Meet the Ogre: The origin story of the comic shop that just won the Eisner award

My local comic shop, The Laughing Ogre, was the setting for much of the present-day action in my 2017 book Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture. More than that, the shop, and its manager, Gib Bickel, were an essential part of the existence of the book, because the whole idea came from many chats between the two of us.

So I am elated to see that the Ogre was has won the 2021 Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer award, which is one of the greatest honors in the industry. The past winners of the award, which has been around since the 1990s, are a hall of fame of the business, many of whom are featured in the book. The Ogre has been nominated many times and has been a finalist before finally winning this year.

Here was the store’s nomination video:

Here are excerpts of two parts of the book that feature the Ogre. For the rest of the story, order a copy from the publisher, your local book store or comic shop.

Excerpts from Chapter 1: Magical Powers

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.

Gib Bickel

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.

He is in his midfifties, with a graying goatee and a wardrobe that is an array of T-shirts, shorts, and jeans. And he is an essential part of the Columbus, Ohio, comics scene. In 1994, with two friends, he founded The Laughing Ogre, a comic shop that shows up on lists of the best in the country. Though he sold his ownership stake years ago, he still manages the shop and can be found there most days.

Laughing Ogre is one of about 3,200 comic shops in the United States and Canada, mostly small businesses whose cultural significance far exceeds footprint of their revenue. They are gathering places and tastemakers, having helped develop an audience for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s, Bone in the 1990s, and The Walking Dead in the 2000s. And yet, for all the value that comic shops provide to their communities and to the culture, their business model has a degree of difficulty that can resemble Murderworld, the deathtrap-filled amusement park from Marvel Comics. Publishers sell most of their material to comic shops on a nonreturnable basis. By contrast, bookstores and other media retailers—some of which sell the same products as comic stores do—can return unsold goods for at least partial credit. The result is that comic shops bear a disproportionately high level of risk when a would-be hit series turns out to be a dud. And there are plenty of duds. This book is a biography of a business model, showing comic shops today and how they got here. I come at this as a reporter who covers business, and as a lifelong comics fan.

Laughing Ogre is now on its third owner, a businessman who lives in Virginia and also owns two shops there. Even Bickel was gone for a while. After the first sale in 2006, he stayed on as an employee but found he didn’t get along with the new management. He left for five years to sell cars. That job paid better and offered more stability, but he missed the people at the store. He came back in 2011, welcomed as a returning hero by employees and longtime customers.

The store’s most recent big change was in the summer of 2015, when several long-term employees left for other jobs or for school. This left Bickel with only one remaining full-time coworker, Lauren McCallister. She was twenty-two at the time and a recent graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design. She also does autobiographical comics, which she sells on her website, at shows, and at the store.

During the time I spent at Laughing Ogre, it was the Bickel and McCallister show. They served as manager and assistant manager, respectively, and worked with a group of mostly new hires. McCallister likes to call her boss “Old Man,” as in, “I just sorted that shelf, Old Man.”

Lauren McAllister and Gib Bickel, photographed in 2016.

But when he’s not around, she talks about him like this: “I think he has magical powers,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. He’s like a master salesman, really. He has a way with every single person who comes through the door. Even like the craziest person, he can deal with them so effortlessly. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Still to this day, after working with him with three years, I can’t tell you what kind of weird voodoo he’s working.”

The owners and managers of the best shops are a collection small enough that most of them know each other. They have seen some of the best in the business fail. They have failed themselves, or at least come close. Much of this is because of the unique risks of selling comics, a set of dangers that exceed the substantial challenges confronted in running many other types of small businesses. Almost nothing about this model makes sense if you look at it purely in terms of profit and loss.

Excerpt from Chapter 4: An Ogre’s Story

On a Saturday in May, a line extended out the door. This was Free Comic Book Day 2015 at The Laughing Ogre. The store would give away thousands of comics. It also would ring up more sales, by far, than any other day of the year. Near the front door was a face-painting station for the kids, some of whom came dressed as superheroes. Across the aisle was a table for the Hero Initiative, a national charity that sells prints and books to raise money for comics creators in financial need.

The annual event takes place at thousands of shops around the world. Publishers produce special titles that they sell at a deep discount to retailers, who in turn give the comics away to customers. Started in 2002, it is by far the largest promotion in the industry. Customers come for the free stuff, but almost nobody leaves without buying something else.

“On Free Comic Book Day, 90 percent of the people through are not your usual crowd,” Gib Bickel said.

He saw the day as an opportunity to turn casual fans into regulars. At the same time, he knew that the first-time customers that day were walking into a store so crowded that it could feel uninviting. The cool air escaping because of the constant opening of the front door, along with the roomful of warm bodies, made the whole place feel sticky, especially for the employees.

Laughing Ogre was going through a rough patch. The previous February, the store had been sold for the second time in its history. It was not a happy transaction. Bickel was there for both sales, first as the owner and then as an employee. Each sale was stunning in its own way. He had reason to feel shell-shocked, except that he was accustomed to upheaval. Indeed, the history of the store could be seen as a series of rough patches.

Way before Laughing Ogre, Bickel was an up-and-coming manager for Wendy’s restaurants. He had started with the company while a student at Ohio State University and soon dropped out because he liked the idea of getting a decent paycheck rather than paying for classes. Still in his midtwenties, he was a Wendy’s veteran by the time he got assigned to manage a store on Columbus’s west side in the mid-1980s.

In his first week there, he told the employees that the store had an unusually small number of comment cards from customers. A few days later, he looked at a bulletin board for the cards and saw four had been received, a veritable avalanche. “They were very complimentary,” he said. Then he saw the names on each card: Peter Parker, Reed Richards, and Anthony Stark, the secret identities of Spider-Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Iron Man, respectively. “I realized, holy cow, these are all fake and someone in here is a comic fan.”

Bickel had been a comics reader ever since high school, when he picked up Amazing Spider-Man #149 off of a spinner rack. It was at a pharmacy in his hometown, Greenville, Ohio, a county seat near the border with Indiana. The issue’s cover had the title character fighting his clone, so there were two Spider-Men. He was hooked.

Gib Bickel in 1979. Photo courtesy of Bickel.

By the time he got to the west side Wendy’s, he had thousands of comics and had branched off into ancillary geeky pursuits, such as role-playing games. He was excited at the idea that someone at the store was also a fan. The author of the comment cards turned out to be Rod Phillips, an employee who was in high school. When Bickel asked about the cards, Phillips burst out laughing.

“Back then, nobody knew who Anthony Stark was,” Phillips said. This was long before the Iron Man movies made Tony Stark more of a household name. “We formed a really fast friendship.”

A year or so later, another comics fan came to work there, Daryn Guarino. He had moved from Connecticut for college and lived in an apartment across the street from the restaurant. The three of them became close friends and stayed that way after they all moved on to other jobs. About ten years later, they cofounded The Laughing Ogre.

Bickel was the oldest of the three, in his early thirties when they opened the store. He had been married and divorced, and had two children. He had experience from years of managing employees and maintaining the books for his Wendy’s stores. He also had worked as a manager for Wizard of Comics, a small local chain of shops.

“Gib was very much the heart of what we wanted to do,” Phillips said. “He was always the one [for whom] this is what you’re born to do. It’s what makes you happy. It’s your niche in life.” For the other two, it was more of a lark. Phillips had worked part-time at Wizard of Comics with Bickel, and he liked the idea of running his own shop. He was young and single, with nobody to talk him out of doing a crazy thing like opening a small business.

Guarino was a freelance computer programmer, and was putting up all of the cash, about $30,000. “Daryn was always the wheeler-dealer guy,” Phillips said. “He just wanted to have a business, and he had only a middling interest in standing behind a counter and stuff. The classic description of Daryn is the guy who owns a restaurant and doesn’t like to cook or anything, but loves to walk around and ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you enjoying your meal?’”

In terms of temperament, Bickel and Guarino were near-opposites. Phillips likes to use a Star Trek analogy, saying Bickel was the analytical Spock, while Guarino was the passionate Dr. McCoy. And yes, Phillips concedes, he cast himself at Captain Kirk, the ruggedly handsome adventurer and natural leader.

The friends began to talk seriously about opening a store in spring of 1994. By the summer, they were scouting locations. They wanted to be close to a residential area, preferably near a high school, and not too far from Ohio State. The spot they ended up renting was a familiar one, a recent former home of Wizard of Comics. The search took almost no time at all.

“It went from notion to reality in an incredibly short span of time,” Phillips said.

As he remembers it, they were able to move forward with abandon because only one of them, Bickel, had any serious commitments at home. He had two children and was dating the woman who would become, and still is, his wife, and she had a child of her own. Phillips and Guarino were single and could throw themselves wholeheartedly into this new pursuit.

Not everything was working out, however. The friends had planned to sell comics and role-playing games, but the former Wizard location sat next door to The Soldiery, a role-playing game store. In hindsight, Bickel thinks the presence of The Soldiery was a boon for his store. He and his friends decided to focus exclusively on comics, aiming to have the most diverse selection in town. They did this while still benefiting from foot traffic for The Soldiery, an audience that was likely to be interested in comics.

Laughing Ogre had a mission. It wanted to be a store that gave you no reason not to shop there. It would be open longer hours each day than any competitor, and seven days per week, and most holidays. While some stores favored Marvel or DC or independent titles, Laughing Ogre would have everything.

On top of all that, the store would have a name you couldn’t forget. Where did it come from? The friends had a long been players of Warhammer, the tabletop role-playing game. Guarino ran the game, and he had invented a tavern that was a recurring setting for the characters. It was called The Laughing Ogre.

“We wanted a character,” Bickel said. “We wanted something people would remember.” The ogre logo was designed by an acquaintance, Gary Thomas Washington, who was a commercial artist. The original sign remains in place, more than twenty years later.

The Ogre himself, art by Gary Thomas Washington.

The store opened on October 28, 1994, a Friday. The co-owners had built the counter and fixtures themselves. On that first day, many of the shelves were empty, and long boxes of comics were stacked along the wall.

“A guy walks in and says, ‘I thought you were open today,’” Bickel said. “We said, ‘We are open.’ He said, ‘I’ll come back when you’re more open.’”

At first, the co-owners were the only employees, and they received no income. They worked all of the store’s hours themselves, and each of them maintained a full-time, or close to full-time, job on the side, just in case the store flopped.

In the history of the comics business, 1994 was a significant year, the beginning of the deepest downturn since the creation of the direct market two decades earlier. The bust followed an early 1990s boom in which many retailers overextended themselves. Laughing Ogre was coming onto the scene with no debt, low costs, and an abundance of enthusiasm, right as many of its local competitors were being whipsawed by the downturn. So, while 1994 looked like a terrible year to open a comic book shop, it turned out to be fortuitous timing.

But any new business has its problems, and the first one for Laughing Ogre had to do with staffing, or the lack thereof. The co-owners found that details got missed because the store was nobody’s full-time job. They needed one of them to quit his other job and become a day-to-day manager. That person turned out to be Bickel, in the spring of 1995. His pay was the store’s first salary, and its largest expense other than inventory.

The store had a full selection of comics from Marvel and DC and other big publishers, and made a point of having an extensive selection of material from smaller publishers. There were competitors in town that specialized in mainstream superhero comics or small-press comics, but none that tried to do both, Bickel said. As a result, many of Laughing Ogre’s first customers would pick up a few items they couldn’t get at their main store, while still doing the bulk of their buying somewhere else.

“We were everybody’s second store,” he said. As some of the other shops went out of business, Laughing Ogre was poised to pick up the customers.

The Ogre’s original front counter when it was still under construction. Photo courtesy of Bickel.

Within four years, the store was the largest in the region, by Bickel’s estimate. Some of the gains were by conquest, with people switching from other stores. And some were by expanding the market into underserved groups, such as women.

“Pretty early on we had a large female clientele that we were really proud of,” Phillips said. This was in contrast to shops that had a boys’ club mentality, where women would “get treated like a Martian, if not outright harassed,” he said.

The store became one of the social centers of the Columbus comics scene. It hosted regular signings for comics creators and had parties on the nights before major conventions, such as Mid-Ohio Con and the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo. In doing this, the owners got to know many of the creators who were coming up during that time.

One year, the convention guests included Tony Moore, the cocreator and artist on a new horror series called The Walking Dead. Bickel bought the original cover art for issue #15, showing the protagonist, Rick Grimes, riding his motorcycle. The price was $200, and it helped Moore recoup the costs the trip, he would later say. Years later, The Walking Dead has been adapted into a hit television series, and the cover likely is the most valuable comics-related item that Bickel owns, worth thousands of dollars, but he’s not selling.

Bickel was eager to buy the cover because he was a fan of the series, long before it was a commercial success. “We pushed it really hard from day one,” he said. The Walking Dead was one of the titles that had a sign by it saying, “Recommended by Gib.” This meant that customers who tried the book could bring it back and exchange it if they didn’t like it.

Among the other titles that won the status of “Recommended by Gib”: Ultimate Spider-Man, Stray Bullets, and Strangers in Paradise. His favorites tended to come from a select few creators, such as Terry Moore, the writer and artist behind Rachel Rising and Strangers in Paradise, and Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers, and Daredevil.

The Ogre’s staff on a Saturday in 2016: Sarah Edington, Alissa Sallah and Lauren McCallister.

And yet all those creators were secondary to the hometown favorite, Jeff Smith. He had launched Bone, his self-published comic, in 1991 from his Columbus studio. He and his wife, Vijaya Iyer, lived in California from 1991 to 1994, before returning to Columbus. When they got back, Smith became a regular customer.

The store’s sales grew in each of its first eight years, and it was profitable that entire time. “A lot of the mistakes we were making were getting eaten up by sales increases,” Bickel said. The mistakes were almost all related to runaway costs, much of it for inventory that was poorly tracked and got lost in the back room.

This was about when the trio of owners became a duo. Phillips decided he wanted to get a more traditional job, and went back to information-technology work. He sold his share to Bickel and Guarino, and the three remained friends.

The store’s fortunes began to turn during what Bickel calls the “Bush recession” of 2002 and 2003. The country’s economy was sluggish, and the store found that its expenses had grown to exceed its income. By 2005, a business that had once known nothing but profit was $150,000 in debt, and the co-owners had no idea how to reverse course. Bickel worked nearly every hour the store was open. He found he was too tired to give proper attention to ordering and organizing the back room. He staggered through most days. One of the most upbeat people you ever will meet was tired and depressed. In the middle of this, his family dog, Charlie, died.

“I remember being devastated. I don’t deal well with that kind of loss,” he said. Bickel began to see that there was no way forward for the store. He and Guarino would need to close. It was just a matter of when.

Bickel reached out to Gary Dills, owner of Phoenix Comics & Games, a two-store chain in Virginia. Bickel had met Dills a few years earlier through a comics retailer group, and they had kept in touch to trade ideas. This time Bickel had a plea. He asked Dills to consider buying Laughing Ogre’s excess inventory.

“The more we talked, [Dills] said, ‘Have you ever thought about selling the business?’” Bickel said. He knew of nobody in the Columbus area who had the desire and the money to buy the store. And he hadn’t considered that somebody outside Columbus would want to own it.

Dills visited the store and was astounded by what he saw as a great business that was being run poorly. “That was probably one of the top forty stores in the country in terms of volume, and they had one guy doing everything,” Dills said, referring to Bickel. “He’s running ragged and he has no time to get anything done.” He saw big problems in the way Bickel and Guarino related to each other. Bickel worked most of the retail hours and interacted with customers, while Guarino was largely behind the scenes. “It was kind of this left hand not talking to the right hand,” Dills said.

In February 2006, Dills bought the store. Bickel would remain as an employee, and Guarino would leave the business. I was unable to reach Guarino for an interview. He still lives in the Columbus area, and is not in regular touch with Bickel.

The fix for Laughing Ogre turned out to be easy. Dills emptied the store of more than fourteen hundred storage boxes of unsorted comics and books that had accumulated in the back room. He sold them in bulk to another comics dealer and had them trucked away. He followed this with a remodel, taking down walls so that there was more space open to the public and less storage space. Then he started using inventory-management software so that he could better align his ordering with sales.

Less than a year after the sale, Laughing Ogre was profitable again, and monthly sales were up $10,000 from the prior year, Dills said. But this was not a happy time for Bickel. Dills, who spent most of his time in Virginia, had hired a friend of his to be the store manager. The new manager turned out to be one of the few people on earth who couldn’t get along with Bickel.

“I chose the wrong person is what the reality was,” Dills said. “I take as much of the blame as there is in that situation.”

Bickel quit his job at the store in December 2006, less than a year after the sale. Customers received this note with their comics:

Dear Ogre shoppers, “I believe it’s time for me to fly.” OK that was REO, but it also sums up what I need to tell all of you. When I leave on December 21st, I will no longer be working at The Laughing Ogre. It’s a very tough thing to do, but it is time. I can’t express how much I will miss you all. The hardest thing about leaving is realizing that so many friends won’t be visiting me anymore. Your friendship and loyalty as customers is greatly appreciated, and I do mean greatly. . . .

I’ll still buy my comics at The Ogre, so I may see some of you from time to time. I encourage everyone to treat the new store as wonderfully as you did the old one. Thanks again, you have all been absolutely great to work for. Take care, Gib

He went to CarMax, a national chain of used-car dealerships, and worked on the sales staff. He liked it, but he missed comics. During Bickel’s time selling cars, Dills went through two store managers before promoting Jeff Stang to the job, an employee Bickel had hired back in the day. Stang had moved to Columbus for college and was a customer at Laughing Ogre before he was an employee. He had, and has, a memorable look, with a bald head and a clear fondness for the weight room.

In August 2011, Stang posted online that he had a big surprise for longtime customers. That Monday, Bickel returned to Laughing Ogre, and he’s been there ever since. “Anyone who had been shopping there for any amount of time was just ecstatic,” Stang said.

Excerpts from Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture, published in 2017 by Swallow Press at Ohio University.