I knew Michael Chen was someone who had finally taken the chance that many seem so scared to do. Opened back on November 14th 2012, just two weeks after the devastating Hurricane Sandy thrashed the United States east coast, Michael opened a comic book store that didn’t have any comics.
“That was a big wrench in this complicated machine that is starting your own business,” said Michael. “We had a couple of people just randomly walk in and I’m up here fixing things up and trying to get things ready, trying not to freak out.”
When I first walked into the shop, I saw a lithe man wearing a white cap with a red bill that didn’t hide his bespeckled face. He was attending to the front counter of the store but wasn’t hesitant to greet me as I entered the main floor. I heard about the new comic book shop in town but had not gotten a chance to check it out.
After the card game tournament the store was hosting had ended, I got a chance to speak with Michael about why he felt the need to fill the hole left by so many comic and hobby shops that had closed in recent years. Introduced to comic book heroes during the big boom of Saturday morning cartoons, Michael saw the vivid tales of heroes such as the X-Men and Batman and followed their adventures to the comic book shops. “It seemed like all the kids back then started liking comics,” he said.
Though he grew up in Ohio, Michael would move to New Jersey to finish high school and college. After some traveling and soul searching, he decided to return to The Garden State, feeling at home with the people and communities of Bayonne.
“Figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and go back to the place that I really like and also do something that I always thought was sort of a pipe dream or retirement plan and start a comic book shop.”
With the transition of longtime community store Vector Books out of the comic book business after almost 29 years, Michael saw a need to help Bayonne’s comic fandom find a place to call home. The business of running a comic book shop was tough and one that had definitely seen some casualties over the years with shops like Bayonne Comics closing down over the last decade.
“People didn’t have a place to play games or go to get comics anymore and as someone who ended up growing up in comic book stores, I feel like a lot of my great mentors, at least in terms of hobbies and how to be a person, really were comic shop owners.”
He recalled how he could rarely afford to spend money at his childhood comic shop, run by a man named Steve, but was still treated with respect and was taught a lot about how to treat other people and fans. He chuckled at remembering the arguments he would have with fans of other characters and how, no matter what, he would always try to find some common ground in every disagreement as they were all comic book fans and that carried a special kinship with it. “Hearing that Bayonne was going to lose that, and the fact that it was something I wanted to do kind of seemed like a perfect fit because I know how much a comic store means to a community.”
Michael relayed a personal story of how he chose the name Manifest. A former college professor who taught political science and communications, Michael decided it was time for a change and asked his partner if she thought opening a comic store was the right risk to take. “She heard everything out and thought about it for a couple of minutes in silence. And it was a really scary silence because who knows? Maybe she’s just thinking, ‘No I’m done with you I have to go,’ you know?” He was relieved to hear her say that if he was honestly happier pursuing this new dream of owning a comic store then they would find a way to make it work. The couple’s initials are both M and C, and Michael said, “I wanted to incorporate that into the name because she was such a big part of the decision and the ability to be able do this, and so Manifest Comics lets me have the MC.”
Location is paramount, and Michael knows he was lucky to find a great home for Manifest. Located between 33rd and 34th street on Bayonne’s Broadway district, the store is a brisk walk from the local light rail station and diagonally faces a 7–11 and bus stop while situated across the street from Judicke’s Bakery, a popular local pastry shop.
As the only employee of his store, Michael is assisted by other comic book fans from the community. One comic fan of over 30 years helps him unpack his weekly shipments and in return gets to buy his books early. “He loves opening up those boxes of comics and me and him have a joke, we call it Reverse Christmas, where you’re opening up all these boxes full of awesome stuff and none of it is for you!”
It is this jovial atmosphere that Michael hopes to foster at his store. As opposed to past hobby shops that focused purely on retail space, Manifest Comics has an area dedicated to helping people enjoy their cards or comics and mingle with other fans. Six long tables and multiple chairs with a comfy couch tucked away at the side in a brightly lit room offer card game players a room to play and comic book readers a place to read. “The three stores I spent the most time in growing up had that in common. They weren’t just there to sell you comics because you can honestly just buy comics online now,” Michael admits. “But I think most of the people end up doing that because they don’t have a place like this where you’re not just coming in to buy your comics. You’re coming in to chat with the store owner, to see what’s going on, to get a recommendation, to see something on the racks, to say ‘Man, I just really want to escape life for a bit and just enjoy.”