OK Comics reaches an important milestone this month as the shop celebrates two decades of bringing comics goodness to the people of Leeds and beyond. At a time when the challenges for comics retail have become more daunting than ever our local comic stores deserve our support and recognition. So to celebrate their big 20th birthday I caught up with OK Comics manager Jared Myland to chat about the highlights of those years, OK’s ethos, and how the comics retail sector has evolved in that time…
ANDY OLIVER: Let’s start at the logical place and ask you about OK Comics’ beginnings and its early days?
JARED: You can tell what comics I was into at a young age by looking at the issues I still have in my collection. Those Marvel Hulks and Amazing Spider-Mans were obviously bought under the influence of the Bill Bixby and Nicholas Hammond TV shows that I was addicted to. They rounded out the Beano, Dandy, Topper and whatever seasonal specials I was getting from the McCall’s newsagent in Cross Gates.
From age 7 to 10, the bone disease Perthes confined me to a wheelchair. My school wouldn’t allow me to play out with the other kids. I was encouraged to read ‘proper’ books at break times, not comics. My mum thought I should be able to enjoy the time whatever way I wanted, just like the other children, so she stitched a secret pocket into my coat so I could sneak rolled up comics into school. Great work mum.
It was when I got to Leeds College of Art and Design (now Leeds Art University) that I really got into reading a more diverse range of stuff. Thanks to the Dark Horse anthology, Urban Legends, I went from reading Deathlok, Spider-Man, She-Hulk to being exposed to Dan Clowes, Richard Sala, Peter Bagge, Evan Dorkin, and then onto Sin City and Love & Rockets and all that good stuff.
There was a comic shop right across from the college. Ink? Aardvark? Rubicon? It seemed to go by many names over the few years it was there. Leeds was also well served by Space Odyssey, newcomers Millennium and Travelling Man, and my personal favourite Skyrack, in the Merrion Centre indoor market.
I was funding my comic habit by working part time in the Travellers Pub on the edge of Halton Moore, a big council estate in Leeds. It could be a really violent place to work. I learned as much about customers service there as I did from watching Ron Bennett of Skyrack work his customers with his trademark knowledge, humor and enthusiasm.
After I completed my Interior Design course, where I’d become quite interested in retail design, I worked briefly as a greeting card designer. Soon I was offered a job at Space Odyssey in Leeds, where I was a regular weekly customer. In just over a year I went from being an enthusiastic part-time member of staff to being offered the position as manager. I loved this job. It was quite a worry when it became part of the Forbidden Planet International group, but any instant changes that I was concerned about happened more gradually.
Over the years it turned from a comic shop, with a growing range of graphic novels, to more of a science fiction toy shop with a reduced comic and graphic novel section. Six or seven years in, I was losing enthusiasm, and it showed.
I left there not knowing what I was going to do next. I did some casual building site laboring, and applied for all kinds of jobs. I was still living with my parents and, while I had no intention of selling comics professionally, I was making ends meet by selling my own comics collection on this new thing called eBay, and through my own website, I Kiss Comics. I was getting my packaging supplies from Quicksilver Comics, the back issue specialists. That’s where I got to know the owner Richard Makinson.
A casual conversation with a friend in The White Swan pub got me thinking about how Leeds probably needed a book shop that specialised in Comics and Graphic Novels. When Richard returned from comic collection buying trip to the US with ideas about opening a shop, the seed was firmly planted and our partnership began.
The first OK Comics was tiny, no more than three square metres, stocking new releases, back issues, graphic novels and self published, local stuff. It was right in the city centre, in a dilapidated, mostly vacant shopping arcade that was often used as a public toilet. A horrible place to work, but a great place to start a business. I flyered the local comic marts, we advertised in Comics International, and slowly OK Comics grew. Within a year we were looking for a larger, better located shop unit and eventually found our forever home in Thornton’s Arcade.
OK Comics gets it’s name from a few different places. I give people a different answer depending on what mood I’m in, but they’re all true. I was listening to a lot of Radiohead at the time, and OK Computer remains one of my favourite albums. It’s borrowed from the Greek phrase óla kalá, meaning ‘All Good’ and is one of the most recognised positive expressions in the world.
Dan Clowes and Charles Burns contributed designs to the failed Coca Cola range, OK Soda, which cultivated a relaxed attitude towards buying and enjoying stuff. That seemed to sum up what I was thinking at the time, that it should be OK for everyone to read comics, not just a hobby for really dedicated enthusiasts, but an everyday part of the lives of everyday folks.
AO: The last 20 years have seen some dramatic changes in comics in regards to formats, trends and methods of delivery. What for you have been some of the key changes in retailing, the industry, and the wider scene in that time?
JARED: The huge graphic novel industry that we now take for granted was in its infancy when we first opened OK Comics. Pretty much every comic series that the big publishers put out is intended to be repackaged as a graphic novel. More and more comic projects are going straight to graphic novel rather than being serialised. This wasn’t always the case. The gradual price increase of individual issues, and the availability of graphic novels have been the largest changes over the last twenty years. Monthlies are still a hugely important part of what we do, and our subscription customers are the lifeblood of the business, but graphic novels have completely taken over our shelves.
Initially I wanted OK Comics to be the cool shop where people could pick up locally produced, small press and self published comics not available elsewhere. We took everything! All on sale or return! We had a huge range. It became really unmanageable. And gradually it felt like there were more people wanting to sell this kind of stuff to us than were actually coming to us to buy it, which wasn’t surprising. This was around the time that homemade comics were beginning to find their audience, their intended readers, through the internet. It became really easy for fans to buy direct from the creators, or read the comics online. We scaled back our self-published section in a response to the lack of demand. We continue to do it, but in a much smaller, more curated scale. This year we’ve enlarged our local/self-published range again. It’s impossible to ignore the impressive array of local talent, from people like Darryl Cuningham, Una, and Kristyna Baczynski to Anna Readman, J Webster Sharp and Zoe Thorogood. It’s really important that we continue to give new and upcoming creators somewhere to stock their work, but we also have to tailor this range to meet our customers demands. All the staff here are knowledgeable enough to offer help and guidance where needed.
AO: Who makes up the OK Comics team and what are their roles/specialisms?
JARED: From the beginning, we’ve always had a tight team here. At first, myself and the early staff were learning how to do all this together, but now anybody who joins us has a lot to learn very quickly. Richard Makinson and I own the business. While he’s often an invisible, silent partner, he handles a lot of the back room kind of stuff making my life so much easier. I wouldn’t want to do this without him. I’m here five or six days a week. My desk is also the shop’s counter so I’m usually manning the till, while managing and micro-managing stock orders and customer requests, dealing with deliveries, answering emails and planning whatever may be coming next.
Danielle has been with us for about six years. She is an absolutely essential part of OK Comics. At the start of the pandemic, as it became clear that lockdowns were going to be an ongoing part of retail life, Dani reinvented our website to become much easier for shoppers to use, and she switched 100% of our in-store subscription customers to her new mail order schedule. She’s still in charge of curating what’s listed on our webshop, but she’s reluctantly handed over much of the day-to-day mail order duties to Hannah and Joe. They process the bulk of this stuff, contacting customers and getting orders ready for dispatch with our trademark ‘bomb proof’ packaging.
Joe has a background in filmmaking and photography, and Hannah is also a freelance illustrator so they both take on any relevant duties. We all handle social media, promoting whatever we’re reading or excited about.
Behind the scenes, I’m supported by my wife Veronica, and our dog Judy. Their importance shouldn’t be understated.
AO: How would you describe your philosophy in terms of the range of comics you stock?
JARED: Quite simply, we’re here to hook up good people with good comics.
I always thought we’d be the indie alternative to Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man, stocking Dan Clowes and Seth, but the fact is, we react to what our existing customers want. People think running your own business means that you’re your own boss, but it really means that you have a thousand bosses. Customers are in charge of what sells. When somebody asks about Bluey or Spidey books, we start stocking Bluey and Spidey! Both have gone down really well. When we get more requests for Manga, we step up our Manga game.
We have an ever-growing range of kids comics, and have a high profile section (in store and in our window) dedicated to comics related to movies and TV shows that may be currently streaming, because these are things that people may not know to ask about.
We’re not precious about comics. We respect them, but don’t put them on too lofty a pedestal. We understand that there are a variety of tastes out there. Not everybody wants Monsters or Asterious Polyp, some people want Venom, or Buffy. So we make sure we have as broad a range as possible. I like to think that visiting OK Comics is turning on Netflix. We have something for everyone, all genres are covered, all set out in separate little dislays.
The most important part of the shop is our ‘indie’ section, stocking all the new releases ranging from Avery Hill and Silver Sprocket to Fantagrahics and Drawn & Quarterly. We have sections highlighting people of colour, LGBTQ and gender issues.
All the staff here read lots of comics and graphic novels. We keep informed about what’s coming out and make sure to pass that information on to our customers in-store, via social media, or with our newsletter.
Because we’re situated in quite a busy part of the city centre, we get a lot of potential new customers who may have never read a comic before. We try to make their introduction to the medium as smooth as possible. No gate-keeping, it’s all about accessibility and inclusion. Industry jargon like tpb, ogn, foc is banned, as are the misleading phrases ‘trade’ and ‘collection’.
So many times new visitors are reluctant to ask for stuff in fear of using the wrong terms, so we try to avoid all that. We use the terms ‘comic’ and ‘graphic novel’, people tend to understand those, though I personally prefer ‘book’.
Customer interaction is really important to us. Getting to know people is just as important as knowing the products we stock. Having knowledge of the likes and dislikes of visitors makes it much easier to recommend new stuff accurately. And, with so much new stuff constantly coming out, that’s kind of why we’re here.
AO: Leeds is particularly well served by three comics shops. How would you define OK’s place as an independent retailer situated amongst the multi-store chains?
JARED: The people of Leeds are truly blessed. Three long established comic shops, OK Comics, Travelling Man and Forbidden Planet (along with a few other collectors shops) each offering a different kind of service and product range.
I’ve come to describe OK Comics as bookshop specialising in comics and graphic novels as we don’t stock any of the other stuff that can be found in a lot of comic stores. The only merchandise we stock is comic storage supplies.
When I was at Forbidden Planet, the stock mix shifted from comics and graphic novels to more toys and collectables. This new stuff definitely brought in new customers, but I also saw it putting off people who were more interested in the art and literature of comics. Keeping comics separate from everything else is our unique selling point here in Leeds.
I’m constantly surprised that this tiny little comic shop has managed to hold its own nestled between two much larger chain stores, both of which can stock all the same items as us!
AO: It has seemed to me over the last few years that the independent shops who have acted as community hubs have been best positioned to build up a loyal customer base. Can you tell us about some of the events OK hosts both socially and in-store?
JARED: We have a good reputation as being the centre of a comics community here in Leeds, we’ve started up our Drink & Draw events, and begun hosting signings again after a Covid break. But the fact is, I think building a community is one of the things where we fall a little bit short. We have really great relationships with such a broad range of our customers, but they don’t know each other. I feel like we’ve still got a lot of work to do here.
I am very proud to say that a lot of ex-members of staff still play an active role in the wider comics community. Anna Readman is now working as a full-time comic artist. Sam Read published his own Exit Generation mini series and is now part of the team (including Mick McMahon) working on Joe and His Killer Robot Dad. Zainab Akhtar established Shortbox and publishes beautiful graphic novels. Oliver Pickles works at Rebellion overseeing (amongst other things) their suave Apex Editions, and Mark Johnson (along with Si Smith) is working on Gigs, a graphic novel to be published by Top Shelf.
AO: It’s obviously been a very difficult three years for comics stores. How have you had to adapt and evolve through the pandemic years?
JARED: Three years!? I’d argue it’s been tough for a lot longer than that. I feel like we’ve been in a financial recession since 2008. Brexit, the pandemic, lockdowns, customers working from home, all these things are just some of the most recent obstacles that we have had to overcome.
There was a time when building work around the shop made it look like we’d closed. If it wasn’t for followers online generating awareness, interest, and directing people to us, we wouldn’t have made it through that. Maybe there is more of a community around us… hmm.
We’ve also had to deal with the shop being flooded, an electrical fire leading to the whole building being condemned and requiring some serious essential maintenance and repairs. We had to trade from elsewhere for a while for that one.
Probably the second best things about being a small business is, if a problem presents itself, we can work together as a team to get through it. Reinventing ourselves as a mail order hub through the lockdowns was the best example of this. The absolute best thing about OK Comics is the customers. Without the constant, ongoing support of our dedicated customer base, we would not have lasted these twenty years and would not be able to continue.
One thing we’ve done for years here at OK Comics is occasionally include signed bookplates with new graphic novels we want to push. Through the pandemic, we increased this to one each week. We arrange for a new piece of artwork to be produced and get them signed by the writer, artist and sometimes more. We include them with the books at no extra cost to the customer. I like to think that people have come to trust that if we have a bookplate to go with a book, we think it’s going to be a pretty good read.
AO: Do you have any other plans to celebrate this big birthday either in-store or online?
JARED: We’re having a staff reunion. The former and current employees, around twenty of us, are meeting up for drinks at The White Swan in Leeds on Saturday 25th March. We’re inviting customers, distributors, sales reps and other retailers along too.
For those who can’t make it to that, we’re focusing on a long weekend (23rd to 28th March) for people to pop into the shop to say hi. We’ll have a range of special edition Don’t Mess With OK Comics ‘golden years’ T-Shirts, Hoodies and Tote Bags available. Northern Monk are brewing a beer to mark the occasion, with cans designed by Anna Readman, which we’ll be selling for a restricted time only. We’ll also have some limited edition, signed, framed prints.
Oh, and, with input from customers and former staff, we’ve put together a range of what we think are the most important books at OK Comics. It was supposed to be twenty books, but I can’t narrow it down, so it’s more like forty! They’re available in the shop and on our webstore.
AO: And, finally, a big question to finish with but based on recent trends and your own experience what are your projections for the comics market in the next few years?
JARED: It’s difficult to predict where the comic industry is going. There have been so many changes to the way we order and receive comics over the last couple of years, it does feel like more publishers are finding success within book distribution channels outside of the usual comic distributors. I suspect that will continue, and we’ll continue to react accordingly.
A wider problem is the financial and economical consequences of the cost of living crisis. We work in a niche industry selling non-essential items. When money is tight, comics are something that folks can easily cut back on. But with the continued support of our customers, and the hard work of the OK Comics team, we should make it through.
I do wonder if OK Comics will still be here in another twenty years. If it is, I’m sure there will be just as much urgency in answering emails and processing orders, and just as much excitement when a new delivery of comics and graphic novels arrives!
For more on OK Comics make sure to check out their website and online store here