Friday, August 15, 2014

Death Ray Comics

Posted By on August 15, 2014, 6:20 PM

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While we metropolitan city geeks take for granted the idea that we have multiple comic book shops and resources to find whatever we like, sometimes we forget we're merely in the the biggest small cities in the west. We're surrounded by dozens of smaller towns who have to rely on pharmacies and random locations to get their monthly fix of fascinating stories, and take for granted the idea that if one shop isn't to your liking or is out of something, you got a dozen different options. Which is what makes shops like Death Ray Comics in Logan so important as they not only supply smaller cities with comics and other merchandise, they can become a cultural centerpiece like this shop has. Today we interview Trent Hunsaker, head operator of the shop and all-around awesome dude, to talk about his shop and the impact it's has in his town. (All pictures courtesy of Death Ray Comics.)

Trent Hunsaker (right, with Kevin Smith, left)
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DeathRayComics.com

Gavin: Hey Trent, first thing, tell us a bit about yourself.

Trent: Well, I grew up in Wyoming, just south of Jackson, in a small community called Star Valley. I've been in Logan since 2005. I'm a co-host on NetHeads and I own and operate Death Ray Comics.

Gavin: What first got you interested in comics as a kid?

Trent: A combination of looking up to my older brother who was steeped in comics and watching Batman: The Animated Series (when our TV's antenna could pick it up) and the X-Men: Pride of the X-Men VHS I purchased through Scholastic Reader – which was a catalog from the publisher Scholastic, handed out to students in my elementary school. Actually the Scholastic Reader was one of the only ways to get a lot of all-ages media in that rural community at the time.

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Gavin: What were some of your favorite titles growing up?

Trent: Oh man, whatever I could get my hands on. There wasn't a comic shop where I lived, so I was at the mercy of the drug store which surprisingly did have a comic book rack. I've always been a Marvel guy. Growing up I was all about Ghost Rider, Wolverine, Uncanny X-Men and all the Spider-Man titles. But I also loved Kyle Rayner as the Green Lantern. OH! And MAD Magazine.

Gavin: Coming from rural and smaller cities, how did you get a hold of comics?

Trent: The local drug store was pretty much the only place for comic books. A subscription wasn't even an option, since the drug store didn't even do the ordering for the comics; a magazine vendor brought everything in and picked up what they didn't sell. The only sure title that I could count on was MAD, and I picked that up regularly at the grocery store. I'll bet that stacked in the attic at my parents house I've got every single MAD Magazine from 1992 - 2002. But being in a rural area meant that trips to the "big cities" of Idaho Falls, Logan and Salt Lake City, meant hunting down comic book shops that were close to wherever my parents would be shopping. I remember saving a good potion of my school clothes money to spend on comics. And Christmas! My folks did a fantastic job in the comics department around Christmas. Since I was forever held hostage by whatever was available at the drug store, I grew up reading comics—all comics—independent of continuity. This worked out great for my parents. They could leave a ginormous stack of random comics under the tree and I honestly didn't care if they were sequential titles or not.

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Gavin: What eventually brought you to Logan and what made you want to stick around?

Trent: I earned a B.A. in English Teaching along with a couple minors here at Utah State. I then got a job working for the university, and I concurrently continued on with a M.S. in Technical Writing. I opened up Death Ray Comics with the help and support of my good friends Jonathan and Diana Ribera in April of 2013. Juggling working for the man and trying to run a comic book shop was pretty taxing. I quite working at the university in January and have been going full-bore at Death Ray since then.

Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up your own shop?

Trent: Ha! This is a great question. It was born out of conversations with my buddies that, "It can't be that hard." What we meant by this was we were working professionals that had money (for the first time in our lives) to really spend on comic books. But it seemed like most comic book shops didn't really care if we spent the money or not. I'd been to other shops that obviously valued customers and showed it through their customer service (shout out to Dr. Volts!), so we knew it could be done.

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Gavin: What was it like putting the plan together and getting backing for the project?

Trent: It was an idea that I became obsessed with in 2010. So for the next three years I kept my eyes open for anything that I could use in a comic shop. I cruised the KSL Classified for retail fixtures non-stop. I ended up picking up quite a few magazine racks from sellers, and I hit the jackpot when the Borders in Logan went out of business. They were selling off all of their fixtures and I kept an eye on them. There was a good chunk of racks that never sold, but just sat in the vacant building. Once the building started to be re-purposed for another box store to go in, I contacted the property manger and offered to take the valence fixtures off of their hands. So for a couple of years, my house was packed with random retail fixtures and shelving. But that meant when we finally had a location we didn't have to spend very much on shelving.

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Gavin: How did you come across the space on Center Street and what was it like turning it into a proper shop?

Trent: The biggest obstacle to overcome was finding a retail location that was affordable but not in an industrial complex. They say "location is everything," and it really is. Sadly, a lot of what used to be retail locations in downtown Logan have since been swallowed up by professional offices. That's not a problem if you're developing a shiny new box store at the edge of town, but for "mom & pop" shops, it's a major issue. Coincidentally, the location we're in has held two different hobby/gaming/comic shops prior to us moving in. The shop that was here before Death Ray Comics changed locations (within Logan) and eventually sold to a larger local chain. When we saw the place vacant, it was GO TIME!

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Gavin: When you were getting things in order, how did you go about deciding what you wanted to stock?

Trent: This is probably the hardest part about starting a comic book shop from the ground up. There are a lot of industry statistics that show what the best selling comics have been, but those are nation-wide stats. Comic sales can actually be weirdly different for shops that are relatively close. But I had an ace in the hole. Bryan Young (Big Shiny Robot's editor-in-chief / City Weekly contributor) and I had been internet friends for a while. No funny business should be read into "internet friends." I'd followed Bryan's digital footprint for a while and we'd had a few conversation via email, so I was aware that he once owned and operated a comic book shop (Shine Box). I called Bryan and picked his brain for what must have been an at least an hour about ordering products and the industry in general. Honestly, he was so helpful in mentoring me, I'm sure he saved the shop quite a bit of money in mistakes avoided.

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Gavin: What was it like for you first opening the shop up last year and seeing the response from the community?

Trent: Opening Death Ray has been like creating a family, but with less sex. A lot less sex. What I mean by that is that since we never had a proper grand opening, with balloons, banner, and on-location radio DJ (mostly because we couldn't afford to throw a party), we had to treat every customer to the best customer service we could serve in the hopes that they'd come back. From what started as a few friends bringing in their friends, we now have a great comic book / graphic novel community. I always try to introduce customers to other customers when they are in the shop. We've seen previously unacquainted customers become friends, flat mates, solid pub trivia teams. No weddings yet... but if there ever is, I'll encourage them to register at Death Ray.

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Gavin: Aside from comics themselves, what other items did you push to make the store special and different from others in nearby cities?

Trent: I am of the mindset that you shouldn't bullshit your customers. The first thing that many customers notice when they come into Death Ray Comics is that we don't have any games (i.e.; cards, turn-based, table-top, etc.). I've never spent much time gaming so I've never felt like I could recommend games and gaming products to customers. Most comic book shops serve as gaming shops as well. This was/is a big risk to cut out what potentially could be quite a bit of revenue for the shop. But again, I don't want to bull shit people. Luckily and coincidentally, the very month that Death Ray Comics opened, Toad & Tricycle (T&T) Games also opened its doors. T&T is literally just around the corner from our shop and they are a shop that deals in just gaming. We encourage all of our game-seeking customers to go to T&T and they do the same with their comic-seeking customers. The kind of serendipity of our two shops' ideals and openings should be saved for a romantic comedies, but the shops compliment each other perfectly. Though I'm not sure if we are the Kate Beckinsale or John Cusack of the relationship. So to answer your question, I don't think it's the "other" items that make our store special. We carry comics, graphic novels, and action figures — because we LOVE comics, graphic novels, and action figures, and we want to share that passion with others.

Gavin: Something people may not be aware of is you have a theatre with the shop, which you can also rent out. What made you decide to add that onto the shop?

Trent: My friend Jonathan, who was so crucial in helping me get the shop up and running, was part of an improv group when we first opened the shop. We'd always had a dream of having a location where we could sell comics during the day and have shows at night. Death Ray served as the standing home for the improv group until recently when they went on hiatus. But from those first improv shows has spawned regular live/local podcasts, stand up comedy, open mic nights, and regular rock shows. Oh, and that one guy that came and gave us a sneak peak of his newest film... Kevin Smith!

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Gavin: You've been doing much more with the store than normal shops would, in that you've reached out to a lot of programs and hold live events that have nothing to do with comics. How has it been for you turning the shop into a cultural center for the city?

Trent: No one accidentally ends up in Logan. Since the reasons that bring folks to Cache Valley are rarely social in nature, most Logan transplants have gone through desires of acceptance — and not necessarily looking for acceptance by the majority. We have people come through the shop to see a stand-up comedy show and stick around shooting the breeze with other customers for an hour after the show. We've been happy to act as a default space for those looking to socialize but just don't know where to find other folks with open minds. Additionally, my dog Sherman (145lbs Bernese Mtn Dog) is always at the shop. People come in on a regular basis just to hang out with him. We have home-sick dog-loving students come in for a "Sherman Fix" all the time. I always tell customers that 5 minutes spent petting Sherman is a quicker fix than a regular dose of Prozac. In fact, just the last week a couple came in for the first time and brought their two little daughters. The girls were a little intimidated by the massive fur ball at first, though by the end of the visit they were both hugging him around the neck, the youngest with innocent tears running down her cheeks because she couldn't take Sherman home with her. So yes, we really do act as a small social hub for the community. There are quality comics for all tastes, so while I am sure that we can find the right comic book for any customer, I'm equally happy for that to just be a byproduct of community members feeling like part of a community.

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Gavin: You recently celebrated the one-year anniversary with Kevin Smith and the Smodcast crew coming through for live shows. How did that happen and what was it like having them here?

Trent: I can't even explain in words what it was like, but that doesn't make for a good read, so I'll try. I am nothing more than extremely lucky. I have always been a HUGE fan (both in size and in enthusiasm) of Kevin Smith. By the grace of Galactus, I ended up as the cohost on NetHeads - a podcast hosted on his network (SModcast Internet Radio) and hosted by Will Wilkins — my friend and the network/sound engineer for Smith's network. Smith did a Reddit AMA and announced that anyone who donated the charity he champions for (The Wayne Foundation) , he/she would then be entered to win a 30 minute video chat with him. Now for the sake of clearing his good name, it was all facilitated through a third party. No one at SModCo or The Wayne Foundation had anything to do with the random selection of the lucky donor. That lucky donor was me! So I got all set up do the video chat with Smith and when he came online, he dropped the bomb on me that he and Jason Mewes and Will Wilkins would be coming to do some shows at the shop. I cannot remember a point in my life when I was filled with more sheer delight. And what was it like having him at the shop? It was like having Batman in the shop, but you know... Fatman! If every celebrity treated the public like Kevin treated me and everyone in the shop that day, TMZ would never have anything bad to ever report. It was a very surreal moment that I blogged about, and your readers can hear me gush over Smith more if they'd like to read about me getting emotional. Suffice it to say that I met my hero, and he surpassed all of my expectations.

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Gavin: With everything you've been doing and the mark you've made so far, what is your goal with the shop in the longrun?

Trent: Long term, I'd like the shop to do well enough that it could support me and one other employee (yes it's just me with fill-in help from some very dedicated friends: WIll D. Kent and Tom Sherlock). Death Ray is also the means by which I (taking cues from Kevin Smith) I fund my own podcast network. I would love for the shop to be successful enough that I could focus more on regular programming on the network. I've never thought of Death Ray as my means for a new car, house, or even retirement. I just want to be able to share with people things I love.

Gavin: Are there any plans to further expand the store and what it does?

Trent: I'd love to be able to build a recording studio for podcasts inside the shop. That's a pie-in-the-sky goal, but it's a real one. The theater aspect will always be part of the shop, no matter the demand for space on the retail floor. If nothing else, when I host shows at the shop, I get to see them. As the sole employee, I tend to miss out on some great comedy and music, so it's nice to just bring it to me.

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Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?

Trent: The NetHeads will be performing a live podcast at the Salt Lake City Comic Book and Popular Culture Convention (I think that's a safe way to describe it without getting a C&D sent my way) this coming September. Additionally, Death Ray Comics will have a booth selling the most affordable comics at the convention — I've got a whole bin of "nickel comics" I've been saving for the event. Additionally, I really do want to be able to focus on great content for my podcasts. I know that the better the content, the more willing folks will be to support Death Ray.

Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Trent: Just two pieces of advice. I can't urge people enough to take a chance on a random comic book every time they are on a comic book shop, even if it's just a nickel comic. There are so many great stories out there that people pass up simply because they didn't want to start at issue #2, or #3, or #33 for that matter. Comics are like food and readers develop and refine their palettes; so try something different! And the other thing has nothing to do with me at all, but I think one of the best radio programs/podcasts in existence is 99% Invisible. Everyone should check it out. It'll make you a happier person and you'll start to see "design" and the world around you differently.

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