On April 2 this year, the local comic book community was devastated when Brunei’s sole comic book shop, Fanboys Infinite, announced it was shuttering its Menglait store.
It was a place that had become synonymous with geek culture since opening in September of 2012.
Many thought that they had closed their doors for good, so Fanboys’ recent resurrection at a small unit in the Times Cineplex took the community by surprise, and sparked hope that there was still a place for geek culture in the sultanate.
Fanboys’ Menglait branch ceased operations at the end of May due to issues with finances and the location of the store. It was an end that was undesired but not unforeseen.
The shop’s co-founder, Khairul Anwar, was unsure whether Fanboys would reopen elsewhere, especially when he was hit with the news that his business partner had fallen ill.
“It was as if everything was hinting at us that we needed to close, take a breather. I told my partner to take the time that he needed to heal, while I closed up the shop,” says the 28-year-old.
While the idea of a return seemed unlikely at the time, it was never far from his thoughts.
“Everything had to go, we needed to get rid of everything but keep the essentials: the comics. If there was a day that we were going to return, the comics are the most important thing at Fanboys, they’re the lifeblood,” Khairul says.
“After our announcement [of Fanboys’ closure] we organised four Sunday sales and stocks were flying off the shelves. By the fourth and last Sunday, all the non-essentials were gone.”
REBIRTH: FOR FANBOYS, BY FANBOYS
As the shop saw its last days, there was an outpouring of support by loyal customers hoping that the decision would be reversed, but in the end many reluctantly bid farewell the beloved comic book den.
The venture was always intended to be linchpin of the geek community; nurturing and sustaining comic book culture and giving fans access to the extraordinary worlds and characters they had come to love.
“Eighty percent of why we do this is because of the customers, the community,” says Khairul.
When the owners of Fanboys were packing up, resigned to taking some time out from the industry, a longtime friend and collaborator came along with a proposition.
“When we were winding down, Times Cineplex, who has always been one of our greatest supporters, told us that they could help provide a space for us, and we thought it was perfect, especially for our market,” Khairul recalls.
But after clearing most of its stock — and with one partner ill — reopening in time for Hari Raya seemed beyond reach.
So Khairul did what he often did in a bind — he reached out to the community. His supplier shared his own stock with Fanboys; customers-turned-friends helped out with renovations and decoration of the new store — it was a labour of love, by individuals with a shared interest in keeping comic book culture alive.
“We spent hours and hours almost everyday to fix the shop, and we had to do it discreetly so that it’d be a surprise. On opening day to see the faces of our supporters — old and new — was heartwarming, it was priceless,” says Khairul.
“Our journey has always been filled with the community’s help, whether they’re customers who became friends or friends who have been long time customers, Fanboys has always been a joint effort.”
For Fanboys to become what is now requires a certain kind of passion and drive, one that Khairul has nurtured since he was just a boy.
While his love for comic book superheroes has been a constant throughout his life, it was not always accessible when money was in short supply.
“I grew up super poor, I used to be ashamed of admitting that but now I’m not, because it is a part of who I am,” he says.
“In my early teens, I would get a dollar a day for lunch money, and for the first three days of the week I would starve myself just so that I could buy comics.
“There was an old comic book shop across from The Mall called Bluestone, and at the back end of the store, they would sell these really old comics for $2, so I would buy them with the money I saved, and the third dollar I would use for the bus.”
Even though Khairul could only buy old issues of comic books, it was enough to keep him happy. But he had to keep his growing collection a secret.
“With the family struggling, it didn’t feel right for me to waste money on comics. I wanted them, but I never needed them, so I would hide them in my shirt when I got back home and put them under my bed.”
The ultimate sacrifice would come six years later in 2011, when Khairul was on his way to getting a business degree in Malaysia. He decided drop out of university, and that’s when the gears of Fanboys Infinite started to turn.
Just before he made his decision, Khairul was recruited to work on Business Icons, a book that profiled Brunei’s most successful businessmen including the late Pehin Lau of the Hua Ho franchise.
The stories of these entrepreneurial giants ignited a spark within Khairul to open his own comic book shop.
“I learned that the one thing that they all had in common was hard work and ambition. None of them had a degree, I just thought that I didn’t need one [either]. I also got a bit frustrated academically so I thought, ‘I’m going to quit’.”
Dropping out of university was kept a secret from his family, and when the eventual truth came out, the family was, understandably, not happy.
“They were pissed off, so I told them I was going to open a comic book shop and they thought it was a joke, they told me it wasn’t going to work. But because of that, I thought, then I really have to make this work,” he says.
The following year — using the cash he earned from Business Icons as seed money, and with some help from the comic book community — Fanboys Infinite opened its doors for the first time in September 2012.
It was the same year the first Avengers movie came out.
“My mum and I made a bet, she bet that I couldn’t sell a certain amount on opening day. I told her that If I beat that amount then they [his parents] will have to give me complete independence and trust me to make my own decisions.”
“On opening day, I sold ten times that amount.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
“It’s funny, there is a sort of symmetry between the Fanboys’ journey [and the Marvel and DC movie franchise],” Khairul says.
“When we first opened, the first Avengers movie came out and at the end of that movie, they teased the appearance of Thanos… By the time we closed, Thanos became one of the major characters for the third Avengers movie, so honestly, you can trace our journey through the superheroes and science fiction movies that were released over the years.”
Movie franchises have played an important role in Fanboys’ evolution. By the time the Brunei-based store made its debut, comic books and geek culture was no longer ‘niche entertainment’ but had become part of mainstream pop culture.
Fanboys synchronise their stock with the release of superhero films, always trying to capitalise on the hype that revolves around movie franchises.
“This year, I have sold more copies of The Infinity Gauntlet — the comic book that featured Thanos’ main arc — than the previous four years I carried the issue. It has become our best selling title this year.
“So while Fanboys is grateful to have a loyal customer base, there is something to be said about the effect of these movies have on making people want to pick up a comic book.”
Star Wars cosplayers showed up in style for the premiere of “The Last Jedi” on Wednesday night, eager to be among the first in Brunei to watch the film. The latest installation of the space saga has, unsurprisingly, dominated the local box office this weekend, with cinemas reporting several sold-out shows a day. 📷: Courtesy of @wira.pori / @fanboysinfinite . #starwars #thelastjedi #episodeVII #darthvader #stormtrooper #darthmaul #kyloren #yoda #rey #cosplay #brunei
While the geek community in the sultanate is still relatively small, comic book culture is growing and becoming more prevalent, Khairul says.
“Our customers used to be from a certain demographic, usually they would be working twenties and thirties, but in recent years, that has changed. I’ve seen customers of all ages by now, from five to 15 year olds. Even 40 to 60 year olds.”
From movies to television, a shift has occurred in the entertainment industry where characters and stories that were once contained to the pages of a graphic novel have been given fresh life on the silver screen.
For Fanboys, this shift has changed the game, helping small-town stores like theirs survive and remain relevant, and giving hope that it can expand outside what was once considered a niche business.
“The movies really do help in moving comic books off the shelves. Of course, loyal fans will still keep buying comic books regardless of any [movie] release, but the new readers — they’re the ones who will become the lifeblood of this business, they will keep the fandom alive.”