Big Planet Comics

My father works for the State Department. After I was born we moved to Jerusalem when I was age 3 or so, where we went over the house of some of my parents' friends, Namaan and Helen Assad. They loved kids but didn't have any of their own. They let me look through Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn. I couldn't read yet, but I pored over the colorful pages. Then when we left, they let me take it home with them. Ever since I've been into comics, including several I couldn't read the language of, with my patient parents driving me and my brother around to every comic book store each summer. I eventually ended up back in Washington DC, where Big Planet Comics had opened nearby since I lived there before. With the Small Press Expo (SPX) started up locally by some of the Big Planet Comics crew, my fate was sealed. After becoming part owner of three of the Big Planet Comics stores, I started co-publishing comics with Box Brown for his Retrofit Comics in 2013.

The Comics Journal: How long have you been in comics retail?

Jared Smith: I started in the retail side of comics twice. The first time, after I had graduated from college, in 1999 I started up an online site for selling comics called Mars Import. The inspiration for the name was the "All-American Steel" sort of idea, a very generic bland name, but in this case, it was if you were on Mars, what comics would you import? Everything good, of course! A lot of people took it to mean we were importing comics from Mars, and that worked for me too. At that time Amazon and ebay were still pretty small and there was a huge split among the comics scenes, at least to me. So I got an account to carry comics distributed through Diamond, but I also had some people approach me about carrying small press, and I approached a few people I really liked myself. My "everything good" perspective was global though. I took a trip to Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Angouleme in France and Barcelona in Spain and saw a ton of great Dutch and French and Spanish comics that should have been available in English, or at least in America just for the art. I was able to order direct from some publishers and distributors over there. I even imported books from a cool French government program that exports French books (The Center for Exporting French Books). France has a cap on how much you discount a book, which I think is something all culturally proud countries should do. In this case though I only got a 15% discount or something on it, and they only shipped air freight, so I'd get a ton of very expensive books I'd have to mark up to sell. But the audience for that sort of book in America was eager for it. There just aren't a lot of them. Plus the really great books would get translated eventually, but there are so many that still haven't. Sadly my language skills weren't good enough to keep that up, but I still think it's a good idea. Same for Japan too, but I speak/read zero Japanese, so I never tried that.

The second time was in 2001. I was complaining as usual at my local comic book store, Big Planet Comics, about my boring job doing very basic layout on technical manuals for telecommunications equipment training courses. The owner of the store, Greg Bennett, said, "Well we're opening a new store in Georgetown, do you want to be the manager?" I said yes of course! Georgetown is the original port city on the Potomac River that was incorporated into the town plan for the new capital, Washington DC. So it's one of the oldest parts of the city, [with] lots of small streets and even some cobblestones, with the river and the C&O Canal. Lots of foreigners live there, due to the cool neighborhood and expensive schools of Georgetown and George Mason University. The best part was I got to live in the apartment above the store. The store itself used to be a bookstore, so we just moved right in with the built-in bookshelves on every floor (including the parts I lived in). It was heaven. Cozy, full of weird nooks we had to work around, but heaven. Then in 2004 Greg was looking to retire, so I bought him out of the store in Vienna, Virginia that I had used to shop at, and moved over there, leaving the Georgetown one behind for now. Eventually I would buy that one too and go in with another partner, Peter Casazza, who had been the manager of the Georgetown store and the original location in Bethesda, Maryland. We bought a friendly competitor Liberty Books and Comics (nee Closet of Comics) in College Park, Maryland.

So 19 or 17 years, depending on how you look at it!

What's changed the most for your business in the last ten years?

The graphic novel boom I'd say. Back when we started you could practically shelve every good graphic novel or trade paperback (slang term for a spined collection of individual comic books). Nowadays there isn't enough room to do that. Or time to read them all. The game has really changed, [and] just reading weekly comic book releases doesn't keep you up with the market enough. A ton of comic book stores closed over the last year, partly due to terrible offerings from the large mainstream weekly comic book publishers (DC and Marvel usually), and I think a lot of stores just couldn't adjust to that fast enough, or didn't want. We're trying to!

Digital innovations lead a huge panic too. "Are comic book stores going away? Ah the sky is falling!" Most book publishers/readers/stores worried about it too. I think we had an advantage over most books at first, since most ways of reading a comic were hard to translate to digital, and even if you did, it was usually at a smaller size that you were used to. Plus the tactile experience of reading a comic, and going to a comic shop, are still more important to comic fans than book fans. That's changing too, though, with some huge digital deals from publishers that just don't make it cost-conscious to buy in print. Plus the size problem, if you have 1000 comic books in a stack of storage boxes in your attic, or all of them on a computer. So tying back to the first one, we've seen the evolution of weekly readers coming in once or twice a year to pick up the trade paperbacks of their favorite series instead of trying to keep up with every chapter.

I lied, I have a third one. The diversity of readers and creators and even characters (in the white-straight-male dominated mainstream) has been impressive and really heartening. The boys' club of old awful comic shops has always been something Big Planet Comics tried to fight against, welcoming everyone and modeling ourselves as bookstores that sold comic books. "The comic book stores for readers" is our motto, and preventing speculators from trying to buy 100 copies of some terrible "hot" comic was another thing we did, which is why Big Planet survived the big comic book crash of the '90s (before my time, but still an ethos I agree with). But nowadays there will be times when our stores are full of women and minorities and just a wide variety of customers. The growth of Young Adult and kids graphic novels (not many comics, but lots of graphic novels) has also probably saved the format. It seems like a whole generation got skipped after the '90s crash, but the new readers are making up for it.

How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?

Lots of input from lots of employees. We have a computer that tracks sales so we can guesstimate regular weekly comic book sales, so that's a little easier. But only if it stays with a consist writer and artist or creator, and there isn't a crossover no one likes, or the comic isn't late, etc etc etc. Other than that, it's learning what creators you like, and what the customers like, and how can you bridge the knowledge there to show people things they would enjoy reading. But it all comes down to sales. There are some amazing books and creators that just don't sell in our area, or will sell in one of our stores because every employee there is enthusiastic about it, and won't in others where it's not the thing they're into. But even that can get swamped in the massive output of things coming out. It's hard to remember your favorite new comic from 3 weeks ago when you've had to try to deal with 300 new comic books and graphic novels since then. Especially the graphic novels. It's not like reading a 20 page comic book #1 issue to see if a new series is worth recommending, a 300 page graphic novel is a whole other commitment. And there a lot of those coming out every week now. Even some of my favorite creators have put out stuff I haven't gotten around to reading yet.

The other thing we do it try to keep our eyes open at conventions and online. We're lucky that the Small Press Expo (SPX) is our hometown show, partly started by the founder of Big Planet Comics, Joel Pollack. The original SPX site was 3 blocks from our Bethesda store. We can walk around SPX and buy boxes of comics to sell at our stores, and be surprised how many local people didn't see them at the show, or didn't have time to make it around and see every comic. We just ordered Zainab Akhtar's ShortBox comic line, since it's a bunch of great comics published in the UK that might not make it over here easily. One of our employees, Kelly, got into those. Another employee Kevin, first spotted Peow! Studio in Sweden. A lot of these we order since they look great and we might want some for ourselves! But it's having a diverse store that will have something different. If you visit a lot of comic book stores, sometimes you can walk out without buying anything since it's the same as every other comic book store you've been to. 

Some reach out to us and we get some great ones like that. Box Brown contacted us about his initial Kickstarter for Retrofit Comics in 2011, and we started carrying those from the start. He didn't even talk to me! But I had read some his comics and liked them, and eventually asked for advice in publishing our own comics. I had just read an article about the best bookstores in America, and one of them was publishing books too, which I thought would be a great way to make Big Planet stand out. I had a creative itch that needed scratching, but Box suggested that I help out with Retrofit instead of going alone, so the Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics teamup was formed! I've published several comics through Big Planet on its own, that has been two Big Planet Comics anthologies of largely local talent, and a few minis by some of our very talented employees - Kevin Panetta and Nick Liappis. 

Do you keep up with the comics news--and what does the term "comics news" mean to you?

I don't really. I used to a lot more, but as I've taken on more "managerial" behind the scenes tasks and less running a cash register and talking to customers, I rely on the Big Planet Comics team a lot more to help me out. In a lot of ways, it all shows up eventually. The hot new announcement will be in a catalog eventually. The trickier part is the stuff that doesn't make the mainstream news circuit, whatever that means. Plus luckily I've met a lot of creators through this all, or through Retrofit, so I sometimes just see stuff posted by them or that they tell me about. 

Another development is the organizational side of retail things. There are several groups that try to get everyone to work together, ComicsPro in particular. So these groups host conferences and facebook groups, so I hear about some stuff like that. Even if a lot of it just us all complaining about the same problems!

I'm not sure what "comics news" really means. A lot of it just seems like weird speculation or PR attempts. Or talking about movies.

What's your weekly routine with your store like? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started?

Nowadays it's completely different. I'm lucky enough to have a really talented group of people working at the stores. I used to spend 5-6 days behind the cash register. Now I only do that when someone's on vacation or there's a big event. So now I do a lot of less fun behind the scenes. Payroll. Doublechecking orders. Driving between stores to deliver or transfer comics. Sending emails. In most ways it's a lot easier, but it's a lot less fun too. But that means I get more time to work on publishing with Retrofit Comics, which is a whole other set of fun and agony.

What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?

You're fighting for shelf space with SO many other comics. And most of the stuff published is good! But there are great books that rise above on their own. Their are not many of those. Most comics need a big fanbase, plus an outreach, plus marketing, plus good enough design/art/writing to get the attention of customers AND employees. We might help save a quieter comic if we read it and push it on people, but that's only if we bother to look at it. And as I said above, even that doesn't stick in our minds much with so much coming out.

The other thing is time. For everyone who tells us we have a dream job (which we do!), it's not just sitting around reading comics all day. In fact, we don't do that at the store. It's so dismissive to be reading when a customer is in the store, plus you won't catch the unspoken looks for help, because hardly anyone asks for help. But time is precious. So sure, your comic is amazing, and we'll order it, maybe. But is it hard to get back in? Is it another step to order or reorder? Is it the only good thing available from you, so that the time and shipping cost make it not worthwhile, or a super low priority? That's the end of your book in our store. I still wish more small press creators would team up to make a local distributor, or a bunch of their friends, so we could get all their books together. Ideally I'd do it all through a single website, but even distros like Spit and a Half, Birdcage Bottom Books, or Radiator can't carry everything.

What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?

Probably what I just said above about us not just reading comics all day. Another major one is the razor thin margins we're working with. This still astounds some people, but the majority of comic books ordered by us are not returnable. As in, we guess, we pay (usually immediately or within 1 to 3 weeks), and then we try to make our money back. It doesn't sell, too bad for us. So in most cases if we don't sell half of what we ordered, we don't make money. And we need to make a lot of money in profit above that to pay salaries and rent (the Washington DC area is not good for rent prices). That's why the pull boxes or subscription services that stores run are so vital, since it's usually someone saying "I'd like to preorder Batman please." Right there you know you've made $2 profit a month on each issue of Batman. And you know you need to order one issue of Batman for that person. That's why it's so hard now that weekly comic sales are not doing good. Should we order one copy of this $20 graphic novel? Or ten? 

The other thing is how dependent we are on a good relationship with customers. Especially if those are the ones who have a subscription with us, and then cancel it, or sneak stuff back on the shelf, or just vanish. We don't ask people to prepay for the comics they ask us to get, but if they don't want them, we're often stuck with unsellable comics. So the flip side is, if we don't have someone come in to pick up their preordered comics, we try to reach out to them, and they either don't come in, or put us off. Then we'll put the comics back out for sale, and of course that's usually when the customer will show up the next day, furious that we didn't save them for them. The problem is, especially in our very transient area, we've had customers who vanished, and when we got ahold of them, they said, "Oh, sorry I moved to New York for my job, I forgot to tell you to cancel my subscription." At least a month of wasted preorders there, preorders that we could have sold if we had put them on the shelf immediately. Weekly comics in particular are very timely. After a month or two, there is a very small chance that they will sell. But the opposite of this is, we're trying our best but we're human. Sometimes a comic gets bent, or placed in the wrong place and we can't find it. We aren't robots. But we always try to help people to the best of our ability.

The other part is be cool. Please don't price check us against online order sites. We know we're competing with the ability to order something online and get it in three days, we hope our service, knowledge, selection and friendliness make up for sometimes being out of something. We're always happy to order things for anyone though!

What gets you most annoyed about comics right now?

That the big companies aren't doing as well as they should. They should be able to put out mainstream, popular comics that everyone likes. Not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but decent fun comics. Sadly it's still the backbone of American comic stores, and a lot of stores are hurting from stupid corporate or poor creative decisions by the big companies.

What has you most excited about comics right now?

Obviously I'm super excited for all 12 of the graphic novels we're publishing this year with Retrofit Comics (the Kickstarter is still going now! Get 'em cheap in advance!). Our first two should be out in May right after the Kickstarter is over, The Winner by Karl Stevens is a darkly funny look at his life astride the conflicting worlds of illustration and comics, and The Troublemakers is the first English translation of Baron Yoshimoto's work in Japan, six of his best stories from the '60s and '70s. Plus we have graphic novels by Summer Pierre, Yumi Sakugawa, Sara Lautman, Laura Lannes, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Liam Cobb, Pat Aulisio, Warren Craghead III, and Becca Tobin. Should be our biggest year yet, as these are all longer works with spines.

Kill or be Killed #18 - I'm a huge fan of Brubaker and Phillips' crime stories, so this is a must read. Gotta start at the beginning though! Lots of plot twists.

Sleeper Book 1 is getting reprinted this week. Another Brubaker, this is one of my favorites, where a guy goes deep undercover in a terrorist organization, and the only person who knows he isn't really a rogue bad guy is his boss - who is now in a coma. Super dark, even if everyone has superpowers. 

Abbott #4 - This is another crime comic, by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivela, that was such a great evocation of the period (1970s Detroit) that I was kind of disappointed when the occult connection kicks in. Still awesome though!

Alack Sinner: Age of Disenchantment by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz, always excited when international comics get translated, and IDW's Eurocomics production values have been amazing. (Although they're actually Argentines!)

A Girl in the Himalayas by David Jesus Vignolli has a really clean look I like.

Hunt for Wolverine #1 is bringing back Wolverine. I usually hate the constant death/back again of superheroes, but Charles Soule actually did a really good job with his death story! So hopefully this won't be bad.

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom looks like a fun murder mystery at a camp for overweight kids.

The Prisoner #1 by Peter Milligan and Colin Lorimer. I love the TV show, but didn't love the comic sequel way back when, so fingers crossed on this.

Super Dimensional Love Gun by Shintaro Kago looks pretty crazy. There's so much good manga out there, I'm always way behind on reading it.

Death or Glory #1 next week by Rick Remender with awesome euro art by Bengal caught my eye, I like a lot of Remender's stuff.

Coda #1 next week by Simon Spurrier and Matias Bergara. Spurrier's had some amazing boundary-pushing genre hits lately (Six Gun Gorilla, The Spire, Godshaper in particular). Fingers crossed for this one too!

Plus I'm a huge fan of all genre fantasy or scifi, so other current favorites include Sleepless and The Highest House, which are ongoing now.

And like I said above, [it's] the diversity of readership and creators. So exciting to get someone new into comics, or even better, help them out when they come in and say "I just read my first comic, it was great! What should I read next?" That's my favorite part of being a retailer.