Major comic characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are getting a major change next month. I talk to one of Richmond’s best known comic shop owners to see how the comic business, and specifically his store, are mustering the strength to stay alive amid technology’s rampant presence.
If our lunch conversation is his norm then I need to hang out with Patrick Godfrey more often. We’re inside a bustling, but not crowded, Harrison Street Cafe one recent afternoon. With him nibbling at his food, and me nibbling at mine, we talk about the things that really keep us up at night.
Now, there was nary a mention of the country’s recently downgraded credit rating, or our respected policy ideas for the recent rebellion in Gadaffi-led Libya. No. What we do talk about is something that excites both of us to the point where food jettisons from our mouths at nearly the speed of light: the goddamn Batman.
More specifically, we discuss the progress being made on The Dark Knight Rises which has been filming in Pittsburgh. Warner Bros., the principal financier, has just that morning released the first official photograph of Catwoman, who will be played by Anne Hathaway.
Patrick, whose head is shaven with the exception of just a smidgen of what seems to be two-weeks’ growth, is a bit burly and with an almost-burly man’s beard. He received text messages from friends at 7am this morning, announcing to him their denunciation of the new costume for the feline cat-burgler depicted in the 2012 Batman sequel. They were sentiments not at all shared by the man who sits across from me.
“Why not get excited about it?” he says.
It is not a response of mere indifference. He is not a some middle-aged hopeless romantic who sees the best in things even when the worst is so omnipresent. He knows that, when the movie gets released it may suck harder than anything that’s ever sucked before. But, he’ll cross that bridge should he ever get to it.
For now we chat about our mutual excitement for the film, how the key villain, Bane, will hopefully be given respect as a character unlike the abominable celluloid that flickered across thousands of movie screens in 1997 called (shudder) Batman & Robin. Batman, and indeed comics, are having a renaissance of late. The recent Captain America film has done well with both critic and box office alike, Thor was a surprisingly enjoyable experience that featured the talents of Shakesperian greats Anthony Hopkins and director Kenneth Branaugh, X-Men: First Class rekindled the spark missing in the last mutant movie, and The Green Lantern, well…
Hollywood’s recent past has also been kind to comics. The success of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight helped make the current crop of super hero cinema timely and relevant to the cultural zeitgeist. The future is looking rather bright as well, with the much hyped The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, and Warner Bros’. second attempt to revive Superman in The Man of Steel–and these are but a few of what comic lore will provide film-goers in the coming year.
As a result, the stereotype of comic readers being nerdy, sexually-frustrated, pimple-ridden organisms is going the way of print journalism. “The stigma just isn’t there anymore,” says Patrick. “People are aware of [comics] more.”
And in the coming weeks, major comic publisher DC Comics will do something that they’ve never done before in the hopes of attracting new readers–start over. Beginning in September, 52 titles will begin with issue #1.
Let me explain.
Since the debut of the Man of Steel, Superman comics have unfolded a very unique, very fictional history. It’s a history so replete with events that, should people desire to begin reading any one of the several monthly Superman titles, they would be virtually lost. A new reader would have to figure out established and existing story arcs that make them feel as though they have plunged headlong into a foreign world.
For instance, did you know that Superman died in a 1992 storyline after battling a mysterious monster named Doomsday? He then came back (only after four other mysterious ‘heirs’ appeared). The same goes for Batman. Did you know that there have been four Robins in the Caped Crusader’s crime-fighting career? Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and most other long-lasting comic characters all have existing stories and happenings that would make a new reader think twice about what they were about to get themselves into.
Patrick and I talk about this point and about what the reboot means for those largely ignorant of the extensive history of these characters (e.g. yours truly). “I’m seeing a lot of excitement coming at me,” says the co-owner of Velocity Comics. The excitement comes from people like me who were once comic readers but for a variety of reasons faded from loyal readership. Previous attempts on my part to pick up a Batman comic made me feel as though I was beginning to watch a movie minutes before its denouement: I felt lost, overwhelmed, unable to feel like I was truly in the story. The likely thinking on DC Comics’s part is that, with a surfeit of comic movies inspiring traditionally non-comic fans to begin collecting comics (or at least consider the idea) the comic publisher needs to do all that it can to accommodate these new readers.
But as with every superhero, there is a commensurate supervillain waiting to pounce. The Joker to Batman, Lex Luthor to Superman. Comic shops like Velocity do not have a single figure that plagues them, but rather a phenomenon that is ever-strengthening: technology.
— ∮∮∮ —
February 2003, Patrick and his co-owner take over a local comic shop and re-brand it Velocity. “Owning a comic store was never a professional goal,” says Patrick over lunch at Harrison Street. He worked at a local comic shop in the late 1990’s while working towards an Illustration degree at VCU. Working part-time eventually turned into a managerial role, which ultimately turned into ownership of his very own comic shop.
“It turns out,” says Patrick of running a sustainable comic business, “we’re pretty good at it.”
The reason for the success is that he’s selling a passion of his own. I ask him how long he’s been reading comics. “Since birth,” he says, without deliberating. “I don’t know how it happened [i.e. reading comics], but it did.” His employees share this infatuation. “They have to be excited about it. It has to be a passion.” But this is not a passion merely for selling, something that the stereotypical car salesman has–comics mean something to Patrick. A great deal, in fact. So when we talk about one of his favorite comics, Scalped, he convinces me to read it. Not because he sees dollar signs hovering above me like vultures waiting for the right time to descend, but because he’s genuinely excited about the story and art, which makes me, in turn, excited about the same things. Even if I should run into him on the street in two weeks and tell him that I bought the first volume of the series, not from his store but from Amazon.com, he wouldn’t care. “So, tell me,” he would say. “What did you think of it!?!”
Amazon is only one of his direct competitors these days. The other is ComiXology, a digital distributor that has created Android and iOS apps for leading comic publishers (e.g. DC, Marvel, and Image). As part of its reboot, DC has initiated a Retailer Affiliate Program with its “digital storefront.” What this means, in layman’s terms, is that local retailers will be able to have a financial stake in digital sales. While the idea seems simple enough, existing press about the affiliate program seems a bit nebulous. So, I’m eager to ask Patrick about it, as I think that a smart, business-savvy owner of a local comic shop would be privy to information from DC Comics and ComiXology that I do not. Not so.
“I have a hard time wrapping my head around” the process, says Patrick. It seems that the noble idea of including tangible comic shops in the digital publication fold is only that: an idea. Patrick has no immediate plans to combine Velocity Comics’s presence with that of DC and ComiXology digital partnership. I assume that all this makes him nervous about the ploys of the diabolical villain, Technology, chipping away at his business model. But he’s not–he’s actually optimistic.
The next five years of digital publishing “will be good for my business.” His reasoning is this: the more available comics are to the public, the more likely they are going to venture into Velocity Comics. With the financial and critical success of comic characters over the last several years, I wonder precisely how cinematic releases affect his business. For instance, I ask him did the release of the film Captain America: The First Avenger cause a direct increase in sales of Captain America comics? He smirks and shakes his head.
“Not even a little bit.”
Most well-know characters (the Batmans, the Spider-Mans, etc.) don’t result in increased sales of that respective character’s comics at Velocity. What does promote an increase in sales, however, are the lesser-known comics that become adapted films. These include comics such as Scott Pilgrim, Hellboy, 300, Road to Perdition, etc. But this buying behavior is also indicative of Velocity’s soul.
He tells me that every comic shop has a niche, a certain identity, that distinguishes itself from other comic shops. One might be more focused on role-playing games, another on toys, and another on an extensive collection of back issues. What about Velocity?
“Velocity Comics is independently-minded,”
I can’t help but think that part of its modus-operandi stems from Velocity’s own publishing experience.
Several years ago a writing and artist “collective” got together, consisting mostly of artist friends, including Patrick. Other members of this creative cadre included Jesse Bausch and James Callahan, who collaborated on Strange Detective Tales, which was subsequently published by Velocity’s ad hoc imprint, Oddgod Press.
Another comic titled Runoff, with both art and writing done by Tom Manning caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro, well-known in both comics and Hollywood circles as an astute fan of the comic medium who adapted comic titles Blade (starring Wesley Snipes) and Hellboy to film. Before del Toro became involved in the Peter Jackson-produced The Hobbit films, he was very interested (perhaps still is) with making Runoff a feature film. The comic also earned the interest of film producer Don Murphy, who had a hand in bringing such comic stories into film format as From Hell (starring Johnny Depp) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (starring Sean Connery). The attention of what Patrick affectionately calls a “weird hotbed” also earned Patrick the opportunity to meet Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who provided a supporting blurb for Strange Detective Tales.
“Publishing,” however “is an unforgiving business,” says Patrick. The amount of time and resources it demands ultimately proved the venture nothing more than a hobby (albeit a very heartfelt one). Despite the creative success and accolades, Oddgod titles “never supported” Velocity Comics in a financial sense. Although the creative venture undoubtedly gave Patrick the chance to experience the production side of the comic business. It’s perhaps this experience that would make him more sympathetic to other comic publishers, especially those, like DC Comics, who are trying new things. I ask Patrick what the DC relaunch means to him. In numbers.
In the past, he would order no more than 50 copies of some DC titles (a few only averaged about 5 sold copies per month). The coming relaunch, however, has Patrick ordering upwards of 200 copies per title to meet the demand, an amount that Patrick says is “unprecedented.”
Seeing this as a good time to move beyond my Batman predilections, I ask Patrick which titles he’s looking forward to the most. Here’s his Top 5:
“That’s the big one,” he says about Action Comics. The series will begin roughly five years before the timeline of most of the other 52 rebooted series. The comic will re-imagine Superman’s arrival to Earth, and a public that is initially quite wary of this the first of supernatural entities to populate the planet.
When I ask him how my beloved Batman looks to fare, he says good things about the creative team that will begin working on both the new Batman and Batwoman series. I know nothing about the Batwoman character; but that’s the whole point of the reboot–to give new readers an opportunity to become familiar, and perhaps even begin to love, characters such as these.
My teenage self smiles a bit more knowing that I’m going to collect comics once again. But then the question becomes: do I subscribe through Velocity, or should I try reading comics on my new iPad? I ask Patrick what perks there are going through him. He says that Velocity Comics will offer 30% discounts to those who buy all 52 rebooted comics. “No minimum number” of comic subscriptions are required, says Patrick. No deposit needed, either. If you begin subscribing to any number of titles, even just one, you get 10% off every item you purchase in the store. If you subscribe to a comic and don’t like it, simply cancel your subscription. No obligation. No contract.
I don’t think my iPad can compete with that.