Even seasoned New Yorkers may not often give much thought to Staten Island, that least-loved borough to the south of Manhattan. But in a city increasingly bereft of independent comic shops, there remains at least one valid reason for a free ferry ride across the harbor: Staten Island is the birthplace, and still home, of JHU Comic Books, one of the city’s most enduring comic retail institutions. Born some four decades ago as Jim Hanley’s Universe (under the auspices of its eponymous founder), the store rapidly established itself for a reliably diverse and wide-ranging selection of comics. An early proponent of the 1980s independent comic boom, and of publishers beyond Marvel and DC (though still largely connected to the direct market mainstream), Hanley and his shop became something of a cultural institution in what was then comics’ unofficial capital, topping out at four regional locations, and becoming the go-to shop for New York-based creatives and comics publishing professionals.
When Hanley retired in 2013 amid a smattering of respectful encomia from the comics press, the shop was taken over in short order by its longtime managers, Ron Hill and Nick Purpura, who reincorporated it as JHU Comic Books. The decade since has not been without its hiccups; the realities of a contracting direct market and rising New York rents have forced the retailer (now scaled down to a modest two locations within the city) to relocate their Manhattan location, an effort that required public support by way of a GoFundMe campaign in 2018. And yet, like the city itself, JHU doggedly endures, maintaining a devoted base of customers in both of its home boroughs.
Take a look around the Staten Island store, and you’ll begin to suspect this comes down to two factors. First: a continuing and concerted effort to diversify the store’s business beyond the traditional comic staples of Marvel and DC superheroes, and into the larger and more rapidly-growing areas of manga and YA graphic novels. And second: a toughened but sincere sense of optimism on the part of the owners that comics is a business worth buying into, whatever tsuris it might bring. Ron and Nick have been around the block, but they’re not leaving it. Just ask their neighbors.
And so, on a sunny May afternoon, The Comics Journal chatted with JHU’s owners about what it takes to survive in New York City.
The Comics Journal: Let’s start with a little bit of background. How did each of you get involved in comics retail, and with Jim Hanley’s Universe?
Ron Hill: Your timing’s great. June 11 marks 40 years since I've been in comic book retail. Forty years ago, Jim Hanley, who was our old boss and the originator of the stores, had another store which opened here on Staten Island just up the block from where we are. So I was going to walk home, and they were like, “Hey, kid, want to help?” And 40 years later, here I am. And then Nick shopped in the store the first day.
So you’ve both really been here since the inception of the store.
Hill: Absolutely. I was 14. I didn't have a steady job for about a year, but I worked for him on and off for the first year. The original store was called the Merchant of Venus. They quickly found out there was another Merchant of Venus, so they changed the name to the Fantastic Store. And then, after a year or two of being partners with his childhood friend Dave, Jim realized they couldn’t be partners, so he split off and formed Jim Hanley’s Universe in '85.
At what point did each of you decide you really wanted to make your careers in this shop?
Hill: I was 14 in 1983, and 18 in 1987. Hanley’s was rapidly expanding; there were opportunities. There was a lot of excitement surrounding books like The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, and American Splendor, and the graphic novel market. And I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, but I had the opportunity to work for Jim full-time and get out on my own, and I just went for it. And then Nick is a little different; Nick comes on a decade after me in 1996.
Nick Purpura: Ron hired me in my basement. Ron and I knew each other - I’m 10, he’s 14. And as I'm growing up, Ron is putting Crisis on Infinite Earths in my hand, and Watchmen in my hand, and someone gave me Love and Rockets when I was 16. These were the older guys telling you what the cool comics were: “Hey, kid, you should read this Dark Knight Returns. It’s Batman; you’ve never read anything like this.” So I was always around the store, and then Ron and I became friends through the local music scene while playing in bands and having fun.
So I was out of college, and waiting to be famous, because that was going to happen any day now. And, you know - hey, this sounds like a great job. I can have a job, the guys would let me run around and play shows, and do all this stuff. And I loved comic books. And one of the great things about Jim’s early store is that you got introduced to the grownup stuff. Jim’s was where, as a young kid, I bought Elfquest off the shelf. Jim was an early proprietor of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it was a craze on Staten Island.
Hill: Jim’s from midtown, and he knew Gary Groth when they were both teens from the fanzine scene, the Phil Seuling scene. So Jim grew up in a world where there’s underground comics and the self-published thing. And he immediately recognized the fact that comic books could have wide genres, and always made sure that his stores weren’t just Marvel and DC spots only, but had other things that you may not see in the typical comic book store of 1986. Most of the time you go into a comic book store in 1985, they didn’t have a cash register. They didn’t have a vacuum cleaner. They didn’t have independent comics.
That gets me to a question I wanted to pose to you, which is what made Hanley’s shop stand out? Because it became quite notable during those years, and during the decades thereafter.
Purpura: The big thing that the store did was they made sure that the team had people who grew up with comics. You know, someone in the store handed you a [Fabulous Furry] Freak Brothers, or pointed out a Robert Crumb comic, or American Splendor, or Love and Rockets. And then when I came to work there, Jim’s first thing is, “You don’t read Palookaville? You haven’t read Eightball?” And somebody puts them in your hands, and comics become a little more than this thing you did just as a kid. It got to grow up with you. So Jim didn’t lose customers in that situation: he cultivated them for the next generation.
Hill: Jim’s whole approach was, “How do I sell as much stuff as possible?” And that meant trying things that other guys didn’t touch, trying things that other retailers would laugh at you for carrying, and building an audience out of things that the traditional direct market to this day shuns. You know the mainstream book market has fully embraced alternative comics and graphic novels, yet you'll still find most comic stores won't have a copy of Maus; won’t have Dan Clowes’ work. And we always carried it because we love the work. But at the same time, we never were like Desert Island, saying “We’re not going to touch a Marvel comic, we’re not going to touch an Archie comic, and we’re only going to carry alternative things.”
Tell me about taking over the shop from Jim, and what that process was like for you.
Purpura: Ten years ago now, in 2013, the big store became untenable on West 33rd. The rent that they were bringing it up to was just more than we could handle in Manhattan. Jim, during this period, had many health issues…
Hill: Jim was going to retire, and we realized that the best way for us to keep to keep the spirit of the company going was to reincorporate under a new name, because that allowed us to make new contracts [and to] corporately reset. We moved the [Manhattan] location two times during this period: we had moved to 33nd Street and Madison Avenue, which was an okay store, but after five years they wanted their space back. And we found a new [current] home in a haste like nobody’s business on 3rd Avenue. Which started okay, and within six months they put a scaffolding in front of the building, thus blocking the view of the store from the street for two years. Meanwhile, the pandemic happens. And, you know, we worked in a comic store where we didn’t have lots of money. We didn't have a lot of capital to reinvest. And we've not gotten rich in the last 10 years either, but we have survived 10 years.
Purpura: One of our big obstacles was when we reincorporated, all of a sudden we were a new corporation, so nobody wanted to give us credit. Many of the comic vendors were all very fair with us, but there were lots of other vendors who were big book companies that were really rough in the early going.
Hill: We had to do a lot of stuff with a lot less than we'd been used to. We went from being an operation at Jim Hanley's [that had] 20 employees to being an operation that currently has about 6. I wish I could say sales were way higher than 15 years ago, but they're not. They haven't risen with what it costs to employ people. A lot of external expenses continue to creep up, and we’ve just got to find new ways to keep it moving. But, you know, every week I feel like we do more work than we did the last week for less return, and the goal here is to keep trying to find a way to make it to the next week, and keep selling comics.
Do you think comics is a less profitable business now than it was a decade ago?
Hill: Absolutely. The major publishers, Marvel in particular, used the pandemic as a way of getting our discounts cut to lower levels than they had been. The move to [Penguin] Random House caused us to lose six points of discount. Which, when Marvel’s your number one comic book publisher in sales, and you get six points cut off in the wake of a pandemic when you were closed for three months, suddenly creates all kinds of new challenges - because you have to go find a way to pay the electric bill and the rent every month.
Has Marvel been responsive when you or other shops have brought that up?
Hill: Not particularly. The general consensus is, as always, Marvel kind of doesn't care. They sell whatever they can, and they move on. The falseness of believing anyone is “partners” here-- they could give a shit, is what I’m going to say. They did what was best for Marvel. Marvel always does what’s best for Marvel. And it’s a shame that they dominate not just our business, but the media cultural landscape.
And it’s hard, because obviously there are lots of things about Marvel we love, like Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, and shit like that. But as a corporate entity, it's very painful sometimes, because they don't seem particularly interested in expanding their readership base. They seem interested in making $100 books to sell to 2,000 people, as opposed to making $4 comic books to sell to 500,000 people. I don’t think Marvel’s #1 comic book sells 100,000 copies. They just don't seem interested in selling comic books. It seems like the corporate mindset over there is: stay below the radar. Make the margin. As a publishing company, I don’t think they are trying very hard to grow readership. I mean, Scholastic and VIZ sell more books than them. They put out the world's biggest movie, and they can't sell 100,000 copies of any comic book.
Let’s probe into that a little. Why is that? Why is Marvel’s market not expanding, when younger readers of manga and YA graphic novels certainly are?
Hill: Here’s the problem - I think that some of the best cartoonists out there see greener pastures in other places. So maybe [Marvel isn’t] getting the same caliber of creator that they used to. You get the [Jonathan] Hickmans and the Brian K. Vaughans that start over there, Mark Millar - all these guys start over there, do some fine work, and then they go, “I’m going to go over here and do my own properties where I’ll get my payday; I’ll get all the rights; I’ll get paid twice the money for selling a third of the copies.”
I feel like Marvel, as it exists now, is still operating as if [former chairman and CEO Ike] Perlmutter was the boss. They’re still operating under the policies that his regime instituted. And I think there's plenty of wonderful editors and creative people who work there who want to try to do things, but they're probably stymied by the corporate leadership, and all the other things that go on behind the scenes of a major entertainment company. And there's occasionally a miracle comic that comes out that's good, but anything that comes out that's good, they'll reprint as a trade once, and then it will go away for five years.
They don’t have a book department. DC Comics spent 20 years actively reprinting all their work, and creating a graphic novel market and a readership base for their collected stories. And Marvel treats their trade paperbacks as an extension of their comics. They print to order; maybe they’ll reprint it, maybe they won’t. It makes it very hard for new, young readers to come in and go, “Let me get all those Spider-Man comics.”
And all the graphic novel publishers out there - Fantagraphics, and Scholastic, and Random House itself, and Pantheon. You want to talk about graphic novels, over at Abrams, Charlie Kochman is paying attention to what’s working for them, and making sure it’s getting out. And as a result, we can have success. One of the problems with periodical comics now is that so many come out that it’s hard to pick a title and put money and time behind it. Whereas a great graphic novel, we can sell every week: we can have this in our store permanently as something we can push on people as long as it stays in print. And Marvel gave up on this stuff a long time ago.
How has this been affecting what you’re selling? What’s the breakdown these days between monthly periodical comics and collected editions or graphic novels?
Hill: It’s been neck-and-neck for years, but we had a competitor on Staten Island go out of business a few years ago, which edged the periodicals back up. So periodicals have a bit of the edge again, but not like a huge edge or anything. It’s definitely been close for years. Some of that might be the fact that we have a lot of competitors in graphic novels: Barnes & Noble, Newbury Comics, Amazon all have graphic novels. The advantage the store will always have [over Amazon] is that someone can hold the tactile item in their hands. They can look through the book and go, “Do I really want this?” That being said, the gaming industry has a thing called a minimum advertised price [i.e., an agreement not to price an item below a predetermined retail amount]. And it would serve the booksellers of the world better if any of these publishers threw that on their product.
My understanding is that in the past, when booksellers have pushed for this, Amazon has put enough pressure on them to head it off.
Purpura: Yes, they do. Unfortunately, if anyone makes Marvel look like a good guy, it’s Amazon.
You mentioned that you currently have a manga section, so what’s it been like moving into that space? Because that’s obviously been an incredibly important market for at least 20 years now.
Purpura: We were in heavy in the early manga phase at Jim Hanley’s Universe, and then Borders came along. And that kind of took us a little bit out of it. And what really took us out of it was Simon & Schuster, and not being able to get an account initially. But we have one now, and we’ve expanded the manga.
Hill: Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had every reason to try to diversify our options from vendors, because you never know what vendors are going to survive. We were buying 80% of our stuff from Diamond in 2019, maybe 90% of our stuff, and now we're probably buying 20% of our stock from Diamond.
How did you weather the pandemic shutdown?
Hill: We got some breaks. We got some government grants. We pivoted to some mail order - we had not been doing any mail order. Nick started doing a live show selling stuff that we had in the store. We got a webstore through Shopify. None of these things necessarily were huge drivers of business, but they kept some business coming in. We kind of rekindled our eBay. But when the pandemic was actually on - friends, customers, spread the wealth a little bit. It really helped. The crux of the comic store is always local community: you know the guy’s name who walks in the door. Knowing them, knowing their kids, knowing their kids’ kids. The fruition of that happened a bit during the pandemic, when people came out and spent money, and did as much as they really could.
Do you feel more-or-less stable coming back to regular operations now?
Purpura: No. No. The Staten Island store, because it’s a community store, has weathered it better. The Manhattan store still has a problem with Manhattan not being Manhattan again. When I say that, I’m not talking about the scary place that people like to portray and all that. It’s just that not enough of the regular commuters are there. I’m a New Yorker who loves Manhattan, but at one point or another, we’ll have to make realistic decisions. One way or another, Ron and I will continue to sell comic books. It’s what we do.
You talked about losing the discount that Diamond was giving when Marvel moved to Penguin Random House, but what about DC and Lunar?
Purpura: The high concept here is that Lunar is generally worse than Amazon, because they’re selling the books even cheaper as DCBS [Discount Comic Book Service, a consumer mail-order operation]. If they would separate themselves from that business, which is an atrocity to comic book stores-- it’s detrimental to the industry as a whole. That said, Lunar as a distributor has been a decent distributor. Stuff comes undamaged. There’s still a discount to scale over at DC. Somehow they’re able to ship a 40-pound box for half the price one of their competitors might ship it for. Just in general, Lunar as a distributor is doing a fine job. But the mask that they’re not DCBS, which is a danger to the industry, is a problem.
What about the cost of using multiple distributors? Now that Diamond is no longer a monopoly, are you paying more or less to get your books each month?
Hill: That’s a real question. Clearly, our Marvel comics cost us more. Our DC comics probably cost us less. Our Image comics probably still cost us less. The fact that we’re buying VIZ from Simon & Schuster means we’re paying less than we were paying at Diamond - but we weren’t buying any [manga] from Diamond, because they never had the product. So it’s been sort of a wash.
Diamond has been running into problems even this week, with Image announcing that they’re moving to Lunar as their primary distributor. What do you think is the future of Diamond?
Purpura: One of the big problems with them is with the birth of other distributors, people are noticing, "Hey, there’s a reorder fee on this book, a book that was 45% is now 43%." They’re the only distributor in town who does stuff like that. Everyone else is either giving us free shipping or very detailed shipping. So, as much as it was nice to have the Diamond search engine and all these things, those [discount] points count, and extra savings are coming everywhere. We have to find it, especially in tough times.
That said, Steve Geppi is a very, very smart man. He’s been in comics a very long time. He also has the lines of distribution. There’s no reason why they couldn’t combine the companies, or any of those things. I don’t think he’s going anywhere any time soon.
How would you describe the typical customer that you have now?
Hill: You’ve got the older gentleman who only wants to buy back issues. You’ve got people who only want to read Dan Clowes, and Joe Matt, and the Hernandez brothers. You’ve got the guys who are Marvel and DC fans. Disney kids, Golden Book kids, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, freaking Dog Man. My favorite thing about the modern kid is that 15 years ago, a kid would walk into the store and you’d be like, “Hey kid, you should try this thing called Bone.” And they’d all fall in love with it. Now every kid walks in and goes, “I read that already.” That’s old hat. But do you have Wings of Fire? Maybe you like dragons. Part of the good comic shop is that all the good comic shops have their champion: the person who loves the medium, and knows when that little kid comes in, your challenge is to find him something [so] that he goes, “Cool.”
We’re passionate about reaching people because we love comics. And it’s a medium that in this day is treated like a second-class citizen, even by the dominant players of the field. It’s bananas to me, even though some of these books are some of the bestselling books of the year according to BookScan. In 2019, the Joker film, which is based on comic books created by DC, comes out and makes $1 billion, and wins Academy Awards. And in 2020, the people who cultivated that market for DC all get laid off. That’s what’s wrong: it’s like these bozos don’t know what they have. They’re going to kill the golden goose. The mainstream publishers are not looking toward the future of their own medium.
Anything coming up at the shop that you’d like people to know about?
Hill: June 11th is the 40th anniversary of the store.
Purpura: He’s being modest. It’s the 40th anniversary of Ronnie being in comics.
There’ll be fireworks over Staten Island, I’m sure.
Purpura: We’re having a little sale or event, probably a little party in the store. We haven’t quite sorted it all out yet. Probably a big blowout sale of some kind. We do like to have, every once in a while, a good old-fashioned store party. You know, have some soda pop and hang out with customers.
Get some pizza there and I just might take the ferry over for it.
Purpura: Oh yeah. You don’t mess around, Staten Island pizza.