Jacob Shapiro is the manager and co-owner of Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C. He's got a Shel Silverstein tattoo on his right arm because he's ten years old. For Fantom's location and hours, check out their website.
How long have you been in comics retail?
I started working for Fantom in the summer of 2014, so I'm inching toward my four-year anniversary.
What's changed the most for your business in the last ten years?
The reinvention of Image Comics, the rise of Saga, and the ubiquity of trade paperbacks are all intertwined as the single biggest change to comics retail in the last decade. Saga is by far our bestselling comic of the last ten years: not only is it a non-superhero comic, but it doesn't have a TV show or movie or video game either. In a world where the "definitive" versions of Iron Man and Captain America are arguably onscreen, it makes a difference that Saga has built its colossal audience as... just a solid comic book. And the collected paperbacks have brought in a whole crowd of people who aren't coming in monthly for the single issues--plus they've increased comics' foothold in the book market. The nontraditional appeal of these titles has even rubbed off on superhero comics, where we're beginning to see more Marvel/DC books with new voices and experimental art styles.
How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?
There are certain comics we know we have to stock at all times. People are always going to read Batman, people are always going to read Watchmen, people are always going to read Maus and Persepolis. As far as new and emerging titles, it boils down to what my staff cares about most. Comics can be overwhelming to consumers, and in a way that's some job security, as we help them navigate their way through the swamp of releases to find what they want in a (hopefully) more personal manner than Amazon recommendations. Our customers are smart; they can tell whether I'm selling them a book because I need to get it off my shelf, or if I'm selling it to them because I'm genuinely passionate about it. Everyone who walks in our door could be buying these things online, but they come to us instead because they appreciate the human connection, so what the employees truly care about is what sells.
Fantom recently hosted an event with Ron Wimberly and the launch of LAAB Magazine. Can you tell us about it?
Ron Wimberly is one of the most consistently under-appreciated artists working today, and probably the most important cartoonist ever to come out of DC... but he's been living in Brooklyn for the last decade or so. Whenever he drops a new project, we make it a point to guilt trip him into visiting his mom so he can come do an event with us, and I'd like to think we show him hometown love in a way that this city doesn't show enough to our local heroes.
His new work, LAAB Magazine, is a strange beast. It's an art mag full of comics and essays focusing on black representation in the media, and in comics specifically. There are a few parts written by collaborators, but the bulk of LAAB is conceived and created by Wimberly himself. It's unflinching, heavy, political, uncomfortable, beautiful, all packed into an oversized, full-color, three-section newspaper. Ron described it as "The New York Times if it were edited by the Black Panthers," and it certainly harkens back to old Black Panther Party periodicals. From a retailer's perspective, it's a little wonky to sell--the newsprint format scares people off, and it's $17, higher than the price people deem "worthy" for a paper. But to hear Ron tell it, the impermanence of newsprint is part of the point of the whole thing: this work isn't available online anywhere, and it's not going to fit easily on your bookshelf to store away years later. It's meant to be read and consumed in person, right now. The oversized pages are meant to fill your whole field of vision, so you really have to set aside time and energy to pay attention to this magazine. In a world of Twitter hot takes, Wimberly has taken the time to form his thoughts and treat the subject matter with the care it requires.
In a poetically heartbreaking way, this gorgeous format and layout may be the death of LAAB in the long run. The newspaper format turns off many American comics readers, and the fact that none of this work is (currently) available online means it will reach a fraction of the audience that should be reading it. This is important material. The comics world needs more politically-charged academic work from black authors accessible to the masses, and I don't know if we're ever going to see something like this again. I hope I'm wrong but I'm worried I'm not.
The event we hosted this past Saturday was a low-key affair, featuring Ron in conversation with Julian Lytle--local artist, Ignorant Bliss podcast host, and Wimberly's childhood BFF. This is the third time we've hosted Ron for a release party, and every time I stress out that no one's gonna show up... until ten minutes before the event and we suddenly get a packed house. DC can be a very art-unfriendly city, so it's important to me to show our local art community that there's a space here for serious comics work, and I'm most happy to see people at these events who aren't even familiar with the artist; they just hear there's a big local cartoonist here discussing his craft. The industry is cruel and Ron's groundbreaking art hasn't made him the rock star he probably deserves to be, so every time we host him I feel like we're in on a secret.
Do you keep up with the comics news--and what does the term "comics news" mean to you?
"Comics news" is in a tough place, but I keep up as best I can. Along with all internet journalism, it's going through an identity crisis with major sites shutting down and most of the remaining ones either falling on the side of "glorified publisher press releases" or the side of "comics muckraking." Heidi MacDonald over at The Beat is one of the few remaining bastions of great comics journalism to me, but even her site is more focused on industry inside baseball, so it's unfortunate that casual audiences don't have a good place to go to. Of course, Twitter is where much of the real news goes down, but how many walk-in customers are following Gail Simone's social media accounts?
What's your weekly routine with your store like? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started?
We run on a weekly cycle. On Monday, I finalize our orders for upcoming titles coming out down the line; I post on our social media about the week's new releases, and then I place restock orders for books we've sold out of over the last week, along with things like Magic cards and Dungeons & Dragons books.
Tuesdays are always when the new releases arrive, so that's the day we process all the new comics for our subscribers and then set up the displays for our racks.
Wednesday is New Comic Book Day, so we focus on just selling, selling, selling. And we process all our mail order subscribers for shipment.
Thursday is when the restock orders arrive, so we're scanning books in and putting them back on our shelves. We've also started doing more events like book clubs and drink & draws on Thursday evenings.
Friday is when we have our weekly Magic: The Gathering tournaments. We're not really a gaming shop--comics and graphic novels will always be our primary focus, but there's enough demand for MTG that we host laid-back tournaments and casual play. It's a steady source of revenue for us that requires relatively little upkeep on our part.
Saturdays and Sundays are when we go heaviest on events, from trivia nights and fanfic nights to comic workshops and Latin dance lessons. We recently got our tavern license, so we serve booze at many of these events to help supplement our income and monetize events that might not be profitable otherwise. Aside from the money, it's also just important to build that sense of community in our shop, because as I said earlier, it's the only thing we have over online retailers.
The routine has definitely gotten easier since I started--comic shops have a notorious lack of standard business practices. We've always tried to be as tech-savvy and organized as possible, and with our switch to the new ComicHub system for point of sale and customer interface last year, it's been streamlined more than ever. It's still a work in progress with kinks to work out, but it's moving in the right direction.
What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?
You can market your comics outside specialty comic shops. Really. It's mind-boggling to me that comic book properties are bigger than ever in movies and television, but comic sales have stagnated. There's no reason the Black Panther film couldn't have had an ad run before it for Ta-Nehisi Coates' fantastic current run on the Black Panther comic. There are so many people out there who would LOVE comics if they only knew that comics exist and are still being published in 2018--The Wicked + the Divine should be a cultural zeitgeist in the way the Twilight books were.
What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?
I wish more customers comprehended the broken, archaic distribution model we have to work under. But that's not their fault. That's the fault of Diamond Comic Distributors. When customers get upset that we're sold out of a comic that we had to order three months in advance (and non-returnable!), it's hard not to feel frustrated.
What gets you most annoyed about comics right now?
Ha. Probably Diamond. Or the current reactionary "ComicsGate" movement to bully women and people of color and queer folk out of the industry.
What has you most excited about comics right now?
You know what? It's gotta be manga. Japanese comics in the North American market are in a stellar place right now, where we've recovered from the manga boom and bust of the '90s, and now a bunch of kids who grew up reading those comics are finally adults calling the shots. We thought digital downloads and scanlations would ruin print manga forever, but now there's clearly a niche for consumers who care enough about the books to buy them in print form, often in nice hardcover editions rather than the cheap paperback tankobon volumes. Viz Media in particular is making some really fun moves, and they've recently hired industry superstars I look up to like David Brothers and Christopher Butcher. I can't wait to see what they've got in store for the next few years.
It's kind of a small week for releases! But here are two I'm hyped for:
Luisa: Now and Then by Carole Maurel; adapted by Mariko Tamaki
French publisher Humanoids puts out some of the most gorgeous European comics ever created, but they’ve always had a severe lack of diversity when it comes to the creators they publish. They’re hopeful to begin changing that in 2018, and Carole Maurel’s time-traveling romance story about queer women translated by Canadian comics mainstay Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer) is definitely a step in the right direction.
Shanghai Red #1 by Christopher Sebela, Joshua Hixton, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Chris Sebela (Heartthrob, Welcome Back) brings us the story of a kidnapped woman on a ship from Portland, Oregon to Shanghai in the late 1800s with creeeeeepy stuff goin on! She's out to get revenge. Portland and Shanghai are cities you don't often think of in the same sentence as one another, so I'm really interested to see where this goes. And just like all the big superhero comics of decades past set in New York because that's where all the creators were, it's interesting to see more comics with a Portland backdrop these days because it's slowly turned into the American comics capital.