Hank Kwon had been a casual comic book reader for most of his childhood. He’d often go to the corner pharmacy and look through the comic books on the spin rack until he found something that caught his eye. One day he happened upon Daredevil #179, a Marvel comic book written by Frank Miller. The cover was bright yellow and featured a character named Elektra who held a scythe that punctured the mask of the Daredevil, a Marvel hero. The vivid colors and fascinating art amazed Kwon, and he hoped that the story inside would be just as intriguing as the cover. As he began to read through the pages, he felt as if he held a movie in the palm of his hands, he couldn’t get enough. Kwon wanted to get the previous issues, but the pharmacy worker said they had been thrown out.
“I went to school, asked the kids and they told me I had to go to a comic book store,” says Kwon. “I started to search out a comic bookshop and then I got all of [Frank Miller’s] books and became a lifelong fan. I just kept collecting comic books, I became an incredible collector — a huge collector and spending mass amounts of money.”
Throughout his teenage years, Kwon had an impressive collection, but as he grew older, he started seeing it as a childish hobby and not a career. Shortly after graduating from high school, at 19 years old, Kwon opened up a Chinese restaurant, however, it was not a success and he sold it after a year.
“It put a heavy burden on me. Ever since then, I promised myself that the next business I’d open, I won’t let it fail,” he says.
A couple of years later, Kwon decided to attend film school at Brooklyn College because he thought it was time to “grow up” and leave his childhood hobby behind. On a lunch break at his job at the Balducci’s grocery store in Manhattan, he went to a comic book store with a box of comics in hand to sell. The store offered him $300 for his box, which he says was pretty low, but luckily for him the store didn’t have enough money in the register to give him and told Kwon to come back next week. Kwon took his box and as he headed back home, he walked through St. Mark’s Place. It was in the early-90s and the street looked like a bazaar with people selling all kinds of things on the streets. A man who sold comics offered Kwon $500 for the whole box.
A month later, Kwon was again walking down St. Marks Place when she saw the same man sprinting toward him. Out of breath, he asked Kwon: “Hey do you have any more comics? Can I buy some from you?”
“When that happened, that was my ‘aha moment’. A light bulb went off in my head. I started to watch him for about half an hour and he was doing a lot of business, so many transactions. Then I noticed there was another comic book seller, but the books he was selling were terrible books [in terrible condition],” says Kwon. “I said, I have to try this.”
On his day off the next week, Kwon brought a table and a box of comics. In only three hours he had made $800. It happened again the next time he tried it. Business was so good he quit his job, and decided that selling comics would be his new business venture. Throughout college he kept selling his comics, but by his junior year Kwon decided to quit school and began attending convention circuits. He’d travel around the United States, attend different comic conventions and sell his comics. After about a year of doing so, he found an empty storefront in Brooklyn and Bulletproof Comics was born in 1992.
Kwon originally opened Bulletproof Comics with a partner, they divided the store — one would sell comics and the other cards. Eventually, Kwon took over the entire store for comic books, but still kept a collection of cards and other products. Compared to the vast collection of comics he has now, he started out very small but he has enough comics to fill an entire store.
There are comics of all genres — they’re not always about superheroes and villains. Kwon recommends that customers find comics that meet their interests.
“You might like superhero comics or film noir or memoirs, you have to know the type of story you gravitate toward. If you like science fiction I can recommend a book called Saga, if it’s superhero comics I could recommend Hulk, Spiderman or Daredevil. If you want a memoir I can recommend books like The March, which is the biography of John Lewis,” he says.
Kwon’s vast knowledge of comics has kept customers interested and turned them into frequent buyers over the years. However, the store has faced many hurdles and difficulties on its own.
“It’s very difficult because there really is no roadmap, you have to be really in-tune with your customers, we are fighting competition from online — digital sales. It’s very tough to combat those,” Kwon says. “[However] every few years we adapt the store and reinvent it… it’s our ability to adapt quickly. A lot of stores will stay the same. When there are different products or trends coming in they don’t switch over, but we can do that over night.”
Throughout the years the popularity of comics has risen and declined, but Kwon keeps his customers coming back by adding new products. Sometimes it was video games, other times it was skateboards, now it’s Japanese Manga. During the pandemic, he switched over and hosted weekly auctions. With Kwon’s quick thinking and adaptability he has been able to keep his promise he made to himself. After almost three decades and despite the new technology and shifting interests, Bulletproof Comics has not failed.
The store has also been very important to the surrounding community.
“We relieve stress for the community, they’ll come in here and they’ll talk about the latest pop culture subjects like movies, comics, music, anime and video games. When they come in here it’s like therapy almost, they relieve stress and this is their downtime from work, they get to pick up their favorite things.”
John S., a comic book collector who has been coming to the store throughout the decades, says Bulletproof Comics is one of the few remaining places where people can gather. A bookstore in the area, where people could come together and read had closed down, but Bulletproof Comics remains.
“Bulletproof Comics is a neighborhood staple. The community [makes it different]. My son calls Hank uncle. There is a huge sense of family. I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager and I’ve never not felt welcome,” he says. “This store works because you can be Black, White, male, female, trans — it doesn’t matter you come in here and you are just one big geek.”
Kwon’s relationship with his customers is unlike any other, which is why so many keep coming year after year. Wendell Millette has been coming to Kwon since he began selling comics on a table. You’ll find Millette at Bulletproof Comics on a typical Thursday afternoon searching for his next read.
“I can’t even count [how many] comics I’ve bought from here. I’m a collector, not a hoarder — not yet, I haven’t gotten to that level yet,” he says. “[What I like most] is that the customer service here is beautiful.”
However, not all customers are longtime customers. New and curious customers still come to the store in search of a new hobby. Justin Moore recently began collecting cards and decided to give Bulletproof Comics a visit.
“I pass by here all the time and I never came in until recently. I met Kwon, I liked the place and I bought some cards. I recommend people to come in and just have a talk. Kwon is very cool and has a lot of experience. He’s been around for a long time. ” he says. “[Even though] you can find things online for cheaper, but comic book stores like this keep the culture alive.”
Kwon doesn’t know if the store will be open for the next 30 years, but for now he is happy the community has a space to get lost in a comic book.
“Our store is part of the community, we are a very kind store. We are very kind to the community and kind to people,” says Kwon. “We just want all customers to succeed.”
Visit Bulletproof Comics at 2178 Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn. Show this article in-person to get 10% off your comic book purchase.