When I was a kid, my younger brother Zack, Dad and I never missed the back-to-back animated episodes of Superman and Batman.
I fondly remember piling on the couch, bookbags abandoned on the living-room floor, the Superman theme music and the smell of dinner swirling in the air. Mom rolled her eyes at our rapt attention, but we were captivated by the travails of our two favorite caped crusaders.
Most of my neighborhood and school friends were boys, and my brother was my primary playmate, so assimilating into a world of superheroes felt natural, a way to fit in. But I was also attracted to the unique worlds the heroes inhabited. Each fictional city had its own rules and cast of characters and landmarks. They were rooted in reality, providing familiar footholds with just enough fantasy to jump all the way in.
Zack had scores of action figures and superhero Underoos, which he liked to pair with a cape fashioned out of his baby blanket. We both thought we’d died and gone to heaven one summer when Dad bought us trademarked Superman shirts at Six Flags Over Texas, an amusement park full of trademarked cartoon characters. Zack shirt had its own cape, without the spit-up stains of his usual costume. Mine was a neon-colored number with the Supergirl symbol on the front.
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Our shirts felt special because they came from a special place, a gathering of people who appreciated Superman just like we did. Everyone in the gift shop was similarly enthralled with the superhero stuff. And high above the shop, Superman stood on the highest loop of his signature roller coaster, presiding over the amusement park and silently signaling we were part of the club.
I hadn’t felt that childhood rush in a long time, until I visited Atomic Empire, on Westgate Drive in Durham.
Blockbuster movies and the mainstream merchandise they bring have since made superhero T-shirts and lunch boxes a staple in Target, but the superhero paraphernalia in Atomic Empire is more than capitalistic opportunism. It is the result of sheer devotion, of genuine immersion and participation in a creative pursuit. It helps you become part of favorite fictional worlds instead of merely showing everyone else you’re in on a trend.
The store is full of ways to engage with vibrant fictional universes. A massive wall filled with shelves from top to bottom holds countless party games. They range in level of commitment, from the light party fun of familiar games like Apples to Apples, in which players try to win over their companions with the wittiest comparisons, to more unique and involved simulation-style games allowing you and your friends to create and operate everything from newspapers to suburbs to the mafia.
The store also has a wealth of action figures that brought me straight back to the hours I spent “cleaning my room” but actually acting out elaborate scenarios amid my bedroom-floor clutter. My favorite Harry Potter and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the cult TV hit that provided my first identification with a female hero) characters stood timeless in their packages, reminding me of all the times Buffy slayed my Barbies-turned-vampires and Hermione cast spells on my stuffed animals.
But perhaps most tantalizing was the display of comic books.
I majored in English in college, and I’ve read and loved “Jane Eyre” and “Anna Karenina” and “1984,” but there’s something uniquely appealing about comic books. The compact stories delivered in installments run contrary to my new binge-watching ways and harken back to a time of patience – patience between episodes of “Superman: The Animated Series,” patience for a new Harry Potter book.
Contact with my eclectic cast of super heroes and societal outcasts as a kid were my entry point in the world of storytelling. They shaped my interests and values and inspired me to piggyback into telling my own stories and exploring my own creativity.
If you had a childhood like mine, or you’re just looking for a new creative outlet, I suggest a visit to Atomic Empire. The young adult author John Green said (famously, in some circles) that being called a nerd is just saying “you like things” and that’s not an insult at all.
Samantha McCormick is a new Durham resident, recently graduated from UNC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.