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In 1986, comics were hot.
There was the “Dark Knight,” the “Watchmen,” and the reboot of the “Superman” series, three superhero comics that meant big initial success for Big Planet Comics, the venerable Bethesda comic shop that opened in 1986 on Cordell Avenue and hasn’t looked back.
To sustain the business, founder Joel Pollack and partner Greg Bennett have had to walk the tightrope of changing with the times while retaining what first made Big Planet a destination for comic book seekers from around the D.C. region, nation and world.
The Bethesda Big Planet store today looks very different than the one Pollack opened in 1986, and not just because it’s in its third Woodmont Triangle location at 4849 Cordell Ave.
The store’s shelves are now dominated by graphic novels. The lengthy comic stories have become the norm in the comic book industry, where traditional subscription-based periodicals used to rule.
And those graphic novels no longer cater to teenage boys looking for superhero stories. Bennett said the client base at Big Planet these days is about half male and half female, and covers ages 4-80.
“The industry’s completely changed, because up until ’86, if you wanted to read old comics, you had to go buy old comics,” Bennett said. “Starting in ’86, when they put out the “Watchmen,” when they put the “Dark Knight” in a book, and now if you look behind you, that whole wall is book collections of comics. It’s gone from being a collector-driven market to a much more reader-driven market.”
Big Planet started on the second floor of the Cordell Avenue building next door to its current store. It moved to Fairmont Avenue in 1991 before moving back to Cordell Avenue.
In the 18 years since the Bethesda store opened, Big Planet has opened up in three other locations: Vienna, College Park and U Street. All have different types of customers, which means different types of collections.
But for a business with such deep D.C.-area roots, Big Planet attracts plenty of folks from elsewhere.
The store does a podcast and has listeners from all over the world.
“Usually, if they come to D.C. as a tourist, they make a plan to go to one of the four Big Planet stores when they’re in town,” Bennett said.
That means a lot people from outside Bethesda coming to Woodmont Triangle to seek the store out.
In a changing neighborhood, Bennett said it’s good to have that kind of popularity. And just like the comic book industry, Bethesda has changed a lot since Big Planet first opened its doors.
“When we opened in ’86, there were less than 10 restaurants in downtown Bethesda,” Bennett said. “And the comic industry has changed with it.”