those not well versed in the comic book community we have in the
city, we have plenty of stores that include comics as part of their
stock, but three big stores stand out among the list as main
providers of all titles and supporters of local artists and writers.
Over the past couple years I've interviewed two of them, and so today
we get to complete the circle.
Black Cat Comics has been a frequently maintained shop in the Sugar House area for the past five years, keeping on hand a large library of back issues while still providing the latest titles, both local and national. And for a period of time their website was THE central hub for all things Utah geek via their forums, keeping everyone along the Wasatch Front connected and informed. Now being one of the few independent businesses in the area after the demolition, the area still has a bit of geek culture to cling onto. I got a chance to chat with owner Greg Gage about starting the store, its history, thoughts on local comics and a few other topics at hand. Plus some pictures from around the place.
Gavin: Hey Greg! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Greg: Well, essentially I'm a professional geek, which, I think, is the best job title ever! I'll be 40 years old this year, have a wonderful, supportive wife (even on big shipment/take comics home days) and an amazing four year-old daughter. I also do a podcast and play drums in a band, as well as a little writing and art here and there.
Gavin: How did you first get interested in comics?
Greg: In 1974 my parents bought me my first comics. Dr. Strange, Justice League, and Batman were among them. I loved them with a tiny, four year-old boy passion. The next batch were Avengers, X-Men, and The Defenders. At that point I was hooked and never looked back.
Gavin: What were some of your favorite titles growing up?
Greg: The X-Men and Avengers books became immediate favorites. I think it was because the character Beast appeared in both. That blew my mind that such a cool character could be all over the Marvel universe. Spider-Man and Batman quickly followed, then the Defenders. Those were my top five, even as a kid.
Gavin: Before your own business, you worked around town at other shops. What was that time like coming up in the local comic book scene?
Greg: Interesting. I've experienced the highs and lows of the comic business. Many years ago, there was a comic store, or at least a place that sold them, on every corner, it seemed like. During the 90's those places were making so damn much money, it was crazy. People were buying stuff up as "investments": multiple copies, multiple covers, etc. Soon that collapsed and there were only a few stores left. That, I think, was ingrained in my mind and became a valuable lesson once I opened my own store.
Gavin: What brought about the idea of starting up your own comics shop?
Greg: Well, one day the realization came that there were no stores whatsoever in the Salt Lake Valley, or even in the state, that only sold comic books. At the time, that seemed like a niche that needed exploiting. I have nothing against games or cards, but all I know are comics and there are stores that do gaming much better than I ever could. My passion is comics. That's it. Also, every time you work for another company, ideas always spring up. You think, "I could do this differently" or "We should have more of this and less of that." Well, in time, I realized that the only way to do precisely what I wanted to do was to have my own place.
Gavin: How did you eventually decide on the name and the location of the store?
Greg: First off, I had a black cat. He was huge and meaner than hell. Truth told, I was afraid he would learn to read and be mad if he wasn't payed homage to. I was also in Germany several years back and went to a comic book store called Black Dog Comics in downtown Berlin. Something about that name appealed to me, so I tweaked it to fit my liking and ran with it. As far as location goes, Sugar House was kind of a no-brainer, especially moving in next to the Game Stop. The area has always been a mecca of alternative interests and niche businesses, some of which would never work anywhere else. I was just lucky enough to be able to work a deal with the property owners that would match what I wanted to do.
Gavin: What was that first year like open, and what difficulties did you meet along the way?
Greg: The first year was like graduate school. Straight from elementary school. There were so many things to learn. I knew a fair amount about the comic book business, it was the other aspects that sometimes made my brain leak. Business licenses, picking the right advertising, even stocking office supplies. These were among hundreds of things that have a business owner jumping through hoops and trying not to fall. I learned so much during that first year, and continue to do so after nearly six years. That being said, it was the best thing I ever could have done and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Gavin: Of all the shops in Utah, yours was the first to have a fully functional website. What brought that idea and what did you think of it being a community hub for so long?
Greg: Actually, that was by accident. A good friend of mine, Robby, is a website designer. He suggested that I put together a website that was interactive, with a forum and such. I use my forum to update shipping lists every week, make announcements about sales and signings, and to just spout off about stuff if I so desire. I'm flattered that it gets a lot of hits and is a place where people get information about their comics.
Gavin: You've worked hard over the years to keep a massive collection on hand. How is it for you balancing the demand without watering down the quantity or quality?
Greg: It's tough. I'm constantly going through the back issues and thinning things out, whether it be transferring them to the 25 cent sale boxes or putting them up on E-Bay, or even having a big sale to make room for more. I try to have enough, but not too much. Right now I have about 20,000 individual back issues for sale on the floor. Any more than that and I think it could overwhelm customers. It's also important to listen to the customers and try to track current trends. That helps with my decision on what to buy and when to do it.
Gavin: With Sugar House changing rapidly over the past few years, what would you say has kept you guys doing well in the area?
Greg: Well, thank God I'm an established business! Demolition, road construction, and the general feeling that Sugar House is changing have all done their damndest to impair traffic. I think that we've kept going, as cheesy as this sounds, by sticking to our principles. We strive to provide great customer service and keep trying to make shopping here a fun experience. Sometimes we may not be the most professional people in the world, but we try to have a good time and ensure that customers do the same. We want everyone that leaves the store to do so feeling good about it.
Gavin: Going local for a moment, what is your take on the current local comic scene and the books coming out of it?
Greg: The Utah comic scene is amazing. There's so much talent here, I can hardly believe it. I'll always try to push a local book, but it makes it so much easier to do so when I believe in it. I have a difficult time thinking of anything local that isn't worth reading right now.
Gavin: Who are some local artists and writers should people check out?
Greg: Dave Chisholm's Let's Go To Utah is fantastic. Derek Hunter's Pirate Club is a lot of fun. A new book that just came out, King Of Pain, by Nick West and Sam Rodriguez is great. Ryan Ottley's artwork is astounding. He works on some big books, such as Haunt and Invincible from Image Comics. Banana Panic from Chris Hoffman is a ton of fun. A secret agent monkey. How can you lose? There's just so much good stuff, and I'm sorry if I left anyone out. It's just such a big comic community here. And in the interest of full disclosure, Sam and Nick are on the podcast that I do, but that doesn't color my enjoyment whatsoever.
Gavin: As far as other local stores go, do you feel more like they're competition or comrades?
Greg: For the most part, definitely comrades. I think we all specialize in slightly different things, so referring a customer elsewhere for something I don't have doesn't take anything away from me. Dr. Volts is big on toys and statues. Hasteur Hobbies is all about role playing games. I refer people there, and they all return the favor. Working hand in hand with competition can only strengthen the industry as a whole. I'm proud to be a part of the comic community here.
Gavin: Going national, what's your take on the comic book industry as it stands right now?
Greg: Hollywood, for better or worse, has such an impact on comics. Iron Man and Batman sell incredibly well. Catwoman and Elektra got canceled. Any questions? The publishers have wisely decided to print to order now, which is to say if there are 200,000 orders for Green Lantern, that's what they'll print. This demonstrates a fiscal responsibility that wasn't there in the 1990's, which consequently saw Marvel Comics going bankrupt and more small press companies going out of business that ever before. I also think that with Disney's recent purchase of Marvel, we're on the precipice of something huge. American comics have never had global recognition. Merchandising, yes, recognition of the properties as comic books, no. Depending on how Disney handles things, we could see another huge boom. Right now things are pretty good, but they could always be better.
Gavin: What would you say are some of the best series in print right now?
Greg: Invincible Iron Man, The Punisher's MAX series, Sweet Tooth, The Boys, Choker, The Molting. There are so many, but those rank among my favorite. Daredevil, Uncanny X-Men, and The Incredibles also deserve mention.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on online publishing and how some books are now going strictly to an internet format?
Greg: I said it a million times, and I still stand by it. Online publishing is good. Comics are one of the only entertainment industries that have embraced technology and changed their business plans to respond to it. Obviously there are millions more people online at any given time than could fit in every comic store in the world at once. All of those people have potential exposure to the comic industry. How can that be bad?
Gavin: Do you feel it will overtake publishing or will there always been a need for a hand-help copy?
Greg: There will always be a need for the traditional comic book. Comic fans are by nature collectors, and that isn't conducive to digital comics. Online comics give a good chance to read older comics that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and maybe spark interest in the newer stuff. People that read comics online and never buy them in the store are people that wouldn't be in here anyway. But maybe that'll plant a seed and someday we'll see them.
Gavin: Where do you see the state of comics over the next couple of years?
Greg: As I said before, Disney's global recognition should help Marvel. There are so many comic book movies on the horizon, and they're becoming a cultural mainstream more and more all the time. I think we'll see the industry growing at a manageable speed, unlike days past. If anything gets too big too fast, it can't handle it's own success. If publishers can control crossover events and title expansion, I see a lot more people giving it a try. The publishers just need to remember to welcome new readers, not make them feel like outsiders.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Black Cat the rest of the year?