Top Shops Features Cosmic Monkey, Portland, Oregon
Retailers are the bricks and mortar of the comic book industry and deserve ongoing support and patronage. Our “Top Shops” interview segment is designed to help readers get acquainted with the owners of some of the best comic book stores around the world.
Sequential Highway is happy to introduce you to Adam Healy, one of the owners and manager of Cosmic Monkey Comics located in Portland, Oregon.
Peter Howard: Why comic books? What led you to being a comic book retailer?
Adam Healy: I grew up reading comics and started collecting in a serious way when I was fourteen. I found comics to be a diverse medium that allowed for all kinds of stories that were, for the most part, quick and easy to enjoy and filled with fun and excitement. As I child I was drawn to the colorful characters and larger-than-life scenarios, but as I grew older I was attracted to the way different art styles could seduce you into feeling something you would never otherwise experience. In the 80s and 90s, alternative comics blossomed and I found stories that were not being told in any other medium that reflected my disillusionment with contemporary culture.
I joined a buying club started by a friend after being continuously disappointed by store options in the late 90s. The buying club became a storefront in 2003, of which I quickly became an employee. I was able to devote more time to the store in 2004, after I left a job working in emergency services. We expanded in 2007, at which point I bought into the business. I never set out to be a retailer, but it is a comfortable fit working in an industry with which I am intimately familiar and for which I have a great passion.
PH: How would you describe the type of environment you have created for your customers?
AH: Comfortable. We’ve made a great effort to arrange the store in a way that makes intuitive sense to a diverse cross section of shoppers, but more importantly, we want it to feel good to be here. We’ve mixed dark colors with bright to give the store character. Nothing feels worse, in our view, than a strip mall store. We receive a lot of positive feedback about the atmosphere in the store, so we feel that we’ve succeeded in that respect. We have two different all-ages areas, one which is set up for people to hang out and relax comfortably while waiting for friends or while researching the nearly infinite available reading options. We encourage people to hang out and read. Our primary goal is to make people feel better when they walk out than when they walked in. If we can make a living at it, so much the better.
PH: What incentives do you offer your customers?
AH: We offer box customers (pull service subscribers) a discount based on pre-order volume. They also get the monthly previews catalog at cost if they desire. Their discount applies to all purchases and special orders made at the store.
PH: Would you point to something in particular that sets Cosmic Monkey Comics apart from other retail stores?
AH: Our diversity of available product and the quantity of books we have on display makes us special. We have multiple shelves of new comics, racked face out, none overlapping. We have multiple sections showcasing non-superhero comics in genres such as Crime, War, Western, Horror, Art Books, Comics History/Criticism, Strip Reprints, Archival Collections, Anthologies, etc.
We are especially proud of our large selection of local and non-local mini-comics and self-published books. We are fortunate to live in Portland which is, in many ways, a comics mecca. We have sections devoted to local publishers Oni (Scott Pilgrim) and Top Shelf (Essex County, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), as well as smaller but equally important publishers Sparkplug (The Blot) and Tugboat (Papercutter).
We have a large selection of Spanish and Japanese language comics, a small selection of French comics and a handful of German, Dutch and Portuguese comics. We celebrate the diversity of comic stories from around the world by stocking as much as we can afford to. They don’t sell well at all, but they represent a viewpoint that is missing from American comics, as well as containing some of the best comics you will ever see in your life, so we are compelled to stock them even though we lose money on them.
PH: What’s your customer demographic? Young, old, male, female, and so on?
AH: The majority of our regular pull customers are male, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, but we get a diverse mix of people coming in to browse. Because we showcase the non-superhero material at the front of the store, as well as having two different all-ages sections, we attract a number of non-traditional comic readers. We’ll get families coming in who leave the kids playing in one area while they browse. We’ll have groups of teenage girls wandering through occasionally.
PH: Does your shop support and/or promote independent comics and small press?
AH: Yes, we do. We have a section devoted to small press and self-published comics at the front of the store, as well as sections devoted to creator-owned work, various small publishers and a handful of independent creators – Seth, Spiegelman, Pekar, Crumb, Ware, Burns, Millionaire, etc.
PH: Are your customers attracted to alternative comic books and graphic novels? Are they primarily fans of Marvel and DC?
AH: Our customers represent a wide array of interests. We sell a great deal of Marvel and DC monthly comics, but we also sell a lot of non-superhero books from other companies. Walking Dead is our best-selling title – hands down – followed by Batman, followed by Saga. Prophet has been a strong seller for us, outselling most of the Before Watchmen titles. A significant number of our customers follow artists and writers, rather than characters or companies. We have more floor space dedicated to non-superhero material than to superhero books.
PH: Do you sell equal numbers of comics and graphic novels or a greater volume of one category than the other?
AH: We sell more comics than graphic novels overall, but only by about ten percent. Forty-five percent of our sales are comics and thirty-five percent are graphic novels, approximately. It is significant that about seventy-five percent of our comic sales are pre-orders, whereas only about fifteen percent of our graphic novel sales are pre-orders.
PH: Are any titles favoured among your staff?
AH: Prophet is easily one of the best comics to come out in years! Blacksad is a strong favorite around here. We are big fans of everything Nobrow puts out. We promote GT Labs heavily for their science offerings, such as Feynman and Logicomix. Almost everything Humanoids puts out will bring tears of joy to our eyes. I personally don’t enjoy any of the superhero comics coming out, but those of us who do read them are enjoying Animal Man, Swamp Thing, The Boys, Daredevil and Action Comics.
PH: What are your best sellers?
AH: For single-issue monthly comics – Walking Dead, Batman, Saga, Batman Inc., Avengers vs. X-Men, Justice League, Fatale, Daredevil, Uncanny X-Force, and Ultimate Spider-Man are the top monthly comics.
PH: What is important for you to offer your customers?
AH: It is important for us to offer the full range of comics and graphic novels available in an atmosphere that encourages taking your time to browse and explore all the options. We have spots for sitting and reading, which we never discourage. We will remind people to handle books with care, but we don’t ask anyone not to read. We want people to have the opportunity to discover all the different types of stories and artistic experiences that await them. It is important for us to honor the past and remember it by carrying a full range of classic reprints and by devoting space to back issues. We want our customers, whether it’s their first time in a comic book store or their eight hundredth, to be able to find what they’re interested in.
PH: Does your business currently embrace digital comics? Do you see digital as a threat or a business opportunity?
AH: I see digital as an opportunity to expand the comics market tremendously. The comics market in America is incredibly small. At three hundred eighty thousand copies, Walking Dead #100 was the best selling comic in fifteen years. That is one thousandth of the population of America. And that does not translate into three hundred eighty thousand readers because the American comics market does not track sales! That number comes from Diamond and it is their order numbers, not actual sales to readers. If digital could reduce the importance of Diamond then that, in itself, would be a positive change for the market.
Digital may cost us a few readers in the short term, but it may also deliver a few million in the long run. Huge areas of the world have no access to comics, but billions of people on our planet have access to the internet. There is significant untapped potential.
PH: If you were magically granted the power, would you change anything about the comic book industry and retailing in general?
AH: It would take magic, but I would eliminate Marvel Comics, DC comics and Diamond Comic Distributors. I see these three companies as being responsible for keeping the industry small and narrow. None of these companies conducts themselves honestly, fairly or with any integrity.
Diamond is the only option for monthly comics in North America and they do a fair to poor job of serving the market. They have no West Coast presence, so they attempt to serve the market out of two locations, Mississippi and New York. Re-orders take on average two weeks to arrive, meaning retailers have no chance of competing with Amazon and the like. Diamond does such a poor job of serving the re-order market that we frequently use Amazon ourselves to restock popular items.
The damage rate for re-orders from Diamond runs between fifteen and fifty-five percent depending on the week. They consistently pack things in a way that guarantees damage. I know that many retailers in addition to myself have tried to remedy the situation by taking pictures of damages and pointing out the practices that reliably create damaged product, but after more than a year of this, there has been no improvement.
Let me preface my comments about the Big Two by saying that I have a great deal of affection and respect for the artists and writers that have worked for them over the years. The comics industry is rooted in the escapades of the fantastic and colorful superheroes that were a psychological response to the challenges of the early twentieth century American experience. Many of us have deep and profoundly positive emotional responses to the characters we grew up reading about. Unfortunately, this nostalgic response to the characters is something that is exploited mercilessly in pursuit of short term profit at the expense of the long term health of the industry.
Marvel and DC are simply the epitome of corporate greed. They consistently exploit their talent and their customers. Their communications to retailers are disingenuous and insulting. As someone who values customer service and customer satisfaction above personal profit, these companies are offensive to me, and it pains me on a regular basis that I am forced to do business with them. They are ethically, morally, intellectually and creatively bankrupt. They use gimmicks and unethical tactics to crowd other offerings off the shelves and have proven unwilling to let the quality of their product speak for itself. They celebrate violence for its own sake and have seemingly abandoned the idea of heroism and heroic behavior.
Ultimately, I would like to see much more diversity of content put out by a number of different publishers, and made available through different distributors so that retailers would have options. The industry is currently structured so that retailers take most of the risk, since publishers have contractually binding orders from retailers before they ever go to print.
PH: Do you have a favourite Canadian comic book creator?
AH: We are huge fans of Dave Cooper here. And we also love Chester Brown to death. Seth is highly regarded as well. It’s hard to pick just one. Dave Sim used to be held in affection before he allowed his verbal expressions of hatred to overshadow his artistic output. Now viewed with disdain by most of his old fans, Sim is still respected for achieving something no other comic artist/writer has ever done: producing three hundred consecutive issues over a period of [almost 27 years].
PH: What writers, artists and publishers do you believe have made particularly strong contributions to the comic book industry?
AH: There are, of course, the legends – Kirby, Lee, Ditko, Binder, Beck, Buscema, Kubert, Infantino, Raymond, Caniff, etc.
I would add some unsung heroes – Gerard Jones for his wonderful history book, Men of Tomorrow, Craig Yoe for his delightful archival collections, Gary Groth and Kim Thompson for their invaluable work at Fantagraphics, the guys at Image for refocusing attention on the creators rather than the characters, Moebius for inspiring so many people in so many different ways, Dylan Williams for getting unknown but brilliant artists into print and getting them in front of an audience, Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill for Nemesis and Marshal Law.
PH: What types of products and titles are currently absent from the market that you would like to see a publisher producing for you to sell?
AH: I would love to see more educational comics. Comics are a natural medium for instructional guides as well. There is a notable absence of quality material aimed at younger readers, though that is changing. Imprints such as Graphic Universe are putting out some beautiful, low cost, kids’ adventure titles, but they are few and far between. We need a lot more material that appeals to girls and women, and to do that, we need to diversify the content and subject matter. More animal comics!
PH: Is there something that you would like potential customers to know about Cosmic Monkey Comics that has not been covered in this interview?
AH: Our success is measured by the reactions of our customers, not by our bank account. We allow animals in the store.
I’d also like to include a disclaimer of sorts to the effect that the positions I’ve expressed above are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Andy Johnson, with whom I jointly run the store. Andy had a chance to review my responses and on a number of issues he has a different perspective and would answer differently.