He makes films. He draws. But selling comic books is where Emil J. Novak Sr. really shines. As proprietor of Queen City Bookstore on Main Street, Novak likes to call himself the “King of Comics.” A fixture in the University District, the store has been in business since 1969 when Novak’s father opened it as a coin and book shop.
At 57, Novak is a Buffalo character whose presence behind the counter draws customers from all walks of life who want more than the latest Spider-Man comic. They’re after a piece of his mind. They want to be entertained.
Novak, who grew up on the West Side, lives in Eggertsville and has two grown children.
People Talk: What kind of a kid were you?
Emil Novak: Very rowdy. Very hyper. I was skinny forever until I got older. My dad died in 1975 and I had to pitch in and help run the shop. I never worked for anyone else. This is my life.
PT: How do you keep it fresh?
EN: The product is unique because it’s fantasy. It’s exciting. I see young faces. Nowadays with things like “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead” and all the new Marvel movies, there’s always new generational readers coming into the hobby.
PT: If you were a superhero, who would you be?
EN: The Flash, only because he’s fast. He can reverse time so he can go back and fix problems. Batman’s kind of cool but the cape is a pain in the neck. It would get caught in the doorway or escalator or something and I’d probably get killed. Daredevil is good, too. Daredevil is a Marvel character who recently finished his first season on Netflix. He’s blind, lives in New York and has heightened senses.
PT: Would you describe yourself as quirky?
EN: I’m nerdy in a sophisticated way. Buffalo is a cool city because it struggled so long and people fell back on the arts. Comic books are an escape. People were poor when comic books started in 1933. By 1938 the first Superman appeared and started the golden age of comics that ran to 1949.
PT: What is your favorite comic?
EN: Captain America because he has a red white and blue flag on his chest. He fought the Nazis and he’s been around since WWII. Captain America fought for the real America which is not really the America we live in today – but I still love our country.
PT: Who is buying comic books these days?
EN: Our customers range from age 18 to 40. It’s an expensive hobby that requires knowledge, true patience and understanding of the books. For Buffalo collectors, comics may be their only hobby. They’re probably not bar types. Mark Poloncarz is a customer. We have FBI agents, state trooper people, police officers. No nuns. Teenagers come in and they stick around until their 20s or as long as they can afford it. Comics cost between $3 and $4 these days but you can find used ones and trade-ins for a dollar.
PT: How large is your collection?
EN: I don’t collect personally anymore. I’m in business. I’ve got to make money. What good is a comic book doing in a box at home collecting dust? In the store it constantly appreciates. The store is my collection. It just changes its face every now and then.
PT: What’s the most valuable comic you’ve crossed?
EN: The first Flash from the 1950s. It’s a $15,000 to $20,000 comic. It’s old, from the beginning of the silver age that ran from ’49 to ’57 or so. It was an off-era after the war when there were mostly horror, mystery, crime and not many superheroes. The ‘60s saw a resurgence of superheroes. Spider-Man, Hulk were created. Captain America was revived.
PT: How long does it take to read a comic book?
EN: It depends. If you devour the words you can knock it out in 15 minutes. But if you really study the sequential panel and the text that goes with it and watch the art, it’s beautiful. A silent film is a comic book without dialogue.
PT: What makes you such a success as a comic book entrepreneur?
EN: I’ve learned to be a professional businessman over time but in the earlier days I was feistier and didn’t deal well with stupid questions. You learn from working in the business you have to entertain. I’m basically an actor at the counter. I put on a show.
PT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
EN: Now that I’m 57 and I’ve been in the field for so long and I’m a few years off from retirement – but I’ll never retire. I’ll work until I drop because what else would I do, stay in the house and be bored? If I were rich I’d become a philanthropist but I’m not. I’m a different kind of philanthropist. I convey the greatness of comics.