the three owners to find out more about what they're hoping to accomplish with Alter Ego Comics.

Newsarama: What made you want to get into retail? Your plate isn't full enough?

Mark Waid: I don't have enough to do in my day!

No, I really feel that — and I've felt this way for awhile — talking about how digital and print ought to be able to co-exist, and how one can help the other and vice versa, is really still just theory on my part.

So I wanted to really get in there and roll up my sleeves and put my money where my mouth is. I really like what I would be able to learn from the print of it, and from the retail end of it, by actually getting into the deep end and doing it.

Nrama: Then why this existing comic shop in Muncie, Indiana?

Waid: I've been living mostly in Muncie for the last couple years now, and there's one really good store in town, and that's Alter Ego — Jason's store — and Jason was looking to expand and looking to move, and to energize the business and take it to the next level. And Christy and I have both known him for awhile. And so I offered to put in a little money – what I could put in — and Jason was incredibly generous with then turning around and making Christy and myself full partners in this venture.

Jason Pierce: And I'm incredibly charming, Vaneta.

Nrama: Don't we know it. But Jason, you and I have talked before about your business, and I know that Mark Waid was always one of your favorite writers — long before he lived in Muncie. What's it like to be going into business with someone of whom you've been a fan for years?

Pierce: It's surreal! It really is. We'll be, like, building a desk for the shop or just hanging out talking, and he'll leave to go write, and it will hit me…. oh my gosh!! He wrote Kingdom Come!!

Waid: And now he's running the register.

Nrama: Jason, you mentioned that you were hoping to energize the store. How does having Mark and Christy on board help?

Credit: Alter Ego

Pierce: Having Mark gives Alter Ego a higher profile and puts a spotlight on the store. The name Alter Ego has more weight than it had before, with such a heavy hitter as partner. And Mark has a ton of great ideas about how to make the store one of the best around.

And then Christy is not only a professor who knows all about comics, but she ran her own business before, and she brings a different perspective. She's really smart about this stuff.

Waid: She looks at things through the eyes of, "how will our female customers respond to this? What can we do to draw in more women? What can we do to draw in more kids?"

Pierce: It's great to have three people in the business who know comics inside and out.

Christy Blanch: I think Jason always had a really good grasp on customers, and female customers in specific. But I think I also come at it from an academic perspective. I've been a fan of comics for a long time, but I'm now part of the academic world, so I can bring that aspect of it, to bring a whole new audience there. Besides females and kids, we can also bring in a different group of people on the academic side. For example, showing educators how to use comics in the classroom, and that they represent more than just entertainment. From our media, we get ideas of the world and how we view things. So bringing that into it is important also.

Nrama: You guys also moved locations, taking the shop from a strip mall outside the city into a retail spot right downtown. What can you tell me about where the store is going to be re-located?

Blanch: It's an amazing new store. We have a lot more room. It's very friendly; it's very bright.

Waid: It's nicely located. We'll get a lot more walk-by traffic than we did before, because now we're in the heart of downtown Muncie. We're right around the corner from a toy and model shop, and we're both excited about having symbiotic businesses nearby. So we'll send people to each others' stores. It's much better for them than having another insurance business next door.

Blanch: Also, this is a college town; we have Ball State right there. The new store allows students to come on the bus line from Ball State. There's a stop right near our store. It's easy for students to come here.

Pierce: There wasn't a bus stop even close to the old store.

Blanch: The downtown location and the bigger space also allow us to have a lot of community events. We're going to have an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. party. We're going to have Walking Dead parties. We're going to have Monday night MAGIC parties. We're going to have a Ladies Night. There's a new documentary on comics coming out on PBS, and we're going to invite teachers and librarians to watch that at the store with us, and then we're going to talk about lesson plans and how you can incorporate comics into your curriculum for any age.

Pierce: We have a room that has a seven-foot screen, and we have a high-def projector and surround sound in that room. So it's like a movie theater in there. It's awesome.

Nrama: There's also a move toward revitalization in downtown Muncie, which a lot of small- to mid-size cities are trying out. Was that part of your decision to move downtown?

Pierce: Yes. They've been revitalizing downtown for the past six years or so. They've been trying to cultivate downtown as a community gathering area. They do a thing called First Thursdays, where the first Thursday of every month, people come down and all the businesses showcase what they do and give out freebies or samples. That has done a phenomenal job cultivating the downtown area.

Probably seven years ago, they asked me to move down there, and I laughed at them then, because there was nothing but a couple bars. But now they've done such a good job developing it, when the opportunity arose this time, I was like, heck yes!

Blanch: They're building a hotel; there's a convention center; there are tons of restaurants; there are little shops that have started coming in. So they're doing a lot with it.

Nrama: Mark, I know you believe in digital comics, but I hear something in your description of this store that very much identifies this store as more than just a place to buy comic books. Comic shops can't rely on the "collecting" mentality of the '90s anymore, and the way Christy described the shop, you're trying to give something to customers that digital can't. You're making it a destination, a place for community.

Waid: Right, and I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Not just by becoming a co-owner, but in terms of making it a destination for gathering, I just recently drove 2,500 miles across country in a rental van so I could bring out my memorabilia, so I could bring out a lot of my memorabilia, so I could bring out a lot of the one-of-a-kind stuff that's basically on shelves in my house in California — the masks and the props and the batarangs and the Phantom Zone projectors and all that stuff.

Pierce: And a Kingdom Come original page!

Waid: Yeah, Kingdom Come original art.

And we have this stuff around the store, so that people can come and see it. You know, even if you're not going to buy a comic, it's probably worth sticking your head in just to see the cool stuff that nobody else has.

Nrama: So Mark, just to clarify, you don't hate print?

Waid: The first thing, when I told the guys at Thrillbent that I was doing this — that I was buying into a brick-and-mortar store — their very first response was, "Why? Are you going to burn it down?" [Laughs.]

I have always loved comic stores. Like every other kid who ever grew up reading comics, I dreamed about having a comic book store. It hasn't really been on my radar for a long time now, but when the opportunity came up, I jumped at it.

I don't know any better way to, once and for all, extinguish this rumor that I'm out to destroy comic stores with digital by taking a stake in print.

And also, I just like the idea that what I learn from this end of the business, I can move to the digital end. And what I learn from digital, I can move to print. And what I can learn as a freelancer — I don't think there's anybody else who's an active freelancer at one of the majors who's also a publisher who's also a storeowner. I kind of like this idea that, when I finally get to the end of my life, I will have done every single thing in comics you can do.

On September 21st, Alter Ego will have its grand re-opening celebration with cosplayers, special events and signings by creators like Art Baltazar, Mike Norton and (of course) Mark Waid — plus an appearance by the 1966 Batmobile. Alter Ego Comics is in its new location at 111 E. Adams St., Muncie, Ind.

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