Origin Story: The Comic Cartel, Minneapolis

Interview by Max Delgado

Like superheroes, every comic shop has an origin story, and this one starts in Minneapolis. It goes like this: late at night, about a year ago, two professional designers (but life-long comic geeks) decided they wanted to launch a comic shop.

Well, kind of.

Yes, with enough distance, this pithy opening is mostly accurate -- at least in the sense that it captures the moment that eventually lead to the launching of the Comic Cartel, the internet’s newest online comic shop which, like most things on the internet, offers customers brick-and-mortar products but with digital ease. But what these opening sentences don’t capture is the zigzagging road that the founders of the Comic Cartel, Dan Behrens and Lucas Sorbo took in getting to the actual idea of, well...starting a comic shop.

Knowing LBP's love of comic shops, Dan was kind enough to sit down with me a few weeks ago so I could hear the Cartel’s origin story in full. And here it is...

The App

Here’s the first thing you need to know: the Comic Cartel didn’t start as a comic shop. It started an app -- something geeks could download on their smartphone that would allow them to keep track of what books to pick-up on Wednesday. A nifty idea, yes, and one that inadvertently plunged Dan and Lucas into the rhythms and infrastructure of weekly comic distribution. Up to this point, Dan and Lucas, like most readers, only had a layperson's understanding of what it took to get books to fans on a weekly basis. And if the Comic Cartel idea was to work -- remember, at this point it was just an app that was essentially in sync with the distribution schedule -- they needed to take a deeper dive.

And they did. When I sat down with Dan he was able to fill in all the little gaps I didn’t know; how Diamond and Previews interact; the calculated gamble inherent in pre-ordering; and how tough it can be for a comic retailer to turn a profit.

But I digress.

As Dan described it, this deep dive research eventually led to the small step of considering what it would look like for Comic Cartel to be the ones actually selling the comics, not just tracking them. Looking back at the evolutionary arc of the Cartel, this leap in logic amounts to a fish deciding to take a walk on land. Dan and Lucas built their ideal shop online, developing not only a tracking system but a new way of getting books to fans.

The Box

Don’t forget, Dan and Lucas as designers. If they’re going to ship you comics from their online store they’re not going to send that shit in a manilla envelope. Instead, they designed a high-quality slipcase that holds twelve books at a time and looks like a giant old-school cigarette pack. As a geek who who’s tripped over longboxes my entire life, “the box”, as Dan affectionately calls it, was a revelation. It’s sleek, yes; finally allows geeks to store back-issues elegantly on their bookshelves, of course; but, better than anything "the box" finds a perfect balance between book-maker art and D.I.Y sensibility. In short, it’s beautiful. And even though it’s not a comic, I want it as part of my collection.

So yeah, I love the box.

So much so that I asked Dan if I could just buy the slipcase and forget the comics. “Not yet,” he said. “But maybe soon.” And I could tell he was both delighted and surprised that of all the aspects of the Comic Cartel’s origin story I had fixated on their shipping mechanism the most. But the funny thing is, a few weeks after our conversation, they began selling the box, too. I'd like to take credit for planting the idea, but who knows...

To get the full story of the Comic Cartel, and what’s coming down the pike check-out my interview with Dan and Lucas:

LBP: It sounds like you and your partner came up with the idea for Comic Cartel in a sudden burst of inspiration. Would you mind telling us more about that initial brainstorming sessions and what followed afterwards? 

Well, we both literally had the same idea at the exact same time. Honestly. No shit. For real. That should probably weird us out but we have been riding some parallel brain wave coaster since we met 15+ years ago so we’re a bit used to it. The idea manifested from the (well, our) thought: “Man, I wish a quality site or app existed where we could tell it the comic titles we read and it’d spit out which issues come out each Wednesday. Screw wishing, let's make it ourselves!” We then sat around researching how we might make that happen until 5am that same night.

Life eventually got in the way and the idea fell by the wayside. A couple months later Dan was on his weekly wednesday trip to Big Brain Comics (our LCS of choice) where he overheard the owner talking about the exact same app idea and how he refers customers to an Android app of the same nature. Finding out that app had 10k+ installs switched on the light bulb over his head throwing what eventually became Comic Cartel into high gear.

Obviously we are quite a bit different than that original idea describes. As we worked through details discovering more and more, we had to pivot many times, eventually landing us where we are today.

LBP: Starting an on-line comic shop is probably more complicated than the average fan realizes. What does it take to launch a shop, and what have been some of the most unexpected obstacles you've come across so far? Have any current comic shop owners given you any words of advice? 

Oh man.. Just don't do it. Kidding. There has been non-stop mini and major problems throughout the journey. Solving them is 1) tons of fun 2) occasionally tons of stress 3) hard and 4) tons of fun.

To pick a specific obstacle … SHIPPING, OMG SHIPPING. So many late nights mathing our asses off then waking up to uncomfortable negotiations with shippers trying to reduce absurd shipping rates. In a perfect world, everyone would pay a dollar and get it teleported into their lap. In reality though shippers need to make money to operate (pay for gas) as well. It was tough to figure out but we got there. Downhill from here hopefully? Doubt it. Shipping…you’re a jerk.

LBP: You've had a very soft launch so far. Can you tell us how you've spread the word about Comic Cartel, and what the response has been? 

Heck yeah! We've been trying to make a very small splash in hopes to allow ourselves breathing room for working out the inevitable bugs that exist launching anything on the internet. We want to make sure everything is as perfect as is acceptable before we scream too loud. We have told a few friends, posted on reddit a bit and tweeted on the Twitters. The response has been HUGE. Way better than we had thought. The first time we saw "300 site visitors with 10,000 page views in less than 24 hours" we damn near puked, fainted and pooped our pants out of the nervous happys!

People have been extremely receptive and it's a great feeling. Here’s our personal shoutout to the subredittors of r/comicbooks and our twitter followers for all of their feedback, orders, questions and general awesomeness. 

LBP: The most striking component of your business model seems to be the box. It looks more like a bookmaker's project than a storage device. How'd you develop the idea for the box, and how many drafts did you have to go through before landing on this final design? 

Being comic geeks ourselves, our floors are covered by piles of comic books and long boxes crowd our closets. It feels like Uncle Scrooge’s gold but looks like crap. One working night earlyish on "How rad would it be to get you comics at your door, already somewhat organized, shipped in a storage box you actually want to show off?!" was said. Our guts were stoked and the rest is the future I guess.

We wanted it to be durable and attractive but most of all we wanted something we would use. We looked at and tested a bunch of different materials. It couldn’t just be flimsy, crappy corrugated cardboard. When we glanced at the boxes iPads and the Nest Thermostat ship in, on came that “AH-HA” moment. After a bunch of drawings, 3 handmade prototypes & 5 professional prototypes, we finally had the box. It's 5mm thick compressed double walled paperboard, fully recyclable and strong as heck.

LBP: You've also noted that Comic Cartel is interested in producing various limited editions of and variations on the box. Can you tell us what ideas you guys have? 

We really wanted it to look good on your shelf. Something you'd be proud to display rather than tucked away in a closet, y’know? What better way to do that than make the darn things collectible art themselves. The current plan is to use positive energy and hundred dollar bills to trick everyone's favorite creators and leading designers into arting up 1000 run limited edition box designs releasing them after the previous run is gone etc.. We also happen to be designers so while we master our trickery skill set we’ll be executing some really cool ideas ourselves. We won't go into too much detail, but here’s a hint: One box will be a take on an iconic car seen in a movie that has the words “Back” and “Future” in it.

LBP: Your business model seem to be two-fold right now, operating as both an on-line comic shop, and offering a new product for storing back issues. Do you feel there's equal momentum for both aspects of your business, or have costumers gotten more excited about one service over the other?

Honestly, the momentum has seemed fairly equal for both aspects so far. People do seem to like that dang box though. We’ll learn a heck of a lot once we start pushing bigger so time will tell. We’ve already flipped our initial idea on its head a handful of times so if/when the need to pivot surfaces again, we’ll be stoked to play ball. 

LBP: You and your partner work as designers here in Minneapolis. How do you think your professional background is contributing to this latest venture? 

Well, Lucas is 75% Industrial and 25% Graphic Design while Dan is 75% Graphic and 25% Industrial Design, we compliment each other quite well. I said this earlier but we’ve been riding the same brain wave for so long now that when either of us hits a wall the other intuitively picks up and delivers the problem to solution land. Also, we’re both totally insane and open to trying any idea that makes our tummies tingle.

 


The Maxx:

Lucas: Instead of picking 3, I'm just going to pick the first ever series that hooked me when I was a kid -- The Maxx. As a kid, reading that psychological clusterhump was damn eye-opening. It was the first comic I HAD to have every month, then I would read and re-read it until the next issue. It was important to me because it opened up my eyes to what comics could be as an art form. From the crazy drawing style of Sam Keith to his even crazier writing style, it was just so different from everything else I'd ever read up until that point. I mean, yes, there's social commentary and daring stuff in Superman and Batman, but nothing like this. This dealt with things like psychological disorders, multidimensional creatures and serial rapists. Looking back, I was probably a bit too young to be reading it (haha) but it paved the way and set the stage for the comics that I now prefer to read; alternative comics like Watchmen, Y: The Last Man, Peter Panzerfaust, Saga, Transmetropolitan, and on and on. I'm pretty much the Image guy and Dan is the Marvel guy.

Superman #75:

Dan: Although cliché, that issue massively changed my world as much as, if not more than, hearing Operation Ivy for the first time. I grew up in a small town where discovering anything cool (or nerdy even) was like mining for gold in a corn field. One evening however, the local TV news reported that Superman had died in the comic book storyline. Immediately I thought: "WHAT?! HOW?! IN A COMIC BOOK?! HOW DARE THEY!!” I begged my mom to drive me the whopping 20 minutes to the next town over (the only place around that contained any semblance of a comic book shop) to pick up a copy. Being the spoiled brat I was we pretty much left immediately.

After a grueling 53 minutes the issue was finally in my hands (on it’s 4th printing by this time) and I had it read in what felt like 30 seconds. My world changed right then and there. Up until that point the only comic book I knew existed was Archie from seeing it on the rotating stand at Wal-Mart. I had absolutely no clue the majority of the  characters I grew to love originated and actually thrived on those pages. 

Aside from experiencing countless new worlds, the hands down best thing that issue gave me was drawing material. I loved drawing. I drew every single day and was very lucky to actually be good at it. However, my practice was limited to very accessible things like Dr. Seuss characters, OG Ninja Turtle TV cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons etc. I drew them over and over again. Superman #75 revealed a new multiverse of characters and drawing styles I could practice and attempt to master. All the while setting me on a path that lead to the design career I cherish today. Dan Jurgens + Brett Breeding are good shit in my book.