Dennis Barger has been running the Wonderworld Comics store in Taylor for nine years, and he’s also an organizer of the annual Detroit Fanfare Comic Convention. He’s appeared on reality TV shows like Comic Book Men, Hardcore Pawn and The Toy Hunter, and he was recently at the center of a national scandal when he publicly objected to what he considered an oversexualized Powerpuff Girls comic book cover. A self-proclaimed “polarizing figure in geekdom,” Barger is as larger-than-life a character as many of those that he sells in his store.
Metro Times: With all of these comic book movies hitting the big screen, this must be a good time to own a comic book store …
Dennis Barger: The comics industry is nothing. The readers of comic books represent 1/1,000th of the actual mainstream that is enjoying our medium. When you look at The Walking Dead, pulling 15 million viewers, there are only 150,000 people who have read a Walking Dead trade paperback or comic book. You’ve got 99 people for every one person who has read the comic. Then you go $1.5 billion for The Avengers. At $10 a ticket, that’s 150 million people saw it. About 999,000 people who have never touched an Avengers comic book saw The Avengers. That’s amazing. They made that enjoyable for everyone. I see those numbers diminishing when you start going from the source. How long’s it gonna last? How long are the straights gonna put up with us nerds? It’s gonna crack. But we’re on for the ride. It’s the ride of our lives.
MT: You were recently in the middle of a national controversy after you objected to a risqué Powerpuff Girls comic book cover. What happened there?
Barger: When I digest who I am, I consider myself a dad first, a comic shop owner second, and somebody who cares about this industry third. My daughter loves Powerpuff Girls. I’ve been a big supporter of these because, a) I can get my kids into it, b) it’s gonna sell and bring new people in the door, and c) it’s gonna make me money. It’s great for the industry because we need more kids books. When I saw the cover, it was a WTF moment. I would not let my daughter have that, and I would not put it in my kids section. It got to Cartoon Network, and they yanked the cover. That’s when the brouhaha started. Overwhelmingly, people thought it was inappropriate. There was a very vocal minority, but they didn’t have anything else to champion other than ‘this is art.’ To me, it almost validated what I was saying. Why do you want this cover? It’s great art, the artist is very talented. I have no qualms with her ability as an artist. But putting that cover on a kids book, I just don’t think was right. When it was all said and done, I wouldn’t change a single thing. They can hate me all they want, but more people are aware that there’s a Powerpuff Girls comic now than before.
MT: You also appeared on Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men show …
Barger: A good friend of mine, Tony Miello [who writes and draws Gapo the Clown, and this week’s cover], was going to go. He asked me to go with him and split the gas to Jersey. They told me to bring something cool to sell. I said that I had a Spaceballs helmet. We sent them pictures, and it got passed down producers. We drive all the way to Jersey, we go to the location, and I’ve got this big box with this giant helmet. I go up there, and they all just look at it like they don’t know what it is. I say that it’s the pith helmet from Spaceballs, [the Mel Brooks sci-fi spoof]. It’s like the whole 15 minutes in the middle of the movie. “Comb the desert.” They offer me a gamble for it. I didn’t get the script that I was driving 12 hours to New Jersey to do a card cut for $6,000 or nothing. They didn’t want to pay anything for it, and I said that the one thing you never do is trust a deck of cards in New Jersey. It was a real disappointment after that, because they were just dicks. They were just cold. When they edited it, they didn’t seem nearly as big a group of dicks.
My time on The Toy Hunter was way better, but the best reality TV experience I had was with Hardcore Pawn, when I sold them a giant Silver Surfer.
MT: How do you view your role in society?
Barger: We’re the bars and bartenders for geeks. That’s the experience that I think a comic shop offers — that interaction. We’re solitary people. We have wives and lives, but we’re still not full out of our geek closets yet, because there are still jocks out there waiting to wedgie us. We know it. But when you come in here, you can talk about how you made a cardboard shield and sword playing Zelda. That’s normal here, but tell that to the guy in the cubicle next to you. He’ll think you’re crazy and talk to HR. We’re a safe place for all of that. Our goal is to make more safe places.
MT: Deathlok and Vibe are two characters with Detroit roots that are about to appear on our TV screens through the Agents of Shield and The Flash shows. Has Detroit given a lot to the comics world?
Barger: Nine years ago, I had an inkling, but it’s not until I opened this door that I realized we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are in our industry without Detroit. To me, Detroit is the spot where the pebble hit. The trickles come out for so many different things. Deathlok is ours because he was created by a guy from Detroit; he’s from Detroit, and so is Vibe.
Wonderworld Comics is located at 22347 Ecorse Rd., Taylor; 313-292-8697;