G-Sync: Unleashing your inner superhero right where you are

Do new ideas of doing business really exist anymore? Publisher and Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen goes downtown to discover the inner superhero in all of us. (It is Free Comic Book Day 2016!)
We have much to celebrate as Americans when it comes to invention — and who we celebrate is beginning to look more and more like the diverse faces that make up our modern cities. But what are the innovations that have real lasting power through the ages?

The big ones, like the automobile, the airplane, and the artificial heart are all Herculean ideas. But what of the beautiful, small additions to our lives that inspire us? 

The list for me, and no doubt you, is too long to be considered exhaustively, but here’s a few random inventions that might surprise you as some of the best in my world.

The portable ice chest (or, as it would become known to be, “the cooler”) is an invention tied to the joys of cracking of a cold, refreshing beverage at the Lake Michigan shoreline under the blazing summer sun.

The 8-track tape was a big deal growing up because it was, in some ways, a precursor of the CD — albeit a flawed analog version of it. With the 8-track we could simply skip a less desirable set of tunes with the push of a button, advancing to any one of the three tracks of music…and without having to flip a cassette or LP. 

But one big variation on the cartooning popularized in 18th century Japan, and later in the 1830s Europe, was the creation of the American comic book genre with its own unique form of literature. 

This art form dawned in the America of the 1930s, but it was only when we looked at the 1930s invention — originally created for the curation and printing of anthologies of comics — did we quickly discover how to capture the attention and imaginations of the youth of this time period. 

In 1938, Action Comics changed the game by cracking the code by which all comic books released to this day have followed. For it was with the arrival of Action Comics’ (now) much-beloved Superman character that the grip of the comic books’ possibility took hold on the imagination of kids who would begin a lifelong literary journey, from childhood to adulthood, with these characters imprinted in their memory. 

I am happy to say this format, unlike the 8-track tape, is still alive and, nearly a century later, is breaking new ground with each passing year. It has endured slumps in sales after World War II when the TV arrived, but that turned around in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the sales began to rise again to record audiences today propelled by nostalgia — but also by a modernization of the format that has created a next generation of stories for our reading pleasure. 

Locally, there are plenty of options, with nearly a dozen comic book stores in the greater Grand Rapids region of Michigan. Three of these shops generate the most buzz within the comic fan base: Tardy’s Collectors Corner, Argos Book Store, and the most recent to hit the local scene, Vault of Midnight

Vault of Midnight is unique in our city in that while the former trend may be to place these types of shops in suburban neighborhood spots rich with children and easy access, Vault borrows from its Ann Arbor home store’s model in the choosing of the urban core to place the shops. (VOM Ann Arbor will celebrate 20 years this July and just launched a new store opening in Midtown Detroit on May 2.) 

Vault has just passed the two year mark in Grand Rapids, but it already has changed so much of our region through the positive service to the comic book community.

For starters, unlike my experience in the past where I would twirl a wire rack seeking the latest Star Wars comic, VOM’s computer system is set up so that if you are buying comics, you can add your selection to your library of Vault purchased books. This is a huge plus, as I am always worried that I will be buying the same item twice. This is a customer service I signed up for immediately since I seem to forget what issue of Midnighter I last purchased. 

Vault offers this kind of service since the workers are completely aware that they operating in the modern era, where the allure of the 24/7 shopping space on the web includes Amazon. How do you compete in a city where a 2 a.m. sale is possible from bed? You just get smarter. 

Vault curates in response to the evolving new customer service models for this century by catering to the always-on generation (and across generational lines) with an in-store subscription model where your comics are placed in your in-store box on the day when they are released. 

This shift to smarter thinking not only helps VOM with inventory ordering of some of the lesser popular titles, but it also helps grow a local and loyal fan base by extending a 10 percent discount to the series desired by the customer who subscribes via the store.

As I met with the team of Vault employees, Kaitlin and store manager Charley, at their neighborhood business of Madcap, it become very clear that this subscription-based service is very popular with their client base.

Other enhancements they offer to our community is a special book of the month club, for which staff members curate the very best in new illustrated novels — of which Vault has aisles of on hand — to even hosting game nights in our community, when they bring a selection of the hottest and newest board games for people to play at area venues. (They just celebrated International TableTop Day on April 30.) 

And lest you think comic books are just for children, then you owe it to yourself to get down to Vault (or any of our community’s comic bookstores) Saturday, May 6, when the 15th annual national Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) is happening.

While you will find plenty of your familiar characters, from Superman to Archie’s gang of ageless teenagers, you can also peruse some good old-fashioned crime dramas or visit a  futuristic world alongside modern classics like the Saga series — one of the greatest additions to the canon of this literature. 

Other strongholds of the stereotypical view of the white super hero has also shifted drastically, with Miles Morales becoming the first non-white Spider-Man in 2011 and Thor being relaunched in one series as a woman now. 

Even the most well read will recognize Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s name on the April 2016 reboot of Marvel’s The Black Panther, which is on its way to breaking all existing records as the best selling comic book. 

At this time the first edition created in partnership with impressive art by Brian Stelfreeze has sold out. A second printing of the debut is being raced to local stores in time for FCDB. The Black Panther was the first black comic superhero  when he debuted in 1966. (It is not one of the free comic books being given away on this Saturday.) 

On this special day, Vault, in a commitment to showcase the diversity found in the changing face of the modern American comic book genre, has invited members of our community to set up pop-up spaces right outside the Grand Rapids store on Monroe Center, where live entertainment, video game tournaments, button-making, kids’ activities, and an artists' alley will be assessable for those waiting to get into the store.

Before one goes inside to pick their selection from the hundreds of new and free comics on display along the back wall of the store, according to Vault of Midnight's attendees of FCBD will be able to visit Court of Nerds, GR8bit LIVE, Grand Rapids Children's Museum, Girls Rock! Grand Rapids, Bandit Zine, Madcap Coffee, and others who will be set up on the sidewalk. 

Photo by Jon ClayYou can even meet local artists who create limited run comics on sale at VOM. At press we’re promised that artists Amanda Webb, Andy Budnick, and Will Jones will be attending to meet their admirers. VOM at its core is about supporting the creative arts at all levels, so you can find plenty of local publications created within the 616 and often standing side-by-side with the international releases. 

To add to the festivities of the day, there even will be hosting a costume contest with fabulous prizes. 

Angela, a restaurant server I met solely by chance as I was writing this column, upon discovering the topic of my piece asked that I look for her on Saturday at FCBD, as she and her school age, and much younger, sister will be dressing as matching Pokemon characters that she has created. 

As Angela shared her excitement for the event, the topic turned to what she sees as a missed opportunity in this city to serve a community of com-enthusiasts. According to her (and I agree), the market for comic role play and exploration associated with this field of fantasy is growing in our U.S. cities. Angela, a costume designer, believes we can do better locally compared to the mail order overseas companies that sell com-attire online. 

In fact, just a year ago while I was in Pittsburgh, one such com-themed event drew so many folks in fan attire that I felt like I had entered an alternative universe as I walked from the Warhol Museum to my car. 

The key is to be tuned in to the counter culture evolution of our creative communities where often enhancements and ideas on future societal living springs. 

If Angela is correct about wanting to serve this population with her contribution of costume design, then maybe this expanding diversity of opportunity for locals looking to connect to com-culture will, like other places, begin to once again change the face (and capes) of Grand Rapids. 

We already have plenty of examples in life that this is true.  What we in the U.S. started in the 1930s firmed up in 1938 with Marvel and is still playing out in a beautiful way worldwide but also in the heart of the city of Grand Rapids. See you at Free Comic Book Day! 

The Future Needs All of Us (to create our own cape.) 

Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor

For a finely curated list of local events with a touch of historical context tossed in for fun, visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Images provided by Tommy Allen as well as Jon Clay for Vault of Midnight.
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