The brilliant blue monument that is Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Superstore beckons heroically to drivers along Southwest Freeway, inviting them to explore the treasure trove of vintage comic books and memorabilia that lives within its four walls. The store, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this week, certainly called to clerk Kyle McBee.
Like all legendary things related to comics, that eye-catching color has taken on a mythos of its own. “I can’t confirm this,” says McBee, “but I had always heard that TJ beat Superman in a boxing contest and stretched his tights over the building.”
Owner TJ Johnson received criticism from both comic and architectural elitists from the get-go when he opened Third Planet in September 1975. Back then there was a Holiday Inn right next door, Johnson recalls. “As we were painting it blue, they came over and asked if it was just a base coat or the actual color. I told them it was the final color, and they offered to pay all the painting expenses if I would paint it another color.”
He didn’t change it, and, really, why would he? After all, the hue he’d chosen was called “Captain America Blue,” general manager Stephanie McFall says.
For many Houstonians, Third Planet is their first real taste of a world beyond big-box bookstores, and, for the younger crowd, online shops. The oldest privately owned comic book store in both the Bayou City and in Texas, it boasts the largest selection of vintage comics in town, with 70,000 comic books on the showroom floor and hundreds of thousands in its warehouses. The store has also historically displayed and sold other comic-culture items, like toys and clothing—a choice, Johnson says, that was criticized early on but has proven successful.
The result is a unique blend of new and used that greets guests as they walk through the door—an unbeatable collection of pop-culture treasure that awaits along every inch of the emporium. “People feel like they are stepping back in time and reliving their childhood,” says Johnson, who decided to open the store as a way to tap into his love of comic culture and conventions (a love he admits quickly got out of hand).
McFall has witnessed the store’s history in action over her six years with Third Planet, as patrons make new memories and revisit old ones. “Not only does TJ have a large following of regular customers, but many have now started bringing their kids and even grandkids in,” she says. “So, there’s a lot of generational interest.”
The internet, which has become increasingly crucial for keeping in contact these days, has also contributed to the perennial success of Third Planet. A quick search on YouTube for the store brings up several videos of people documenting their visits for the world to see. Some feature regulars sharing images and reviews of their go-to shopping experience. Others highlight how exhilarating a first experience at Third Planet can be for anyone, from die-hard culture fans to casual observers.
Times in general have been tough for comic shops, but Third Planet is still going strong. Even the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to delays in merchandise deliveries from suppliers, hasn’t slowed it down. In fact, McFall says, they’ve seen an increase in mail orders and subscriptions. “We’re just making more trips to the post office than we did pre-Covid."
Johnson hopes to hold a 45th anniversary sale, if possible, but mostly he wants to share his gratitude with the city of Houston for supporting Third Planet after all this time. “To everyone, we graciously say, ‘thank you for the continued support. And that we are not going anywhere anytime soon.’”