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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Robert Pilk is hooked on comics

Master of Ceremonies Robert Pilk at RobCon
Master of Ceremonies Robert Pilk at RobCon
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 30, 2014

Robert Pilk, owner of Mountain Empire Comics, Bristol, Tenn., got hooked on comics as a very young child.

"I was looking at comic books before I could read," Pilk says. "Then we (his family) moved to Maryland to a crummy apartment complex where there was hardly anything to do. But there was a drug store nearby. I went there one day and bought X-Men #11 and Avengers #14, and I was hooked from that point on. I still have them."

The comics were drawn by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and Kirby and Lee remain Pilk's favorites.

"I got to meet Jack Kirby and tell him how much he meant to me a few years before he passed away." Pilk had gone to a comic convention and awakened early one morning. "They'd just opened the dealer room, and I saw this little old man flipping through the books. I thought "that's kind of odd; you usually don't see anyone that old here.' Then a chill hit me. I went over and started to talk to him and tell him how I just loved the fight scenes he used to do. He said it was all real and based on growing up in the Bowery. After five minutes, I looked around and there was a crowd of people standing around us, and nobody was making a sound."

When Pilk fell in love with comics, they were primarily super hero comics, but that has changed throughout the years. "They're aimed for an older audience now. There used to be super heroes, westerns and a couple of war comics. Now there are horror, science fiction, fantasy, true–to-life and autobiographies. The industry used to focus on the companies, like DC and Marvel; now it focuses more on the writers and artists.

Comics are also attracting more women. "I'm glad to see that. I think there is more that appeals to women now," Pilk says. "Some women like the super hero stuff, but they get more into the fantasy and horror. Anime pulls in younger female readers. There's an online comic called "Homestuck' that's just phenomenally popular. No one seems to know about it, except the millions who read it. The plot is unbelievably complicated which may be its draw."

Pilk says that online comics haven't really made a noticeable inroad into the comic world yet. "I think it's coming. But comics are collectible and part of the fun is collecting the actual comic. If you've just got a comic on a computer, what fun is that? You can read it, but it's not really collectible. The day they tell me there are no more paper comics is the day I'm done.

"Comics are becoming more and more accepted as a part of Americana," Pilk says. "One of the most popular comic TV shows in the world, "The Big Bang Theory,' is about guys who like comics, math and physics. It used to be for just very hard-core nerds, like me. Now it's kind of cool to be a "Star Wars' fan; you're still a geek, but you're cool. And just look at movies. Who knew about Thor or Iron Man before the movies came out? Just hard-core geeks."

Pilk says that contrary to what most people might think, movies don't have a large effect on sales. "It's a cumulative effect, especially with little kids. They'll watch the DVD 18 times and then want the comic book. The last TV show that really had an effect was "The Walking Dead.' The comic had been out five years before the television show, but sales of the comic went through the roof when the TV show came out."

A different way of selling comics is what got Pilk into the business. The distributors started direct sales. "It used to be that a newsstand would buy the comics for a small discount, and they could return what didn't sell. Then distributors started selling them for a bigger discount, and they aren't returnable. Two years later, there were comic book shops popping up everywhere. I had been to the ones in Knoxville and in Nashville, and started wondering about having one in Bristol."

His business partner John Stone and he opened a store in Bristol and within a year, they had three stores. They still have two. The second is on South Roan Street in Johnsonc City, Tenn.

"I said it probably won't go anywhere. It's a comic book store in Bristol," Pilk remembers. "I was working full time at the newspaper (Pilk worked at the Bristol Herald Courier), and we were open Tuesday through Friday from 3-6 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It was so much fun. I had the best time. I would be amazed any time anyone would come in and buy an expensive book that I thought no one would ever buy.

"It was so much fun, and it kept getting bigger, and I started wondering what would happen if I was doing this full time for a living. And then the newspaper helped me make that decision." After discussing his options with his father, he decided to leave the newspaper.

"At first, it was a struggle. There were times when you didn't know if you were going to be open the rest of the week. But we always seemed to make it through. We do okay now. I love getting up every morning and coming to work. I couldn't have a better job."

If you visit Pilk's store on Sixth Street in Bristol, Tennessee, you'll see firsthand why he enjoys coming to work. It's filled with laughter, good-natured ribbing and customers of all ages who share his joy in all things comics.

Robert Pilk with Cat Woman at RobCon