Comic book fans, creators mourn Arizona’s Atomic Comics

Atomic ComicsIt’s the end of an era for many pop culture fanatics in the Valley as word spreads that the local comic book chain Atomic Comics has closed its doors.

Up until Sunday, Atomic had stores at Country Club Drive and Southern Avenue in Mesa, Chandler Fashion Center, Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix and Paradise Valley Mall.

Former P.V. store manager Thomas Healy was among several employees to verify the growing reports Sunday on Twitter: “Yes @Atomic_Comics is now closed. I will miss running my store. I had the best staff ever!” He later clarified that all four stores were closed.

The chain had a reputation nationwide for a knowledgeable staff as well as frequent promotions and popular events that brought big-name industry talent to connect with fans in the Valley. The owner used his connections well, even managing to get the store’s brand featured as the comic book shop in last year’s big-screen adaptation of the Mark Millar-John Romita Jr. title Kick-Ass.

The business had recently shut down its online storefront, with a note that it would soon return; its store on eBay also was dark. Atomic, like all players in the print media game, faced major challenges from digital distribution schemes and the sluggish-at-best economy.

Sunday night, online reports of Atomic Comics’ demise from sites such as The Beat, The Outhouse and Newsarama spurred an emotional reaction on social networking sites like Twitter from patrons and comics industry figures.

“Horrified & upset to hear about Atomic Comics closing,” wrote Choker writer Ben McCool. “Was lucky enough to sign there last year & had the time of my life. Devastating blow. … Mike texted me to confirm. Sad but true.”

“Incredibly sad day today,” wrote Marvel Comics chief creative officer Joe Quesada. “The best retailer I’ve ever met closed his doors. There’s never been anyone like @atomicmike and there never will.”

Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis said: “i don’t know what happened or whats up but @atomicmike is and will always be one of the best retailers ever!”

“@Atomicmike” is Mike Malve, the store’s owner, who did not wish to comment but used his final weekly newsletter to confirm the chain’s demise and elaborate on the financial situation that led to its closing.

“The villain in this tragedy is the economy,” he wrote. “I had hoped to be the superhero and triumph over the recession, but sadly the economic downturn of the past five years has proven to be unsustainable.”

Malve said plunging sales as the economy soured turned the leases at the chain’s four high-visibility locations, once considered a branding boon, into a burden.

Ultimately, however, Malve traces the downfall’s beginning to Halloween 2006, when a teenage girl drove a car through the Mesa store’s window, smashing water pipes and damaging nearly $1 million worth of inventory. It reopened five months later as a gathering spot for collectors and casual readers alike — but many regular patrons never came back.

“The damages were so severe we lost close to a million dollars in product. The loss of revenue due to being closed all those months as we headed into retail’s busiest season was astronomical,” Malve’s statement said. “What really stood out to me was how many of Atomics’ customers were lost as we rebuilt the store. It seemed as if half our customers never returned. The great mystery to me is what exactly happened to all those missing customers. I can only speculate that once you take away the habit of weekly buying-it is hard to jump back into it.”

He also revealed he has filed for bankruptcy and is losing a home that was used as security against the four stores’ broken leases.

Malve started the chain in 1988 as Bubba’s Comic Store in Phoenix. It moved to Mesa a year later and changed its name to Atomic Comics. For years it was in the now-defunct Fiesta Village Shopping Center at the corner of Southern Avenue and Alma School Road, across the street from Fiesta Mall, but it later moved to Southern and Country Club before getting its unplanned renovation.

The store on Metrocenter’s outer loop opened in 1993, moving to a new spot there fronting Dunlap Avenue in 2009.

The Chandler store opened in 1997, later moving to the mall area in 2002.

Paradise Valley got its location in 2001.

According to Malve’s statement, at one point the chain employed up to 60 people.

A sign posted outside the closed Mesa store Monday morning directed comic shoppers to other local spots, like the downtown drag’s recently opened Gotham City Comics & Coffee, Ash Avenue Comics & Books in Tempe, Greg’s Comics in Mesa, Samurai Comics in Phoenix and several others across the Valley.

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