This all began as a clever attempt to combine business with pleasure. I was vacationing in Utah, and knew that this column was due the day after I got back home. A little research revealed that the Salt Lake City area has a lot of comic book shops, and a closer look led me to Black Cat Comics at 2261 Highland Dr., Suite A in Salt Lake. In an age when retailers have generally opted to concentrate on graphic novels and trade collections (and games and figures and, and, and…) while keeping their current floppies and back issues to an absolute minimum, Black Cat Comics is all about, well, comics, and lots of them. So I dashed off an e-mail to Greg Gage, the owner of the shop, and asked if he’d be willing to talk to me. He agreed, and off I went chuckling to myself about being able to get material for an article and add to my collection all at the same time.
What I actually got was an incredible afternoon in a great comic shop staffed by knowledgeable, thoughtful, and very funny folks. Also, some Bronze Age Captain America, Silver Age GI Combat, the complete run of Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart’s The Other Side, about a hundred and fifty other comics (literally), and more. Greg was behind the counter with Taylor Hoffman, Black Cat’s resident Valkyrie (and if you don’t know who the Valkyries are, you should find out) when I came into the shop with my wife Dale, and Katie, the eldest daughter of the friends we were staying with. Having no ulterior motives, those two immediately got down to the business of collecting those 150 comics I mentioned earlier, while I chatted with Greg.
FreakSugar: When did you open Black Cat Comics?
Greg Gage: I opened in 2004, so 12 years ago.
FS: Before that were you working in another shop?
GG: I worked a little bit in another shop but I just kinda… I was the guy that was just opening the store. There was really nothing that I could have done there because I was just kinda a minimum wage peon. I decided that I wanted to do a shop in a different way. I wanted to give more choice, I wanted to really specialize in comics, and not cards and games and things like that, and really just go hard into back issues.
FS: The first thing you notice when you walk in here – as compared to most any other comic shop these days – is the emphasis on back issues. That actually one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you while I was in town, because that’s such a rare thing in the industry these days.
GG: Yeah, it is.
FS: And that was your goal to begin with – to hit the back issue market?
GG: Yeah, I wanted to hit the back issue market hard because nobody was doing it. And again, I really wanted to specialize in comics, because I don’t know anything about cards or games or anything like that. I love comics. That’s what I wanted as a comic shop.
FS: So what got you into comics?
GG: As a kid I was always, always into them. I loved to read as a kid. Comics were a great way to learn to read, with a lot of vocabulary and different sorts of words that I didn’t know – I was like wow, man, what are these things that they’re writing about? So I would learn things and learn what the words meant and it was really great.
FS: What were some of your favorite comics or characters?
GG: Growing up I loved X-Men, Avengers, Defenders – which, with this whole Defenders thing [the forthcoming Netflix series], I’m on Cloud Nine – I read a lot of the mainstream Marvel stuff, but I also loved a lot of the weirder stuff. I really liked Dr. Strange and Daredevil, and the Defenders were weird, and I liked Justice Society from the ‘70s with the JLA and the JSA, where Wildcat was kinda like a creepy version of Batman, and Robin was older and looked weird – and well, Patsy Walker – I gained my love of Patsy Walker in the Avengers back then, and ever since it’s been Patsy, Patsy, Patsy – I LOVE Patsy Walker! A lot of the other stuff I got into as a kid though, was a lot of the horror stuff: Boris Karloff, and Arrgh, and Weird World, all of those – I loved that stuff, loved it, and that sort of followed through into this, into what I read now. I’ve still actually got my first X-Man book that I bought in 1975 – it’s beat to pieces, it has no cover, it is nearly worthless, I’m sure, but to me it’s the most valuable book in my collection. It’s an X-Men #94, and it’s trashed. It’s just something I’ve been into for literally over 40 years, and even with all of the frustrations, it’s still worth it because I still love comics, and I still love doing this.
FS: That’s interesting because you meet so many retailers who go into the business out of a love for comics, but who get burned out.
GG: Yeah, it’s frustrating, it’s very frustrating, and it’s very easy to get burned out and upset.
FS: So what’s your secret?
GG: I don’t know… whiskey? No, I think the good thing about the comics industry is that there’s always something new around the corner. I mean if I’m tired of Batman, tired of the way they’re writing Batman, there’s always a new title that pops up that I can read and go “Oh wow, this is really cool and fresh and great.” That’s where a lot of the independent publishers, I think, shine, and there’s so much stuff – Black Mask, Z2, there’s a million, Action Lab, all these guys, they’re just great. There’s always something new coming out and that kind of reinvigorates my interest.
FS: So the concentration on floppies and back issues appears to really work for you.
GG: Oh yeah. We’ve got in excess of 300 holds, we have so many regulars that come in here, and our customers are great, they’re very loyal. They’re so loyal that sometimes when they come in they’re like [whispers in shame] “I went to another store to find something!” It’s like they come to confession, but you know, even I don’t always have everything for me. Every time I go out of town, I always go to a shop and see what’s going on there. It’s great to have these regulars that come in, we get to know people by name, and it’s a lot of fun. Honestly, I think a lot of that keeps things fresh and fun. There’s definitely that passion that gets reignited with people when they come in and say “hey, did you read this?” or “did you see that?” there’s always that conversation that you engage in, and it’s great.
FS: So about how many back issues do you have in stock – rough guess?
GG: God, I dunno, maybe 30,000 – 40,000 back issues, plus all of the restocks. The stuff back here [gesturing to the back room and a 6 long box wide, 7 long box high stack behind the counter] is all restocks.
FS: So I love the 25 cent reader-copy comics. What got you started with that?
GG: You know, when I started doing that, I just had three or four boxes, and they were initially 50 cents when I started, and people would come in and say “can I get 3 of these for a dollar?” and I’d say sure, and so eventually I said, you know what would be great is a quarter, because as many as I move for 50 cents, obviously twice as much would move for a quarter. And you know, people come in… look, this is Utah: a lot of people here have got six, seven kids and they come in and the kids are like “I want this” and then you’ve got crying and fighting because the parents are only going to buy one four dollar comic for each kid, and then they’re going to complain about the cost of comics these days, and I ought to tell you, and get off of my lawn and whatever, and you can go well look at this! Really, if you’ve got four or five kids, this is gold for you. You can get them all half a dozen comics, they shut up for a while, you got stuff, and they’re reading. And people come in and have fun digging through the 25 cent boxes too. It’s a great way for me to move excess inventory, and a way for people to come in and get a bunch of stuff for not a lot of money. And let’s be honest: if there’s a book in here that I’ve got 50 copies of #1 and ten copies of #2, I’m probably gonna put a few copies of #1 in there [the 25 cent boxes] even if they’re newer stuff, because people will read it and then come back for #2 at regular price. But I’ve always thought that if comics are sitting up here and they get a quarter and go away, that’s a lot better than them sitting out there and taking up valuable space in a very small shop.
FS: So tell me about the awards on the wall.
GG: We got the KSL A-List for best Comic Shop, we’ve got three of the Salt Lake City Weekly awards for best comic shop, hopefully working on four this year. It’s a really nice honor to be recognized for stuff like that, but I didn’t open to get awards, I opened to do this for a living and to have a great time – but the awards don’t hurt.
So much for the basic interview. As it happened, the family we were staying with included four fantastic kids ranging in age from nine to Katie’s eighteen. These were some properly raised, geek kids, but despite a shared love of the MCU films, they weren’t all that familiar with comics – a condition Dale and I were determined to change. First, Dale and Katie went through the wall of 25 cent clearance comics and curated a short box full of random goodness (for all of $25), and then Greg and Taylor swung into action. Katie’s youngest brother Ollie was easy: he’s a huge Arrow fan, so he got the first couple of issues of DC’s Green Arrow Rebirth. Her oldest brother, Harry, a blacksmith, was a bit harder, until Greg remembered The Brave and the Bold and pulled out a classic issue featuring The Metal Men. Then there was nine year old Gillian, and Taylor brought to bear an astonishing knowledge of all ages comics and set G up with some Jem and the Holograms, Welcome to Showside, and an Oddly Normal trade. The best moment, however, came when Katie admitted that she found comics a bit intimidating to get into, because it was hard to know where to begin. Delighted grins spread across both Greg and Taylor’s faces as their eyes lit up like Christmas morning. Katie walked out with a trade collection of Deadpool and Cable, a copy of Watchmen, the 80 page Rebirth kick-off, and the first issue of Wonder Woman Rebirth. Later, after we’d gotten back to the house and distributed our loot, every single kid had his or her head in a comic book, completely engrossed.
Before then, however, I’d asked Greg one final question:
FS: So what would you most like people to know about Black Cat Comics?
GG: I’m proud that we have a lot of professionals that shop here. We have several artists and writers that come in. A lot of them have holds, and if they live out of state we ship to them. I’m proud of the store. I’m proud that we’re a store that deemed a safe space, and it’s all inclusive and anybody can come in here – anybody can come in here – and when you come in we’re going to say “hi,” and when you leave we’re going to say “bye, thanks for coming in,” and I don’t care what gender, race, anything you are – when you’re in here, this is comics, and we’re all four-colored.
After all of that, you can bet I’ll be coming back to Black Cat Comics.
You can find Black Cat Comics on Twitter, Facebook, and at their website, or give them a call at 801.461.4228. Even better, go by the store at 2261 Highland Dr., Suite A in Salt Lake City. They’re open from 11am – 7pm Monday through Saturday, and from 12pm to 5pm on Sundays.