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The Other Side of the Counter

A look at the noncreative side of the comic book industry with Kevin Drennan

July 15, 2016, 7:05 pm
Big Adventure Comics' Kevin Drennan doesn't read as many comics as he used to, but he'll get you where you need to go.

It's a little past 10 am, and Kevin Drennan, the owner of Big Adventure Comics, is dealing with the air conditioner repairman, talking on the phone with his bank about their new system and trying not to keep me waiting. "You should write about this right here," he calls to me across the store as I peruse the thousands of titles on his shelves. "This is the reality of small business." He's not wrong, but still—owning a comic book shop is a dream come true for Drennan. He bought the business in 2009-2010 and has owned and operated it ever since. And though he probably won't be buying a mansion anytime soon, Drennan does take joy in knowing that he's slowly but surely built Big Adventure into the market-owning powerhouse it is; if you're looking for comics in Santa Fe, this is the guy to see. For our cover story this week, we looked at some of the local and not-so-local comics creators who work their asses off daily for the love of art, but there's another side of the coin—the shops. Like a modern-day Agora, the comics shop serves as business, meeting place and sanctuary for those who revel in the medium, and Drennan's expert curation is matched only by his position as knowledgable and approachable comic book guy; you won't find the stereotypical Simpsons-esque asshole owner here; rather, Drennan knows his stuff and also wants to serve you while sharing his lifelong love of comics.

In the cover story (SFR, July 13: Excelsior!), I asked your employee, Bram Meehan, about how comics have fared alongside the rise of the superhero movie. What's your take?
In general, we'll say there's very little correlation between the movies and sales. I see them more like marketing for the industry. What we'll get is a lapsed reader who used to have a pull list or come by weekly ... they'll see Civil War, and it'll remind them to come back and dabble. Or we'll see the movies spark a new reader, like, we'll have a young woman come in, or young adults or whatever, and like everything in marketing, 1 percent of those people will ultimately stick. That's not me being cynical, that's just what it is. But now, with the movies, that 1 percent is out of a much larger number of people. Some just dabble then go away again; some of them we are able to develop a personal relationship with.

A personal relationship?
I use those words very intentionally, because that's our whole deal here—developing relationships. People want that from a comics shop. It's one of the things that surprised me when I bought the business and started in and coming to work every day. ... I knew the personal relationships were important, but I was surprised at how it's actually necessary to build a clientele. So it's like, the movies get them in the shop, and that's really when we go to work. I know it can be overwhelming [Drennan motions to his stock, of which there is so much], it can be hard to know where to begin, so we've got work to do at that point. For some people, it can be too much, and they don't want to talk to us a bunch, or they're overwhelmed by what they see, but we've built our market one customer at a time over the years. The movies bring us candidates; we build that personal relationship.

And you practically own your market, at least as far as Santa Fe is concerned?
The way I've come to look at it is like we're a niche independent bookstore. We'll look more and more like a bookstore each year. Now, we'll always have a full line of monthly comics, but trades and graphic novels are what's growing. People can read a collection of the six most recent Spider-Man, and they don't have to come into the shop every week. From our side of the counter, it can be scary or overwhelming. We're on this journey with the customer, and that's how we can be different than a Hasting's or an Amazon. Curating the collection becomes super-important. We want to be the kind of shop that carries indies, for example, and if we went just by the financial reports, we wouldn't carry some of the stuff we carry. So maybe we take a little hit on the business side of things, but I'm not doing this to make money, I'm doing this because I want to do something I care about.

Are you concerned at all about digital distribution models?
I was totally concerned in the beginning, but I've adopted the same attitude as with the movies. Digital is like more marketing for comics as a medium. Sure, we might lose a couple, but I bet we gain a couple. I don't have a strong sense for the numbers in the digital world. As far as a I know, nobody is reporting the numbers. Regardless, I think it's additive and can bring customers to the brick-and-mortar because maybe they want to know more than they're getting online, maybe they want to talk to a person.

Are you a lifelong fan as well?
I've been reading comics since I was 11, 12 years old. I do have a bit of a collection, but I was always more of a reader than collector. That's kind of the sensibility from which I operate the store. I think that if we don't make new readers, the industry is in trouble.

Right, there's that difference between experiencing the escapism of the story and just buying comics to collect them.
I think a lot of parents want their kids to enjoy and appreciate reading the way they do, and with all the competition from screens, I think they're concerned, and rightly so. We get a lot of parents to introduce them to reading from the comics shop and ... if there's any one thing I'm trying to do in the market, it's that. And I don't want to say collecting is bad, but there are people who, when they look at comics, they see it as a collecting or value enterprise. I have a guy who's coming in to pick up the new DC Rebirth stuff—do you know about that? DC rebooted their universe recently, and they're calling it Rebirth—and he's not reading them. He's buying them for his grandson, putting them in plastic bags, and I guess he thinks it's a value thing. And that's fine! There's all these different views on comics. So how do we satisfy both the collector and the reader? I think the publishers are struggling with that, and again, there is nothing wrong with being a collector, I'd just personally rather they read the book. I think they'll be a better customer in the long run. Sometimes the publishers waste all this time responding to collector hijinks in the market, and they want their comics to have value.

Do you think we're in a bubble again? Like in the late '80s-early '90s when everyone was buying up all the comics and thinking they were going to be crazy valuable, and then they flooded the market and ruined it?
I don't see we're in a bubble in terms of collectibility, and I may not be seeing everything from that side because we're a store that wants to emphasize reading, so there may be some aspects we're not seeing. I think, yes, there's a bubble, but more like an interest bubble instead of financial bubble. We've seen more readers come in from different demographics than we ever have before. There are more women and gay people coming in to check out comics. They're seeing themselves represented in comics by both creators and characters, and the companies are trying to be more diverse. Like Ms. Marvel is a Middle-Eastern teenager, or when they redid Batgirl, they went to a younger version with more cartoony art; I think we're in a bubble in that we don't have the same number of readers now reading those titles as when they first popped, so it's like an information bubble: These things get really hot on social media, the books soar, then they come down a bit. 

You sell locally produced comics as well, yeah?
We do! We have a local shelf, and really I want to start doing better with it and having more stuff. That's a good thing for people to know, that they can bring in their creations for us to check out. We've gotta support local in our business and in our town. We hear that a lot, but the point is that if you like having a bookstore in your town that is independent and important for you and has value for you, you need to patronize that business. In a capitalistic democracy like ours, the only vote that truly counts is in your wallet.

 

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