Local Comic Shop: Source Comics and Games
Three years ago my tween daughter and I embarked on a new adventure. We started reading comic books. We enjoyed the Marvel movies and she loved my Wonder Woman series from the 70s. We visited a small comic shop downtown Minneapolis and left convinced getting into comics was tricky, intimidating, and maybe not worth it. We walked in that dusty little store with no background knowledge. What’s appropriate for a nine year old? What’s a TPB? What’s with the numbering? Who will guide us on this adventure? We left that particular store with no helpful answers and knew we’d need a better comics mentor than any of the people at the tiny store downtown.
Enter, Lisa Olson, Comics Manager at Source Comics & Games in Roseville, Minnesota. We lucked out on our first visit to the shop. Lisa was working and recognized us as the newbies we were (wide eyed, wandering back and forth a lot) and helped us find something perfect for my daughter. Within the first few months, my daughter amassed a great pile including Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance, Josie and the Pussycats, Gotham Academy, and Spider Gwen. Who is this fairy godmother/sorcerer supreme of my comic book store? Hint, I interview her here today. She’s one of many great employees at Source Comic and Games in Roseville, MN. If you ever get up to the Twin Cities, be sure to make your way to the store because everyone there is smart, helpful, friendly, and it’s a huge store.
Last week I finally got to connect with the ever-busy Lisa over lunch where we talked everything from store basics to her opinions on Marvel’s relationship with comic retailers. Spoiler alert: it’s not sunshine and roses.
Lisa, how did you get into comics?
I was really into Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Family Circus, whatever I could get. In high school I read Blankets by John Thompson that got me super into chasing down all kinds of stuff like Maus and Persepolis. I got into Attack of the Show on G4 which is like CNN for nerds. They had little segment called Fresh Ink and that led me to the Unwritten and Sweet Tooth (both Vertigo series) and I was totally blown away. From there, it was not so much a downhill slide as a walk off a cliff. I had a pull list within a couple months at the Source (where she works now!) My parents had no idea about comic book stores but it wasn’t until I was in high school/college that I started going. Through G4 and the internet, I found my way.
What titles are you reading now?
I grab about twenty books off the rack every week. I try to read as much as humanly possible. In terms of Big Two stuff, I’ve been reading Justice League and Batman. I read Avengers, Thor, and Captain America. I love the mini series at Marvel and DC because that’s where you get the unique creative visions, stuff like Multiple Man, Tales of Suspense, Mister Miracle, and Brave and Bold at DC. Most of the reading I do is independent publishers. I’m a huge fan of Image, Black Mask and Vault. I read just about everything they put out.
What would you recommend for those just getting into comics?
I have two go to books. For anybody who is interested in superheroes, I always talk about Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. It’s super fun. It’s super accessible. You get to read a superhero book without having to feel like you need to do two years of intensive research to understand what’s going on. The Young Avengers run by Kieron Gillan and Jamie McKelvie good for that, as is Ms Marvel. A lot more recent stuff, creatives and publishers are more conscious that people are coming to comics without a lot of background and are putting out books with that in mind.
What do you suggest for seasoned readers looking for a new challenge?
Vault and Black Mask are two of my favorites. Black Mask does a lot of stuff that’s very politically engaged. They have a series called Breathless. It’s about monsters running around and the group researching them. The core of the story revolves a round a character with terrible life threatening asthma. Her inhalers are very expensive and the doctors capture one of the monsters. They do an autopsy on the monster and as they crack the chest open a gas is released. That gas heals the asthma. Of course the company researching the monsters want to monetize that discovery. You get into these issues of pharma-business.
Another book. Cal Exit is about a growing political movement in California that wants to be independent of conservative viewpoints, so they just declare independence. So the president sends in the National Guard. There’s a bike messenger who goes back and forth between the groups. In fact, the author of this book is a real grassroots political organizer in real life.
I love Aftershock to a large extent too. Vault, Black Mask, and Aftershock are run by people who love comics and want to see them push the envelope for what books can do. So if you want to stretch yourself, Vault, Black Mask, and Aftershock are where you want to go. They all seek to engage with people more and find more ways to engage with just the story.
What kind of customers does the Source attract?
All kinds. All kinds. The internet would have you believe that comic readers look a certain way. We have people who subscribe who are all over the place. We have the young, old, men, women, people you would never believe read comics, and people you would absolutely assume would read comics. The industry makes comics for everybody, so we get everybody.
How have clientele or their interests changed?
In my four years at the store, there are more women and more diverse groups of people coming in our doors. There’s a new generation of creatives who grew up on the internet. With more access to the industry, and developing their art/self publishing, as all those people come into Marvel and DC, they are making content that appeals to more and more people. That brings in new readers. When Ta’Nehisi Coates started on Black Panther, we had hundreds of new people coming in the shop. They didn’t know how comics worked but they asked. We have a lot of people who stuck around after that and they love it and are reading all sorts of books now.
How does the Source use special events or promotions to engage the community?
We do signings anytime an author or artist wants to do one. We use social media, weekly newsletter and social media to get the word out on those signings. Part of the fun is having them on a Wednesday when people are coming to get their books. Those signings give exposure to more creators, especially local creators.
We’ve done more extensive launches. When Drew Brackington’s Catstronauts (he’s local) I brought in the Bell Museum and they brought in a gravity well and NASA resources. Drew brought in cupcakes with all the cats on them. Kids made homemade rockets. It was a lot of fun.
We also engage in all the big national events like Free Comic Book Day and Local Comic Book Day. We have some big sale days, our Holiday Jubilee, International Table Top Day, RPG Day, etc. We try to provide ways people can come in and try new things and interact with people in the community. We are big on bringing in local artists, especially on Free Comic Book Day. We invited them to set up a table and make their own money. It’s more important to us for them to connect to the community because they live here too. It’s an interesting balancing act. Obviously we are a small business and we need to look out for number one and stay in business and get paid. It’s not the most lucrative field in the world but at the same time by being successful, we provide opportunity and resources to artists in our community. We value that.
Is there another store as big as the Source?
We are probably the biggest in the state. We are on the larger end on stores in the country. We are freaky like that. I try not to mention square footage or how many cases of comics we get each week. It tends to be a distraction at cons and such. (Author’s note: according to their website, the store is “10,000 square feet of pure awesome!”)
How long as the Source been in business?
The Source has been in business for 25 years. This fall will be the 25th anniversary. They’ll be a party and stuff. We’ve been in our current location for five years.
If money was no object, what would you change about the store?
I would have our gaming and event area be twice the size it is and redo it to look like an awesome coffee shop. The reality of having space in a retail area where you are not monetizing it is unwieldy. We have a pretty large event space for what we have. I’d split it up for more space int eh front and back of the store. I’m such an advocate for people talking to other customers. Nothing makes me happier than if I’m talking to a regular on a Wednesday and another customer comes in and joins the conversation. I’m there all the time, so’s all the staff. We are just the custodians of the community at the Source and nothing makes me happier than when people connect over things they enjoy.
Are there any certain characters or titles you are tired of but keep in stock because they sell so well?
(Long pause) Ah yes.
That you’re willing to admit to…
The bulk of Marvel and DC.
Marvel and DC have defined the industry, and the history of the industry, for better and for worse. There’s a lot of stuff that they do that doesn’t age well. Because the size of our store we are obligated to carry it. It’s extremely hard to wade through all the books they have in print and determine which ones. Curating any industry into a store is challenging but when its something as ever changing as comics, it gets more difficult. curate into a store. Some of that is just running a comic store when Marvel and DC have the bulk of the product. At the same time, I think that the stuff that’s really deeply impactful for people is not generally the Marvel and DC stuff. People come in and say, “I want to read Green Arrow but I don’t know where to start, how to reconcile with the story.” I tell them not to worry, that Marvel and DC are like the All My Children with punching. I remind people that if it’s important, it’ll come up in the story. They don’t need to research as much as they think they do. So one one hand, when you have that long running narrative that you can stick with for years and years, it’s really awesome. But it doesn’t have the finality, narrative complexity, and technical skill you see in other books.
Done means done but that’s not true in Marvel or DC.
That’s so true. If a character dies, they’ll come back. There are no stakes because they have a stable of characters and they can’t kill everybody.
Are there certain characters that, for whatever reason, have to stick around? Does that throw a wrench in trying getting new character launched and getting people to know them?
Absolutely. People form extremely intense emotional, not logical or reasonable, attachments to characters. It’s absolutely a it’s a strength of the industry because people should be invested in it but it does hinder the intro of new characters. You get to this point where these characters have been around 60 years and I start reading this stuff and you get into this mind frame where there is no legitimacy for a new character because we’ve already got a character who does that.
It seems the attitude with comic book readers is If Captain America is “truth justice the American way” and there are variations on that, why would we need a new one?
Because of those decades of work, Marvel and DC are well defined, finite landscapes. They are always trying to dredge up old characters and it doesn’t work. It has less to do with those characters than it does with readers being accustomed to, let’s say Justice League is just these ten characters. It feels wrong to people and they get caught up with that. There’s a certain level of nostalgia, a level of what they expect a superhero book to be, and when you deviate from that it upsets people, a LOT.
And with the internet, they have an outlet to share their upset feelings.
YES! It’s a strength and a hindrance at the same time. It’s an ongoing thing that Marvel an DC do. They try to find creators that will take a character like Mister Miracle or Vision, you know like Tom King does and breathes new life into them. People love it and respond, and you get an amazing thing in the moment. But as much as they are loved, neither are part of the primary canon. It all happens adjacent to that main world. It’s very hard for people to accept something into the regular line up. Even like Black Panther which has been massive or very successful like Matt Fractions’ Hawkeye. They are seen as their own thing and not in the main canonical world.
Connecting to readers reactions when things are changed, what was the initial reaction to Jane as Thor? I came to that title later and seemed to miss out on the drama, thankfully.
The reaction to Jane Thor was very mixed. I was working at the store and saw the announcement and said, “Oh this is another blonde chick in armor. Guess I’ll read it.” I almost started crying when she flew with the hammer and said “Oh hell yeah!” and then in her final issue too, I almost lost it when I was reading the comic. I couldn’t believe how affected i was by it. Shows how important that is. I’m fairly well represented n media so I can’t imagine how important it is for people even less represented.
Having said that I started getting notes from subscribers that ranged from “This is amazing! This is awesome!” to “I want Thor when the real Thor comes back. This is not the real Thor.” I mean, Thor has been a frog. He’s been any number of things and that’s less upsetting to a certain type of fan.
It’s less upsetting when Thor was a frog than when Thor was a woman?
Yeah, even though she’s a woman that’s been an integral character in that world from the beginning.
It’s not like Jane walked in off the street.
She’s not an interloper, she’s an OG.
If there are men, especially older ones, who tell me they are not into it, several times I’ve I make a point to ask them, in the eye, and asked them to tell me more, to tell me what their problem is. Their discomfort is coming from something they know being even slightly different than what they are used to. I think that part of the problem with the online and in store discussion of this stuff tends to be the different types of fans. People who are coming to comics now do not have the baggage and attachments that make them automatically reject new things.
Some parts of the interest would make you believe it’s all dire.
Their emotional reaction would have you believe that someone is sneaking in the night and taking their comics from their house. There seems to be little grace and space for people to find comics in a way that works for them.
I’ve worked at the Source for four years and Barnes and Noble for three years before that and at B.Dalton Booksellers at the mall in high school. I’ve listened my entire career about the death of print and how this unsustainable. People very much want this stuff. They want it in different ways, for different reasons, different people want different things.
Those people on the internet are so wrong. Things that are printed that matter to people will continue to exist. It’s about making things that matter to people.
Comics are relevant to people and how we interact with them needs to keep up with the rest of the society.
If you could have a magic wand to change one thing about the comic industry as it currently stands, what would you do?
Ho Oh. (Big breath). My first knee jerk reaction was if Comicsgate and Diversity and Comics could just disappear from the internet, not anything bad to happen to them as humans, if those conversations could just go away. They are destructive and wrong. He understands very little to nothing about the business of retail or distribution.
But then I thought, and you can quote me directly on this, Marvel’s business practices regarding retailers and distribution are, I think, greatest threat to the industry.
We ordered 350 copies of Fantastic Four #1 because of their insane esoteric math an their requirements to Artgerm’s variant covers that everyone’s crazy for. We had to order a certain percentage of Avengers #3 to do that. They are using sales of one book to predict how many will read a future series. When people are asking them to change the ratios and qualifying books, the budge may be tiny, but not in a way that makes sense for us. we are being punished for having too much success with Avengers #3. It’s not helpful to us to have them tell us how many people should be reading a book and how many copies we should have. Ultimately, I understand my customer base. I understand sales in my store. Not every comic books store works the same way, that do not treat ordering with the seriousness we do. There are twenty seven variant covers for Fantastic Four. Some covers you can open order, some you have to qualify, some are the 1 in 100 thing, within those 27 different covers there are 5 or 6 ways to qualify.
That’s insane. That’s a web of stupid.
I know! Retailers have been arguing for weeks online with Marvel. We want to order. We get either no response or vague responses. Marvel is notorious. It really seems they don’t seem to care what we have to say about stuff. They don’t send qualified reps to conferences where retailers are. The guy we deal with, the rep who talks to us about qualifying ratios, is the guy making comments about diversity and comics not selling. It’s the one guy, despite the fact that our relationship is so fraught, he’s not going anywhere because Marvel doesn’t care about the relationship with retailers.
I thought after a year or so, maybe I just didn’t understand all of this. But after attending Comics Pro and presentations at C2E2, NYCC comic con, SDCC, publishers around the country, I mean we are a huge account, I talk with them all. I understand this industry at this point.
There a lot of creators and editors at Marvel who love comics. They understand a lot about comics. They value relationships with retailers and value relationships with their readers. They are and only interested in helping retailers and readers. There’s some cabal, or just David Gabriel (it’s incredibly opaque to us) being this frustrating. With every other publisher, I have direct access. They are great about all sorts of stuff. I’ve contacted Marvel to get resources for educators and librarians and told, many times, that that’s not what’s done.
I’v worked with other publishers. If I need something for an educational need, I can get support from them. I contact Marvel and they tell me, that’s not a thing.
Are you kidding me? I’m an educator. I can tell them there’s a huge demand in schools for their content. There’s a huge audience craving their content. They need to hire me to help them see reality.
It’s unreal. they don’t have to produce anything new. They have a lot of stuff. It’s like there’s some major blockage and I don’t know exactly what it is.
The amount t of time Marvel expects us to do to order their books, disproportionately, is destructive and takes away our ability to do that with any other publisher or the store in general.
The time I spend on Marvel orders is time away from answering questions from subscribers, spending time with readers on the store floor, talking to other publishers who do a hell of a lot more for us that they do.
But Marvel is a juggernaut so they don’t have to change, is that it?
Because they are such a large opaque operation it’s hard for us to have conversation with them where they understand what we are saying. I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve gone to NY to go and see the Marvel offices because they grew up reading about going on tours there. They get there. Marvel doens’t have that anymore. There’s no connection like that with their readers. DC relocated to Burbank so I don’t know. Not every office building has to be a tourist attraction but there are basic ways to interact with fans they are not doing.
Feels like they are missing out on an important part of operating a business, connecting with the customer. Actually, as it is now, you are their customer and I’m your customer.
They have their algorithms that tell them what should sell and what we have to say is not heard.
DC is having a fantastic year. The Brave and the Bold series is spectacular, no variant covers. Liam Sharpe made a great book and people read it. That was a better money maker than plenty of the Marvel series, with all those variant covers, do for us. DC is doing better communicating with people about why they should read their book
None of the publishers sell to readers. They sell to retailers. With a non returnable retail model, we are the ones holding the bag when things don’t sell. Non Marvel publishers go a long way to connect to readers. So that idea of with great power comes great responsibility is true and Marvel, you should care more about being a steward for that industry.
Speaking of being stewards to the industry, does the Source have a philosophy on how they interact with customers?
We are here for everybody. Everybody is welcome to be here. We understand that as a staff, we have a lot of crap that makes no sense to people. We are tasked with helping them understand and connect with others, like before, we are the custodians of the community.
I like that when we came in to the Source for the first time, I was terrified that someone would tell my preteen daughter, “That’s not for you” based on the fact that she’s a girl with blonde hair. We walked in, you approached us and you didn’t ComicsSplain. You asked her questions about things she liked, didn’t like, and then you made a recommendation. Every time I’ve been in looking for something new, Source staff tended to ask me questions or make a recommendation based on what’s on my pull list. That doesn’t happen everywhere.
Part of it is the culture of thinking about ourselves as a business. You should ask questions when talking to a customer. That’s a life basic. A lot of us have experience in other types of retail, that’s how you communicate with people. It also has to do with people who have been in the comics business a long time, especially if they have smaller spaces, there’s a lot of comics culture that has always been like “Well, we are the underdogs” and they get defensive about it so they don’t want these new people It’s like the ComicsGate stuff.
As if its a zero sum game, that new people coming to what we love is going to take it from us. That’s weird. The gatekeeping piece is intimidating so if you have someone preaching to me with their fancy knowledge is really off putting.
We don’t treat our books as hyper precious. They are not magical gems with limited access. So we are very much more, everything you see here is what we love. Come check it out.
I’m a curious, creative, comic(al) woman. I am unapologetically Team Cap, but not HydraCap because there is a line in the moral sands of the universe and that whole thing is on the other side of it. I teach high school students all about the joys of mythology through comic books, graphic novels, and films. I wandered into the comic book world in 2015 and is a proud member of the #DoYouEvenComicBook gang.