BRISTOL, Tenn. – WHAM! BLAT! POW!

Faster than a speeding rumor! Stronger than an onion-breathed man! Able to leap large piles of Legos!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Nope, it’s Robert Pilk, who runs Bristol’s Mountain Empire Comics location.

Festooned with a Captain America outfit and shield, Bristol’s oldest kid sounds like the youngest of kids as the nation’s Free Comic Book Day looms. Set for May 3, he’s made the day one better. He’s behind Bristol’s 6th Street Celebrates Free Comic Book Day.

“Rob is a jewel,” said Dave Vaught, who operates Top Hat Magic Supply, located across the street from Pilk’s shop. Vaught’s store will participate in the day.

Likewise, skip a door down from Pilk’s place to find Bridgeforth Design Studio. Run by Brian and Marie Bridgeforth, they provide custom art and design services. They, too, will be a part of 6th Street Celebrates Free Comic Book Day.

“I’ll have a big drawing table, drawing live and let people watch,” said Brian Bridgeforth. “Come on down.”

Two doors down, Sally slept.

“Sally is a big part of the store,” Pilk said amid a store replete in walls adorned with superhero posters and comics and collectibles.

Three pale dog biscuits lay on the counter on Thursday afternoon. Sally is Pilk’s dog, a mostly white greyhound. Splayed alongside Sally lay the dog’s friend, a stuffed bear.

“That’s Dead Ted,” Pilk said with a grin while Captain America didn’t move an inch from within one of the shop’s display cases. “Oh, she likes to sling him around.”

Pilk’s in his element. He’s past age 60 and closing in on 30 years as the co-owner of Mountain Empire Comics. John Stone runs the Johnson City location.

“I always say that I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Pilk said. “I love my job.”

Free Comic Book Day began in 2002. Coordinated by Diamond Comic Distributors, the annual day be-gan the same weekend of the opening of feature film, “Spider-Man.” The film became a blockbuster. The event and date stuck. Thus each first Saturday of May, Free Comic Book Day has commenced nationally.

“This is our third year,” Brian Bridgeforth said.

For Pilk and Mountain Empire Comics, participation began much earlier.

“We got into it a year or two after it got started,” Pilk said. “We didn’t push it too much at first. Then I thought, ‘let’s make a big splash and see what happens.’ Well, the more you put into something the more you get back.”

Pilk said that he has noticed a growth in clientele as a result of Free Comic Book Day. It’s not an ava-lanche of growth, but steady growth nonetheless.

“Every day should be Free Comic Book Day,” he said, “if we could afford it.”

Befitting the day, free comic books will be given by Pilk to all customers who wish to have one upon the day. A selection of about 40 different titles comprise the list of books available for free. They include DC Comics’ “Futures End,” Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spongebob Freestyle Funnies” and a large “Archie Digest.”

“If we can get one just one kid hooked on comics for life,” Pilk said, “my job is done.”

Of note, kids and adults can select titles from the collection of free comics to keep. Yes, folks, adults ab-solutely buy comics, too. Quite so, actually.

“It’s a wide range of people, which I’m happy to say,” Pilk said. “I’ve got guys my age, in their 60s, to kids that come into the store. We’ve got ministers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, school teachers, people who deliver pizzas, greeters at Wal-Mart.”

Comics serve as an equalizer of sorts, he said.

“The cool thing,” Pilk added, “they’ll all talk with each other about comics.”

Women, too, buy comics. That’s perhaps the biggest trend of all within the industry’s base of customers.

“In 1984, when we opened the store, a girl walking in, that was a rare occasion,” Pilk said with a shake of his head. “Now, we have a large contingent of female customers, and I’m happy to have them. It might be 20 percent now. That’s 20 percent more than we had in 1984.”

Within minutes and as if by design, a woman and her male friend strode into Pilk’s store. He was a regu-lar; she was not.

“This is my first time in a comic book store. Ever,” said Natasha Foster, 35, of Erwin, Tenn. “I didn’t even know if I could touch the comics.”

She could and all customers can touch the comics that line a full wall within Pilk’s shop.

“I like the artwork,” Foster said.

So, Pilk wondered aloud, had she ever read a comic?

“Does Bazooka Joe count?” Foster asked.

“That’s a comic strip,” Pilk replied.

“I read the comic strips in the newspaper,” Foster added. “I like the old comics, how they look.”

“That’s what got me hooked,” Pilk responded.

“When was the first comic?” Foster wondered.

“Back in 1938,” Pilk answered. “What do you like to read?”

“Historical things,” Foster retorted.

“You know,” Pilk said while thumbing through the stack of free comics on tap for Free Comic Book Day, “we have a free comic for the day that’s the history of Japan.”

Foster browsed. Her friend bought a comic. They left with a wave and a smile.

“If they get the right comic, you can get them hooked in,” Pilk said as the duo rounded the corner and faded down the sidewalk. “She’ll be one of us before you know it.”

Brian Bridgeforth certainly belongs in that category, the “one of us” file of folks who love comics. Dave Vaught, too. For Bridgeforth and Vaught, members of different generations and societal backgrounds, Superman served as the comic that reeled each man in from childhood.

Bridgeforth, a native of Norfolk, Va., first grew enamored with Superman via television.

“When I got a little older, in Gray’s Pharmacy across the street from Old Dominion University, I saw a comic book stand,” Bridgeforth said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed! The guy at the pharmacy was so cool. He would let us stand there and go through comic books for hours to find the ones we wanted.”

Oh, but then one day Bridgeforth found THE comic that hooked him.

“It was ‘The Giant-Sized Thor’ that Jack Kirby drew, the definitive comic for me,” he said. “It sent chills down my spine. It was magical.”

Vaught knows magic.

A copy of a comic from many years past, “Mandrake the Magician,” lay atop the far end of the long counter inside his Top Hat Magic Supply store on Thursday afternoon. Just inside the door and at the counter’s opposite end rested his beloved dog, 10-year-old Merlin the Magician.

Vaught held court somewhere in between, amid goodies of magic including trick cards and illusionary Coca-Cola bottles.

“Superman,” Vaught said. “I’ve got Harry Blackstone comics at home. Yeah, I love comics. I’m from the old school. Superman, that’s by far my favorite. My brother had the first Superman comic that ever came out.”

So, what’s the connection, one may wonder, between Vaught’s magic store and Pilk’s comic book shop? OK, they’re friends and Pilk wanted to include his friends, but beyond that Vaught’s participation in the day branded Free Comic Book Day may seem quizzical.

“Comics are a fantasy,” Vaught said. “Magic is a fantasy. We get quite a few people who come over from Rob just saying, ‘hey, have you been over there?’ They come in and they get interested.”

Buy a comic from Pilk’s Mountain Empire Comics on Free Comic Book Day, Vaught said, and he will offer a 10 percent discount to each of them.

“Free Comic Book Day packs people in,” Vaught said. “We’ll do some magic demonstrations on the day. Probably do some levitation stuff, cards and coins magic, too. I’ll tell you what, one of the most talented artists in the world is right across the street, Brian Bridgeforth.”

Bridgeforth Design will feature an array of deals and artist appearances on Free Comic Book Day.

“Local favorite Stephen J. Semones will be debuting his newest superhero novel, ‘Gloom,’” said Marie Bridgeforth. “C.R. Blevins will be bringing and signing copies of ‘A Western Tale’ and telling you about his newest project coming soon.”

Plus, the studio will offer creations from the talented hands of the Bridgeforths.

“In appreciation for people coming out to Free Comic Book Day, Bridgeforth Design Studio will offer art at special prices on everything from concept sketches to prints and originals,” Marie Bridgeforth said. “This is the perfect opportunity to get that special piece of art for all of your sci-fi loving friends and fam-ily.”

Additionally, Pilk’s shop will showcase an array of local artists and writers including Jennifer Estep and Brett Cook to augment the day’s array of free comics. He will also feature a number of sales on items including superhero figurines to large cardboard stand-ups of The Incredible Hulk and Thor, each of which will cost $35.

Visit and browse, Pilk said. By all means, peruse the comics offered for sale. Enjoy Vaught’s magic and the Bridgeforth’s artwork.

“Just come and have fun,” Brian Bridgeforth said. “We appreciate you. Come on down!”

Bring yourself, bring a kid, bring the family.

Be careful, though. A lifelong love of literature may ensue.

“To see the look on kids’ faces when you give them a free comic is great,” Pilk said. “To think, it may be the comic that makes them a comic book fan for life.”

Pilk grinned, checked himself out, a man in his sixth decade of life and he’s dressed as Captain America.

“Hey,” Pilk said, “you’re never too old to have a happy childhood.”

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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