JHU Comics: A Great Comic Shop Experience in New York City

JHU Comics: A Great Comic Shop Experience in New York City

JHU (Jim Hanley’s Universe) Comic Books is located in midtown Manhattan, in the shadow of the Empire State building. It has a vast selection of comics, from mainstream superhero comics to limited run art press comics to graphic novels to back issues. It also has one of the best selections of comics anywhere. JHU is listed on some travel sites as the place to go to find comics, attracting an interesting collection of comic book lovers and those who are just curious. JHU has a second location in Staten Island.

Often comic book stores are associated with the archetypical Simpson’s comic book guy, a know-it-all, who doesn’t want you to touch the comics. He will scowl at the comics you buy and just generally make you feel uncomfortable. JHU Comic Books is not that kind of shop.

In 2013, the store needed to move from its old location. The original owner, Jim Hanley, chose to retire after twenty years in the business. Nick and Ron decided to continue under the name JHU, with Jim’s blessing.

The staff of JHU has created an atmosphere of community, camaraderie and joy, all centered around one thing: the love of comic books.

I had a chance to sit with Nick Purpura and ask him what makes this store special.

outside-storeWhat are you most excited about in the comic world right now?

I have been doing this for 18 years and every week is new. There’s never a week where nothing is coming out. I feel like there’s this beauty of working in a comic book store, because there is a weekly wide-eyed moment, where you are a kid again and you are like, holy crap look at this! Oh they reprinted my favorite book! Look at that art piece! It is constant wonder, I think at any other job I would have hung it up already.

What’s different about JHU from other comic book stores?

We tend to have a real hands-on touch. It is very easy to sell people comics that you love. People see the passion coming out of my employees and myself. Every one of my employees is a reader of comic books, and everyone has their own thing that they love. And that’s one of the reasons that people come to a comic store versus Amazon. At Amazon you buy an item and its says “you might also like this” where they’re just taking some frequency, while our people have read these comic books and if you say you like this style, we can point out five other guys who are drawing in the style or doing stuff you have never seen before and that is what people come for.

What facet of the store are you most proud of?

How we conduct our business. You walk in here; you are going to be greeted with a smile. The people who work here are going to be excited to see you. They are going to sell you a comic book you are going to like.

Everyone sells somewhat the same thing in comic books. People come to JHU for the service. The might be able to go somewhere and find a better price or older collectables, but I guarantee you will get the best service from us.

We have good taste in comics. We curate the store well. We make sure we have a lot ofstarwars stuff that other people let slip through the cracks.  You go to any store in the country and find Superman, but here you can also find Box Brown comics or Josh Bayer or Pat Alusio.

Your New York store is next to the Empire State building. Do you attract a lot of tourists or people who don’t know anything about comics?

You want to make everyone come in here see something that they know, you put Calvin and Hobbes in the front. You can never have read a comic in your life and you know Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a worldwide thing. Peanuts, you put in the front. They might not speak English, but they know Snoopy. That’s where the cultural breakdown happens, do we all like these things?

Tin Tin is something that a young American can grow up on and French kids grow up on. It is about who has the coolest parents. It is on your parents what you read until you get to the age when you can chose what you like to read.

We are very proud of our kid’s section. The Raina Telgemeier books; Smile, Drama, and Sisters are gigantic hits in the non-comic book world. The regular bookstores are selling hundreds of thousands of copies of these books. We always look at the X-Men and Superman and we are like, no these are all comic books. It is never a hate on superheroes, I adore superheroes. Combining all those things is what makes a successful store in my mind. This is the American Art form and the best one.

Do you have a good relationship with comic book creators?

Dan Slott, who currently writes Spiderman, stops in every few months and we are like “Will you sign everything in the store?” and he’s like “Sure, I’ll sign everything in the store, dude” and it’s a signature at no added cost.

A signing2good portion of the creators are just fans, like Dan, he comes in to check things out on what’s going on in comics, they want to keep their ears on to the ground. It’s much easier with social networking these days. I just became friends with Dave Walker, the writer of Cyborg, we are in contact with him, you give him the invitation—whenever you are in New York, you have an open invitation to come sign at the store. They make it part of their trip, “I gotta go to New York and visit the Marvel guys” they say, “I’ll do a signing while I am here. I will do something to promote the book”.

With the exception of Star Wars, which sells 1 million copies, nothing sells so immensely well that these guys can’t take themselves so seriously that they believe that they can’t sell more. They are going out there and doing the convention circuit—all are ways for people to shake hands and meet the creators. At a comic convention, you can meet your favorite creator and maybe have a 10 minute conversation, get a photo with him, get him to do the drawing you always wanted him to draw, that connection. It is so tight and makes it so cool. In our case we go to shows, we shake hands and tell the guys we love their stuff.

Who are you into right now?

batgirlBabs Tarr, who does the new Batgirl comic, just came out with this great comic, that switches up how Batgirl was looked at. It’s a new fresh take on the character, by a woman creator. We became friendly, so when she comes to town again, we say: Babs we would love to have you for a tour stop.

The other thing that helps is being connected. [As a] former Jim Hanley store, we have been making connections for the last 20 years. Walt Simonson came and signed for Jim’s store, in ‘86. We always kept that flow. “Hey, Walt, it’s us from Jim Hanley’s store.”

The Hernandez Brothers go, “Hey Ronny,” when they see my partner… to my immense jealousy.  And they will come and say hello. That’s because he hosted them for signing in ‘92 and maybe ‘99. And we had them in the early 2000s and after a while it’s the same little circle.

How often do you do signings?

We try to do a signing at least once a month.

Like Saturday at our New Dorp (Staten Island) store, we had what we called Archie Day. Kids coming in Archie outfits, coming with your Riverdale stuff on. We had Fernando, Dan Parent and a bunch of guys who drew Sonic. Come down make a party out of it. It is not a traditional signing, we have a band coming down dressed like “Josie and the Pussycats.”

signing3That’s great.

Yeah, it is an all girl band from Staten Island and we were like “Would you guys like to do Josie and the Pussycats?” And the singer was like, “Well, that’s been my dream for like since I was 10, so yeah, I will definitely do it” … a girl rock trio.

Is it hard to be creative about in-store events?

One of the greatest things I have heard about all events was from Chris Powell, who is retail liaison with Diamond Comics, but he ran mycomicshop.com and a bunch of stores down in Texas for years. He said, ‘one of my biggest events every year, was Captain Kirk’s birthday.’ They would pull out their stand up on Captain Kirk and buy a cake. and people would flock to the store because it was fun. It is Captain Kirk’s Birthday, let’s eat, make fun of him kissing every alien on the planet. You know, have fun with the thing. Inherently, the people who do comics are fun people, people who sell comic [in stores] are fun people and the people who buy comics are fun people. You want fun entertainment. You want colorful things.  You want crazy world. It is not for the run of the mill.

And how are digital comics affecting your business?

Everyone complains about it, I think it is helpful for the business.

I think kids who didn’t have access to comic books that aren’t 30- or 40-year-old men who grew up on this paper comic book concept are getting comics on their iPad now. They are watching Arrow and they are watching Flash. And the store they used to walk past they are saying, oh, they have Arrow in there and they have Flash in there. They have Mad Max in there. They have Lord of the Rings. They have Game of Thrones and all of a sudden, things that are guaranteed cool by these kids, now they want in, they get their first comic books.

Now where our first comics [came from] were our dads or our moms bringing a comic home when we were sick or taking you to the soda shop, or the news-stand; those places don’t exist anymore. You can’t get a comic at 7-11 like you did as a kid. You’d go to 7-11 and get a slushy and two comic books and went back home. It doesn’t exist.

The iPad exists and downloads exist and DC has an unlimited site and Marvel has an unlimited site and it doesn’t stop people from reading comics. It lets them sample them and see if it is something they like. And I feel like the response is that younger kids are looking at comics and going, “Wow, this is cool.”  I used to think it wasn’t and now I’m getting a more influx of teenagers than I have had in the last ten years. We want it to keep going.

Tell me about the difference in what you are seeing now with independent publishers. Are the “big two” still dominating the market?

Marvel and DC still dominate the sales, but others are creeping up.  Image has had a fabulous year and their graphic novels outsell Marvel’s Graphic Novels. There’s more of a selection then there ever has been before in comics. There are more reprints of sagaold stuff. There are more choices for the modern comic fan. A lot of the older comic fans who read Marvel and DC and [didn’t] think there [was] anything out there for them, now have Image and Valiant and all these companies putting out quality product to compete with Marvel and DC and compete with their dollars. Saga is the biggest comic in the store, the biggest comic in the country, the biggest trade paperback.

The Walking Dead was a tremendous success before the television show and the television show just propelled it to insane proportions. We have bookshelves of Walking Dead books in four different formats. Hardcover, softcover, an omnibus, a compendium, there’s any which way you want to buy this book. It is available for you. And its translating into sales, not just for us, but Barnes & Noble is doubling their graphic novel section this year. It is the only spot they are seeing growth with.

Tell me about the art press comics.

art-comicsIt is still what it always was. It’s the triple A. It is for guys coming into the big leagues doing the independent comics. It shows the publishers how important it is for you to make a comic book. Because in this day and age you can’t go into the major comic companies (Marvel, DC, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly) and be like, I made this comic book. They want to see you out there working. Drawn & Quarterly has a hit with Hark a Vagrant” Because Kate Beaton had these comic strips on the internet, she has a fan base. We know there’s a fan base for this book before we put it out for this artist or this writer.

This is how art press artists get their foot in the door. And it shows a real commitment to the craft. It is very easy to make a comic with a mainstream publisher where you are getting paid up front and you are getting paid a decent page rate, to the guy who is doing it at night after a ten hour work day working at his other job to make a nice creative product he or she is so passionate about to make. It tends to make it a cool personal project.

Recently a guy name Drew Brockington, who does a comic called Cats in Outer Space just got picked up from the mini-comic. He draws a comic about cats in outer space. And someone picked it up and thought, this has value, let’s make a book out of it. And that’s what I love about the art press because it is the beginnings for these guys.

And do these guys just come off the street and say hey take a look?

Some, there’s a couple companies like Alternative Press. There’s a great mini-comic distributor called Tony Shanton who does Shanton Sales. He has been repping mini-comic guys for the last 15 years, knowing that someone needs to go out there and sell these things throughout the country. There are people out interested in doing this and there are companies like Retrofit that are publishing mini comics one a month, every month to fill these voids of independent comics not coming out or they’re going to do it and the either become a success jumping on bigger publishers like Random House or Fantagraphics or Pantheon.

Do you have a big stash of back issues at JHU?

We have really gotten ourselves back into the Silver Age game. We try to curate or back issues now, not to be bulk but quality. Books that people that currently collect, things that have been around, and classic things like Marvel’s 1961 – 1970. We have a good collection of underground comics.

Throughout the years, I was a hunter and now it’s fun to hunt for someone else.  We have a Fantastic Four #8, and it was just a cool to get and display. When you see they guy buy it to fill in his collection and it’s almost the same satisfaction as buying it for myself.  You know what it’s like to put it into the slot and be done or close to done.  When you are talking about the first 15 Fantastic Four, you are talking about expensive comic books, even in garbage shape, and people want them and they are expensive. The collectable market doesn’t run our business anymore; I don’t know how it works for other shops. The nicest thing about comics now is that we are in a reader’s market. People come in now, to buy a graphic novel and to bring it home to read. Silver Age comics, no matter how much I adore them, I always pray that the guys do what I used to do. Bring it home, get into bed and read it in bed.

What comics have rewritten the rules over the years?

Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen changed everything at the store. These comics were different. But the comic that really changed the store was Love and Rockets. Because Love and Rockets was something everyone got behind. And we pushed it to everyone who walked in the store. It was the right book to push because it continued and it continued in such a majestic way. It grew up with you.

In the late 80s when you read Love and Rockets comics, you saw Luba, she was the hot girl with the big boobs and twenty-five years later and she’s a grandma with the sagging boobs. The comic is still as interesting as it was back then. The Hernandez Brothers’ loverocketsskills just get better. The ability to follow a comic character for twenty something years and see their lives really move is incredible. Not just get powers and lose the powers and die and come back. The character was twenty something and now is forty something and there is no going back. That is something that upped the game for every other comic around. Every other Chester Brown, Joe Matt and Seth, who do amazing work and continue to do amazing work, the first inspiration of look how big we can make this world and it’s ours. There are no tie ins into other comic worlds. No other artist or writers are going to take over these stories. These guys do these characters; they are the only people who do the characters.  Some of this harkens back to the love people have for the strip people, like the Charles Schultz of the world. Charles Schultz works on Peanuts and Watterson works on Calvin and Hobbes. Nobody else gets to do that. We don’t want a fill in. We want the real deal, the whole time. That’s what Love and Rockets is for me. No matter how much you love superhero characters, they have ebb and a flow by who writes and draws it. When something gets created like The Walking Dead, this is one creator’s vision. There is something that makes comics special in general. This is one person’s vision, not dozens of people.

What’s the rarest comic that ever came through?

In our time, we sold an Amazing Fantasy #15, and it looked like someone threw it in a puddle and ran it over once and came back and ran it over again and we still sold it for $1500. That was low balling it.

We have sold Fantastic Four #1, we have had a couple of those. One collection we got about 50 EC comics. We have seen reprints, we have all touched reprints, but the real EC, real Tales of the Crypts, 10.

What’s your favorite find in the store?

The first weeks I’m working at the company.  They have me numbering the boxes in the warehouse, because they are going to move the Staten Island warehouse into the Manhattan warehouse. They are like ‘don’t worry it’s all junk’ and I’m being a good employee and I am pricing the boxes. $200, $300.  I start thumbing it. kirbyI open this box. I see [a] Jack Kirby Heroes and Villains hardcover. I open it up and it is a 1000 imprint. Jack Kirby made a special imprint for his wife Roz as a valentine’s day gift. A single drawing for each page of every single character he ever worked on. Big Barda, Mr Miracle, Newsboy, The Thing, and Spiderman. I start to shake and I go up to Jim Hanley and I am like, “What is this?” and I am like, “How much?” “Can I buy this right now? I ask, He says,“after your shift is over.”

Its one of my prized possessions and it was sitting there in a basement a box. I didn’t even know it existed and later on there is a redux of the book done, called the Black Magic Edition. Someone got famous artists to ink each page. One of them is a Dan Klaus inked page, one of them is a Peter Kuper—Sprag the Living hill, a Jack Kirby illustration with Peter Kuper dynamic, it’s like “Oh my god.”

How did you start working at a Comic Book Store?

I worked at the former Jim Hanley’s Universe, with Jim. I used to shop there when I was 10 years old when he first opened the store, and then post-college, I was in a rock and roll band and I [thought] between touring and becoming a rock star, I’ll work a comic store. As I still wait to be a rock star, I stuck with the job. And a lot of it is fun, you sell comics to people, talk about comics all day. As you progress, there’s the comic business part of the world, making sure you are taking care of the insurance, making sure you are taking care of the employees and making sure you are paying your taxes properly. I am doing all these things on the business end; that was the real learning curve for me. Selling comics is simple, you are asking me to shoot fish in a barrel, you know, talk about all the things that I love.





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