It’s a rare Saturday off for Chris Rigo, but he’s planning to wake up the next day at 3 a.m., pack a van with comic books and video games, hit the road and set up for a comic convention in Greenville, South Carolina. Sara English, Rigo’s partner for 22 years, is pitching in, heading out to set up for another con in Winston-Salem.
“It’s hard work,” says Rigo, “One comic doesn’t weigh anything, but just try moving long boxes [of comics]. One long box can weigh anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds.” The bearded 36-year-old is a full-time comic book dealer who says he’s proud to be one of the biggest in the region.
Rigo and English, who teaches at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, tag team conventions on most weekends, traveling throughout the Southeast. Even on this relatively relaxed day, the couple is planning to hit a flea market in Rowan County. Rigo buys comic book collections on a weekly basis to stock his stall at conventions and Beardy Weirdy’s Comics, a brick-and-mortar store he opened in Concord in 2019, but he says yard sales and flea markets are also good ways to source stock.
In addition, Rigo launched his own convention, Concord Micro-Con, at Cabarrus Brewing Company in 2017, in part to give artists and fellow dealers in the industry a place to set up on Free Comic Book Day, one of the biggest retail days in the business.
“You must be willing to work,” Rigo says, “If you’re not, it’s not going to work.”
Rigo started collecting comics when he was 8 years old, and his first job was bagging and sorting comic books at a shop in Fort Mill when he was still in elementary school. Smitten with the X-Men: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992-97, Rigo counts Giant Size X-Men Volume 1 as his favorite comic in his collection.
Growing up in the 1990s, Rigo preferred the Silver (1956–1970) and Bronze Age (1970 to 1985) comics, as well as anything published by Marvel. At Beardy Weirdy’s Comics, he deals exclusively with back issues of vintage comics. Likewise, for convention appearances, he stocks few if any new issues.
“It’s 100% old stuff and collections,” Rigo says.
Although he loves vintage comics, Rigo’s decision to deal with older issues instead of new product is based on economics rather than aesthetics. Distribution of new issues from industry giants like DC and Marvel has become needlessly complicated and unreliable, he says.
“It’s not that new comic books aren’t great, but right now it’s such a hassle, and the return is almost nothing,” Rigo says.
He’s appreciative, however, of the high profile that comics enjoy in today’s popular culture, a position he ascribes in part to the myriad of movies set in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).
“Most of them are good. Some are weak. If nothing else, it’s an accepted culture [today].”
Not so when Rigo grew up. In the ’90s, he notes, comics were decidedly uncool.
“You were looked at as a dork or a nerd,” he says. “There were a lot of negative connotations associated with comics.”
So, as he entered high school, Rigo set aside his comics and stopped working at a comic shop. He started to learn how to play guitar, bass and drums.
Comics would not dictate Rigo’s first career choice. Instead, he became a rock musician.
Sugar Glyder’s ascent and crash
The saga of Charlotte alt-rock band Sugar Glyder is a tale too common in the music industry — a band of metaphorical brothers and one sister grinding away for close to a decade and eventually garnering acclaim, only to disintegrate on the cusp of national success.
After recording and releasing two LPs and a handful of EPs, high school friends Chris Rigo (guitar, percussion), Daniel Howie (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Bobby Mathews (drums) and Emily Aoyagi (bass), aka Sugar Glyder, signed with Warner Bros. Records subsidiary ORG Music in 2012. The following year, the band released its major-label debut, The Eyes: They See. Then it all began to come apart at the seams. Aoyagi jumped ship first, to be replaced by Robby Hartis of Charlotte band the lights, fluorescent, but the band split up the following year.
“The reason we broke up is that we ran out of money,” Rigo offers. “Once you get signed, you haven’t climbed the ladder, you’ve just put your hand on the first rung of that ladder — and there’s a lot more work to move up.”
Rigo says he misses cowriting songs with Howie, whom he describes as an excellent and gifted vocalist.
“We had a good thing,” Rigo says. “It was a challenge writing together, because we looked at things from different sides, but I always liked it.”
Rigo says stresses and resentments grew within the band after they inked the deal with ORG Music. Booking was taken out of Rigo’s hands, and the label insisted that Sugar Glyder take down most of their music back catalog from iTunes and other online outlets.
Both measures hurt the band financially. The online music embargo cut off a lot of the band’s funding. Booking was handled by a national agency that put the band on geographically impossible routes that Rigo calls “pure trash.”
“Our guarantees on our last tour, which we had no part in booking, was only $100 a night for four people,” he says. At age 27, Rigo was broke and burnt out when he made the call to cancel a date in Washington state that was physically impossible to reach. As a result, Sugar Glyder has played in every state besides Alaska, Hawaii and Washington.
However, Rigo’s fractious decision split up the group.
“It broke my heart,” Rigo says of the split. “I’m glad that we got as far as we did, but I don’t talk with any of them anymore, because it was a nasty breakup.”
Comics to the rescue
Throughout Sugar Glyder’s rise and fall, Chris Rigo held onto his love for comic books. He showed his collection of thousands of comics to English when both were still in high school, and was encouraged that she thought they were cool, too.
After attending classes at UNC Charlotte between Sugar Glyder tours, Rigo earned a degree in psychology. Soon after graduating, the comics floodgate opened. To offset the financial burden posed by Sugar Glyder, Rigo sold comic books on eBay to supplement his income.
Starting in 2012, Rigo started supplying the now-defunct Save-Point Video Games near UNC Charlotte.
“I was their secret weapon,” he says. “Every Monday, for almost a decade, I would go in and restock the store.”
Rigo still found time to pursue music, but now he did it for enjoyment rather than a career track. Recently he’s played in the local band The Kodiak Brotherhood. Staring in 2010, he taught English to play drums, and as the duo Solar Cat, the couple played Snug Harbor and Tremont Music Hall and recorded comic book-themed songs about characters like Dr. Strange. In 2014, The Evening Muse hosted a show for the duo’s sole physical release, Tales from the Savage Land.
“The Savage Land is a tongue-in-cheek rip from The Land That Time Forgot — dinosaurs and stuff in Antarctica,” Rigo says.
The band didn’t really break up — Rigo and English continue to live together — but the act fell by the wayside as English earned her master’s degree and Rigo turned to comics, attending his first con in 2015. By his reckoning, Rigo has done more shows that any dealer he knows in the Carolinas.
Like touring in a rock band, acquiring comic book collections comes with a set of challenges. Rigo has crawled through dusty, confined attics where he’s found several dead animals. He’s gotten his hands dirty to reach boxes of comics, only to have the once cherished issues crumble to dust in his hands.
In 2014, Rigo was robbed. A client who had previously sold a collection to Rigo in Concord asked the comic book dealer to come to him. Their exchange was friendly and Rigo figures he must have mentioned on the phone that English worked at the Schiele Museum Of Natural History in Gastonia.
Rigo traveled to meet the client, who took the money and ran. Rigo went after him.
“We were running down the street,” Rigo remembers. “He said, ‘If you call the police, I’m going to go to the museum and I’m going to shoot the place up.’” Rigo let the man go with the money.
“This is a lesson learned early,” Rigo says. “Be careful with your words. Say what you need to, and don’t say anything more.”
Another call to examine a collection had a much happier outcome. A father and son duo asked Rigo to come to the Carolina Renaissance Festival to see a 15-to-20-year-old collection of comics in the attic of their dungeon attraction. Rigo, who loves the Renaissance Festival, pulled his van to the dungeon, and went through boxes and boxes of treasures, although several needed care after their tenure in the non-climate-controlled dungeon.
Rooting around in attics and other long-cloistered spaces has also yielded some unexpected oddities.
“One of the most bizarre things I’ve found was a ‘love contract’ that was from the 1990s,” Rigo says. “It consists of two people agreeing to have intercourse on a specific date.”
Inflated markets, bittersweet music
The billion-dollar comic book industry continues to boom. In 2021, Chris Rigo says, the collectibles markets were artificially inflated, leading to the highest record-breaking prices he had ever seen. The reason for inflated prices, he says, is there was more money circulating.
“I personally think it was more of a speculator market [impacted by] how healthy cryptocurrency was at the time,” Rigo says. “Also, there weren’t any conventions going on, so everyone was [buying and selling] online.”
At the conventions he works on a weekly basis, Rigo is happy to see younger people attending. Traditionally, the market, at least for vintage comics, is dominated by people in their 30s to their 60s. Rigo believes that due to new movies and shows by Marvel, more younger people are getting interested in comics, too.
“I love to see that,” he says. He also loves that comics continue to grow more diverse, featuring male and female superheroes that are Black, Asian, Native American and more.
Despite the runaway success of his business, Rigo recently found time to record new music. It was 2020, and the world — and therefore comic conventions — had shut down due to the COVID pandemic. One other reason for his freedom to create is bittersweet: Both of his parents passed recently and he’s no longer tasked with taking care of them. As a result, his music can also be called bittersweet. Chris Rigo recorded and released an EP Feel the Hate in October 2021.
“It’s songs about love loss and the specters that lurk in the dark,” he says. Over layered, sometimes jarring alt-rock tunes that suggest Nick Cave conspiring with My Bloody Valentine to create deceptively blissful pop, Rigo’s open-ended lyrics employ a battery of supernatural metaphors.
The follow-up EP Blood in the Water drops on Oct. 28. Here Rigo accentuates the uneasy beauty of each composition by pairing a major key with dark musings, or combining a minor key melody with lyrics that are positive.
“In Blood in the Water there’s a lot of elemental aspects,” Rigo says. “There are two things that are pretty much universal with living on Earth. There’s blood in your veins and you need water to live. We’re basically water anyway.”
When recording his songs, Rigo eschews auto tune, punch ins or sound replacements. He says he prefers leaving some “bumps and bruises” in the music.
He also filmed, directed and edited impressionistic music videos for the title track off Blood in the Water and the tune “Devil in Disguise” off Blood in the Water. He plans to produce a video to accompany his song “Spark in the Dark” later this year.
Rigo says he’s grateful that he was able to pursue a music career so many years ago, and he’s excited to be releasing and creating new music now.
“My goal at this point is to put out music on a yearly basis,” he says. He also loves that his childhood hobby of collecting comics has become a full-time career.
“Touring in a band and traveling to conventions is very similar in the sense that you drive to new cities and states, move a bunch of heavy things, and hope that people buy your stuff.”