When I spoke with Brian Hibbs, the owner of San Francisco's Comix Experience, we talked a lot about the place he his fellow comics retailers find themselves during the COVID-19 crises. Our conversation took turns, doubled back, went down a dead end or two (my fault) and followed a stream of consciousness. What Hibbs kept circling around is the central (only) question of fiction, especially serialized fiction: "... And then what happened?"
Since starting his column, Tilting At Windmills in 1991, Hibbs has been a de facto spokesperson for comic book retailers, sharing his opinions on comics retail news and other industry headlines. He's passionate about comics, opinionated, yes, but he's also a business man and the only 'business' he's ever worked in, comics, is going through some stuff and nobody knows nothing except at some point 'this' ends. What the 'this' is what will happen next. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. -Keith Silva
The Comics Journal: Talk about Comix Experience, your staff and how long you’ve personally been working comics retail?
Brian Hibbs: I opened Comix Experience on April Fool’s Day 1989, so it’s been 31 years. And before that I worked at another comic book store where I was the manager for two or three years. I worked at Capital City Distribution for a little while as a line person pulling comics. So, four decades, which is always a great way to say it. At Comix Experience my bent is toward the graphic novels rather than the periodicals per se, although we certainly sell plenty of periodicals. But our focus is on graphic novels, authors, selling comics that are interesting rather than collectible. We’re just a neighborhood store, well two neighborhood stores. We really try to be tied into the community.
Our two Graphic Novel of the Month Clubs are the thing that pays our staff for the most part. Minimum wage laws are very expensive [in San Francisco] -- we pay more than minimum wage -- but we have to give them a raise every year, no matter what, by law at this point, basically. During this COVID crisis everybody is getting paid. We have seven employees. I just did payroll for the last two-week pay period and I’m all set for the following two weeks. And it’s a result of us having these graphic novel clubs, which allow me to [pay] the staff. The two next pay periods after that, it all depends on whether we get the money the government said we were supposed to get. Assuming the government didn’t lie to me than they’ll be covered for a full two months. The worry is what if this lasts more than two months and I will cross that line when I get there.
When did you close and what’s the current status of Comix Experience?
San Francisco shut down all non-essential business as of March 16. That was a Monday. That was our last day in business as a functioning store with walk-in business. We are curbside although it’s not enough to have someone hang around in the long run. In another week, we probably won’t be doing curbside anymore or we’ll do it one day a week or something like that. We’re doing mail order, certainly. We put up a brand new website, comix-experience.myshopify.com. We hadn’t had an online store. We took our whole database and just dumped it over to the online store. There’s seven-and-half thousand items there. I don’t know if that’s an actually viable thing for many [comic shop owners]. I’ll be closing that down as soon as our store re-opens. I don’t want a web store. It’s not what we do.
Did it come as a surprise to you when Diamond stopped shipping new comics?
The San Francisco Bay area was one of the first places to shut down. So we were closed down before Diamond was and we were still receiving comics even though we were closed. The day we closed down I emailed my customer service rep., well, credit rep., at Diamond and said, ‘we’re not paying you until this is done. We have good credit so I’m assuming this will be fine.’ And she wrote back, ‘stay healthy,’ so I assume we’re good. Which is how you hope it’s going to be with your suppliers. I’ve been a Diamond customer for a really long time. I’ve always paid on time so they’re very good to me. They know I’m not going to screw them. I think the problem we start getting into is stores that may or may not be paying on time. There’s at least 20% of the stores that are on COD. There are cases where Diamond is going to have to make decisions and I’m hoping they’re going to make the right decisions, but we’ll see. But to answer the question of, ‘was I surprised they were shutting down,’ well, no. When I was shut down, it became obvious to me that eventually Diamond would have to shut down.
You were very public in your statement regarding DC’s initial decision to continue releasing new issues using digital platforms. DC backed off that idea as have Marvel and other publishers, for now. Do you think that’s the last word on the digital distribution of ‘new’ comics during this crisis?
I don’t think it is necessarily. Both of the statements Marvel and DC issued said, ‘we’re not issuing digital comics this week.’ Nobody put out a statement saying, ‘O.K., we’ve got your back,' right? I have to believe that the overwhelming majority of retailers are going 'what the fuck! You’re going to murder everything.' I was incensed at what DC did. Because DC had to have known that that would be the reaction and that’s not good for the market as a whole. It’s embarrassing that one of our so-called partners thought it was O.K. to try to work around us. We don’t know what’s happening this week. I don’t know if new comics are going to be released or not. And that’s fucked up. Even if they were to triple their ten percent -- which is the current digital penetration -- that 30% is not enough for Marvel and DC to continue publishing comics. I mean it just isn’t. There’s no way they can be paying people and making a profit at that level of sales. As soon as one of them does it, that publisher is basically done for me as a periodical publisher on the other side of this. Honest-to-god if Marvel and/or DC decide to publish digital comics and undercut us than I will not be carrying their comics when we reopen. Image, Dark Horse, Boom and everyone else have already told us, ‘we have your back, we’re not going to sell digital comics during this and we’re not going to fuck with you.’ They’ve already announced that weeks ago. [Image, Dark Horse, etc.] know anybody with any sense knows that the comic shops are how you sell periodical comics.
There is no other method that is going to work. It is a small, small market. And while it could fuck us up if some of “our market” were to switch over to digital, which is a concern many retailers have, if I lose 5% of my customers to digital I’m probably out of business. Because of the economics of how it works. But 90% of the customers don’t want to make that switch, they definitely don’t. If they did, they would have made that switch already. If [Marvel and DC] start releasing digital comics now with the promise or expectation that there will be print versions of those eventually, the math on that doesn’t work for ninety-ish percent of the periodicals being published. Subscribers aside, I’m not going to buy rack copies of things that have already been released in some fashion because it’s non-returnable. If it was 100% returnable and I had terms that it’s returnable in a ninety-day window, well then, maybe, but no publisher is going to do that, they’d be stupid to do that. Anything going forward with Marvel and DC, unless they get out ahead of the communication, which they need to be doing to direct-market retailers, I can’t trust them as my partners right now. I can’t, I want to, I desperately want to, I want to say to my customers ‘here’s what the deal is’ and I can’t and that’s a shitty fucking place to live.
What do you think the local comic shop (and the comic book business) might look like on the other side of this?
We have to have enough stores to survive until the end of this. We need those little tiny stores that are in Oklahoma and Tennessee. We need those guys to survive. I need my competition here in San Francisco to survive. We need every one of them to survive. It will not be good for the marketplace if we lose 5 or 10 percent of the comic stores because the publishers for the most part are in the same place the retailers are. If we lose one to five percent of our sales we may not be able to survive. I know that’s also true for publishers. It’s the thing I worry about the most because most of my peers, and I include myself, don’t have enough capital to ride out 3 months, 6 months, 9 months. I don’t. I have enough capital to ride out a couple of weeks because that’s how the business works, it’s a cash flow based business. I’ve run it for thirty-one years, we make a small profit, everybody gets paid well, it works, but this shows that there’s a problem. But it’s the same problem in almost any other field. There’s very few businesses that are going to come out of this on the other side without having to come up with massive changes about how they run their business.
Like most people in this business, I do this because I love it. What are we going to be on the other side is a huge question, hopefully, we can rewrite the way that we do business. Maybe we can reduce the number of comics, the periodical comics that are being published? Maybe we make sure that every publisher who wants to be on final order cutoff, regardless of their size, or their other relationships with Diamond, gets to do that. Maybe we can make sure everybody has terms? There’s so many ways that we could make periodical comics better. Periodical comics have gotten extremely fucking shitty in the last two decades because Marvel and DC have really abused the rules, you know? And I don’t even want to say it’s only Marvel and DC, although they’ve really abused the rules, but even your Images of the world are publishing a third more comics than they really legitimately should be. The reason serialization works is that it keeps it in people’s minds. It keeps people going. It keeps work going! I always think back to the days when Eightball was a periodical comic, right, and I think that Dan [Clowes], if he wasn’t serializing, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron would have never have happened. Because he would have gotten into it and said, ‘fuck, I can’t make this work.’ And then abandoned it, right? Whereas as it’s being published, he went, ‘I can’t make it work so I’ve just got to make it work the best I can.’ And I think we ended up with a good narrative, even though it’s a flawed narrative and a broken narrative it’s way better than not having it at all. And I think that’s the kind of thing serialization can do. Now, obviously, that’s a really old example and people are going to mock me for using such old of an example. Artists can’t draw a page a day and have one book that comes out a year that they sell eight thousand copies of that, it doesn’t work. As a creator that math doesn’t work. It doesn’t have to be what it was. What it was was broken in a number of ways. It was not broken in the way some people on the internet would have it, ‘well it’s so fucked so we better throw the whole thing out.’ If you want a comics industry than we better rethink a lot of the ways we do stuff.
What have you learned about the retail comics business during these last few weeks?
People really value what we do. I have heard from so many corners and so many people that they love us and they want us to survive and they want us to continue. And I’ve heard from fellow retailers that they are hearing the same thing. So it’s not just me. We are parts of people’s community. We are essential parts of the community for lots of people.
What's your advice for how customers can support their local comic shop during this crisis?
It has to be individual. You have to look at what your local store is saying they need. Don’t listen to what I’m saying here. Listen to what your local store is saying. If they’re saying they want gift certificates, than fucking do gift certificates, you know? Reach out to them and ask them. If they’re providing you with something you value than let them know. And if you can (and I know not everyone can) give a little more, PayPal them some more money. It’s what’s going to make the difference to get stores to the other side of this. As for Comix Experience, I’d plug our two graphic novel clubs, Graphic Novels Club for Adults and Graphic Novels Club for Kids. It’s a book-of-the-month club basically, the whole staff votes on the book Eisner-style so one person can’t really pick the winner, it has to be a consensus of everybody.
It’s the best book that we think is coming out that month. And we have a signed bookplate with original artwork that’s exclusive to our store and then we do a live steam interview with the creators so anybody anywhere in the world can participate. Those events are usually an hour-and-a-half to two hours. The graphic novel clubs are an on-going way to support our store and our mission, to support great comics, to support great creators and to support a great staff, www.graphicnovelclub.com/start. The Graphic Novels Club for Kids is basically the same thing, except instead of a signed bookplate, we give the kids buttons and magnets and other kinds of swag. And we have the same kind of meeting although it’s aimed at kids. We have over 100 members in each at this point. I think we’re in 32 states. One day I’d like to get into all 50. You sign up for that you’re insuring we’ll still be here selling good comics 10, 20, 30 years from now. That’s what I want to do.