Lightning legacy

Farewell to Lightning Bolt Comics by Sean McQuaid

Downtown Charlottetown is a little darker this summer. Beloved local hobby shop Lightning Bolt Comics is closing after nearly 25 years of selling collectibles, supporting the arts, and helping folks in need. 

“I always thought I would live deep underground at 99 Grafton forever,” wrote proprietor Dylan Miller on Facebook. “Right on the hot corner of the city in an ancient building that once hosted legendary bars and where I spent so many great nights, long before I turned it into a comic book shop.”

Forever, alas, wasn’t in the cards for Miller’s basement-level dream factory. Times have gotten tougher with high inflation, especially sharply increased shipping and fuel costs since the COVID-19 pandemic. “Just not enough money to go around,” he concludes. 

Growing up in smalltown Crapaud in the 70’s, Miller read Archie and Disney comics from his friend David Sherren’s collection and binged on superhero stories from the comic rack in his parents’ Red Rooster Restaurant, back when comics were cheap, ubiquitous retail convenience items. He also haunted the Second Reading Bookstore at Oak Tree Place, where the shop’s used comics were all 25 cents apiece. 

As an adult, Dylan worked in restaurants for years, moved out west and toiled at a warehouse until he decided to come home and sell comics. The timing seemed odd; the comics industry had gone through a drastic boom and bust cycle in the 90s that killed many stores, including PEI’s legendary original comic shop Outlands. 

The Comic Hunter (PEI’s oldest surviving comic shop) was reportedly up for sale at the time, and Miller hoped to buy it; but when its owners changed their minds about selling, he decided to build a new shop from scratch. “I was content to make very little money and… share my love of comics and games with people,” he recalls. 

Family and friends helped him renovate 99 Grafton, and local artist Gordon MacPherson painted the walls of its stairway entrance with bolts of lightning to match the new store’s name, inspired by Miller’s pet obsession: comic characters with lightning-like powers, costumes or identities. 

“I think it started with the old Captain Marvel cartoon,” he says, recalling Filmation’s animated Shazam tales.  “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.” 

Local comics pros like Brenda Hickey, Troy Little, Sandy Carruthers and Peter Murphy have long frequented Lightning Bolt, which hosted the Charlottetown Comics Club as a place where comics creators could find community, collaborators and mutual support. Holland College art students have done signings and sold their wares at the store, which also became an unlikely hub of theatre and film activity over the years. 

Miller bought ads in theatre programs, loaned out his shop to local theatre groups as a space for rehearsals and table reads, and let multiple local filmmakers do location shooting there. His friends in film and theatre encouraged him to get more involved, notably his old pal, frequent roommate, occasional Lightning Bolt clerk and current Charlottetown Festival stage star Graham Putnam. 

Dylan was gradually drawn in, doing a cameo appearance in the 2002-2004 improv comedy soap opera Enemies starring Putnam, Rob MacDonald and others, joining the long-running Popalopalots improv comedy troupe organized by Putnam and MacDonald, and even starring in the 2015 indie feature film Kooperman helmed by Harmony Wagner and Jason Rogerson. “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,” Miller muses. 

The shop was fun while it lasted, though. Miller’s inventory at one time or another included the first appearances of major characters like Wolverine, Silver Surfer, Deadpool and many more (I got my own long-sought copy of Moon Knight’s debut there), not to mention rare Magic: The Gathering cards like the Black Lotus. A vibrant gaming community grew up around the store for a while, and Dylan traveled the world on and off for years as a competitive Magic player. 

Posting on Facebook about the store’s closure, past Buzz columnist Anne Thurlow described Miller as “…a Charlottetown fixture – a champion of many underdogs and a dispenser of great kindness.” This refers in part to his charitable donations of books, comics and toys to places like schools and hospitals. “I always tried to help spread comics into places they were needed,” he says, “Either to foster a love for reading or to provide an escape.” 

The best part of the Lightning Bolt journey? “It’s always about the people I’ve met and the bonds we’ve formed,” he says. “I’ve met some of my closest friends at the Bolt. In fact, many are like my family now. …We’ve shared so much and that will continue.” Asked what’s next for him, he says: “No idea. Kind of terrified.” But he’s got a clearer sense of what kind of legacy his Lightning Bolt years may leave behind: “Hopefully the legacy is friendship, community and family.”