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Friday, September 08, 2006

Interview With Michael McCormick, Owner/Operator of The Comic Empire of Tulsa

In the world of pop culture, Comic Empire of Tulsa is a local landmark, with a long history of feeding the habits of four-color enthusiasts from a few different generations and many walks of life. Certainly not the largest shop in town, and not stocked with the latest figures, games, cards or videos, (except those sold on consignment by fans trying to pay for their hobby) Comic Empire is a “pure” comics shop, dealing exclusively in comics and graphic novels. Sure, you can order any item you want out of the Previews catalog, but don’t expect owner/operator Michael McCormick to regularly stock all of the latest comics-related doodads and trinkets, or order a crate-full of the latest hot figure to sit (and gather dust) on a shelf. The man loves comics. The world and history of comics is what he knows, lives and breathes. So, that’s what he deals with.

You may wonder why I would dedicate so much space to an interview with the owner of a comics shop. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, no less. I guess the main reason is the impact said shop has had on collectors in the area for what is now over 30 years. That’s quite a run for such an establishment, matched by precious few such outfits in the entire country, when you consider percentages. Another reason would simply be that Michael McCormick is a friend. A GOOD friend. Having become more than the guy who owns the shop where I get my comics, he’s become a guy I can talk music with. Or sports. Or family. Or even politics and religion. (Though, officially, the last two aren’t discussed in his store, so, don’t bring them up.) And, when we inevitably disagree on the big two, he’s the guy I know isn’t going to hold anything against me. He’ll be the same friend he was before. I guess that’s the reason that, even now, living over 300 miles away, I still buy my comics from him. And, it’s why I wanted to do this interview.
Congrats on 30 years, Mike! Here’s to 30 more!
(Thanks to Dal Turley for the photographs.)

Mark: When was the Comic Empire of Tulsa established, and when did you take ownership?

Michael: Well, we don’t know the exact date, but it was in the middle of June, ‘76. We never could remember if it was the 13th, or the 15th, or the 17th, exactly, but it was kind of in the middle of June. Then I took over about the same time or a little after in ‘84. Actually, more towards the Fall, probably. He (Larry Scott, the former owner) had it just a hair over eight years.

Mark: Were you a frequent customer before you bought it?

Michael: Oh yeah. I was here the first week he ever opened. He had a radio ad on...AM radio, back in those days. That shows you how long ago it was. I heard the ad, and I was in my car and just made a U turn and came straight here. I was like “Oh my gosh! A real comic shop with like back issues and stuff?” I was the happiest guy on earth!

Mark: At that time, did you know you wanted to buy a comic shop?

Michael: Oh, no, that all came later. This was in high school. I went away to school, Oklahoma State, got a job in the real world and hated it. Actually, I came home on vacation, I was down at Texas. They made me move, so I had to change my comic shop, and I was all over Texas and I never found a little shop that was any better than this one. And, you know, I was in Dallas for a while, so I had to do the Lone Star chain thing, which, they’re a chain, so it was a different 16-year-old kid working there each week.

There was a nice little shop in El Paso, though. I wish I could remember what their name was. But, anyway, she ran a nice little shop, kind of “slash” bookstore. And, then one day I was back for vacation and Larry told me he was trying to sell it. I hadn’t been in for almost three years, and he said he’d been trying to sell it for over a year. He’d keep lowering his price and lowering his price and no takers. A lot of people would hem and haw and say they wanted it, then nobody would ever come through with the money. And, I hated my job anyway, and I kind of thought about it, found out what he was asking for the place. This was November. I took it over in late ‘84. And he said in one more month, the end of December, he was going to close the store. So, I was like, “What?! You can’t do that! It’s the best little shop in the whole Oklahoma/Texas/New Mexico area!” So, I found out what he wanted for it, and you know, I kind of had to hem and haw. I had big knots in my stomach, I thought I’d be bankrupt in six months, then I’d be closed, anyway.

But, he said he’d stay on and help me, and he did. So, for quite a while, six months or more, he introduced me to all the customers, many of whom I knew anyway, cause I’d been here years before. Technically, it was still his store, but I kind of came in under his wing and he kind of taught me what he did. I think, officially, on the contract, it was January 1 of ‘85 (that I took over.) I did change a few things, but not many. It was really a very smooth transition. We didn’t lose a single customer that I can remember, over the management change. Which, normally, is odd in a business. When you change management, usually you lose customers, but we didn’t lose anybody that I know. Everyone was already used to seeing me in here, anyway, so it really was a very smooth transition.

Mark: If I’m not mistaken, yours is the longest-running comic retail outlet in Tulsa...?

Michael: Yeah, and as far as I know, we’re the oldest shop in the state, I’m pretty sure by quite a bit. Now, where we actually rank in the country I’m not real sure. Larry and I were kind of curious, one day..., I must have asked him that question or something. Anyway, we started looking in the price guide, to see how many shops were advertising in there, things like that. We just kind of estimated at the time that there were only maybe less than a hundred shops at the time. And, most of those were New York, New Jersey, L.A., Southern California, where the big collectors were. But, really I don’t know officially where we rank, but we were certainly an early shop. And, as far as I know, we’re definitely the oldest shop in Oklahoma. I don’t know of any shop that’s been open longer than we have. And, like I say, we’re probably one of the oldest in the country.

Mark: Well, what’s interesting about that, too, is that, just from my standpoint as a patron going around to the different comic shops in Tulsa for years, you have always been spoken of and Comic Empire has always been spoken of with great respect. It’s like, “They’ve been here the longest.” Nobody has ever (to my knowledge) talked about, “We’ve got to get him out of business!”

Michael: Right. And I think that’s really why most of the shops that did start up here all ended up having to do gaming, or do the Vintage Stock sort of thing, where you’re selling used cd’s and dvd’s and things like that.

Mark: Talk about that for a minute, because that’s one of my questions. What’s your response to those who believe that you have to diversify, or branch out (into more than one area)?

Michael: Well, I understand what they’re saying. This is America and they’re going to chase the hot dollar. (A particular Tulsa dealer) over at (a Tulsa shop) does that, I mean that’s his thing. In fact, I’ll run into him every once in a while at UPS as we’re picking up our books and he’ll ask me, “Have you heard what the next hot thing around the corner is?” And, you know me, I never pay attention to that. Because he’s looking to chase the hot dollar. He want’s to know what the next hot game is, or the hot figure that everybody’s after, or whatever, so that he can order them in and order them by the box load and clean up. But, I don’t have any interest in that. I don’t care about gaming, I have no knowledge about it. I’d feel..., I don’t know, sleazy if I was selling something that I didn’t really have any interest in, or know anything about, just to sell it as a salesman-type. That’s not really me, anyway. But, yeah, I understand (the mind-set). You’ve gotta survive if you’re going to be in business. So, no, I don’t mind it at all, really. In fact, actually when I hear they’ve done that I sort of relax, because I know there’s no way they’re going to be able to do comics nearly as well as we can. But, no, I definitely understand why they’re doing it.

Mark: Talk about the response people have...., you mentioned this to me not long ago, it was kind of funny...., the response people have to you making a go of it with a comic store. People still say, “You can make a living at this?”

Michael: Oh, yeah! All my friends. Everybody I grew up with. They just can’t believe it. I still get people in here..., I had a lady the other day, saying “You really make money doing this?” It’s like, “Well, 30 years, y’know. I’m not gonna buy my Bahama island anytime soon, but we’ve survived for 30 years.” And, my friends are always saying, “When ya gonna get a REAL job?” Of course, my response is, “You can’t get more real than being in business for yourself!” That is running head-on into reality, right there!

Mark: That’s as scary as it gets! (Laughter)

Michael: Yeah, that’s as scary as it gets, right there! And, when I first took the keys over from Larry, I had a knot in my stomach the size of a basketball. Because I didn’t know anything about business. I knew absolutely zero about business. And, so that’s why I was so happy for Larry to kind of show me little tricks he’d do and things like that, so I could have some idea of what I was doing. Just to keep the books every week!

Mark: Right. You’ve stayed open through some really hard times in the comics retail business. What are some factors that you would credit for your success? What’s enabled you to do it when others couldn’t?

Michael: I think the real thing here, in this area, was we were the first. Somebody had to be the first and we were the first, so a lot of hard core collectors, like myself, we were here the first week. I mean, we couldn’t believe there was a comic shop in existence. We were so happy. And, a pure shop, too, I mean that’s all he did. Although, Larry, originally, in his early days did a little bit of gaming. But, I got rid of that first thing. He didn’t do it very well, and there were other game shops. Games were taking off in that ‘80's period. So, we quit the games and just went strictly to comics. But, I just think we were first, and all the hard core comic heads came here. And, still do today, really, for the most part. Even patrons of other stores - I had guys in today looking for books that Vintage (Stock) didn’t have.

Mark: Being in business that long, I assume you’ve had some comics professionals in the store over the years...?

Michael: We’ve had a few. Really, not as many as you’d think, after all these years. Of course, I don’t think Tulsa’s the “hot bed” destination for most comic professionals. Of course, Archie Goodwin would drop in all the time, because he was from here. The last time I remember seeing him was ‘88, I believe, or ‘89, when he came in for his 30-year class reunion.

Mark: Now, where did he go to school?

Michael: He went to school at Tulsa Central. And, he was just a few years ahead of my mom. This could have been ‘86, even.

Mark: So, he was the only one that was close to being regular?

Michael: Well, yeah. Like I say, he was from the area and he still had family here, so, if he had vacations or long weekends or whatever, he would come into town.

Mark: What about Mike Roberts?

Michael: Well, Mike Roberts, yeah. I don’t really think of him as a professional, although he was. He had actually worked in the comics field in the ‘60's, doing undergrounds, long before I met him. And, then, of course, he got drafted (into the Vietnam War) and that was the end of that. But, he did keep his hand in after he got out of the military. He would ink odd books here and there. Probably the old “Dinosaurs For Hire” is the one most people would be familiar with. He did the ink washes on that book. Quite beautiful they were, actually. And, he would do odd covers here and there. But, I always thought of him more as a customer and a friend, really, than a comic professional, though he certainly would do that from time to time.

(Note from interviewer: Mike Roberts' work has been included in the Oklahoma Cartoonists Collection.)

Mark: You’re known by your customers as having pretty eclectic tastes in music. That’s something you and I have had a lot of conversations about, and you always have music on in your store. Are there any specific bands or individuals whose music you just have to play in the store from time to time?

Michael: No, not really. It’s mostly certain genres. You know me, I’m a big ‘60's freak, anyway. Rare old ‘60's garage bands are kind of a favorite. I like to play a lot of jazz in here, too. Everybody always seems to be rather shocked when they walk in and hear jazz. And, certainly blues. We’ll play almost anything. Not many stores will play Led Zeppelin one minute and Charlie Parker the next.

Mark: (Laughter) Right. Well, an obvious question (for a comics retailer): What are a few of your all-time favorite comics works. Now, I say “a few” because I know you can’t narrow it down to one.

Michael: Right. Well, the old greats, really. Big fan of the Ditko and Kirby Marvels. Big fan of “The Spirit,” of course, Eisner’s “Spirit.” Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” was always a big favorite. Right now, I’m really into the “Plastic Man” archives, the old Jack Cole stuff.

Mark: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to pick those up, myself.

Michael: It’s one of those things that get better as they go. It’s very odd for comics to do that, but when they do, it’s like magic. And, this is a strip that actually improved with age.

Mark: Jack Cole was kind of an odd character, but he did good work, though. And, that oddness reflected in some of his stories.

Michael: It did, and so he had sort of that “comic genius” thing going.

Mark: Why is it that all of the comic geniuses were always odd people? (Laughter)

Michael: I don’t know. I think, like true artists, they’re always slightly “off.” Part of the price you pay for being an artist.

(At this point, the interview turned to comics companies and distributors. The question was asked about the best and worst business developments in those outfits for retailers.)

Mark: You know, with Marvel, they tried to do their own distributing for a while.

Michael: Well, I really believe that was the worst thing that ever happened (to comics retailers), when Marvel did their Heroes World deal. That was just a disaster from the start. It cost them bankruptcy and it cost many shops and almost all the small distributors were gone. It made Diamond the monopoly it is, today. But, I fully blame at least 99% of that on Marvel.

Mark: Would you like to go back to the days when there were many more outlets where you could buy comics? I mean, it didn’t seem to hurt Comic Empire in the early days.

Michael: Well, you’re right. Personally, I always kind of liked the old comic rack at grocery stores and places like that, because a kid would find something, a “Star Wars” book or something there and, if he got hooked on books, the comic rack, as you know, got pretty tiny when you’re looking at a shop that’s got 100,000 back issues. So, I always thought that that was a great way to get kids into comics. If they got really hooked on it, then they’d find a comic shop.

Mark: The comic shop would be just a natural extension of the comic rack.

Michael: Yeah, I kind of lament the fact that there are not really any “spinner racks,” or whatever you want to call them today, at like Quick Trips. Although, a few odd grocery stores, even here it town..., there’s still a few. I think MedX carries a few. So, there are still a few around. Yeah, I do wish there were a few more outlets. I don’t think that actually hurts business, really. I think it helps.

Mark: Is there anything good that the distributors or comic book companies have done for comic store owners?

Michael: Well, direct sales, I think is far and away the best. In fact, there wouldn’t even be, probably, a fraction of the shops there are today without direct sales. That came in the early ‘80's..., ‘81, ‘82, maybe. So, really, the first early years of this shop, Larry put in some pretty grim hours at a time when it really wasn’t even economically feasible to even run a store. Because his profit was so tiny that he actually had to work other jobs. And then he would keep the store open at kind of odd hours when he wasn’t working.

Mark: That pretty much had to be a labor of love for him at the time.

Michael: Well, it was for him. But, he actually saw what was going to happen. He saw the comic explosion happening. The problem was he was just a few years ahead of his time. So, he really struggled in those early years. But, when direct sales came in, this store really took off. Many stores did across America, especially selling those “Uncanny X-Men.” Man, half the shops in America owe their very existence to “Uncanny X-Men.”

Mark: Is it not a kind of contradiction to say, “Well, we miss the fact that there aren’t more (grocery and convenience) stores that sell comics, but the direct market is a good thing”?

Michael: It is, sort of. But, really I lament it just for the fact that it really introduced kids to comics, and that they would later wander off and find a real shop, if they got really hooked on it. Not every kid’s going to wander into a comic shop first thing, but if he sees one or a friend has one or he sees one at a grocery store, then he might get more interested there than he would having to beg mom to come to a comic shop.

Mark: But, we’ve seen, haven’t we, that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive? There can be direct marketing and comics available through other outlets.

Michael: No, they don’t. But, like I say, mostly as an introduction to comics. Because, most of us, that’s kind of what happened. We went into a drugstore, or grandpa bought you one at a grocery store, or something. Then, later on you discovered there were, like, shops. So, as kind of an introduction to the hobby is why I like it. But, direct sales has made it to where retailers can actually make a living doing this. Before direct sales it was almost impossible.

Four Color Commentary

Roger Rabbit #1 (1990), 26 pages and originally $1.50, Disney Comics

Phu-phu-puh-puh-leeeze! That now old adage, "Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore", is not an exclusionary statement! It means that that there are comic books for adults and kids!

Ta-ta-ta-take, for example, Roger Rabbit, featuring that big, flop-eared mess from the huge motion-picture hit, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", of some years ago.

Some years ago? you ask as you impatiently thump a foot. You mean you're reviewing an old comics series again, Mr. Reviewer? Man, don't you read anything new?

Be still, gentle reader. It never hurts to point out that one of the joys of reading and/or collecting comic books is that they remain available today in the back-issue bins of comics shops and on on-line auctions, and every title is new for you if you haven't read it.

As we travel into Toontown, our overenthusiastic rabbit opens the first issue of his debut title at the Ink and Paint Club where his voluptuous wife, "bad" girl Jessica, croons in that skin-tight red dress she always wears. The club is in shambles.

Ah, a mystery for Roger to solve!

There is no mystery, however, about why Rober Rabbit works as a comic book. This is the movie performed on a paper stage, and every-one and everything is in character. The manic, slapstick, cartoon energy of Toontown played against real-world humans is perfectly recaptured by the artistic team. And that means nutty fu-fu-fun for everyone!

All Roger Rabbit issues are recommended for the young and the young at heart who wish to escape the mundane world.

Lead story--words: Kate Worley, pencils: Rick Hoberg, inks: Dave Simons. Sold at comics shops and on-line auctions. Kate Worley and Dave Simons are members of the Oklahoma Cartoonists Collection inside the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma.

Michael Vance

New Aquisitions For The Oklahoma Cartoonists Collection

Michael Vance reports this morning that there are a number of new arrivals, as well as expected ones. Nearly 300 newspaper strips have come from Wayne Truman, consisting of Smilin' Jack and Dick Tracy. And, get this, some of those strips date back to the 1930's! Not only that, but Don Woods has evidently sent a number of color and black-and-white original Gusty drawings. The Collection will also soon receive originals from Dan Dunn, Tom Floyd and Andrew Pepoy.

Also, due to generous donations (as well as Michael's selfless selling off of some of his own collectibles, I'm sure), there will soon be a mannequin in the museum, sporting a VERY sharp Twilight Avenger costume donated by Terry Tidwell.

Thanks to everyone who has donated art, time, funds or anything else to the O.C.C. It is GREATLY appreciated, and will help insure that the museum continues to wow and amaze patrons for generations to come!

Mark Allen