It’s a good time to be a fanboy (or girl) – something Henry Smith Jr. never expected when he cracked his first comic book more than 40 years ago.
“It’s part of the culture now,” Smith said. “Back in the day, you had a kid with a bag full of comics and he might have gotten teased. Now, people will spend serious money on the first appearance of Wolverine or a vintage Star Wars figure. It’s something I don’t think anyone would have expected 30-some years ago.”
Smith was just 9 years old when he got his first comic, a forgotten title he got from his cousin. He didn’t know it then, but that single book would launch him into collecting not only comics but, later, action figures – a hobby that would take over every inch of available storage space and, ultimately, lead him to open Toy Dimension, a store for action figure enthusiasts and collectors.
“People think that a large portion of my customer base is kids, but the largest portion is adults, roughly 25 and up, because the appeal is buying things they used to have when they were kids, things that have some connection to their childhood. It’s all generational,” Smith said.
Smith should know.
Getting his start
He got his start trading covers off comics from the five and dime not far from his childhood home on 16th and Keefe. Years later, when he got into collecting, he sought out the comics he loved, titles like “Amazing Spider-Man No. 39” – a book so beloved his mother took a picture of him in their backyard with it.
By the time his interest turned to action figures in 1988, Smith said it was once again Spider-Man who drew him in.
“I picked up a couple of Spider-Man figures from a toy line,” Smith recalled. “But when I started collecting, I went back to find the toys I had when I was a kid. I’m a child of the ‘60s, so for me it was the 12-inch GI Joe, Captain Action and Major Matt Mason, an action figure based off the space program; he was an astronaut.”
At the height of his comic-collecting days, Smith estimated he had 4,000 to 5,000 titles. His collection of action figures swelled to about 2,000.
“I used to keep them in my room. I would have things on shelves, bookcases. I had so much stuff. I put stuff on the floor, hung stuff from the ceiling.”
His vast stockpile led to his involvement with a monthly collector show at Burnham Bowl, 6016 W. Burnham St., in Milwaukee. Established in 1977, it’s one of the oldest comic and action figure collectible shows in the city. Smith has been hosting it since 1990. (The next show is Dec. 4. Admission is $2)
Starting his business
But, after managing Milwaukee comic store Collector’s Edge, Smith began to think about opening his own shop. And, in 1998, he finally did.
These days, Toy Dimension is riding the wave of Hollywood’s appetite for all things super.
“The superhero films have been good because they’re getting more and more people to realize there are more things connected to the films. You have the action figures. You have the comics, the T-shirts, the video games, the successful TV shows,” Smith said.
And manufacturers aren’t just designing for kids.
“We’re talking toys. We’re talking action figures. But once you get into the realm of $150, $300, up to $1,000 for something new, then we’re talking collectible,” Smith said.
“There are still toys being made for kids. Action figures sold in my shop - kids can buy them and play with them. But there are higher-end figures for the collector, more articulated, better painted. If they’re based off a real person, they look like that person. They are light years ahead of figures, like Star Wars figures, back in the day.”
JUST THE FACTS
BUSINESS: Toy Dimension, 5925 W. North Ave.
OWNER: Henry Smith Jr.
TYPE OF BUSINESS: action figure collectibles
PEARLS OF WISDOM: I love what I do. I don’t make a whole lot of money. But I love what I do.