MANCHESTER, NH – This year Double Midnight Comics and Collectibles in Manchester is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Looking back over the past two decades, many a capes fan or card gamer might wonder at the comic shop’s storied past, shrouded, until now, in mystery. How did this hugely successful store, gaming venue and convention organizer come to exist? Where did it get its name? And what are the cosmic forces from which it derives its superpowers?
Co-owners Chris Proulx, Scott Proulx and Brett Parker shared their memories of the early years, and how they got to where they are now. This is their oral history; the secret origins of Double Midnight Comics.
On July 2, 2002, the business that would evolve to have two stores, 12 employees, and become a major hub for the comics and pop culture scene in southern New Hampshire quietly opened its doors at its Maple Valley Plaza location at 245 Maple Street.
There was no fanfare, no ribbon-cutting ceremony, no article in the local newspaper. At the time, the direct retail market for comics was still recovering from a speculator bubble that burst in the 1990s, and widely-held stigma against the storytelling medium forced it into the shadows, sometimes literally.
“It was kind of taboo,” Scott said.
He said by the time they opened there was only one other comic store in town — a dimly lit shop with a sordid collection of pornographic films on DVD in its back room.
“It wasn’t really a family-friendly place,” Scott said. “There was a void and we tried to fill it as best we could.”
Double Midnight was designed from the start to be a bright, clean and welcoming space for all ages. And the people working the counter would be nice, helpful and avoid the condescending gatekeeping of arch-nerdom famously epitomized by the Simpsons “Comic Book Guy” character Jeff Albertson.
“We wanted to kind of give people a choice,” Parker said “That was kind of where our business model came from. It doesn’t have to be dark, it doesn’t have to be elitist. … It was an all-welcoming environment.”
For the first few years, Parker was the face of Double Midnight. He was the person people would see behind the counter every day, talking to customers about the latest X-Men book or the finer points of Star Wars lore. Chris said Parker “set the vibe” for the store.
“I was kind of the one full-time employee, and Chris and Scott would come in after their jobs,” Parker said.
Parker said he was in a position, with support from his then-girlfriend and now wife, to be able to work at the store full-time. Meanwhile, Chris was still working full-time as an insurance underwriter in Manchester, and Scott was working as a juvenile tracker for the Nashua School District and was taking classes at Rivier College (now Rivier University) to be certified as a special education teacher for Manchester middle schools.
Fast forward to today and you’ll find Chris running the day-to-day (he quit the insurance job to work at the store full time in 2006), Parker is jet-setting around the world as a celebrity booker for pop culture conventions but makes the occasional appearance when he’s in town, and Scott will be retiring from his 18-year teaching career in June and focusing on Double Midnight and Granite State Comicon full-time.
But before we explain how we got here, it’s important we take a step back to the years preceding the grand opening.
As brothers, Chris and Scott Proulx grew up loving comics, but as kids, their tastes were mostly limited to cross-promotional stories about popular toys. Comics, like most Saturday morning cartoons, were created to sell action figures and playsets.
“Like kids in the ‘80s we were big into the G.I. Joes and Transformers comics,” Chris said.
Fast-forward to freshman year of Memorial High School in 1989, and Chris spies another kid in the class reading a comic book.
“When I got to high school freshman year, I met Brett in homeroom,” Chris said.
As Chris recalls, Brett was reading the comic out in the open for anyone to see, which Chris thought was a brave and radical act.
“Back then it wasn’t mainstream. People usually didn’t read comics in public, so we sort of bonded over that,” Chris said.
Parker remembers it a little differently.
“It was a passion of ours. That’s kind of how Chris and I met, our shared love of comics. But it wasn’t something you shared with anybody,” Parker said. “He caught me literally reading comics that I had, like, hidden in a folder.”
Parker introduced Chris and Scott to more of the Big Two titles (Marvel and DC) such as Batman and X-Men, according to Chris.
Around this time, and while the Proulxs were attending Saint Anselm College, their horizons were broadened further by Scott Davis, the former owner of a comic store in Pinardville called Storytellers. All three Double Midnight owners agree that Storytellers became a second home for them; it also showed them how a family-friendly comic shop could operate, and inspired them to someday own a shop of their own.
They would talk about how cool it would be to someday own a comic shop that Chris described as “a Cheers for comic books, where ‘everybody knows your name.’”
Storytellers would fall victim to the nationwide economic implosion of the direct retail market for comics in the late 1990s, Scott said, and he said Davis decided to close the store and focus on his young family.
Later in 2002, the idea to open Double Midnight Comics would seem not only like a dream goal but a serious imperative, to replace what the community had lost with the closure of Storytellers. The three owners decided to model their new business after Storytellers and, to this day, view the erstwhile Pinardville shop as its spiritual forerunner.
Davis also remained a friend and mentor, providing guidance on how to order books and conduct the less glamorous duties of running a retail outlet. Today, Davis is a faithful customer of Double Midnight, and a volunteer organizer of events like Free Comic Book Day, which takes place on the first Sunday of every May.
What’s in a name?
In 1985, the seminal graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons landed, the recurring image of a giant clock known as the Doomsday Clock tracked the relative imminence of global nuclear holocaust. If the arms struck midnight, it was game over for the human race.
The clock was a media gimmick in the fictional world, set during an alternate Cold War earth, with superheroes run amok and President Richard Nixon enjoying his fourth consecutive term. It was also an indelible symbol for readers to associate their existential fears of the time.
This is not where Double Midnight gets its name.
In the late ‘90s, Chris and Parker decided to focus their fandom energies into their first venture: a film production company. They made one feature-length film and a few short films, Chris said, all of which are collecting dust somewhere on VHS tapes.
While planning a film project at their friend Bill’s house, the crew found themselves constantly harassed by Bill’s younger cousin, a hyperactive boy who was jumping off the walls and driving them “bananas.”
“We said he should go to bed,” Chris recalled. “And he said ‘Sometimes, when I’m good, I can stay up until double midnight!’”
They laughed, but Parker and Chris looked at each other. They couldn’t deny the name had a nice ring to it.
They named their film company Double Midnight Productions. A few years later, when they opened the comic store, the name stuck.
The Spider Bite
After they opened the store in 2002, it was clear the owners were in over their heads. Parker said he was selling exercise equipment out of a store in the Mall of New Hampshire before they opened. Scott said he had some retail experience working for Filenes and CVS, as a cashier, but that wasn’t enough to prepare him for store ownership.
“We had no idea what we were doing. This was before the Spider-Man movie came out… before The Walking Dead became successful,” Scott said.
The timely premier of the first Spider-Man movie starring Tobey Maguire in May 2002 and the launch of an unassuming black-and-white comic series about surviving the zombie apocalypse called The Walking Dead in October 2003 would sew the seeds for a strong comics industry in the years ahead.
With the benefit of hindsight, it all looks inevitable.
Scott said kids used to be into baseball cards, but in the last two decades, one sees more young people wearing Green Lantern and Deadpool shirts. The movies and TV shows that were adapted from comics helped to redirect this shift in the culture, he said, and curiosity about the source material drove sales.
But in those early days, starting a comics store seemed like a tremendous risk. Parker said people would look at the owners and say, ‘A comic book store? Are you sure?’
“It was a risk because these weren’t the mega movies that we see today,” Parker said. “It was scary but it was awesome.”
After the first few years, Scott proposed they add more games to their inventory, but Chris said he was skeptical that people would be willing to spend $50 for a board game. After all, they had cultivated a clientele that was used to buying a comic book for $3.99.
But their foray into games would prove one of the smarter business decisions they would make. They started to carry Dungeons and Dragons handbooks, dice, board games, miniatures and the uber-popular card decks for games like Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!
Today, they host regular weekly tournaments for those card games, with an entry fee for participants that covers the cost of card decks the winners receive. Overall, the owners estimate the store’s revenue is split evenly between comics and games.
In 2010, they expanded the Manchester store space to about 3,500 square feet, and built a wall for a rear room that separated shoppers from gamers. Then, in 2013, they opened their second location at 67 S. Main St. in Concord.
On Oct. 1, 2021, the Concord store relocated to a bigger location in the Concord Heights at 341 Loudon Road. That move was precipitated by the building owners’ plans to expand the next-door bar and casino.
Over the years, the business weathered the same economic challenges that every business faced: principally the 2008 Great Recession and the shut-downs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
In the latter case, the owners had to nimbly adapt by finding online and mail-order sources of revenue until they could once again open their doors to the public.
Growing alongside Double Midnight over the years is the Granite State Comicon – aka GraniteCon – a brainchild of the Double Midnight owners that first launched in 2003 in a single ballroom at the then-Radisson Hotel convention center.
They later expanded into the larger Armory room of the convention center and, by 2013, they grew to be a two-day event and filled the entire Expo Center.
For the first time in September 2022, the convention will last for three days.
“Now we’re at the point where we’ve been, for the past couple years, running up against space issues. We’re bursting at the seams this year,” Chris said.
Scott said they’re even exploring the possibility of adding a second convention at another time of the year.
In recent years, the owners have experimented with themes, and inviting celebrity guests based on those themes, like when they invited actors from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film.
But it’s becoming clear that GraniteCon is the de facto convention for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans, given its proximity to early creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird who hail from Maine, and who first penned their indie comic in Dover, New Hampshire.
It has also played host to subsequent generations of TMNT contributors such as Jim Lawson, Steve Lavigne, Simon Bisley, Ben Bishop and others.
The work of inviting celebrities to conventions evolved into a whole new venture for Parker, who now works full-time as a celebrity booker for Celebrity Talent Booking out of North Andover, Massachusetts.
Being Brett Parker has meant hitting the comic convention trail over the years and cavorting with the likes of, from left, Jason Mamoa, Millie Bobby Brown and Mark Hamill.
Parker said they hired that agency to bring in more celebrities at the urging of employee Pat Covey, who had seen how other conventions were structured across the region. Parker came to realize that the agency was staffed solely by one man: Jeff Zannini, and he started working for him.
Eventually, the position grew and Parker became a more autonomous member of the team.
“We were working every comic con of every size all over the world. I’ve traveled more in the last nine years than I have my entire life,” Parker said. “Lithuania, Canada, Saudi Arabia, all over Europe, all over the US.”
He still comes to Double Midnight, whenever he’s in town.
“Now I’m kind of coming in whenever I can and pitching in whenever I can, around this position, which came about because of the comic store,” Parker said.
Now that Scott is retiring from teaching, he’ll be working the store and organizing the conventions full time, marking almost a full reversal of the original working arrangement.
Looking back, Chris said he’s particularly proud of how Free Comic Book Day has grown to be a mini-convention or block party at their humble Manchester store each May. Parker agrees the FCBD event is a highlight.
Earlier this month, they hosted about 2,500 guests, some from as far away as Florida. In what has become an annual tradition, a few local fans started camping outside the store four days in advance to be first in line.
“One of my favorite things is the relationships people have developed over the years,” Scott said.
One couple met at the store and later got married, he said. Another held their wedding ceremony inside the store with a former employee officiating.