By Chris Arrant
Each year at Comic-Con International, the comic industry recognizes the finest in the field with the Eisner Awards. Named for famed cartoonist Will Eisner, the nominees and recipients cover the breadth of stories, genres, formats and creators, but they also pay tribute to the people who make it all possible: the retailers.
The Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award has been given out for the past 17 years, and this year eight retailers were nominated from a field of over 2000 contenders.
“Based on what I know and have seen of the other stores that were nominees and finalists, this year had one of their most highly competitive group of entries that they've had in some time,” points out nominee Ralph Mathieu of Las Vegas’ Alternate Reality Comics. “The judges must have had a hard time coming up with which store would be the recipient. Any of the finalist stores and many of the nominated stores, that I know of, would have been worthy of winning and I am elated that I was amongst the eight finalists.”
Although the stores nominated span the globe, they all share similar stories when it comes to how they got into business: they started as fans.
“I've loved comics ever since I was a kid,” says Michael Ring of Portland’s Bridge City Comics. “I learned to read from my brother's Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes comics! I've held a passion for the art form for as long as I can remember. I decided that I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to share my love of comics with my community, and to also do what I could to expand the comics industry itself.”
Fittingly, it’s fans who submit names to the Eisner committee for consideration each year. After that, a panel of industry judges narrow down the field to the finalist nominees and eventual winner though a set of criteria including support of diverse material, comics knowledge, community activity, store image and ethical business practices.
“I actually learned about our nomination by mail during Free Comic Book Day,” recalls Mike Wellman of the Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, California. “We had about 15 to 20 comic creators in the building signing that day and a huge line going out around the corner, and then comes a package saying we were nominated for this award. It was a great day.”
|Comics & Vegetables|
In the end, Tel Aviv’s Comics & Vegetables received this year’s award. The store got its start in 2001 as an online comics retailer, the first of any kind to serve Israel. In 2004 owners Yuval Sharon and Danny Amitai expanded to a brick-and-mortar store in Tel Aviv, and followed that up with a second location at Ra’anana in 2009. Sharon’s wife Elite Avni-Sharon tells the story of how the duo got into the comics retailing business:
“One night, over 10 years ago when Yuval was on guard in the army, he was looking through his wallet and found the business card of the guy he used to buy comics from. It dawned on him that the slow and hard process of getting comics to Israel could be made easier by a local store, or at least a website. Yuval offered his friend Danny to join him in this adventurous plan, and the rest is history. “
Comics & Vegetables hosts an impressive array of comics from the United States, Europe, Japan as well as their home country. In 2010, Yuval traveled to the United States for a chance to meet the legendary Joe Kubert and his sons Adam and Andy with a unique opportunity.
”After long months of hard work, an exhibition of the Kuberts’ work is set to open on August 17 at the Comics Museum in Hulon, the day before a big signing by Joe and Adam at our store,” explains Elite.
Ralph Mathieu’s Alternate Reality Comics has been a bastion of comics in Las Vegas for the past 17 years, stemming from the owner’s lifelong passion.
|Alternate Reality Comics|
“I've always wanted my occupation to involve my love of the comic book medium, so when I got the chance to become a comic book store owner in 1995, I jumped at the opportunity,” he explains. “From 1987 to 1995, my store had two previous owners and was called Dungeon Comics, but I changed the name to Alternate Reality Comics in 1996 because the term ‘alternate reality’ is a popular concept in science fiction and fantasy and I believe gives people a better idea of what my store is about.”
Standing out amongst the sights in Las Vegas might be a challenge for some, but Mathieu has a firm grasp on what makes his store work.
“The first time impression that visitors of Alternate Reality Comics get of my store is that it is foremost a comic book store, which in addition to attractively displaying the many different super hero comic books and graphic novels that are being produced today, also has a big selection of the many other genres that the comic book medium produces,” he says. “My goal with Alternate Reality Comics has always been to show people that comics can tell any kind of story. With my increased store space at my new location, I now also carry more comic book related items, such as t-shirts, magnets, and action figures, which people like to buy to further celebrate their favorite characters. Here in Las Vegas, there are now several great comic book stores, so the Las Vegas comic book community now has many choices regarding where they can get their comic book fixes and I'm ecstatic that Alternate Reality Comics is a big part of the large comic book scene we have.”
Hailing from the north, Guelph, Ontario’s The Dragon comic shop came about from a then-aspiring teacher who wanted to bring comics to her community, one of the key tenants of this prestigious award.
“We carry an exceptional range of kids comics and graphic novels from a wide variety of publishers, including those not solicited through Diamond,” notes store owner Jennifer Haines. “I have a teaching degree, which also allows me to select books to stock, and liaise with schools and libraries to provide quality reading materials for different age groups and purposes.”
With this September marking her 13th year in business, Stewart has learned how to roll out the welcome mat for all kinds of customers.
“We have a very welcoming atmosphere for all customers,” she points out. “As a result, we have about 30% female customers, and more every day, as they respond very well to our clean, bright shop, with excellent customer service that treats everyone who walks in the door equally.”
Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversations stands out as the newest store among this year’s finalists, but owners Patrick Brower and W. Dal Bush have years working behind the counter. Since its grand opening in March 2008, Challengers has become a welcome spot for fans as well as professionals, and recently hosted an art opening for FEAR ITSELF artist Stuart Immonen.
“At Challengers we really try to be inviting for the new comic fans, as well as the old,” explains Brower. “We have a tremendous number of people just getting into comics who have no preconceived notions as to what a comic shop should look like. So we have wide aisles, high ceilings and a brightly lit store. We also carry an extremely large selection of graphic novels and trade paperbacks, and they are the focal point of Challengers.”
Although Brower now calls comics retailing his passion and his career, a love of art actually brought him to this point.
“Thanks to my brother, George, comics have always been in my life since I was able to read,” he says. “So much so that I went to school for art illustration and when I graduated, I planned on becoming a freelance commercial artist. But I knew I would need a part-time job to help with that. A week after my college graduation, when buying my weekly haul of comics, the owner of my local store asked if I'd be interested in working there. And I've never looked back.”
Just a few hours north of Chicago, Green Brain Comics of Dearborn, Michigan has become one of the few repeat contenders for the Eisner, but the experience never gets old.
“We learned [about this year’s nomination] when we received a Google Alert of the list being in the Hollywood Reporter,” explains Dan Merritt, who owns the store with his wife Katie. “Kind of weird and random, but it's a great way to start the morning.”
The Merritts have been starting their mornings as comic shop owners since 1999, but their history selling comics goes back to 1989 when Katie worked for the previous owners.
“When the original owner decided to sell the business, he offered it to Katie first,” Dan says. “This was the end of the 90’s, well after the speculator bubble burst and the graphic novel market hadn’t quite manifested yet. I had been working in manufacturing with a very low job satisfaction level and was looking for a way out. We were both confident that the best days of the medium were still ahead, so we secured the business loan and I handed my employer the two week notice. That was a damn fine day.”
Merritt chalks up the store’s continued success to their focus on “comic books as entertainment” rather than collectibles, acting as advocates for comics through their stores and initiatives with the arts advocacy group Kids Read Comics.
“Our commitment to the local community includes working with Kids Read Comics to bring programs and activities to schools and libraries,” he explains. “In 2010, I gave my history of comics presentation to the American Mensa’s 2010 Annual Gathering, right here in Dearborn, Michigan.”
Located just miles away from the West Coast offices of Marvel Studios, Manhattan Beach, California’s Comics Bug has been selling comics since their grand opening on Free Comic Book Day in 2004.
“I’ve loved comics ever since I was about 3 years old,” says owner Mike Wellman. “I’ve been a reader and a collector, and I’ve worked in comic shops since 1995 when I was 20 years old. I worked with Jun Goeku at another comics store in the Los Angeles area, and when he decided to open his own shop he asked me to be his partner. It’s something I’ve always been a fan of, and had my head in the clouds so to speak.”
Wellman and Goeku’s store hosts a variety of events from in-store signings to live music and even open mic comedy nights.
“If somebody in the community comes to us with an idea that sounds fun to us, nine times out of 10 we’ll do it,” Wellman says.
Michael Ring’s Bridge City Comics has been going strong for over six years in Portland, Oregon.
“While Portland is a town full of great comic shops, Bridge City Comics offers a wide range of new comics as well as thousands of new and used graphic novels, as well as a large Portland-creators section highlighting local artists and writers and an exceptional kid's section,” says Ring.
After a nomination by one of his customers it really didn’t sink in for the retailer until they got an official package from the Eisner nominations committee.
“What blew my mind was finding out that we were one of only eight finalists in the world for the 2011 Spirit of Retailing Eisner Award,” he says. “That’s an honor in of itself.”