By Eric Stephenson
[Comix Experience and its owner Brian Hibbs are both legends – and we’re lucky to have Brian as a columnist here at The Beat. Over the weekend the store celebrated its 30th anniversary, and Image publisher Eric Stephenson was there. He had some thoughts about the store and Bain and what they mean to the industry, and graciously shared them with The Beat.]
Comics Experience celebrated 30 years in business last week.
If by some chance that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, Comix Experience is a San Francisco-based comic book shop, founded and run by Brian Hibbs. For Bay Area comic books fans, as well as visitors from all over the world, Comix Experience has been a fixture of the San Francisco comics scene, through good times and bad, for three decades, as well as a good indicator of which way the wind is blowing when it comes to the overall health of our industry.
At this point, there are two Comix Experience stores – the main location on Divisidero and a second shop, Comix Experience Outpost on Ocean, not far from where San Francisco stops and Daly City starts – and while neither of them are the biggest shops, Brian has one of the loudest voices in the Direct Market. I think that’s pretty much always been the case (Brian will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong!), but these days, whenever Brian is speaking about our business, he’s speaking from experience. It’s hard to keep a comic book store alive for 30 years without seeing a few things, and given when and where Brian opened his store, it’s a safe assumption Brian has seen things that would have made the lesser among us give up long ago.
I’ve known Brian almost as long as I’ve worked in comics, and during that time, he’s been a good friend, not just to me, but to Image. I don’t agree with Brian all the time, and when Brian disagrees with me he is certainly never shy about letting me know, but I deeply value his feedback. Sometimes his feedback absolutely infuriates me, mind you, but I think part of being a good friend, part of wise counsel, is to tell it like it is. Not everybody does that in this business, and it says something that Brian is not only able to endure publishers’, creators’ and other retailers’ rancor when the truth hurts a little more than they’d prefer, but to continue on in spite of opposition.
Brian threw a party to celebrate Comix Experience’s 30th anniversary this past Saturday, and he invited me to come down for that. I don’t think he actually expected me to be there – in fact, he told me more than once that he didn’t expect me to make the trip – but it’s not every day a comic book store gets to celebrate such an auspicious occasion, and I wanted to be part of that. I knew it was a big deal for Brian, too, and for his staff, and I felt like it was important to be there for someone who has been so supportive not just of Image, but of comics.
And Brian’s support for comics, his passion not just for this wonderful, idiosyncratic medium, but for sharing his enthusiasm and love for comics with the world around him, was my big take away from his 30th anniversary party. In a shop filled with a couple hundred people – friends, family, fellow Bay Area retailers, long-time customers, staff both past and present – it was impossible to not to get caught up in the sense of community Brian has established through Comix Experience.
We all know retail is in a weird place right now – not just comics retail, but all kinds of stores. No one can deny the convenience of being able to order virtually anything from the comfort of our own homes. As Alex Turner sang recently, “You push the button and we’ll do the rest.” That’s the world we live in today in under 10 words. Convenience isn’t the same as community, though, and comic book shops aren’t just stores.
Brian, speaking at ComicsPro back in February, noted that comics is one of the only artistic mediums with its own dedicated retailer marketplaces. To a large degree, that’s because the people who love comics prefer community over convenience. Comic book fans like being able to rub shoulders with fellow travelers as they browse the new release racks – they like talking to other fans about what they like, what they don’t like, and what they think is going to happen next. They like having a place to go, a place where they belong.
I talked to some of Brian’s customers at the party, some of whom first became friends with each other at Comix Experience. They were as much a part of the store as the fixtures holding the comics and graphic novels available for sale, and in many ways, more important. I had a couple trade paperbacks under my arm that I was planning to buy – the first two volumes of THE WILD STORM by Warren Ellis and Jon Davis Hunt – and everyone I talked to cheerfully offered their (overwhelmingly positive) opinions of those books, along with suggestions of other things I should check out and feedback on recent comics published by Image. I recommended Kieron Gillen and Caspar Wijngaard’s excellent PETER CANNON: THUNDERBOLT along the way, and encouraged Brian and a couple other shops to order up on that book since every issue up through #3 seems to have quickly vanished from the shelves of every shop I’ve visited recently.
I talked to Uel Carter of Fantastic Comics in Berkeley. I talked to Joe Field from Flying Colors out in Concord. Leef Smith from Mission: Comics & Art was there, and we talked, too. Last year was a rough one for the Direct Market and that was heavily discussed, as well as the challenges on the horizon, but generally speaking, it was all done with a smile and the acknowledgement that we are all in this together. None of them were there as Brian’s competitors – they were there as friends celebrating Brian’s accomplishments, just as he would celebrate theirs. It made me feel good to see them there, and I can only imagine how gratifying it must have been for Brian.
Comic book stores get a bad rap sometimes, but walking out of Comix Experience on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but feel that many of us tend to lose sight of just how special they are. In a lot of ways, comics have changed the landscape for the entire entertainment business over the last decade or so, but movies like Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and TV series like Deadly Class and The Umbrella Academy wouldn’t have been possible without a marketplace that caters to fans with an eager appetite for different kinds of creativity when everything elsewhere seems like more of the same.
Once upon a time, comics were written off as cheap entertainment for kids and not worth the trouble to rack regularly alongside magazines, newspapers, or “real” books, but now they’re being read by people of all ages and largely held in the same regard as other entertainment mediums. That wouldn’t have happened without comic book stores.
So congratulations to Brian Hibbs and Comix Experience on 30th years in business, and thank you to comic book stores everywhere for sharing what we do with people who love comics. The world needs more of you.
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