Lightning Bolt Comics: The Exit Interview

by Sean McQuaid

Beloved Charlottetown hobby shop and indie arts hub Lightning Bolt Comics is closing after nearly 25 years in business. Buzz columnist and longtime Lightning Bolt customer Sean McQuaid interviewed the store’s proprietor Dylan Miller via email for the “Lightning Legacy” article in our print edition; but Dylan supplied so much great material, way more than we could ever fit in a standard-length article, that we decided to print the largely uncut interview with its tons of bonus content online. The text has been lightly edited in spots for content, correctness and clarity, with some bonus material added at the end below the Q&A. 

1. How and where did you first encounter comics?

Growing up in Crapaud in the 70’s the first comics I recall were at our neighbour’s house. My friend David Sherren who lived on MacDonald Road and was a short bike ride away had a huge collection of Archie and Disney comics. We spent hours reading those comics and playing games, building the foundation for the passions that led me to opening Lightning Bolt Comics. I was also lucky that my parents briefly had a comic rack at the Red Rooster Restaurant and I would devour the comics on that rack while I waited for them to close up. That was my first big exposure to superhero comic books, and I vividly recall reading 80-page giants and lots of Legion [of Superheroes] and Superman stories.

2. Who or what hooked you on comics in your youth?

What really changed me from being just a reader and fan of comic books into a collector was when I discovered the Second Reading Bookstore in Charlottetown at Oak Tree Place, which at that time housed Canadian Tire. They had the largest section of comic books I had ever seen and they were 25 cents apiece!

3. Briefly, what were your favourite characters, teams, books or creators of your youth? And what are your favourites of recent years?

Early on my favourite books were the Uncle Scrooge adventure stories by [Carl] Barks and [Don] Rosa. Super Goof. Archie but specifically the Little Archie and spy and superhero spoofs with Archie and the gang. When I found superhero comics my first loves were Power Man and Iron Fist, Justice League, Legion of Superheroes, and Spider-Man.

Recent years I’ve been enjoying a lot of local creators. Troy Little and Brenda Hickey’s Butterfly House is outstanding and everyone should read it! Sandy Carruthers and Dave Stewart have a great horror book Dark Sanctuary published by local Sandstone comics.

4. Who or what started your fascination with lightning bolt iconography? And what are your top ten favourite lightning-themed, lightning-powered and/or lightning-clad characters?

I think it started with the old Captain Marvel cartoon. I loved the idea of a magic word and a bolt of lightning transforming you from a kid into a superhero! And then I saw the Flash and he has the coolest costume and symbol. And it just kept going from there. 

Top 10 Favourite Lightning Folk: 

1. Flash 

2. Captain Marvel 

3. Mage 

4. Madman 

5. Lightning Lad 

6. Black Lightning 

7. Reverse Flash 

8. Quicksilver 

9. Mary Marvel 

10. Black Adam

[See the Bonus section at the end of the interview for more information regarding the Captain Marvel cartoons and comics Dylan references above, not to mention related characters Mary Marvel and Black Adam.]

5. What did you do work-wise between school and starting your own business?

For many years I worked in restaurants starting with my parents’ Red Rooster in Crapaud and then PEI Preserve Company. Then I was lucky enough to work in my favourite restaurant Cedar’s Eatery for Maroun and Nawal Abdallah. I left PEI and headed west in search of myself and worked at a warehouse there until I decided I wanted to return home and open a comic shop.

6. What made you decide to open a comic shop in 1999 after seeing the comics boom and bust of the 90s and the closure of original PEI comic shop Outlands? 

I was struggling working in Vancouver for a huge corporation, feeling lost and unfulfilled. [Longtime Charlottetown comic shop] Comic Hunter was briefly put up for sale and I decided to move home and see if I could buy it. They took it off the market before I got back to PEI, so I decided to just open up my own place. I was content to make very little money and be fulfilled by the opportunity to share my love of comics and games with people. 

7. What made you choose your store’s location?

I looked at several possible locations before choosing 99 Grafton Street. Most of them were pretty rough and small; 99 also needed a lot of work but it was a large space right on the hot corner of downtown Charlottetown and adding to the appeal it was the former location of a couple legendary bars, The Dispensary and later The Apothecaries. Both of which had great music and awesome people.

8. Who painted your store’s lightning stairway and when? Any other signage or decor of note over the years?

When we painted and renovated the old bar into a comic shop I kept two paintings that were done on the wall when it was still a bar. One of Neil Young and one of John Lennon. They were both painted by local artists Peter Murphy and Gordon MacPherson. Before I officially opened I was chatting with Gordon about how I had preserved the old art and then talked about an idea I had for lightning coming down the stairs and he was excited by the idea and I hired him to paint the stairway for me. And it turned out better than I had imagined.

9. Name some comics pros who have patronized the store over the years, and who have helped promote the store or been promoted/supported by the store.

I’ve always tried to support local artists and have been lucky to have had Holland College students do signings and sell their Comix project at my shop. Brenda Hickey and Troy Little are absolutely PEI comic creator Legends. Sandy Carruthers and Sandstone comics, one of PEI’s earliest and most ardent comic book supporters. Peter Murphy, a great friend and a great artist who never wavers in his love and support. One of the highlights pre-COVID-19 was hosting Charlottetown Comics Club and providing a space for local creators to support and collaborate [with] each other. Tyler Landry and Christian Southgate and so many great people. So many I’m forgetting…

10. Talk about how Lightning Bolt supported artists and art projects in general and theatre in particular, the store having been a site for rehearsals, table reads and so on over the years.

I can’t go into many details because my memory fades and fails me. I’ve always been keen to provide a space for artists in any way I can. Providing filming locations for Murphcorp films. And the feature Kooperman by Harmony Wagner and Jason Rogerson. Or [providing] rehearsal space for [improv comedy troupe] Popalopalots and high school improv groups. I’ve even had indie wrestling promos filmed here. I provided props and did a cameo for Enemies [2002-2004], an ambitious comedy project featuring some of Charlottetown’s best comedic minds.

11. Talk about how and why your store got involved in local theatre, as well as how and why you yourself got more directly involved in performing over the years.

I always had an interest in theatre and particularly comedy and improv but was lacking in confidence and opportunities to get involved. Outside of being involved in a student-run takeover of Bluefield High School’s theatre program I had mostly just dreamed of performing on stage or screen. When I moved back to open the shop, I found my old friends doing a summer show called Players at the Guild, and getting to watch and laugh and then help behind the scenes opened my eyes up to the local theatre scene. My good friend and oftentimes roommate Graham Putnam was always trying to get me more involved in comedy projects he was working on, but I was very busy with the shop and scared of the stage. Occasionally I did a cameo or appeared in a filmed piece to help friends out, but mostly I supported by advertising in programs and buying tickets. 

Then one day I was invited to an improv workshop being led by Rob MacDonald and Putnam. Fresh off several seasons of Sketch 22, they wanted to go back to improv comedy and were looking to bring new people into what they hoped eventually would be a performing group. I tried to find an excuse, but Putnam was Relentless. So, I showed up and immediately was hooked. Since that point I’ve performed with the Popalopalots doing improv comedy and finally conquering stage fright.

Since then, I’ve appeared in several short films and projects for Peter Murphy, Fox Henderson, Sketch 22, Adam Perry and strangely enough in a film loosely based on me and my friend and standup comedian Taylor Carver: Kooperman was a feature-length film produced and shot on PEI by Harmony Wagner and Jason Rogerson.

Bolt is also where I met Sam MacDonald, who I got the pleasure of watching mature from a high school kid turned camera operator for Stravinsky’s Folly (Murphcorp feature film) into a standup comedian and then a producer/writer/performer. And I’ve been fortunate, and he’s cast me in his projects What’s So Funny About…? at the Island Fringe Festival, as Macho Man in a Raised on TV segment, and in his series of radio plays/podcasts we performed live and are online now.

One of the bright sides to closing the shop might be that I’ll have more time to devote to acting or maybe even writing. Certainly a lot of excuses for not getting involved in PEI’s theater and film community are gone.

12. What’s led to the upcoming closure of the store?

High cost of essentials like housing and food just leaves less money for fun and games. Shipping costs and fuel costs have tripled since the pandemic, and everyone is feeling the economic realities. Just not enough money to go around.

13. Any particularly fun or strange or amazing finds that come to mind during your years of running the store?

I’ve had lots of great things come through over the years – first appearances of Wolverine, Silver Surfer, Doctor Octopus, Deadpool, Punisher and so many more. Black Lotus and the Moxes in Magic: The Gathering [collectible card game].

14. Any idea what the most expensive item you ever sold might be?

Black Lotus. 

15. What are some of the best, happiest memories of your time at LBC?

It’s always about the people I’ve met and the bonds we’ve formed. I’ve met some of my closest friends at the Bolt. In fact, many are like my family now. They’ve been there to help me at my lowest and celebrated me at my highest moments. So it’s often those shared inside jokes that are the best. The road trips. The long days spent arguing and playing games. We’ve shared so much and that will continue.

16. Talk about some of the non-comics business that kept the store going over time – toys, gaming, etc. and the communities that built up around those hobbies, and your own history in competitive gaming.

Been many different product lines and games that have been part of the Bolt. But because Magic: The Gathering is my favourite game and it’s often featured big events and lots of local events it has dominated the tables at Bolt. I greatly enjoy helping people get good at the game and loved road trips with the Bolt crew to play Magic. Personally, I worked hard and improved my game and that led me to Pro Tour events in Berlin and Amsterdam. My wife and I went to Santiago, Chile so I could play Magic there. And so many trips to Moncton and Halifax to compete. 

17. You have donated comics to classes, schools and/or kids over the years. Can you talk a bit about that and any other nonprofit aspect of LBC?

I recall Anne Thurlow coming in to buy Archie comics to donate to Hillsborough Hospital. And she explained that a patient there had been reading an Archie comic and it really provided respite from what they were going through. And since Anne was volunteering there, she decided to get more comics and bring them there for patients. I found her a good stack of Archie and refused payment. And from that point on, I always tried to help spread comics into places they were needed. Either to foster a love for reading or to provide an escape. I’m always keen to donate toys or books to those who can enjoy them. I’ve been lucky to know a few teachers and help them get comics into students’ hands [to] foster a love for reading and art.

18. Any idea what’s next for Dylan Miller?

No idea. Kind of terrified.

19. What do you think the legacy of LBC is?

Hopefully the legacy is friendship, community and family.

BONUS: Old Captain Marvel Cartoons and Such

The “old Captain Marvel cartoon” Dylan refers to in question 4 above was first released as part of Filmation’s animated TV series The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam! in 1981-1982. While Marvel’s cinematic heroine Carol Danvers is today’s best-known Captain Marvel, the original Captain Marvel was Billy Batson, a boy who could transform into an adult superhero by saying the name of his wizard benefactor Shazam. Introduced in Fawcett’s comic book series Whiz Comics, the original Captain Marvel became a bestselling icon of the 1940s, starring in a movie serial and a whole line of comics titles that also featured spinoff characters like his sister Mary Marvel, teen hero Captain Marvel Junior, comic relief sidekick Uncle Marvel, cartoon animal Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and Shazam-powered villain Black Adam. 

A long-running lawsuit from rival DC Comics speciously claiming Captain Marvel was a copy of their Superman character finally forced Captain Marvel and company into retirement in the early 1950s, by which time superhero comics sales were slumping regardless. Ironically, DC revived the Captain and company in the 1970s, first leasing the rights to the long-dormant Fawcett characters and later buying them outright. DC and its corporate partners have featured the characters in comics, TV, movies, toys and other merchandise ever since, but branding has been tricky since rival company Marvel Comics scooped up the abandoned Captain Marvel trademark for its own array of characters by that name starting in 1967.

For decades, DC and its partners kept calling Billy Batson Captain Marvel in his comics and TV stories but couldn’t legally use that name as the title of anything featuring the character, so Billy’s comics, TV shows and merchandise tended to be packaged under the name Shazam as a distinctive brand associated with the character. In recent years, with Marvel Comics’ cinematic adaptation of their latest Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) making a pop culture splash, DC gave up and stopped using the Captain Marvel name in its Billy Batson stories, including the recent Shazam movies. For a while DC was using Shazam as the character’s super name in some projects, despite the logical and logistical hurdles posed by giving a character a name that transforms him whenever he says it. In DC’s latest revival of the Shazam comic book series, however, Billy isn’t going by Captain Marvel or Shazam but is instead referred to simply as “The Captain” in his super form. 

BONUS: Dylan’s Facebook Farewell Decoded 

When Dylan posted the news of Lightning Bolt’s closure on Facebook, he included two overlapping images, slightly different versions of the same superhero group photo. As he posted it, he later told me, he figured it was obscure enough that practically no one would recognize the source – “Well, maybe Sean,” he thought. 

And I did indeed recognize it, strange old man that I am. The overlapping images are two pages from All-Star Squadron #60 (1986), written by Roy and Dann Thomas with pencils by Mike Clark and Arvell Jones (the latter drew the pages Dylan posted). The two images are two different versions of a group photo of the titular All-Star Squadron, a 1940s wartime alliance of the USA’s superheroes. 

The favourite brainchild of longtime comics writer/editor Roy Thomas, All-Star Squadron was the ultimate expression of his lifelong love affair with Golden Age comics, a retroactive continuity series featuring a group that combined the 1940s members of his all-time favourite team, the Justice Society of America, with the members of fellow Golden Age super-team the Seven Soldiers of Victory, plus many more otherwise unaffiliated 1940s heroes, all combined into one supersized supergroup featuring dozens of Golden Age heroes. 

When the series started, Thomas cast his net as wide as possible, including not only many heroes published by DC and its 1940s sister company All-American, but also many heroes published by DC’s old 1940s rival Quality, who had sold their characters to DC in the early 1950s. After four-plus years of this extra-large cast, though, Thomas decided he didn’t have room to do them all justice and wrote out the Quality heroes in All-Star Squadron #50, sending them somewhat earlier than originally planned to the parallel world Earth-X as a spinoff team called the Freedom Fighters (first introduced as an Earth-X team of Quality-derived heroes in contemporary DC comics of the 1970s). 

Meanwhile, DC’s entire line of comics circa 1985-1986 had spent more than a year entangled in a world-destroying, reality-altering company-wide crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which ended with DC’s key alternate Earths getting combined into a new single Earth with a retroactively altered history. Among other things, despite objections from Roy Thomas, this meant that the 1940s/Golden Age versions of major characters like Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were being retroactively erased from the history of DC’s new combined universe so that they only existed as contemporary heroes, which meant they could no longer appear in All-Star Squadron stories. 

All-Star Squadron #60 was the issue where the post-Crisis cosmic reset button took effect. To illustrate this graphically, the issue does before-and-after versions of that Squadron group photo drawn by Arvell Jones. When the photo is taken we see most of the active Squadron members of the period, including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman, Batman and Robin. Later in the issue, after the cosmic reset, the photo has changed, with those five heroes being replaced by Quality characters Phantom Lady, Black Condor, Uncle Sam, Doll Man (standing on Sam’s shoulder), Ray and Plastic Man, plus extra Quality heroes Human Bomb and Jester snuck in behind the back row. 

In this new Earth, the 1940s Superman and friends never existed, and the Quality heroes never left for Earth-X. As President Roosevelt says with unwitting irony when he admires the post-reset photo, anyone missing from the picture must be someone so obscure that nobody’s ever heard of them. 

Dylan picked the dual photo image partly because it combined bunches of heroes in one seldom-seen shot and looked cool, but also because of the end-of-an-era vibe associated with that issue of All-Star Squadron, representing as it does the seemingly permanent end of the old pre-Crisis DC multiverse (which would eventually return in various forms) and the start of a new post-Crisis DC universe, plus the beginning of the end of All-Star Squadron itself. After seven subsequent issues of disconnected standalone filler stories, All-Star Squadron was canceled and relaunched in revamped post-Crisis form as Young All-Stars, but neither Thomas nor the readers liked it quite as well as the original version, and the revamp lasted less than half as long as the first series. 

Oh, and who’s who in those photos? In the pre-Crisis photo on top we see Star-Spangled Kid, Stripesy, Crimson Avenger, Wing, Tarantula, Hourman, Firebrand, Shining Knight, Starman, Air Wave, Vigilante, Johnny Thunder, Whip, Zatara, Amazing Man, Green Arrow, Speedy, Manhunter, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat, Guardian, Sandy the Golden Boy, Sandman, Dyna-Mite, TNT, Mister Terrific, Sargon the Sorcerer, Mister America, Doctor Occult, Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Robotman, Doctor Fate, Atom, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman, Batman, Robin, Flash, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Spectre.

In the post-Crisis photo on the bottom we see Star-Spangled Kid, Stripesy, Crimson Avenger, Wing, Tarantula, Hourman, Firebrand, Shining Knight, Starman, Air Wave, Vigilante, Human Bomb, Johnny Thunder, Jester, Whip, Zatara, Amazing Man, Green Arrow, Speedy, Manhunter, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat, Guardian, Sandy the Golden Boy, Sandman, Dyna-Mite, TNT, Mister Terrific, Sargon the Sorcerer, Mister America, Doctor Occult, Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Robotman, Doctor Fate, Atom, Phantom Lady, Black Condor, Uncle Sam, Doll Man, Ray, Plastic Man, Flash, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Spectre.