In the 1990s, high-profile artists and writers jumped from Marvel Comics and DC Comics to form Image Comics. Collectors hoarded copies of first-run books in hopes of selling them 20 years later to buy real-deal Iron Man suits and Batmobiles. But by 1996, the market fizzled and Marvel declared bankruptcy.
Comic book fans call it the "Comic Book Crash of 1996." John Cashman, though, calls it the beginning of his business. In a six-month span of 1996, the aspiring musician got married, had a child, bought his first house, and, despite the bleak state of the industry, opened a comic book store called Cashman’s Comics on the corner of Madison Avenue and 22nd Street.
“I started at probably the worst time, but my back was sort of against the wall. It was one of the biggest life-changing times for me,” stated Cashman. “I had to make it work. I really did.”
And he has made it work. After 23 years, he is still selling pages and pages of the artistic panels to customers from all over Michigan. His longevity is based upon learning from his experiences as a customer.
“I was shopping at other stores as a collector and reader. I wanted to be treated a certain way when I walked into a store. So, my philosophy has always been ‘How do I want to be treated when I'm on that side of the counter?’ ” he said as he gestured in front of him. “When people come in my store, it's not ‘What do you want?’ or ‘What are you looking for?’ That’s not what comes out of my mouth. It's ‘What are you interested in?’ "
Based on the answer, he shows his customers through his expansive collection of media from The Golden Age (1938-1950), The Silver Age (1956-1970), The Bronze Age (1970-1985) and The Modern Age (1985-present). He has a bit of everything when it comes to comics. Cashman prides itself on being a comic book store first, but the owner also carries action figures, Hero-Clix, and assorted gaming items.
If Cashman's doesn’t have it in stock, he’ll make sure you get it, customers say.
“John has ordered statues and figures for me that aren't readily available in stores,” said Ryan Christie of Bay City. “(One figure) is a Batman black and white statue based on probably my favorite artist, Norm Breyfogle. When it was released there was a chance stores might be allocated due to short supply. But John made sure I got one.”
That type of customer service has created a home base for kids and adults to let their nerd flags fly.
“Throughout the years a lot of us comic geeks have known what it’s like to be an outsider, so we seek some sort of comfort zone," said Kevin Miller, who lives in Bay City and has been a Cashman customer since Day One. "John has been a very integral and important part of my life for the past 17 years, and I cannot thank him enough for that.”
Another customer, Kris Kurzer of Williams Township, also calls Cashman a friend. "When I was a grade schooler, my grandmother took me to buy some comics because I was being bullied at school. John helped me to find the titles that best suited me. He helped to track every storyline I needed down and made sure that my books were always waiting for me. On top of that he never treated me like a silly kid or just a customer, but as a fellow comic lover and friend,” Kurzer said.
“John has been and always will be a great friend and role model to me. My son is now reading my collections and loves to go with me to see John and Petey.”
Oh yes ... Petey. The 4-year-old purebred boxer is part store-greater, part mascot, and a full-time loveable pup. Petey has grown up in the store, starting his time there when he was 8 weeks old.
“I love having Petey here because he's my buddy and not many people get to bring their dog to work,” said Cashman.
New people continue to find Cashman’s Comics from all over Michigan. Cashman consistently ships to Grand Rapids, Detroit and often serves customers who come into Bay City for other events.
“I've become a destination and Bay City is so cool with all the great things we have happening in the summertime especially. People search me out. They'll drop Mom off at the antique center, and then Dad and the kids will come here and spend two, three hours looking around for stuff. Sometimes they'll message me before they even come in, and I'll have stuff waiting for them,” Cashman said.
Cashman's Comics is a comic book store first, but it also carries collectibles.
Since John was a kid he was into superheroes. He recalls playing with Mego action figures while eating Captain Crunch as Super Friends played on TV in the background. As an adult, one of his prize collectibles is a Batman Mego action figure. He points at the Batman Mego and says, “That is my childhood in an action figure right there."
Over the years, John has donated thousands of books to the Bay County Library System for Free Comic Book Day.
“I'm a very big advocate of (childhood literacy), always have been. That's why I've done free comic book day for 17 years. The biggest joy I get out of it is seeing kids come in so excited about comics and sitting on my front steps engrossed in these comics. It's a great thing. They're reading, it engages their mind, makes them think.” Cashman said.
The young aspiring musician is still inside John Cashman, and he lets him loose with his band Savior Machines, which is set to record its fourth album this summer.
It's his day-to-day job at the shop, though, that keeps him excited.
“I really enjoy what I do. It shows, I think, in how long I've been here. People come to my store and they're not buying insurance or food. If they're going to spend money in my store, it's because they really love what they're investing in to read. It's very satisfying to be connected to that part of people's lives.”