If you were a Marvel Comics fan from a certain era, you will recognize the ads on sight: a two-page wall of typewritten text, filled with the names and issue numbers of vintage comics, their corresponding prices set beside them. Those ads, ubiquitous to the point of parody in Marvel books throughout the 1980s and early '90s, were the work of Denver’s Mile High Comics and its founder, Chuck Rozanski. And the simplicity of the text and layout of these ads belies their outsized impact on the world of comic collecting: that simple inclusion of dollar values next to widely-desired back issues was a watershed in comics retail, and an early domino to fall in the Rube Goldberg machine that was the '90s comics boom. And if you ask Rozanski about them now, you will be told that this was no accident.
Mile High Comics, after all, was no less a beneficiary of those boom years than the comics they sold and the speculators who made quick money off of them. By the early '90s, the shop was not only generating millions of dollars in sales, but had expanded into multiple physical locations in its Denver hometown, culminating in its first mega-store in 1993: an 11,000 square foot monument to comic book culture that became almost symbolic of the era in which it was born.
Today, those days of exuberant expansion are a distant memory: the market for superhero comics is a fraction of its '90s peak, the mail order business has been supplanted by the more crowded and competitive realm of online retail, and Mile High’s three locations have been reduced to one (albeit still massive and comprehensive). But Mile High Comics endures, no longer as the 800 pound gorilla of comics retail, but perhaps as something more elusive but more enduring: a certifiable institution.
Even as the mega-store remains a destination haven for superhero-themed pop culture writ large, its founder is a retail icon of a different sort. Outspoken and unapologetically opinionated, with roots going back to the early years of comic book fandom, Rozanski is in some ways the opposite image of his fellow Retail Therapy profile subject Buddy Saunders (who, like Rozanski, found his first market of buyers through the subscription list of Rocket’s Blast Comicollector). Where Saunders’ MyComicShop.com pivoted away from physical retail in favor of the internet, Rozanski's core focus is on making Mile High Comics a real and tangible destination. Where Saunders is unabashed in his conservative politics, Rozanski is vocally devoted to gender equality, as well as trans and LBGTQ rights: a longtime drag performer as Bettie Pages, Rozanski periodically hosts drag shows and Pride events at Mile High’s store. And where Saunders’ singular focus is on comic books themselves, Rozanski has more and more refashioned the Mile High mega-store into an emporium of superhero paraphernalia and collectibles that harkens back to an earlier era of collector culture.
In early March, readers of the Mile High Comics newsletter were informed that Rozanski had been hospitalized for bleeding in the brain as a result of a recent fall, which had struck the spot of an arachnoid cyst. Largely confined to rest for the time being, and with cross-country trips and examinations of comic collections present off-limits, Rozanski remains lucid and honest. In convalescence, we recorded a candid interview on topics including life, business, and the long road on which Mile High Comics has traveled.
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The Comics Journal: I’m going to start with an unusual question this time around. How are you doing?
Chuck Rozanski: Well, I'm a little bit rocky because I suffered a brain bleed earlier this week, and I'm not sure that [the] hemorrhaging has actually stopped. There's no way to tell without actually running a CT scan. And those are expensive enough that my wellness provider would just as soon not right now. So they're just waiting to see if it gets better or it doesn't.
It must have come on quite unexpectedly. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing as well as you are at this point.
Yeah. I fell last Friday - so, a week ago today, when I tripped over a little sapling stump. All of my focus was on the fact that my ribs hurt like hell, and what I didn't realize at the time was that I had also suffered what's called a whiplash concussion. That happens when your brain is basically popped around really sharply inside your skull. And that's bad for me because I have a congenital arachnoid cyst in my brain. So for years I've been walking around with this sort of ticking time bomb in my head, where if [the cyst] ever shatters, it pierces the healthy tissue of your brain and you bleed out and die.
So how much are you doing right now? Are you just taking it easy or are you back to work at all?
Oh, I'm back to work.
Yeah. Oh, yeah. I can't drive. I'm kind of unsteady on my feet. But I can sit on my butt and sort comics.
You certainly seem to be taking a philosophical attitude toward all of this.
I have been one of the luckiest people on this planet. I've lived through so much and have benefited so much.
That’s a good segue into talking about your beginnings in comics. You grew up originally in Germany, so is that where you first got into comics?
Pretty much. I had been into them prior to our going over to Germany. But my stepfather was really abusive, and he made me give away all my comics when I was, like, nine years old, and he didn't let me start collecting again until I was 12. So when I started collecting again, since I'd gone through those three years of banishment, I really went balls to the wall and tried to accumulate as many comics as I could. The only problem being that I had absolutely no money. So I had to figure out ways to get people to trade me two for one. What I would do is, I would figure out what people's particular passions were, and I would go out and try to find those comics. So it was a real Tom Sawyer kind of thing where, you know, “So you collect Archie? Well, if you give me two of your Marvels, I’ll give you one of these Archies.” I ended up with 3,000 comics by the time I was 14.
So is that how you got the jones to do comics retail?
Well, I wasn't really doing retail, but where the origin story came from was that two of my friends stole my Silver Surfer #1. And Silver Surfer #1 was very rare in Germany, because the Stars and Stripes would not carry new comics until they hit issue #3. And about a month later I caught the guy who had it - I was at his house, and I saw it in his bedroom. And he said, “Oh my God, I can’t give it up. I’ll give you five dollars if I get to keep it.” And that just set off all the bells and whistles. Like, “Five dollars for a comic that’s not even a year old!”
So these same friends turned me on to the mail order dealers of the time: Robert Bell being the foremost. And once I got their catalogs, I saw that there was actually the beginnings of a pricing structure - I knew what 'pricing structure' was because my mom was a part-time coin dealer, so she had a subscription to the Coin World newspaper, which essentially had a little stock market sheet in it saying what the latest prices were. I started reading those coin pricing quotes when I was seven and eight years old.
So looking at the catalogs from Bell and all those other guys, I could immediately see that this was the beginning of something that could be really big. And the nice thing was that adults seemed to be ignoring it. This was primarily a world that was dominated by teenagers and people who were in their 20s, but not the big money cigar-chewing guys that bought and sold old coins.
You started selling comics originally by mail order. How did you find your way into learning that trade?
It was pretty simple, because being in poverty, all I had was a little manual typewriter. And I could take an 8½” x 11” sheet of paper and then, character by character, type it out and send it in to G.B. Love at Rocket’s Blast, and for $10 I could run an ad offering hundreds of different items for sale. I started off in the Colorado Springs Antique Fair; that was my home base. And I would pick up all sorts of fun collectibles there, like Hopalong Cassidy mugs, and old Pep cereal pins from the '40s and '50s, but then I was turning around and I was buying comics. I was morphing these kinds of pop culture collectibles into comic books.
You expanded from that business pretty quickly, all things considered. What did you imagine this evolving into when you first started selling things by mail? Did you see this becoming a career?
Yes. There was never any doubt in my mind whatsoever. And that's one of the things where it was really helpful to be poor, and really helpful to not have a lot of options. I was willing to go balls to the wall to be a comic book dealer while everyone else was still keeping their day jobs. So I gave up my scholarship to the University of Colorado in 1974 and lived in my car for the next four months, just so that I could go from convention to convention. I went all-in at the age of 19 with everything I had in the world.
And that was with the goal of opening your first physical location.
Yeah. And after four months of living in the car, I had accumulated $800 in working capital. So I opened the first store in a basement room in the back of a bookstore in Boulder, Colorado. Now the bookstore was in the basement, and my store was in the back of their store, in what had previously been the coal storage room. And that was my story. With my $800, I had to spend $400 to put light in there, because it only had a single light bulb in 1,000 square feet. And I also had to buy paint so that I could paint the floor, because otherwise the coal dust would have killed all the comics. I got the store, and I had 11 days to get it open. I went dumpster diving to get little pieces of wood so that I could build my wall displays, and I bought card tables for $2 each. I opened up the store on September 30th, 1974, and I've never stopped since.
So despite the physical location in what sounds like the basement of a basement, it must have been pretty financially successful, because within four years you had four different stores in the Denver area. What was happening there? How were you doing it?
Well, you know, an awful lot of life depends on people being kind to you and helping you at really critical moments. And I had something very unusual happen: the local wholesaler-- and bear in mind that wholesalers had a pretty rough reputation from that period of time. A lot of them were mob guys, but my guy was not. My guy, Emil K. Clauson, was this John Bircher, right-wing crazy guy. Absolutely hated socialists and communists and all that kind of stuff. He saw a commie behind every corner. But for whatever reason, he really liked me. [Laughs] He would get the comics in on a Wednesday and give me my order, and then put the order out for his own newsstands and all of the other stores in the region a week after I got them. So I had a one week leg up on every single other retail out outlet for 50 miles.
And he did this just because he took a liking to you?
Yeah. Truly incredible. I started my store with $800; Emil gave me $1,000 in credit the day that I walked in the door, and gave me books ahead of his own locations. And when I got behind with him for money, he would call me in, and he’d get me coffee, and he’d sit there and lecture me for an hour about what I should be doing. He was just the most amazing mentor that you could ever ask for.
It sounds like it’s all a combination of ambition, and then some real strokes of luck.
Yes. That’s why when I write about it, I say that I have had the blessings of providence. I am not a religious person, but I do believe that luck is an element of the universe that people pay too little attention to. And I have seen so many people who work harder than me, or who are much more brilliant than I am, but they are unlucky. And you cannot get anywhere without luck. And it was my good fortune in having the nicest wholesaler out of 500 in the entire nation in Emil Clauson, and he nurtured my small business and got me on my feet so that I could then start making some innovations that later made me famous. But I would never have gotten to that point were it not for Emil.
How much was mail order remaining a part of your business during that time?
None. I was not doing mail order at all from about 1973 through 1977. And the reason for that was because I was terrible at it. You know, everybody has to play to their strengths. I'm a great wheeler-dealer, and I can go out there and buy and sell things, but if you want somebody to fill orders or balance your checkbook, keep the hell away from me, because I am a death pit. I can procrastinate shipping somebody's order out for a month, but my staff can't. And the key to being really successful is to be self-critical, and to realize where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. And since my weakness was shipping things, I decided that I would not engage in mail order, and instead I would do sales directly over the counter. And that’s why I opened that first store.
But in the latter part of the summer of 1977, one of my former staff members was working for Richard Alf out in San Diego. And Alf had this mail order business that he had been running by little classified ads in Marvel and DC [comic books]. And it was successful to the extent that he was generating a lot of orders, but it was unsuccessful from the perspective that he had no stock. So he was having to refund people the money that they were sending him, and it was making him very frustrated. So he decided to sell his retail store to my former staff member, Jack Dickens, but he would only sell the retail store if he could also sell the mail order business. So Jack contacted me and said, “Hey, let's go in on this together. You take the mail order, I'll take the retail, and we'll let Alf retire.”
So I went out and I looked at what Alf was doing, and he had basically no physical assets. It was very, very little product. But when he showed me what his documentation systems were like, I was like, “This is just what I need. I can put somebody else in charge of this, and we can ship product and it'll actually work, and we'll have a way of tracking things.” And this was all pre-computer, but Alf had really designed some great systems. So that's when I got back into mail order, and it worked out really well. I've sold by mail order north of $150 million worth of comics since, and I paid Alf 20 grand. So I think that was a fairly decent investment.
It sounds like you never expected it to become such a huge part of the business you were doing.
Right, that was never the intent. And all of my growth during those periods of time was through acquisition. Because, for example, when I bought out Buddy Saunders and Lone Star in '83 or '82, I got his N.I.C.E. [New Issue Club/Comics Express] subscription service, and new comics really were the vast majority of our mail order business. We always had back issues, and back issues have been quite lucrative on occasion. But there were moments in time where we were selling $10,000 worth of new comics a day, when the cover price on them was like 50 cents.
Now, this era when you were moving into mail order again also coincides with the rise of the direct market. So I’m curious to hear your recollections of that. There are, of course, all sorts of stories about how the comics market was really starting to fall apart prior to the rise of the direct market. What do you remember about the business you were doing just before it emerged?
Well, there were a couple of big things. The first one was that in '77 and '78, a lot of stores, mine included, only survived because we were selling Star Wars merchandise - most of it bootleg, because Lucasfilm had no success with selling any of the toy licenses prior to the film releasing. Once the film released, everybody scrambled to start making stuff, but by then the supply chain was out months. But in the meantime, we had people like Jerry Ohlinger in New York selling us pallets of one-sheets and lobby cards, and everybody and their grandmother was printing black-and-white stills. There were buttons, and there were bumper stickers, and all this Star Wars crap. And, and that's not to even mention the comics themselves, because I was forced by Pacific Comics as part of a deal that I did to take 10,000 Star Wars #1s to complete a 400,000 order that I did a week before the movie came out.
So much like Marvel Comics itself, Star Wars was kind of keeping the lights on for you.
Oh, yeah. I mean, 10,000 [copies], we were selling each for five bucks apiece, and 10,000 times five bucks is a lot of money. And also during '77 is when I found the Edgar Church collection [perhaps the most famous and valuable comic collection in retail history, and the initial basis for the massive back issue stock possessed by Mile High Comics; indeed, the basis for the store’s name]. But honestly, [after] the cost of getting that stuff into catalogs and getting it advertised and so on, the cash flow was actually better from the Star Wars merchandise that we were selling than it was from the Mile High I collection. And, you know, that that collection is legendary because it gives every fanboy out there a hard-on. But truth told, you go back and you look at the 1976 [or] 1977 Overstreets, the prices were pitiful. But, yeah, that period of time was extremely trepidatious.
Now, I said there were two factors. The other factor was Phil Seuling [the entrepreneur largely credited with creating direct market comic sales] and his craziness. Phil, when he got the direct market going, had really non-altruistic goals. He wanted to make money for Phil, and I get that. But he created an industry. And that's a lot of what capitalism is about, where you have hopefully enlightened self-interest, but your self-interest is what then compels you to create. The problem with Phil's system, though, was that he was making bank because he was requiring us to pay him upfront with the order. So when we turned in our order for July, we were paying for it in May. But as you may recall, during that period of time, Marvel in particular was shipping books late. They had one, an Annual, that shipped 11 months late. Well, Phil had our money for the two months prior to that, during the solicitation period, and then for the 11 months after we didn't recover our working capital until that book finally was received. Well, that was killing us. I mean, it was sucking us dry of money.
And I ended up sort of leading a revolution against Phil. Not because I disliked Phil: I really liked Phil a lot. I stayed at his house. But he and I would sit at his kitchen table and just argue for hours, because I said, “Phil, you're killing us.” So I finally said, “Look, I’ve got to go around you. I’ve got to go to Marvel, and get Marvel to give us credit.” And I did, and it worked, and eventually that obviated Phil’s advantage.
Were you making more money, all things considered, once you started moving into selling through the direct market?
It was one of those things where we did make more money, but we also took a risk where if we didn't sell things, we were stuck with them. That's where buying Alf's mail order became so important, because that allowed me to monetize anything that was left over from a given month's sale.
On the topic of mail order, the ads that you were placing in Marvel comics during the '80s and into the '90s became almost iconic themselves, to the point that they were parodied in an issue of John Byrne’s She-Hulk. It’s been said that including prices alongside titles helped transform the comic collectors market into something truly widespread. Was that by design? Was it something you were trying deliberately to do?
Yes. I was trying to get into the brain of every nine-year old in America and make them greedy as hell. And it worked. Talk to Jim Lee sometime, because he's told me the story about how his mom hated comics until he showed her one of my ads. And all of a sudden she was like, “Oh, that one's five dollars.” It’s just like my Silver Surfer epiphany: I wanted to convert readers into collectors. And the best way to do that, in America at least, is to inspire greed.
But Alf gave me this idea, and I really want to give credit where credit is due. Richard Alf had a tiny little ad where he offered 10 or 15 different titles, and he said, “I have all of these, and they’re 50 cents each.” He said it overwhelmed him how many orders he received out of a one-inch classified ad, and he said, “If you buy my company, I’ll tell you this secret, and then you can do with it as you will.” So when Alf gave me this idea, and I connected it with the Coin World premise, I realized that what was missing in the comics world was a one-step rather than a two-step process. In other words, this is the same way that Jeff Bezos said Amazon looked at things: he was trying to simplify buying things online, so it became one click and you get your item.
Well, it’s the same thing with comics. See, the system as it existed in 1980, '81, if you wanted to see what comic book prices were, you had to either buy an Overstreet or send away 25 cents, 50 cents, $1 to [get the retailer] to mail you their catalog. I made it so that those prices were universally available for free. In fact, you had no choice but to look at them, because that they were in every one of your comics.
So this was an incredibly ballsy move on my part. I mean, literally, I was betting that these ads would blow up my world. In those days we were doing $1,000 a week with our mail order business, which was a pretty decent amount of money, really. You know, we were selling a lot of comics at 35 and 50 and 75 cents, so a thousand bucks was a lot of comics. But when that first ad broke, we went from $1,000 a week to $1,000 a day in a week. I had to hire six new people just to process the orders, go pull the orders. It was a nightmare. It almost put me out of business because the response from that initial ad was more powerful than we had any ability to handle.
I went through phenomenal growing pains. I had employees that were horribly bad. I had people who were stealing from me. I had one general manager who was demanding that every female worker sleep with him. I mean, every kind of craziness that you can imagine happened to me in a very short period of time. And I was a whopping 24 years old at that time. So I had to learn very, very quickly how to manage a much larger organization, and I had to do it on the fly.
During that era, you opened up your first mega-store in the Denver area, which became kind of symbolic of the whole '90s boom era in comics. And yet that store has, in some form, survived. And I guess my question is: how and why?
The big thing about the store - and this is to me what the key is: new comics are a death trap. Because when we were buying them for a quarter, if they didn’t sell a month later, we marked them up to about 50 cents, and then six months later, we marked them up to a buck. So there was a way to recover your working capital because you had an appreciating asset. Well today, if you buy a new comic and it’s got a $4.99 cover price, and it doesn’t sell, you’re out $2.50 plus freight. And when you multiply that times the hundreds and hundreds of comics that any given retailer eats in a week, that lack of sell-through is killing people.
I voluntarily exited the new comics business starting 10 years ago. First, I closed all of my other stores over a period of time. Here in the mega-store, if you pre-order new books, we’ll get them for you, absolutely, and we’ll give you a discount. But we have your credit card on file, and if that credit card ever stops working, we're sorry, but we're not ordering books for you. We cannot have a lack of sell-through. We just can't, because there were moments in time about 15 years ago when my Diamond bill was $123,000 for two weeks.
Do you feel like the culprit is mainly shipping costs being imposed by distributors like Diamond, or is it the rising cost of comics themselves from the publishers?
I think it's a combination of two. Definitely the rising costs have made it impossible to sell them as back issues at a premium; we crossed that nexus when comics got up to about $1. When Marvel went to $1, when [former Marvel owner in the 1990s Ron] Perelman got them to raise the cover prices, it was no longer viable to sell a back issue at $2 or $3. You see an enormous number of books from that time period - that was the great glut, right? And so many of those books are still available. I put them out in my bargain bins, and there's no market for them. Anybody who overbought at that period of time, if they survived, it was a miracle. They had some external source of capitalization that allowed them to survive, because they sure as hell weren't making it on comics.
And that's the death trap with comics. When I helped to pioneer the direct market in 1980, doing things non-returnable totally made sense if you could monetize things as back issues. But as the cover prices went up, that ratio went to neutral, and then it turned powerfully negative. It's the Bob Dylan thing: you don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. You’ve got to get out when you see that it's gone to hell in a handbasket. And that comes down to humility, too. You have to recognize when things have become structurally flawed. It has nothing to do with your talent, or your meticulousness, or your ability. It has to do with the fact that the game has changed, and you can't win.
So what is the game now, if there's no viable market in buying new monthly comics?
The game right now, and it is a phenomenal game, is to become a secondary market reseller of pop culture.
Meaning anything and everything. I think that stores have to really look at what space they have. Being a secondary-market reseller of back issues is the simplest thing, although simple is hard to define, because there have been so many titles published. Now, inevitably, if you've got #1, #4, #5 and #6 [of a given title], somebody's going to come in wanting #2. And it really strains the capability of stores to have a really broad selection of back issues that people will actually pay enough to support. But where we are making our money, just as a case in point, we are the largest Funko Pop! reseller in Colorado, and probably all the way out into Kansas City and Salt Lake. We have 2,000-3,000 in stock on any given day, and we sell upwards of 1,000 of them in a week. And I do not buy anything from Funko. I only buy from fans who are downsizing or realigning the collections.
But that is what is basically holding us up right now, is reselling Funko. My God, we sell the crap out of them. And it brings in a much, much broader audience. So having young people, kids, families coming in the store - Funko is one element, but we also sell things like manga and anime, and all kinds of collectible toys. So if you're looking for something from Game of Thrones, or if you're looking for something from Disney or any different genre, we have over 200 showcases in here of different kinds of pop culture merchandise. Monday of this week, we were having kind of a slow day, and a guy came in and bought some of the Disney movies that were put out in these special metal packages, dropped $1,600, and walked out the door.
You know, it’s funny. In a sense, this brings the comics market back to where things started, to those '60s era nostalgia shops that were catering to collectors market in all sorts of pop culture.
Yep. And that's where I started off at the Colorado Springs Antique Fair. Being in retail is not rocket science. All you have to do is realize that people in any given metropolitan area have some sort of collecting product, whether it be Star Wars, or Star Trek, or almost anything. These collectors get divorced, they die, they move, they go broke. And for whatever reason they decide that they need to sell their stuff, but where are they going to go to sell it?
So your feeling is that the future of “comic” stores is really to be a haven for all of that?
To be a recycling center, that’s right. Because then you’re not dependent on Diamond or Random House. When you buy your stuff off the street, your margins are much better: you pay no freight, and it’s cash as you go. For the most part, we just buy it all day long, and by having vast accumulations of inventory on hand every day that goes by, we’re going to sell something. So it is this weird amalgam of hundreds of different genres of collectibles, and it works. And, yeah, the name is Mile High Comics, but new comics for us are about 10% of our business in a given week. Ninety percent of our business is either back issues or collectibles.
Do you feel like there’s a risk to the back issue market because of things like Marvel Unlimited, or other digital services?
Oh, quite to the contrary. This was an argument that I made 15 years ago. And [Marvel's then-CEO] Ike Perlmutter really hated it, but he was wrong and I was right, so fuck it. I got some poor schmuck fired - I can’t remember the guy’s name. He was such a nice guy, but I got him fired because he gave us some digital scans of some comics before they came out, and we put them up in links. That was heresy, absolute heresy. Let somebody read a comic for free? Ike just about shat himself. But guess what happened: the issues that we let people read in advance sold out their entire runs. Nobody cut their orders; everybody added to their orders because people who wouldn't have had an interest in those books suddenly developed an interest in those books.
You seem like you have a pretty forward-thinking attitude when it comes to the online space, and you did move very early into the internet marketplace.
I was going broke. I couldn’t get any more Marvel or DC ads because Steve Milo was buying them all up for American Entertainment, or whatever the hell he was calling it. So while Milo was spending all of his parents’ money, I couldn’t get any ads. So I was doing everything with catalogs, but then the catalog started failing on me. I sent out one catalog where it cost $50,000 to mail it, and I got $50,000 back. Essentially, I could have taken the comics in the parking lot, set them on fire, and lost less money.
So I had to do something, and I said I'm going to stop mailing catalogs and make people buy from me online. And at that point, only 30% of my customers had computer capability. And I wrote a really famous newsletter where I said that I want to sell to the future, not the past. And if you've got one foot in the grave, I love you, but bye.
How quickly did online sales surpass the traditional mail order market for you?
Well, it didn’t matter, because I was spending $50,000 to send out a catalog, and suddenly I was only sending out emails, which cost me nothing. The first dollar that came in was better than every dollar I had made from the mail order catalog.
You know, one thing I’m curious about is that the actual website for Mile High Comics remains largely unchanged from its earliest days. Is that a deliberate choice?
Well, there's some different considerations there. One of them is that the website is written in a really ancient language, in Perl, so changing it is hard. We do have some people that are working on it, but they keep running into log jams. I don’t know if we’ll ever change it, and the reason I say that is because it makes money. So if you’ve got a cow that's giving milk, maybe it's not giving as much milk as you could be getting, but you're getting milk. So what are you complaining about?
Are you still doing a lot of hunting for new collections these days?
Well, I don't hunt for collections nearly so much as they hunt for me. I have people who constantly call me up. I put out a newsletter the other day where I said, “I've got this brain bleed, and the doctor's telling me to not travel, but I'm hoping that I can go to this award ceremony in Florida.” This guy writes to me and he says, “Hey, I’m really sorry that you're not feeling well, but when you're in Florida, do you want to buy my 53 long boxes?” Seriously, dude? Really? Which part of “I might die tomorrow if this brain bleed accelerates” are you passing by?
Do you imagine going back to your old routine once you’ve recovered?
Why would I not?
So what does that routine entail on a daily basis, then?
Showing up. [Laughs] At this stage of my life, I am, when I’m feeling well: the eye candy. I go out there and I chat with people who have oftentimes been buying and supporting me for 30, 40, 50 years. And it is such an honor for me. And I don’t say that to blow smoke. I really mean it: it's an honor for me to meet somebody who drove a thousand miles because they've always heard about this store, and whose greatest hope was that in the course of being here, that they would run into me. So I try to get some work done, but then I also try to go out on the floor and just say hi to people, and during the summer in particular, when we get a lot of tourists coming through, I'll sometimes take a dozen photos a day with people and just make sure that they know how much I appreciate and am grateful for them having been a part of the family. And before the store opens and after the store closes, I’m the guy who vacuums.
Why are you the guy that vacuums?
Well, the main reason is because it’s the kind of thing that keeps you grounded, because I never got into this business to really make money per se. I got into this business because I wanted to be free. I didn’t want to work for the NSA. I never cut my hair, I never shined my shoes. I always had my freedom, even when we had no money and we didn't know where the next paycheck was going to come from. I never capitulated. And that was part of the reason why I had a hard time keeping banks, because I'm such an iconoclast. I'm the only comics dealer that I know of who has ever slept in a homeless shelter or under a bridge in the rain. I had, you know, a couple of pairs of pants, a couple of pairs of shoes, some t-shirts, socks. That's it. That’s all I need in life. And if you meet me today, you’re going to see that I’m not the Brooks Brothers suit kind of guy. Now, I have some great gowns, let me tell you. But that’s a story for another day.
Well, actually, it might be a story for today, and I’ll tell you why. I recently profiled Buddy Saunders, and I asked him about some of his very right-wing opinions, and one of the things that was mentioned to me is that I don’t put the same questions to people on the left end of the spectrum. But you’ve been unabashed in talking about participating in and hosting drag shows. So did you ever feel like you were taking a risk by being outspoken in that?
Oh, quite the opposite. I knew exactly what risks I was taking. I quantified it because when I came out as nonbinary, genderfluid, I had at least 10,000 of my online customers who quit.
Ten thousand. But that’s 10,000 out of more than 100,000. And since then, I've gained more than 10,000 people from the LGBTQ community who have stepped up, and also from the straight community who have stepped up, to support me and to say, “Right on. We're so grateful that you've had the courage as a business owner to come out and say that people can be nonbinary, they can be genderfluid, they can be transgender, they can be gay, lesbian, whatever. It doesn't change who they are. It doesn't change the fact that they can contribute to our world, our nation, and be good citizens.” The fact that someone has a different gender orientation or a different sexuality, that's just one part of their lives. And I'm not any different today as Chuck/Bettie as I was when I was just Charles Rozanski, über comic book dealer. Big deal. I’m the same person.
But if there are people out there who, oftentimes because of their Christian values, want to demonize people who are not thinking exactly the same way that they think, well then so be it. I don't want those people as customers. I really don't want hate money, honestly. If people out there hate, go elsewhere; I don't need your money, I'm fine. I'll still have my two pairs of shoes and my two sets of jeans, and I'll be fine. I don't need wealth. What I need is a world that's accepting and better for the children that are being born today. And that's what I work for, to make things better. I get up every day wanting to just do something good that day. And that kind of altruism is not all that common.
You know, when I announced that I had my brain bleed, 1,500 people liked that post on my newsletter, and couple hundred of them sent me condolences and personal best wishes. What business owner gets that? Is anybody going to do that for the chairman of, you know, Warner? No! But that’s because they’re not human beings. That's the really cool thing about the mega-store: it's not about all the fanboys that come in, and the collectors and all that. It's about their kids.
Because my childhood was crap. And my stepfather truly hated me, and beat me an awful lot. I had no positive childhood memories whatsoever of interacting with my father. So I see kids in here every Saturday with their dads bringing them to the largest comic book store in the world, and the sheer joy that I get to witness as a result of my efforts, it’s so moving. It makes all of my work worthwhile. And if, if I can buy a nice dress or if I can-- if I can add to my pottery collection, that's sort of the payoff for me. But that's, that if, if, if I couldn't do either of those two things, I'd still be here every day. I work for nothing, just because this is not my job. This is my identity. This is who I am. And I don’t ever want to do or be anyone else.
On the note of politics, it obviously won’t be news to you that it’s a scary time politically in the United States and worldwide. There is, I think it’s fair to say, an outright war that’s being waged against trans individuals especially, and against LGBTQ individuals in general. And I wonder if you still see comics or the surrounding pop culture as being a kind of countercultural haven to that, or if it's being influenced by that larger, reactionary cultural wave?
I think that people in comics are a little tougher than people out in the general public. So when I had the Proud Boys here showing up in jackboots and shields and helmets, and threatening to kill me, I had enormous support from the community here. And we were able to repel those guys so effectively that they finally just gave up and went away. And this was before it became such a nationwide trend to attack things like the drag queen story hours, by the way.
I have a YouTube video up where I do a drag queen story hour, where I actually transition into Bettie on camera. But that's how out I am. I couldn't be any more out. But I’ve also done protests at the Supreme Court, and the White House, and the Justice Department when it was still under the Trump administration. I have taken very much of a proactive stance in that regard.
There is an attempt right now to silence voices of openness, and voices of tolerance, and intolerance seems to be the order of the day. But those people are running scared. I mean, the reason why they're being so strident, the reason why they're organizing, is because they realize that they're losing the demographics. The world and America are changing to being more accepting. And all of their efforts are going to be for naught. This is not going to be Berlin in 1933, where they put us in camps. Sorry, dude. Ain't gonna happen. So we're going to have to just keep working on this, and keep being brave, and not letting anyone intimidate us. That's just the end of it.
One more big picture question for you. What is it that you love about comics, and do you still feel it?
What I have always loved about comics is not the comic books themselves. Certainly there are comics that I love: I'm a huge fan of Carl Barks, and Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. That's not the point, though. The point of what I like is the comic book world: the world that allows for entrepreneurism out of the mainstream, out of the framework where the thousand families that control America force everyone else to dance to their tunes. Every time you go to work for a large corporation, they own your butt. From the day you're born, you're born into one of their hospitals. And when you get your prenatal vitamins, it's from one of their companies. And when you get your pencil to go to school, it's from one of their companies. And then you go to work for one of their companies, and you put your nose to the grindstone, and they make sure that you get your 401(k) that invests in their companies, and all the way up and down the line you are owned.
Don’t own me. And that's what matters about the comic book business. This is the last place for people who are actually, literally free.