Four Color Fantasies: Support Your Local Comic Shop
In our new ongoing column, we're highlighting the best comic book shops across the country.
Support Your Local Comic Shop is our new ongoing column where we chat with the most enthusiastic curators slinging singles to customers across the country. In this entry, we're hanging out with Erik C. Jones at Four Color Fantasies in Winchester, Virginia.
During early lockdown, panic ignited quickly. Movies dropped from their scheduled weekends. Festivals fell into an agonizing cycle of postponement. Diamond distribution collapsed, and the comic book pipeline flatlined. We were never concerned that comics would cease from existence (art never dies), but we discovered a genuine worry that our favorite small press publishers and our local comic book shops wouldn't make it.
As the question mark hanging over the future grew larger and larger, anxiety solidified into a status quo. Then, one afternoon, we clicked on a Four Color Fantasies Facebook video. Comic shop owner Mike Kwolek ensured his customers that they were not going anywhere. Their stock was hefty; their back issues ran deep, practically flooding the basement below his feet. Trade paperbacks lined their shelves, and he could keep us all thoroughly wrapped in comics for as long as it would take publishers to get their act together.
Four Color Fantasies is not our local shop. Winchester, Virginia, is about an hour and twenty minutes away from us, but Mike was our savior that day. He explained that his store survived the 90s era speculator implosion, 9/11, and the 2008 depression. The pandemic would not be their end.
Erik C. Jones is Mike's hype-man. Before he made his way behind the register, Erik was a customer. He first stepped into the shop when he was eleven years old. He started selling comics for Mike when he was sixteen. Today, he's thirty-seven.
"That video," says Erik, "Mike gave me that talk beforehand. Because I stress about everything. That's just how I run. [During lockdown] everything changed multiple times a day. And Mike was like, 'It'll be okay. Relax. We've been through worse." And every day Mike would be like, 'How are you doing?'"
Mike was there for Erik, and Erik thought Mike could be there for other folks. So they made that video, and their neighborhood responded. Subscribers picked up their boxes. Customers requested mail orders; the shop enacted curbside pickup.
"We have a great community of people," says Erik. "Our weekly customers maintained weekly visits by just going, 'Hey man, let me get some Daredevils, I'm working on filling out some holes.' And we'd wear masks and talk to people on the porch."
Four Color Fantasies is not your typical strip mall shop. It's a home converted into a retail sanctuary by Mike. He purchased the property and the house next door, a decision that granted them more security when the economy inevitably got a little rocky. The shop's initial stock came from Mike's collection, and now and again, he re-buys the classics he sold to make Four Color Fantasies a reality.
Erik has a hazy but strong memory regarding his first time in the shop. He was a wee pup, and the treasures inside made his eyes pop. Quickly, Mike's paradise became Erik's.
"It was the summer of '95," he remembers. "The Blockbuster Video Game Championships. Me, my little brother, Christopher, and my older brother, Daniel, all entered. Daniel got first place in his age group, Christopher got first place in our age group, and I got second. One of the prizes was funny money. So we came here, and I just never left."
His first comics were Spawn, The Maxx, and The Mask: The Hunt for Green October. When he was thirteen, his mom finally allowed him to get a subscription box. He stuffed it with as many comics as he could afford. Three years later, it was time to get in the game.
"My brother's friend worked here," he continues. "He was super into comics. Every time I'd come in, I'd say, 'Are you hiring yet? Are you hiring yet?' And then, finally, they were. I worked for store credit for about a year and a half."
Eventually, Erik left the store. The so-called "Real World" took hold and gave him a good strangling. Outside Four Color Fantasies, everything appeared drab. There was no joy to be had. He sought the one thing, the one emotion, that fled his person when he first walked away from the comic book shop.
"Happiness," he exclaims. "I used to get up at five every morning, drive an hour to Manassas, work at a print shop where I was losing my mind. I just woke up and was like, 'Ah, I don't want to do that anymore.' Here, I get to be with comics all day, which I love. And I love our customers. I like talking to people about comics. I like finding comics for people. So that's it, man."
Four Color Fantasies became an oasis for Erik, and he wants it to be an oasis for others. There are so many great comic books out there right now, and nothing brings him more pleasure than celebrating those stories alongside his customers.
"One of our customers yesterday was saying that this place is like Cheers," he says. "And we try to remember everyone's names. You can hang out here, talk about Spawn, or whatever. We want you to enjoy things. We're not going to rip on you for reading whatever you read. There's plenty of comics I don't like, but I'm not going to tell somebody they're wrong for liking it."
And for all the love Winchester has shown Four Color Fantasies, Four Color Fantasies has returned that affection tenfold with their annual Sketch Covers Charity Auction. Erik has spearheaded the event in an effort to aid the Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area (LVWA) for the past three years. Artists like Bob Layton, Tyler Crook, Kyle Starks, Zander Cannon - and our own Lisa Gullickson - have contributed incredible original art pieces. A scroll through their Facebook Page will have your mouth watering and your wallet emptying.
"It was all spur of the moment," explains Erik. "Diamond had one of their liquidation sales, and sketch covers were like a buck. We usually didn't get them because who cares? But they were a dollar, and I was like, "Well, Mike, what if we did this thing?'"
The idea sparked in 2018, right before the Halloween Comic Fest, and they had a few guests driving down to partake in the sale. Erik put the sketch covers in front of them, and away they went. Then, customers and local artists threw in some sketch covers as well. Suddenly, they had a hefty stockpile and an enthusiasm to acquire more.
"I started emailing certain people," continues Erik. "I emailed Jimmy Palmiotti through Paper Films. And then Katie, who used to work here, and I went to NC Comic-Con, and I brought some covers with me. It just steamrolled. I thought we'd raise $500, and we raised $2,000. I was just blown away. Then I really hit it hard the next year, and I went to a lot of conventions. Last year we raised $5,000! I was speechless."
Despite the lack of conventions in 2020, Erik rounded up even more sketch covers for this year's auction. Things have only just started, but already, it looks like Four Color Fantasies and the LVWA are rocking and rolling. We're certainly eyeing a few covers. Uh, is that an original Thomas Lennon!?! Yes, yes, it is.
Erik is more excited about comic books today than he ever before. His love for them is infectious, and everyone who passes through Four Color Fantasies gets dosed. You still gotta wear your mask inside until we've got Corona defeated, but there's no dodging Erik's passion. And, yeah, it might be the only welcomed contamination.
"I want everyone to enjoy comics," says Erik. "Even when I was a kid and was stupid, I let everybody borrow my comics because it's like, 'Oh, now you're into this thing that I also like. Now I've got someone new to talk to about it.' It's never, 'This is my thing. You can't enjoy it.' I think comics are awesome right now. And there's a comic for everybody out there."
Four Color Fantasies is a beacon of hope for anyone who loves this industry. They're a two-time Eisner-nominated shop that hustles every day to promote the medium and get as many comics into as many hands as they possibly can. It's a marvel to watch Erik work, because it's not work at all. He's living bliss, spreading his joy to others so they can pass it along. He and Mike are champions, and their shop is just what you want all shops to be - an oasis, a haven.
Four Color Fantasies sits at 80 Weems Ln Winchester, VA 22601. You can bid on their current Sketch Cover Charity Auction by visiting their Facebook Page. Don't have Facebook? Give them a call at 1 - 540 - 662 - 7377. You can also track them down on Twitter or on Instagram.
Do you have a local comic book shop that you'd like us to celebrate? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org