Galactic Quest

Talk to Kyle Puttkammer, and you wouldn’t think comics have anything to worry about. Not that the owner of Georgia’s Galactic Quest Comics is unaware of the challenges looming over the retail landscape. Far from it: since opening his first shop in downtown Lawrenceville (a comfortable Atlanta suburb) in 1991, he’s weathered the chromium-fueled boom, the mid-‘90s bust, COVID shutdowns, distributor meltdowns, and more besides.

It's just that Puttkammer and his shop have shown a remarkable adaptability through each of these crises, which seems to speak of either incredible skill, preternatural luck, or some combination of both. It’s enough to have allowed Galactic Quest to recently open a second warehouse location in nearby Buford, specializing in a large stock of back issues, even as Puttkammer himself began venturing into comic creation with his Hero Cats graphic novel series.

No surprise, then, that when The Comics Journal spoke with him, Puttkammer had a kind of casual optimism when it came to talking about his shop. What follows is the story of how they’ve survived and expanded, and what they’ve learned in their years in the business.

-Zach Rabiroff

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The Comics Journal: Let’s start at the beginning. How long have you been in comics retail, and what brought you into the business?

Kyle Puttkammer: I started 31 years ago, and what got me into comics was, oddly enough, I was working for a convenience store, QuikTrip, and comics were starting to become a thing. And my coworker invited me to start up a business: he was going to sell baseball cards, I would sell comics, since I loved comics from my childhood. You know, I saw Star Wars, and that translated into me getting a subscription to a bunch of [other Marvel] books. As comics were continuing to build in popularity, my love for them was reignited, and I went for it. So I started out with $300 in comic books, and $300 in cash, and just reinvested every weekend, until about a year later I opened full-time.

I mean, my rent was like $200 a month, so to say it was humble beginnings is an understatement. Within three, four years, a lovely lady walked into the store, and we started dating, and next thing you know, yeah: had a family and two stores, and all that.

You’ve been running this store through some pretty seismic shifts in the industry, then: starting right at the height of the comics boom, and riding it out through the comics bust and everything since then. How would you say that running the business has changed over that span of time?

Oddly enough, I think that if you look at the big picture, not a whole lot has changed. It’s going to sound strange, but the reason I say that is because it was going from one big experience to the next. Let me see if I can reconstruct it for you. Of course, there was the big boom of comics of the ‘90s. But then, as that was busting, all of a sudden it was the Star Wars resurgence, and I was leaning real heavy into the Star Wars scene, so we were known as the Star Wars store. 

And Pokémon was absolutely massive. And then, as that was dying down, we started to do Yu-Gi-Oh! regional qualifiers. And that opened the door to running all the card games for Dragon Con and AWA [Anime Weekend Atlanta, an anime convention]. And then, gosh, after that I created my own comic book series, Hero Cats, and traveled the country for that. And then the past three or four years, I’ve been working on a sizeable comic collection. Though of course, the shutdown was a whole different experience.

Obviously, that’s something that I wanted to ask you about. How did the pandemic shutdown change things for you, especially given how much of a focus on conventions and card tournaments you had developed?

Well, certainly the shutdown and all that went with it was a change, because we were always very connected with the community. Not to be able to run regionals, and do all those things - oddly enough it allowed me to focus on my projects and work behind the scenes. So there was always something to do. We were never really too concerned about the lack of new comics, because vintage comics were doing gangbusters. 

Another big game-changer was that about eight years ago, we purchased a building in downtown Lawrenceville. That was always our goal, to own property, and downtown Lawrenceville has absolutely boomed. So the Buford store has gone through probably the least amount of changes; it’s our warehouse store where we’ve got tons of backstock. 

So have you always tried to keep a balance between back issues and new titles, or is that something new since you bought the additional property?

We've always supported the back issues. When you sit down at comic cons, everyone comes to the comic book store to buy and sell the comics. So this was a huge influx of back issues. I don’t really set up at comic cons very often as a retailer, unless I go as a writer and creator. And also the card gaming. So I guess the main thing is that this is such a huge industry with so many different directions you can go in, that when I found that one direction was no longer as productive, I just switched gears to something else. And if there's one thing that hasn't changed, it's that I've been very fortunate to redefine certain aspects of my business.

The latest is we’ve added so much manga. I don't know manga as much as I perhaps could, but my daughter, who about two years ago started working for us full-time, she manages both stores’ manga sections. And that's been a huge, huge help.

When did you start seeing the demand for manga start to creep up to the point where you decided that it should be a big part of your business?

That's a good question. One of our competitors was going out of business, and we bought up their manga section. This was, I guess–since the shutdown, time doesn’t matter anymore–but it was a couple of years ago. I think it was right before the shutdown when we started to dabble in it.

One thing that has certainly been a factor in the Atlanta market is that we have seen a lot of comic book stores come and go over the years. And, you know, during the difficult times, I just look at everything and say, “at least I’m still here.” We’ve had some lean years: I think the first 10 years was the most tumultuous, because I never really felt like the industry or the business could support me and my family for the long-term. As you know, the distribution thing [the collapse of most direct market comic distributors following Marvel’s purchase of Heroes World Distribution in 1994] was in the ‘90s. So many things, with the internet becoming a thing.

Right. Do you have an online presence right now in terms of sales?

I do not focus on online sales. The only thing that I sell online is the Hero Cats graphic novels. It’s a department that we’ve always kind of dabbled in, but never really felt like going all-in on. I just like the face-to-face. I like interacting with the public. So the whole online thing, and going to the post office all the time… I did have a dedicated online person, and, you know, we had some initial success and put a bunch of stuff on eBay. But a lot of that stuff is just not as rewarding. I love talking about comics. I love recommending comics. I love that. Being able to sell to people their first-time-ever buying a comic. 

The Lawrenceville store gets a lot of people that walk in off the street, so therefore it’s, “hey, let me share with you.” The Buford store is a destination location: you have people traveling a further distance, because it’s not a downtown area.

And a lot of them, apparently, coming for the card games and events that you’ve been running since pretty close to the beginning.

Yeah, when Magic first came out, I was like, “okay, this is cool and all.” And then the Star Wars cards came out, and we were all over that. We became one of the top stores for that. And what I found was, all of these secondary card games - you could play Magic anywhere. But, like, when Final Fantasy was a thing, we were one of the few stores in the nation that had a good play group for that. And that’s always been our philosophy: that these secondary games, we wouldn’t have to discount them as much; there wouldn’t be as much competition. And we supported the community.

But since the shutdown-- we’ve got a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament in Lawrenceville, and our match comes in Buford. But we really haven't been focusing on building that community because, honestly, stepping out of the public eye for a couple of years, it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was nice. On the other hand, we kind of missed it. Now that it feels like everything is firing again on all cylinders, it’s getting ramped up again in a lot of ways. And this past year was very, very successful. 

But it feels like people aren't even really going to the movies as much as before the shutdown. And I think that shared experiences–whether it be the movie theater, or a church, or a concert, when the public gets together and feels all the same things–that’s something that people are more and more shut off from. It’s a shame to see that priority slipping away from people. But I don’t want to be the old person that’s like, “back in my day...” you know?

But I think the takeaway is that Wednesday at a comic store, or going to a card tournament, can be a way to have that experience even as other ways disappear, is that right?

Yeah, yeah, definitely there’s a community. It’s strange seeing people that were teenagers and now they’ve got kids. And so the card gaming certainly is a big part of our business, but it’s not nearly as big as it used to be in comparison to our Silver and Golden Age [comics], and the investment books [which] have completely taken my attention for the past number of years. All I do is price books from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I've been doing that for the last three years now.

Have you seen a jump in the collector market since the pandemic shutdown? Because it seemed like there was really a spike in prices and interest for buying up collectible back issues again.

There was an unbelievable spike. I couldn't keep things in my showcases. You know, I was paying top dollar for everything, and it was turning over so quickly. So I do think that factor of just the feeding frenzy - it was an incredible ride. And I'm still breaking records. If you haven’t seen Crime SuspenStories #22 [featuring Johnny Craig's famous axe decapitation cover], that book is on a huge rise. So there’s certain books that just keep going. And you know when you're looking at the census and there's, you know, less than 50 copies that have been graded - once you get into that territory and below, it’s wild.

Have things gotten more complicated for you since you expanded to a second location?

Yeah. It’s only recently that it feels like we have a reliable schedule. I'm in one store on Tuesdays, and the other store on Thursdays, and then a lot of Saturdays as well. But the biggest challenge has been just crunching those numbers to get the orders out, to produce the Marvel books specifically. Because it feels like every single week, I'm just having to stay ahead of things.

That raises a related issue, which is that over the past couple of years, there have obviously been major changes in direct market distribution. So how have you been dealing with having multiple distribution companies to work with now?

It used to be that we'd receive one shipment a week on a pallet. And then we'd break it up between the two stores, and in one day processing was done. We'd [also] get a shipment from our game distributor, and that was later in the week, and generally speaking, that was half a day's worth of work. Now, every single day between the two stores, we get some kind of shipment - whether it be posters, supplies, new books. Because, of course, new books ship-- it might be Wednesday for next week, it might ship on Thursday, it might be Monday.

I've removed myself from the receiving department. My wife is taking care of all the receiving  and pulls for customers, and my daughter as well. Andrew [another employee] is helping out with that as well. I'm just keeping the office work and the high-end appointments, you know? I’ll meet with customers to purchase the big books. That's where I have to be a little bit more flexible in my time.

What has it been like to work with Diamond since they lost their exclusive distribution for Marvel and DC books?

All of my distributors, generally speaking, I think are doing a fantastic job, given what they have to work with. Especially Southern Hobby, [who] are fantastic to me. Diamond’s the one who gets a little bit of a ding, because I’m paying more in shipping now than I was back when I was receiving everything on a pallet. And it's not so much that I would switch back, because Diamond’s inventory is, you know, not as vital as it used to be. DC [books] are our top performer, and they were the first ones out of the gate [during the pandemic shutdown]. And I will be forever grateful to them for getting new comic book shipments going again. 

The unpredictable nature of retail the last few years has been especially challenging. But the flip-side of that is that we’re doing better than we ever imagined. So there was a little bit-- I don’t want to say survivor’s guilt, but it was like, we’re crushing it here, you know? Certainly we lost some competitors. I like to outdo our competitors; I hate it to be under those kind of circumstances. 

The shutdown just dominated the conversation for so long. And honestly, there's so much more to talk about now. Good things that are happening. You know, the comic industry is resilient. The creators are putting out some quality stuff lately. DC has a number of books. I’m really excited about what Opus is doing, with Death Dealer and the rock and roll type of comics. The independent market has some bright spots in it, but really think the independent market is the one that has the same challenges, because the margins just aren’t as good through Diamond. It’s a little bit more attractive through Marvel and DC at this stage.

So what does have you excited about comics right now?

I've been really focused on the past and the history - I guess as I'm getting older, because I'm 55 now. Right now I'm totally obsessed with Frank Frazetta. The stuff that he did back in his early career. So unlike any other time in my store's history, I've been able to really delve into the journey that comics a medium has gone through. I actually own the first-ever comic book published in America. It's called The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck [an unauthorized 1840s edition of a book by Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer], and it's from before the Civil War. I sit down at the kitchen table with my children and I read that with them. 

When you have a comic in your hand that is just worth a lot of money, you know it because you can you can see it. It’s not like a lot of modern-day books, which are not as appealing to me. The good news is that the industry has figured out ways to keep things exciting. Unlike the ‘90s, when everything was foil, and glow-in-the-dark, and all the rest of that stuff, and it just got abusive. It seems like they’ve got a real decent handle on the manufactured rarity of certain items. 

Even with the number of variant covers that seems to be fueling quite a number of sales?

Well, you know, Action Comics #1050 and #1051 has covers A through Z. That was the first time I’m looking at it going, “you know what? I’m not going to get a cover.” Stuff right now is in an adjustment period. We've just had a massive, massive boom. I've never, in my career, seen books quadruple in value, and not small books. I mean, from small books to big books, everything across the board quadrupled in value. So now, if it drops by 20%, you know, well, it was overinflated to begin with.

It's just like back in the ‘90s, there were certain books that you just knew weren't going to be able to perform nearly as well in the long term. In our area specifically, there was one competing store out there that was all about Valiant; I was all about Image, and obviously I picked the winner. No way to know other than that I've always kind of trusted my instincts as to what I thought was cool.

I think the last really big thing to come along that I didn't jump in with both feet was [Funko] Pop! figures. But Digimon really took off, and did really well for us. So we try not to chase fads too much, and focus on the trends.

Have you seen any success translating the general public interest in comic characters from movies into actual comic sales?

Oh, yeah. Well, it depends on the timeframe that we're talking about. Obviously, the MCU's over a decade old at this stage. So that conversation that we've been having every week of, “oh, have you seen the latest…?” We don’t have as much of that water cooler experience. I think everybody's got their own jam that they do. And it’s wonderful to see that: you know, we have the old-school collectors who have been around for decades and have grown up with comic books. We have a massive kids' section, because we want the next generation of readers. And because we do have that range of buyers, it's very difficult for us to dedicate those hours on a Wednesday to have the kind of conversations that we had back in the ‘90s and 2000s, you know? So I kind of miss some of that. 

The blessing and the curse of comic popularity.

Yes, yes. I love, for example, the She-Hulk show. And I know that there was some pushback on it, but it did sell She-Hulk comics here and there - not as much as Black Panther; that’s a ton of comics. I just think that as far as the general public is concerned, it’s now out there as common knowledge. Stranger Things, there’d come a wave of people that would be buying that; Umbrella Academy, a wave of people trying to buy that.

And then does that subside when the buzz around that particular show or movie goes down? 

Certainly. Like [when The Sandman came out as a TV show], we got, like, 24 Sandman graphic novels one week. And it’s like, oh, I guess it’s going to have to wait until season two. But, like, Umbrella Academy was notorious: we got probably 30, 40 people coming and asking for that. And it took them six months or more to get the books out, and by then it was too late. The good thing is that I have seen the entire industry as a publisher, a creator, a retailer, a customer. I've seen it from all those angles at this stage. And I know that it's not like one particular part of this industry is trying to hold back other parts of the industry. It's just everybody's trying to do their best with what’s always kind of been-- I don’t want to say an afterthought.

There's a number of people in the industry that grew up remembering what it was like when the comics code [seal] was on there. And then, of course, in the '90s, it became a boys’ club. And then in the 2000s, more and more women started to discover comics, and there started becoming more and more of a place for them. And if there's one thing about the industry, it's that it is now looked upon by the general public as something that they can be excited about. They may not read comics, but they understand why people do.

So what do you think the future of comics retail holds?

When it comes to predicting the future, certainly, I hope for the best. I certainly think that the industry is very resilient. But I don't know what's going to be the next big hit. And the world is moving so quickly now. Who knows what's going to be a success, you know? I just hope that the general public will always see the value in a hero's journey.