Tucked in between Ernie's Diner and Monarch Jewelry stands a hub of comic book culture that could coax the inner nerd out of James Dean. Rock Bottom Comics, owned and operated by Columbia local Glenn Brewer since 1973, is a longstanding downtown fixture and a haven for the comic book enthusiast. Terms such as 'geek' or 'nerd' are largely embraced at the shop, where employee John Doerflinger describes his job as a "paid comic geek."
Like the famed spotlight over Gotham City, a glowing emblem of Batman's Bat-signal hangs in Rock Bottom's window. It beckons passersby to take a closer look. Inside, the store is a two room set-up adorned with shelves of comics and related collectables, old and new.
“(Rock Bottom) is a smaller space, but colorful and open, and we have a lot of variety," Doerflinger says.
The employees at Rock Bottom are equipped with an impressive knowledge of comic culture and the ability to scout out a fitting series for any patron curious enough to pick up a book. Rock Bottom Manager James Cagle claims matching a reader with a book is as easy as knowing a customer's favorite movie.
“I could show you any a ton of books and how to empty your wallet,” Cagle said.
Cagle's childhood job as a paperboy allowed him to delve into the world of comics. He describes his first purchase, "X-Men #144," with the nostalgia of recollecting a pivotal childhood experience.
“I remember walking into the market and seeing the cover, and it just blew me away,” he said.
Cagle has worked at Rock Bottom off and on for 23 years and has seen the store's customer base evolve over time to include more young adults, as well as an increasing number of women. But according to Cagle, a typical Rock Bottom customer is by no means typical.
“Columbia draws a really interesting pool of people with all of the schools around, so we really don't have any sort of typical customer,” Cagle said.
Rock Bottom patron Rachel Thudium of Springfield enjoys the store, with its embracing atmosphere and friendly, helpful employees, for supplying her Wonder Woman fix.
"Good comic book shops are hard to find," Thudium said. "I've been really happy with this one.”
Cagle and Doerflinger recommend "The Sandman" series to any first-time comic readers, but they've also noticed "The X-Men" series seems to rope people in.
“My brother is to blame for getting me started on 'X-Men,'" Doerflinger said. "It's the gateway comic. It got me hooked.”
In addition to classics such as "X-Men" and "Spider-Man," the shop boasts a selection of comic books created by writers and cartoonists from Columbia, such as the underground comics of former MU art professor Frank Stack. Stack published under the name Foolbert Sturgeon to avoid any backlash from the University for his "The Adventures of Jesus" series.
Cagle has also seen customers turn to creators over the years.
“We sell comics now that were created by people who first visited the store simply as customers,” Cagle said.
From customers-turned-artists to comic newbies, it seems like Columbians enjoy hitting Rock Bottom.