PROFILE 2024: Realm of fandom

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 25, 2024

Purple Earth Comics pushes past momentous milestone

For John Horst, when it came time to venture into the world beyond college, he decided to find a path based on what he knew and loved.

“I had to find what I wanted to do, workwise,” he said. “I had all kinds of jobs – many, many jobs, ever since I was 16 and it just so happened that every single one of them was retail, so I guess I was kind of decent at that. That was my calling.”

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Horst said the idea of owning a store was something he had started planning while at Marshall University.

“And lo and behold, the whole idea of ‘Do what you love’ rang true to me and I went,’ Well, I’m going to give           it a shot.”

It turned out to be a gamble that paid off. The store, Purple Earth Comics, located on Fourth Avenue in Huntington, has thrived and marked 30 years of operation last year.

Purple Earth Comics is located on Fourth Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Packed from wall to wall with merchandise, the shop offers far more than comics and graphic novels, with statues, action figures, Funko Pops, lunchboxes and endless collectibles stacked throughout the space, covering, not just the superhero and comic genre, but also film, TV and music as well as obscure corners of pop culture.

Horst said the shop’s name has a story behind it.

“When I knew what I was going to do and came up with the name. I didn’t want a simple name like ‘Comic Store’ or ‘Comic Box’ — I wanted something a little catchy, a little memorable and a little different.”

He said he envisioned the store as “a safe harbor for nerds and geeks.”

“When I started the store, I had been picked on for being one and I wanted a place where you could go and, in my part of the earth, you could come and know that you’re welcome and talk about things that you’re into,” he said.

As for the purple in the moniker, Horst said it dates back to prehistory.

“The earth used to be purple, originally, instead of green and blue,” he said. “Just like comics, its colorful. It just kind of separated from a lot of other stores.”

Now in its second location (the original was just two doors down the street), the shop has continued to serve Tri-State fans since its move to the larger space in the early 2000s.

Horst says the customers are a mix — some he sees for only a few years, due to the transient nature of the area and it being a college town, as well as longtimers who have come in for decades.

(The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Those who become regulars quickly find that he learns their interests and caters to their specific favorites, always letting them know when something that might be of interest to them will be offered by companies.

“And comic shops couldn’t operate without regulars,” he said. “Unlike other stores you check out once in a while, this, you have to keep coming back.”

As for Horst’s interest in the field, his origin story is two-fold. He said he was first introduced to comics around the age of five.

“My granddad would go to garage sales and rummage sales and, back then, people would put out comics because they didn’t plan on keeping or collecting them and you could grab a handful for a dollar,” he recalls.

He said the books would be an eclectic array, with titles ranging from John Carter of Mars to Popeye to Spider-Man stories from the PBS show The Electric Company.

“Like so many kids, I looked at the pictures and then threw it down,” he said.  “But, eventually, I wanted to know what was going on, I wanted to know the story, so I read it — and I gained a love of reading.”

Horst credits that early reading with helping him to excel in school.

“I learned sentence structure and I learned to write,” he said. “It broadened my mind and expanded my horizons. I learned bug words, to the point where, when I went to school, teachers thought I was plagiarizing — and that was before computers.”

He said his interest in the books eventually waned at a young age, but he was drawn back in again, like so many in the decade, through another pop culture entry point.

“In 1984, I’m into G.I. Joe, 

I’m into Transformers, I’m into Thundercats, I’m into Masters of the Universe, just like almost any boy my age in the ‘80s,” he said. “But Transformers, in particular was quite a love, and they had only one cartoon and that was it.”

Horst said a friend at school informed him that there was a comic series of the characters, published by Marvel Comics, offering further, original stories.

“And that pulled me into the comic shop,” he said. “And that was an entire universe to me. I couldn’t believe there were stores that only sold that, and it blew my mind.”

And from Transformers, he said his reading expanded to all the books published by Marvel, DC and others.

(The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

“And it blew my mind. So it started out as Transformers and “It went a million different direction after that,” he said.

Now in his 31st year running the store, Horst has seen the industry undergo major changes over the course of his run.

For instance, when he opened in the early 1990s, comics were still widely available at gas stations, dug stores, department stores and newsstands. But, in 2024, they are relegated largely to the direct market of comic shops and some bookstore chains.

Horst said one of the keys to surviving changing markets is to for shops to diversify, as his has done, offering far more than just comics themselves.

“You offer cards, toys or games,” he said. “You can’t be dependent so much as books by themselves anymore. That disheartening, but, that’s to be said of other industries that have to expand beyond their core product.”

He said the biggest change is “competition for your entertainment dollar” among younger customers, as opposed to  past generations.

“Just ask Bart Simpson,” he said. “Comics were what you had. But now you have Pokémon, Fortnite and so much competition.”

(The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

He said the biggest factor in that has been the rise of Japanese manga as a big seller for younger readers, becoming the preferred characters over established superhero titles like Batman and the X-Men.

“It’s been a radical change,” he said. “Before manga affected everything, I would have said video games had become the dominant entertainment and taken away movie tickets, and from physical media in general. Now, manga is taking even more, but at least people are still reading or reading something comic-like.

He said one of the challenges for comic companies is to find entry points to lure in new readers.

“One of big promotions I’ve seen work is when Marvel and DC coordinate with video game creators,” he said, noting cross-genre offerings have drawn in children.  “So what are the entry points now? We know what ours were, and the rest is history     after that.”

As for what keeps him going in the business, Horst says he knows he could easily go into another field, with his capabilities and networking he’s done over the years, but he said it is the answer to a common question that              is telling.

“I’ve heard many, many people ask me, ‘You’re doing it for love, aren’t you?’” he said.  “Well yes, actually — I do love all this stuff. I love selling it. I love handling it. I love talking to people about it. I love reading it. I love sharing the enjoyment. I love watching kids enjoy something new and especially getting kids to read.”

— Purple Earth Comics is located at 1115 Fourth Ave. 

in Huntington. σ