This is a transcript of the Oct. 15 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast for what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. For the last six episodes we’ve been talking to people who make comics, both the folks who work on superhero stories and also independent stuff, but in this episode I wanted to talk to someone a little different, someone who sells comics. We met up with Jared Smith, who is one of the co-owners of Big Planet Comics, a chain of comic book stores in the D.C. area, where I live. He talks about everything from ordering comics, what it’s like to unpack those boxes and file them on the shelves, what it’s like to interact with customers who come into the store, whether they’re longtime fans of the medium or new customers who are looking for something that meets their own unique interests.
He talks about his schedule, he talks about managerial responsibilities, money frustrations that can go with running a small business, and more. Then in a Slate Plus segment, he tells us what comics he’s interested in, which books he goes to immediately, when they come out each month, what books he collects and all that stuff.
What is your name and what do you do?
Jared Smith: My name is Jared Smith and I’m one of the co-owners of Big Planet Comics, which is a group of stores in and around Washington, D.C. They’re comic book stores that carry comic books, graphic novels, and related items, like superhero toys and cards and stuff.
Smith: Paraphernalia, yeah.
Brogan: How did you end up the co-owner of a comic book store? What’s the backstory there?
Smith: It’s a series of “right place at the right time,” like five times in a row that I had a really boring tech job, and loved comics, and shopped at Big Planet Comics and then one day they opened up a new store in Georgetown, here in Washington, D.C. I had complained about my old job enough times going into the store that they asked if I wanted to work there, and they hired me as the manager, even though I had no retail experience of any sort and did not know how to open a cash register. Then, one of the owners—there were two co-owners at that time—wanted to sell part of the business, and so I took over that part of the business from him.
Brogan: We live in an era where brick-and-mortar shops are not doing well, in general, especially specialty shops. Look at the record stores that I went to when I was a teenager that rarely exist now, except for really specialty stuff. How is the comics business?
Smith: It’s been up and down. There was the huge panic, I’d say about 10 years ago, when digital first started happening but that was across the print industry, where everyone was freaking out about it. That had a little bit of an effect. I think the one advantage that comic book stores have, even over books, is it’s still got an element of weird OCD collector-ness to it that nobody, unless you’re getting like the first edition of a signed Hemingway or something, there isn’t a collector aspect to it, but to a lot of people it’s like, “I have 60 issues of X-Men. Should I just stop and start reading it digitally and get Issue 61 on my iPad or Kindle or whatever?” A lot of people don’t want to.
Brogan: It seems like it’s an interesting business, in that way, that on the one hand, especially with the kind of books you’ve been talking about in this series, you have things, you have issues that are coming out every month, sometimes now twice a month. Then, you also have, increasingly, all of that stuff gets collected in trades. Presumably a certain readership that comes in and just, say, kind of graphic novel-y, bound books of 6 or 8 or 12 issues.
Smith: I think that is the biggest current evolution in the industry right now, is that it used to be that was the only way you read it. You came in once a month or however. Whatever comic you’d be reading comes out on a monthly schedule, that’s how it used to be. You come in to get Batman Number 2 and then a month later, almost to the day, you’d come in and get Batman Number 3. But now, like you said, you can just wait and get Batman 1 through 6 in a book for sometimes cheaper than buying these little books. In some ways that’s cut down on the collector obsessive nature, because there are people who just walk in and say, “I just want to read the Batman story. I don’t want to make a monthly commitment to come in every time and make sure I didn’t miss one part of the story that is now a limited, out-of-print thing that I can’t find anywhere, so I can’t read part four of my story.”
Brogan: Yeah. In some ways, comics anticipated the kind of binge model of current television, in that regard, where they give us the ability to access the whole thing at once.
Smith: They’ve been stubborn about it. Especially the big companies have been very resistant to doing that, I think. Certainly the big two, as we call it, are Marvel Comics and D.C. Comics, who publish the major superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man, and X-Men stuff, were very resistant to doing that for a while and even now some of their big books are very expensive compared to what you think you should pay for them. They’re still holding on to the monthly superhero thing.
Brogan: I assume it’s good business for them or they wouldn’t be doing it. They think it’s good business for them.
Smith: Not necessarily. There’s been a lot of critiques about how they’re running their businesses sometimes. It tends to go in cycles, where one company will be up, and the other company will be down, and then the down company will steal the ideas of the other company and try to catch up.
Brogan: There’s a great book that came out this month or comes out maybe later this month, I’m not sure, depending on when you’re listening to this, called, Slugfest, that’s about that industry, between the two companies. A lot of it is about how they related to comic book shops like yours. How they figured out how they sell things, how they related to you in the way that they got those books to you and such. Before we get into any of that stuff, let’s talk about you. I’ve spent a lot of my life in comic book shops. I suspect that a certain kind of listener has only one association with someone who works in the comic book shop. That’s the comic book guy from The Simpsons.
Smith: The Simpsons, yep.
Brogan: This sort of smug, know-it-all, who at once is distributing this pop-culture set of commodities but at the same time totally hates the people that he’s selling to. Is there any truth to that?
Smith: Yeah, still, unfortunately. I think any kind of niche or fan interest, there’re people who think that you need to be a certain way to be involved in it and they often act as gatekeepers. You’ve seen that in Gamergate, where all these misogynistic video game players don’t want women or minorities to play. You’ve seen it in games like role-playing games, you’ve seen it in music, where you walk up with a T-shirt, and they start quizzing you on what your favorite album is when you’ve only just bought the T-shirt.
That’s the worst, even worse, I think, for comics in some ways that for a long time there were these boys’ clubs where, I think, that because it’s such a weird little industry that really caters to fans, that comic book stores didn’t really even get started until the 1970s, so they’re a relatively new industry. The people who open the comic stores are the hard-core fans, and for a lot of them they just wanted to get comics cheaper and then they could sit in their dirty little store with comics piled everywhere and then their best friends would come in once a week and they’d talk about comics.
Brogan: One of the things I learned from that book Slugfest is that some of the first comic shops were really just sort of showrooms for people’s collections. They didn’t even want to sell.
Smith: Back then, a lot of people would still be buying the older stuff, and the only way to find it would be from a collector, so if you’ve collected comics for 20 years, if you put that all in a room, you have a business, and so then only slowly did it evolve into, but I also want to read the new comics.
Brogan: I will say having been into ... I mostly go into one particular Big Planet location when I’m meeting my comic needs. It’s a well-lit store.
Smith: Thank you.
Brogan: It has a lot of newer stuff upfront not just superhero stuff, but things that other, more casual readers might be interested in. It seems to me from the relative outside, that you all are pushing back against that set of negative associations with fandom.
Smith: We’ve been trying really hard. The founder of the Big Planet is Joel Pollack. He still works at the store up in Bethesda, that he started. When he opened in ’86, he had a partner who was much more interested in the older issues and I think, after a year or two they both decided that they were just going in different directions and he bought him out. The model we’ve always had since he founded the store was that we’re the reader—or the store for readers, which is a very distinct part of the comics interest, rather than the collectors. So we always wanted to welcome anyone who wants to come in and just read a comic book with, “Wherever you are, whatever you’re into, we would be happy to help you out.”
Brogan: Apart from making sure it’s well-lit, trying to put things that people who just wander in off the street might be interested in, front and center, are there other things you try to do to make it a more welcoming, inviting space?
Smith: Yeah, one is selection. Just some stores, you’ll go in, well, a lot of it is attitude, that you just have to welcome everybody, like you said, happy to see them, because some people like the comic book artist. They act like they’re bothered by business ... I think it’s just that this was like the only way to get these things was through a comic book store, so many stores coasted on that, that you could get away with treating people terribly. You would buy something, and they would make fun of you at the counter for buying it. And it’s like no other industry in the entire world will exist like that and yet it’s like, “Well, if you want to read the next part of the story, come back next month and I will make fun of you again.”
Brogan: Have you ever been tempted to make fun of someone for their purchase?
Smith: No, no. There’s certainly stuff that I don’t like, but in strict mercenary terms, you’re giving me money so that I can sell ... It’s like the best job in the world, and you’re helping me do it, and if you enjoy something, then that’s great. There’re so many comic books out there. There’s stuff that I won’t enjoy, but if you like it, that’s awesome.
Brogan: Yeah, let’s talk about a day in the life for you.
Brogan: You’re the co-owner of these shops, but you also work in them. How do things get started for you?
Smith: The interesting thing, like we said about comics, is most of them come out on a monthly schedule. Almost like books, new books come out in bookstores every Tuesday, and for comic books it’s a slightly different schedule that every new one comes out on a Wednesday. So we really work—although a comic would come out with the next part a month later—every week we’re getting new stuff. It’s just a week off from the schedule of a different comic. We work in weekly schedules.
Brogan: So each Wednesday, you’re getting just a big bunch of shipments from Diamond.
Brogan: Is that the distributor, still?
Brogan: A company called Diamond.
Smith: The voluntary monopoly, which is a whole different topic.
Smith: That roughly 200 to 300 different titles, it’s, I think, one of the most interesting distribution problems to deal with. Yeah, our week basically starts on a Tuesday, because that’s when the books will show up at our stores. We sit around waiting for the shipment from our distributor, Diamond, and then they come and they’re just in huge brown boxes.
Brogan: When do they arrive, in the morning?
Smith: “When” is the question, and morning is not guaranteed. Usually by UPS, you can sometimes get it from other deliverers, but sometimes they show up at 6:00 at night, and we have one hour before the store closes to get all of our work done. Other times, they show up at 10 in the morning and we’re not open and they leave a little note saying they’ll come back. If we’re lucky, and we have one of our regular drivers, they’re there around 11, when we open, and then we bring all the boxes in and pile them up. Open up all these boxes, which are sometimes sorted well, sometimes have not been dropped by the delivery or back in the warehouse, and if they’re in good shape then we count them all. Make sure on our invoice that we’ve got everything we were supposed to get, we didn’t get the wrong things, or aren’t missing things. Then the other weird thing about comic books is because they’re on this monthly schedule, the people who want everyone will order them in advance, which I don’t think really happens in most other industries, at least not on a monthly schedule. Then we’ll pull one out. So if you want Batman, we have to grab a copy of Batman for everyone who asked for it and put it under their name.
Brogan: It’s a sort of secondary inventory, an inventory of things that you have to—
Smith: Correct, yes. Inventory for the customers, basically.
Brogan: Those used to be called “pull boxes,” I think.
Smith: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of weird slang in comic books that varies slightly, but yeah pull boxes, which would literally be a box or slot or folder or something. We actually use those metal shelves that are used for mailing rooms, because they are the perfect height and width. If you have a pull box and you want, you just give us a list of what you want, and if it comes in that week, we pull out a copy for you, put it in your box, which is again done by a person, so there have been mistakes. You put it in the wrong box and people don’t have what they want, so we try to avoid that.
Brogan: Do people pay in advance or—
Smith: No. It depends on the place; you do, generally, but we’ve never done that. The big advantage for us is, if you’ve ordered in advance like this, it’s helping us order. Because the biggest problem and the ongoing joke in the industry is that there’s two ways to order comics, too many or too few, because you’re guessing every single time a new Batman comes up because what if there’s a new artist who everyone loves? What if there’s a new artist who everyone hates or if there’s an appearance of a new character that everyone suddenly is excited about? You never know, you have hints at it, but your orders could be 50 percent too high or 50 percent too low every issue.
Brogan: Do you read, I don’t know, the trades or something like this, to figure out what you should be ordering, what people might be interested in?
Smith: That’s a promise—we order stuff two months in advance. So, we don’t know. There’ll be like the weird little copy from the company saying, “You should buy this comic,” but they say that on every comic, so there are some hints you’ll get from a few of the publishers, will have trade meetings or special reach-outs to the retailers, sort of thing, but they’ll still almost always say, “You should buy a thousand of these,” when we should order 10. It’s always the trust.
Brogan: I know that this relatively new series, Mister Miracle, by Tom King, who we spoke to earlier in this series, this Working series, his series, Mister Miracle apparently has been selling out really routinely with a lot of stores. When something like that happens, does it come as a surprise to you? That there was a relatively minor character invented by this guy, Jack Kirby in the ’70s, that no one really knows about, so, an unusual event.
Smith: That’s the problem with a lot of these. That same thing happened with Tom King’s earlier series he did for Marvel division. Same thing, came out, fantastic, sold out almost instantly. The good thing is, now that we have a pretty good track record. We’ve actually had Tom right when he was starting out, came in, did a signing at the store. So we knew who he was, we knew he was a good guy, and we knew that his comics were good and then he did a couple of series and they did really well and then he took over Batman and it did really well, so we had a track record. Once you start getting there, and you’re like, “Oh, Tom King’s writing a Mister Miracle series.” This will be better than most people doing it, so we got extra and we still sold out.
Brogan: I will say, I went in and I was able to buy a copy without having it in a pull box.
Smith: That’s because they reprinted the first one, which is a whole other problem, that something does sell out, then the companies have to decide if there’s enough demand to reprint something, and if not, you may be out of luck.
Brogan: Then, presumably, in that circumstance, not to keep harping on this ordering issue, you have to figure out whether it’s worth reordering something if they reprinted it.
Smith: Right. And do we get one or do we to get 50? That’s, I think, the two parts of this job are inventory and customer relations, just being good to people and helping people find what they want to read.
Brogan: So, that’s your Tuesday…
Brogan: Or, at least part of your Tuesday is waiting for, unpacking, filing all of these floppy little books that come in. What makes up the bulk of your week? That’s just one day.
Smith: The one part I left off, is putting it all on the computer, which, luckily, is done through downloads with a lot of stuff, but still might not be quick.
Brogan: You get your digital inventory from the company?
Smith: Right, the distributor will usually send it to you, but sometimes that’s wrong, so you double-check all that, check all your inventory and everything. Then after that, Wednesday is the big day. That’s when all the stuff goes up for sale on the shelves, so this used to be the biggest day of the week because all these weekly fans would come in immediately, sometimes as soon as the store opened to get their new comics.
Brogan: Do they not have jobs?
Smith: No, they come on their lunch breaks. I don’t know. I’m always curious how people manage to do it at 11, when we open it up, it’s kind of a weird time. I don’t know if they’re taking an early lunch or sneaking out or take the day off or whatever. That’s been shifting a lot, because, like you said, you can get these books, collecting them all, and at least for us, we try to keep stuff on the shelves for around a month, so that’s what we try to order our volume by. There isn’t quite the impetus to be there right at the beginning, because you might sell out but some stores do, like if Mister Miracle, or there’s some other ones that sold out by Thursday, so even if you came in one day later, they’d be like, “Sorry, we don’t have any left.” It’s this weird problem.
Other than that, the rest of the week is just helping people out, keeping the store up to shape. I forgot, after we’re done unpacking everything, Tuesday is trying to read as much as we can, because that’s the other problem is that so many new things are coming out every week, that it’s ... you know 200 or 300 different titles a month, or maybe more. So many books are coming out as these bigger trade paperbacks or graphic novels, which are the two terms for anything that has a spine on it and some of those have never come out as weekly comics before, so you might get a 600-page book that we’ve never read a page of that’s amazing, but we have to read it to find out.
Brogan: Is that something that you do during business hours?
Smith: I don’t, because I don’t like reading at work because it’s hard to do. Inevitably you’ll be distracted by something and there’s enough work to do. The other problem is that reading at work is superdismissive of customers.
Smith: So if there’s nobody in the store, you could read something and we do if it’s really, really slow for a while, but in general, there’ll be work to do that you should be doing instead and again, that goes back to the walk-in people in the store. If you walk into a store and someone doesn’t say hello to you when you come in the door and they’re sitting there reading a comic—which has happened to me in other comic book stores when I’ve gone in—it just shows that they don’t care about you. They might really care about you and be happy to see you but they’re not demonstrating it, and especially if you’ve never been to a comic book store and you’ve only seen The Simpsons, you will walk out and never buy a comic the rest of your life.
Brogan: And you don’t want that. Not good for business, not good for fandom, not good for—
Smith: Not good for anything.
Brogan: Not good for the world, probably. So when do you find time to read comics? It seems like part of the job—
Smith: It is.
Brogan: But maybe it’s not part of the working hours of the job.
Smith: It’s like homework, sadly. Especially Tuesday, when you’ve gotten a pile of 50 comics in. The way we try to do it is take home at least anything that’s a new series, the first part of it. Then, just read as much as you can at home.
Brogan: You open at 11. Does that mean you read in the morning sometimes?
Smith: Yeah, yeah. Get up early, which is nice. Our schedule’s a little off from everybody else, so we have a few hours where you can read some comics before you go to work. The graphic novels are just like, read them when you can. All of our employees can just take stuff home to read, because we encourage everyone to read as much as possible, but again, how much time do you have?
Brogan: Throughout the day, what’s the kind of customer service like? Are there rhythms to the day?
Smith: The big things are lunch breaks, like you said, how do people get in to actually buy the stuff, and after work. So we get the people between, like, 11 and 2 and then, after 5, until we close, or 4 to 7, whatever. Everyone else starts showing up so we get ... Yeah, so it’s big cycles of people coming in, and half of this job is just interacting with people who basically are our friends at this point. Just catching them up on stuff, but also talking about comic books. It can be, we’re talking about the new comic book movie, but we also want to talk about the new comics that just came out because for a lot of people, we’re kind of, not tastemakers, but we at least let them know what we found interesting. Because if we can’t keep up with stuff, there’s no way that customers can keep up with stuff.
Brogan: So someone comes in and they say, they’ve been reading Batman, right, or something, Tom King’s run on Batman and say, “Have you checked out his run on Mister Miracle?”
Smith: Exactly. Or we’ll say, “Hey, I know you like Batman that Tom King was writing, there’s another Batman book by someone else who’s really good.” It’s a lot of like cross-referencing what people do and what they enjoy. A lot it is just ... the thing we are trying to do is build trust with people, because if you walk in for the first time we’re gonna try and make sure you have a good experience, find something you like to read. But then the second time you come back in we’ll be like, “Oh, what did you get last time? You read Mister Miracle. How did you like it?” Some people might be like, “That book was too weird for me,” or “I’m not really into superheroes. Thanks for the recommendation.” So then you try to find them something else. It’ll eventually get down where someone will walk in and be like, “Tom King’s Mister Miracle was amazing. What else do you have?” We’re like, “Well, luckily, Tom King has four other series that we can recommend to you.”
Brogan: Or you say, “Check out the old Jack Kirby stuff.”
Smith: Exactly, yeah.
Brogan: A lot of what’s happening in the comics business, comics industry, now isn’t about superhero stuff anymore. So, if someone comes in and says, “Hey, I read you know Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in a college class, looking for more like that.” Is that something that you try to encourage?
Smith: Yes. So that, especially that we’re in Washington, D.C., which is a very urban, very literate area, we jokingly call them the “NPR books,” where it’s the sort of thing that will get talked about like on NPR and suddenly, everyone comes in looking for it. That there is a ton of people who don’t like ... Superheroes is a genre, but for a long time it was like the genre of comics, which is a super-weird thing when you think about it.
Brogan: It’s one of the only kind of creative industries where, what we call “the mainstream,” is actually by any other standard a very specific genre.
Smith: Yes, which is very, very strange, but the weird history of that is that the super-fans, the people who are super, super into comics are more into superheroes than anything, because comics used to be, I think, like four or five times as big as it is now, maybe even bigger in the ’40s and ’50s. Romance comics were huge, Jack Kirby, who did Mister Miracle, invented romance comics. Westerns were huge, crime stuff is huge, horror, sci-fi, all huge, and then when the Senate crackdown on comics were, being corrupting of the youth, the only thing that really survived was superheroes because there were so many fans, that’s the only way you could get superhero stories.
You couldn’t listen to a superhero TV show or anything like that. You couldn’t see the movies, because the special effects weren’t good enough. Unfortunately, that kept the industry going, which was good for us, but really pigeonholed it for a long time. Now the people who just want to read something good come in and a lot of them have never read a superhero comic, if they’ve read a comic book at all. For a lot of us, it’s like ... my favorite question is, “What do you like?” and I’ll try to vaguely answer. What kind of movies, what kind of books, what kind of entertainment? They could be sci-fi or horror or autobiographical, like Fun Home, or anything. So many books have been coming out now that are not superhero, I can almost find something for anybody.
Brogan: So, in terms of the shape of the day, you’re interacting with people, offering suggestions during these boom hours, around lunch, right after work. What are the rest of those hours? Is it boring?
Smith: No, because the schedule is never set. You could be like, “Oh, it’s a slow period of the day,” and then 10 tourists come in, who could be the most interaction you have all day because they’re like, someone who’s never read a comic book. It’s just, they’re going to need more help than someone who walks in and says, “Here are my Batman books. Thank you,” and walk out the door in one minute. Someone could walk in and say, “I’m looking for a book for my 7-year-old kid, who really likes dance lessons and hates superheroes.” You have to talk to them for 30 minutes, like, “Do they like this book or do they like that book?” For a lot of it, it’s still the inventory that the store can always be better, it’s just, there’s so many things in so many places, they’re constantly walking around fixing stuff up and then halfway through Wednesday, we get to the other part of thing, which is our reorder shows up.
That’s kind of skipping to the end of the week. Every Sunday we do a reorder of things we sold out of and those will usually ship to show up late Wednesday or early Wednesday, depending on the delivery. So part of that is checking in all that stuff and putting it out on the shelves and again, is there anything for somebody, is there a special order or somebody walked in looking for the Hildy books or whatever and couldn’t find it and we had to get one for them.
Brogan: One thing that I’ve noticed about the D.C. store, it’s a relatively small space, at least what is accessible to customers. I assume you have a back room somewhere, something like this.
Smith: We have a back space that’s about one foot by five feet, and that’s not exaggerating. It’s very small.
Brogan: Really, it is this small space, and also the desk is near the door, the checkout desk, but you do have a sight line of almost the whole place? Is shrinkage a problem?
Smith: Not as much as we hope, but yeah, something’s always going to walk out the door. We try to keep an eye on everybody to make sure that nobody’s stealing stuff, but then the other side is you don’t want to feel like you’re hovering over anybody or distrusting of customers, so that’s why you will chose to have a good sight line, just to be like—we’re aware of people but don’t distrust people, if that makes sense. The other good thing is, it’s very easy to come in a comic book store and look confused but try to cover it up well, so if anyone’s kind of wandering around for too long we get the ... If you don’t pick up anything within a few minutes, we get the feeling you need help, and again The Simpsons comic-book-guy stereotype: people are scared to ask for help, like, terrified.
Brogan: Presumably, most of those people really do want or need help. They’re not there to steal something.
Smith: No, right, right. So people just look around and they’re confused. There’re colors in every direction. Every single comic book store is organized differently, so we try to mimic a bookstore format in a lot of ways, but even that, we’re kind of idiosyncratic in how we do it as opposed to another comic book store.
Brogan: A lot of it’s organized by genre, at least for the trade paperbacks.
Smith: That’s why we try to do it that way, because people know bookstores are organized by genre, but then you could go in to some comic book stores and every book is organized by title, which sort of makes sense but sort of doesn’t, and it’s like, where do you find it, or if you’re you looking for a particular author.
Brogan: I imagine that is somewhere where your own choices mean that you do have to help people a lot, even if they know what they’re looking for. If I come in looking for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s weird French sci-fi comics, I’m not sure I’m going to find them in sci-fi or some kind of indie section.
Smith: Then we have a “staff pick” section, where some of those books by Jodorowsky are, so if you look in the sci-fi, that’s a sci-fi book. You’re like, “No, sorry, we have it up front because it’s our favorite.” How do you know that?
Brogan: Are people ever averse to those kind of interactions? Do they ever kind of brush you off?
Smith: No, because usually you just try to be very light about it, just like, “Do you need help finding something?” If they don’t, they’ll say no. Our funny extra bit is when someone checks out, we always ask that again, because someone who could have been in for 30 minutes and come up with a stack of 400 comics towering in their arms and we’re like, “Is there anything else you need?” They’ll be like, “No. Oh, actually ...” So these people who are super-big shoppers, who know how to shop, are still scared to ask us something.
Brogan: You also, I assume, have managerial responsibilities as the co-owner of this store. What do those responsibilities involve?
Smith: Luckily, every store has a manager who handles most of the stuff that I’m talking to you about for the weekly schedule stuff. The thing we also do is, because there are now four Big Planet comic stores, is we try to help each other out with inventory, because, again, inventory is a big part of the job, or if there’s an emergency and we only have one copy of a book and someone’s leaving on a plane the next day, which happens a lot, because D.C. is a very transitory visitor kind of place, getting books between the stores usually means I’m driving my car around about.
Brogan: Oh, really?
Brogan: Even if they just want Mister Miracle Number 2 or something?
Smith: Sometimes, if it’s within three hours, I’m not going to be able to do it, but I go between all the stores a lot, and then we have the not-weekly stuff, like if we’re running a signing, like when Tom King came to the store. Just make sure that works, and getting the table set up and getting drinks and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of extra things that happened that are not part of the normal day.
Brogan: When you do something like that with the creator, writer, artist, or something, how does that come about? Do their PR people reach out to you? Are you reaching out to them?
Smith: Both. It depends on how organized their PR people are. Especially for comics, a lot of these artists, the hustle is all yourself. I think Tom reached out to us, because he lived in D.C. He’s like, “I’m on Capitol Hill. I want to come over to your store and do something.” I’m like, “Of course.” It’s still very much on the artist and the writers to do their own thing. There’s not a PR budget for most of these things and that’s when he was writing for Marvel and DC. So everyone else is smaller than that, so almost all of it is yourself reaching out.
Brogan: Speaking of small though, I think ... Doesn’t Big Planet have a relationship with a truly small-press system?
Smith: Yeah. We have been co-publishing comics for four years now. We did a couple of small comics before that, which were all employees of the store. Another good trend is that a lot of artists end up working in comic stores, because it’s a part-time job, where you talk about art. So we published a few things on our own, and then in 2013, we started co-publishing with Retrofit Comics, which is based out of Philadelphia, so, I think, we’ve released 30 comics since then.
Brogan: We’re talking really independent stuff, what are sometimes called in the business, “mini comics,” often.
Smith: We’ve since started doing some graphic novels too, because that’s getting too ambitious, I think. But anyway—
Brogan: So is that a part of the business that you’re involved with on a managerial side?
Smith: That’s all me. Yeah, that’s what takes up a lot of my day, when I’m not running the stores or helping out at the stores, so yeah. I’m kind of like the distribution financial side of that with Box Brown, who’s the founder of Retrofit, being the editorial side, but he’s just announced that he’s taking a break because he’s just had his first baby, so now I’m going to be editorial too. I’ll be busy.
Brogan: Does that mean that you’re handling submissions, looking at—are you reaching out to artists? How does that work for you?
Smith: Oh, boy, let’s see. So, reaching out to people we’re interested in publishing, then managing them through the process to make sure their stuff comes out on time. We’ve run three or four Kickstarters to raise money to publish their books. Talking to distributors, shipping books. Talking to the printer, going to conventions, that’s a big part of my job now, as comics shows or conventions are almost always on the weekend, and so there’s a lot of shows that kind of cater to the smaller independent presses and publishers and self-publishers.
Brogan: One of them is SPX, or Small Press Expo, that’s in Bethesda.
Smith: Right, yeah. Bethesda, that’s right outside of D.C. and Maryland and I go to that every year, have a table set up. So I think I’m up to seven or eight shows each year now that I go to. That’s a lot of my weekends.
Brogan: So you’re not just tracking the superhero stuff professionally, you’re also really looking at what’s happening at the kind of fringes of not even the industry of this comics world.
Smith: I think that’s the much more interesting part, and like you said, that someone could walk in looking for something that’s not a superhero. That’s where all the growth is going, all of it is—a large part of it’s for young adults and kids, but it’s filling in all the gaps that we’ve had 60 or 70 years for someone who wanted a comic book about cooking, there’s no such thing. Now I can think of five off the top of my head. Ours are definitely like ... We’ve done some memoirs and some sci-fi; we’ve also done some very strange art comics, I think it’s a good way of calling it, like these little mini comics that are just pushing the boundaries, trying something new, and have started to be really interesting.
Brogan: You published this past year, I think, a book, Libby’s Dad, that was one of our picks, here at Slate, for cartoonist studio prize this year.
Smith: Yeah. It won, didn’t it?
Brogan: You did win, yes. And several other titles were on our short list, but it’s a really striking book that I would recommend our listeners to this show track down. It’s about children, but it’s not a young adult story, really. It’s this really emotional tale about divorce and fear and familial violence, all done in these kind of crayonlike colors.
Smith: Pastel, pencils, or something. Very vibrant.
Brogan: I’m not sure what technique Eleanor Davis used for that, exactly, but is this really evocative, powerful, raw thing that you don’t see a lot, feel a lot, really, even in comics or any kind of creative industry. It’s a rare powerful text, which is why I found it so exciting when we were selecting that prize. When publishing things like that, do you feel at all responsible for the kind of state of comics of this art form?
Smith: Not really responsible, but I feel like we should be helping it. Literally the reason that Box Brown founded Retrofit before we got involved with it was he went into a regular comic store up in Philadelphia and you get all these superhero comics that come out every week that are $4 or whatever and you come in the next, we can get another one, but if you don’t like superheroes, you could buy a graphic novel or something that’s $20 or $15, but you don’t get that, just fun, cheap experience and so for him he wanted to be like, “Well why aren’t there more of these things coming out?” So, like I said, we have gone into publishing graphic novels since, but like Libby’s Dad is 40 pages long and so we just wanted people to be able, who’d be walking into the store, to get something new and cool as often as possible.
Brogan: There’s also this kind of middle tier of the comics business that we haven’t talked about so much. They’re the big publishers, DC, Marvel, some companies that publish superhero, science fiction, and other stuff. Below that Image Comics, Dark Horse, and others, but then there are these publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, which published Fun Family, the Benjamin Frisch book that we talked about last week. Do you have relationships with those publishers as well? Are you reading their listings and stuff?
Smith: Sure, yeah. I would say those three in particular are like the top of the independent.
Brogan: Largely independent, though some of them are run by large publishers.
Smith: Well, Top Shelf got bought by somebody but that’s very recent, but they were their own thing for, like, 15 years or something. For a lot of people doing the stuff that we’re interested in that are boundary-pushing or just not superhero genre comics, anything like that you want to get published by Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics or Top Shelf. They’re like the ones that will probably get you the most acclaim and get you the most business, really. But now there are some huge book publishers that are getting involved, particularly First Second and Graphics and Scholastic. All these kind of big book publishers are like, “Oh—”
Brogan: Sometimes publishers [unintelligible].
Smith: Exactly, and they’ll be like, “All right, we’ll start up a graphic novel division, publish a few things a year.” They’re all like, of course we’re going to pay more money than any of the small comic publishers are, so we always pay attention to them, but yeah, they’re definitely top of the heap.
Brogan: Does that make your job harder, that there are more players in the field?
Smith: Sort of, in that there’s just more to keep up with, but I think it makes it easier that more good stuff is getting published because this is still like a starvation industry. So many of these artists, especially when they’re starting out, are just not making enough money to live. Like [unintelligible] has done some of the most interesting comics in, like, the last five years, worked at Panera Bread for like 10 years, while drawing comics. It’s just like these people will do or even someone who works on a big superhero book, sometimes they’re doing it because they have to take a break from their own work that they’re very interested in because it wasn’t paying enough. So I’m going to work for a corporate industry on a Batman comic for six months and get a paycheck and then come back and do it.
Brogan: Apart from the comic stuff, which I imagine is easier to be passionate about. What about those other managerial responsibilities that I assume occupy some part of your days or weeks, hiring and firing people, things like that.
Smith: That’s the worst. I fear confrontation in all forms, so I will definitely delegate to a hatchet person. The best part about it is that, I’d say, almost everyone who’s ever worked for Big Planet Comics, including myself, start off as a customer. So right from the front you know, “What is this person’s taste in comic books?” So do they kind of match the ethos of Big Planet that you like a lot of different things, are they excited about comic books, but also are they good people? Do you get along with them? I went into the Big Planet comic store for four years, every Wednesday, so they knew who I was. They knew how annoying I’d be or how good I would probably be at something. So hiring is the best and this is still the best job I’ve ever heard of or come across in the world. It’s like you’re just selling fun things to people who are excited about them. It’s awesome. Hiring is great. Firing, we’ve hardly ever had to do, unless we were like downsizing or switching up schedules or something.
Brogan: That’s good.
Smith: Yeah people—
Brogan: I guess if you are hiring good people who are passionate about what they’re doing, then it’s easier to not have to fire them.
Smith: Right, our newest store is one we took over from another owner up in College Park, Maryland. One of the employees has been there 25 years, so there you go.
Brogan: Are there any other responsibilities that we’re passing over here, anything that I’m not thinking about? Do you spend a lot of time looking at the financials?
Smith: I was about to say, the money. It’s always like, that you get terms from the distributor. I was joking about them as a voluntary monopoly before. Diamond is the distributor for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, and basically any other big weekly comic publisher. The only place you can get it is Diamond Comics, so they’re all there by choice. They’re investigated by the Justice Department, interestingly, and they’re like, “Well everyone chose to be here.” So there’s no competition. You’re stuck with them. They’re not horrible, but if something goes wrong, you don’t have any other choices about it. Usually when you first sign up with Diamond, you write a COD check or whatever to get your comics delivered to your store. After you’ve been with them for a few times, they’ll extend your terms—I think we’re up to like a few weeks or two or three or four weeks on pay. That’s it. So, every week a huge shipment of stuff comes in and then a few weeks later, you’ve got to pay the bills, so a lot of it’s like, “Do we have enough this week? Do we have a slow week? Is the summertime good, because everyone’s out of town, or is it bad, because everyone’s out of town.” Or if kids are off to school, and then it’s payroll and paying bills.
Brogan: Is that ever tough?
Smith: Oh, yeah, it’s always tough. Because it’s a small industry, no one’s doing this to get rich, so there’s a lot of like money comes in, money goes out.
Brogan: You mentioned earlier that the constant struggle is always to figure out to avoid ordering too little, ordering too much. I imagine that sometimes you do end up with 50 unsold copies of Superman 13 or something like this. What do you do with those things? Is there a way to get your money back?
Smith: Not really. That’s the other interesting thing: comic books stores, and with Diamond, it’s all on a nonreturnable basis, so if you work at a bookstore or run a bookstore, you could order a bunch of books, and say I’ll get 20 copies, and if they don’t sell, you can send at least some of them back to the distributor. For us, everything that comes from Diamond we pay for it, and that’s it. So it makes it a lot tougher, that you have to guess right the first time. But you’re right, we mess up a lot. Something could be unpopular or whatever. So we have two ways of dealing with it, or three, I guess: you could always do a sale and just say take a comic for a dollar, just discount it to get some money back, but then we’ll go to conventions, like we went to the one up in Baltimore, the Baltimore Con and then the local D.C. one Awesome Con, and we’ll just set up a booth and be like, “Hey, everybody, here’s some comics for cheap” or “Buy 10 of them for $5.00,” or whatever deals you want to do.
The other big thing has been internet with comics book sales that before, you would have to go around store to store to find Issue 2 of your Batman story, you can’t find for 10 years. Now you can just search on eBay or a comic book store online and do it, so a lot of those are buying so they may pay like five cents a pound or some terrible, terrible amount of stuff but we’ll just fill boxes and send them off to those guys sometimes, too.
Brogan: Just to make back some of that loss.
Smith: Right, it’s all at that point, it’s like just anything you can get back as an advantage, but there are a few places you can give them away, too, like a lot of service people overseas are happy to get comics, and then you can donate them to libraries or to prisons. Prisons are very difficult, though, that they have a lot of limitations on what kind of reading you can send. So if it’s violent, which is like every superhero comic ever made, they’re like, they don’t want it. So, yeah, it’s ... I’m sure the people who want it the most can’t get it.
Brogan: I feel like we may have touched on some things that could be answers to this question. What are the most frustrating parts of the job?
Smith: That’s a good question. When you’re trying to sell something and people are not excited about it, that’s always the worst, especially if you kind of feel like you’re just not communicating well. Like, “Trust me, this is the best comic they’re ever going to read.” They’re like, “No. I just want to read my own comic.” That’s frustrating. I think, also, that there’s so little control to it that, particularly now with, I don’t know if Tom or anybody else talked about this, but Marvel Comics has been going through a downswing in their product lines and people have not been excited about it, that so much of the industry, I’d say Marvel and D.C. each, are 30 percent of the industry still, so that’s 60 percent of everything we sell. We have no control over it. If they make bad comics, we don’t have anything to sell that people are excited about.
Brogan: Yeah, I mean the whole comics industry went through this boom and bust throughout the ’90s and the early 2000s, where, I guess, it was before your time working professionally in the business, but where there was this huge local speculator boom where people thought that every issue of X-Men Number 1 was going to be up to sale for a million dollars in 30 years or something like this. So three, four million copies of these books would sell, which is totally unprecedented, insane relative to current numbers, I imagine.
Smith: I think currently Batman sells 50,000 copies or something ridiculously low.
Brogan: In a book selling 20, 40, 50 times that much for a single issue because people thought that they were going to make money off of it.
Smith: Put your kids through college
Brogan: Put your kids or college with X-Men Number 1, which unsurprisingly didn’t happen, but it did create this huge expansion and then contraction in the industry. Are there ways in which those kinds of boom and bust movements are, can you still feel things like that?
Smith: Yeah. You can see it coming. We’re worried about it now, because I think, there’s so much desperation in the big ... like that Marvel’s putting out stuff that doesn’t sell well for them, so they’re trying gimmicks. So we are seeing the return of a lot of the tricks and gimmicky maneuvers they did in the ’90s. You’ll see limited edition covers. So the big thing they start right now is lenticular, which is basically a 3-D printing effect, so if you turn the cover, it will rotate between two images. They started doing that with some comics, literally two weeks ago, they started doing this, but the other thing that’s super-huge that I hate is the variant cover, which is a super-ridiculous way to try to make things more collectable. So the big one I remember is they relaunched Star Wars a few years ago, plus Marvel got bought by Disney, surprisingly.
And so now, they said, “Let’s make our own comics through Marvel Comics again,” and Star Wars Number 1 had a thing where if you ordered 1,000 copies for your store, per store you would get one copy of the exact same comic with a different cover. Of course, this is artificially making this a very, very rare thing, because most stores orders will never be at like, you know, most order 100 copies of something, so just you’d be spending nine times as much to get one thing.
Brogan: Which you probably can’t sell for nine times as much.
Smith: You could, but then you end up with 900 copies you can’t sell, and back to the problem you just said, you’ve got to stack around the store. Of course Marvel’s like, “We have the most popular comic ever, Star Wars.” You know, well, it got ordered, but nobody’s reading it.
Brogan: Are there ways that you as a business person can push back against those kinds of efforts, or are you responsive to the fans that do come in and want the variant cover?
Smith: Oh, sure. We’re trying to help them out if we can, but we literally had to tell customers, “We can’t get what you want, because we can’t see the ordering terms,” which is, that I think it’s the most frustrating thing of all, that for these 3-D covers that we’ve ordered, some stores just can’t do it, because, again, to order those you had to order like 200 percent of a previous title’s numbers, which was already a big title. So they just arbitrarily set ordering levels to do it, and we’re lucky that we have four stores that work together. If you’re a new store that just started out last year, you just won’t have the volume to pull it off. But there are a few comics industry things—ComicsPRO, it’s the biggest one that we’re a member of, and that’s a group of comic book retailers as a professional industry group, and we’ve tried things. One of the members of that sued Marvel successfully, I believe in the ’90s, for messing up their shipping terms. There are a few kind of unionizing maneuvers that we’re trying, but even then, they only listen to us so much.
Brogan: So, there are things that are frustrating. What is most satisfying about running a comic book store?
Smith: For me, my favorite, especially—when I’m working at the store in downtown Washington, D.C.—is when someone comes in, who is a visitor or a tourist or just hasn’t read a comic in a while and are just open to reading stuff, because that’s kind of like the expertise that only you as a fan of the comic books or graphic novels or whatever can have. That you’ve suddenly made a personal connection with someone to be like, “Just tell me what you want,” and find something that they love. It’s like the best feeling in the world, or if some children come in who have never read comics, that’s also the best way to find something good for them. But just connecting with someone, getting someone a good story that they’ve never seen before, and they really enjoy.
Brogan: Well, thank you so much for joining us to talk about your very cool job today.
Smith: It’s fun. It’s great to talk about. Thank you.
Brogan: It’s been a pleasure to have you.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus segment, Jared Smith talks about the comics that get him excited when they come out every month. He tells us which books he pulls, when they are in those floppy short issues, and which longer volumes he collects to keep on his shelf for the rest of his life.
What goes in your own pull box, or whatever you call it? What are the things that you, every month, are most excited about right now, when they come in?
Smith: This is a weird question for me, because anyone who works at a comic book store, you literally have access to everything.
Brogan: Everything, sure.
Smith: I can read everything for free. So, the real trick is, what am I most excited about to read every week or every month that it comes out, and then what am I most excited to actually purchase. So for me, it’s a few that I’ve been reading a very long time. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a feudal Japan adventure comic or—
Brogan: Where the protagonist is like a rabbit.
Smith: Correct. All the characters in there are humanoid animals, so he’s like the kindhearted rabbit. His teacher was the wise lion kind of thing, but other than the animal characters, it’s exquisitely researched and very good about what Japan was like in the 1600s, so I’ve been reading that since I was a kid, still love it.
Walking Dead, I’ve fallen behind on the TV show, but I still read the comic every month. It is just nonstop cliffhanger ridiculousness, and then the ones ... there are a few like Tom King’s Mister Miracle. There are few new things that come out, that really catch my eye and are just really good writing and art. I really like that one a lot. Other than that, it’s the graphic novels and stuff like that when Usagi Yojimbo comes out in the hardcover, softcover, I will buy that, because I know I want that on my shelf for the rest of my life. So, there’ve been a lot of reprints of things coming out recently. The Corto Maltese series by Hugo Pratt, who’s an Italian who worked in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, are just some of the greatest adventure comics ever done about this kind of ne’er-do-well vagabond running around in the ’20s all over the world, and they finally started releasing those in these beautiful huge oversized European editions, and then, yeah, a lot of stuff like that that is getting translated for the first time, either from Japan or Europe. Superexciting like Cities of the Fantastic has been coming out by Schuiten and Peeters, which were these weird sci-fi architectural books that are really great. There’ve been a whole series of those, too.
Brogan: Awesome. Well, thanks again for joining us today.
Smith: Thank you.
Brogan: It was a pleasure.