A View From Behind The Counter – A Conversation With A Comic Retailer Of 38 Years

I recently covered a story about a store in Philadelphia called Fat Jack’s and how it was having a 38th Anniversary special. I put up a story about their signing event and month long sale… but it got me to thinking. Unlike a lot of shops, Fat Jack’s has always been owned by Mike Ferrero. He opened his shop at a time that a comic specialty store was almost unheard of. At a time when direct market comics were just starting. He’s witnessed all of the major events in the comic industry since 1976 and could talk about it from a retailer’s perspective. So I decided to take advantage of that and sent him a boat load of questions and Mike was nice enough to answer them all.

FatJacksBLEEDING COOL: As the owner of a comic shop for 38 years, you have seen just about every significant change to the industry. Let’s start with why did you decide in the mid 70s to open up a comic book shop? How did retail work in the early days of the direct market? How were things different then what we take for granted today?

MIKE FERRERO: I had collected comics since the early sixties and I was one of those people who thought it would be worthwhile to have certain doubles for a lot of reasons, one, I loved them and wanted to have a reading copy, and for some reason thought that they could be good for future trading or investment (Avengers #1 & X-men #1 for example). My parents thought I was crazy to read comics in the first place. If they knew I bought two of some issues, well, who knows what they would have thought.

After about two years of buying & selling comics through Alan Light’s Comics Buyer’s Guide (which at that time consisted of about 80% ads), I began thinking about opening a retail store. A store front became available in center city Philly in what some of us had called “comic book corner”. The corner of 20th & Walnut streets near Rittenhouse Square had a full time comic shop, a shop which sold LPs & comics and a shop which sold comic back issues & martial arts equipment. My first retail shop opened on June 26, 1976 as the fourth member of this “corner”. Two part-timers worked the store for me during the week while I worked a full time job and worked the weekends at the store. Eventually, I decided to take on the store full time.

A limited number of new releases came out each month & customers were hungry for back issues and at that time back issues were the dominant part of the market. As a matter of fact, I didn’t carry new product for about the first 3 months of operation. Phil
Seuling (later Sea Gate Distributors) had a monopoly on supplying the direct market (which he had basically created) and after requesting order forms for a couple of months and not getting a response I just photocopied a form from another retailer and sent it in to Seuling. In those days, not only were you ordering blindly as far as the content of the books, you had to order in increments of 25 and prepay for your monthly order in advance (at that time approximately 3 months in advance). Comics were shipped directly from the printer (World Color Press in Sparta Illinois) and the 25 increment policy meant that it was impossible to order exactly what you needed. There was no such thing as one stop shopping and no monthly ordering catalog such as Previews. Comics (DC,Marvel, Archie and Harvey) were ordered from Seuling who also carried some art books, undergrounds, etc., but in order to have a wide variety of product you had to deal with multiple distributors.

BC: The next big thing I can think of has to be Crisis on Infinite Earths. Right now we are all suffering from ‘event fatigue’, but before Crisis there were no line-wide events. How was the idea presented to you by DC Comics? And how was it received by your customers?

MIKE: While I don’t 100% remember the promotions, the years leading up to it both creatively and the growth of the market were an incredible time. The Claremonth/Byrne Era of the X-Men alone was unprecedented in our business as to how much of a creative success a title could be and DC has the same with the Teen Titans by Wolfman and Perez. Crisis on Infinite Earths was an amazing time, and the cross-over that was to redefine the DC Universe, and did so in many ways. Marv Wolfman and George Perez were rock stars telling the biggest and boldest cross-over ever. It also was just before when John Byrne was leaving Marvel and relaunched Man of Steel and Superman. DC did a fine job at this point in helping to propel the direct market. You have to remember, this was also around the time of Watchmen, Dark Knight, Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow, and so much more happening at DC.

And keep in mind that the year before Crisis Marvel had an incredible year with Secret Wars setting up some great stories in the Marvel Universe, whether it was small from changing the X-Men landscape with Colossus and Kitty Pryde breaking up after Secret Wars (Colossus fell in love with another woman during the event), or big in that they gave Spider-Man the symbiote Black Costume. A lot was set up there. And this led to more spin off series such as Web of Spider-Man, which to us, having a third Spider-Man title after Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker was a huge deal. Till now, Superman had Superman and Action Comics and Spider-Man had The Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Our world started changing with more spin-off titles.

And this was a time that a lot of independent publishers popped up with compelling titles. First Comics with American Flagg!, Jon Sable, Grimjack, and so much more. Comico who published both Grendel and Mage by Matt Wagner as well as Bill Willingham’s Elementals. Pacific Comics brought back Jack Kirby and first brought us Dave Stevens Rocketeer. Eclipse Comics who brought us manga including Area 88 and Mai the Psychic Girl, as well as one of the greatest comics of all time – Miracle Man. And let’s not forget Epic Comics without which we wouldn’t have had Dreadstar and full color Elfquest.

As an aside, both Matt Wagner and Bill Willingham were customers of our Center City stores during this period. So were many other relatively high profile writers and artists including Paris Cullins who worked on DC’s Blue Devil, or Michael Avon Oeming who later became Brian Michael Bendis’ co-creator on Powers. There were also people we distributed to that have gone off to work at Marvel or DC and one employee, Bryan Glass, who has become quite a successful writer on his own.

You had to be there to really appreciate how the industry went from the magic of the ‘60’s that Stan Lee, Jack, Kriby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gil Kane and so many others. The ‘70’s were good for fans, and we opened in ’76. I don’t think that anyone can understand the renaissance that the trying times of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s led too. The growth of the direct market had created some of the most compelling comics at that time. What seemed to be risks at the time by publishers were really the business growing and maturing. I think that this was where we really went from an industry that catered to “kids” to becoming a much more mature industry, and as we grew as an industry, the direct market came to be.

BC: How did you see the culling of distributors from their peak of 20 in 1985 to when Diamond started signing exclusives and then eventually working their way toward a monopoly? Did you have any idea that something like this could happen? What was the immediate effect and the long term effect of the distribution changes?

MIKE: You have to understand, it was a different time, and probably the wrong people at Marvel. If the people at Marvel today were the people at Marvel back then, our industry would be larger than it is as they would not have made such a bad decision. Again, at the time, there were some short sighted people at Marvel who were looking to capitalize for the short term, and not the long term – looking at the “savings in the margin” to increase the profits and not looking at how it could hurt the industry. I’m lamenting a bit here, but again, the people at Marvel today, you can tell, are looking at the long term. Back then, Marvel made the first move in the culling of distributors by deciding to distribute their own product. This move had a major effect on distributors and retailers alike. Distributors immediately lost a good portion of their sales & profits while retailers saw increased costs in shipping and increases in packing and accounting error rates due to the selection of a regional distributor as Marvel’s national distributor. The loss of the ability of smaller distributors to carry Marvel product sent most of them into a downward spiral from which there was no chance to survive. I don’t believe retailers had any inkling that Marvel had plans to self distribute until it was announced. We have been a Diamond account since Steve Geppi started the company. I can’t say enough great things about Steve. While we haven’t spoken in years, in the 38 years that I have known him, he’s always been a man who loves the industry, which is why I feel he’s as successful as he is. This is why the signing of exclusive distribution agreements with Diamond had no real initial effect on our – or most – stores, but those agreements signed with Capital City Distribution caused additional expenses. I only remember Kitchen Sink & Viz signing with Capital, but in order to service our customers we had to order their publications from Capital. These were smaller increment orders and many times the shipping costs would eat up most, if not all, of the profits.

The loss of DC product, after the loss of Marvel product, eventually caused the demise of Capital City & then Marvel’s realization that they were inadequate as distributors left Diamond as the only distributor. As an industry we’re very fortunate that the team at Diamond, Steve Geppi on down, are people who care about the industry, and my understanding is that when Kitchen Sink and other publishers who decided to sign with Capital went to Diamond when Capital’s demise happened, that they were welcome with open arms. In what other industry can one say that? This is why we survived, as an industry, such a turbulent time. I think that in this 2 year instance from 1995 to part of 1997, we were the closest that we have ever been to becoming a dinosaur as an industry.

BC: Around the same time, there was this little upstart company called Image putting books out. How did the launch of Image affect your store?

MIKE: The formation of Image Comics by some of the best talent the industry could muster created an air of excitement among customers that I don’t believe I had seen before or since. We have always been a store that promotes reading a comic for enjoyment rather than the purchase for purely potential monetary gain. Customers enjoyed these titles immensely and many purchased multiple copies for future trading or investment (as early print runs proved). Image provided a great influx of interest in the industry as well as profits for retailers. It seemed that no matter the quantity you ordered, you needed more.

BC: Of course there is also the Death of Superman which was the peak of and beginning of the end of the speculator market. How many copies of the issue did you sell roughly and looking back do you think the event was a good idea?

MIKE: The Death of Superman was an event in the industry that received the most publicity in mainstream media that I had seen since entering the business. We were sold out of the issue in the first week, even though we thought we had ordered more than enough. This issue was also the first time I heard of such extreme prices being charged by some stores for a book that was just released. At the end of the first week, some local shops were charging $20-$50 per copy. This book was in demand by readers and the general public alike. This event brought many new people into our stores and although many did not stay on, the publicity of the event made more people aware of our industry. This was probably the last major event for the speculator market.

BC: With the end of the speculator market and downturn of sales that came along in the late 90s, how did you keep your store going when so many others closed their doors? What kept you from moving on to something else seemingly more profitable at the time?

MIKE: We at one point had 5 stores in the Philadelphia area. We weren’t impervious to the negative effects of the industry. During the years 1995-1999 we found it necessary to close the 3 stores which we considered neighborhood locations. We now operate our oldest locations– center city Phila.(2006 Sansom St.—38 years) and our New Jersey shop (521 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn—34 years). We strive to provide the customer with a pleasant and helpful experience when they shop at our stores, maintain reasonable prices on back issues and count on our friendly employees to help sustain the business.

I’m sure that if I wanted to, I could find a job with less stress and more “quality time”, but this is a business which I enjoy and have been involved in for most of my life. I would find it hard to be in any other.

BC: With the rise of Super-Heroes in the theaters, do you see that translating to sales in your shops now? Do you think the comic companies are using their film popularity properly to bring new readers into shops?

MIKE: TV Shows such as Smallville, Arrow, Ultimate Spider-Man and of course The Walking Dead help on a regular basis to create awareness and sales, which is fantastic. We try to capitalize on events related to our industry, films especially, since there’s such a huge advertising and marketing push from the studios in such a short time period leading up to the release of the movie. The rise of Super-Heroes in film has generated new interest in the characters and also has brought many previous readers back to shops. Marvel Studios’ “reveals” at the end of their films have reminded previous customers of what they read in the past and create interest in finding out what is going on in current story lines. Although we as The industry has a “leg up”, in that retailers can purchase a theater ad to run before a film, but not all retailers are aware, and some who are may not be able to afford this, and it would be great to see a short such as “Pick up the latest issue of ________at your local comics shop.” I’m suggesting this, even though this means my competitors would potentially profit equally as we would, the most important thing is that there be growth in the market. And this can only help across the board.

BC: In your opinion, what do you see as the current status of the comic industry and how do you see the future for publishers, retailers and fans?

MIKE: There is currently a wide diversity of product available. Although Super-Hero comics provide the majority of sales, there are comics and graphic novels of all genres to satisfy readers from Crime to Horror to a resurgence of children’s books and so much more. Look at how successful Archie is today, it’s incredible. Attendance at major comic conventions proves that the fan base is still there. Retailing in the “digital age” has shown that as an industry we will continue to grow as digital and print have grown together over the last few years, and being able to service customers on a regular basis this will allow us to grow. We feel that digital has become the new newsstand, and it’s up to us to convert them to regular fans. The future is incredibly bright.

NeilAdamsBC: With this month being your 38th anniversary, what type of events are you doing to celebrate the occasion?

MIKE: Comic’s legend Neal Adams is appearing at our Phila. Store (2006 Sansom St., 215-963-0788, comicrypt.com) on Wednesday June 18th from 11 AM to 3 PM. In addition to signing autographs and interacting with attendees, we’ve worked with Neal to have a prize that a lucky fan will be able to hold and treasure forever, Neal will select at random the winner of an exquisite Batman sketch he drew especially for this event. The best part is that there’s no purchase necessary, and the winner does not have to be there to win the prize. We just ask for fans between now and the appearance to enter in by giving us their e-mail address so that we can update them on any Fat Jack’s announcements, promotions, updates, etc. We are grateful to Neal for helping us celebrate our anniversary.

We are also in full swing of a progressive discount back issue sale where most back issues are discounted from 50% to 76% by month’s end.

This is the most we’ve done to date to promote the stores in years. It’s been rejuvenating in many ways. We’re excited to get the word out to create more promotions and get more fans in to the comics market.

For more on Fat Jack’s anniversary sale or the upcoming Neal Adams signing, click here or check out their Facebook page.

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