Betting on Yourself – An Interview with ALAIN PARK

We recently corresponded with Alain Park, co-owner and operator of the Howling Pages graphic novel & print store, to discuss the campaign to open a comic book store in the Portage Park area, the advantages of running a store under a predominantly graphic novel model, and the importance of building a community within your local comic shop.


Note: The Kickstarter for Howling Pages can be found here.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Alain, thank you for joining me today to discuss your Kickstarter. Like I mentioned to you previously, and for the reader’s benefit, I stumbled across the flyer for your Kickstarter at a coffee shop in my area and was so impressed with your ideas for the store!


But before we discuss your store, do you remember the first comic that made you fall in love with the medium? Was the local comic store your entry point to comics?


ALAIN PARK: I guess you could break down my entry into comics into two parts, my childhood and then my teen years. As a kid, I read a lot of European comics. My mother is Belgian and I spent a lot of time with Tintin and Asterix & Obelix and other adventure-type European comics. At the same time, I was also reading a lot of Conan the Barbarian, which felt like an oddly familiar cousin to Tintin in a way. So if there’s a comic that made me fall in love with the medium, it’s probably some weird cross between Tintin and Conan.


The store as an entry point was important, but that didn’t come until later in my teen years. That’s where comics became more than just a kid’s enterprise. The shop was freedom. A place where I wasn’t dependent on my parents to buy something, where I could delve into some areas of comics that they might not even approve of. I got my first taste of what comics could be through a store, Vertigo Comics, Eightball, Love and Rockets, other alternative comics that were really appealing to a weird art-punk kid growing up in the late '80s in Tucson, Arizona. And in a way, all those alt-comics felt very similar to the European comics I had read as a kid, so it kind of felt like a continuation.


"I want to open this store in my neighborhood because it’s my neighborhood. I want to invest in it. I want to walk to work and get to know my neighbors through the store. This neighborhood is changing in some really great ways. New galleries are opening up. Cool hip stores. It’s become the perfect neighborhood for a store like this."

CBY: What first sparked your desire to own your comic store, and why did you choose the Portage Park, IL area specifically?


AP: I've been thinking about a store like this for quite a while. Something that featured in a significant way in the European comics I loved so much, something that celebrated the indie streak, the self-published and small-press comics. Something that reveled in the art of comics. The only problem was I never knew if there would be enough interest to sustain a store like this.


But then my kids started reading comics and I realized that the books they were attracted to were more like the comics from my childhood than anything else. They were reading young adult graphic novels and manga, comics that only came in graphic novel form. They had access to floppy single-issue comics through me, but their preference, which was also the same for most of their friends, was graphic novels. That’s when it all clicked together. My interest and theirs were the same.


As for why Portage Park, I have to admit the answer to that is a selfish one. I’ve been in Chicago for over 20 years and the Portage Park neighborhood for 16. Yet even with that, it’s hard to garner a connection to a place without deep investment. I want to open this store in my neighborhood because it’s my neighborhood. I want to invest in it. I want to walk to work and get to know my neighbors through the store. This neighborhood is changing in some really great ways. New galleries are opening up. Cool hip stores. It’s become the perfect neighborhood for a store like this.


CBY: Starting your own business can be a risky venture, and that was the case before the pandemic. With that in mind, what made this landscape feel like the right time for you to start up your comic shop?


AP: If there’s anything these last couple years have reminded a lot of us, it’s how important being social in some way matters. How just getting out there and consuming the world is good for us. Browsing is fun. Seeing new things is fun. And frankly, people are kind of hungry for it right now. And while we’ve all been consuming more online for sure, even the best algorithms don’t leave a lot of room for the chance encounter that can happen in a brick-and-mortar store, both in terms of finding things to read and people to connect with. That’s what bookstores do. They can become anchors for communities and for people as well. All in all, it just feels like the right time.

"I’m also really hoping this store can become a resource for local comics creators. So if anyone local wants to organize drawing meet-ups, demos for the public, etc., I’d be very interested to talk with them. We’re also planning on doing events for kids, classes or Saturday morning make-your-own-comics events, which we feel will start to serve the next generation of readers and makers. Maybe some mimosas for the parents will seal the deal."

CBY: Personally, I loved your decision to focus on graphic novels, YA and international comics. Can you give us your thought process behind this focus over the traditional comic store model?


AP: Firstly, I’d like to say that this focus is not in any way a knock on the traditional comic book store. There are plenty of stores who do that and do it very well. Their customers are very well served, especially here in Chicago, so there’s no need for us to compete with them on what they provide. That said, I do think a lot of new readers can be intimidated by some traditional comic book stores. Comics is a medium that is both broad and deep, and when you throw individual issues into the mix, it can be hard to know where to even start as a new reader. Focusing on book-length comics takes away that whole pain point. Pretty much anything they pick up will give them a full story.


I also looked at my own reading habits and how they had changed. Before, when I had a pull list, I tended to save up those issues until I had a full arc, and then binge it all at once. Switching to TPBs and graphics novels, for me at the time, felt very natural. And then there was the added bonus that it was more economical as well. I still, of course, love the single-issue form, so this focus is also not a knock on that, but I just think there’s room for another path. Another way to broaden the comics readership, both for new and seasoned readers.


Because with that new path comes some opportunities to bring in other readers who have only ever consumed comics in graphic novel form. I’m talking mainly of YA comics and manga, which are largely sold through the book channel. That my kids had to get their books through Barnes & Noble or Amazon I saw as a problem. One I wanted to fix. I want kids and parents to be able to shop in the same store.


CBY: How will your store handle distribution? Will you be going through Diamond, Lunar or other parties? In that sense is your approach to stocking graphic novels more akin to a book store like Barnes & Noble than a traditional comic store?


AP: That’s one of the benefits of cutting out the single issues. Focusing mainly on graphic novels opens up my possible distributors to dozens instead of just a couple. For instance, while Image Comics does distribute their TPBs and graphic novels through Diamond Book Distributors, they also distribute them through Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, Ingram, Lake-Cook Distributors, and other wholesalers. It’s a very nimble model.


So it is definitely more akin, as you say, to being a bookstore. I’ve been thinking about it as such and calling it an independent bookstore, just one with a specialty: graphic novels and indie comics.


CBY: In your campaign, you mention having a store where “independent stories shine brighter than the usual super-hero centric ones.” Will there still be a superhero section, albeit in graphic novel form, akin to genre sections that were found in a Blockbuster? Excuse the dated reference.


AP: We’re definitely not going to exclude superhero comics or the Big 2, and that genre will certainly be represented at the store. We just feel that those stories and characters are very well-served already. Spiderman and Batman are going to be just fine without us pushing them all the time.


And in addition, taking the spotlight off of those intensely popular characters lets us do something that is very much at the heart of our mission. It will allow us to shift the attention to creators. Comics is one of the only artistic mediums sold by the title (with the exception of movies). We want to start the process of changing that. We want writers and artists to be the first thing that comes to someone’s mind when thinking about comics. That’s not going to happen overnight, but I do think that mental shift is important. And it starts on the shelf.


CBY: Well said, Alain. That’s a mission I can honestly get behind. In that case, are you looking to organize your sections by writers, cartoonists, and/or creative teams inside a genre’s aisle?


AP: Aside from some obvious sections like manga series, kids, and maybe the “new” books, that may have to be listed by title, I see the store as having a “core” that will be organized by creators. We’ll have to see what exactly that looks like once we start physically setting up the space, whether it’s straight alphabetical within any given section, or whether it’s more of a browsing type experience with different groupings like the course of an artist's career, or styles or schools within comics, or some combination of all of it. And there will be some choices that will have to be made; like whether The Incal goes with Jodorowsky or Moebius? But those might be good problems to have. There are a lot of fun ways I can think of to organize the work that push the creators to the front. But the bottom line is, I think there will be a lot more discovery that can happen when you, for instance, put all of Moebius’ work together, rather than spread around the store.


CBY: The best comic shops usually have a strong community component to them. What are some of your initial plans to bring together the local community and bring in new readers?


AP: Absolutely. One of the selfish reasons I’m doing this is to come out of my own little hovel of a studio and connect to people. So providing that space for the community and for the greater readership is really important to us. So we’re planning on having a number of different events, happy hours, book clubs, etc. to help foster that sense that the store can be someone’s “third place” (after home and work).


I’m also really hoping this store can become a resource for local comics creators. So if anyone local wants to organize drawing meet-ups, demos for the public, etc., I’d be very interested to talk with them. We’re also planning on doing events for kids, classes or Saturday morning make-your-own-comics events, which we feel will start to serve the next generation of readers and makers. Maybe some mimosas for the parents will seal the deal.

CBY: Your campaign also mentioned that you would be selling art prints. Is this something that you’re working with the local art community on? Could there be an expansion into selling original artwork as well?


AP: Both myself and my wife, who is the other half of this venture, were trained as printmakers. So the love of works on paper runs deep. We’ll definitely be looking to the local and regional art and comics and illustration community to feature their work. And we’ll also be reaching out to other artists and print shops to hopefully bring the work of some national or even international artists to the store.


And there certainly could be an offshoot of this to selling original work, I can see that happening. Although I would say that part of the vision, at least with the printed art, is to keep it all in the same price range of the books. We believe that’s how you can serve artists and grow readership at the same time.


CBY: When a new reader enters your store, what’s the first impression you’d like them to associate with your store?


AP: Welcoming but intriguing. I think a lot of people are instantly comfortable in a bookstore, which is the vibe I want to foster. Friendly and familiar. At the same time, I think our focus [being] just off the center of mainstream will spark some curiosity. I want them to think, "What is all this stuff?" and then feel totally comfortable to explore said stuff at their leisure.


CBY: What have been some of your favorite independent comics, international comics and manga in recent years?


AP: Saga by Vaughan and Staples was what brought me back into comics after a little hiatus and I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit them with rekindling that fire. That said, however, I’ve really enjoyed the work of Farel Dalrymple, his Wrenchies is just great. Smart and weird and funny. Linnea Sterte’s Stages of Rot is awesome; I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read that book. And then I’d add to the mix the work of Simon Roy, Paul Pope, Emma Rios, Artyom Trakhanov, and Ronald Wimberly. I also love Inio Asano, Goodnight PunPun, Solanin, all his work really. And Taiyo Matsumoto. I’m really excited that so many European comics are now finally being translated into English for the first time or being put back into print after huge absences. Magnetic Press is putting out nearly all of Sergio Toppi’s work for the first time in English. Fantagraphics is doing the same for Guido Crepax. And Titan Books as well with Phillipe Druillet’s catalogue, who really is my all-time favorite bar none. Okay, I could go on, there’s just so much good stuff!!


CBY: What’s the deadline for your Kickstarter?


AP: December 1st. December 1st. December 1st. We’ve had a great response so far, especially from the local community, but we still need a little push here at the end to get to our goal. We’ve got some great rewards for those who pledge, T-shirts and such, discount cards for the store, creator content box, and a soft launch party for donors. It’s the first Kickstarter I’ve run, though I’ve supported many projects over the years, so it’s nice to be on this end of it for once.


CBY: Where can people find you and your store on social media?


AP: Instagram: @howlingpages; Facebook: @howlingpages; and Twitter: @howlingpagesChi. Come find us and drop us a line. We’re really eager to make some contacts and hear what you might have to say.


CBY: Thank you, Alain. Best of luck with the campaign.


AP: Thank you. This was a pleasure.





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