Thursday, March 27, 2014

[replay] Back Matter interviews #2 - Brian Hibbs

When I first started writing about comics, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Along with spotlights on specific comics, I also interviewed a handful of people working in comics.  This interview was with Brian Hibbs, owner and operator of Comix Experience in San Francisco and writer of the column, Tilting at Windmills, which examines comics from a retail perspective.  His intelligence and candor were much appreciated, despite illuminating some of the misconstrued, and biased, ideas I had going into the interview.  Enjoy.

On April Fool’s Day in 1989, Brian Hibbs, at the ripe old age of 21, opened Comix Experience in San Francisco.  With multiple nominations for the Will Eisner Spirit of Comic Retailing Award as well as being honored with the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s “Best of the Bay” award a number of times, Comix Experience is recognized as one of the stellar retail comic outlets in the country by fans and professionals alike.  This is due mainly to the staff’s love of the medium and the effort they put forth to make entering the store an “experience” for everyone.  Mr. Hibbs is also the author of the monthly column Tilting at Windmills at Newsarama (, where he shares his insights, borne of seventeen years as a successful retailer, on the comics marketplace.

A few weeks ago Mr. Hibbs agreed to answer some questions via email for Independent Propaganda.  His responses were illuminating and candid.  I want to thank him for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview and I hope you all enjoy what follows.

-Comic shops seem to come and go rather quickly.  I have seen a large number pass through the greater Bangor area up here in Maine over the past several years.  To what do you most attribute your own success in this business?
Largely to carrying a wide and diverse line and not trying to play favorites of one genre or style over another.  We focus pretty purely on reading, we don’t have high priced back issues, and we try to have an atmosphere that’s conducive to the “civilian” audience.

-I assume you have carried quite a number of mini-comics and self-published comics during the time Comix Experience has been open.  What cardinal sin do you often see self-publishers making that reduces their chances of success?
It is usually one of two things: biting off more than you can chew, or the base quality of the work being poor.
Many creators just aren’t suited to being a businessman as well as a creator.  That’s OK – not everyone has the talent set to go with the job.  And a lot of creators need to have their asses kicked before they’ll actually get to, you know, creating.  How many excellent series have started where the creator simply failed to produce the work on any kind of a schedule, and the audience drifted away?
Those who can, should; but those who can’t very very much shouldn’t!
As for the quality of the work, at the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters.  I don’t necessarily care if someone is technically accomplished yet, but I do very much care if they “get” the rhythm of the comics page, and that the work has wit or charm or verve or something else that will help it stand out in the sea of choices my customers have.

-How can self-publishers and mini-comic creators best help you out in selling their books?
Best thing you can do is show me a copy of what it is you want me to be buying – a cheap photocopy is perfectly fine.  However, I don’t look at .PDFs or links, and take those as a sign of unprofessionalism, or undercapitalization.

-When approaching you regarding carrying a mini-comic what is the most important thing these creators should remember?
Other than “be good,” there’s not all that much to say.  We carry minis on a 50/50 consignment basis, and we don’t get such a huge flood that I’ve needed to set up substantial policies of acceptance – pretty much if you bring it in, we’ll stock it.  (I tend not to deal with non-local minis because the shipping costs invariably eat up everyone’s profit).  However, if the work sucks, it’s not like customers are going to be buying it, and the creators aren’t going to be making any money off it, anyway.
Mm, and remember to put a cover price on your comic.  So many mini-creators absolutely space on that.

-When ordering new books from untried talent, what is it you look for to help make such a decision?
Not to sound like a broken record, but “is it any good?”.  To put things at their most basic level, I have x amount of rack space.  The amount of things available for me to stock is a multiple of x.  So you need to have something that stands out from the rack, whether it is a hilarious, but crudely drawn mini like Fart Party or a slickly produced fantasy title like Mouse Guard.  The good news is that once we get past the mechanical things like pricing or distribution, I’m just as happy to sell something from a gal in her basement as I am from a big New York publisher.

-Do you think the perception of comics as only "kiddie" fare will change with traditional book publishers such as Ballantine now creating their own graphic novel imprints?
I actually think you have that exactly backwards – the reason that traditional book publishers are getting involved is that the cultural shift began to happen years ago, and they’re finally figuring it out!

-In your opinion, will this push from these traditional publishers adversely affect specialty shops such as yours?
Shouldn’t.  A specialist will always do better than a generalist with a specialty product.  I’m reasonably confident that I’ve sold more copies of Persepolis or Black Hole than any three bookstores combined.
The only real question is will the traditional book publishers deign to work with the specialty market to any significant degree, or will they turn their noses up at the opportunities we provide?
Here’s an example: recently, one of the big publishers had Chris Ware out touring for one of his books, and the publisher’s local rep placed him at a Mystery Book store in the Bay Area.  I mean… wha--!?!? At no point were I or Comic Relief, or any of the other fine comic shops in the area approached.  I can pretty much guarantee we’d have double the attendance, and sell twice as many books for that kind of an appearance, but I’m sure we weren’t even thought of in the first place.  There’s as large and as misguided blinders in place at the traditional book publishers, as there is at a Marvel or a DC.

-Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover “events” and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?
I don’t really understand the basis of this question at all?
Look, just because you’re not personally interested in the Marvel or DC superhero universes doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of passion for those things in a significant number of consumers.  Trying to paint things as an “either/or” situation is, I think, both foolish and short-sighted.  There’s absolutely no reason that Optic Nerve can’t rest comfortably in the same store as [Marvel’s] Civil War.  In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of people who buy Optic Nerve also buy Civil War, and they enjoy both.
Further, “event” comics do seem to be bringing both the “lapsed” comics readers back, as well as drawing in actual new “civilian” readership.  Just this week we’ve seen many new-to-comics faces attracted by Spider-Man’s unmasking in Civil War #2.  Will that audience stick around if all we have to offer them is events and ‘splodey kicking?  No, of course not.  But I can assure you as a guy who runs a store intended to be a “civilian friendly” bookstore, more real and actual new-to-comics human beings come in looking for Lesbian Batwoman or Spidey Unmasked than do because there’s a new Marjane Satrapi graphic novel released.  By all means, the latter is more likely to add to Mankind’s Quest For Truth than the former, but I want to have both of those objects in my store.
More generally, I think that Marvel decided long ago that they pretty much just wanted to be Marvel comics, and they just don’t have the innate facility to do anything other than that.  Nor do I think we should expect them to necessarily be anything other than that.
DC, on the other hand, has made repeated and successful forays in breaking past the traditional superhero audience.  In many ways, I think it can be argued that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is what actually started the cultural and perceptual shift towards comics=literature.  While we had had several books that created ripples of awareness before that (Maus, Watchmen, etc.), Sandman was the first continuing long-form work to really capture the hearts and minds of the intelligentsia, (and the bookstores of America!)  Between the success of Vertigo and the noble experiments of Piranha/Paradox, I think DC has been extremely aggressive in trying to produce lasting quality work.

-This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today’s mainstream comics?
Yeah, see, I think you’re jumbling some things in your head.  The largest problem facing “mainstream” comics is fundamentally one of distribution, rather than lack of a potential audience.  There simply aren’t enough venues that sell them, and there isn’t the kind of capital on hand needed to properly fund new entrepreneurs coming in.  A modern comics store is a low six-figure proposition to open.
The reason that sales took such a massive drop off in the 90s wasn’t that there wasn’t an audience for comics – rather, it was because the number of venues selling the product dropped by something like two-thirds.  The reason that happened was that a lot of stores got caught up in trying to play a collectible futures market rather than focusing on the reading audience.  Because the collectibles future market was more of a ponzi scheme than a legitimate reflection of supply/demand, the whole thing collapsed rather spectacularly, taking thousands upon thousands of stores with it.
The difference, I think, between then and now is that the “gimmicks” being used now tend to be more “story-oriented,” rather than “collectible oriented.”  – people are buying Civil War because they’re interested in what happens, rather than trying to fatten their portfolios by speculating on a commodity.

-Judging by the dwindling audience there are things that need improvement within the comic industry.  From your point of view as a retailer, what are some major issues that need to be addressed in order for things to improve?
See, yeah, “dwindling” audience – I just don’t see that.  I see a quickly growing audience, that’s finding more and more things to enjoy every week.
That’s not to say there aren’t structural problems in the mainstream arena, of course.  I primarily would like to see Marvel and DC focus their effort into fewer, better titles for some of their franchises (I’d rather have 1 Batman comic that sold 100 copies than 6 that sell 20 copies each – while I’m “up” 20 copies on the absolute number of copies I’m selling, I’m doing 6 times the work to make that, and I’ve reduced by one-sixth the chances that a new reader won’t feel overwhelmed if they’re interested in trying the franchise)
I’d also adore it if there was some real choice in distribution.  Diamond’s effective stranglehold on the market is, I believe, stifling capitalism and innovation.

-There have been a number of new independent comic companies to come along in the past several years and a large percentage of those have gone out of business.  What do you feel has allowed companies like TopShelf, Oni and Avatar to remain successful?
If there is a common thread between those companies, I’m not sure I see it.
The way you succeed in comics, or in any endeavor, is that you find your niche, and you fill it to the best of your abilities.  Some people have the talents and wits to do so, others don’t.  General statistics (not comics-specific) are that 90% of all small businesses fail within the first five years.  I don’t think comics publishing is statistically more difficult than opening a restaurant, or a clothing store or something.
I think the question to be asked is more: why did those publishers fail.  And in virtually all cases it can be tied to too rapid over-expansion, and not having a clear idea of who their audience was, or marketing to them in any significant degree, i.e. - being poor businesspeople.

-What are some of the positive things you currently see within the comic industry?
Creatively, we’re in the middle of a “golden age” – there are so many excellent comics coming out from so many talented people that we’re absolutely spoiled for choice.  There’s also been a small boom of new stores coming in – Rocketship, Riot, Secret Headquarters, etc. – that is starting to encourage me.

-Many people, rightfully, lament the fact that most publishers do not seem to be reaching out to a younger audience.  What could they be doing in order to reach these new, young readers?
I’m not sure that there’s much more they can be doing short of inventing a time machine and figuring out a way to have prevented the general collapse of the newsstand in the first place.
Comics can’t be bought if they’re not available in the places that children are.  Most children can’t travel more than a block on their own, so, naturally, the demise of the “mom and pop” store that carried comics via the ID [Independent Distributors] killed most of the chances for kids’ eyes to see comics in the first place.
Marvel and DC each publish at least one or two “kids” comics each week, so they’re certainly producing the work.  The hard part is getting them to where the audience is – supermarket check out placement (where they are with their moms) is tall dollars.
Really though, I’ve never had any hard problem “converting” a 20-year old who hasn’t really ever read comics into a regular reader.  “Start them young” has some value, but I think getting adults to read comics really isn’t very hard.

-What do you hope the future holds for comics as an artform?
More of the creative explosion we’ve seen over the last decade.  I’m really not worried about that part at all – comics have always attracted fertile minds and deep talents.  It is a good time to be reading them now!

I want to thank Mr. Hibbs once again for his time and if you want to check out one of the “Best of the Bay” you can go online to  

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