An Ode to Comics, Part 1 of 3: The Comic Book Store
"The horn doesn't call the dead back to life... It calls all those destined to die. ...And still choosing to sing into the void." -- Daniel Warren Johnson, Murder Falcon
I recently lost someone I knew, and I would have liked to have known him better. Jesse Tapia, a beloved employee at Arsenal Comics in Ventura, passed away far too young and far too soon on November 8. While I cannot say he was a close friend, I can say I loved every encounter with him. I’d chat with him about comics, we’d talk about our own creative endeavors, and he’d recommend books to me that I sincerely enjoyed. He was a great guy, a genuine guy, and he was one of the reasons I treasured visiting Arsenal Comics.
Comic book stores have been a significant part of my life for thirty years. It was in 1993, my freshman year at UCSB, when I learned there was even such a thing as comic book stores. Up until then, I thought the only places that sold comics were magazine stands in supermarkets. I’d casually pick up a copy of GI Joe or Transformers because of the cartoons I watched, or this weird book called X-Men because of a red-headed demon queen with cleavage on the cover, and I’d find myself fortunate if I grabbed the subsequent issues of anything before they sold out.
Taking the 24 Express from UCSB to downtown Santa Barbara and wandering into 900 State Street changed my life. This magical place called Comics on Parade didn’t just sell comics; it lived, breathed, and shat comics. They weren’t just relegated to the bottom row of a magazine rack; they claimed every shelf from floor to ceiling. Some of them even had multiple covers! Or shiny foil covers! The staff would order the comics I wanted and set those aside for me every month, ensuring I didn’t miss subsequent issues! And if I did miss an issue, I could still find it in one of fifty wooden boxes full of back issues—not creased and dog-eared from being tortured on a spinning magazine rack, but in a plastic sleeve with a piece of cardboard at its back and a new sticker price acknowledging its increased value over time. It was in this store, this hallowed ground, that comics were actually given the respect they so deserved.
But not just comics! Alongside them were graphic novels and anime and manga and board games and role playing games and collectible card games and posters and T-shirts and toys and artbooks and superhero busts. It was as though a thoughtful person with infinite resources and nothing better to do dipped into my brain and decided to open a store that would sell everything I’d enjoy. And the best part? It attracted other people like myself.
It was the first time I ever felt like I was where I belonged. A place where I could verbalize the words “dungeons and dragons” without getting beat up. A place where people knew who Jim Lee and Chris Claremont were. A place where I could track down back issues of that red-headed demon queen with cleavage on the cover. I had found my tribe.
Ever since I stumbled across my first comic book store, I told myself I’d like to open my own someday. I’ve toyed with the idea a number of times. I worked at a store for a couple of years (the aforementioned Comics on Parade, until it went out of business), delivered shipments between stores for store credit (Metro and Ralph’s, until it proved cheaper for them to use UPS), applied for various management positions (only to realize how little I’d get paid), inventoried my own collection with apps (only to have those apps become outdated), sold portions of my collection on ebay (only to have ebay claim the majority of my profit), created my own mock orders from Previews catalogs (only to discover how expensive an initial inventory would be), read books about how to open my own store (which are now outdated), toured vacant business properties (only to learn of this bullshit thing called triple net), come up with a dozen names for stores (Asgard Comics in Solvang? Avocado Comics in Carpinteria? In this case, I’ve got game), interviewed owners about the ups and downs of the business (most of whom insist publishers, distributors, property owners, taxes, and city ordanances are out to destroy them), and asked a few owners if they’d ever consider selling me their stores (the answers on this run the gamut from “fuck you” to “dear god, yes, please, take this dying animal from me”).
But I never go through with it. I never buy and sell comics at a professional level. I never accept managerial positions. I never take up anyone on their offer to sell me their store. I never sign a lease and stock my own store with wonder.
I don’t know if NOT opening my own store makes me a coward, or if OPENING my own store would make me a fool, or if neither is true and it’s simply a matter of following the ebbs and flows of a fickle heart. But over all these years, given all the assessing and researching and peripheral stabs at the target, I have determined one thing with absolute certainty: Owning a comic book store, and KEEPING it open, is monumentally fucking difficult.
What makes it so difficult? Perhaps because you need to walk the knife’s edge of understocking and overstocking in a market that won’t allow you to return unsold products to distributors for credit. Perhaps because the profit margin is slim to start with and yet your best customers expect discounts for frequenting your store. Perhaps because the publishers are always trying to convince you to overorder titles that they insist will be HOT when they turn out to be duds. Perhaps because you need to order copies of Issues 2 and 3 months before knowing how well Issue 1 will have sold, so if Issue 1 sucks, you have extra 2s and 3s lying around, and if Issue 1 rocks, everyone gets upset with you for not having enough 2s and 3s. Perhaps because Marvel did something lame with Captain America and now everyone hates Marvel for a year. Perhaps because your customers will ask you to order things for them and then decide not to buy them. (I mentioned the no credit for unsold product thing, right?) Perhaps because even if you don’t like collectible card games, you will find yourself surrounded by counterspells and Pokemon at point of sale. Perhaps because you need to simultaneously be a people person, a business expert, and a pop culture guru. Perhaps because you keep having to show Nate how to apply a corporate discount when he’s manning the register. Perhaps because weekends are… Wait, what are weekends? Perhaps because you need to order enough comics to fill your store from floor to ceiling in order to make sure not only your regulars are happy but also anyone who might stumble into your store for the first time, while also making sure not to overorder and get stuck with comics from floor to ceiling by the time next month’s batch shows up. Every month. Including holidays. ESPECIALLY holidays. And did I mention triple net?
Okay, so I have to admit: I don’t have what it takes to own a comic book store.
Few people do. And yet, despite all the courage, ambition, labor, investment, risk, time, energy, and sacrifice it takes to open a comic book store, these people do it anyway. They create communities for us outliers who liked superheroes before movies finally made them cool, who think Friday nights are for Magic: The Gathering tournaments, who need a place to buy their Gundam action figures. These visionaries took the idea from dream to reality so that the rest of us have a place to stumble into and feel like we belong. And we don’t thank them enough for it.
So here I go. I want to say thank you to Bob of Metro Comics for providing a safe zone for Marvel zombies and cosplayers for over thirty years. Thank you to Timmy of Arsenal Comics for tracking down all of those Battle Chasers alternate covers. Thank you to Jon of Avalon Comics for taking on your own store. Thank you Ralph of Ralph’s Comics, and later, Seth of Seth’s Comics, for playing such a substantial role in your community. Thank you Mike of Sterling Silver Comics for setting anchor in Camarillo. Thank you to Fusion at The Mystery Shop for offering a fun and quirky hangout to the downtown Ventura masses. And thank you to all of you who may not own your own store, but who work at one and keep the culture going. The lot of you have braved more storms and helped more lost souls than most people realize.
Which brings us back to Jesse.
I recently read one of the graphic novels he’d recommended to me: an Image comic called Murder Falcon by Daniel Warren Johnson. Though glossed with an over-the-top plot involving a garage band that battles kaiju demons with rock music (yes, it’s that badass), the book was actually about singing into the void despite knowing that you are destined to die. Which is to say, it was about comic book stores. And it was about Jesse.
Jesse, I’m glad I knew you. Thank you for recommending Murder Falcon to me. Like anyone involved in the distribution of comic books into the hands of eager readers, you made the world a better place. Thank you for singing into the void.