Digital Comics Advocate Mark Waid Discusses Becoming a Comic Book Retailer

Despite being one of the biggest names in mainstream comics for the past several decades, Mark Waid has never seemed content with "just" being a comic book writer.

Along with his impressive writing credits -- including celebrated runs on "Captain America" and "Fantastic Four" at Marvel Comics, "The Flash" and "Impulse" at DC Comics, plus "Kingdom Come," "Empire," "Superman: Rebirth" and more -- he's also held editorial positions and launched ventures, his most recent being the digital-only publisher Thrillbent.

Now, with his writing schedule as busy as ever -- including the multiple-Eisner winning "Daredevil" and "Indestructible Hulk" at Marvel, "The Fox" at Archie Comics, "Green Hornet" at Dynamite and "The Rocketeer/The Spirit: Pulp Friction" at IDW -- Waid has added "comic book retailer" to his resume, becoming a co-owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Indiana along with his partner Christy Blanch (teacher of the "Gender Through Comic Books" Super MOOC earlier this year and writer of Thrillbent's "The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood") and initial owner Jason Pierce.

CBR News spoke with Waid about what went into his decision to dive into comic book retail, and how he sees selling print comic books fitting in with his current status as one of the most vocal digital comics advocates in the industry.

CBR News: Mark, can you take us through the story of you becoming an owner at Alter Ego -- both how the opportunity came about, and your motivations behind the decision?

Mark Waid: It's about the last thing I'd foreseen myself doing in the near future, that's for sure. But the reality is, I've been living mostly full-time in the Muncie, Indiana for a little while now. I still have a place in Los Angeles, but my girlfriend is out here finishing her doctorate at Ball State, so this is where we sort of set up camp. There was a really good comics store in town, but the guy who ran it -- a really good guy named Jason Pierce -- by his own admission, he couldn't make the leap to the next level. The store maintained, and it was a good store, but after nine years of being in business, he was looking to try to make some sort of forward momentum.

I met with him, and I was intrigued. It started small. "What if I just put in a little bit of money to cover your rent, and buy a little bit of your store, and then maybe it'll help push you to the next level?" Idea spun out of idea spun out of idea, and the next thing I know, I'm a big owner of this store. I'm a third owner of the store along with Christy Blanch and Jason. And couldn't be happier. We found a new location in Muncie. We're open now, but we're having the grand opening celebration on Saturday, Sept. 21 -- we've got Art Baltazar coming down and Mike Norton from the Chicago area, and we've got the 1966 Batmobile, we've got Stormtroopers coming, we've got the street roped off -- we've got a big celebration coming. And all of this from a guy who, by all accounts, hates brick and mortar stores.

That seems to be some peoples' perception.

When I mentioned this to my Thrillbent partners and staff, they all had the same question: "You're buying a store? Why, to burn it down?"

It's certainly an interesting situation to be in, heading a digital publisher and also owning a brick and mortar print comic book store.

It's really an interesting expansion, because I don't know anybody in comics, and I could be wrong, who is simultaneously a store owner, and a freelancer for the majors, and runs his own publishing company at the same time, and has as many fingers in as many different pies as I do. It's going to be interesting to see what I can learn from this, and how we can use the information I glean from each of these enterprises to make the other ones better.

When you started talking with Jason Pierce at Alter Ego, even though you said you didn't see yourself becoming a retailer, but just having been around comic book stores for so many years, did you find that you kind of untapped into a previously unknown part of your brain, and started generating a lot of ideas?

That's just it. At first, I was very reticent to offer suggestions, only because Jason's been doing this for a long time. The last thing I wanted to do is come in bulldoze his way of doing stuff.

As Jason reminded me, I've probably been in pretty much every comic book store in the nation at one time or another. If I haven't signed there, I've probably shopped there. He was looking for new ideas anyway, and what I liked about Jason's store was that it was very clean and very family-friendly. We both dedicated ourselves, along with Christy, to making it even more kid-friendly. The comics stores that you don't want to go into, especially in small towns, are the creepy ones. With the windows all covered with posters from "The Death of Superman," still trying to sell a crossover from a year ago, where no sunlight enters. You don't want that.

No one would be surprised to find that it has a healthy selection of Mark Waid material for sale, that's for sure. I'm not an idiot. But at the same time, we've done a nice job of doing things to make the store unique. I obviously have an entire lifetime's worth of collectible memorabilia, a lot of it one-of-a-kind stuff, custom-made stuff, that we have now decorated the store with. Even if you're not interested in buying a comic, even if you've got a regular comic book store that you go to, I think it's a visit that's worth making, just to see the Phantom Zone projector next to the Golgoth mask, next to the Dr. Doom helmet.

So even though it's not the only focus, making it kid-friendly was a strong priority?

A very, very strong priority. We get a lot of walk-by traffic in the new location in downtown Muncie. We needed to be kid-friendly. We want kids to come and hang out. We've got a little table and chairs for the preschoolers and the grade schoolers to sit there and read comics. There's coloring books, there's all kinds of comic material there, there's stuff they can play with. It's a dedicated kids' corner.

We've also got the graphic novel selection over to one side, and we've got the toys and the comics and everything else, so it's not just for kids, but there's no reason in the world that a comic shop should be something that you're scared to take your kid into. That's ridiculous.

It sounds like the approach is, it's not necessarily enough to just stock kids' comics, but to make the environment itself inviting for families to take their kids.

It's quite a learning process for me. Here I've been talking for a long time about how digital is the future, and print can co-exist with it, but I'm not sure that print is the growth place to be. And I'm still not convinced it is, but this is me putting my money where my mouth is. I want to find out first hand. I never want to tell retailers how to run their stores, I never want to suggest that, but likewise, I don't want to presume that I know everything about retailing and what's wrong with it without actually having done it. I'm going to get in the deep end of the pool. It's easy for me as a digital guy off the side to presuppose how comics should be or how the retail industry should work or what's broken about the distribution system, but I want to get my boots on the ground.

This move sends a very strong message: It's clear that you want to see digital comics innovate and reach their potential and go as far as they can, but you've also said that you thought print comics were still viable -- though I think that message might have been lost on some.

I think so. I don't think I've done the best job of massaging that message, either.

I think that this sends the message I want to send: Digital is not the enemy, and I'll prove it to you. I am putting my money where my mouth is. I am boots on the ground, I've got my checkbook out, I've got the sweat equity in it. I'll work both sides, and let's see what I learn.

There's the idea that one medium can help the other, and this would be a very up-close way for you to determine if that's true, and how that actually works.

Trust me, I'll be blogging with great regularity on Thrillbent about the ins and outs, and the things I learn, and the synthesis of what we learn that might be able to help both sides. What as a digital publisher I can learn about retail, what as a retailer I can learn about how to do digital publishing better. This is the beginning of a long series of insider blog posts on the process on Thrillbent.

You started out busy, already doing a lot in the industry, and now you're adding this to your life. It sounds like you've put in a lot initially, but how visible will you be at Alter Ego? How hands-on do you plan on being, long-term?

I really need to be hands-on. I didn't do it as a show to be a dilettante. I wasn't trying to buy credibility by writing a check. I really want to be in there, hands-on. I'm spending a lot of next week learning how to work the [point of sale] system. I've been in talks with Diamonds about ordering stuff. I want to know how to run the store. I don't believe in just throwing money at it and then walking away. I want to know how to run the store, because clearly, I don't have enough to fill my days. [Laughs]

So though you're heavily involved, you're not putting yourself as the main draw to it, making it "Mark Waid's Comic Book Store."

Believe me, we toyed with the idea of making my face into the sign and stuff, but that just seemed a little over the top. Then it becomes like a Big Boy restaurant, with a statue of me out front holding a comic and a donut. [Laughs]

But we will, trust me, be trading off of my profile as much as humanly possible. We'll be doing a lot of events at the store, I'll be able to bring in a lot of my friends, a lot of the creators that I've worked with over the years. Heck, ["Daredevil" artist] Chris Samnee is in St. Louis, that's only a four-hour drive. Most of the guys I work with and know in comics have already said, "Yes, I will absolutely come to your store and sign -- let's figure out when." I think that helps build that sense of community there in the store, and I think that will only help.

I'm also not doing this because I think this is a giant cash cow waiting to happen. It's still a comic book store. No one's going to be retiring on their yacht a year or two from now on profits from the comic book store. But I'm running it the same way I'm running Thrillbent. It's not about turning a profit, it's about doing something important, it's about creating a sense of community, it's about doing something healthy for the medium. If we make money doing it, then that means we can keep doing it for that much longer.

This move is intriguing, because, presumably, you could have had an prosperous career just as a writer, but you've always had a drive to do more beyond that. You've held editorial positions and embarked on different ventures, like Thrillbent currently, and now you're buying a comic book store. What motivates that drive?

I like being all-in. Most importantly, you just can't be complacent with where you are. The unemployment lines are littered with guys who thought they could write comics forever. And maybe I can, god knows I'm the luckiest guy to ever be in the industry -- 30 years of writing, and I've never once had to look for a job. Knock on wood, hopefully that'll continue, but you never take that stuff for granted.

I think one of the reasons I am sort of adaptable, and if there's any secret to my longevity besides just dumb luck, it's the fact that I really am always trying to find out how to do the next job, how to do the next thing up.

I like the fact that I'm now a part of the chain I wasn't a part of before. Not only am I making the stuff, but I'm selling it now as well. We'll see how that goes.

Alter Ego Comics is located on 111 E. Adams St., Muncie, Indiana.

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