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The Ultimate Experience!
As I sat across from this unimposing bearded man in a dive that offered some of the best NC Barbecue I’ve ever had, the silence of our eating was suddenly interrupted.
“Aren’t you that guy from the TV? That comic book guy?” The six foot five cook came out from the back and had made a beeline for us. I thought maybe he was coming to spray the community of wasps that were gathering at the windowsill but he stopped right where he wanted to, at our table.
“You mean from the commercial? Yeah I’m that guy…” The cook proceeded to ask if he bought comic books, waxed fondly over his childhood of collecting comics and then wandered away back to the bowels of the kitchen.
“Does that happen a lot?” I asked, not even really sure what we both witnessed.
“More often than you’d think” was the only response before we finished stuffing our faces.
But that’s kinda what you get with Alan Gill; the unexpected.
If you didn’t know Alan Gill is the owner of Ultimate Comics, a family of locally owned comic book stores across the NC region known as the Triangle, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. His four stores make a shape of their own with their locations in Durham, Cary, Raleigh and a warehouse store in Morrisville though I wouldn’t call it a triangle. It’s more of a brain shape, or depending on how you look at it or what route you take, a malformed baby giraffe.
Alan is also the owner of three comic book conventions in the state: Greensboro Comicon, NC Comicon: Bull City & NC Comicon: Oak City. From his roots of running a chain of frozen yogurt stores to the top of the NC comic book food chain I had the chance to sit down and delve deep into the levels of insanity it takes to do what he does.
RJ: So Alan, first and foremost, why comics?
Alan: I mean why not? We all read comics growing up. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time slinging yogurt. It took my head yogurt clerk a month to talk me into selling those stores and open a comics shop just because he wanted to work in a comic book store. Honestly, so did I.
RJ: So no regrets?
Alan: Well there’s a few. I threw myself into a business that had a learning curve. We all did. Especially when it came to the cons. None of us knew the undertaking. We just weren’t prepared for the amount of blood we’d be pouring into these. After the first few years it became like clockwork though. You adjust what’s wrong with them and hype what’s right and they just happen. The conventions we run get better every year and maybe not in size every time, but in maturity. They’re actual comic book conventions and the fans we have are fiercely loyal. If a zombie apocalypse ever happened I would wanna be in the middle of Bull City when it did so we could all fight our way out together.
RJ: So what do you think about other conventions popping up all over the state?
Alan: There’s the standard “They’re over-saturating the market” argument, and while it’s kinda true I don’t really care about that. The smaller shows never really bothered me as much and the bigger conventions don’t faze me as much as they used to. I used to feel this huge competitive weight on my shoulders when Wizard World or Supercon showed up. I worried about what they were doing instead of what we were and because of it our shows suffered…a little bit.
Wizard World came and went. I worried about it for literally nothing. Supercon showing up in our back yard was a bigger hit to the gut.
RJ: So how would you address the rumors that creators “weren’t allowed” to do both Supercon and NC Comicon?
Alan: How would you address them? You did both shows right? You’re doing all my shows this year and next.
RJ: You’re not wrong.
Alan: It’s that classic game of telephone. We went through that entire scenario years ago with some small Greensboro show and it was a PR nightmare. There’s no way I’d go through that again and all of the people working with me or for me were all the ones digging us out of that hole. I’m not sure where those rumors started but I can say one hundred percent, they didn’t come from our side of the fence.
RJ: So let’s go back to the stores for a minute. Rumors on the street have also been popping up that the recent “Crime-Wave” at the Ultimate Comics stores was an inside job. Any thoughts?
Alan: “Inside Job” means someone working for me did that and I just don’t see it. The “Trinity Thief” (we’re calling him the Trinity Thief because he hit all three stores) was on camera. We have shots of his face. They’re bad shots but we could tell if it was one of our employees. And to what end? So I could go through the hassle of dealing with three different police stations, my two landlords, three different repair facilities, the security companies, the insurance companies and the hundreds of people asking me to re-tell the story over and over and over. I was over all of that the day after it happened. Anyone spreading that rumor is pretty stupid and probably works for the Trinity Thief.
RJ: Fair enough. So let’s get back to conventions for a second. You mentioned that “Supercon showing up in your back yard was a bigger hit to the gut”. Tell me more.
Alan: Again, at first it was. We built NC Comicon: Bull City up for the past 8+ years. We dropped Oak City in almost 3 years ago. So when they showed up they were going right for the audience we established. They poured millions of dollars into their shows to do it too. When you build something from the ground up just to have “big corporate” show up and do the same thing with unlimited funds it’s disheartening. A lot of comics pros, fans and attendees just assume Supercon is our show or related to NC Comicon. Which is what they intended to do. Go type NC Comicon into your Google. Tell me what comes up.
RJ: It immediately comes up with paid adwords for Raleigh Supercon with both NC and Comic Con in the title. NC Comicon is the third listing on the page after that and DC Universe.
Alan: See? But again this used to bother me. Earlier this year Eric (Hoover), Brockton (McKinney), Tommy (Lee Edwards) and I all sat down and had a discussion about how we wanted to proceed with all conventions going forward. We decided rather than compete against them we would embrace the differences between them. One is about our local community. The other is a chain store like Wal-Mart. One is a curated event focused on comics creators where they come in and tell their stories to their fans. The other is huge room full of movie and TV celebrities you can pay extra to meet. One is an intimate and unique experience with the personal touches that make you a part of the show. The other is a big room you pay to get into to stand in line to pay more money to stand in line again to pay money.
RJ: I mean you still sound a little salty…
Alan: Someone told me last year… Oh wait it was you.
Alan: Last year you told me to just focus on my shows when I wasn’t. You told me we were “becoming corporate.”
RJ: I remember that.
Alan: Anyway it was shortly afterwards that we all realized we weren’t having fun. The show wasn’t fun. Our events weren’t fun. Our commercials weren’t fun. We were all worrying about what the other guys were doing instead of focusing on us. We were putting up a wall. We were this big pile of ridiculous frat boys that all of a sudden put on suits cause we graduated… or something. But it was all actually just a wall we put up. We weren’t having fun anymore. We weren’t those quirky zany comic book guys that flew by the seats of our asses and threw a Comicon together in a month anymore. And that just sucked. So we all made… a pact… or something… to just have fun. To be NC Comicon. To be the Ultimate Comics crew. To just do things the way we used to and to concentrate solely on us. We don’t wanna be Disney World… We wanna be… What’s a good theme park?
RJ: Jurassaic Park?
Alan: Isn’t that the place where everyone gets killed? No you idiot! We wanna be like that Harry Potter world. Cause we make magic...
RJ: So Supercon would be Disney World?
Alan: If Disney World charged you to get in and then charged you another $40 to ride every single ride then yes.
RJ: Ok let’s talk about something else. Your staff.
Alan: The store staff or NC Comicon staff?
RJ: How about both?
Alan: Ugghhhh they’re the worst… no just kidding, I have the best staff. My stores more or less run themselves. The conventions are pretty self-sufficient too. We pay our convention volunteers. It’s not a lot but we pay them. The ones that have been with us the longest and have seniority get paid. I don’t know of any other cons that do that. I try to see the potential in people and then drive them crazy so they reach that potential.
RJ: I can see that. We’ve known each other for what? 5 or so years? You’re pretty much bananas.
Alan: A lot of that was drinking. I’ve been sober for a little over a year now. I was a wreck. I think a part of that whole flying by the seat of our asses thing was just that: we were all heavy drinkers. In the past year of sobriety I’ve seen that I can have it both ways. I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too. I can have fun and do it sober.
RJ: Do you hate cosplayers?
Alan: Wow, where did that come from? Way to drop a bomb in the middle of the room.
RJ: You didn’t say no.
Alan: No I don’t hate cosplayers. They’ve become a part of everything we do. Like everything though there was an adjustment period. Cosplay was getting bigger and we just didn’t know what to do with them. We gave them costume contests, people complained. We gave them an entire building to themselves and people complained. This cosplay group hated that cosplay group and people complained. We even made Deadpoolicorn in charge of cosplay and people complained… Though that one I wasn’t surprised at. They just have a flair for the dramatic I guess? So no, we don’t hate cosplayers. We’re doing the best we can with what we have available and I would just ask them all to please have an open mind when it comes to complaining about what we do for them because we put a lot more into it than everyone thinks.
RJ: But you still hate Deadpoolicorn…
Alan: Of course. Don’t be stupid.
RJ: If you could change one thing about what you do what would it be?
Alan: The things I’ve done wrong I had to do them wrong in order to correct them. Not that there isn’t anything I’d go back and change. I’m trying not to live in the past.
What’s Luke Cage always saying?
No. Sweet Christmas!
Yeah. Sweet Christmas...