If you run a comic store and have something to say, drop us a line!
Brendon Dann from Dee’s Comics kicks us off, detailing his transition from staff member to owner of this long-running business in Canberra, and how embracing local comics has helped his bottom line.
By Brendan Dann
Wow! You own a comic shop, what’s it like???
Depending on my level of intoxication, sleep debt, delirious euphoria or pure unbridled rage, the answer varies from “it’s goddamn fucking amazing” to “Fancy committing an act of arson and insurance fraud with me?”
The straight answer is, it’s pretty much like owning any kind of business. Frustrating at times, fun, but mostly a LOT of work. You must stay on top of what’s going on in the books, various trends and most importantly know what your customers want. You have to sort and bag literally hundreds of comics. You must order two months in advance, so you need to be a clairvoyant seer to be able to gauge what’s going to be hot and what’s not. You have to sort and bag literally hundreds of comics. Selling online has become essential which means you need to spend a good part of each day packing and sending parcels. And in the current retail market unfortunately you also have to do more than comics. That means trying to keep up with the latest games, movies and fads that you may not be interested in, but also knowing when fads are on their way out, so you don’t end up with a lot of stock that nobody wants anymore. Did I mention you have to sort and bag literally hundreds of comics? If you have a small shop like mine, you’re probably doing all the administration while running the cash register and helping customers too. That means very little time off.
But it isn’t all doom and back office drudgery! I get to meet a huge variety of amazing people from endless different backgrounds while working with something I absolutely love. I get to share the thing I’m most passionate about with kids getting into reading, new readers, long-time readers and my community. I absolutely love helping someone discover a new comic that they can really enjoy and then having them come back to talk about it with us. Reading comics and talking comics is the thing that’s awesome about comic ‘pimping’ but there’s much more to it.
Comics are amazing and it’s a fun business, but it’s still a business.
But saying that, it’s not a normal business, it’s a community, a living breathing entity, it’s very own ecosystem, from the reader who comes in screaming about how he hates the changes to Spider-Man before buying a copy of the next issue of Spider-Man – to the ‘perfectionist’ who inspects every book like some sort of quality control gestapo. The readers, the collectors, the talkers, the speculators, the closet fanboys/girls, and the people who drag in long boxes of damaged ‘really old’ comics from the late 90’s that a cat has peed on and demand thousands of dollars for their ‘rare collector’s items’, they all make up the rich tapestry, community and experience that is a local comic shop. Comic book shops are a mystical wonderful place full of all the things you love, you already know that you have at least something in common with whomever you meet in there, since they’re pretty much guaranteed to be into comics.
As the age of small businesses owned by families slowly passes us by, your local comic shop remains somewhere you can go, providing you are wearing pants, and interact with real like-minded people, that’s a whole lot better than just clicking your way through your shopping or going to a de-personalised retail store. One of the best things about comics are the stories and stories bring people together. The sharing and love of stories allows you to connect in a way that isn’t always apparent at face value.
In 2016 I took the plunge, actually, it wasn’t so much a plunge but more a tentative easing, like an old man into a lukewarm bath, and in partnership with my wife bought my local comic shop, Dee’s Book and Comic Shop. After working in the store on and off for just over a decade (on occasion I would decide I needed to be an ‘adult’ and would pursue a ‘real’ job), I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Dee’s is Canberra’s oldest running comic shop and somewhat of an institution, we had big shoes to fill and an expectation that needed to be met. Our aim was to retain the things that made Dee’s special, build on what was loved about the store for 28 years but also improve and make the store the comic shop I had always dreamed of owning.
One of my biggest disappointments visiting comic shops in Australia was always the lack of Australian comics or finding a token area in a dark dusty corner/alcove designated for local and indie books. There are so many talented artists and writers in Australia and great quality books, I just couldn’t believe the seeming mantra of shop owners, something that I’d heard over and over for decades, that “oz comics are a waste of time” or “happy to put them in our oz comics area, they just never sell”. As much as I love feeling like Indiana Jones venturing into a lost temple that no one has set foot into in recent memory, if you put anything in a dark dusty corner and don’t actively tell people it’s there, unless it’s porn, you aren’t going to sell it.
Dee’s was no different, in fact I’m told Dee’s was actually famous, or more appropriately, infamous in indie comic circles as being the store you didn’t even bother to include on your bulk e-mail list.
My passion and love of stories fuelled my desire to seek out Australian books, the risk scared me as we weren’t exactly in a financial position to invest money into stock that may or may not sell, after all I loved picking up Aussie books but couldn’t be one hundred percent sure our customers would. The words of Kierkegaard (or maybe Oprah) haunted me “During the first period of a man’s life, the danger is not to take the risk.”
It was at this time I was shown a copy of The Demon. I was blown away, this book was familiar in style but at the same time totally unique, original and well crafted. How cool is that feeling when you pick up a new book, flip through its pages, and fall in love with a new artist or style? Or that magic moment when you pick up a book and read a smart writer you didn’t even know existed? I was instantly taken back to my childhood, that moment when I picked up my first comic filled with characters I was somehow familiar with, exhilarated by the stories of other times, other worlds and thrilling adventure. It dawned on me, “I love this book, everyone will love this book, I will sell the absolute shit out of this book”. It was time to take the biggest risk so far with our new business.
The reception of Australian books by our customers, starting with The Demon, was unbelievable. I loved the book so much I invested my spare time into talking about it and posting about it. The more enthusiasm I had for books, the more I sold. Then something I never expected started happening, the book’s creator Matt Kyme, a true gentleman of comics, not only reciprocated the support I was giving his book with support for Dee’s, but he showed absolute genuine appreciation for what we were doing. Any notions of risk were now gone, I reached out, I told anyone and everyone about all the great new books and stories we were now stocking, proudly putting Australian comics on the shelf that were just as good and better than the American books. The Demon lead to Bipp and Trax, which lead to Job Dun, Killeroo soon followed, now we stock a massive range of great quality Australian books, proudly displayed on the ‘new comics’ shelves with Marvel and DC. I can now proudly say we stock many Australian titles that outsell the American best sellers issue for issue. The most rewarding thing though is having people come back to tell us how much they loved a particular indy book and realising they have felt what I felt reading that same book.
2017 was a bit of a lacklustre year in some respects for the worldwide comic industry, constant reports of stores closing, dissatisfaction with the product coming from some of the big publishers, whatever the reasons there are many stores reporting their sales have dropped making it tough ‘in the trenches’. What is apparent though, the desire for something different and unique is growing. Independent books are getting more love with creators putting more passion into their books and taking risks to deliver new, different and original content.
This is the time Australian creators to take the bull by the horns, then kick it in the nuts!
Making a great comic is the best thing you could hope for as a creator so when you have done just that but aren’t doing the work needed to get it to readers, it’s a tragedy. A great comic fantastically marketed will take off, sure as no Marvel or DC hero stays dead. There’s little question about it. The quality of your comic does matter and having a great comic unlocks the best marketing strategy available, letting your comic speak for itself. You can do this by providing shops with previews (complimentary copies never go unappreciated, wink wink, nudge nudge) and coming up with ways you can work with store owners to raise awareness and market your book with minimal effort.
In all honesty, getting a store to take a few of your books is not even half your job done, the idea that a retailer only has to put your book on the shelf and it will sell is completely false. Marvel and DC can have this expectation as they have over 70 years of advertising and promotion under their belt. The hardest thing for comic store owners and staff is to convey your passion and enthusiasm for the book to customers, having you as part of the team in this respect goes a long way. Give us some blurbs, quotes and let us know what inspired and drove you in creating your book. Simple marketing that can be done for free like engaging on social media, writing guest posts, sharing and promoting the stores that do stock your book, and doing a little more than just fostering publicity from comic news sites and doing the smallest bit of outreach at conventions will all help to increase sales and the enthusiasm for more stores to stock your books.
The real challenge for comic creators and comic store owners is the same, that is, to look beyond the existing comic industry and fandom for interested new readers.