Dan Gearino

‘Please join me in welcoming Gib Bickel’

I had a great night on Saturday talking about comic shops and signing books.

About three dozen people came to my book launch party in Columbus. The location was Rambling House, a bar and music venue in my neighborhood, and its people were great hosts.

I spoke for a few minutes, and then brought Gib Bickel to the stage. Gib is the co-founder and manager of The Laughing Ogre, the comic shop that has a prominent role in the book.

As luck would have it, another Ogre co-founder, Rod Phillips, was in the audience. About 20 minutes into the program, we asked him to come up, and he and Gib told how they met, and how they feel about what the shop has become. Laughing Ogre opened in 1994, co-owned by Bickel, Phillips and Daryn Guarino, three friends who had gotten to know each other about from working at the same Wendy’s store.

In the photo above, that’s Phillips on the left, Bickel in the center and me on the right.

Columbus’ comics community showed up in force, along with my co-workers from the newspaper, neighbors, friends and family.

This was a low-budget affair, but I think we pulled it off. My wife baked four chocolate cakes, which were part of a formidable refreshments table.

While we spoke on stage, a slideshow played in a loop showing some of the people and stores from the book. This photo, by Clay Geerdes, is of a Diana Schutz from her Comics & Comix days. Diana went from that great Bay Area chain of stores to a career as a comics editor.

After the program and book signing, many of us hung around for Rambling House’s Saturday show. The band was Erika Hughes and the Well Mannered, and they were incredible. If you ever have a chance to see them, do it.

Here is an excerpt from what I said the introduce the evening:

Whenever I’m traveling in a new city, I want to visit the nearest comic shop. The best comic shops are deeply tied to their cities, with work by local artists, and a specific vibe.

But I know from my work writing about businesses that comic shops shouldn’t really exist.

What I mean by that is the shops have a business model that that is damn near impossible. They buy most of their products on a nonreturnable basis from publishers. Other media retailers like Amazon can return unsold goods for a credit.

So, if a shop buys a 100 copies of the hot new comic, and that comic is a utter bust, the store is stuck. Do this enough times, and you’re out of business.

One great retailer told me he has to eat all his mistakes. This gave me the image of a guy actually eating paper and cardboard.

Despite all the hazards, there is a vibrant network of comic shops. They make you feel good about the world.

My goal with this book was twofold, two questions to answer.

1. How did things get to be this way? That’s about the origins of the business in the 1970s, when comics seemed to be fading as a mass medium, and a colorful bunch of characters essentially invented the modern comic shop. Much of today’s comic shop business model can be traced back to those early days.

And 2., how are these entrepreneurs doing today, when all brick-and-mortar retailers feel like their days may be limited?

Comics as a medium, as an art form, are doing spectacularly well. Now this is my highly subjective assessment, so take it for what it’s worth.

Comics are becoming, or have become, a mass medium again. Ask an elementary school kid about comics and they’ll light up and tell you about Zita the Spacegirl, Bone and the work of Raina Telgemeier. These comics are mainly read in book form, and mostly are sold outside of comic shops.

In addition, there is a growing audience for comics as art and literature.

At the same time, the market for superhero comics is flat or even shrinking. The core audience of adult men is increasingly fed up.

The best comic shops – the comic shops that are going to survive – are welcoming to the growing audiences, while trying not to alienate the old ones. They have a deeply stocked kids section and a staff that can sell kids books.

One of those shops is just a mile or two from here. To tell you about it, I’m going to read you a mericfully short excerpt from the book:

On a Saturday, Gib Bickel sees a woman step into the children’s section of his shop. He approaches and gives his usual opener: “Canwehelpyoufindsomething?” The woman, with tattoos down both arms, is shopping for a graphic novel for her daughter. She has no idea what to get, although a book called Hero Cats has caught her eye. He points her toward something else, a favorite of his, Princeless.

“This girl, she’s a princess,” he says. “Her dad puts her there in a tower with all her sisters until a prince will rescue her, and there’s a dragon guarding her. And then she’s like, ‘Why am I going to wait around for some dumb boy?’ So she teams up with her dragon and they have adventures.” Sold.

Bickel has hand-sold more than one hundred copies of Princeless, a small-press graphic novel that has become a cult hit and been followed by several sequels. This is what he does. It is what makes him happy.

Please join me in welcoming Gib Bickel.

One more thing:

Heidi MacDonald interviewed me on the Publishers Weekly comics podcast called More to Come. It was fun. Listen to it here.