The Fallout Of Atomic Comics

Chris VB, out new Arizona Correspondent, writes for Bleeding Cool;

The first time I visited an Atomic Comics store, I was convinced that I had found heaven on Earth. You see, my parents had very recently split and my mom and I moved cross-country to start our lives over and I dove into comics to cope with it all so, to step into that store, I finally felt like things would turn out okay. I knew that as long as this place existed, I would have somewhere to go to escape. I distinctly remember looking up at their Three-Month Wall on that first visit and it looking like it was miles high. I don't remember what exactly I got that day, but I do remember that, from then on, my family was kind enough to make a point out of taking me to the Chandler store once a month and letting me stock up. That store (the Chandler store, by the by) ended up becoming one of the most sacred and important places in my life until it ended with a whimper (not a bang) six years later.

The strange thing is, when the news of all four Atomic Comics stores began to trickle out onto the web on the eve of August 22, 2011, I didn't regularly shop Atomic. In fact, I was a bit disdainful of the stores. A lot of stupid, petty little pet peeves had driven me from my pull box at the Chandler store and regular perusal of the Mesa store. Too much anime/manga stuff and the kids who buy it, new staff members I was unfamiliar with, carrying local music I didn't like, etc. So, I drifted; tried an online subscription service (wasn't a fan), then scoured for other local shops and settled for my current LCS in Mesa. In that period of time, I still stopped by the Atomic stores for signings and sales and such but then, one day, the signings just kind of stopped and then, a new big sale was announced (all back issues for $1 as well as other insanely good deals) that very curiously lasted an entire month. Then, a creeping fear from the back of my mind was confirmed at the end of the month-long, chain-wide sale: Atomic Comics was done for.

First, it was the Tweets, Jim Lee, Warren Ellis, even Kevin Smith.  Then I ran to Facebook, and to my dismay, a few employees I was friends with had made some unfortunate posts of a confirming nature. I was out of my mind at this point. Industry pros were eulogizing Atomic in 140 character bits and actual employees were lamenting about being out of a job and all I could do was freak out and speculate. I ran to my uncle (who had, in the past few years, became my comic book partner in crime) and dropped the bomb on him. He was taken aback but I was beside myself. How could Atomic Comics, four entire stores, a traveling van, a web store, and a mail order service, just lock up at the end of the day never to be opened again?

Answers came quickly, as they are to do in this age of the never ending news cycle wherein everyone is a reporter. The first article I read was on Comic Book Resources, then Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, and ComicsAlliance, and then all the local news sites (I was even on the local news out here in Phoenix, looking like a depressed transient in a Misfits shirt). I took in every article and Tweet and Facebook post I could find and I absolutely still couldn't believe that the stores, MY stores, were gone.

But, regardless of my disbelief, the facts were these: In 2010, Atomic Comics had shut down its headquarters in Phoenix. Several months later, their ebay and web stores ceased activity, with the latter carrying a notice that it would return at a later date. On the morning of August 21, 2011, employees were informed that the four stores (Phoenix, Paradise Valley, Chandler, and Mesa) would close for good. At the end of the business day, the stores did indeed close for ever. As the evening progressed, employees took to Twitter and Facebook to express their dismay while Mike Malve took to contacting some of his nearest and dearest in the industry to notify them of the closure. Word spread further. Industry pros started posting. Eulogizing, speculating, and lamentations ran through the night until Malve broke his silence on the morning of August 22nd by issuing his "Final Report" newsletter. Malve cited the declining economy as the major factor for the death of Atomic. Malve stated that trying to maintain four stores in four high-rent locations was just no longer sustainable. He pointed to a 2006 incident wherein an uninsured 16 year-old drove their car through the front of the flagship Mesa store and flooded it by breaking the water main as the beginning of the end. It cost Atomic over a million and a large chunk of regular customers. It was all downhill from there and, in the final, terrible detail, Malve said that not only had he lost Atomic, he was filing bankruptcy and his family was losing their home. Malve ended his report by stating he would not be doing interviews on the subject and, for a bit thereafter, sort of disappeared from the public eye.
Whoa. When I sat there with all the details in front of me, I was overcome with an immense sadness, a little for me, but mostly for Mike Malve. Mike is one of the most genuinely nice human beings I have ever met. In the time I had shopped Atomic (both reguraly and not so) he remembered me every time he saw me and always made time to talk to myself or another customer about how they were doing, and what they liked or didn't like. I felt so terribly for this great guy that he was seemingly losing it all. Mike has since done what many said he would do in the days following the closing and bounced back, which is great. I also felt badly for the employees at the time, who were all too suddenly jobless, but they've all bounced back as well. The biggest comeback of all, though, in the near year since Atomic shut its doors has been the comics scene at large in the Phoenix area.

Atomic left a Grand Canyon-sized hole in the heart of the fledgling comics scene out here but retailers, creators, and fans alike all rallied to fill it. It's been downright inspiring to see all of the great things that have come out of such a terrible one. Samurai Comics rose to the occasion in a big way by taking on the bulk of Atomic's outstanding Diamond orders as well as by quickly opening a new location next door to the dormant Mesa Atomic and recently moving into Atomic's space itself after the store's contents were finally auctioned off. All of the retailers in Arizona banded together to take care of all the customers that were suddenly without a LCS. A former Atomic employee even opened his own shop called Gotham City Comics in downtown Mesa in the wake of Atomic shutting down.

So, as mentioned, it is now nearly one year since Atomic Comics faded into history and things are actually flourishing in the wake. For once, some Atomic Fallout has had positive benefits on its environment. Phoenix can't really boast about having the largest direct market chain in the Southwest anymore, but they can boast about a large amount of great retailers, a promising community of both veteran and up and coming creators, and, of course, 'The Signature Pop-Culture Event of the Southwest', Phoenix Comicon.

Many lessons can be learned from the demise of Atomic Comics but the biggest two, in my opinion, are that nothing is permanent and there are no real endings. I'm sure that myself as well as many others who patronised the store were of the mind a bit over a year ago that Atomic would last forever. However, like many great things, it didn't. Similarly, I think myself and others felt a great sense of finality for comics in Arizona when Atomic closed up shop. That notion has been dispelled many times over in the year since, though.

Atomic Comics holds so many memories for me (went to my first signing there, built most of my collection there) and will forever live on in the minds of all the old customers, employees, and associates of Mike Malve (and viewers of the Kick-Ass movie). If you could go back in time and ask the 12 year-old me about Atomic Comics he'd tell you it's the greatest store in the galaxy. If you ask me now, I may not be so hyperbolic but I'd definitely say that it was that rare, great place that people flock to because of how fun and accessible it is and that its closing has laid the foundation for one of the greatest geek communities in the country. Oh, and I'd also shout "Buy Atomic or Die!"

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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