An Evening At Chapel Hill Comics

Posted by on August 23rd, 2010 at 5:54 AM

Rob offers his observations of a mini-comic party at Chapel Hill Comics.

There are a number of ways in which Chapel Hill Comics is one of the finest comics shops in America.  It’s spacious, well-organized, well-lit and friendly (Star Clipper Comics in St. Louis was his model on how to run a store).  Its emphasis is less on superheroes than “new mainstream” and alt-comics.  Its storefront is on Franklin Street, the main drag of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  Its owners are the husband-wife team of Andrew & Vanessa Neal, and the store has existed in some incarnation since 1978.  That makes it the oldest in the Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill “triangle” of nearby college towns.  Neal has worked for the shop since 1994 and bought it seven years ago, renamed it, and moved it to a more inviting location.  In an area that has a number of competitors (including three shops in Durham, another shop in Chapel Hill and two shops in Raleigh), Neal has managed to maintain steady sales by adapting both to the changes in the market and the overall economy.

One reason for his success has been a series of events at his store.  The usual big-name author appearances and signings are part of that formula, but Neal wisely holds a number of events designed to appeal to the local community.  That includes a 24-hour-comics day wherein artists actually draw their comics in the store’s back area, as well as the recent Local Artist Mini-Comics Party.  Neal invited eight local cartoonists whose age and experience varied greatly to sell & display their work, sign books and do some sketches.  It’s something he had planned to do for quite some time, and he noted that he hopes to do it again in the future.

That group included long-time veterans like Eric Knisley & Kevin Dixon, who collaborated on strips like Mickey Death (an underground classic in this area).  Knisley is currently working on a way to combine hand drawings with 3D graphics to create a new kind of comic book experience.  Dixon is currently working on adapting Gilgamesh with his father, as well as collecting his …And Then There Was Rock strips (stories from the local rock scene).  Leah Riley has been doing comics for ten years, and she’s making the transition from webcomics series like to paper formats.  She and Knisley noted that at this point in their lives, it was more important to have fun working on their projects than worrying about making money off of them.

Eric Knisley

At the opposite end of the experience trail were sixteen year old Max Huffman and Yana Levy.  Just nine years old, Levy has been making comics for about a year and decided to start doing them out of “boredom”.  She also noted that while this was the first time she had ever shown off her comics in public, she liked the idea quite a bit.  Huffman has the makings of a comics lifer.  He’s been reading and drawing them his entire life.  When I said that most kids aren’t into comics these days, he philosophically noted that “school’s hard, I’m not good at sports” and comics were one thing that always gave him pleasure.  Primarily a webcartoonist, the minis he had here were his first printed publications, something he clearly took pride in.  He’s already thinking about going to the School of Visual Arts and wants cartooning to be his profession.

Image copyright 2010 Max Huffman

The artist I was most looking forward to meeting was Adam Meuse.  Neal said that his first two minicomics, Social Insect and Sad Animals, have been huge sellers in his shop–in part because he likes them so much and suggests them to customers.  Meuse combines cute imagery with sardonic or absurd commentary, creating an amusingly dissonant experience for a reader.  Meuse’s agent is shopping his book Everything Has Eyes (containing a number of short, single-page narratives) around to several publishers.

Image copyright 2010 Adam Meuse

Neal said that he prefers store events that feature local artists for two reasons.  First, he enjoys fostering the local comics community, giving its members a place to interact and display their art.  Second, these events do much better for him in terms of money.  In an email, he told me “The amount we took in today was 262% of an average Saturday… [and] the three hours of the sale accounted for half our money for the day (around 130% of an average Saturday).  I am absolutely thrilled.”  What’s remarkable about Neal’s success is that he’s achieved it by pushing books that he likes.  Scott Pilgrim 6 is his store’s top seller this year (100 copies sold so far).  Jim Rugg’s Afrodisiac is the store’s #3 seller, and Rugg’s signing a few months ago was a huge success.

Mike Wieringo (l) and Andrew Neal (r)

Neal’s cut way down on items people are getting on (like classic comics collections) and manga (hurt badly by teen-oriented fare being scanlated) and has made a profit on walk-in traffic.  A full forty percent of his sales come from women, who tend to come in less frequently than men but buy higher-ticket items.  By bringing in women and families, by having enthusiastic staff members who provide informed and emphatic recommendations, and by ruthlessly adjusting his inventory based on what sells and what doesn’t, Neal has managed to maintain the same level of sales during the recession.  By having fewer actual items in his store than he used to, he’s been able to maximize profits while maintaining an atmosphere that’s exhilarating for any fan of comics.

All photos courtesy of Andrew Neal.

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