Neil Gaiman at Comix Experience, 7/19: The Story

OK, so you all remember that 2009 is Comix Experience’s 20th anniversary, right? (April first, to be exact!)

Those of you who are actually customers may also note that we didn’t exactly do anything special for it (like a party or something). This is because my plan was to do several events throughout the year to celebrate, probably culminating in that party on the Twenty-First birthday because, y’know, then she’s legal to drink and all.

I’d actually been thinking about this for a very long time. How long? Well, it was way back on February 15th, 2006 (!) that I first emailed Neil Gaiman a message with the title “How Is Your 2009 looking?”

Neil’s one of those Major League guests nowadays – his schedule is overbooked, all of the time, and everyone wants him somewhere always. This is why I started three years early!

Why Neil? I mean, besides the “Uh, duh he’s a major league super-star” bit? Well, in a lot of ways because I think Neil and I came up together in comics.

See, I had creators that I was passionate about whom the store supported (and they supported back) dating from before I started CE – the Matt Wagner’s, the Dave Sim’s, and so on. (I actually have a story involving both of them and my reasons for starting CE that’s nearly old enough that I might be able to tell it out loud in public one of these days…) – Comix Experience was effectively created because of the passion I had for those guy’s works at the time.

And as the store went on, that passion for creators and their work expanded way out to even more people who then did events and things for us, and became friends of the store and friends of me personally – Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, dozens and dozens of other people; all of that happened after the store opened, and the medium to began to expand in tone and depth.

But Neil? Neil was my first. Neil was the very first contemporaneous creator who I felt that same passion as I did for my heroes.

Comix Experience opened, as I said, in April of 1989. Sandman #1 has a cover date of January 1989. I was utterly enamored by Sandman, and we worked like hell to sell it to every person we could, and it very quickly became one of our store’s best sellers.

I’d read Violent Cases, of course, as well -- maybe one of 1200 people in America who had at that point? So, yeah, I was a fan of this guy, and I really really wanted to do anything I could to help him and his career in whatever small ass way I might.

We met in San Diego that year, and I guess my enthusiasm worked OK on him – this was, of course before he was “NEIL GAIMAN”, he was hustling for work like anyone else, and was still a little awestruck with being an author with a monthly book from DC (Vertigo didn’t exist yet) at the San Diego ComicCon, I asked him if we could do a store signing (I think that maybe this would be his second or third signing ever?), and he agreed.

Here’s a photo from that day. Man, we’re both absurdly young! If I recall correctly, this is the window display for that signing.

Now, twenty years gone I don’t remember the exact details and timing, and the scrapbook is sitting at the store right now, so I can’t look it up, but I believe it was the week that Sandman #10 was released? That puts it sometime in November of ’89 then, per I’m not sure why Neil was in from England then, but he made the trip to SF. Heh, let me tell you just how low rent we were back then – Neil actually slept on our sofa in our living room! Man, today I couldn’t even imagine asking a creator to crash on my sofa!

One neat thing happened at that signing. A few months before, DC did a free overship (100%? I don’t recall now) of Sandman #8. Since we were doing the signing, DC decided to send us some of what they had around the office. They sent a case of Sandman #8.

But, oddly enough, and seemingly unknown to anyone at the time, Sandman #8 had actually been misprinted. It had a recap / intro at the front (the same one, I think, that was in early printings of “A Doll’s House”). But it was also supposed to have had an introduction by Editor Karen Berger on the inside front cover. The majority of the print run, for whatever reason, didn’t -- it ran the usual Jenette Kahn DC house ad.

Now DC told me that there were only 600 copies of this, and they sent one to me and one to some other retailer I don’t recall now, and basically I had a third of the print run. Somehow I actually disbelieve that story now because I know enough to know that just flicking the big machine on and off produces more than 600 copies – realistically there’d have to be more than 1000 of these out there, minimum, but 600 was the official story.

I know, once I opened the box, what I had. Potentially, this was a gold mine. I mean, if I had those copies now, and had CCGed them, I’d have gotten a purely gross and evil return. Thankfully, I had a soul, and I put them to their intended use – I gave that shit out for free. You can see them in the picture above, actually, with my crappy hand-written sign. And the ones that we didn’t give out when Neil was in the store? (Because, I don’t think there were even 50 people who showed up that day? It was one of those nice, “have a nice 5 minute chat with each attendee” kind of signings.) Well those copies, I stuck a flyer for the store in, with some sort of bounceback coupon, and just started Johnny Appleseed-ing them across The City. Left them on buses, at barber shops and Laundromats, and in paper boxes at school campuses. I recall we got some sort of nutty return on those – like 10% or something, maybe?

The main lesson though, was that doing the “right thing” – actually giving out the comics like we were supposed to, instead of, dunno, selling them off for $5 a throw or something (hey, in 1990 dollars!), earned me new customers who then became devoted Sandman readers month-in and month out, and some of them started branching out into other books, and a few of them even still occasionally shop with me today. Long-term seeding really does work better than short-term gain!

This also gave me a good rep with DC, which still pays dividends for me today. A year or so later, Sandman had got the attention of Rolling Stone Magazine, and there was some sort of article about Sandman as one of, I think, 10 “hot” things that year. DC rushed out a paperback collection of “A Doll’s House”, and, suddenly a whole new way of thinking about things was born.

Prior to that, there were collected editions of comics, of course – I think DC’s backlist at that point was maybe 20 items deep, if that? I do know that I kept my very first order form from month #1 of the store, with all of its precious little “1”, “2”and the very occasional “5” written in it, and that month was the premiere of the first Alan Moore Swamp Thing collection. I think it was a decade later before every Moore issue was finally collected…

Anyway, I was all about the paperback. Dude, awesome – a format where we can sell the best stories forever and ever and ever and ever? I’m all over that. Hell, I opined in probably ’91, ’92 that there wasn’t even any point in publishing stuff that you weren’t going to collect and make the long green from – this is the business we’re supposed to be in. There was a meeting in Los Angeles sometime in there with me, and the late and well loved Bill Liebowitz (Golden Apple) and Rory Root (Comic Relief) (And boy, do I miss both of those guys right about now!), and DC staff of Paul Levitz, Bob Wayne and the gone-but-not-forgotten Bruce Bristow. Me and Rory insisting to these guys that paperbacks were the model, and Bristow just being absolutely incredulous. Luckily Bob and Paul understood what we were saying…

Comix Experience was always the prototypical “Vertigo Store” – not that we sold the most number of copies of comics-meant-more-for-adults (I almost typed “sophisticated”!), but as a proportion to our superhero sales we were way up in the upper parts of the curve. And I want to believe that it was stores like mine that made the imprint possible at all. And that made the sense, company wide, that backlist was a viable model. And that, at the end of the day, is ultimately why DC took their chance to do exclusivity with Diamond and to be able to dictate the building of the infrastructure that allowed the modern era of comics to come to pass. “Real” book publishers wouldn’t be doing graphic novel lines if the Direct Market, and stores like mine hadn’t proved the model out.

I’m chatting with Neil a lot at this point – like at least once a week, sometimes 2-3 times a week, often for an hour or more – comics, comics comics, what can we do, how do we fix it, ah, I was such a Phone Queen back then. All I can say is we only sorta kinda had an internet back then, y’know?

Anyway, fast forward a little, and Season of Mists is about to come out. As a hardcover! Whoa, this is not at all common for a reprint. Thing looks like an old bible, too, with a leather cover, no dustjacket. Woulda won an Eisner if “Publication Design” had existed as a category then. The thing was lush.

And we did a signing for that.

Not just with Neil, but also with, let’s see, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Kelley Jones, Matt Wagner (my original hero!), and Steve Oliff. I don’t think I’m forgetting someone? Now this was no repeat of the first one. This was a Rock Star kind of day. Crazy lines down to the end of the block, carnival atmosphere, I think we were selling copies of the hardcover at like one a minute. Absolutely insane.

Here’s a picture from that one: note Neil’s Rock Star sunglasses (but at least he’s not wearing the leather jacket!) -- and here’s the window display we did for it. Yeah, we did a black and white window display; I liked it!

(We also had a Matt Wagner signing for Sandman #25, window here)

Finally, we had Neil in (alone this time) for the “A Game of You” tour, which we immediately called “A Gaiman/You” and here’s the window display:

Well, I said “finally”, but then Comix Experience also sponsored a west coast leg of Neil’s Guardian Angels Tour, where Neil read and raised $15,000 for the CBLDF.

So, yeah, this will be the fifth appearance of Neil Gaiman in San Francisco in conjunction with Comix Experience.

And it feels pretty awesome, really.

See, there’s absolutely no reason for Neil to actually do a signing here any more – I’m just one pokey little comics store, and I’m not going to enhance his profile any longer, really. And we barely ever speak – maybe once every year or two there will be occasion for a call. Neil “rarely” does comics any longer, and comics is what I’m all about, but we came up together and that counts for something.

So the punchline to this long rambly thing is that, like I said, I approached Neil about doing something in 2006 – three years in advance. Every six months or so I’d send a little tickle email, but, y’know, I was sorting thinking it wasn’t going to happen, because the man be busy, right?

Neil contacts me out of the blue on Monday, “Hey I’m going to be in San Francisco in two weeks, can we work something out?”

Look, honestly, twelve days isn’t half the amount of time that one really needs to plan a signing and make all of the pieces come together. But it is Neil, right? And who is going to say no to him? Certainly not me! Mama Hibbs didn’t raise no idiots!

And it is going to be butter – smoother than silk, and Neil’s going to help me celebrate 20 years of selling and loving comics because the man is, frankly, a mensch.

Thanks again, buddy!