What It Means To Manage A Comic Shop

There’s a Tweet going around lately by @Gigs_and_hills that asks folks to state the most common response they receive upon telling someone what they do for a living.  It’s been really interesting to see how wildly people misinterpret all kinds of jobs — and how I have also misinterpreted them!  And it brought up the response I’ve been getting a lot lately when I say that I manage a comic shop:

“You must have the coolest job in the world!  I bet you read comics all day!”

I know there’s no malice in comments like this, but that idea is so far from my reality that I wanted to give a bit of a breakdown of what, exactly, goes into comic shop management.  A lot of it will be the same as any other retail management position, but there are certainly some….quirks in the comics retail industry!  And I’m only going to be speaking from my personal experience, as the manager of a fairly small shop (three whole employees!) in a decently big city that has a glut of excellent comic shops.

Ordering

A good deal of my job revolves around ordering, whether that’s ordering brand-new books, or reordering books that we’ve sold within the past week.  I do the former once a month, and the latter at least once a week.  I place orders across multiple distributors, including Diamond Comics Distribution, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillian, and Baker & Taylor.  Occasionally, I also place orders with individual artists or wholesalers, which is a separate process that involves more of a time investment since there isn’t necessarily a system already in place to process those orders.

Once these orders come in, I’m sometimes the person who then has to check them in, pull copies for subscribers, and put them out on the shelves.  Which brings me to the next topic…

Maintaining Subscriber Pulls

I’m lucky in that I don’t do a ton of the unpacking and processing of our weekly Diamond shipments, but there is always a good deal of subscriber maintenance to deal with.  Adding new subscribers, physically filling the pulls, getting in touch with subscribers who have lapsed, sending comics to subscribers who live a little further afield, keeping track of special orders — these are tasks that my boss and I split, but in reality we could have one employee just doing this, that’s how much work it can be.

Organizing Sales and Events

One of the simultaneously most challenging and most rewarding things I do is organizing events.  We vend at a couple conventions, the largest of which is Anime Boston.  Preparation for this starts a couple months before the actual event with ordering.  We have to assess past sales at conventions, make some educated guesses about what’s going to sell well this year, and plan out table displays.  Once the orders are placed, they have to get processed as they come into the store, which I usually do because I am intimately aware of what we’re supposed to be getting, and because I need other folks to run the register and help customers.  I’m also the one who does a good deal of the packing, though I am glad to say that I have lots of strapping young folks to help move the boxes of about 10,000 manga to and from the store!

And that’s just the ordering and selling aspect!  We have a contractor (and friend of the store!) help with organizing the volunteers, figuring out meals, scheduling breaks, and making sure I drink water and get rest.  (Bless you, Jasmine, I could not do any of this without you!)

After the cons are over, there is the job of returning all those books that we are able to and don’t need in the store (this is a project I’m working on right now, in fact).  This process means paying close attention to the inventory as it comes and goes, which is somewhat easier when you’re already doing orders once a week!

Outside of the conventions, there are other events to organize: Free Comic Book Day, in-store signings, local outreach events, sponsorships, etc.  I don’t get to just be the paperwork jockey, I have to also serve as the face of the business in many instances.

The Day-To-Day

When I’m doing all these other tasks, I don’t have a separate office.  I’m doing all this at the front counter, which means that I also have the duties of anyone else in the store: I deal with customers, give recommendations, run the register, clean the store, run the social media, and all those other menial tasks that have to get done.  Of course, I don’t have to do all this alone, and I have excellent staff who help by alleviating some of these duties — as well as assisting me with some of the others mentioned above!  There’s plenty of work to go around for everyone.  (And scheduling that staff is also one of my duties!)

I’m not going to pretend that I never read while on the job.  At the end of my work week, when I’ve finished any major tasks and it doesn’t make sense to start a new project before I’m off for two days, I will definitely get some reading done.  This is partially pleasure since I obviously love comics, but this is also a part of my job!  I need to know what we’re selling in order to be able to recommend it.  Sometimes, I’m granted advance copies of books that I read during work hours so that I can decide whether or not we should be ordering it to begin with.  (And in some cases, I will advise other retailers stock those books in my monthly newsletter.)

I don’t want to crush any dreams here — I do genuinely enjoy my job!  I get to meet awesome people all the time, I get to help promote work that I care about, and I get to be part of a really diverse creative community.  But there is a blurred line between business and pleasure when you work in the entertainment industry.  My husband and I went to Montreal last weekend for our anniversary, and I had to drag him to the Drawn & Quarterly stores.  I went as a customer and a fan, but I found my comic shop manager brain yelling at the back of my head saying things like “check out this display, this is a good idea!” or “we already stock this, right?”  I read a lot for pleasure, but a good chunk of that reading is manga, which is very relevant to our shop in particular.  I have to be very careful about burning out or being overwhelmed by every aspect of my life being overtaken by my job.  It can be a challenge!

So in short: No, as a comic shop manager, I don’t get to read comics all day.  There’s a lot of labor involved in keeping a comic shop chugging along, especially in the age of the Internet.  And while not every comic shop employee will have to do all of these tasks, there’s a chance that they will have a hand in some of them, even if they’re not involved in management.  Unless you work for a large store with a lot of upper management, a shop will need all hands to balance as many plates as possible.  This is the nature of small business!

When all is said and done, I take pride in the work that I do, and I know that I’m good at it.  I think that’s perhaps more rewarding than being able to just read all day — though I honestly wouldn’t mind having more time for that, as well!

LadiesCon 2018, Women in Comics, and Community Engagement

This past weekend, I tabled for the store at LadiesCon, an annual event organized by the Ladies of Comicazi.  As can probably be surmised from the name, this community event (free and open to the public!) focuses on the many non-cisgender-men who work in comics in some capacity.  The featured guests this year were Marjorie Liu, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle, and Kristen Gudsnuk.  I even got to be on two panels!  “Women In Comics Retail,” which I’ve been on a couple times before, and “Manga and the Women Who Make It,” which I debuted there with my good friend Juliet Kahn.

Here in the Boston area, we’re really spoiled when it comes to the comics community.  We have many excellent comic shops, all of whom staff women.  And not only do we have the incredible, and incredibly important, LadiesCon, but we also play host the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), which is also family-friendly, free, and open to the public (and which this year is featuring, among others, the young reader powerhouse creators Vera Brosgol and Tillie Walden).

One of my favorite aspects of these shows is that they always remind me of the Artist’s Alley at an anime convention: full of passionate people of all genders, colors, and creeds who have come together to share their work with like-minded fans.  Anime cons have always been some of the queerest, most diverse spaces I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of, and it’s very gratifying to see that kind of representation making itself known to the general, curious public.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community aspect of comics lately.  To the outside observer, it can seem quite divisive — and it certainly can be!  I know how lucky I am and have been to encounter mostly kind, open-minded individuals in this space who trust my judgment and who believe in uplifting instead of shooting down.  I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have friends within the comics community who have been able to share in my joys and commiserate when I encounter those aspects of comics that aren’t as pleasant.

In somewhat related news, for those of you who don’t follow my various social media maneuverings, I finally sent the first Manga Maven Monthly email, which you can find here.  The response to this project has been very positive, even when I was just making super-long Facebook posts in various retailer groups.  It’s very validating to have people you really respect, who have been working in comics retail a long time, sincerely thank you for your suggestions and talk about how they have positively influenced their businesses.  It’s been really great to feel that, if nothing else, here is at least one thing I know I’m doing well.  So thank you to everyone who has signed up!  I hope to keep giving you fruitful suggestions for a long time!

Monthly Manga Mailing

I have some exciting news to share with everyone today!  Part of my job is to advise fellow comics retailers on which manga they might be interested in stocking in their stores.  Because the demand for this service has gotten so high and is causing me to cross-post in several groups, I’ve decided to create a mailing list!  While it will be geared toward comic shop retailers, certainly anyone who would like to see my monthly thoughts on upcoming titles is welcome to sign up.  I just ask that everyone bear with me as I slowly learn how to use MailChimp to its fullest potential, haha.  The link to sign up is here, and I’ll be posting it in several locations over the course of today so that it reaches everyone who might want it!

In other news, I haven’t written much lately, but I assure you all that I’ve been reading a ton.  I’ve been on a bit of a shojo romcom kick lately; I read seven volumes of Waiting For Spring the other day, and have slowly been working my way through High School Debut.  I’m not sure why, but every now and then I just feel the need to read something sweet and positive, and shojo romances really fill that requirement for me.

My last post was a review of a middle reader graphic novel that isn’t a manga.  This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned manga (obviously), but I do want to mention that I probably will be doing more non-manga reviews in the future.  I believe that middle reader and young adult graphic novels are among the best (and best-selling) graphic works right now, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, especially as so many of them have been influenced by manga and are being read alongside manga.  Media, after all, does not exist in a bubble.  Works for young audiences are important right now, creating many new readers and strengthening visual literacy.

And that’s all to report right now!  Just some little updates to tide you over until I post again — or until you sign up for my regular emails!

Ghosts & Grief: A Sheets Review

I’m a sucker for friendly ghost stories.  As a kid, I was desperate to meet a ghost, dragging my best friend through her 300+ year-old house with a tape recorder ready to catch some EVP or find cold spots.  I was also raised by my single mother and my tailor grandparents — so Brenna Thummler’s new middle reader graphic novel, Sheets, speaks to me on many levels.

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Marjorie Glatt has recently lost her mother, and with her father overwhelmed by grief and depression, she is left to manage the family’s laundromat all on her own.  Between that, her school obligations, her little brother, and their overbearing neighbor Mr. Saubertuck, Marjorie feels overwhelmed and adrift. Similarly adrift, a ghost named Wendell wanders into the Glatt Laundromat after his escape from the Land of Ghosts.  Prone to mischief, Wendell turns the laundromat upside down one night, hardly endearing himself to Marjorie, who very much does not believe in ghosts. But with Mr. Saubertuck putting the pressure on Marjorie to give up her family’s land in order for him to build his new spa, Wendell and his fellow ghosts might be her only hope of keeping the business…afloat.

It is no secret that being a young teen is difficult; the chaos and uncertainty of puberty are exacerbated when a child is thrown into a tragedy like the death of a parent, or a divorce, or a debilitating illness.  But while we try to shield our children from the harm of the world, we cannot prevent every bad thing from occurring. I sometimes hear complaints about media that depict untrustworthy adults, but the reality is that there are plenty of adults — even ones who mean well — who are not always up to the task of making things work so that their children don’t have to suffer.  Sheets portrays that relationship well, with Marjorie’s father very clearly caring about his children only as far as his depression will allow; and those who have ever suffered from depression, whether chronic or episodic, will relate to the empty numbness that Mr. Glatt experiences.

Despite the heavy material, this book is not a downer!  Thummler’s artwork conjures up the wonder of childhood autumns, each page reminiscent of faded photo memories.  The action switched between the real world and the Land of Ghosts with a simple palette shift. The ending is positive without feeling saccharine, as the themes of grief, fantasy, and friendship are all tied together.  A satisfying, engaging read that takes about as long as doing a load of laundry, perfect for the kid whose best friend is a ghost, or who would like some not-too-scary reading material for the Halloween season.

Sheets, by Brenna Thummler, is now available in print from Lion Forge.

“I’m Just A Gun-Totin’ Weather Girl”

[HEADS UP: There are some very minor spoilers for the Cowboy Bebop series in this piece, so if that sort of thing bothers you I don’t recommend reading this!]

Cowboy Bebop is one of those series that literally every dude between the ages of 25-35 tries to recommend to every casual nerd. It has the distinction of being one of the best examples of anime, and of dubbed anime, from a very specific point in time, so people latch on to it as a classic and insist on acting completely scandalized when someone hasn’t seen it or doesn’t like it.

It’s that kind of behavior that I’ve mentioned before that I completely hate. And yet…I love Bebop. In fact, I recently convinced my coworker to watch the whole series — not because I told him he had to! But because he’s been enjoying noir comics lately, and I thought some of the themes would scratch a similar itch for him. He’s enjoying it thus far, I’m happy to report.

In general, I’m content to leave my discussions about Bebop in the past, or among like-minded friends. But on Thursday I had the incredible experience of being able to see the movie in theatres, and I can’t stop reflecting on how much I enjoyed it. I’ve seen the movie before, of course, but when it first hit US shores, it wasn’t in any theatres near me. At age 13, living in the middle of Connecticut, there was no option for me to see it that didn’t involve a multi-hour trip to either New York or Boston. I was heartbroken.

But I was finally able to live out my dream. I bought my ticket nearly a month in advance, I got to the theatre early, I bought way too much popcorn for way too much money, and I had an excellent time of it.

Before the movie, instead of endless previews or ads for other events, there was a short Q&A session with the dub voice actors. It lasted maybe ten or fiifteen minutes, but it was a nice little reintroduction to the characters and the movie specifically. It was amazing to hear how the VAs didn’t really alter their voices overmuch for their dub performances, so that these incredibly recognizable voices were coming out of the mouths of people I’ve seen before, but less frequently than their animated counterparts. Getting the little bit of background, and learning about the excitement of the actors to have worked on this project, definitely helped set the mood for the feature presentation.

Cowboy Bebop‘s opening sequence and song, “Tank!” are iconic at this point; for me, so too is the opening credit roll of the film, with its black and white panorama of Martian city life (that always struck me as looking a lot like New York City life). Whole books have been written about Yoko Kanno’s scoring prowess, and the entire Bebop OST is a musical masterpiece; but I do especially love the movie soundtrack and the film’s sanguine opener, “Ask DNA.” This series is one that is based firmly around music and mood — as themes, not just as enhancements to the story. The film is no different.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door takes place before the end of the series, but after we have already been introduced to all the core cast. The crew of the Bebop is on Mars, following small-fry bounties and trying to keep themselves from starving. Spike and Jet go after some small-time convenience store robbers, while Faye ropes Ed into tracking down info on a hacker. Everything goes sideways when Faye witnesses a terrorist bombing and Mars is suddenly beseiged by a completely inexplicable viral warfare.

As our intrepid heroes dive further and further into this case, they have to untie the threads of military experimentation, memory loss, doomed romance, global terrorism, and a crooked pharmaceutical company. It seems like a lot, but it all comes together in a seamless tapestry, peppered with the usual humor and a lot of really adorable jack-o-lanterns.

There was a practice, when I was young, of hating female characters in anime because their presence either got in the way of your gay ships, or got in the way of your two-dimensional love interests. Faye Valentine is a ripe subject for this, an easy target in her tiny yellow outfit, with her gambling vice and her vanity. But something always prevented me from hating her outright, and it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I realized I actually really love her. In the film, she’s the first person to witness Vincent Volaju’s terrorist attack; she’s the one who takes the initiative to go after the bounty; and she’s the one who remains defiant in an otherwise hopeless situation. It is poignant, we later realize, that she should be the one to have a conversation with Vincent about lost memories — a touch that I’m not sure I had noticed until this most recent viewing. She is a stark contrast to Spike’s Julia, the perfect, mild-mannered (though disloyal) woman who also happens to look good in a catsuit.

The movie reminds me, also, that the things I like best about Cowboy Bebop are all the things that don’t directly involve Spike’s eyeroll-worthy hang-up about his girlfriend and his best friend having a shag. I love the adventure, the puzzle-solving, the use of music, the references to old film, the late-90s vision of a terraformed future, the comedy, the comraderie…the things that set Cowboy Bebop apart are the ways in which it defies the conventions of science-fiction while placing it self firmly within that boundary. There is a sort of self-aware pseudo-philosophical thread running through everything, including the movie, that feels more like a nod to the spaghetti westerns of a bygone era than an actual moral the audience is expected to believe. But it’s such a loving and respectful nod that it makes the heroism of those once-worshipped cowboys seem worthy of consideration.

I don’t really expect every anime fan to lose their minds about Cowboy Bebop these days, not when there’s such a wealth of animated media at everyone’s fingertips, and new and incredible works are being made all the time. But I’m glad, once again, to have watched it when it was still so fresh and new, and to be able to feel so strongly about it even to this day. No matter what I say, I can’t deny that I’m completely taken in every time I hear those first audacious horns blasting, that deep base thrumming over the James Bond-esque opening sequence. I’m completely taken in by the warmth of the cel animation, the absurd theatricality of film references and seamless blending of old film genres. And damn it if I’m not a sucker for every episode’s distinct musical theme.

Also, Cowboy Bebop is like…the one anime my mom would occasionally catch snippets of an genuinely enjoy, so that’s gotta be good for something, right?

Some Brief Thoughts On Writing

Hello, everyone! SO sorry that I haven’t written for a while. I was away visiting family last weekend, and then I became very busy with both my day job and the review work that I do on the side. As such, I haven’t had much time to read any manga! My husband and I have made our way through most of the Wotakoi anime, though, and it’s so good…definitely going to be disappointed when we finish.

I had a great time on the Manga Machinations podcast a couple weeks back. If you haven’t had a chance to check that out, I’d urge you again to find the episode at mangamachinations.tumblr.com. I’ve been on panels at conventions several times in the past, so doing a podcast was a bit similar…but it was definitely novel to be the center of attention!

Despite not updating here, I have been doing a great deal of writing, both personal and professional, and thinking a lot about how much I enjoy it. I’ve always liked writing, and my parents and teachers and peers always made a point of telling me I was good at it. But for a long time, I fretted over whether or not I was good enough. These days, I worry less about that and more about getting thoughts down onto paper (or computer screen), and I do feel that I’m able to convey what I mean to say more often than not.

I mentioned that I do paid review work; it’s uncredited, so I don’t have the ability to claim it as my own. But this kind of very structured writing, while I initially thought of it as a chore, has actually been very good for me. It allows me to separate out writing as a tool and writing as an art. I like being creative and writing creative reviews here, but it’s also important to be able to practice brevity and clarity that my personal writing might eschew for more whimsy or flair.

Basically, I love writing and I’d like to do more of it. My life being what it is right now, I don’t know how likely that is; but if I could find more paid writing work (which also gives me a byline…), I would find a way to make it work.

I’m happier when I’m writing. It took me a long time to remember that fact — that I used to write not to be good at it, but because I enjoyed it. In any practice, it’s hard to remember that we often start with joy, and then get bogged down by the need to excel. (I draw, as well, and this is a major problem for me in that arena.) There is no one person who is the best at anything. It’s hard to not compare yourself to others, but its important to only mark your progress against yourself. Doing otherwise will only result in angst…and it prevented me from writing for many years.

Anyway, soon my schedule should go more or less back to normal and I’ll be able to talk about manga again, instead of waxing poetic about my feelings. 😛

Happy Monday, and I hope you all have a great week ahead of you!

Eisner Follow-Up & Podcast Announcement

As I’m sure amny of you remember, when voting for the Eisner Awards opened up, I had some complaints about the manga nominees — not because they weren’t worthy, but because I didn’t think they really reflected what manga readers cared most about. I stand by everything I said in that post; I think a lot of improvements need to be made in regards to manga’s position in the Western comics world. However, on the whole I have to say that I’m very pleased with the results of the award ceremony.

Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband won the “Best Adaptation of International Material – Asia” category…and while all the nominees were outstanding in their own ways, I think this is the book I most wanted to win. (I didn’t vote for it; I wrote in Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, but I knew that winning would have been a long shot.) It’s not necessarily my favorite manga in the nominee lineup (I’m an enormous Junji Ito fan, so Shiver would probably claim that role), but I do think it is the most important, and the most indicative of a shift in the comics-reading demographic. Which is to say, queer folks have always been reading and making comics, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged.

In fact, many queer folks, women, and creators of color were acknowledged at this year’s award ceremony. I won”t go too deep into the non-manga awards here, but I was extremely pleased to see a lot of my favorite creators and books given the acknowledgement I never dreamed the comics industry would provide. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.

The Akira boxset won two awards, as well! Readers will probably note from my last post that I have a boxset of my very own, and I can’t possibly overstate how incredibly beautiful its presentation is. I don’t always agree with Kodansha’s printing choices (about half of their titles are oversize right now, which makes them hell to shelve), but this is one notable time where they did no wrong. I’m glad to see that it’s been in high enough demand that it’s gone to second print!

I think, though, that the highlight for me was to see Rumiko Takahashi, the most successful and one of the most influential women in comics, finally inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. As Deb Aoki, comics critic extraordinaire (@debaoki on Twitter!), mentioned: having some random American award probably isn’t that big a deal to Takahashi, a woman already festooned with awards, accolades, and a great deal of ongoing market value. But it is an important step for the often very Euro-centric or otherwise cloistered Western comics community to honor a mangaka — and a woman mangaka, at that. That she was a write-in winner warms my heart immensely. It’s exciting to note that Viz Media just announced they’ll be reprinting Urusei Yatsura, as well, so now a new generaton of fans can be similarly inspired by some of Takahashi’s early work!

Eisner stuff aside, I also wanted to mention that later today I’ll be recording content for the 200th episode of the Manga Machinations podcast! They approached me a couple months ago asking if I’d be willing to join them, and it’s been a lot of fun chatting back and forth and listening to some of their past work. They have had the opportunity to host translator Jocelyne Allen twice, and I highly recommend listening to those episodes if you haven’t already. You can find Manga Machinations on Twitter (@MangaMacPodcast) and on Tumblr (mangamachinations.tumblr.com). The 200th episode goes up tomorrow, Monday, July 23rd. I hope you’ll give it a listen; you’ll get a little bit of background about me, my job, and my feelings about josei and LGBTQ+ manga!