Business

Alter Ego Comics reopens to altered landscape in Marion

Small shop works through an industry changed by coronavirus, supply chain disruption

Alter Ego Comics owner Erin Tapken puts reserved copies of comic books into partitioned spaces for her pull list custome
Alter Ego Comics owner Erin Tapken puts reserved copies of comic books into partitioned spaces for her pull list customers at the comic book store in Marion, Iowa, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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In the first panel of “The Alter Ego Story,” if there were such a comic book, a word balloon would hover above Erin Tapken.

“I thought I could make a go of it, so I decided to try,” Tapken said one morning this week.

Making a go of it since October 1996, the Marion shop is now older than Tapken was when she opened it.

“I had worked at a couple of smaller independent stores — a record store and a comic book store,” recalled Tapken, now 46. “I found myself without a job and I knew I liked the industry and I knew I wanted to be my own boss.”

It was a different game starting a small business in the Early Internet Age.

“You had to do everything in person,” Tapken said. “Loan applications you had to fill out in person.”

On the day Tapken lost her job at a comic book store, she made another in-person visit, to the same 1,200-square-foot space Alter Ego occupies today.

“I live here in Marion,” she said. “I knew this building had been vacant, so I came over and looked at the building and talked to the landlord.”

Tapken didn’t grow up reading comics.

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“I did not get into comics until I was out of high school,” she said. “I had a pen pal, and that pen pal sent me comic books. They were what I started the store on. They were smaller, independent books, some of the less-superhero, more-supernatural kind of stuff.”

Constantly developing story lines like Alter Ego’s are what hooked Tapken on the business.

“There’s new stuff every week,” she said. “Every week we get a new shipment, new stuff on the shelves. It’s always changing — new artists, new writers come onto the scene. It feels like it’s always new and fresh.”

Initially focusing on titles from smaller publishers, Tapken adjusted her inventory as the area’s few other comic shops went out of business. She also dropped the store’s CD and vinyl record sideline about 2001.

“When we first opened, we were mainly focusing on the independent comic book rather than the Marvel and DC,” she said, noting the industry’s two juggernauts.

“There were two or three other stores in town, and we wanted to provide something a little different. Over time, as those folks decided to quit, we started gaining more customers. Those customers were saying, ‘I want Marvel’ or ‘I want DC,’ so we transitioned from being mostly independent to having all the different companies.”

Who are Alter Ego’s loyal customers?

“Mostly adults, 35 and up,” she said. “Mostly male. They’re pop-culture-savvy folks. They like movies, they’re into TV shows.”

But the wave of comic-book movies over the past decade hasn’t much affected the paper-and-ink trade.

“It gets people talking, but we don’t see a huge bump,” Tapken said of the Hollywood blockbusters. “We’ll see a small interest, but it’s usually a different group of people. People will come in and say, ‘I saw this Avengers movie. I want a comic book that’s like that.’

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“Unfortunately, they don’t make a comic book with the exact-same theme. But often you can find out what else they like.”

Enthusiasts can now download their favorite comic adventures, but that hasn’t proven a serious threat.

“Digital comics appeal to different people than the collectors who had been collecting comics since they were young,” she said. “... There are still going to be people who love the physical copies of books.”

Besides the books, Alter Ego carries action figures, posters and merchandise tie-ins such as pint glasses. Tapken estimates those sales make up about 25 percent of her business.

“A comic book only costs $3 or $4, so we have to sell a lot of comic books to pay the bills,” she said. “With action figures, there’s a little more of a profit margin.”

Tapken and Alter Ego’s customers encountered a strange new world as the coronavirus pandemic hit over Iowa in mid-March. After a few weeks of limited mail-order business, the shop closed March 26 under the governor’s order.

That was the same week that Diamond Comic Book Distributors, the Maryland-based company that ships most of the nation’s comics, shut down.

“The printers weren’t printing, the warehouses weren’t going to be in operation,” Tapken said. “We were still open, but without having new comic books coming in on a weekly basis, we didn’t see much of a point in being open. It was too much of a risk.”

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Tapken reopened the store April 20 as Diamond resumed shipping new titles on a limited basis. There’s a limit of three customers at a time in the store, and masks, regular sanitizing and social distancing are required.

Alter Ego’s regulars don’t mind the precautions as the store regains its footing.

“Most of the publishers scaled back their release schedules,” she noted. “Instead of having 40 new comics a month they would have 20. I wouldn’t say we’re back to pre-closing release numbers, but there are new books coming out, finally.”

Most customers were excited to return.

“There was some confusion,” Tapken added. “I think some people thought they were going to come in and there was going to be two months’ worth of new releases to pick up.

“They started to realize the whole comics industry was on pause, not just my store.”

A few regulars still are missing, out of caution or other reasons.

“We may never see some of those come back,” Tapken said. “Sometimes taking a break from a habit will break the habit. Maybe they’re not financially able, maybe they’ve gone digital.”

Tapken herself continue to feel out the changes.

“For the next couple months I think we’re going to take it slow,” she said. “I’m going to assess the risk and how much time I want to spend here.”

As the industry regains momentum, comic fans are looking forward to how new comics will treat the new normal.

“That was one of the things that became really clear to me within the first couple weeks of all this,” Tapken said. “This is going to leave an indelible mark on pop culture. It’s going to have to be written into TV shows and movies and books. It’s not something we’re going to be able to write around.

“It’s fundamentally changed all of us and the way we do things — the way commerce works, and the way we interact with one another socially. It’s global.”

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When those books start hitting the shelves, Alter Ego — Tapken and her one employee — will be there.

“It’s always been me and one other employee,” she said. “We’re small but we’re mighty.”

Many Corridor small businesses are up and running. If you know of a business that might make for an interesting “My Biz” feature, let us know at michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com.

At a glance

• Owner: Erin Tapken

• Business: Alter Ego Comics

• Address: 331 Seventh Ave., Marion

• Phone: (319) 373-8935

• Website: alteregoia.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.