Pow! Bang! Splat!

How the geek culture movement, ex-pat artists, superhero movies, and children weary of video games are propelling local comic shops to new heights.
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Once upon a time, the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel came to Detroit, bringing with them the star power of Hollywood. Their adventures, filmed over the course of 2014 throughout metro Detroit, will come to life on March 26 when DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures release Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Illustration by Bill Ellison

The film is the highly anticipated sequel to Man of Steel (2013) and stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, and Jeremy Irons. In addition to being the first live-action film to feature Batman and Superman together, the movie also draws in Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg.

The cinematic endeavor represents the last major film produced in Michigan, as Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature pulled the plug in 2015 on millions of dollars of annual tax credits that had served to draw A-list actors and film crews to the state.

While the end of sizeable film incentives won’t make or break Michigan’s economy, there was concern that the loss of major productions would negatively affect revenue among small businesses including local studios, restaurants, caterers, equipment providers, and comic book shops. The consternation proved to be well-founded, especially among direct suppliers and movie crews.

But indirect purveyors such as the comic book shops — which have weathered not only the Great Recession and an industrywide slump that upended the market during the 1990s, as well as growing competition from video game creators — are drawing people through their doors like never before. Due to unique marketing campaigns, an explosion of movies that involve superheroes, and a diverse product mix, local comic book shops are seeing a surge of customers and sales.

Comic book sales in North America are up 38 percent compared to five years earlier, generating $475 million, says John Jackson Miller, a New York Times best-selling author of Star Wars novels, comics, and graphic novels.

 

When he is not writing, Miller is a media analyst and the curator of Comichron (comichron.com), an online database of comic book sales established in 2007. He’s been reporting on the industry since 1993. He says unit sales are up 37 percent in the last five years, with 7.93 million copies sold.

Chris Brown, who acquired Comics & More in Madison Heights in 2007, says he initially sought to weather the global economic storm, shake everything out, and get back on the right track.

“That was right around the time they were coming out with the Marvel Cinematic Universe films,” Brown says. “My first Free Comic Book Day was held (at the same time as) that first Iron Man (2008),” he says. “I have an advertising degree, so I was able to do lots of advertising and marketing, and do it cheap. I weathered the storm and let everybody know who I was. My first three years of business were tough.”

Free Comic Book Day is a nationwide event where retailers give out free comics on the first Saturday in May. Traditionally, they’ve coincided with Marvel’s top film releases

Chris Brown, of Comics & More, has recently expanded his store in Madison Heights to include an area where kids can play and explore. He says he has seen a shift back to younger kids as his base customers, where a few years ago it was 18-35 year olds.

But that’s only one day a year, and although the comics are free to customers, the comic shops pay for them. What really kept Comics & More going is Wednesdays — commonly referred to as New Comic Book Day. Brown says the promotion — along with a deep collection of back issues — helped keep the lights on.

Although the sale of comic books makes up about 70 percent of his business, to drive more sales Brown began to carry more action figures, T-shirts, vintage toys, and some “weirdness.” Take, for instance, The Love Boat commemorative plate that sits behind the counter. “You just have to have a lot of weird stuff to catch people’s eyes,” Brown says.

He also says the faces of customers are starting to change. Seven years ago, the customer base was generally aged 18-35, and predominately male. Now, he says, it’s all over the map.

“I have a lot of women who come in and read comic books,” Brown says. “I have a lot of kids. And once upon a time, I was seeing the young kids gravitating toward video games. My youngest customer, an 11-year-old-girl, likes the Flash and Harlequin. It’s starting to shift back in on kids.”

There’s an all-ages section, and thanks to a recent expansion of the store, Brown has an area with toys where the kids can play, explore, and dream.

“We do cater to a younger set these days,” Brown says. “We had lost the kids, it seemed, because they were more interested in playing video games — and not only that, there weren’t a lot of comic books kids could read; the (stories) were all leaning older. There’s all kinds of cool stuff for the kids now.”

 

Super Nerd

Curtis Sullivan, owner and operator of Vault of Midnight stores in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, wants to be known as more than just a local comic book shop. He’s making his outlets a place where employees have good benefits. With two locations and another in the works, that’s good business — nearly 20 years and counting.

“We’re able to pay our employees well,” Sullivan says. “Now we’re getting involved in employee retention, 401(k) plans, and health care (benefits). I’m in love with what I do.”

Curtis Sullivan, operator of Vault of Midnight stores in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, says his success has come from offering a mix of comics, superhero movies, and video games.

Sullivan wants his employees and potential employees to share that feeling, and says he will interview anywhere from 50 to 100 people just to fill one position. “Whomever we hire, we want to train the heck out of them, pay them well, and keep them as long as we possibly can, so they can build that knowledge base and become that super nerd that we need,” Sullivan says.

So should people other than “super nerds” skip the process? “For us, that’s not a prerequisite at all,” he says. “If you’re good with customers, if you’re good with the vibe and the culture we’re putting forward, the rest is training. We spend a lot of time talking about comics.”

A slew of weekly new comic releases, which serve as a subscription pull-list, has also helped his business.

Sullivan says his comic book inventory drives roughly 70 percent of the business, with the remaining sales made up of board games, T-shirts, statues, and other items like those at Comics & More. But comics remain the central focus.

“We really fought for that,” Sullivan says. “That’s what we want to sell. We avoid trend-surfing if a boom comes around. We’re looking for long-game stuff. Trends come and go. The comics are good, and we know that. That’s what’s sustained us over the long haul.”

Although Vault of Midnight gave out 6,000 to 8,000 free comics on Free Comic Book Day, Sullivan can’t identity one element over another when it comes to the success of his businesses.

“It’s all this stuff working together, it’s not one thing alone,” he says. “It’s genre television: Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and The Big Bang Theory. Mix that with Free Comic Book Day, mix that with big blockbuster movies, mix that with the Batman video games that are consistently Game of the Year every year — it’s just this convergence of all these excellent pop culture things happening.”

 

Miller, of Comichron, says it’s always tricky trying to find a direct correlation between big- and small-screen releases and sales of comics.

“Sometimes, as in the case of (TV show) The Walking Dead, we can see a strong correlation in sales growth; in other cases it’s harder to find, especially if the comics connections arem’t as obvious.

“Most people didn’t know Men in Black was a comic book first, and the movies didn’t do anything to boost its comics sales, but in general, anything in the general public that reminds readers that comics are out there always helps,” Miller says.

Dan Manser, director of marketing for Hunt Valley, Md.-based Diamond Comic Distributors, whose company sells to comic book retailers all over the country, has more conviction that superhero movies can accelerate comic book sales.

“Superhero movies are a great driver to push comics and pop-culture more mainstream,” says Manser. “Any exposure to the characters certainly helps grow overall success of the market, as witnessed in strong growth of sales through comic book shops the last five years.”

Manser says he has seen a bump in sales when specific movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), Watchmen (2009), or TV shows such as The Walking Dead, come out, because it allows comic book store owners a chance to easily recommend a specific title for customers to start reading.

Mona Lisa

Since 1988, Mike Lester has been selling comics to the masses. Before that, he was a furniture salesman working with the same product almost every day. “Boring. Boring. Boring,” Lester says with a laugh. “When you go into a comic book shop, there’s new stuff every week. You’re familiar with the characters. They don’t diminish over time.”

As owner and president of Time Travelers Comics, Cards & Collectibles in Berkley, he’s watched the ups and downs of the market firsthand. And he’s seen the shift in demographics.

 

For anyone who wants to get into the industry, he says the most critical factors are money, time, and patience. It can easily take six months to a year to learn the ropes, find repeat customers, and navigate the ebb and flow of the movie industry.

Mike Lester, owner and president of Time Travelers Comics, Cards & Collectibles in Berkley, says customers today expect a one-stop shop. Beyond comic books, fans also expect to find DVDs, movie-related merchandise, collectible toys, and any other oddities for sale.

For all the projected blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in the Star Wars film series that was released in December, there can be periods of lackluster films, minimal spinoff products like toys and merchandise, and the ever-increasing competition for entertainment spending.

“You either have to build it up from scratch, or you’re going to have to get your customers from another shop,” Lester says. “Regardless of that, in today’s market you’re going to need a big cache of money, whereas in the past you didn’t.”

He recalls a “scary time” before the comic book movies came out. Today, though, customers expect a one-stop shop.

“It … takes a lot of patience and time to go the distance to be a successful shop owner,” Lester says. “It used to be so much easier 10 to 15 years ago. The Internet and competition means you have to be an everything-kind-of-store these days. If you’re not, people will go elsewhere, and they may never come back again.”

Beyond comic books, fans also expect to find DVDs, Star Trek merchandise, collectible toys, and many other oddities for sale.

“I find that you have to have the kids’ stuff these days, because for a lot of parents, it’s easier to go to one place,” Lester says. “In the past, we didn’t see a lot of kids with their parents. That exploded, more so to the movies and the cartoons. When you see kids coming in with their parents, it perpetuates the market for another generation.”

There’s also strong interest in comic books and superhero films that play up the local landscape. Detroiters, Lester says, closely follow ex-pats who have made a mark in the industry.

 

One example is Geoff Johns, who was born in Detroit and graduated from Michigan State University (which has the largest comic book collection in the world). Johns is chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, where he guides the company’s film and TV properties. He’s one of the reasons there’s high interest in successful superhero TV shows such as Arrow, The Flash, and, most recently, CBS’s Supergirl.

Meanwhile, DC Comics, a sister company, was responsible for another important move: bringing minority comics into the mainstream.

The late Dwayne McDuffie, a Detroit native who died in 2011 at the age of 49, created what came to be known as Milestone Comics, a line of titles featuring African-Americans gifted with superhuman abilities. Some say his fictional Dakota City was a Detroit stand-in. And it was announced at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con (the industry’s biggest event featuring movies, TV, and comics) that Milestone would be brought back to life.

Reading also is back in vogue. A popular trade paperback, Lester notes, is writer and artist Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet, featuring Thanos. The fictional super villain had a cameo in The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and is expected to be featured in Captain America: Civil War, due out May 6.

Starlin, who was born in Detroit and has worked for both DC Comics and Marvel, says the return of Thanos is a blessing. The character first appeared in 1973, in an Iron Man comic book.

Now living in upstate New York, Starlin is busy overseeing the production of his first TV series based upon his Dreadstar comics from the ’80s and ’90s, which will be distributed by NBC Universal. Having worked in comics for the last 45 years, he can recall a time when the industry was easier to break into.

“I started off sending in sample drawings to Marvel and DC,” he says. “DC bought a couple of them while I was back in Detroit, so I loaded up two suitcases and came out here. They were hiring anybody who could come across state lines.”

Luck also plays a hand in his comic book success. While Starlin prefers to work on creator-owned projects, he credits director Joss Whedon with reviving Thanos in The Avengers series. “He came in there and brought Thanos into the mix, and said some nice things on the DVDs,” Starlin says. “He and other folks have helped me along, starting off this late-life second career.”

Lester says Starlin’s local fan base helps drive sales. “The Infinity Gauntlet, it’s like the Mona Lisa,” Lester says. “Every time I read it, I see something I didn’t see before.”

And that, he adds, is what today’s comic book stores should be like. “Every time you walk in, it’s like that Infinity Gauntlet trade paperback: You see something new, something fresh, something that caught your eye that didn’t before.” db

 

Photography By Michelle & Chris Gerard

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