There are two states of Utah, each vying with the other for supremacy in the prevailing cultural stereotype. The first (which, it must be said, still leads in the race by some fair margin) is the Utah of Mitt Romney and reduced-alcohol beer - the Utah, in short, of stereotypical Republican America. The second, confined as it is within the rarified atmosphere of Salt Lake City, is the Utah of bohemian transplants, Sundance films, and SLC Punk. It is this second Utah in which Black Cat Comics is firmly rooted.
When Greg Gage opened Black Cat Comics in 2003, it was at the start of something of a renaissance not only for Salt Lake City (which was fully embarking on its transition into a diverse hipster mecca more in line with Austin than Provo) but for mainstream comics as well. And if the years since then have never seen the comics market reach the dizzying heights of its ‘90s predecessor, it has at least offered something more stable and more worthwhile for those who are inclined to seize on it: the promise of a broader and more diverse base of readers and collectors than the historic direct market norm.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Gage talks about the future of his shop, and of comic book retail writ large, he speaks with a general optimism in the promise that diversity can bring. That’s not to say Gage takes the tone of a Pollyanna: he is blunt when it comes to the frustrating and sometimes financially brutal realities of multiple, exclusive comic distributors; the communication (or lack thereof) of corporate-owned publishers; and the sometimes slapdash approach that companies can take toward the books they need to sell. But there is, in his general tone, little of the exhaustion or weariness that other retailers sometimes express in these conversations. Difficult as it may be, the comics industry is (to Gage, at least) still a market worth investing in.
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The Comics Journal: Tell me about how you first got into comics retail.
Greg Gage: I thought it would be really cool to have a comic store when I was a teenager, but I’m like, “Ok, that takes a lot to do.” [Laughs] So I joined the real world, got a job that I didn’t like, and I ended up quitting that job because I just said, “Screw it. I’m just going to try and do something that will make me happy every day.” I quit my job and started working for another shop part-time, and I figured, “I’m just a guy with a key that opens the door and then leaves at night. What if I tried it myself?” You know, I wanted to be a different store. I wanted to be very big into back issues and things like that, which you don’t see around a whole lot anymore. I guess I was sort of too dumb to fail.
What year was that?
It was late 2003 when I finally made up my mind to do it.
I imagine there’s a lot of complexity that goes into opening your own shop. How was that process for you?
Terrifying. [Laughs] The internet was not as big in 2003, 2004, so I’m trying to keep my eyes out and call thrift shops, and say, “Hey, do you have any donations? Do you have any comics for sale?” I ended up buying seven or eight longboxes of back issues, pricing them, and putting them out, and that’s really all I had on a little table. We started getting more and more stuff, and it was just me working here for about the first year: six days a week, no help, trying to learn the ins and outs of what this business is from this side.
And how was business when you were first starting up?
It was good, because we had really only two other major shops around Salt Lake. One of them had a pretty questionable reputation with a lot of customers, and the other didn’t really specialize in back issues as much. And people were pretty receptive toward [Black Cat]. There were people that said I was crazy to do this because it’s only comics: we don’t do gaming, cards, anything like that.
There have been some pretty major changes in the retail market since 2003, so how has business changed for you since then?
It’s a completely different ballgame now. It’s probably more fractured: it used to be you came to work, you looked in the Previews catalog, you did your orders, you knew when your shipment was coming in - you kind of knew what to expect. With the changes in distribution, that has really thrown a wrench into everything. There’s some [distributors] that only have one [publisher], like Lunar Distribution. That situation is a mess.
Tell me more about that. How are each of the new distributors posing a challenge to you?
Like I said, it’s fractured everything. It’s made all my work at least double. You used to go in and do your FOC [Final Order Cutoff, the date retailers must submit their final orders before publishers set their print runs] on a Friday; just put it in, and everything’s fine. Now you have to do an FOC with Diamond, then you go over to Lunar, then, you know - I don’t use Penguin Random House. I used them for a couple of weeks, and it was so terrible that I just decided it’s worth paying the extra percent or two to get them from Diamond.
Terrible in terms of the condition they were sending you the books?
Yeah. The condition, the packaging, the customer service: everything. At first they said they’re not going to replace [damaged comics] because they’re perfectly sellable. And then there was so much outrage because they’re not sellable. I had a lot of stuff I had to sell close to cost just to get it in people’s hands, because I couldn’t get any replacements. Then they came back with an email that said, “We’ve reconsidered it, and we’ll send you replacements.” I’m like, “Well, I’ve already sold them for a lower value.” So it’s just a lot of frustration. There were a lot of double orders, because their FOC dates were different than Diamond’s, so I got doubled up on a lot of stuff. I wish it was a little more streamlined. Actually, what I really wish is that Lunar, Diamond and Random House had every single publisher signed up with all three of them.
So Diamond is still preferable to you over PRH, even with their shipping costs, which I’ve heard other shops complain about? The term “exploitative” is one that’s been coming up in conversations lately in reference to those charges.
I would not disagree with that. It’s a devil-you-know situation, is what it is.
And you’re at least used to working with Diamond.
Yeah. It’s not a situation that is good, but it’s a situation that is familiar.
And what about Lunar?
Lunar is at a point now where I’m seeing more and more mistakes, more and more damages. I think they jumped in thinking, “We’ll take care of this, we’ve got this.” And then they have gotten so many more publishers working with them that they may be in a little bit over their head. And I’m saying that from an outside view of how they operate. But I do know I’ve had some shops call up and say, “Hey, we got shorted on this. Do you have any? Because Lunar has said they can’t replace them.”
I think there’s a conflict of interest problem with Lunar, because if I were a distributor and I was supposed to send something to a shop, and I didn’t send it to them, it should come out of my inventory if it was my mistake. And the things that other shops haven’t gotten, I’ve seen on DC’s website. You know, if you want to do that, I feel like you need to be fully responsible for what you’ve shorted or what you’ve damaged - that needs to come out of your inventory. If you don’t want to do that, you need to make these things completely separate. You need to get rid of this distribution; sell it to somebody else. It's just a conflict of interest to buy your books from a competitor.
Have you or any other shops that you know of raised that issue with them directly?
Yeah, you know, their customer service is not fantastic. If you stay on them, they’ll do things like cover returns, [but] sometimes it takes up to a month to get credit. I just don’t have time to keep up on everybody else’s stuff. The distribution model has changed so much that it’s just created so much more work. Comic shops are small businesses. If you’re Walmart, you’ve got your people to do your ordering, you’ve got your people to do your freight check-in, you’ve got your people to stock your shelves. In a comic shop, that’s all basically one person, and any added workload makes it much more difficult to get things done. The other thing that I think has made things way, way more difficult than they need to be is variant covers.
Tell me about that, because you’re not the first person to bring that up with me.
I used to be able to pick up my shipment Wednesday morning, come back here, and within three hours holds were filled, things were on the wall, everything was ready to go. Now I get my stuff a day early, Tuesday morning. It takes all day to get through that. Now, granted, we’ve got four or five times more customers, so it’s going to take longer. But the problem I find, especially with Dynamite, is you’ll have, you know, Gargoyles, which I just look at and get mad now. Gargoyles #1, we got 30 covers. I had a couple of customers that said, “Yeah, I want all the covers.” It took hours to find all those.
But it’s a tradeoff, right? Because it sounds like you’re getting sales off of it.
I am for the first issue. And then I had three people drop the title. And they were good about it: they said, “I will buy what’s here, but I don’t even want the title anymore because I feel like we’re being taken advantage of with this.” I’ve had a lot of customers actually turn on the publisher and the creative team. I just had somebody in that was asking for Action Comics #1050 and they said, “How many covers are there?” I looked it up: there’s 27 covers. And again, it’s taking so much time to find all of those, and then if people don’t actually want all of those covers, you just order blindly. So then you’re stuck with 10 Cover Cs that don’t look good, you know?
So are you seeing that market start to taper off at this point?
Oh, definitely. I think, unfortunately, so many of these companies are run by enormous corporations. And I’m not, like, an anticapitalist, anti-corporate guy. Everybody here is doing their job. We need corporations for certain things. But I think they are so behind the day-to-day comic business now that they can’t see what’s really happening. I see a lot of trends that are already done by the time a Marvel or DC book comes out, and then they hop on that bandwagon and it takes them a couple of months to hop off it because they realize "this isn’t working." They’re not seeing a day-to-day thing, they’re seeing a quarterly earnings statement.
Are there any other examples that come to mind where the publishers aren’t reacting to changes on the ground?
One of the other issues that I’ve been seeing are the pricing issues: how expensive comics are. I have to justify it every day to somebody that comes in and spends $7 on a new Action Comics, you know? I have to almost defend it.
So has that been hurting sales of new issues? Have you found it driving people toward trades, for instance?
I’ve actually found it driving people toward those Cover As that are a dollar or two cheaper. I think that they need to cut back on the covers. It’s a lot. It’s just a lot.
When prices go up, do you find it drives away younger readers who might have less expendable income?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons a lot of the teenage kids or younger that come in will go for back issues. Because I’ve got quarter boxes, I’ve got dollar boxes - just extra things, or stuff that’s a little dinged or something that doesn’t sell. And that’s usually where kids go first. They’ll look at something and be like, “How much is this?” And I’ll say, “Oh, it’s $7.99,” and they’ll be like, “Oh my God.” They go to the dollar box and buy eight books for the same price. They don’t want a special variant. They just want to pick something up and read it, and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool.”
That’s a good opportunity for me to ask you about the typical profile of the people coming into your shop.
I’m actually happy to say that I don’t have a typical customer. I’ve got a guy right now who is serving an LDS mission. I’ve got punk rock acid kids with tattoos, and piercings, and mohawks. I’ve got little kids that come in with their parents. I’ve got very conservative people. I’ve got very liberal people. A lot of LGBTQ people come in of all ages, genders, everything. I don’t think there is a typical customer anymore.
Has that been something you’ve seen change over the decades? Because this has really been a period when the demographics in Salt Lake City and Utah have changed, maybe more than many people are aware.
I’ve seen all that change. Honestly, I hate to generalize, but it was mostly just a bunch of 20- and 30-year old white dudes coming in and buying comics. Sometimes a kid would come in and go, “I love Sonic,” or whatever. But there were not a lot of people with other genders, people of color, older people. There was not a lot of diversity here when I first opened up. And I really feel happy that has changed, because–and this isn’t a political statement or anything–but if you only serve one demographic in an industry, that industry’s going to go away.
So diversity in comics is vital to you just from a survival standpoint.
Absolutely. There’s plenty of books that if you don’t like it, just don’t read it. We have hundreds of books coming in every month: you can find something that works for you. You don’t have to boycott Disney if you don’t like Moon Girl, you know? You can find something else. You have to be inclusive and diverse in this, because it’s media and it’s entertainment, and there are more than one type of person in the world.
What are you stocking in your store right now? How is the store itself laid out?
Basically the entire floor is back issues. We have some of the higher-end or slabbed books behind the counter, but basically everything else is back issues for people to peruse through. We’ve got new stuff, new trade paperbacks: 10 bookcases full of trades. We have a pretty big all-ages section. We’ve got a somewhat big manga section that’s a little tougher to stock.
Those trends have always changed pretty quickly. A lot of the time it’s based on cartoons and stuff, but sometimes people come in, and they’ll be like, “Oh, no, that show’s already canceled.” There’s just a lot of them, and sometimes by the time they get published, whatever it is might be out of favor.
Between all those categories, what’s accounting for the bulk of your sales?
You know, I would say back issues, actually.
Yeah, there’s not a lot of places around that do extensive back issues. And I understand why, because it’s a pain, you know? You have to grade everything; you have to price everything. Honestly, back issues kept me in business during COVID. There was nothing else coming out: we had those two or three dry months where there were no new releases. And people were getting cabin fever, and they were a little bored, and they didn’t know what to do. So they were coming in, and they were buying trade paperbacks and back issues, because there was nothing new to read. I really credit that with keeping me in business during COVID, because that was a dark year.
Does it surprise you that back issues don’t seem to have been harmed by the rise of digital services like Marvel Unlimited?
Doesn’t surprise me at all. Ever since I’ve been open, I’ve had people telling me that print is dead: digital is going to take over comics, nobody wants print. And almost 20 years later, that still has not happened. You know, digital is for reading, print is for collecting and holding. If you just want to read something, and I have issues #1, #3 and #4 [in stock], I’ll even say, “Go online, get the digital issue of #2, read that, and then come back. If you like it and want to buy it, see if I have it in another month or so.”
I always say, you can buy an Action Comics #1 digitally, and it will be worth $1.99 for the rest of your life. And if your computer crashes, or you stop your subscription to DC Universe Infinite, you may actually lose the $1.99.
You mentioned the rising cost of new issues. Does that make it harder to sell a comic as a back issue for profit, when the price is high to begin with?
Back issues are almost like used cars. When you buy a big box of back issues, you’re obviously not paying anywhere close to the book’s value on them. If you pay $100 for a longbox of back issues, yeah, they’re going to sit there for a while, but it’s going to have 200 issues in there, and maybe you’ve paid 50 cents per book. So if you’ve got some stuff you’re going to stick in the quarter boxes, okay, fine, whatever. But then you’ve got books that are going to sit out there and make money. So the margin is actually bigger in back issues.
What’s your take on the slabbed comic market?
I think it’s interesting, because at the end of the day, it’s another person looking at a book and saying, “This is what I think it is [worth].” The thing that people really need to realize with slabbing is that grading is always going to be subjective. It’s just another human being looking at a book. The only thing I use slabs for is, I will auction them. I’ve got a couple on the wall, but most of it is stuff that people bring in on consignment. If I slab a book, I’m going to auction it, or I’m going to have a buyer ready to get it. And, you know, if I ever get anything for my personal collection that’s slabbed, I’ll take it out of the slab and throw the slab away.
De-slabbing. Bold move.
Yeah. [Laughs] I de-slabbed an Uncanny X-Men #1, and the collective gasp sounded like a garage full of cars losing all the air out of their tires. But that’s me, and I understand everybody collects differently. Going back to the word diversity, that’s what I think people need to understand. It applies to content. It applies to how you collect what you collect, who you are, everything. It’s not just making Thor a girl, it’s not just making Batman Black. It’s different books for different people, and different ways of collecting for different people. And, really, different ways to live for different people.
You mentioned your decision to stay focused on comics, and not move into ancillary items like action figures or cards. What’s been your thinking behind that? Because other shops have gone in exactly the opposite direction to survive.
Yeah, and you know what? That is the way to survive for other shops. But I think there is an audience for what I would consider a pure comic shop. You can go to Walmart and pick up Funko POP!s, you know? You can go to Target and get heavy metal t-shirts. But I think there is an audience that really appreciates [pure comics], and I’m trying to specialize in that. And that gives me more options to look at smaller books, smaller publishers, things like that.
The other big part of that is, honestly, I am an idiot when it comes to games and cards. I don’t know the first thing about Dungeons & Dragons, except it was in Stranger Things, and I tried to play it once when I was a kid. That didn’t work out. I don’t know anything about card games. So if I started carrying Magic[: the Gathering] cards, that’s just me throwing money away, because I’m not going to be good enough at that to do it. There’s a gaming store right down the street. They’re great at it. Let them be great at it. I know comics. I love comics. That’s what I know.
Do you think that publishers are doing a good enough job supporting the diversity of titles that you need for customers?
I think they are. But I think that’s because I have so much time to look through all the different publishers and Previews. You know, I think creators reach out more than publishers do. I’ll get emails, or phone calls, or postcards or something saying, “Hey, we’ve got this new book coming out, please check it out.” And more than likely, if somebody does that, I’ll be like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give your book book a shot.”
So where are the publishers? Why aren’t they doing that kind of outreach and marketing?
I think a lot of them are just too big. The days when DC would call every week and talk about things, and see how things are, are gone. The days when you could talk to Marvel about anything are gone. They’re owned by [Warner Bros. Discovery] and Disney. They don’t care about us; they’ve got movies to put out. They don’t really care about comic shops, I feel. And if they do, I wish they would let us know that. [Laughs] You know, it’s tough to make those connections. The smaller publishers are absolutely fantastic with stuff, though.
What’s your sense of what the future holds for the direct market?
I think a lot of it is up in the air. I think back issues are always going to be a thing - I don’t see the want for those ever going away. But if Marvel and DC want to stick around actually publishing comics, instead of putting out tie-ins to movies, I think they really need to change the way they do it. They need to get away from the companies that own them. They need to go more independent again - completely separate out those portions of the company. I don’t think Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be the same company; I think it should be two different companies that work with each other.
But once you start putting something like that under this huge umbrella of a multi-billion dollar, multinational, global corporation, you’re not going to get the attention, and you’re not going to get people listening to what readers and retailers really want. A good example is when DC started with Lunar and Midtown [as distributors in 2020] - if you said anything they didn’t like on their Facebook page, they kicked you off. And it was not like, “Oh, you guys suck.” It was like, “Hey, why are you not listening to us? Why’d you ask us what we think of something, and when we tell you, you don’t do it anyway, and then you kick us off your Facebook page?” I think that was kind of the beginning of the end for that situation.
They no longer pay attention to retailers unless we’re doing a variant cover, or unless we’re giving them tons of money. And, again, I’m not just saying corporate America is bad. We’re all here for a business, but we also have to enjoy it. Because it is a business, but it’s also entertainment, and we can’t lose sight of either of those things.