Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

May 7, 2010

A Conversation With Brian Hibbs

imageI could always do a much better job covering the Direct Market of comics and hobby shops. It's a fascinating and peculiar component of the overall comics industry, filled with idiosyncratic personalities, strange spaces and a slew of funny names. It's a place where people moving from shoeboxes to cash registers remains palpable history of somewhat recent vintage, but also where a collective and perhaps unique ability to move product into communities bonded by a shared experience dances along the cutting edge of what retail means in the 21st Century. They are many of the worst and some of the best shops of any kind in the whole, wide world.

I talk to Brian Hibbs occasionally to take the measure of what's going on in that part of comics. His Comix Experience isn't one of the giants in terms of units moved, but the San Francisco-based store has long been a leading light of one of comics' most potent communities. Hibbs is an activist on behalf of his peers and thinks through the issues of the day in a way that gives him influence in place far away from his San Francisco doorstep. He sued Marvel and won a settlement beneficial to his entire peer group. He is a prominent member of the ComicsPro organization and a staunch advocate of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Because he's been interviewed so many times over the years, I started out thinking I'd ask Brian a bunch of mean questions just to make this a real gauntlet. That grew tiresome, so after the first few question below I just asked what was on my mind, what I had scribbled in my notebook next to questions I crossed out. If this worked out the way it's supposed to, Hibbs took a look at the manuscript for basic proofreading purposes and I edited a few of my sentences for flow. I hope that you learn something about the state of comics retail, or at least the ideas that support it: I sure did. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: One complaint I've heard about you from hardcore arts- and alt-comics circles is that you don't sell very many of those comics, and at best you're a Vertigo/Indy store. What three comics from traditional arts comics or alt-comics publishers have been memorably successful for you in the last five years. As explicitly as you can, describe how successful each one was in terms of copies sold. If not actual figures, use ballpark figures.

BRIAN HIBBS: Now I wish I was at the store, because then I could look things up on the computer.

SPURGEON: You can add figures in later if you like. Everybody, if there are figures added in in parentheses, that was Brian doing it later on.

HIBBS: We may have to. I'm assuming Asterios Polyp doesn't count, because it's not from a traditional arts comic publisher.

SPURGEON: Pantheon's book line can be an arts comics publisher if you like. It's your answer.

HIBBS: Okay, Asterios Polyp was one of my best-selling books of last year. I believe it was in my top 20, but I would again have to have my computer in front of me to confirm that. (It was #6 in pieces for 2009) We've also done exceptionally well with Logicomix? Does that one count? It's hard to tell what counts and what doesn't. Logicomix did phenomenally well for me last year as well. Uhh... does Crumb's adaptation of Genesis count?

SPURGEON: Sure, if you want it to.

HIBBS: Genesis was a monster success for me. I can give you more detail as to where they are in terms of percentages and sales. I think all three of those would be in my top 20 fairly easily.*

SPURGEON: Is it easier for you to sell books from a book publisher's line than it is from a Drawn and Quarterly or a Top Shelf?

HIBBS: No, there really is no difference between Drawn and Quarterly and Pantheon, as far as I'm concerned. There's no difference between publishers except for the discount I get, and the difference between a Pantheon and Drawn and Quarterly is insignificant in terms of discount.

SPURGEON: Where would you put yourself on a percentile basis in terms of your alt-comics sales in comparison to your peers? Use the old Iowa Skills Test rankings, with the 99th percentile being the top, and I guess a "one" being the lowest -- where is Comix Experience in terms of sales of that kind of comic?

HIBBS: Ninety-nine being the top, I would put myself at a pure guess at 85. It's hard to say. There's a tremendous number of stores I've never seen. I've never physically been in, say, Quimby's. In San Francisco, I'm 99. It's hard to say what other stores are doing, but nobody in San Francisco has the breadth and depth of stock that I do for alternative comics. Not even close.

SPURGEON: Another criticism I've heard about you is that you seem willing to talk about retailer issues whether or not you're specifically qualified to speak to them. Can you name three retailer issues on which you would ideally defer? To whom you would defer on each of those questions?

HIBBS: Huh. That's an interesting question. That may be the stumper right there. Game over! There are things that I don't do. I don't sell variant covers on my shelf. We only do variant covers as special orders. So if the issue was how to maximize your sales of variant covers and how do you price them, I would not be the best person to talk to.

SPURGEON: Who would you send me to?

HIBBS: I would probably send you to Phil Boyle's Coliseum of Comics, Gary Dill's stores The Laughing Ogre. He's also on the board of ComicsPro. One of those guys, probably. But I don't even know that aspect of the business to necessarily be sending you to the best person. Along similar lines: CGC comics. I don't deal with them at all. I think they're the devil. I would send you to CGC, or to Lee Hester, whom I believe does business with them.

SPURGEON: The third issue?

HIBBS: I'm thinking of something relevant to modern comics retailing. My last thought was golden age and silver age comics, but that's kind of cheating. And you can wrap that up in CGCs as well. [long pause] Oh, running more than one store. I don't know anything about that whatsoever except what I've picked up through osmosis. I'd probably send you to Chris Powell at Lone Star or Jamie Graham at Graham Crackers.

SPURGEON: I've heard from you and read you, I believe, on how publishers and even creators contributed to the loss of serial alt-comics as a significant factor in comics shops. How do you think the shops contributed to that market segment decline? Or do you?

HIBBS: In the general market, I think retailers contributed by not supporting or stocking anything outside the boxes they understand. This isn't much different than the problems we have with Diamond, that they don't know what to do with comics that don't have a cape on them. I think it's an over-generalization, but I think it's a reasonable one. So when you have a distribution channel that doesn't understand the books, and a retail channel that doesn't understand the books, you're not going to sell as many as you could be.

Specifically, what I would really say is that it's a real lack of understanding in the retail base that alt-comics aren't just a sell-this-month or even a sell-this-week kind of a deal. That alt-comics for the most part tend to sell continually over the years. I still have every single issue of Optic Nerve sitting on my shelf, including number one that came out 15 years ago. I still stock it because I sell enough copies to justify that rack space. I have every issue that's in print and available from Diamond of Love and Rockets Vol. 2 on myself. I don't have Volume One because it's easier to sell the single book. If I could have the last ten issues of Eightball and the last ten issues of Hate on my wall, I would.


SPURGEON: Why don't other stores see that? These aren't new books. Is it just the general genre myopia coming into play?

HIBBS: I think that's part of it. I think it's also that lack of understanding that these are long-term sales prospects. The nature of the Marvel and DC superhero comics is that you basically have a no more than 30-day window to sell 95 percent of them. There are certainly things outside of that that you can continue to sell, but if you look at your mid-list books, you don't sell those by the first weekend, they never sell ever. I think that a lot of stores are looking at alt-books for their initial window and that's all they're stocking for. I think that it's we have memories like elephants going on. I'm sure there are retailers that would tell you about the black and white boom and how black and white books don't sell because of that. Even though that was 25 years ago, or whatever it was. I think that we far too often as a class let the past inform us more than it should.

SPURGEON: Correct me if I'm wrong or speaking out of turn, but you once ball-parked to me a figure in terms of opening a comic shop of around $100,000.

HIBBS: That would be a rough guess, yeah.

SPURGEON: The vast majority of that being in inventory.

HIBBS: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Now given that Entrepreneur Magazine tells me you can own a name sandwich franchise for $130K or a popular ice cream store for less than $200K, is it possible that an over-reliance on the traditional comic store model is a disincentive to get into comics retail?

HIBBS: Is it possible? Sure, it's possible. The thing that's different with comics as opposed to the franchise businesses you're talking about is that the product changes every single work. If you can go to the ice cream store that sells 31 flavors, you're getting 31 flavors of ice cream. There are variations of how you're getting it, but there's only a few permutations of possible objects that you're selling there. In a comic book store, if you're focusing primarily on periodical comics, and that's still a significant portion of everybody's business, every single week you're getting somewhere between 60 and 100 comics that aren't interchangeable the way chocolate ice cream is with another ice cream.

SPURGEON: Okay, I get the point, but I'm not sure where you're aiming that other than to make me want some ice cream.

HIBBS: It makes the initial business learning curve extremely different than that of a franchise. Both examples you came up with are a franchise, although I don't want to limit it to that. When you have a franchise situation, you have a limited bank of products you're selling, so you don't have to constantly be looking at how you're going to sell them, the components of selling them, what's different week to week. Chocolate ice cream is chocolate ice cream, but a Batman comic changes on an issue-to-issue basis.

SPURGEON: Okay, I'm letting you have that argument. Frankly, I'd have a hard time naming 31 different flavors of superhero comic. But let me grant you that argument. What you seem to be saying, though, is that it's worse than I think. There's high relative cost but also a barrier in terms of training and knowledge involved.

HIBBS: I think there is. I think you rapidly learn what it is. You don't stay in business past a year if you don't quickly figure out what the different flavors are. But I think if you were to speak to a store that's just opened up in the last year and a half or whatever, say a Bergen Street Comics. I was talking to them a couple of weeks ago, about the expectation they had for what they thought would sell did not match the reality of it. You quickly have to realize your preconceptions of the market are different than the reality that's different for the operator of a franchise situation.

SPURGEON: So given all these barriers to launching a potentially successful business, shouldn't there more thought given to alternative models, or is that out of the question?

HIBBS: How do you mean?

SPURGEON: A model for retail that doesn't involve $100K and this swirl of arcane, idiosyncratic knowledge.

HIBBS: I don't know if that's possible, but there are certainly stores that open up on different kinds of models. For example, there are stores that are focused differently. Out here, Mission: Comics & Art in San Francisco is much more of a gallery kind of model. The periodicals may or may not be as important a part of his business. So you can find different models. But I think you have a harder road to hoe there, because you're working against the expectation of what a comic store should be. Does that make sense?

SPURGEON: It does. Next question. Name three stores that have opened since 2000 that you admire and give us a reason for each why we should share your admiration.

HIBBS: Two that are in the same general time frame are Bergen Street in Brooklyn and Rocketship, for different reasons. With Rocketship it was clear that Alex was bringing a lot of passion to his work. It fit in with his neighborhood and is a really great-looking store. Bergen Street is a little more designy... in all cases I'm going to bring you somewhat of the same answer: the enthusiasm and the excitement. So those two in New York. Out here I would probably name Mission: Comics & Art. Leef [Smith]'s very enthusiastic, very passionate about what he's doing, and he's going for more of a gallery model. That seems to me worth pursuing.

SPURGEON: My hometown is Middletown, USA. Muncie, Indiana, has a population of about 65,000 people. Can you name three quality stores in towns smaller than that?

HIBBS: I can't because I don't travel very often, particularly outside of a handful of cities. Without seeing a store with my own eyes it's difficult to make any sort of judgment.

SPURGEON: Is there a danger that the comic store model only works in a certain size of community?

HIBBS: I think there's a danger of that, sure. I think you have to have a large enough customer base. That doesn't mean a population center of 500,000 or more, but it probably means you need a college. You need a young audience, fairly literate. I think you could open up a good comic shop near almost any college. Probably.

SPURGEON: If you were brought into the discussion of an on-line initiative for Marvel or DC that needed to launch full-bore in June 2011, can you name three things that you might suggest that would mitigate the damage or ameliorate losses to the traditional Direct Market?

HIBBS: Sure. The very first thing I would say is don't under-price your digital comics in relation to the print comics. You don't want people to think the print product is terrible value... more than they do naturally.

SPURGEON: [laughs]

HIBBS: If you were to go day and date on a brand-new book -- day and date is obviously releasing your product in the print channel and on-line at the same time -- if you price the print product at $3.99 and the digital product at $.99, you're not providing a compelling bargain there. Two, I would always keep at least a six month gap between print and digital. I think that digital for the most part is going to be a replacement for the newsstand rather than a channel all to itself. I think people buying stuff at a newsstand don't necessarily care as much if the comics are today's comics. If you look at a company like DC that has 75 years of things to be selling you, selling you this week's comics would be at the bottom of my list. You have 75 years of comics. For the guy that hasn't read a Batman comic in years it doesn't matter whether it's this week's Batman or not. In my opinion. I would keep the same kind of a gap between the print product and the digital comic that I would keep between the serial product and the collected product. I think that there are a number of things that serialization does that are incredibly helpful and incredibly unique to our business. I don't think we should be doing anything that will harm the serialization at all. As a point of hard-won faith in my heart, we should be doing whatever we can to preserver serialization. And to encourage more serialization.

I would try in all cases to try and lead the digital consumer to a physical store. I would work with retailers to work with the tools that are there to help them bring consumers into their stores. Whether it's having nice photos on a comic shop locator service, or encouraging them to produce videos, there's a whole suite of things you could be doing in there that I think a whole lot of brick and mortar stores either don't have the talent to do or the understanding of why they should want to do that. I would differentiate between the digital product and the print product. I would have more things you can only get in the print version, even more so in the serial version. An example might be the kind of things that Ed Brubaker puts into Criminal, these text pieces about pulp movies and things in the back. When the book gets collected, they're not including that material. I would also give things in the digital that you can only get in that fashion. For Marvel and DC, the assembly-line comics, you might look at presenting different stages of production in the digital comic. I would differentiate between them strongly, not only to give unique value, but also -- and God forbid me saying this -- you might have people double dipping.

SPURGEON: Of all things you just suggested, on what single item would the major mainstream companies provide the most resistance?

HIBBS: I don't think we've been seeing a ton of resistance on anything we've been saying, other than having compelling material in the periodical that's not in another version. I don't think they've grasped the value of that yet.

SPURGEON: Comic shops offer function as the extension of an owner's personality, to the point where one frequently calls into question the survival of a shop without its first owner. While the idiosyncratic strengths of individual comic shops is portrayed as a general positive, the notion of the "indispensable employee" is seen as a crippling factor for longevity and portability. What can you say to assure us 85 percent of the good comic shops aren't going away in the next 20 years as a bunch of you croak.

HIBBS: There's nothing I can say that would assure of that because I'm not sure it isn't true. If I were to die tomorrow and God forbid that I do, the store would have a very hard time functioning without me. I suspect that this is equally true of most stores. The hope is that we're generating new stores that will be doing the same thing for the next generation of readers. One of the happiest days I ever had was when Mike Drivas who used to work for me decided to open his own store in Minneapolis -- Big Brain Comics. To a certain extent that's really the only way that I can assuage that fear at all. Presumable the best stores are going to have good employees, and those employees are eventually going to decided they want to open their own business.

SPURGEON: You're kind of set on that as the model, no work to be done to make transitions easier. That's not a priority of ComicsPro.

HIBBS: I'm not sure what you can do to make transitions easier. It comes back to the idiosyncratic nature of the product itself, the fact that it's constantly changing and constantly morphing. You can't apply strict mathematical rules to the way you buy comics. You can to your backlist, that's a different matter. But when you're looking at your front list periodical comics, it's not really a science, it's an art. Science you can replicate; art is pretty hard to replicate. I could start today writing instructions on how you order comics for the day that I die and someone else takes over, and I'm not sure I'd finish by the time I died, even if I died ten years from now. There's just so many variables and strange, idiosyncratic things that are involved. If it were easier to do, we'd have a national chain of comics right now. Every attempt to form a national chain of comics has crashed and burned on the shores of you have to have a good manager at each and every one of those locations that is capable of acting as the owners. It is hard to find those people. It's really, really difficult to do that. It's difficult to do centralized ordering, even within the regional chains we have, if you talk to those owners they'll tell you that store to store many shops are completely different from one another. But I think that's a strength of our business, I really do. While it may limit the physical locations we may have, I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing.

SPURGEON: That leads to the next question. There used to be two comic shop in the county where I live. Now there are zero. I live two hours from the nearest comic shop. And it's a comic shop that also sells paintball supplies. Is coverage an issue for ComicsPro? If it is, what do you do to work on that issue? What is being done to counter the drop in overall geographical coverage that I think was accelerated in the mid-1990s? Given that the only thing upon which the people who work with the numbers seems to agree is that more accounts means more sales, why isn't it an issue of greater priority?

HIBBS: I think it is an issue of great priority, but I think what a group of retailers banded into an association is able to do is limited to some extent. I think what ComicsPro can do and is doing is encourage best practices among its members. For example, ComicsPro has a mentoring program where pre-retailers, folks that have yet to open a store, can join for I think $99 and get access to a message board that will answer all the questions you need to wrap your head around. There's a new store opening up in Mississippi -- Southern Fried Comics, Barry and Jayme have been in the mentoring program for a while and came to our annual meeting this year. I got the sense from talking to them they were ten steps ahead for working with this group of people trying to show them what things might work for them and what things might not. I also think within our own membership, having meetings like this where we're focus on the running of the business as opposed to what a Diamond trade show does where they're there to sell your stuff, everybody's spit-balling ideas back and forth. I talked to people coming out of the meeting who said they got between one and ten new ideas to try out at their store. That's what we can do internally as retailers.

Externally, I think the thing that needs to happen in order to encourage more stores to open is a whole suite of infrastructure programs. We need to have a program that has either for free or at a highly subsidized price hardware for Point Of Sale systems. Same things for store racks. Same thing for starting inventory. There should be packages put together where if you're opening a comics shop there's a bundled group of books in appropriate number, the 500 graphic novels you need. That's not something that comic book retailers can do. That has to come from the publisher and distributor levels. That would have more of an impact than anything else we could talking about.

SPURGEON: I understand the general opening of stores thing you're going for there, but to refocus on coverage: how fired up are retailers about the emergence of other retailers.

HIBBS: I'll be honest: nobody wants another store to open up in their city.

SPURGEON: Now, when I go to stores in this region and say where I'm from, I'm sometimes referred to as one of their customers from my town. "You're one of our Silver City customers." So with the lack of coverage generally, you have retailers assuming a regional customer base. How you do get past retailers calling dibs on these vast swathes of area and get them behind the opening of new comics stores?

HIBBS: To be honest, I think you just have to let economic Darwinism work. If a store opens up in a region, it's your job as a retailer to have a more compelling store. There should not be any protectionism in the business, nothing you can count on to do that work for you. We had a shop open up eight blocks away from us. San Francisco being what it is, you don't get a ton business between neighborhoods, it's just kind of the way the city works, but they're eight blocks away. I certainly didn't call up Diamond and go, "How could you let them open there." That's not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to open up as many viable stores as there possibly can be. If that store takes business away from me, I must be doing something wrong. A year after that, another store opened up six blocks away from them. About 14 blocks away. Again, in another neighborhood, but did I lose some business because somebody no longer had to come halfway across town? Yeah, sure. But that's my lookout. That's not anybody else's lookout. If it means that stores that are less viable go out of business for stores that are more viable, then so be it?

Having said that, I think there are certain standards of professionalism, best business practices, reasonable business practices, that we can be educating people about, and perhaps enforcing. I think any store that opens up with the goal of "I'm going to put that guy out business" is probably not offering a viable business models. The guy who is discounting everything to put someone else out of business is also probably not a viable way of doing business. I'm not entirely sure what legally could or could not be done about it. I think that encouraging or enforcing the SRP, the suggested retail price, would not be an untoward thing. If people are competing on an equal playing ground, than economic Darwinism is a fair and wonderful thing. When people aren't competing on a fair playing ground, it's less so.

But more broadly, I think you're absolutely right. I think most existing retailers are very protectionist against what they perceive to be their market, and get frustrated when stores open up in their immediate area. I think a lot of this is because historically stores that open up in your immediate area are trying to discount you out of business rather than generate new business. I would almost point to Rocketship and Bergen Street -- it wasn't a hard walk between the two stores -- and they're both doing things in a similar kind of way, but the argument I would make is when you have two good stores that seem to be doing the best they can, it increases the overall business for comics.

Take The Best of Two Worlds, which is the store that both Rory [Root] and I worked for 25+ years ago, Bob Beerbohm's now-defunct place. He eventually went out of a business, and had some time left on his lease and Bob Borden of Fantasy Distribution is the one who cosigned this lease, and so he had to come in and take over the store so they wouldn't lose thousands and thousands off dollars on a lease that still had some years on it. Rory took over that Haight Street store. That period of time when Comic Relief and Comix Experience were effectively 8 to 12 blocks away from each other did nothing but increase the number of people coming to the neighborhood to buy comics, because there were two excellent stores effectively side by side. I know that in Montreal, Paul Stock's store (Libraire Astro) is literally across the street from a competitor (Captain Quebec). They've been like that for decades and they're both successful. People are coming to that area because there are two good stores there running different kids of models. So I don't think that it has to be a competitive thing. Even more so, I think this is one of the things particularly with ComicsPro is to not think of other retailers as competitors but allies.


SPURGEON: That was very positive, Brian. I'm all revved up to open a comics shop now.

HIBBS: You should. I think you'd run a great comic shop, Tom.

SPURGEON: It would be disastrous. All I'd sell is used Saul Steinberg books.

HIBBS: That's the thing. You'd find very fast that those things don't sell and you need to sell Batman.

SPURGEON: I might be able to hang in there for a long time. I'm at that point in life where I build a lot of failure into my big projects, Brian. You'd be surprised how long The Passport and Other Comic Books would last. [Hibbs laughs] Is it true that there were more people from publishers at this year's ComicsPro meeting than there were retailers in attendance?

HIBBS: More than, no. I think it was an almost equal number.

SPURGEON: Okay. Isn't that bad?

HIBBS: Given the economic climate [Spurgeon laughs] -- you can laugh at that, but it's expensive to travel to these things, and given that the Diamond summit was two weeks away from us, I don't think that was a bad thing. I'm going to see that for where the meeting is in its development it was a positive that we had so many people that wanted to come and speak to the retailers.

SPURGEON: I don't want to talk about membership numbers with ComicsPro, but are you getting a more active membership, are people more actively involved in what you're trying to do?

HIBBS: That would be my perception.

SPURGEON: Can you quantify that in any way?

HIBBS: I don't know that I can measure that except that we have a private message board and it's certainly seeing more traffic. A quantifiable number? I don't know that I ever counted. But I used to check it on a weekly basis and now I check it on a more than daily basis. There is more conversation and debate going on. It's not contentious debate. It's not, "Wait a minute, you're fucking wrong." It's "That's a good idea. What can we do to make the idea better?" I will say that the membership is not growing as much as I think it should be. My goal at this point was to have 250 members, but we have -- Amanda would know better than me -- between 125 and 150 members. I'm not sure what we can do about that except to convince people that the more participate the more power we'll have with the publishers. I do think we have some power with the publishers already -- not Marvel, because Marvel doesn't care what retailers says as far as I can tell -- but every other publisher listens to us and respects us. Part of that is the volume and quality that the ComicsPro store represents. We could add a 100 members that are all Billy Bob's Comics Hole, but I don't know that would necessarily make the organization better. Those stores aren't doing the kind of volume or are embedded in the community the way the current membership is.

SPURGEON: I think we're familiar with the criticism that while Diamond may not always get the credit they deserve for acting honorably, that due to their orientation or culture or history or whatever they simply don't support comics that aren't the easiest to support. I hear that from retailers every so often, that Diamond is almost hostile to books that aren't top of the line books. You can count on one hand that books that Diamond facilitated that became hits: Bone, Walking Dead...

HIBBS: I think if you use the world facilitated, I'd say that you can count the number of hit books on no hands. I think you can easily make the argument that books like Bone and Walking Dead have hit in spite of Diamond, not because of Diamond.

SPURGEON: I like that; it's darker than my version. Where I get confused is this assumed break between the shops and Diamond. Can you name a book that shops supported where Diamond has taken specific actions to screw that book?

HIBBS: It's not specific actions that Diamond's done, it's specific inaction that stops things from reaching their full potential. Bone is a great albeit old example at this point. For the first 12 issues there really wasn't backstock available on that book. Unless you back ordered it or went through exceptional steps. When a book isn't in stock on a distribution level, it's not getting into stores, and if it's not getting into stores we can't sell it to consumers. So there's a bottleneck at the distribution level. I want to stress that the bottleneck isn't unique to Diamond. There's a similar bottleneck at Baker & Taylor. One of the neat things Baker & Taylor does if you have a wholesale account with them is they can show you what their 30-day demand has been, what they have in stock and what they have in order. I can see on a whole lot of alternative, arty kinds of books, Baker & Taylor has virtually no copies in stock. They also virtually have no demand, which is why they don't have copies in stock. I want to stress here that this isn't solely Diamond. On a wholesale level you're theoretically taking a great deal of risk if the books don't sell. You're going to flow your dollars to the most successful books. But I also think you need to have a certain amount of money you're kicking back to the market trying to grow new books and find new bestsellers. How something sells in its first months is not necessarily how much something is going to sell over a length of time.

imageBone is a perfect example of that. Around issues three or four, they got around 800 orders, and it was in doubt they'd be able to continue the book if they didn't get more sales. And now it's sold multiple millions of copies as a color version from Scholastic. You can't say that selling 800 copies then means it's never going to sell any more of that. On a distribution level, if I were in charge of Diamond, I would take some reasonable percentage of profit and... the phrase I use in the store is mercy fuck. There are items in the catalog where I see them in the catalog where I don't know who I'm going to sell them to but I'm going to buy it and see what happens. I don't have it codified in my budget, but there are always books I'm going to mercy fuck.

Did I answer that question or did I go off on a complete tangent?

SPURGEON: Both! Let me ask you this: Why do retailers as a group have such a mixed record when it comes to supporting the CBLDF? There's still this significant strain of retailers that, it seems to me, will see the CBLDF supporting some poor retailer in trouble as a kind of retailer merit award that's gone to the wrong person rather than this person simply being an avenue to get at bad law.

HIBBS: Yeah.

SPURGEON: What is it about the CBLDF that some retailers just don't seem to get?

HIBBS: I think the inherent problem with the CBLDF that they're defending the worst of us rather than the best things. I think that an awful lot of stores will look at Mike Diana's comics -- I'm dating myself with that example -- but go, "That's not something I'd carry at all, anyway. That looks terrible. That doesn't look commercial. I don't think I can sell that. If they're spending the money they're collecting defending that, then why should I be giving them money? It's not something I would support anyway."

Me, I go to the Niemoller quote: that first they came for the blank blank blank... unless you defend things you personally don't care for, then when it's time to be defended you don't have anything. Here I am, I'm in San Francisco, I'm in a neighborhood particularly in San Francisco that is full of young hipsters, etcetera. Of any store in America, I am probably the least likely to ever be busted on a First Amendment issue. And yet I still support the CBLDF, because I know that if I don't that by the time they do come for me it will be way too late.

I don't think you can point this to retailer necessarily, I think this is just human nature in general. To only be thinking of your own bailiwick.


SPURGEON: You honestly don't think the retailers as a group are less supportive of the CBLDF than other groups in comics?

HIBBS: I don't know what the actual donor levels are to cogently say one way or another that that is in fact the case. If you tell me that that is the case, I have no reason to doubt you, but I don't have any personal knowledge about that. It's hard for me to answer the question the way you want me to answer the question. I have no problems believing that, because I think that a lot of retailers have parochial concerns and they only look at what's in their own garden, as it were. They go "I don't carry those books, therefore this is not a concern for me and something I don't need to support." I think this is a shortsighted and foolish approach, myself.

I also think if you're comparing retailers to artists, an artist can very easily support the CBLDF by doing a sketch for them. I don't want to say this takes no effort or no money out of their pocket. But it takes less than money to a certain extent, because you're using your god-given talent rather than opening your wallet and taking money and putting it on the table. So it would be naturally for me that artists would support the CBLDF from that point of view. I think also up until recently you had very few pushes among the retail community to join or support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund on a national basis. Last year I want to say though it might have been two years ago, Diamond started listing CBLDF membership as a once a year thing in Previews, the catalog. I would want to think that this would cause more retailers to join up because it was put in their face. But before that there wasn't a drive to get retailers to participate. It was very much an ad hoc business kind of thing.

SPURGEON: Earlier you mentioned standard business practices, minimal ethics in business practices. How widespread in your estimation are there stores that fail to operate according to acceptable business practices?

HIBBS: In a way this is a fucked-up question, because that's assuming that my belief in terms of ethics and business practices are the ones that people should follow. For example, I really, really, really think variant covers are a fucked-up thing ethically, where you take these variants and you charge $30 for them, where what you're charging for is a single piece of artwork. I think that is a fucked up way to do business. However, there are a lot of retailers out there that do very good business with that, and they strongly believe that they're fulfilling the customers' demands. There are customers, they are trying to take care of those customers, and they are trying to make those customers happy. So ethically, what's correct? Trying to make someone happy even if it costs them an arm and a leg, or not doing that kind of business at all?

SPURGEON: Okay, wait. Now, those kinds of issues are fun to talk about, and they certainly have an ethical component. But let's make a differentiation between those kinds of issues and more basic business issues, the kind of thing that people don't have spirited open debates about, where people would be reluctant to have a conversation about said practices in public. Comics retail is still a Wild West business -- or at least has that reputation. People dealing in stolen art. Inventory that may not reflect what's on the books. Selling things under the table. Taking money out of the cash register. Those kinds of issues. Do you think there's still an element of that in comics retail?

HIBBS: Sure I do. But I don't think it has anything to do with comics. It has to do with small business. You're always going to get people in small business that are willing to cut corners or do things they see as not so bad. When I go out to the corner store, the corner bodega and buy a pack of cigarettes, they don't always ring it up. Sometimes they don't put money in the register. Is that unethical? Yeah, it is unethical because they're not paying the proper taxes. But they're a small business trying to keep their head above water. Is that something I do? No, it's not something I do. I believe you should be reporting everything. It's how our society is set up. If you're not fully doing the things you're supposed to do, other people suffer indirectly from that. So it's not something I want to do, but I understand why a business would do that.

SPURGEON: Do you have a sense of whether these practices are more prevalent or less prevalent in the time you've been in comics?

HIBBS: I think they are less prevalent in the time I've been in comics. You have to remember, when I started my store it was still common for stores not to have cash registers. [laughs] When was the last time you were in a comics shop that didn't have a cash register? It's probably been a long time. There's probably someone out there that still runs everything out of a cigar box, but it used to be common back in the day. Back in the day it was expected that your average comic book shop was 60 percent back issues, and so there were things that I would call questionable in terms of people bringing in their collections to sell and people being low-balled beyond a reasonable amount so the stores could profit from that. But as the general professionalism among comics retailers has gone up -- and I think they've done nothing but gone up over the last 21 years -- I think they tend to be more the exception than the rule. Now, I know stores who as recently as two years ago in my local area were paying their staff in comic books rather than paying money and reporting it to the government and paying the appropriate taxes. I think that's a fucked-up thing. I really do. It's much harder for me to compete against someone that doesn't have to pay that 20 percent to the government. But is it a widespread thing that's happening everywhere and people are flaunting the law left and right? Not anymore. Not anymore, I don't think so.

SPURGEON: I'll let you leave on a hopeful note. When you and I talk, it always seems like we come back to a few core, basic issues. Things fundamentally screwed up about the comics market. The fact, for instance, that mainstream publishers refuse to schedule their books in a reliable manner by issue and category month to month so that there are weeks with 18 X-Men comics and other weeks with zero.

HIBBS: I'm surprised that's not come up as a question yet.

SPURGEON: The reason it hasn't is we agree on how fucked up that is.

HIBBS: It doesn't mean we can't talk about it. It doesn't hurt to bring it up! [Spurgeon laughs] But proceed, proceed.

SPURGEON: Is there any issue like that, these intractable issues with which we've been filling the phone lines since 1994, any at all that you think will be solved in the next five years?

HIBBS: I can think of one. I think we're on the cusp of having street dates in this business. If you had asked me that same question five years ago, I would say it was never going to happen. They'd never do it. I think we're on the cusp of it now. I think what that will give the professionalism of stores and their operations is going to be ginormous.

This has to do with how we receive product in this business. Almost everybody -- not everybody, but almost everybody -- is getting their books via UPS. They show up on Wednesday, the same day they're supposed to be out for sale. Now in some cases you've got people driving down to the UPS hub at six o'clock in the morning and getting back to their store by nine and just managing barely to get everything up on the rack by 11 or whenever they open. But you also have a large number of stores out there that are totally dependent upon their UPS driver to bring their books. When we used to have UPS delivery, sometimes the driver would show up at 9 AM. And sometimes the driver would show up at three o'clock in the afternoon. If the driver shows up at three in the afternoon and you have two hours of processing time, you've basically lost that entire day of sales.

So street dates, where we receive the books about 24 hours before they're to be put out for sale, is going to have an enormous impact on the merchandising of a store, how a store looks, the punchiness of the people that are ringing up your comics -- because if you've been on the road since 6 AM and being a crazy person getting this stuff up on the racks so it's there when your customers come in, you're probably not at your best anymore. You probably don't smell very good. You're probably kind of grumpy because you just dealt with all this bullshit -- this book is missing, you're shorted on that, these are damaged -- you're grumpy. If you have 24 hours to process that stuff, most of that grumpiness and most of that disarray and most of the personal hygiene issues go away. You have time to deal with that, you can be there in your store, and you can be perky and you can be excited and maybe you can even read five or six of the books. It's crazy, but people walk in and say, "Hey, what's good?" [laughs] Nine times out of ten, you can't tell them: you just put the books on the racks ten minutes ago. You haven't read anything. That's not the way to be educated about what's going on, your products.

So if you were to ask me to pick one thing, that's the thing I see coming. I think there's an overwhelming sense among the retailers that we need to have these street dates, that we need to have these books ahead of time. No one's going to break these street dates. Somebody will, but it will be such a small number they can be dealt with in a fair and equitable fashion.


SPURGEON: Why is this more likely now than it was five years ago?

HIBBS: Because of the skip week we had over Christmas. There were no books that last week of the year because of how the UPS holidays fell. What DC decided to do -- and I have to give them absolute props for it -- is release an issue of Blackest Night a week early so that we could hold it and then have at least one new comic book that next week. My understanding is that roughly a thousand retailers -- or a thousand accounts -- signed up for this process, and there was only one that broke street dates. That's astonishing. Nobody thought the number was going to be one. If you talked to people at DC, they were looking at a two percent failure rate. They would be happy if two percent of the retailers broke the street date. It was .1 percent. And you can be assured that one guy is not going to do it again, because this person can't participate in these programs anymore. It's a self-correcting problem at that point. DC was hoping for two percent and thought it would be more like five percent. It wasn't, because retailers as a whole are more professional and we understand the value of having something to draw people into our stores.

The big barrier in this has always been Diamond, who have always believed they can't trust retailers and didn't want to be the police. They didn't want to be the police, to be the person to enforce the penalty. Paul Stock was the one who had the idea of a fee to fund a secret shopper program. Diamond went, "We don't have to be the ones physically doing that? That makes a whole lot of sense." So I think we're close to having that one.

SPURGEON: Okay, I lied about this ending on a positive note. What intractable issue are you the furthest away from getting? Is it rational scheduling?

HIBBS: It's rational scheduling. Rational scheduling, but hand in hand with the overproduction of product lines.

imageI think that the Hulk is a great character. I think the Hulk can support one comic book. There were three monthly on-goings at one point, and a whole bunch of one-shots and specials. I don't think that's a sustainable model in any way, shape or form. I don't see that going away unless retailers cut their orders so low it wasn't profitable to do those kinds of additional series and comics in the first place. I don't know if it's greed or if it's an impulse to push the market as far as it can be pushed, but both Marvel and DC have a culture of maximizing as many titles as they can -- not the most individual comics, unfortunately, but titles. I wish they would focus on having a smaller line that sold better as a whole. One of the things you talk about a lot is the mid-list and where the numbers are. On the Internet people talk about that the DM is evil because such and such used to sell 500,000 copies but now it only sells 100,000 copies, and the Direct Market is fucked up. While that may be true in one sense, what they're not processing is that when titles sold half a million comics an issue, there was a total of 100 comic books published in a month. Now there are 500 or more comic books published in a month. Obviously the numbers are going to drop, because nobody can buy everything.

I think that makes it even harder for publishers to find their niches, and they're trying to grow anywhere a seed might take place. So they publish more and more and more and more books. The more books you publish the less likely you're going to have a rational schedule publishing them. At that point, it becomes a traffic management issue. The other aspect of it is that Marvel and DC -- primarily -- are fighting for talent. They're offering more and more money up front to work for one company over the other company. When you pay someone your top page rate, it seems like it becomes politically less easy to say, "Hey, hit your deadline pal." Those guys feels they can walk across the street to their competitors for the same amount of money at only 10 issues a year. I don't know how you defuse that. As long as there's somebody across the aisle willing to open up their wallets for somebody who may be a good artist but not a dependable artist in terms of the pages that need produced, I don't see how that's going to change. I really don't. I wish that it would. If I were running Marvel or DC I'd pare back my line by at least 50 percent. Rather than having nine different Batman books, I would have no more than one a week, and they would ship one per week, and they would have better talent for there being fewer of them.


SPURGEON: Let me ask you a Savage Critics question.

HIBBS: Please.


HIBBS: Why? You mean why do I have that site?

SPURGEON: Yeah. [laughs] That was the obnoxious way to ask that question. Let me give you the full question. Why in this day and age when I can read all of these writers at their own sites, doing their own things, and I can pull in their feeds myself, why do we need an omnibus site?

HIBBS: I don't know that you do need it. [Spurgeon laughs] But that particular question I can almost turn on you. It's not like what you and Dirk and Heidi do --

SPURGEON: Careful!

HIBBS: -- I couldn't do on my own. I could set my google readers and all the little tricks you do. But why would I? I can go to your site and have you do all that work for me. And maybe I can pick up some particular insight. So is there a need for an aggregate site like Savage Critics? Probably not. But I like writing about comics, and I like the site, and I've been doing it a long time.

SPURGEON: So if someone is going to Savage Critics for the first time, where do they go to be able to pass judgment over whether or not it's worth adding to their daily routine? What is the heart of your site, its unique value? Is it a specific writer? A specific kind of writing? A specific mix of people?

HIBBS: If you're saying that when you go to the great gates and St. Peter and have to justify your existence, I would justify the Savage Critics experience by getting Abhay Khosla out there to a wider audience. Off of the Image boards. I like all of his stuff. I would tell someone to just click his name and start reading.

Now, I don't want anyone to think "He doesn't like me" because I didn't mention them --


HIBBS: -- but if I have to pick one to justify my existence, it would be Abhay. I love Jog's writing, I love Sean's writing, I love Douglas' writing. But you asked me to pick, so I picked.

SPURGEON: "Hibbsy's Choice."

HIBBS: [Laughs]


* Comix Experience
* The Savage Critics
* Tilting At Windmills


* photo swiped from Brian Hibbs' facebook album
* Logicomix
* a CGC-slabbed variant covered comic book
* that first issue of Optic Nerve
* an older but still modern issue of Batman
* from Saul Steinberg
* an issue of Walking Dead
* an early issue of Bone
* Mike Diana art
* the Blackest Night issue that went on sale during a UPS-caused skip week
* cover to a recent Hulk two-shot
* Savage Critics logo
* (below) Comix Experience logo


* note: in the early section about Brian's alternative/arts comics track record, Brian opted for providing sales rankings rather than sales numbers. I included the individual notes where he made them. In going over the manuscript he provided a lengthier explanation of which alt-comics titles sold according to those rankings and some contextual analysis, but as I was more interested in the numbers and thought the added section dragged the interview to a halt, I decided not to run it and gave Brian the option of running that information or a longer piece elsewhere on the site. That offer remains open.



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