After fire, community shows love for downtown Sacramento’s Big Brother Comics

Cause of July 3 fire remains under investigation

Upending decades of comic book lore, regular people are coming to the rescue of superheroes.

Nine days after an unexplained July 3 blaze chased Big Brother Comics owner Kenny Russell out of both his home and business, community support for the local institution had drummed up nearly $14,000 for the rebuilding effort.

“Community support has been insane,” Russell said Monday.

Russell estimates he lost somewhere around $70,000 worth of merchandise due to smoke damage. He says he has a small insurance policy that won’t cover all his costs. He’s been selling off his remaining inventory at discount prices, including books, games, Magic: The Gathering cards, action figures and vintage toys, and honoring his customers’ comic-book savers accounts. He plans to temporarily reopen soon in a pop-up location around the corner from the commercial building that housed his store on J and 17th streets to keep some income coming in.

“We don’t want to miss a beat with our comic book subscribers,” he said.

Being forgotten is a fear of Russell’s. He reaps his livelihood from modern myths of four-color gods and allegorical monsters, but knows that, in the real world, only commerce travels faster than a speeding bullet.

So far, he has little need to worry.

People have helped clean up the store, delivered meals and chipped in 231 donations to a GoFundMe account created on July 4, which has nearly reached its $15,000 goal in seven days.

“It’s been crazy,” he said of the goodwill he’s been receiving.

The Sacramento Fire Department estimated approximately $400,000 in structural damage to the building itself, said spokesman Daniel Kolb. Investigators are waiting on lab tests to come back and still have a couple more people to interview, Kolb added. Until then, the cause of the fire remains undetermined.

“It’s still an open investigation,” Kolb said.

While the official cause remains pending, Russell says he’s been told an electrical fire was ruled out; arson hasn’t.

“I think it’s fishy,” Russell said.

On the Sunday morning of the fire, Russell says he awoke around 8 a.m. to what sounded like a break-in. “I’m a pretty light sleeper and I heard crashing,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m getting broken into.”

At that point, Russell says he didn’t smell any smoke and went to investigate. It was when he opened the “big, burly fire door” that separates his living space from a stairwell and two bathrooms in the commercial building that he saw the real cause. “I opened the back door and the entire thing was a fireball,” he said.

Russell says he was told the stairwell created a chimney effect, funneling the fire upward to the floors above, where a drop-in center for homeless youth used to be. The flames chewed up the stairs, melting paint off the walls and blackening the interior like charcoal. “That part of the building got a crazy amount of smoke damage and even heat damage,” Russell said.

His business sustained the bulk of its smoke damage as firefighters tried to control the blaze. He hopes to reopen permanently within the next two months. If he can repair the damage and beef up security around the building, Russell said, “I’ll be back here.”

Russell and his Big Brother Comics are the only tenants left in the building. On May 5, Wind Youth Services closed its third-floor drop-in center for homeless youth and moved to Oak Park. Weeks later, a dumpster fire scorched the side of the building.