As Free Comic Book Day approaches on Saturday, PETER BARRON tells how a childhood passion for comics led to a Captain America fan launching his dream business with his wife in Darlington

IT hasn’t been easy but Stephen Lock is living his dream – a dream that took flight as a boy when he couldn’t wait for the shop to open so he could buy his favourite comics.

Beano, Whizzer and Chips, Tiger, and Scorcher were the first to capture his young imagination, along with Monster Fun, featuring Gums, a hapless shark with false teeth.

But then the newsagents in his home village of Thornton, a few miles from Blackpool, started selling Marvel comics. Overnight, Dennis The Menace, Sid The Snake, Roy of the Rovers, and Gums were replaced in his affections by superheroes, led by his all-time favourite, Captain America.

“There was no going back once I saw my first Marvel comic – I was hooked for life,” admits Stephen.

“A comic book cost 10p back then and I went back every week. Captain America, Daredevil, Thor, Avengers, and Spider-Man – I couldn’t get enough of them!"

As his passion for collecting Marvel comics grew, he dreamed of owning his own comic shop one day. Back then, it was as much a childhood fantasy as Captain America saving the world from the villainous Red Skull, but power ahead to today and the dream has become a reality.

Stephen and his wife, June, are proud owners of a much-loved comic shop in Darlington, The Darl Knight, a localised adaptation of Batman’s alias.

“It came down to a choice of two names,” says Stephen. “The other was Darlopolis but June pointed out it might get confused with Darlington Police!”

Since launching from a stall in the covered market eight years ago, the couple have negotiated the challenges of Brexit, the pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis, to grow the business. Not quite requiring superhero qualities, perhaps, but admirable, nevertheless, and it all began with Stephen’s childhood love of comics…

After spending his early years on the Lancashire coast, his family moved to Norfolk, where, after initially struggling to find somewhere to buy his comics, he was delighted to discover a shop, in Norwich, called Comix and Komicks.

“It was owned by an old man, called Lennie, who sat in the corner, next to a paraffin heater, smoking a fag,” he recalls. “There was something magical about it and I always had it in my head that it would be a dream to job to run a comic shop one day, but finances didn’t allow it at the time.”

Instead, Stephen started his working life in the freight industry, although he took his first, tentative step into retail when he started a comic mart in a Norwich church.

He met June through the freight haulage company. She worked for one of his customers, and telephone chats about deliveries developed into romance, despite June having no interest in comics.

They married in 1989 and, after having two daughters, Rebecca and Calandra, the family uprooted to France in 2003 to start a gardening and caretaker business.

“It went well until the Brexit vote, then everything became more uncertain. A lot of our customers were English, and quite a few put their houses up for sale,” he recalls.

When Rebecca got a job as a teacher in Darlington in 2016, the couple decided to leave France and follow her to the North-East, and it was then that they decided to finally try to make a living out of comics.

The Darl Knight began life in the town’s indoor market in November of that year, and it wasn’t a case of taking off straight away.

“On some days, we didn’t make a penny – it was a real struggle,” admits Stephen with a wry smile.

When the contract for leasing the stall came up for renewal, and Market Asset Management – the private company managing the market – couldn’t confirm what the new rate would be, the couple decided to look for a shop.

The business moved to 39a Bondgate in March 2018, and the Darl Knight suddenly flew, with business doubling overnight.

“It took off instantly,” says Stephen. “For some reason, people like the idea of a comic shop rather than a market stall.”

By March 2020, the business had outgrown 39a Bondgate, and The Darl Knight moved down the road to bigger premises at number 35, opposite The Majestic Theatre.

The stock was moved on March 19 but, with lockdown being announced by Boris Johnson the next day, the shop was closed before it had even opened.

It was a “frightening” time, but the business survived the pandemic with the help of a small business grant and bounce-back loan.

Thankfully, trade picked up well again post-Covid, with a loyal customer base being established, and The Darl Knight now has 70,000 American comics in stock. Other best-sellers include the Manga comic books, from Japan, while collectable cards, such as Pokémon, and Magic: The Gathering, are also popular.

The Northern Echo: Finn Gilbert, three, checks out the stock in The Darl Knight. Picture: Chris BarronFinn Gilbert, three, checks out the stock in The Darl Knight. Picture: Chris Barron (Image: Chris Barron)

The business is also embedded in the local community, with The Darl Knight sponsoring Darlington FC players and matchballs, as well as supporting local girls’ and women’s football clubs.

In addition, the couple fundraise for St Teresa’s Hospice, with special comics being raffled, and comics are also donated to Darlington Memorial Hospital’s children’s ward.

Meanwhile, Stephen has even launched his own comic – Blackpool Rock – about an overweight, middle-aged comic retailer in Blackpool. When he gets mugged, he becomes a crime-fighter and, although he’s useless, he’s secretly aided by his assistant, Candy Floss.

The Northern Echo:

The six-part series has been written by Stephen, with his French son-in-law, Aurelien, providing the illustrations.

Having overcome the challenges of Brexit and Covid, the cost-of-living crisis is now taking its toll.

“Comics are a luxury item, so business has dropped off again, but we’re lucky to have customers who’ve been with us since day one, and we’ll get by,” he says. “We offer escapism from everyday troubles in life, and there are people who can’t live without it.”

Despite the latest challenges, Stephen and June remain optimistic about the future. The lease on the building runs out next March and, ideally, they’d like to find somewhere bigger to carry on the dream.

“We just need a superhero to rescue the economy!” Stephen laughs.

  • To celebrate Free Comic Book Day, a selection of free comics will be available at The Darl Knight this Saturday.