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Newsmaker Interview: A Form Q&A With the New ComicsPro Board Members
posted May 4, 2007
 

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At their recent summit in Las Vegas at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, the retailer organization ComicsPro named three new members to their board: Rick Lowell, of Casablanca Comics in Portland, Maine; Benjamin Trujillo, of Star Clipper Comics in St. Louis; and Carr D'Angelo of Earth 2 Comics and Collectibles in Sherman Oaks, California. The new members bring the board's size to nine; they will serve for three years.

For the purposes of getting to know the retailers and some of their general thoughts on industry issues and the ability of ComicsPro to make a difference, CR sent each gentleman the same nine questions. Their responses, for comparison and contrast purposes, can be found below. CR thanks the new board members, and Brian Hibbs for suggesting a focus on the trio.

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QUESTION #1: Now that it's had some time to settle in, how do you feel about being on the board?

RICK LOWELL, CASABLANCA COMICS: I feel honored to be working with retailers who are striving to make our industry stronger.

BENJAMIN TRUJILLO, STAR CLIPPER COMICS: I feel a little overwhelmed and excited. After seeing how much the original six board members have achieved with the organization, I hope I'll be able to contribute as much.

CARR D'ANGELO, EARTH 2 COMICS AND COLLECTIBLES: It's an honor and a responsibility with lots of hard work ahead. I kept thinking of Robert Redford at the end of The Candidate when he says, "What do we do now?" An election may be the culmination of one process but it's the beginning of the journey and I look forward to it all.

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QUESTION #2: Is there something about your store, or your background, that you think you bring to the board that may not have been there before, maybe a perspective or a skill set?

LOWELL: There are several things. First, I have 20 years multi-store retail experience in a very small market. Geographically, my store is about as far away as possible from some of the other ComicsPRO board members but we all have common concerns and goals. I have a great deal of experience working with the library community as we regularly deal with over 100 libraries helping them build and maintain their collections.

TRUJILLO: I think each of the new board members brings something different to the table: we all have different but successful business models; emphasize different product lines outside our core products; and have cultivated our unique store character. One of the really great things about ComicsPRO is the variety of member retailers and their diverse and valuable approaches to the industry, and I look forward to the opportunity to learn from their experience.

D'ANGELO: Earth-2 opened its doors in 2003, making us one of the newer shops. In some ways, this may give us a unique perspective on the current market. since we came into the business at a time when collections were as important to the bottom line as single issue comics.

Before opening a comic book shop, I spent many years in the entertainment industry as an executive and producer, which gave me lots of experience in building consensus among diverse points of view.

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imageQUESTION #3: What for you is the most important issue facing the Direct Market? Is there a short term answer and a long term answer to that question?

LOWELL: I do not think there is one big issue. There are a series of issues. I believe one issue is that the Direct Market needs to grow the number of places where comics are sold. This can be accomplished by the expansion of existing retailers and the addition of new stores in the Direct Market.

TRUJILLO: I believe the single biggest issue facing the direct market is marginalization. By contrast to book retailing at large, our industry is small, overlooked and often dismissed by the average consumer. Recently comics have experienced a level of mainstream exposure that has been absent for several decades. In the long term we need to capitalize on this phenomenon to lead the genre back into the mainstream; in the short term we must increase membership in the ComicsPRO trade organization so that retailers can effectuate a coordinated and successful penetration of the broader market.

D'ANGELO: The short term and long term answer is "growth." The Direct Market used to represent a subset of the outlets that provided comics to the public, and now it is the primary outlet. It's vital for the DM to grow so that comics continue to find a new audience. Publishers are pushing the envelope with projects like Dark Tower, Buffy and Pride of Baghdad which have all brought new readers to comics; We need more shops where they can satisfy their appetite.

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QUESTION #4: What do you feel is the one thing ComicsPro needs to get done by next year's meeting in order for the year to have been a successful one?

LOWELL: ComicsPRO needs to expand its membership in the coming year. I was extremely impressed with how well everyone worked together at the meeting in Las Vegas. The existing benefits already make joining worthwhile and we are working on adding more benefits in the coming months.

TRUJILLO: I would be extremely happy if we could double our membership. Membership level is the key to success for ComicsPRO and we need to capitalize on our recent success to persuade other retailers to join the group.

D'ANGELO: I don't think there's one thing because the organization is moving forward on multiple fronts. I expect in the next year we will announce plans for additional membership benefits and see progress in our dialogues with vendors that influence policy to help all retailers. Success will be defined by our many achievements, not a single action.

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imageQUESTION #5: Do you think the state of the market is a healthy one? Beyond the bottom line, which has improved greatly since 2002, do you feel the shape and structure of the market is one that bodes well for the future. For instance, is the market too dependent on its biggest publisher? Is it too dependent on Event Comics and mega-crossovers?

LOWELL: I think that the market is healthy. There is incredible potential for continued growth. We are seeing more people than ever looking for the products that we sell. Direct Market stores have become a destination stop for more of the general public, not just traditional comic book fans. The event books may bring people into the stores, but it is all of the other things that we offer that keep them coming back.

TRUJILLO: The market is certainly experiencing short-term growth. The question to me is how we can parlay current short-term success into sustainable industry growth. I think many publishers recognize this and are making an effort to increase public awareness of the comics medium, but it's important to note that many of the recent works to receive mainstream recognition and commercial success have not been published through the typical comic standard-bearers.

D'ANGELO: The market is quite healthy now and I believe it is sustainable because we are serving an audience of readers, not just the speculators who ignited the 1990s boom and bust. Trade paperbacks and hardcover collections do for the comics business what DVDs did for the movie business, providing a long-term revenue stream for what was previously a periodical-based business model.

Asking if the market is too dependent on event comics is like asking if we're too dependent on comics that people want to read. Event comics are the "watercooler comics" that make fans feel like they are part of a larger universe. But the other mainstays that are driving the business are the longterm series like Fables and Y the Last Man and Walking Dead that are great gateway comics for people who want involving stories that don't require you to know 30 or 40 years worth of continuity.

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QUESTION #6: How many of the problems facing the Direct Market can be solved by retailers working together? Are there any that are beyond your reach to fix?

LOWELL: I think many of the problems can be fixed. The retailers of ComicsPRO are working together with our vendors and distributors to try to make things better for everyone. There was some very meaningful dialogue at the meeting in Las Vegas and I look forward to more discussions.

TRUJILLO: I can't think of any problem facing the Direct Market that can't be solved by organized retailers working together with the creators, publishers and distributors of Direct Market merchandise.

D'ANGELO: Since the Direct Market is a partnership among publishers, retailers and distributors, retailers can't resolve every issue by themselves. However, the meeting in Vegas demonstrated that getting retailers together will always have a positive effect. Even though we are mostly independent business owners, everyone benefits from the camaraderie, support system and brainstorming.

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imageQUESTION #7: If you could make any change not in a retailer but at a company or from your distributor in order to best benefit the Direct Market, what would that change be?

LOWELL: I would do everything within my power to deliver product when scheduled.

TRUJILLO: Some publishers seem inclined to maintain an adversarial relationship with Direct Market retailers instead of a cooperative relationship. I think those attitudes need to change.

D'ANGELO: Since retailers are professionals, I would like to see more marketing and solicitation information aimed directly at retailers. Right now, retailers receive the same information as consumers at the same time as consumers and that limits our ability to stock our stores wisely and efficiently.

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QUESTION #8: How do you solve the problem of encouraging new stores when so many retailers are hostile to new stores being started in their area?

LOWELL: I do not understand that. I go out of my way to visit with other retailers. That is one of the great joys that I have in the comics industry. New stores will expand the market, not take away from existing stores. I do not think that opening next to an existing store is a wise idea when there are so many under-served markets out there right now. If someone wants to open a store and be successful there are plenty of opportunities. ComicsPRO is working on a mentoring program just for this purpose.

TRUJILLO: Some markets are badly under-served and some markets are served badly. I believe that the industry needs more healthy and well-run stores, to bring the level of professionalism in the industry up to a higher standard; one which the customer and the product deserve. We attempt to solve the problem by using a mentoring program to help new stores reach a minimum level of professionalism and using the advice of ComicsPRO members and the availability ComicsPRO services to help existing stores better serve their markets.

D'ANGELO: The definition of growth is finding new customers to serve not simply splitting an existing market. I believe the mentoring program will encourage new retailers to find locations that will help them generate new business.

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QUESTION #9: What would you like the legacy of your three-year term to be?

LOWELL: I would like to help ComicsPRO be a clear voice for direct market retailers. I would like to help ComicsPRO develop additional benefits to make membership even more valuable.

TRUJILLO: I've got to do this for three years? I haven't considered anything so lofty as a legacy -- I can only hope that after three years I will have helped to build up the membership in the organization and contributed to a clear articulation of industry and retailer specific goals that will positively affect the long-term health of the Direct Market.

D'ANGELO: Inspiring other retailers to commit their time to ComicsPRO so that the membership continues to grow. Strength in numbers.

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