Interview with Doug Sulipa part 2
– by Shawn Conner
Kevin Smith‘s AMC series Comic Book Men got me thinking about the comic book stores of yore, especially the ones I used to go to in Winnipeg as a kid. These weren’t the clean, well-lit, organized temples of retail like Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Comic Book Men, but musty, claustrophobic yet thrilling walk-ups where women (mostly) feared to tread.
These were the Canadian Comic Shops of the 1970s (and ’80s).
In the first two parts of the series, we talk to Doug Sulipa, who opened Winnipeg’s (and one of Canada’s) first comic book stores, Doug Sulipa’s Comic World. The store closed in 1996, when Sulipa began selling comings strictly through mail-order. This is the second part of our interview with Sulipa, who currently lives in Steinbach, Manitoba.
Read the first part here.
Shawn Conner: Was the Winnipeg comic-selling scene very competitive?
Doug Sulipa: There was a lot of competition. In the early years I had the city to myself. Some of the secondhand bookstores were doing back issue comics. Red River Books was doing it before I had my store. They weren’t carrying new comics for the longest time. But they’re probably the longest-running [used books and comics] store in Winnipeg.
SC: Was it friendly competition?
DS: Most of them were friendly. Some of them were hard to deal with. The main thing is, by the ’80s there were price wars on the new comics, and it got worse in the early ‘90s when there were too many stores. We were judging stores if they were getting direct distribution comics. We counted, and there were 35 who were buying from Diamond [Distributors]. Those were non-returnable, and they were giving 30 or even 40 per cent off the cover price.
Canadian News sold newsstand comics all through the years. I was buying from Canadian News until 1977 when I discovered I could buy direct mail-order comics from Phil Seuling, a direct dealer out of New York. The original direct comics would have a different emblem; instead of a bar code they would have a Spider-Man face or a star in the UPC box. That made it non-returnable.
I was the first person to get those – some people didn’t like them, thought they were reprints. But I was getting them three weeks ahead of time. I switched distributors a few times, and by 1980 decided to become a comic wholesaler and I distributed to about 15 or 20 stores in Winnipeg. After awhile, due to competition, some had a hard time paying me so I went back to retail. Over the years I’ve always sold mail-order, which is probably how I’ve survived all these years.
SC: Were there some bad periods?
DS: Quite a few, a lot to do with new comics. New comics could bury a store so easily. You would have to order two months in advance, and it could change in a week or two. You’d have comics pre-ordered for two solid months. Or let’s say there was trend – something hot that then died. There were times we would order 500 copies of something. My first big order that I can recall was Peter Parker Spectacular Spider-Man number one, I think in 1976. I basically bought out Canadian News – I bought them out of Howard the Duck number one also.
SC: Whatever happened to all those first issues of Peter Parker?
DS: Out of the 5,000 or so copies, I sold about 90 per cent of them. People were speculating, and that went all the way into the early ’90s. There were a couple other books I nearly bought 5,000 copies of, or more: Spider-Woman number one; King Conan number one; Dazzler number one. The first magazine I ordered lots of copies of, Epic Illustrated, because it had a [Frank] Frazetta cover.
The ’80s was probably the biggest boom in comics. Stores were coming out of every corner, prices were going through the roof. From the early ‘80s a lot of the early Marvel number ones were under $1,000, now they’re over. New comics were a big thing through the ‘80s. Since I started selling comics, I’ve probably sold about 15 to 20 million comics.
SC: When did you lose interest in the industry?
DS: I didn’t lose interest in the industry, just in the collection. I had reached I think 70,000 comics before I started selling them off.
SC: Where is the industry at now?
DS: It’s in another state of flux. Comics have gone through this since collecting started. Every five or 10 years people crying doom and gloom. What usually happens is another boom, where the prices go through the roof.
SC: Where are the collectors coming from?
DS: There seems to be fewer collectors. The print runs of comics are going down, and they’re not as accessible to the general public as they used to be. In an age when graphic novels are considered a credible medium, it’s sad to say the print runs of comics themselves are actually declining.
And the number of stores seem to be dropping. The new comics are fuel to make the trade paperbacks, which continue rising in sales. The market is changing and people are having a hard time grasping what to do. It’s the related merchandising that’s selling, which is why you have the San Diego convention, which is such a huge event. It was originally basically just comics, now the comics section is probably less than five per cent of the floor-space. You can’t look at comics just comic books themselves anymore; it’s a whole industry of related products.
SC: What about tablets and iPads as a new way to read comics?
DS: That might be the direction the industry will eventually go; you’ll have to buy the comics on the Kindle and have it that way rather than have the physical prodcut.
The collectors are always going to want the original product, which is an instinct. The reader is a different animal. Collectors have this hoarding instinct, which I think has to do with repeating good childhood memories, or good memories in general. That fuels the need to collect. You’re not going to get that from having an image on a computer.
There aren’t as many young collectors as there were; new comics aren’t as affordable as they used to be. In the ’70s, if you had a two–dollar allowance you’d be able to buy eight 0r 10 comics a week. Now, with an average cover price of four dollars, you can’t buy many comics. This makes it tough when you’re a young person. It’s rather an expensive form of entertainment. You might get hours of entertainment out of a book for not much more money. But with comics, you’re getting the experience of the art and the text. It’s a unique industry and you can’t really substitute it for something else once you’re hooked on the medium.
SC: What do you think of the show Comic Book Men?
DS: It’s quite a different experience. There’s a lot of negotiating. Usually I’d give a price and that would be it. One thing I didn’t like is that they’re kind of laughing at the customers. That was a real turn-off. They would laugh at the customers as they were leaving. We were always very respectful. That’s the way we were.
Much thanks to Doug Sulipa for his cooperation with this article.