There’s a lot of change in the air, and in so many cases, it’s nice to see how the COVID crisis is bringing out our better angels – especially when it comes to publishers and retailers.
Inc. Magazine recently called Independent Bookstores “the baby seals of commerce–at once universally beloved and endangered.” The same could be said for comic shops, except for the universally loved part. Here’s an innovative ideas from forward-thinking entrepreneurs designed to create something positive for both these retailer channels.
Aftershock Comics has a program designed to help comic shops. It’s called S.O.S. which stands for “Support Our Shops”. This is a cool program that’s elegant in its simplicity. Aftershock created & printed a one-shot anthology comic, S.O.S., and is giving copies of it to comic shops that have been supporting their line, no strings attached! Comic shops can sell their copies at whatever price they set (it feels like at least a $5.99 comic to me), offer it as buy-one-get-one with other Aftershock comics, or just give it away to reward customers.
The comic itself is gorgeous! Painter David Mack delivers yet another hauntingly beautiful cover, full of hope and brightness, just like the comic itself. The issue is packed full of short stories from top creators wistfully celebrating fans’ interactions with and appreciation of comic shops.
Editor Joe Pruett has pulled together an impressive list of talents for this funny-book version of a charity concert. Contributors include Cullen Bunn, Steve Orlando, Leila Leiz, Stephanie Phillips, Marshall Dillon and more. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jerry Ordway’s story here, as I don’t associate him with Aftershock. But wow – he delivered in spades.
Look for S.O.S. at your local comic shop, ask them to get it for you if they don’t have it, and if they give it to you for free, give them a generous tip. It’s a fantastic book and worth every penny you can spare. And we want to encourage innovative thinking like this, as well as help comic shops and bookstores, don’t we?
If retailers don’t already have a relationship with Aftershock, they can go to the site where all the staff is listed. https://aftershockcomics.com
I’ve loved comic shops ever since I rode my bike past Kim’s Collectible Comics and Records in the mid-70s. Kim Draheim, the owner, was one day away from opening the store. He told me to come back the next day. I did and I am proud to say I was his very first customer.
I get that same thrill every time I visit a new comic shop. I’ve been to quite a few since then. I am always impressed the way each one seems to be on the bleeding edge of Geek Culture, combining entrepreneurial courage with personal passion.
Ed Catto: Can you tell us a little about your comics background and business/writing? What makes you the right person to write this book?
Dan Gearino: I’ve read comics for as long as I can remember. Like many children of the 80s, my gateways were the G.I. Joe and Transformers from Marvel. I soon became a DC kid, though. I think I was hooked for life by 1985, with DC’s Who’s Who, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and my discovery of the Legion of Super-Heroes. In high school and college, I read the Vertigo books. Shade the Changing Man was my favorite, and I don’t want to reread it for fear that it may not hold up. Late in college, I found my way to DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis, and that’s when I started to read Palookaville, Eightball, Artbabe and a lot of the other great stuff that was coming out in the late-1990s.
As for my reporting background, I was an editor at my college newspaper in Minnesota. My first job at a daily newspaper was in Keene, New Hampshire, where I covered a little bit of everything, including the presidential primary. From there, I went back to my home state, Iowa, and covered the statehouse and politics. Since 2008, I’ve been a business reporter for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, covering manufacturing and energy.
Because of my experience writing about businesses, I could see what an odd duck comic shops are in terms of the model, and I could see that the shops have an unusually high degree of difficulty. That, along with a great cast of characters, made me want to take a close look. Also — and this is a significant point — there were no books out there about the business of comic shops, and I thought that there must be people out there like me who wanted to know more about the subject.
EC: The early days of the direct comics market is getting to be “a long time ago”. How did you go about researching it all?
DG: Much of my research was through interviews, largely because there is not a reliable written record of a lot of this stuff. Unlike the things I cover in my day job, comics were not a large enough business to attract much market research or professional media coverage. The fan press was fun for me to read, especially for the ads from early dealers, but was no substitute for a good trade journal. This changed later on when the Comics Journal began in earnest, and other publications, but that wasn’t until years after the dawn of the modern version of the business. Luckily, many of the people from the early days are still around. I was thrilled to find and interview Robert Bell, an early retailer in New York, and Jonni Levas, who was co-owner of Sea Gate, the first direct distributor of mainstream comics, just to name two people.
EC: How many comic shops have you visited? What are your personal favorites and did you come across any surprises?
DG: I visited at lot of shops. It would be a project to trace my steps and count them. Suffice it to say that there are many shops I visited that informed the reporting but are not mentioned in the book. As for favorites and surprises, I have a real fondness for Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; Legend Comics in Omaha, Nebraska; and Aw Yeah Comics in Muncie, Indiana, to name a few that I was unaware of before this project. There were several others that are well-known for being great, and were indeed great, such as The Beguiling in Toronto, Chicago Comics and Flying Colors Comics in California.
EC: What comic shops are next on your list for a visit?
DG: My list is long. There are a few stores I profiled that have moved or expanded since I last was there, plus many that I heard about for the first time after the book went to press.
EC: How would do you respond when someone says, “I’d like to open up a comic shop?”
DG: My advice would be that a new shop owner needs to be well-capitalized to be able to afford the kind of diverse inventory to have a strong start, and to weather the potential of a slow start. The amounts are different depending on the region, but $100,000 is a number I’ve heard more than once as a rule of thumb. This is very different from the 1970s, when someone could start a shop with their own collection and first month’s rent.
If you have the financing make a go go of it, my next advice would be to visit lots of stores and see what they do well. Many retailers will be eager to give advice, as long as that new shop isn’t in the same market. The best stores have a lot in common in terms of attitude and merchandising choices. Also, find a bad store or two, with disorganized stock and an indifferent staff, so that you can see how not to be.
EC: What comics are on your nightstand and from which comic shop did you buy them?
DG: My local shop is The Laughing Ogre in Columbus, which is a prominent part of the book. I have a big stack of comics and books, including recent issues of Saga and Paper Girls, a few of DC’s Young Animal titles. I also have lots of back issues that I’ve picked up all over the place, part of a seemingly unending to-read list. Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of old Jonah Hex, which I started to buy because of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s art, and then continued to get for the clever stories and the other great artists such as Tony DeZuniga. There’s a lot of Garcia-Lopez on my nightstand now, including some old Batman and DC Comics Presents. As for books, I’ve been reading Charlier and Moebius’ Blueberry, thanks to a great find at a used-book store. I also got some great new stuff at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, a show here in town that everyone should check out. One of the guests was Tillie Walden and I got a signed copy of her new book, Spinning, which is ridiculously good.
EC: Who can argue with someone who’s reading Paper GirlsandJonah Hex? Thanks for your time, Dan.
As a rite of passage to become an official “Comic Book Nerd,” the pull box subscription is a near-impossible-to-ignore piece of the puzzle. For those playing along at home: the other parts include strong unwavering opinions you’re willing to argue over until your death, an ability to rattle off superhero minutiae without the use of Wikipedia, and typically a small collection of not-always-well-fitting graphic tee shirts. But I digress.
The pull box, for the uninitiated, is a service wherein a customer subscribes to weekly comics, and are held by their local comic book store for purchase. Every store does this a little different, but the big takeaways remain fairly standard: Pull box subscribers are offered a bit of a discount (often progressively increasing with order size) and are usually honor bound to come in and “clean out the box” as often as they’re able to.
For perspective, I asked my own local comic book retailer (Joe Bullaro of The Zone in Homewood, IL) about pull boxes, and he put it quite succinctly:
“I couldn’t imagine a store succeeding without a pull service… but I think many stores can fail because of one. “
For the store, pull boxes are mostly guaranteed sales. When customers are engaged with their store, and the current draw of monthly titles, there’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship. Back in my subscription days, a weekly trip to the comic shop was one looked forward to as seeing a good friend. Witty banter about what was occurring in the books I followed locked in step the way one might gab about their favorite TV shows. Each issue an episode. Each story arc picked apart for organic and passionate discussion. As Joe would denote to me “…it’s a community. It creates a bond between a customer and their store.” Loyalty feeding into prosperity.
But the pull box system is not always a box of roses. Joe was quick to add “…people abandon 100’s of dollars of books and don’t [always] communicate [their] reasons.” While some stores combat this by tying customers’ boxes to an on-file credit card… smaller stores know doing so limits customer’s desire to be officially subscribed to anything. Call it a fear of commitment. So it becomes a double-edged sword. Attempt to guarantee that pull boxes are clean, and potentially carve away swatches of your buying public. Even in my quaint little suburb, a comic fan is not necessarily limited to a single store to procure their fiction.
In addition to the potential fallout of customers who choose to inexplicably abandon their boxes, comes the actual work involved at the store to maintain the boxes in the first place. Every subscription to a book comes with a two-month ordering window. The book sits outside the regular order the store may keep for their off-the-shelf offerings. This means, for example, ordering 50 copies of Detective Comics to fulfill 40 different pull boxes, and keep 10 issues on the shelf for new comic book day when the issue arrives. And if the book is popular, like Detective Comics is, well, this is perfectly fine. But place your order on a more obscure title (even one from Marvel or DC) and you now place a bet: that your subscriber will buy the book, and if they don’t, placing it on your shelf isn’t taking up space a better book might inhabit.
And then, of course, there comes the issue of annuals, double-drops, mini-series, new creative teams, or the dreaded crossovers. A fan of Green Lantern may be faced with a dozen options in a given month. And they need to commit two months in advance to ensure what they want is held back for them. It’s a dangerous game when the love of a character or book begins to wane.
A few years ago, I made the choice to stop being a weekly subscriber. Faced with a less-than-enthusiastic opinion of the constant cycling of Epic Crossover, New Series Debut, Dwindling Sales, Book Cancellation, Repeat, I ultimately decided my comic purchases should be curtailed to graphic novels and indie titles procured at conventions I attended. While I have never personally abandoned a pull box before, I have been guilty of racking up massive back issues of books I slowly grew tired of. Wednesday Comics, Countdown to Final Crisis… thy name is mud.
So, where to leave the debate? Like so many things in this world, there’s a spectrum between black and white. As a necessary evil, the pull box can keep a store open perhaps almost as often it can wind up a debtor’s downfall. As a means to create a community and store culture, it can unite masses under common interests, or create the sparkling debate that ingrains a base of customers to their local store.
For me, it’s a matter of maturity and conservatism that prevents me from being a card-carrying member anymore. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss walking into a shop, to be greeted warmly with a fresh pile of books awaiting my geeky eyes.