It’s been awhile since I’ve agreed to do an interview but when the fine folks at ComicBook.com reached out to do a feature on the Isotope recently I jumped at the opportunity to talk to the people from one of my all-time favorite comic news sites. Columnist Chase Magnett did not disappoint and sent me some of the best questions I’ve gotten in years!
The creative juices started flowing and Chase and I ended up with a pretty extensive interview going about comics, the Isotope, and the funnybook industry. The interview ended up being pretty far beyond the scope of the intended feature… so we’re doing a team-up! You can check out the great store feature over on ComicBook.com and also the full interview Chase and I did here.
FEATURE: Isotope Store Spotlight on ComicBook.com
Once you’ve read that check out our full interview after the picture of Kirsten…
How do you characterize the goal of your shop and has that changed from when it was established?
I opened the Isotope back in 2001 (along with Isotope co-owner Kirsten Baldock) with a simple, elegant mission statement — to represent comics to the world as the revolutionary art form that it is.
16 years ago I was bartending in these gorgeous swanky bars, buying lots of comics and loving where the industry had evolved to. As a life-long comic fan I followed that evolution in the pages of the books I collected and read. I loved seeing where it was heading and thinking about where it had the potential to go in the future. I followed it all. From my early comic reading years of both the vintage stuff and the Jim Shooter era of Marvel, the early years of Fantagraphics and Slave Labor Graphics and the black and white indie comics explosion, the dawn of comics’ British Invasion and the creation of Vertigo, the birth of the graphic novel industry, the mini-comics revolution, the first Manga reprints for Americans, the creation of Image Comics and up to the creator-owned tsunami that was only just beginning back then… I thought it was glorious what American comics had become. How diverse they were. How talented the creators were. And how exciting where we might be going was. The potential was awesome.
But at the dawn of the new millennium, the place that I thought the comics industry was falling short of potential was in the stores. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of great stores already and particularly here in the San Francisco Bay Area. But they were just… stores. I wanted to see the comic store evolve into swanky lounges, sexy galleries, schools and workshops for the next generation. Why hadn’t anyone created a comic store that was specifically made to act as tour guide for all these new readers coming in? Why were the stores ignoring women customers? Why weren’t they as much art gallery and a cultural meeting place as a shop, that celebrated the artform like it was ART? That really frustrated Kirsten and I. And so we finally just decided to do it ourselves.
So representing comics to the world as the revolutionary art form that it is, that’s the mission statement. That was our goal when we first opened the front door and remains our goal five thousand, seven hundred and fifty some-odd days later.
What do you think the most interesting aspect of your store’s history is?
Over the years I guess I’m most proud of our support for new creators. For 10 years we hosted the Isotope Award For Excellence In Mini-Comics, which celebrated the art of handmade xerox comics and gave us an excuse to help promote one of the more unsung corners of the comics industry. Over that decade we helped half a dozen creators find their first publishers and also gave out the sexiest trophy the comics industry has ever seen. Eventually the project kind of ran its course with creators having so many options to get their work out to the world now since the rise of webcomics, digital publishing, and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. But who knows? maybe we’ll bring the Isotope Award back in a new form sometime.
More recently, well we started in 2011 so I guess that’s not very recent anymore, we started the Isotope University to teach new creators how to make comics. We’ve had some pretty incredible folks teaching classes here, Ed Luce (WUVABLE OAF), Alex Woolfson (YOUNG PROTECTORS) and the legendary Devin Grayson who wrote probably the best BATMAN comics of the 1990s.
Last year we started working with the San Francisco Girl Scouts with our teacher Kelly Martin (DOCTOR LOLLIPOP) and seeing those girls get so excited to be making comics of their own honestly brings a tear to my eye whenever I think about it.
So to me that’s the most interesting part. Over the years lots of famous comic creators got their start right here at the Isotope, we’ve inspired a lot of really talented people, and we’ve gotten to help a lot of new creators get started. It’s made a real impact on the landscape of the industry and that’s a legacy I’m really happy to have.
What is one thing your store does that sets it apart from others?
What sets the Isotope apart is that taking a different approach to comics retail is just in the DNA of the store. If you’ve studied chemistry you’ll know that an isotope is a element, just like any other element, but with a molecular difference that makes it much more dynamic (and we all know that radioactivity creates superheroes). That’s how we approach what we define as a “comic store.” Yes, it sounds corny, but the Isotope is different on a molecular level.
We opened the Isotope so that I, personally, could help people find the right comics to read… if you go to the Isotope you’re going to find me there doing just that. I work the shop and run the register almost every single day of the week. And I’ve worked almost every single one of those five thousand, seven hundred and fifty some-odd days we’ve been open. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been reading comics for 5 days or 50 years, I’m here to find you something that you will love. That’s what I do.
I should say that the Isotope isn’t going to be the perfect store for everybody. We don’t sell toys, Pokemon cards, t-shirts, DVDs, key chains or Doctor Who socks. I like those things, I’m wearing some Doctor Who socks at this very minute, but that’s just not what we do. And we don’t sell vintage comics or variant cover editions or books about comics.
We carry new comics, graphic novels and mini-comics. And that’s it. That is the beauty of it. We sell comics! We sell graphic novels! We sell mini-comics!
And if you come into the shop and ask, I’ll help you find the perfect comic or mini-comic or graphic novel for you.
How would you characterize your current reader base and has that changed in the past 10 years?
There’s a MASSIVE new culture for comics right now. And we’ve had some seriously explosive growth over that past decade. Probably 60% of my customers these days are people who have been reading graphic novels for less than 5 years. It’s astounding!
I think it was initially caused by creators and publishers just making great new stuff, and then new shops like mine taking a new approach to welcoming new people into our world. People will always gravitate towards things that are good, and honest, and created with true passion. And that is absolutely the kind of comics that are being made right now. Good, honest, passionate art. From there the media discovered what was happening, and then the Hollywood executives. Digital distribution has been incredible for bringing new people into the industry too, so thanks for that David and John and all the folks at Comixology, who have made standing at the point where digital and analog meet both simple and synergistic. The past 10 years have been everything the most optimistic and forward-thinking of us could have hoped for, and so much more. And as long as my industry keeps making wonderful things it will keep growing and growing.
With all these new people coming into the industry as both readers and creators… it really is the most fun thing ever to be working in comics right now.
What are the most important elements in creating a successful comic store and community to you? How do you make this happen at your store?
The most important thing in any business is you have to have a vision, endless passion, the tenacity to see it through despite all odds, and most of all you really have to LOVE IT. You have to love it so hard that your love for what you do seeps from your every pore and infects everything around you.
Look, you’re going to put everything into bringing your business to life. Every day, every dollar, every dream. So give it your all. And aim high. Make it revolutionary! Make it legendary! Make it gorgeous! Make it take people’s breath away! Set the bar for yourself insanely high and just keep jumping for it. With everything you have. Every single day. And never forget to raise everyone around you up with you. Inspire them and support them to achieve their wildest dreams.
Next, now that you’ve built your dream and you’re helping others to do the same, you have the spark of a great community. Even if you don’t know it yet, you’ve already got people talking about it and checking the scene out. And now you’ve got to *entertain* them!
Go ahead and do everything and anything that sounds fun. Give people a reason to pull themselves away from their Netflix and give them something to be excited about. Throw a launch party, start a comic store bowling league, do a comic art jam with the local artists, invite in a classroom of kids, take a busload of people to Great America with a comic creator, do a wine and cheese and comics pairing. Whatever sounds fun is worth doing. We’ve done so many of those things and so many other ridiculous ideas. Have some fun with it!
Just last weekend I had the Marvel Studios folks in to promote the DOCTOR STRANGE movie and give out lots of free swag to my customers. I’m a lifelong fan of the character so I thought that would be a fun thing to do. But why stop there? So we also had in Devin Grayson, the author of the recently released DOCTOR STRANGE: THE FATE OF DREAMS novel, and also Mia Mardikian, the developer of the PACIFIC RIM TAROT DECK to do free tarot readings for people. Really magical, our customers loved it and I had a fun time too.
There are no limits to the kind of crazy, creative ideas you can invent to entertain your community and you shouldn’t be shy about trying all of them. You’re not working a factory line, this is the *comics* business and the comics business should be full of art and ideas and fun! If you’ve been reading comics all your life you probably have a hundred cool ideas that no one else has done yet already bouncing around in your head. Excellent! Do those! Do all of those! If you are passionate about your ideas, committed to making your community something special, and are raising the hopes and dreams of those around you, people will hear about your community and want to be part of it.
And remember… comic readers are wonderfully loyal to the books they love and the shops they frequent. So give them a shop they can be proud of. If you’re building your business remember that it’s low-class to try to build your customer base by poaching customers from other shops. Build your own customer base by targeting the customers everyone else is ignoring. And make them the greatest customer base the comics industry has ever seen.
That’s how to build the kind of successful comics community that you can truly be proud of.
What do you expect from the future of your store?
Honestly, I’m mostly just looking forward to getting to put more good comics in cool people’s hands. It’s really the best thing. And tomorrow I’ll be doing just that!
But on a more macro scale… I want to continue to do more crazy collaborations with more wildly creative comic people. I want to share more knowledge with more future comic creating superstars. I want to inspire more little kids and big kids to make amazing comics and follow their wildest dreams just like I have. I want to teach the Girl Scouts and the Retirement Homes and the Automobile Clubs and the Steel Workers Unions and the Whomever Elses how to tell their stories through comics. I want to make more friends with more people through our shared love of comics. I want to express more unique ideas and watch them grow far beyond my control until they’re something that just everyone does because that’s just how it is done now. I want to continue finding new ways to spread the love of comics with the people out there who I know would like them if they only had the right book or the right tour guide.
And I want to read more amazing comics! And then I just want to help people find the right ones for them.
Could you share a favorite story about the toilet lid art? I’m particularly fond of this great collection.
Haha! The Isotope is home to the world famous Comic Rockstars Toilet Seat Museum, which features original art from comic creators from all over the planet. A few of our most recent additions to the museum are lids from Greg Rucka (WONDER WOMAN), Bryan Lee O’Malley (SCOTT PILGRIM), Gabriel Bá (UMBRELLA ACADEMY), Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen (THE WICKED + THE DIVINE), Brian K Vaughan (SAGA). The museum itself was started kind of by accident by Isotope pal Rick Remender (TOKYO GHOST) and a slightly alcohol-infused Brian Wood (NORTHLANDERS). Since we require the creators to come into the Isotope to get a lid, each one tends to have a great, personal story behind it. And I’ll tell you, it’s a very funny thing to see all the unexpected places that museum ends up getting featured. It’s a staple of French guidebooks, it’s been profiled by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and had a huge write-up in a recent Singapore Airlines in-flight magazine, which always cracks me up to think about!
There are way too many hilarious stories to share about this museum, but…
My personal favorite story relating to this museum is from when we first had our dear friend Darwyn Cooke (DC: THE NEW FRONTIER) in for an event. Dar and Marsha and Kirsten and I all hit it off so great. We painted the town red and closed the bars every night while they were here. And in all the madness and fun of that week I totally forgot to offer Darwyn Cooke a lid! Of course, those folks who know Dar won’t be surprised to hear this at all, he called me a couple weeks later to give me a hard time about it. (laugh)!
Later, when Darwyn was drawing PARKER: THE HUNTER, we went and stayed with them on vacation for a week. The Cookes had rented this great little bungalow near Tampa to escape the snow and to soak up some of that vintage west shore Florida vibe. You can definitely feel it in the work, that whole Don CeSar Beach House style comes through his art, especially in that first PARKER book. Anyway, one morning while we were staying there… Darwyn surprised me by presenting me with this *gorgeous* CATWOMAN art on a toilet lid! Dar laughed with a wicked grin and pointed, “Hey… have fun being the weird guy carrying a *toilet lid* on the airplane back to California!”
You would not believe the crazy looks I got going through airport security with that thing! And people stopping me to ask why I was walking around with a toilet seat in my hands! Pretty much every single employee of the Tampa airport had something to say about it. Can you imagine what it’s like to try to get lunch at the airport bar and having that thing with you?! So funny. (LAUGH) Oh man, do I miss Darwyn! ((raises a glass))