The cold economics of running a comic shop

A while back I came across this video YouTube. It’s worth a watch, even if it is a tad annoying.

While watching this it became clear folk don’t understand how to run a business, and although the video is full of Millennial bullshit (”use an app”)there are points to be made, so let’s take a look at the pull list.

The pull list is a staple of the comic shop I’ve worked in three big comics shops in Glasgow, London and Bristol and each one ran a pull list more or less along the same lines. Customer comes in, says ”I don’t want to miss another issue of Reagan’s Raiders, can you keep it aside for me?’

So when the next thrilling issue comes in, you put it aside for your customer and when s/he comes in they’re chuffed because they’ve got their thrilling adventure comic. Sounds great and mutually beneficial? Well no, the problem is you as a shop are providing a free service for your customer which sounds great, but customers will not pick their books up regularly. That’s fine if you’ve been made aware of it at the start; for one example I had a customer in Bristol who said he only comes into Bristol once a month who ordered quite a bit of stuff, mainly Marvel and DC. Fine, you have a good day when they come in but you’ll have people who don’t tell you and their comics mount up.

One week in Bristol I counted near a grand of comics sitting in people’s lists. That went down by the end of the weekend but that’s a grands worth of stock sitting there unable to be sold, or in some cases, gotten rid of because you’ll never sell it and end up carrying it around for decades.

My solution to this is making the pull list a membership scheme. You pay a sum dependent upon how many comics you want to put aside so if you do a runner leaving us with a load of unsold, and unsellable, comics, we’ve at least had something off you.Today I’d go further and set up a direct debit, and if need be, a mail order so we’d not only get the money but ship the comics which means freeing space. If you think that’s harsh then perhaps running a business isn’t for you because the pull list can bring shops down and here’s the thing, most people open up a shop based upon their collection and a hope to make somewhere really fun for your mates and like-minded people to hang out but if nobody is spending money then ultimately all you’re doing is paving your way for bankruptcy.

Everything you’ll do to run your shop is going to involve thinking how it’ll help make you money. Sure you can do all the things you’d like when you’re secure or at least, stable, but I’ve seen shops go bust when they’ve ran out of ideas or when the collection runs out, or they’ve just sat there on their arses sneering at punters rather than working out how to keep in business because running your own business is hard and you don’t want to make it harder, so sometimes you’ll have to do things which make you seem harsh but unless you’ve got loads of capital behind you, you’ll need to think how to utilise things like the pull list or branch into markets new and fresh. And no, I don’t mean wargaming or a wall of Funko Pop figures.

Ask yourself what’s your unique selling point; what is it you do that no other shop of your kind in the area does and how can you draw and keep customers. Also customers have to have realistic expectations of what your shop can do. Explain to them that ordering comics is often a guessing game.

Take for example the variant cover. It is a plague. DC, to be fair, are actually good with their variants but everyone else is a shitshow where ordering 10 extra copies of Title Z, means you might get a comic that sells for loads on Ebay but you’ve taken a hit in order to get it. So consult with your customers but show them how complex it can be but just getting them to look at Diamond’s order form but sometimes everyone (bar a few) are going to miss out on things like the variant of Batgirl #23.

Which brings us back to the pull list. It can be the spine that holds your shop together only if you’ve got it turning over regularly, but you have to at some point deal with the cold realities and economics of running an independent comic shop or you’ll go the way of far too many shops.

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Who writes the narrative of the history of comics?

From the very start of comics as we’ve known the medium for the last century or so, people, and companies, have claim credit for creating characters which they didn’t. The main reason this has happened is money, then ego in order to propel their own career and in the process create a narrative that’s often adopted to become the mainstream view. The best known cases of this are Bob Kane claiming he created everything about Batman, and the likes of Jerry Robinson or Bill Finger (who actually came up with most of what we know as Batman today)  were just hired hands helping Kane out. Complete bollocks of course.

Then there’s Stan Lee who has seemingly been claiming creative ownership since his first pubic hair grew, though this is something he inherited from his uncle Martin Goodman. So over the decades people have been fighting to get the credit they’re due but the narrative is something they often have to fight against.

The video below is from San Diego Comic Con this year and it features a discussion which may well only be of interest to the hardcore comics freak like myself, but it’s a fantastic discussion of history that really does make you question the narrative of history.

The comics of San DIego Comic Con

Every year at San Diego Comic Con there’s endless trailers for films and TV programmes not to mention some often awful tours of the convention or some good ones like this.

But for me if I got myself there I’d go round the dealers selling comics and quite literally I would expel every bodily fluid I coujld at some of these tables looking at some of the books on display. So this video is basically hardcore porn to me.

Sure there’s a lot of slabbed books there but bloody hell, if I were to win the lottery I’d be bankrupt if I was unleashed in there.I’ve seen, held and even sold some of the key books on display in the video but never in the condition of some on display here.

So enjoy and remember, if you want to get me a Christmas present I’ll accept the original Jack Kirby pages…

Losing Steve Ditko

In one week we’ve lost Harlan Ellison and now, Steve Ditko. Both were uncompromising but whereas Ellison was vocal in defending his actions and work, Ditko was the exact opposite often to the detriment of his career.Ditko’s death hurts and I think the tributes pouring out for him are all so touching because although Jack Kirby was a genius who created a large part of the Marvel Universe, it was Ditko who created much of what Kirby didn’t.

Ditko was a reclusive to the point where the only pictures we have on him come mainly from one photo session in the early 1960’s. He spoke through his work and he did so in a way no creator working for Marvel or DC could today.

I wasn’t aware of Ditko as a kid. I was reading American imports of Spider-Man but this was the late John Romita, early Gil Kane run so it was through his DC work I was most familiar with him. Especially his creation, The Creeper who to this day I adore still.

It was though Marvel UK’s reprints I got to lap up Ditko’s Spider-Man and then his Hulk and Doctor Strange which blew my tiny little mind.

But it’ll be Spider-Man he’ll be remembered for and I’ll always remember his splash pages from Amazing Spider-Man annual #1.

It wasn’t til the 80’s that I became aware of how some fans as well as large chunks of the media were pushing the line that Stan Lee had created Spider-Man by himself, something Ditko addressed in his self-published comics.

Ditko never compromised. He could have but if you’ve read any of Ditko’s work you’d realise Ditko wasn’t about compromise. A is A. Ditko’s political beliefs would never let him sell out and it’s Ditko’s politics married with his visuals that made him unique. As a Guardian reading lefty, I should be repulsed by Ditko’s often hard right Ayn Randian philosophies but I’m fascinated by them, and in what it inspired Ditko to create.

Indeed, his politics was essential in creating the idea of his Peter Parker as an outsider, which set him aside from others in the era of Vietnam War protests.

When Ditko left Marvel it was here that things get interesting. His work for me at DC and Charlton is incredible with the aforementioned Creeper, plus the Blue Beetle and The Question standing out.

I’d come across Ditko’s work in the 70’s and loved the weird oddness of it all. I especially loved Killjoy which ran as a back-up in Charlton’s E-Man.

Although Ditko returned to Marvel in the 1980’s he left to work alone on his own comics published by Robin Snyder, and again, he’s still not compromising.

Ditko has been with us drawing comics for over 60 years and he never stopped creating, or doing what he wanted to do. Now he’s gone and we’ll never get Ditko’s worldview of right and wrong, good and evil or just what he thinks will thrill or astound us anymore.

He’ll be missed. The unique always should be.

Losing Harlan Ellison

I have a Harlan Ellison story. Lots and lots of people who’ve been in, or are fans of, comics, SF, fantasy or just fans of his writing have a story. I’ve told mine before but here it is again. In 1985 at a SF convention in Glasgow, Ellison was guest of honour and was having great fun pissing off and entertaining all the right people because even as a young lad somewhat awestruck at being even in the same city as one of his heroes, I could see that Ellison danced the line between genius and arsehole easily. One minute he’s be amiable and chatty, the next he’d be annoyed and angry but he’d never compromise himself. His comments about writers getting paid show this.

So back to the story. I was working a dealers table selling comics and Ellison came in to have a shufty at our stuff. He picked a few things up and much to everyone’s surprise knew more about British comics than I’d have suspected. I was wearing a Marvelman badge, and spinning off the conversation from Warrior, Ellison asked if we had any for sale which we didn’t. He then asked if he could have mine. I eventually gave him it because this was my hero and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Ellison later came over to me in the bar, offered to get a drink and we ended up chatting about how great Dreamscape was. Indeed, it still is.

Ellison then had to move on with his small entourage but I was a happy lad as he’d signed a copy of The Glass Teat which is one of the greatest books of criticism ever published.  That book is something that influenced why I started this blog, and in fact it wasn’t until Ellison’s death I realised how much he’d shaped me growing up.

See, that wee story I have is something I’ve pulled out often over the years because it is a great wee story. The part of the story I usually miss out is when Ellison talked about not compromising which is something I don’t think Ellison did once in his life which led him to do great things, not to mention some awful things.

But that idea that someone can’t compromise because once you do it then becomes a game as to how far you’ll go without fully compromising yourself. I can’t remember when I did start compromising and although my life was better in some ways, a wee part of me was dead.

I’ll miss Ellison not being around. I’ll miss not being able to see if there’s a new soundbite  that I can use to help me sum up current events, and with current events being horrible I think we’ve lost a guide at a bad time.We’ll still have his mountain of work but we’ve lost a voice who could be good or bad, arrogant and uncompromising but always had something worthwhile to say. There will never be another like him.

Goodbye and thanks for whatever small lessons you’ve given me. I’m going to watch Dreamscape later and wallow in the memories of 1985.

The Brief History of the British Comic Convention part three: Public Image Ltd

A small group of people are sitting in a bar in a hotel in Manchester during the last UKCAC in 1998.For 30 years in the UK there’s been at least one annual large comic convention somewhere in the country, but at this movement there’s nothing planned for 1999 and the only people who seem to care are the half dozen or so people sitting nursing their drinks on a Sunday afternoon. A comment splits the onrushing gloom…

”How about we tag onto a Babylon 5 convention?”

It is at this point the British comic convention hits its lowest point. But lets go back to part two and the end of the 1980’s. Comics are everywhere. Alan Moore and Robert Crumb get name-checked on pop songs. Channel 4, BBC Two and the broadsheet papers start taking an interest in the growing and developing medium. Books like Watchmen and Maus are compared with the best of modern traditional literature. Conventions and marts are bursting with attendees. Shops are opening up at a dramatic rate as the direct market grows to accommodate this new, excitingly engaged audience who have a thirst for every genre from superheroes to SF, to horror, indeed, anything seems the limit as 1990 comes.

The British comic convention grows too. There’s now a Glasgow Comic Art Convention to complement the London based one, and smaller conventions and marts are all over the UK.

Comic publishers start springing up with the most successful being Image Comics who arrive on the scene in 1992 publishing a dynamic, if somewhat intellectually thin, set of superhero/adventure comics that cater to the growing speculator market.

Image were a speculators wet dream.Comics that came out one week would increase in value the week later by nonsensical amounts, so potentially you could make 1000% more than you paid for a comic. So companies started making comics ‘more collectable’ with special and variant covers at the expense of any sort of quality. The ‘Imagefication’ of mainstream comics brought the speculator into comics in droves and as more and more product was pumped out to be valued instantly higher than it should be. A bubble was forming that couldn’t last.

In the meantime the British comics convention was at its peak. More and more one day events were springing up from Gloucester to Cardiff to Newcastle to Belfast and of course, UKCAC and GLASCAC were running along nicely.

Then the bubble burst.

The industry couldn’t cope with the amount of product being pumped out and in fact, the industry was in a slow decline from around 93, but by 1996 the comics industry was in an awful place. Companies were going out of business, and Marvel (who were pushing out million selling comics at the start of the decade) hit a hard decline that saw them nearly going out of existence. Comic conventions and marts also suffered as the speculators moved onto whatever else they did which meant retailers had boxes of unsold copies of comics with special/variant covers and nobody to buy them.

In 1998, UKCAC moved from London to Manchester, while the Glasgow conventions were now long gone. For those of us who were there it was a fun event, but the feeling it was a wake hung around which leads us back to a bunch of us sitting in the bar contemplating latching onto a Babylon 5 convention in order to keep the idea of a large British comic convention alive.

Other ideas did come to the fore, including one which involved organising a show in Nottingham as London was too prohibitive in terms of cost. Things looked bleak as shops closed weekly while the marts in London and elsewhere were a struggle to turn a profit if you were a retailer but some light was at the end of the tunnel for the British comic convention.

1999 wasn’t just the last year of the old millennium, it was also in many ways the beginning of where we are today with the modern comic convention and it all started in Bristol.

The Brief History of the British Comic Convention part two: London Calling

In the first part I briefly covered the birth of the British comic convention in 1968 in sunny Birmingham and the development of the British comics scene during the 1970’s. By the 1980’s the comic convention had settled into a pattern which would look somewhat more familiar to a post-cosplay era attendee than they may think with the panels, and of course dealers room, supplemented by the fancy dress parade

The 80’s opened with a variety of conventions and marts, including the Westminster marts in London which were a hub for fans and professionals to meet, with often fans crossing the line to become professionals themselves thanks to meeting the right people. These marts were also a hunting ground for organisers of the Glasgow comic marts in the 80’s who would lure the likes of Alan Moore or Steve Dillon north of the border with the promise of curry and beer.

By the mid-80’s it was clear a massive wave of talent was forming in the UK, and for conventions boom times were approaching. In 1986 the Birmingham Comic Art Show appeared which I’ve written about before.

Meanwhile in London, the UK Comic Art Convention (UKCAC) was also coming into its stride having a few years to find its feet, and audience. It quickly became the leading, and indeed, only large comics convention to be held regularly for the rest of the decade.

UKCAC’s influence is felt today by countless numbers of people probably unaware of it ever existing. If people hadn’t went to these conventions then they’d never have worked in the industry, or at least, found it hard to break into the industry. It was a crucible for future generations, plus they were enormous fun for pro, fan, retailer, or anyone casually attending in what was a boomtime for comics as a medium.

By the end of the 80’s everything looked peachy. Comics were getting the respect they deserved and the British industry ruled the world. The last decade of the millennium looked bright for the comic convention which had grown out of humble roots to something that promised bigger things as comics became more mainstream, and hey, the direct market was growing and that could only mean more sunshine ahead.

Next up, the 1990’s and it all goes tits up.