In my columns during the past couple of months, I have tried to provide potential new comics retailers with tips on how to survive in the new Internet-driven comics market. In nearly every paragraph of those columns, however, I have gone out of my way to try and caution those considering becoming comics retailers about the risks of jumping into this savagely competitive market. Not only are the rates of failure for new comics dealers astoundingly high (90%+ in the first five years), but even those who "succeed" frequently earn very little in the way of compensation. Becoming a full time comics dealers is definitely not an easy path to riches. Nor is a career in comics retailing a way to garner much in the way of social standing. Simply put, you have to not only be extremely clever and hardworking to survive as a comics retailer, but you also have to be willing to accept substandard wages, and be willing to suffer frequent dubiousness, scorn, and derision from friends and neighbors who have not the slightest idea of what you actually do for a living.
All of the above having been said, I'm sure you're asking yourself why I, and thousands of others like me, have chosen comics retailing as a career. The glib response would be (of course...) that we all suffer the slings and arrows of an ungrateful world solely because we fervently believe in the cause of sequential storytelling as an art form, and that we're all determined to gain public acceptance for comics on an equal plane with paintings, sculpture, film, dance, phototgraphy, music, and all other forms of artistic expression. Practice saying it long enough, and that idealistic phraseology can roll off of your tongue like butter. The fact that many of us really are committed to sustaining the future of comics and graphic storytelling helps us a lot when trying to sound convincingly genuine when articulating this primary motiviation. In reality, however, the motives of most comics dealers are far less altruisitic, and frequently are vastly more self-serving. While that may sound like a negative statement, I actually mean it quite positively. Said slightly differently, there are some very definite personal reward elements to being a comics dealer that might not be immediately obvious, but which are clearly attractive enough to have motivated tens of thousands of people to try and join our world. I'm going to elaborate on some of those non-cash benefits for you in my column today as an offset to all the cautions and caveats that I expressed in my earlier discussions of your potentially becoming a comics dealer. Once you've see both sides of the equation, then I think you're in the best postion to make a reasonable judgement.
If someone were to ask me (which they never do) why I became a comics dealer, I think that they would be very surprised at the answer. You see, the general assumption was that I started selling comics intending to make gobs of money. Hah! I voluntarily gave up a full ROTC scholarship to the University of Colorado, with a subsequent guarantee of a reasonably well paying job as an Army officer, to instead live in the back of a 1963 Chevy because I thought I was going to get rich? Nothing could possibly be further from the truth. The realities were two-fold. First, the monthly living stipend of $100 that I was receiving from ROTC was too little for me to survive, even at 1977 prices. I was having to sell comics while I was going to CU to supplement my monthly budget, because I just didn't have enough left after paying my $75 room rent to buy food. Had economics been my only consideration, however, I'm sure that I could have figured out a way to sell some comics on the side, and still have finished my degree.
The reality is that I ultimately chose comics as a career because it was the only path I saw to personal freedom. As hard as it may seem to believe, my subconcious actually made the decision for me. The way it transpired was that in April, 1974 I was being pressured by the instructors of my ROTC unit to go to Ft. Benning, Georgia, to take a training course at the elite Army Airborne Ranger school. This put me in a real dilemna, as I relished the prospect of many of the physical aspects of Ranger training, such as rappeling down cliffs, and jumping out of airplanes. On the flip side, I destested Army structure and discipline. My stepfather was a Master Sergeant in the Army for 37 years, and I saw frequent instances where he was victimized as a result of his loyalty to the Army. I also wasn't real keen on the idea of "going to strange lands, meeting new people, and killing them." That put me at severe odds with most of my brainwashed ROTC classmates. In spite of these reservations, however, I let the powers-that-be finally talk me into giving an OK to putting my name on the Ranger school list. I then went to the barbershop frequented by all of the University of Colorado ROTC participants, and had the shaggy (think early Beatles) head of hair that I had grown over the winter replaced by a regulation buzz cut. With that symbolic gesture, I crossed the line into agreeing to make the Army my life's endeavor. Or so I thought...
That very evening that I cut my hair, I had an experience which changed the course of my life. Simply put, I woke up in the darkest part of the night sobbing without control. While I had made the concious (and theoretically rational) decision to follow the Army path during the previous day, I simply could not escape my doubts and fears during that dreadful night. Following a pattern that I now adhere to without fail, I listened to what my subconcious was telling me. I returned to the ROTC offices the following morning, and announced that I needed a leave-of-absence from the program. That led to my ultimately resigning from ROTC, and taking on the incredible risk of becoming a full-time comics dealer.
What's important about the story that I just related for you is not the whole ROTC scenario, but rather my rejection of any constraints upon my personal freedom. While the risks were incredibly high going the comics route, and the financial rewards were pitiful, I was reasonably sure that I could generate enough income to at least survive living in the old Chevy. Given the alternative of living well in a highly structured organization with minimal personal freedoms, or struggling to get by in an arena where I had complete and total personal freedom, my subconcious chose freedom over security. Aside from proposing marriage to my wonderful wife, Nanette, I consider that decision to have been the best one that I ever made in my life. The fact that it ultimately led to my owning a large corporation, and generating nearly $100,000,000 in comics sales over the past 35 years, never even entered my mind. All I wanted at the time was to be living a life where absolutely no one could tell me what to do.
In a nutshell, complete personal freedom is the hidden reward of being a comics dealer or any other kind of collectibles dealer, for that matter. Once you've taken the dreadfully scary step of giving up the security of whatever establishment that has been nuturing you in exchange for your enslavement, you may find yourself experiencing giddy excitement at the realization that you're completely on your own. Taken it its extreme, think of flying or driving into a city where you know absolutely no one and have no support mechanisms available, with only your wits and inventory as assets with which to generate income. Early in my career I frequently found myself in that position, and I can guarantee you that it definitely causes several very powerful physical reactions, with "butterflies" being the only one that I can describe in mixed company. Once you get past your fears, however, and start to achieve some measure of success completely on your own, freedom becomes a drug that overwhelms your entire psyche. After that last dreadful haircut in 1974, I have never again cut my hair. It certainly gets in my way sometimes, but I wear my 3' long braid not only as a personal fashion statement, but also as a clear evidence that I have never in my adult life had to cut my hair or shine my shoes because someone else demanded it. How many people in America can make that same claim? I would hazard not too many. But if you're a comics dealer, you have that freedom, as well as the freedom to speak as you will, act as you will, and take on whatever risks you personally choose to take. You may have customers, bankers, or landlords who decided not to do business with you because they take offense at some part of your persoanl persona, but that's a cost you can decide to absorb, if you so wish. My experience has been that while you lose out on some great opportunities by abandoning the status quo of American ecomonic society, you also don't wake up sobbing in the middle of the night because you never gave yourself a chance to excel on your own.
In closing out this column, I'm now going to make a trite play on words. You see, those of you considering becoming comics dealers these days have it far easier than us "Old Coots," because we had to all play the game without a "net." From 1969-1996, if you took the huge risk of becoming a full-time comics dealer, you had to either succeed in whatever geograpic area in which you were located, travel to shows around the country, or publish a mail order catalog. Each of those three options involved a great deal of risk that you would lose all of your working capital, and thus be forced to take on the dreaded "day job" in the "real world." Since 1997, however, the Internet has broadened everyone's reach immensely, creating a single worldwide pool of customers. This has led to the creation of tens of thousands of home-based businesses in all manner of fields, including comics. I personally welcomed the Internet not only for its wonderful marketing and communication potentialities, but also because I saw it as a mechanism by which millions of people could achieve the same personal freedoms that I have been blessed to have through my life. That's why my past couple of columns have so strongly emphasized the Internet element of comics retailing as being critical. The odds of becoming rich as a comics dealer are very slim, but isn't getting by good enough if you're also free to live your life as you will? Put your hands on your computer brothers and sisters, and set yourselves free!
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your letters to:
Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221