Ohio has always exerted a peculiar influence over the world of comics. Even in the absence of either the metropolitan gravitational pull of New York or the bohemian cachet of Oregon, the state has, over the past century and change, produced an almost bewildering number of notable figures in comic strips, books and academic studies. Richard Outcult (he of Hogan's Alley and Buster Brownfame) hailed from Ohio. As, of course, did those gawky discoverers of superheroics Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (a little later in childhood). Then there's Nick Anderson, and Bill Watterson, and Jeff Smith, and Brian Michael Bendis, and Brian K. Vaughan, and untold more born or raised on Buckeye soil with every passing year.
A cultural historian might chalk it up to the state’s early centrality in the print media boom; a Jungian might suggest the state’s capacity to tap into the American unconscious. Whatever the reason, the result has been a certain self-perpetuating passion for comics that extends from the Ohio State University’s widely-recognized comics studies program, the Caniff-stocked Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and the well-regarded annual Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, to the surprise Eisner nomination for the Columbus Scribbler, a local giveaway comics newspaper, in 2022. And in the midst of all of this sits another recent Eisner winner: Columbus’s Laughing Ogre Comics, aka The Laughing Ogre, which walked away with the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award in 2021.
That fact, along with the shop’s three decades of continued operation, ought to be enough to suggest that Laughing Ogre, its owner Chris Lloyd, and its manager Gib Bickel (who founded the shop before divesting himself of ownership some years later), are doing something right. Certainly there are things to which you can point: the store’s longtime and dogged determination to promote more offbeat titles alongside the Big Two superhero staples; its early adoption of the manga market well before the Pokémon-fueled breakout; its efforts at outreach and education to the Columbus community.
But talking to Bickel, you mostly get a sense of stoic, Steel Belt solidity. Where other retailers are frustrated by the recent multiplication of distributors, or bemused by the mounting pile of variant covers emanating from publishers, Laughing Ogre gives the appearance of taking it all in stride: the shop has weathered industry storms before and made it out the other side. Maybe that’s a lesson middle-American culture can still give to the industry after all.
To better understand Laughing Ogre’s endurance and recent awards success, I sat down with Bickel to talk about the role his shop plays in the Ohio comics scene.
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The Comics Journal: Tell me about how you got started in comics, and what compelled you to open up a store.
Gib Bickel: I used to buy tons of magazines and paperbacks, and I never really got into comics. But I went into the local drugstore and saw Amazing Spider-Man #149, with two Spider-Men on the cover and thought, “What’s going on there?”
It takes a bold reader to get into comics with the Clone Saga and stick around.
Yes, but back then it was like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” So, I had two friends, Rod Phillips and Daryn Guarino, and we wanted to own a comic store. Daryn had some cash that he wanted to invest in the business, and that’s how we got started.
And what year was that?
That was 1994.
So you were getting in just as the market was falling into some real trouble during the ‘90s.
It was. And it actually probably benefited us because we were just enthusiastic about selling comics, where all the other guys had been beaten up, you know? They were all dropping every month, and a lot of times the guys that owned the stores actually had to get jobs, and they’ve got other people running the store for them. So whereas it was a horrible time to sell comics, it was a great time to open.
What was it like opening the store up back then? Were there challenges you weren’t expecting?
I had worked at a store called the Wizard of Comics, so I kind of had an idea what it was. I think the biggest advantage I had was I had run a Wendy’s for, like, 12 years. Wendy’s managers-- every Monday morning, you have a profit and loss statement, so they’re really cognizant of where the money is coming and going. And running a business for someone else before you run your own, it’s a heck of an advantage.
The one thing that did surprise me, it was also a big asset for us: for some reason, a lot of the stores that were around then did not want to experiment and broaden their audience by getting a certain kind of comic like Stray Bullets. The three of us that had started the store, we were into good comics. It didn’t matter whether they were black & white, if they were color, if they were indie, if they were corporate - it didn’t matter to us. It’s like, tell me a good story; that’s what I need. So we would have a policy that if we recommended a book to you and you didn’t like it, you could bring it back and swap it for something the following week. To me, it was like a no-lose situation, because if you bought it and didn’t like it, I don’t want you buying it; I want to sell it to somebody that’s going to like it, because that means I’m going to sell more #2s.
And I had more than one person come in and tell me, “I asked my store if they would [pull the comic you recommended], and they said ‘No, we’re not interested in carrying that comic. Why don’t you get your weird stuff at the Laughing Ogre?’” The first time I heard it, I’m thinking to myself, “There is absolutely no way someone told someone this.” Because back then, most of the order forms we were doing were on paper - you don’t want to put a “one” in that column? I just didn’t understand it. But it helped us a lot.
It sounds like you were getting a really free hand to get a market of people who wanted to read something beyond the top sellers.
We were people’s second store for at least probably two or three years, because a lot of comic people are pretty loyal, and they’re pretty dedicated to a routine. But in, like, year two, three and four, I had more and more people say, “I don’t know why I’m going to two stores to get everything when I can get everything here.” And at the same time, a lot of stores were going out of business.
So how did you make it through that decade?
Well, we did and we didn’t. We sold the store in '06, because those last couple of years, we had run up a lot of debt. Basically, we’d had double-digit growth for probably eight to nine years, so that ate up a lot of the mistakes that we were making. And then when sales evened out, my ordering was a little on the shoddy side, so we ran up some debt. And we got an offer to buy the store, and we sold it to a guy named Gary Dills, and Gary eventually sold it to Chris Lloyd, who owns it now. So it’s just one of those things, you know. Success can make you a little lazy.
What are the lessons that you feel like you’ve learned since then, even if you had to learn them the hard way?
The big thing is, it’s better to be out of something than it is to have dead stock. When we first started doing orders, I was too pie-in-the-sky. “I can sell a hundred of that.” And there’s no doubt that the corporate comics guys are really good at convincing you that, hey, the Return of Superman is going to be bigger than the Death of Superman. You get stuck with two or three hundred of those books. So it’s a learning experience.
As you’ve become more conservative in what you’re buying, how are you making decisions about how to stock the store?
Something else that’s changed drastically is that so many of the better comics are now in PDFs. So if I can read something before I order it [that helps]. And you’ve got spreadsheets now; you’ve got databases, and it just makes your own access to information amazing. And returnability is everything to me. I will give a real big chance to something that’s returnable.
How often does that happen these days?
Oh, quite a bit. DC in the last six months has offered returnability. Image was for a while; not anymore. BOOM! and Vault Comics make virtually all their stuff returnable. I can’t remember the last time a Marvel book was returnable. And, honestly, if you are giving me that help, I’m going to reach out to Vault [for example] and say, “Hey, I don’t want to return any more of these than you’re comfortable with. How many do you want me to order?” Because if you’re reaching out to me and giving me that, I want to reach out and help you.
Are companies still as communicative with your shop as they’ve been in the past? Because I’ve heard from some shop owners that, especially from big companies, there’s a lot less communication and outreach than there used to be.
Oh, yeah, it’s drastically different. If you talk to the older shops around, Marvel and DC used to call us every week to get reorders, and also to ask our impressions of stuff. [Now] Marvel and DC are probably the least communicative. After you’ve been bought and sold a couple of times, the people that used to run those companies are gone. DC used to fly around to stores and we’d have a meeting, like every two years. And those were some of the most productive business meetings in comics, because everybody was there to talk business. It was amazing. But when the people from that era–Paul Levitz and all the guys underneath him at that time, like Bob Wayne–when those guys left, the people that have taken over after that, it may not be in their power to give us the answers and talk to us like they used to.
If you had to describe the sort of person who’s generally coming into your shop nowadays, what does the profile of your customer look like?
It used to be young males, but as Marvel and DC have, in some cases, literally driven them away from the business, we have picked up a lot of families, and a lot of kids who are reading manga. Families are always looking for good all-ages books, and kids these days are reading manga. I don’t know what we’d have done if we didn’t replace so many of those longtime corporate comic readers with families and kids.
How have you managed to compete in the manga space? That’s a tough area for a lot of shops to figure out.
It is. I can’t tell you for sure exactly how we’ve been successful in it. We’ve stocked manga since the start now - back in ’94, the manga we had was Lone Wolf and Cub with the Frank Miller covers, and all that stuff. It’s just become digest-sized now. So we’ve always had it, but I think the pandemic helped a lot. Because with this region being so bad [for manga availability], people came from normally going to corporate bookstores to coming here, because everybody was looking for this stuff no matter where they could find it. A lot of people didn’t associate manga with comic book stores; they associated it with bookstores. So once they’re here, now we’re on their radar.
How is your store laid out? How much space are you giving to different sections?
You come in, and the first thing you see on the left-hand side is an area for all ages. And Jeff Smith of Bone fame is a local, so he actually has a statue of one of his Bone characters in the store here, and it’s the first thing you see in the store. On the right, you’ve got a couple of tables where we display all the different things that don’t quite fit in with what we call our “New This Week” rack. That rack runs the length of the store, and it’s basically new books - say, the last three months’ worth of floppies and trades. On the right-hand side, general interest stuff - if you were to walk into a regular bookstore, that’s a lot of that kind of stuff.
And we have stuff people might be looking for on comic book-based [movies and TV shows], and stuff for LGBTQ [Pride] Month and Black History Month, and rotating stuff for, like, Christmas gifts. We have a local section, and back issues are in the back of the store, and then a European and a fantasy and horror section.
It sounds like you’ve kept a focus on books, and steered clear of ancillary materials like Funko POP!s or t-shirts.
Yeah, we used to have a couple of t-shirt racks in the store. But honestly, when Target and everybody has more t-shirts and they’re far cheaper, we got them out. We have toys in the store, and we have Funko POP!s on the top of the shelves or on the walls. It does bring in people - there’s a lot of cross-shopping. The people that we sell a lot of toys to are the people that buy comics. I think if you’re really into that stuff and you have a clientele for it, then yeah, that’ll work. I like having a bookstore that happens to specialize in comics. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s always going to work better for me because that’s what I’m passionate about, and our passion determines how happy people are.
You know, I’ve had this conversation with people many, many times. Is it a chicken or an egg thing? Do we sell more independent comics because we love them and people gravitate to us, or do we sell them because we just display them and make them available to everybody? It’s hard to tell. I don't think any one thing works for everybody. I think your area, your expertise and your passion are the most indicative of what's going to be successful for you.
How have you been adjusting to the new number of distributors in the market?
Obviously the biggest issue right now is the cost of Diamond shipping. I don’t get a lot of damages [i.e., damaged items] - a lot of people have trouble with the different distributors for damages. But to me, if I don’t have to get it through Diamond, then I’m not going to pay that horrible shipping. It seems like they’ve gotten worse since the pandemic. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard they’ve promised to cut back. We’ve got, quote, “two 20% discounts coming in the next year.” But it’s not as bad here as it is on the west coast. I talked to some people out there where their shipping is almost double mine. You’re talking about not being able to afford to go through Diamond if it’s like that. I think that they’re just desperate for profit wherever they can get it.
Has it been complex for you to handle different shipping dates and staffing needs for multiple distributors?
It definitely is more labor-intensive than it used to be. But remember, if you’re old enough, we were getting stuff through Capital, Diamond and Heroes World once before. As a locally-owned business and a comic store, we’ve been getting beat up for 20 years. What else you got? Come on, we can take anything you throw at us.
I think, in a lot of ways, Diamond kept the direct market viable for a long time. There’s a lot of shops that would be gone if [Diamond] didn’t lend them money. But when the shipping costs get that bad, I can’t do it. And also, if you think about it, there’s a good chance Diamond lost DC because they were trying to keep the stores in business during the pandemic. If they would have kept shipping and billing us when we were all closed and could not sell anything, how many stores would have gone out of business? So it looks like they probably lost DC because Warner was mad that they weren’t shipping product.
So you really feel like Diamond was punished for doing a decent thing for comic stores?
I think there’s a good chance of that. I mean, that’s just my opinion; I’m sure there were other elements to it. But that was apparently, from what people say, something that really made DC’s conglomerate mad.
I think the counterargument might be that publishers were frustrated by having no way to distribute their own books when there was only one distributor who could make the decisions.
Right. But it’s always kind of a unique business, comics as a whole and the direct market.
On a different note, you won the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award in 2021. Did you see that coming?
No, I didn’t see it coming. We’ve submitted before, and I’ve watched some of the [submission] videos, and everyone always notices their flaws more than anything else. I’m still literally thrilled to have won. It’s a buzz every time I think about it. This has always been a really special, wonderful place to me - not just the customers, not just the staff, but everything about it.
What has you excited and annoyed about comic retail right now?
In terms of annoyances, I really feel like the Big Two corporate comic companies have no idea what their consumers want. I think the Death of Superman may have been the worst thing that ever happened to comics. We sold a lot of them, but they bent marketing. Every time we get solicitations, it’s like, “Here’s a new character in this book.” Ok, well, who cares, you know?
And they’re constantly writing for the trade paperback. You pick up a comic, and it’s 1/6 of a story. Very few of those books are stand-alone stories. If you get a comic book-- I’m not saying that they’re not worth $4 or $5. But, like, you should just get something you can enjoy completely for that single comic book.
There are way too many crossovers. I think that they ride all of their creators too much. Their editors need to loosen up and let people write some good stories.
Have you found that this has had an impact on sales?
With the Big Two, it definitely has. We used to sell, like, 300 Batman, and now we’re down to, like, 120 or 130. We still have about 500 pull accounts, so the customer base is probably right in the same size, it’s just that those particular comics aren’t selling like they used to. The floppies, anyway. I guess another reason we’ve diversified the shop is because readers are moving [to independent comics] anyway just because of what’s going on with the Big Two. And like I say, it seems not intentional, but you are literally driving these people away.
If you were to imagine what your shop will look like five years down the line, what do you think it will be?
I don’t perceive a big change. It’s hard to tell, you know? You never know. But every curveball we’re given we’ll take it in stride and do what we can. In the long run, a comic book store, like a bookstore that specializes in comics - we’ll be fine.