The Regal UA Sheepshead Bay theater complex in South Brooklyn runs like any other big cinema space. IMAX screens, new seating, everything any movie theater trying to survive in the age of streaming needs. One thing sets it apart from the rest, though. Whenever a new superhero movie premieres, Bulletproof Comics owner Hank Kwon sets up a small comics pop-up shop with graphic novels, t-shirts, pins, and action figures featuring the characters people paid money to see on the big screen.
This year, Spider-Man: No Way Home was the activating agent.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to interview Hank on what went into surviving as a comic book store in Brooklyn during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of its key lifelines was its community-focused approach to selling comics, which led him to set up online auctions that felt more like hangouts than just straight business affairs.
People showed up, supported, and gave Hank the necessary funds and energy to keep the store running. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that same approach allowed him to expand into a movie theater in South Brooklyn, a practice that was in place well before the pandemic started. The pop-up has been making an appearance at Regal UA Sheepshead Bay for some ten-plus years now, around the time Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was in full swing.
Hank struggles a bit to remember the specifics of how it all started, but he does remember he was somehow contacted by Regal UA, seemingly on a client’s recommendation, and that the conversation that followed led to Bulletproof becoming a long-standing presence for superhero premieres at the location.
“I just remember the opportunity being there and me thinking I couldn’t pass it up,” Hank said about the initial idea. “It was a unique way to bridge the comics and the movie worlds. People responded immediately and are still drawn to it when they come in for a movie and get surprised with a pop-up shop.”
The Bulletproof owner goes big when he brings the store to the movie theater. A big Bulletproof Comics sign hangs over the table with the merchandise, which sits next to a large display of Funko figures from every franchise imaginable along with the one being shown at the cinema.
Graphic novels on sale included Spider-Man 2099 vs Venom, The Amazing Spider-Man: Green Goblin Returns, Sinister War, and Spider-Man/Deadpool: Serious Business. It leaned on the newer stuff, but it seemed to resonate with people. Hank told me that the books were selling well and that the most recent Nick Spencer run was really bringing people into Spidey’s world on a larger scale.
The pop-up’s location was perfect. It sat just across from the concession stands. Buy your popcorn, get your comics. Long lines meant people would peek at the shop while waiting for their snacks.
The first time I came across this pop-up was when I went to see Avengers: Infinity War at Regal Sheepshead Bay, the only place that still had tickets available back when the movie opened in 2018. The graphic novel selection then included The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos: The Infinity Revelation, Jonathan Hickman’s Infinity, and a few more Thanos-centered books. Add Avengers shirts and toys, Funkos included, and the pop-up was ready.
The experience is not entirely unlike that of coming off a theme park ride and exiting through the gift shop, only Bulletproof’s pop-up promotes deeper immersion into the world audiences step out of once the credits (and after-credits) roll.
It’s an idea that, quite frankly, should become an industry standard. It makes sense. Cater to audiences by giving them more of what they want from the source. Bulletproof has been wildly successful at it and it looks like a sound and considerate business strategy.
In an industry where the source material is usually relegated to easter eggs and ‘Special Thanks’ in movie credits, the pop-up is a forceful statement of commitment to the franchises up on the screens. Comics don’t even get their own trailers shown before their movies, something that still baffles me given the potential to raise sales figures through cross-media promotional campaigns.
Hank expressed a feeling of renewed purpose and overall happiness at being able to come back to the movie theater after the pandemic guidelines were loosened up. “I’m cautiously optimistic about this,” Hank stated. I’m keeping my eye on the latest surge in Covid cases, but I will continue doing this for as long as they’ll have me.”
The main Bulletproof store is still running strong and now adjusting to the shift in comics distribution. The task seems monumental at times, Hank expressed in relation to how the transition from Diamond to Penguin Random has rolled out, but business has managed to remain steady.
With 2022 looking to be another year chock-full of comic book movies, consider Regal UA Sheepshead Bay in South Brooklyn your theater of choice. There’s a comic book pop-up shop there ready to indulge your geek desires before and after watching your heroes of choice swing into action.