116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
HIAWATHA — Grayson Burgess hefts what looks to be a heavy, square stone object in the production area of his Hiawatha business. Only its light blue color gives away that it’s actually a lightweight acrylic plastic material.
“That’s 3D printed, and we’ll paint it black and put a special paint on it,” he said. “Then we’ll weather it.”
Burgess admitted he didn’t have such a detailed plan when he launched his business.
“It was an accident, really,” Burgess said one morning last week. “The Captain America shield really didn’t come to the idea of selling it. I just thought I could make something.
“After that, I just went down that rabbit hole of making replica props.”
It’s been a fortunate rabbit hole for Burgess, 25. Since 2016 his Comic Sandwiches has supplied shields and other props — batons, maces and battle hammers — to cosplayers and comic-book fans in two dozen countries.
“We kind of accidentally ended up in a little bit of a niche with shields,” Burgess said. “We do every variant of a shield that’s in movies.
“A lot of characters have hammers, so we’ve done a lot of different ones. I’m working on batons from Daredevil — still figuring out how those should work but I have a prototype. Maces, for HawkGirl, was one.”
Burgess, himself a lifelong fan of comic books, was looking for something to do after graduating from Linn-Mar High School.
“I needed money for college, for one,” he recalled, “and then I needed something to do.”
Burgess’ mother suggested making wall frames for collectible comics.
“I went to a few comic cons (conventions) with those and I tried selling them online, and they just really didn’t sell,” he said.
While it wasn’t a sales success, the sandwiching of a comic book between two panes of glass gave Burgess’ business its name.
Its most popular product was yet another happy accident.
“Going to a comic con, I wanted to make my own Captain America shield, so I made my own,” he said. “People were interested in it, including my neighbor, who was my first customer. I sold him my first shield, so I opened and Esty store and sold maybe 80 of them within three months.”
That was 2011-12, about the time of the release of the third Captain America movie in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series.
“That really boosted the popularity,” Burgess said. “I kind of gained a reputation that way, so I could continue selling things.”
Comic Sandwiches’ foundational product, that Captain America shield, has changed. Burgess made his first shields from steel saucer sleds, cut to size on a jigsaw. Its leather carrying straps were made from old belts.
“Now, the newer ones are made out of aluminum and they’re custom-formed,” he said. “They’re designed to be Captain America shields, and that’s it. The leather has just gotten more refined, and more accurate to the real ones.
“Everything we make is mostly aluminum, and we do a little bit of acrylic plastics. Now I’m more into urethane, for casting.”
Burgess uses a computer-controlled router his parents bought for their business, Presentations Inc., in 2006.
“I slowly improved it over the years, so I was the most knowledgeable,” he said.
Burgess’ business shares space with his parents. Todd and Jill Burgess’ Presentation Inc. specializes in graphic design and fabrication of displays for public places such as corporate offices and hospital lobbies.
Burgess has added a laser cutter and other equipment. Demand for his and his parents’ businesses have both looking for larger quarters.
Burgess commutes weekly to Ames, where he’s studying industrial engineering at Iowa State University — a natural complement to Comic Sandwiches, or vice versa.
“It’s all about logistics and efficiency,” he said. “It relates pretty well.”
Three employees maintain operations when Burgess is in Ames.
“Two of them do production,” he said. “This last semester was the first time I didn’t really need to be here all the time. They were able to help get orders out, and I have a third guy who does all the social media and customer relations.”
Burgess also supplies components and supplies to cosplay enthusiasts who want to build their own costumes and gear.
“There’s a huge community around do-it-yourself cosplay,” he said. “I think people find enjoyment out of sourcing all the parts and materials and making sure it’s accurate.”
Burgess estimates about half of Comic Sandwiches’ products are intended solely for display. The company makes display stands and miniature replicas for that market.
Comic Sandwiches props have turned up in Netflix productions and as display pieces at Disney theme parks.
”We have a couple shields at a hotel in Paris,” he said. “We just sent them another one.”
Owner: Grayson Burgess
Address: 935 Boyson Ct., Hiawatha
Phone: (319) 899-6178
Burgess hasn’t hit any issues with the studios or other copyright holders.
“It’s a little bit of a gray area,” he said. “They don’t seem to go after people too much because it helps grow the fandom and it’s also artistic interpretation of all their different things. I try to stay away from just using logos.”
Holidays are good for business, but Burgess said studio schedules are the biggest factor.
“Movie releases actually do better than holidays, so April and May are probably our busiest months,” he said.
And as fans pore over advance trailers for clues to new directions in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Burgess pauses the video to study the props for clues to their production.
“That’s pretty much how it goes,” he said. “They’ll even release it in trailers so you can make things before the movie comes out.”
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