An interview with Doug Sulipa
Set in the New Jersey store owned by director Kevin Smith, AMC’s Comic Book Men features four guys who work and/or hang out at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, as well as their customers. In between the in-store segments (and the occasional journey outside), Smith and his employees indulge in some (usually) comics-related geek speak, oohing and ahhing over a rare Superman comic and drooling over a real-life (‘60s)-style Batmobile that pulls up outside of the store.
It got me thinking about the comic book stores of my Winnipeg boyhood. Then when my cousin mentioned how, even in the ’70s, he and his friends would have to go the comic dealer’s homes to get their fix – before stores were plentiful – I decided to do some investigating.
The first name that occurred to me was that of Doug Sulipa. Sulipa opened Winnipeg’s first comic book store, and one of the first in Canada: Doug Sulipa’s Comic World. Currently, the former store owner lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, where he still runs a successful mail-order business (Doug Sulipa’s Comic World website). I called him up one Sunday afternoon to ask about the good old days of comic-book collecting, changes in the industry and what he thinks about Comic Book Men.
Shawn Conner: Where did it start for you?
Doug Sulipa: My dad bought me a couple of Walt Disney Comics and Stories for kids. That was ’64 or somewhere around there. Then my dad started buying comics off the stands for me. Then we discovered the secondhand stores in 1966, and that was around the advent of the Batman TV series. I remember finding an 80-page Giant Batman number five.
SC: Do you still have that copy?
DS: No. I have the issue in my inventory. I was a rabid collect from 1965 ‘til about 1990. Then I put my collection in my inventory. After doing it seven days a week for 25 years, you want to do something else.
SC: Why did you start selling comics?
DS: I wanted to further my collection. I started with my friends, and after that I put a table out on the street corner on Pasadena Avenue in Fort Richmond. That would have been around 1968, I would’ve been about 12.
SC: You weren’t doing this in the winter.
DS: By 1970, ’71, I was already selling back issues through mail order. I’d read all my comics cover-to-cover and was always looking at the ads, so I started ordering back issues over the mail to get all the older stuff. In the 1960s comics that were over five years old were so scarce you couldn’t find them. That’s why I started buying back issues through mail order. And I thought, I could do that too.
I think my first catalogue was in 1970. I’d originally called it KK Comics. And then I just started using “Comic World” rather than “KK”. I think I only used that for one catalogue. In ’74 I opened up my first store.
SC: How big was that catalogue – a few pages?
DS: Oh no. My first catalogue was 30 or 40 pages long. By 1970 I already had about 10,000 comics. It did quite well. Then, in 1974, I opened my first store, on Carlton Street. I was 17, going on 18. I opened it after school. I would get there by about 4:30, from Fort Richmond all the way to downtown.
SC: What were the hours?
DS: 4:30 to 9. It was 160 sq. ft on the second floor of an old converted house. On the first floor, an antique shop. On the third floor was a rock band. I think they just practiced there.
SC: Who were your customers?
DS: I’d met a lot of people in secondhand stores. Before opening the store the hangout in town was Autumn Stone, a record and head shop on Kennedy Street. In the back corner they had a little comic department. That was the hangout for collectors at the time.
I had the first retail comic store in Winnipeg. Within a month I probably had about fifty customers per week. There was actually quite a counterculture in Winnipeg at the time. The collectors were interacting and making fanzines as early as the mid-’60s in Winnipeg. Some of the biggest mail-order dealers in the country were there. Per capita, it was probably the number one comic city in Canada for 30 to 40 years.
SC: Who were some of the other dealers?
DS: Ken Mitchell, Calvin Slobodian, and Joe Krolik were all quite big international mail-order dealers for that period of time. And Ferd Bernjak, though he started later than the rest of us as a dealer. Those were the main people. We had probably half the major dealers in Canada in one city, at that point in time. We were buying up collections. Pretty much by the late ‘70s we’d wiped out Winnipeg for better back issues and we started going down to the U.S to buy collections. A lot of the bigger back-issue collections we found, came from dealing with people in the U.S. who didn’t have local dealers to sell to.
I put ads in the paper for probably a decade about buying collections. I don’t know how many collections I found. Those were the best source in the ’70s, newspaper ads, if you didn’t know the people. Back then I was doing newspaper articles, TV and radio would get ahold of me and then people would get ahold of me. The National Film Board even did a biography of me and my comics, and added some cartoons. It was called His First Million, The Tale of a Comics Czar , because in the late ‘70s I’d gotten my first million comics.
SC: Was the Winnipeg comic-selling scene very competitive?
DS: There was a lot of competition. In the early years I had the city to myself. Some of the secondhand bookstores were doing back issue comics. Red River Books was doing it before I had my store. They weren’t carrying new comics for the longest time. But they’re probably the longest-running [used books and comics] store in Winnipeg.
SC: Was it friendly competition?
DS: Most of them were friendly. Some of them were hard to deal with. The main thing is, by the ’80s there were price wars on the new comics, and it got worse in the early ‘90s when there were too many stores. We were judging stores if they were getting direct distribution comics. We counted, and there were 35 who were buying from Diamond [Distributors]. Those were non-returnable, and they were giving 30 or even 40 per cent off the cover price.
Canadian News sold newsstand comics all through the years. I was buying from Canadian News until 1977 when I discovered I could buy direct mail-order comics from Phil Seuling, a direct dealer out of New York. The original direct comics would have a different emblem; instead of a bar code they would have a Spider-Man face or a star in the UPC box. That made it non-returnable.
I was the first person to get those – some people didn’t like them, thought they were reprints. But I was getting them three weeks ahead of time. I switched distributors a few times, and by 1980 decided to become a comic wholesaler and I distributed to about 15 or 20 stores in Winnipeg. After awhile, due to competition, some had a hard time paying me so I went back to retail. Over the years I’ve always sold mail-order, which is probably how I’ve survived all these years.
SC: Were there some bad periods?
DS: Quite a few, a lot to do with new comics. New comics could bury a store so easily. You would have to order two months in advance, and it could change in a week or two. You’d have comics pre-ordered for two solid months. Or let’s say there was trend – something hot that then died. There were times we would order 500 copies of something. My first big order that I can recall was Peter Parker Spectacular Spider-Man number one, I think in 1976. I basically bought out Canadian News – I bought them out of Howard the Duck number one also.
SC: Whatever happened to all those first issues of Peter Parker?
DS: Out of the 5,000 or so copies, I sold about 90 per cent of them. People were speculating, and that went all the way into the early ’90s. There were a couple other books I nearly bought 5,000 copies of, or more: Spider-Woman number one; King Conan number one; Dazzler number one. The first magazine I ordered lots of copies of, Epic Illustrated, because it had a [Frank] Frazetta cover.
The ’80s was probably the biggest boom in comics. Stores were coming out of every corner, prices were going through the roof. From the early ‘80s a lot of the early Marvel number ones were under $1,000, now they’re over. New comics were a big thing through the ‘80s. Since I started selling comics, I’ve probably sold about 15 to 20 million comics.
SC: When did you lose interest in the industry?
DS: I didn’t lose interest in the industry, just in the collection. I had reached I think 70,000 comics before I started selling them off.
SC: Where is the industry at now?
DS: It’s in another state of flux. Comics have gone through this since collecting started. Every five or 10 years people crying doom and gloom. What usually happens is another boom, where the prices go through the roof.
SC: Where are the collectors coming from?
DS: There seems to be fewer collectors. The print runs of comics are going down, and they’re not as accessible to the general public as they used to be. In an age when graphic novels are considered a credible medium, it’s sad to say the print runs of comics themselves are actually declining.
And the number of stores seem to be dropping. The new comics are fuel to make the trade paperbacks, which continue rising in sales. The market is changing and people are having a hard time grasping what to do. It’s the related merchandising that’s selling, which is why you have the San Diego convention, which is such a huge event. It was originally basically just comics, now the comics section is probably less than five per cent of the floor-space. You can’t look at comics just comic books themselves anymore; it’s a whole industry of related products.
SC: What about tablets and iPads as a new way to read comics?
DS: That might be the direction the industry will eventually go; you’ll have to buy the comics on the Kindle and have it that way rather than have the physical prodcut.
The collectors are always going to want the original product, which is an instinct. The reader is a different animal. Collectors have this hoarding instinct, which I think has to do with repeating good childhood memories, or good memories in general. That fuels the need to collect. You’re not going to get that from having an image on a computer.
There aren’t as many young collectors as there were; new comics aren’t as affordable as they used to be. In the ’70s, if you had a two–dollar allowance you’d be able to buy eight 0r 10 comics a week. Now, with an average cover price of four dollars, you can’t buy many comics. This makes it tough when you’re a young person. It’s rather an expensive form of entertainment. You might get hours of entertainment out of a book for not much more money. But with comics, you’re getting the experience of the art and the text. It’s a unique industry and you can’t really substitute it for something else once you’re hooked on the medium.
SC: What do you think of the show Comic Book Men?
DS: It’s quite a different experience. There’s a lot of negotiating. Usually I’d give a price and that would be it. One thing I didn’t like is that they’re kind of laughing at the customers. That was a real turn-off. They would laugh at the customers as they were leaving. We were always very respectful. That’s the way we were.
Much thanks to Doug Sulipa for his cooperation with this article.