This summer I ♥ Comics returns to Blog@Newsarama. Each week comics creators, bloggers and fans discuss the things they love about the medium.
Fred Van Lente writes comic books for a living, including the irreverent-but-indispensible history of our medium, COMIC BOOK COMICS, INCREDIBLE HERCULES (with Greg Pak), and the October-debuting MARVEL ZOMBIES 3. He coordinates his various insidious plans for global domination through his web site.
by Fred Van Lente
The comics retailer has to put up with a lot of crap from the funnybook intelligensia – they’re not doing enough to bring women and kids into their stores, they’re not supporting independent books, they’re not nice to customers and puppies, blah, blah, blah – but I love my local comics shop, Rocketship, which is a few short blocks from my house in beautiful Brooklyn, New York (“Where The Weak Are Killed And Eaten”). Clearly I’m not alone, since Rocketship was named “Best Comic Book Store in New York City” by New York magazine and the Village Voice, and was a finalist for the “Spirit of Retailing” Eisner this year.
Because I happen to own a comic book publisher myself, I probably know more about the business of retailing than the average pro, but while thinking over what to write here it occurred to me it might be most illuminating to spend a whole day working at my L.C.S., to see what life is really like on the front lines of the Comics Crusade.
Try this High Concept on for size:
“Comics Pro Works One Day at Comics Shop“!
11:56am. My first (and only) day of work does not begin auspiciously, as I thought the store opened at noon, so I arrive at Rocketship with my wife, Crystal, an hour late.
Already this is just like any other time I’ve tried to hold down a real job.
When we come in, co-owner Alex Cox is sitting behind the counter chatting with Joe Hughes, a regular customer who’s also Rocketship’s D.C. sales rep. We immediately begin talking about the week’s trivia question posted behind Alex (see nearby photo – extra bonus points for those of you who get it correctly!) and Joe’s adventures policing Grant Morrison’s line at this year’s Comic-Con International. Alex busies himself removing the shrink-wrap from a copy of the new Dark Horse collection of Creepy magazine. He’s ordered a bunch, and it’s the week’s new arrival he’s most excited about.
The conversation turns toward the merits of Morrison’s X-Men run and how quickly much of it got retconned. The eyes of the two women in the room, Crystal and Joe’s lady friend, promptly glaze over.
After suffering through ten more minutes of geek minutiae, Crystal invents an excuse to flee for her life and I settle in for nine hours of comics retailing in action. I take a seat across from the cash register against the gallery wall. Rocketship opened on July 27, 2005 with an exhibition of local Brooklyn comics artists and every year since they’ve hosted a “Cartoon Brooklyn” show; today they’re displaying BK’ers Cliff Chiang (Architecture & Mortality is totally badass, just thought I’d say that), Julia Wertz and Dash Shaw. The only space I can find to sit perfectly blocks the spot where Julia signed the wall beneath one of her pieces (My apologies, Julia).
12:30pm. The day is absolutely gorgeous, in the high seventies and sunny; one of the few such days in an NYC summer that has been largely humid and gross.
Consequently, the store is devoid of humanity.
Alex worries I’ve shown up on the worst Saturday of the year. I had originally wanted to come in on a Wednesday, to see them in action on New Comics Day, but he convinced me that Saturday would be busier.
In the downtime, Alex scrolls through his Diamond invoice on his iPhone to see which books are coming in this Wednesday so he can change the new arrivals hyped on the dry erase board over the counter. While doing this, he mentions, rather casually, that he is the co-founder of the popular Comics Should Be Good blog.
This is news to me. As originator of now three-years-running Fred Van Lente Day, C.S.B.G. is, of course, the greatest blog in the history of the universe. (Sorry, Blog@. Name a holiday after me and we’ll talk.)
C.S.B.G. was different when he ran it, though. “It was us angrily railing against bad comics. I couldn’t get away with that now.” Nor, from the tone of his voice, does it sound like he would he want to. At the time he was running somebody else’s comic book store in NYC and “in a totally different head space.”
Alex and Mary Gibbons, Rocketship’s other owner (and only other employee), met managing that shop. Neither is a native New Yorker (Alex is from Tennessee, Mary from just outside Philly) but the 9/11 attacks separately convinced both of them to set down roots in the city- Alex, who studied at S.V.A. and remains an accomplished cartoonist, moved back after a two-year absence, and Mary, inspired by the way the city banded together in the wake of the World Trade Center’s destruction, decided to make the Big Apple her permanent home.
Mary moved to Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, and learned from her landlord that one of his other properties was about to free up; the couple who ran the venerable “Stride Rite” neighborhood shoe store had decided to retire after sixty-five years in the biz. She notified Alex, with whom she had been kicking around the idea of opening her own store for a while. The availability of a storefront on Smith Street, one of Brooklyn’s premiere shopping and dining strips, “amped up” their plans, Alex says, and soon they opened the kind of store they wanted to see.
I’ve lived in Boerum Hill a few years longer than Mary, and bought at least one pair of dress shoes at Stride Rite; what amused me about Rocketship when I first walked in was that they changed almost none of the old shoe shop’s wall cabinets and shelves: Graphic novels are arranged on the left side by author’s name, and on the right side by genre (science fiction/fantasy, horror, superhero, “classics reprinted,” et cetera), stacked where loafers and sneakers once sat. The week’s new titles are arranged alphabetically along the countertop jutting all the way around the room from beneath the open cabinets; the previous two weeks’ titles are stashed on the shelves under that.
I try to picture Alex as Internet Firebrand in his pre-Rocketship days. It’s not easy. He cheerfully greets every person who comes into the store – on this day a lot of stylish professional couples in their twenties and thirties (i.e., stereotypical Brooklynites) – and no matter how many comics they thumb through without buying anything, he says “Y’all have a good day” in his gentle Tennessean drawl as they leave empty-handed.
The day is hardly customer-less, though. A woman asks when Jason Lutes’ second volume of Berlin is coming out. (Answer: September) She wants to buy the first volume, but another patron already has the store’s last remaining copy in his hand. Alex offers to hold a copy for her when their next shipment comes in.
“No, we’re going to Berlin tonight, and I wanted to give it to a friend.”
The man who does end up buying Berlin Vol. 1 has to practically drag his ten-year-old daughter away from a Little Lulu reprint volume when he checks out. The girl had been lying, feet in the air, in Rocketship’s Kids’ Corner, Alex and Mary’s pride and joy. Rocketship is a very family-friendly, very family-centric comic book store, and the Kids’ Corner has turned into one of their most lucrative sections, sales-wise, stocked to the brim with Mouse Guard, kid-centric manga, Tintin albums, and the all-ages output of Marvel and D.C. The whole area is watched over by a life-sized Bone wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer.
2:00pm. The first single issue of the day gets sold in my presence – Final Crisis #3. Up until that point it’s been all graphic novels, primarily Y: The Last Man, Watchmen, a couple copies of David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of City of Glass. Perhaps it’s not surprising the store moves more GN’s than floppies – it is quite consciously laid out like a bookstore rather than your traditional comics shop.
I’m always struck at how bestsellers vary radically from store to store across the country, reflective of each shop’s unique customer base; it’s something you can’t tell simply by looking at Diamond’s monthly Top 300. When I ask, Alex tells me that the single issues that do best at Rocketship are All-Star Superman, Buffy Season Eight, anything Hellboy, and Omega the Unknown. That last title shouldn’t seem too surprising. Boerum Hill is Omega scribe Jonathan Lethem’s home turf – his much-praised novel The Fortress of Solitude is set here.
Brooklyn has long been known as the borough for writers, and I’d wager it has the highest and most diverse concentration of comic creators in the country, too (plus we could kick the Pacific Northwest’s latte-swilling asses in a “rumble”). Rocketship boasts funnybook practitioners as varied as Brian Wood, Dean Haspiel, Steve Ellis, Jamal Igle, Fred Chao and Your Humble Narrator among its regular clientele.
2:25pm. A woman asks about the Virgin series Ramayan. Upon learning Alex is sold out, instead she buys Watchmen.
Alex prints out the receipts from the register and frets that this is half the business they usually do on a Saturday. Is everyone at the beach?
He laments he hasn’t sold a single copy of the Creepy archives yet. Does he order too closely to his own personal, eclectic tastes, rather than what he can actually sell? he wonders out loud.
4:00pm. A man with a stroller comes in with an eight year-old girl. They make a beeline for the Kids’ Corner, and Dad and Daughter get into a heated debate as to whether or not she already has this Betty & Veronica digest. She convinces him she doesn’t, and on their way to the register they begin rating Betty’s various paramours, which have apparently expanded beyond Archie since the last time I was paying attention.
I am struck not only by the number of women coming into Rocketship (Alex estimates their female-to-male customer ratio at 1:1), but by the sheer number of girls, usually in Father/Daughter teams. Given the nature of the material being published today, there seem to be more comics dads can share with their girls. And there are now plenty of comics girls can discover all on their lonesome.
Dare I hope that the end of the “Boys’ Club” in comics is an achievable goal within my lifetime? Wouldn’t that be something?
5:05pm. A totally ripped dude with a soul patch, tank top and innumerable chains jangling from his black cargo pants says hi to Alex as he comes in, diligently locates Skaar: Son of Hulk #2 in the shelves-beneath-the-shelves, gets rung up, leaves. I wonder if I could make a case for comics readers resembling their favorite titles the same way people seem to resemble their pets.
I decide I probably couldn’t.
6:30pm. A man walks out with Vol. 2 of Vertical’s Buddha translation and, all together now, kids: Watchmen.
Alex estimates that since the trailer for the movie began showing in front of The Dark Knight, he has been selling about a copy of Moore & Gibbons’ seminal work every hour – more, he guesses, than the Barnes & Noble a few blocks away on Court Street, which has a whole row of them along the “Best Sellers” shelf. From what I saw just on a slow day, that seems perfectly plausible to me.
Since then I’ve learned Rocketship is hardly alone in this. I guess that’s what being declared “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time” over Smashing Pumpkins will do for you.
By our count, Rocketship’s slow-Saturday Watchmen total blows any other title, single issue or GN, out of the water. We joke Alex and Mary should seriously consider renaming Rocketship “Brooklyn Watchmen Mart.”
Or just “Watchmart.”
Or “Treasure Island.” (Har, har.)
7:20pm. I ask Alex what happens – God forbid – if he and Mary can’t sell a comic. Unlike the vast majority of comics shops, Rocketship has no back issue section – mostly because they just don’t have the space for it, but I get the impression they wouldn’t be inclined to have one even if they did. It would interfere with the shop’s “corner neighborhood bookstore” vibe.
“Like any business, it’s about cash flow,” Alex explains. Rocketship keeps careful track of its weekly sales through cycle sheets, and orders very few excess stock. While the store he used to work at would generate an entire longbox of back issues a week, Rocketship only generates a longbox of unsold stock every three months.
“But what happens to those?” I insist, certain some of my less well-received funnybooks have been banished to the Isle of Misfit Comix.
He is about to answer me, but the only customer at the time, a bespectacled college-aged guy, abruptly stops leaving, and stands halfway in, halfway out of the store, the door propped open with his body, and stares right at Alex.
Alex waits for the guy to say something.
The customer says, “I want to hear your answer.”
“Oh- Twice a year we bundle them up and send them to a bulk dealer – we liquidate them,” Alex says somewhat hesitantly to the guy.
“Oh.” The guy leaves. He didn’t buy anything.
Alex and I look at each other.
8:09pm. An eight-year-old boy in an orange Orioles tee rolls in on a scooter, trailed by his sister and father, a big, barrel-shaped man who strides right up to the counter and says:
“I hear that Dark Horse has published Creepy.”
Alex offers to show him the display copy he de-shrink-wrapped at the beginning of the day, but the customer waves it away. “I’m going to buy it regardless.”
Alex beams. “There’s your throughline, Fred.”
8:33pm. A middle-aged woman with a high pile of red hair, upon being told Alex is
temporarily sold out of all things R. Crumb, asks, “What can I get someone who’s just turning fifty, very ‘downtown,’ that’s not too expensive?” Lynda Barry’s What It Is is agreed upon, and the woman hastily scrawls out a happy birthday message on a postcard Alex provides.
8:45pm. The sidewalk outside is dark; the day is winding down. Before I go, Alex asks me to help him swap out the window display, currently filled with the Cartoon Brooklyn artists’ books. He gets in the window and hands me The Fart Party, The Human Target: Living in Amerika, and Bottomless Belly Button. I ask him what usually determines the contents of the window. Best sellers, mostly, he says.
What should I hand him now? I ask.
He thinks about it for a second or two.
“Watchmen,” he says.