The Comic Vault is all about shining a light on the diversity within the comic industry. It’s why I was excited to interview Sumyra Ihsan, a Manchester based comic dealer and the owner of Lucky Target Comics. I appreciated Sumyra’s honesty on the comic industry and what it means to be a seller. It’s not an easy road to take, but it didn’t stop her from doing something she loved.
What was your first experience with comics?
My eldest sister had a short-lived obsession with comics in the mid-1970’s around the time I was born so, I noticed them and was interested before I could even read. When I was growing up the internet didn’t exist yet and TV was only on for a few hours a day. Being a child was often very boring. I remember feeling starved of stimulus and desperate to learn. Even once I got to school and learned to read I didn’t really felt like I was getting enough. I was constantly looking for stuff to read and I was interested in art and astronomy and mythology and, all kinds of things really. I read all my sister’s books and all the books at school and the ones at the local library but most of them were painfully old-fashioned. Lots of stories about well-behaved Victorian children and boring old men doing boring old man stuff.
I was one of a tiny number of British-Asian kids living in a white, working class area of Manchester so I was always subtly aware of being an outsider (plus, unlike my sisters, I was a really ugly looking kid and not comfortable with other people). It was very hard to find anything or anyone in books or on TV that I could even vaguely relate to. When my sister handed over her collection of U.S. comics and UK sci-fi comic magazines I was instantly hooked and completely obsessed. I was really enamoured with the medium itself and how it differed from prose fiction. I fell in love with the concept of super-heroes. And, the comics my sister gave me had characters like She-Hulk, Dazzler, Spider-Woman, Wonder Woman (with the Huntress back-up stories). They were women who were tough and brave and funny. They lived independent lives and had real problems like, not getting on with their fathers and struggling to pay their rent. They made sense to me.
What do you think makes comics so inspirational to the people who read them?
Are comics inspirational? I dunno. I suppose they can be. People often conflate the medium of comics and the super-hero genre/concept. I always delineate when I talk about them.
‘Comics’ is a cultural medium. People can be inspired by something that they discover in any cultural medium whether it be books, music, cinema, theatre, comics or any of the others. There might be something uniquely accessible about the comics medium that inspires people to create or get involved. I imagine the majority of people who work in the industry are comic fans/readers who were inspired to work their asses off to break in. There are also vast numbers of people who write, draw and self-publish their own comic books with, or without, a desire to go professional.
Are super-heroes inspirational? I suppose they were for me though I am not sure I would use that exact word. I am certain that they informed part of my identity in an important way. My mother died when I was 7 years old and, though there were people around to deal with my practical needs, being ‘parented’ was something that ended for me then and became a thing that I did for myself. I am sure I had a solid sense of right and wrong already but reading super-hero comics fully cemented the idea that kindness, courage, inclusivity are vital to being a good, worthwhile human being. That still resonates with me now. I imagine that will be true for other people but, for all the people that I have met through comics, I can’t think of a time that anyone has ever said anything like that to me about their own experience.
These days I find that comic book villains and anti-heroes are at least as popular, if not more popular, than super-heroes. It may be that people are inspired by the freedom, confidence and individuality that super-heroes and villains represent. I definitely think that things have moved further away from what was meaningful to me as a kid.
Interestingly, I find that the young people I see at conventions are often more interested in fandom than they are in comics. Fandom was not something that existed for me as a child or teenager but it seems to be hugely important now. So, someone can watch a super-hero or villain in a film or a TV show and be inspired to join fandom and/or become a cosplayer, whilst bypassing the medium of comics altogether, if they want to.
For those who’re unfamiliar with Lucky Target Comics, can you tell them a little about your business and what you’ve aimed to achieve.
Lucky Target Comics is an independent small business that I made from scratch with no capital and a small amount of stock. What you can see on our website, webshop, stall or social media pages today represents 1000s of hours of my work, and my ideas and planning, with a little bit of help from a few friends along the way. We sell all kinds of U.S. and some UK comics along with related merchandise. We have a Diamond account, which means we offer a standing order service and we sell both new and back issue comics.
I use my personal moral compass as basis for how I approach everything in life. That is true for LTC as well. Running my business in a way that I feel is right and honest and has integrity is really important to me. I believe that when people who appreciate good customer service, knowledge, honesty and hard work, interact with LTC they do feel that ethos coming through.
Aims and achievements can be frustrating, sometimes painful, to talk about but, right now my aim is to make Lucky Target Comics the best online comic retailer in the UK. That does not mean I am in any way concerned with what my ‘competitors’ are doing. I have always found that to be an unhealthy way to approach my business. I am simply looking at what I think is great about certain U.S. comic retailers, such as the quality and range of stock and the way it is presented, and I am aiming for that level.
When I talk about LTC I use ‘we’ even though 99% of the time it is just one woman alone in her house talking to herself. I have spent a big part of my life working in jobs I hated and struggling to pay my rent and bills. Ultimately, I do aim for LTC to have a high enough turnover and profit that I could comfortably employ a couple of people full time so that they can pay their rent/mortgage doing a job that they care about and being treated with respect.
How did you get into selling comics?
It was definitely not a life ambition. Though I don’t dwell on regrets, if I could redo my life with the wisdom and self-belief I have now, I am pretty sure I would not be a comic dealer today. I would have sacked off going to University and got what I needed from that through self-education. I would have pursued a trade, or two, that would have allowed me to live and work in different places around the world doing something useful and solid. Now, at 40, I’d be making bespoke furniture and doing some blacksmith type work or some such or. Maybe I’d be helping people in developing or war-ravaged countries build new towns.
I had some really bad experiences in paid employment when I was young, partly due to my own floundering approach to my education and career path and partly due to the fact that a woman of colour with a name like mine will find that most doors are closed before she can get anywhere near them.
When I was in my late 20s I chose to start selling my own comic collection, and getting rid of ‘things’ generally in order to make space for ‘experiences’ instead. That opened me up to comic selling.
A few years later I was living in Ireland and had my final negative experience of trying to work for another person; a job I walked out of after only a few weeks. It hit me that no one was ever going to give me a good job because they appreciated who I am and what I can bring to the table. They were only ever going to try and make me useful to them whilst paying me as little as possible and talking down to me. I was then extremely lucky to get a till jockey job which allowed me to pay for my own small apartment and introduced me to loads of really cool chicks and a few lovely blokes who made the rest of my time in Donegal something that I will never forget.
But, the financial crisis hit and my friends were moving on and my till jockey job was insecure and going nowhere. I had to make a decision. I felt that my best option was to start my own business and the only thing I had any experience with was comic selling. Ireland taught me that the sensible place to try and sell comics (outside of the U.S.) was back in Britain. So, I came back with the aim of seeing if I could open a comic shop.
Since the EU Referendum happened I have thought about all of that again. Maybe I could have been a whole lot braver, bought a small van, thrown all my stuff in, got on a ferry and headed for Berlin (somewhere I always wanted to live but I was scared that I would never get work if I went there and I’d end up broke and homeless). Maybe I could have been happy there now or somewhere else in Europe.
On your website you’ve talked about there being a lack of full-time comic dealers. Why do you think that is?
There is definitely NOT a ‘lack’ of any kind of comic dealer or retailer. I sometimes think there are more people selling comics in the UK than there are people buying them. What I say on my website is that not many people do this full time. You have to differentiate between comic dealers and comic shop owners and then all the people that are just making some tax-free cash on the side of whatever else they do.
People who open comic shops do so because they view it as their dream job. Usually they have made money doing something else that they can use as capital to fund opening the shop or, they have money behind them from family, inheritance, a partner/spouse or any combination of those things. Location is really important. Diversification is really important. With some luck and a lot of hard work some shops survive long-term. Many don’t in spite of those things. There are very few places in this country that are not already covered by at least one comic shop/stall/unit. Trust me, I checked.
Comic dealing requires some different skills than comic shop owning does and carries a lot less respect with the rest of the industry. Most people who do it are old guys who are retired and want something to keep them busy or, people who work in other jobs full or part time and use comic dealing to supplement their income. There is an old guard who started in the 1980s when there was some serious money to be made but, even then, they all had money behind them and they have used the money they have made from comics to invest in other much more lucrative areas such as property.
There are not many people doing what I do full time, and attempting to be independent of corporate selling sites to boot, mainly because it is a stupid thing to choose. No one with any pragmatic business sense and better options would choose to be a full time comic dealer.
That said, I am personally grateful that I have what I have. I have a personality type that is entirely suited to self-employment. I like my autonomy. I like working from home and spending a lot of time alone and never getting on public transport during rush hour. I love controlling every aspect of my business and making every decision about what I do each day. No one tells me what to do, what to wear, when to sleep, when to get up, when I can workout, when I can have my lunch, when I can have a day off, what kind of facial expression I should have on my face. On the rare occasions that I make some money, that money is mine for a few days until my landlords greedily snatch it away.
From a seller’s point of view, what do you believe makes a good comic?
It is funny that you asked ‘from a seller’s point of view’. My relationship with comics has been hugely affected by my becoming a comic dealer and essentially making my ability to live, eat and keep a roof over my head dependent on selling them.
I am glad to say that I am still able to enjoy reading lots of comics. The passion for the medium is still there and I have plenty to say on the subject if/when I talk to anyone who is interested in what I think. If I was making a comfortable amount of money in what I do I believe the retailer and the comic reader would be mostly overlapping. As things are, there is a definite division.
As someone who loves the medium I think comics are wonderful for their diversity and I can enjoy any and all of it. I could read a Batman comic one day and a Dan Clowes OGN the next. I could pick up an old Concrete comic, or The Incal, or an old Marvel Previews, or Johnny Boo, or Lazarus or Daredevil or Walking Dead. It is a beautiful, rich, diverse, powerful, flexible medium with endless possibility and I have never wanted to limit my enjoyment or appreciation of it (though, I admit, I very rarely read any Manga. Sorry, Manga fans!)
One thing I would say is that I love the single issue U.S. format comic. I completely understand why there has been such a firm move toward the collected edition/graphic novel. But, I don’t personally feel good what the tpb/graphic novel market has done to the industry, the medium or the retail side of things and, to me, it can feel as soulless as throwing out a vinyl record and getting a digital download instead. I am delighted when a creative team is skilled and brave enough to produce a really good 26 page story that is purely fitting to the single issue comic format.
However, as a seller, none of that really matters. My monthly comic order from Diamond has been stripped down and down every year that I have been doing this. It has gotten smaller and narrower simply because, where ordering is concerned, I have found that risk and diversity equates to net loss. Part of that is because my outlets are limited and the customers I encounter through those outlets are too small for a diverse, cover priced, new comic stock range. The other part is that we have a very messy retail culture in the comics industry and people have learned that they can buy a lot of comics for a fraction of their cover price if they wait a certain length of time after release and have no qualms about who they are buying from. As a retailer, and moreover a comic dealer as opposed to a shop owner, I have to stay on top of what will achieve cover price or more for at least a year or so after release. Sometimes that has absolutely nothing to do with what I personally believe makes a good comic.
Who’re some of your favourite comic characters?
Haha. I am rubbish at favourites questions as my lists are always huge and I hate narrowing them and I feel the need to add all kinds of reasoning where people usually want quick, intuitive answers. So, here goes:
DC Universe: Black Canary, Power Girl, Huntress (both of them), Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Big Barda, Zatanna, Vixen, Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, Renee Montoya’s Question and pretty much all the other women heroes. It is probably quicker to say that I’m not a Harley Quinn fan, unlike today’s mainstream audience. On the villain/gray area side of things I prefer Poison Ivy and Lady Shiva. I love the guys too. I have always been fond of all the Flashes, Superman, Swamp Thing and the Lanterns and Dick Grayson, the original Question, Deadman and many others.
Marvel Universe: She-Hulk, Jessica Jones, the original Dazzler, the current Ms Marvel, Kate Bishop Hawkeye, Spider-Woman and pretty much all the other women of the MU. They are all cool. Of the guys my top picks would be Daredevil, Blackagar Boltagon, Captain America, Moon Knight, Beast.
Other: Red Sonja, all of Terry Moore’s characters, Ghost, Dex from Rucka’s Stumptown (and probably all of Rucka’s female characters).
That’s just off the top of my head. I am sure I have left some out that I’ll be annoyed about later.
I noticed one of your favourite comic characters is Black Canary and obviously she’s a badass. What do you think makes her such a powerful character?
What makes Dinah great as a character, when she is at her best, is not really about power. She does have a good super power and, I think more importantly, she is one of the DCU’s best martial artists. That is undoubtedly bad-ass. But, what makes Dinah loveable is her personality. She is mentally and emotionally strong and she is socially adept. She is someone that everyone considers a friend and that everyone trusts and will always have your back and then will still be up for going to a bar and having some cocktails and a dance. She is someone that you could talk to about a problem and she’d listen and understand and be cool about it and then say something to make you laugh.
She is definitely not a character that I relate to in that I don’t see myself as being like her. She is the kind of character I would want to be friends with and, in an ideal world, I would try to be more like her. Her history is important too. She is rooted in the 1940’s and Golden Age characters have always had a magic about them for me.
I have to say that Black Canary right now is not all those things to me and that is true for most of the women of the DCU. They are not the versions of the characters that I love. That does not mean that they are anything other than great characters in great, well made comics. I really hope that there are young women and men out there who are finding that the current versions of Black Canary or Batgirl or Supergirl are characters that they love and will carry with them through their own lives.
For me, the women of the DCU have become distant but Marvel have, in the last few years, given me some new characters to adore and revived some benched favourites such as She-Hulk and Jessica Jones in a fantastic way. I really enjoy a lot of Marvel comics right now.
Black Canary was also not the best version of herself when I first started reading comics either. She did a bit of judo and let Ollie control her life.
Swings and roundabouts!
These days there’s a lot more representation for women in the comic industry. Are there any female writers/artists you admire?
I have a healthy amount of respect for everyone involved in making comics. Making something of out nothing is incredibly hard. To do that every day to a really high standard, and sell enough comics such that you can make a living out it, is impressive.
Representation in culture and industry is a common topic for debate these days because it is important. Obviously, if culture reflects the diversity of identity and experience that we see in our society then that culture will be richer and more meaningful and useful to us all. Obviously, if everyone had access to equal opportunity, pay and promotion in all industries then those industries would naturally come to reflect the diversity in society and both industry and society would be healthier and happier for it. This shit is just common fucking sense. The reason some people come up with desperate grasping arguments and deflections from this common sense is because they are weak individuals, terrified that they will become insignificant if they don’t keep their talons on a disproportionate amount of everything.
In my own life I have always been openly feminist and vocal about equality and my political opinions. I am definitely happy to be ordering, reading and selling comics produced by women. If I can usefully support women in the comics industry, by helping to promote their work or retweeting their comments, I do so. I retweet a lot of male creators as well.
My own experiences have affected my view of the whole industry. There are numerous levels to the comics industry and, what I am doing as a retailer, feels incredibly distant from what women writers and artists are doing. We don’t cross each other’s paths. I have probably never had a real conversation with one. I have also come to realise that being a person of colour cannot really be separated from being a woman. I am a woman of colour (with a load more specifics beyond that). That always has, and always will, affect how other people, including other women, react to me. I am also a comic dealer and that role does not carry any status within this industry.
I have, at various times in LTC’s history, attempted to reach out to /communicate with/ network with men, women and groups in all sorts of areas of the industry. I would not say I have encountered much antagonism but I would say that most of my attempts to network have been met with…unfriendly indifference. There are a small number of comic dealers and retailers that I occasionally trade with or chat to these days. None of them happen to be women. I would really love to say that lots of women gathered round and supported me as the only woman comic dealer, or as a woman who runs her own small business, or just as a friend. I would love to say other women have been positive about me being here and have chosen to buy their comics from me and reblog articles I have written and help promote my business on social media or even just wish me luck. But, none of that happened.
Rather than dwell on that stuff, I try to step back and not attach emotion to it. Part of that means not thinking too much about the individuals involved in any part of the industry. There just happen to be a lot of people out there who I don’t know personally and who don’t know me but I may interact with the work they produce. The only individuals I need to focus on are my own customers.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made comics more popular than ever. Do you think the market has become oversaturated or do you think there’s still room for innovation?
There are lots of elements of that question that I could pick apart but I do understand where you are coming from. I am not sure sales data would necessarily support the idea that comics are more popular than ever but sales data in isolation would only be one part of the picture too. Let’s leave that one there.
Marvel movies have definitely been successful. I am not actually a fan myself but, as a retailer, I definitely appreciate anything that might stimulate sales and bring new readers to the medium. It is true that Lucky Target Comics would not have survived this long if films and TV shows had not brought a whole lot of casual comic buyers our way. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not solely responsible. Yep, I have seen increased interest in Captain America, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy comics etc following the films. The same thing happened with Daredevil and Jessica Jones etc alongside the TV shows. As it did with Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman because of the Warner Brothers films. And, Flash, Green Arrow, Supergirl, I Zombie, Powers and let’s not forget The Walking Dead. I think the Walking Dead has probably helped introduce readers to other titles too.
Harley Quinn is really popular right now in part because a whole generation grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series and partly because of the Suicide Squad movie and partly because of DC based computer games and partly for how she has been handled in DC Comics. A whole lot of people who are way too young to have appreciated the Wolfman and Perez run on New Teen Titans the first time around are reading those comics now because they loved the Teen Titans animateds.
There is a fair amount of flow to and from comics and other mediums. I regularly sell Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars comics. Comics that are based purely on computer games can be very successful as can titles based on horror films or fantasy novels. In the past 12 months I will have sold Power Rangers comics, wrestling comics, comics based on really old cartoon characters and I constantly have to make sure I have My Little Pony comics in stock.
The range of comics that we have on the market today looks pretty damn impressive to me and plenty innovative. When comic buyers are open to back issues as well, they have access to an unlimited amount of great reading material.
Maybe your question is really about super-heroes and the relationship between comics and cinema for that particular genre. That probably could hit a point where it blows out a tyre and swerves off the road. The weak link there is the medium of cinema. Mainstream cinema is bloated and corrupt and to make a good looking super-hero film you need the big budget mainstream. But, is cinema really that important? There would still be TV, which is a more flexible medium and has not gotten as ugly as cinema, yet.
Some people think audiences will get bored of the super-hero genre. That is possible but we have had super-hero radio serials, TV shows and movies for almost the same length of time that we have had super-hero comics. There is no sign that people are falling out of love with the genre or running out of stories to tell. If the genre does ever decline that would not be a reason to think the comics would disappear. The comics medium has always been, and will always be, about a lot more than the super-hero genre.
It is likely that the comics medium and the other mediums I have mentioned will change over time and the ways in which they interrelate will change and maybe the popularity of certain genres of storytelling will change. My feeling would be that all of that will happen fairly gradually rather than in any big, impactful way. There are much bigger things happening on our planet that we all should be a lot more concerned with.
What kind of advice would you offer to someone who wants to sell comics professionally?
Get a real job or at least have the decency to wait until I’m dead!
Seriously, if you have an acceptable source of income doing something else, do you really need to do this? If you are going to do it but don’t really need to then, I don’t really want to help you.
I suppose if there is some weirdo out there who is just like me and feels that s/he has no other options and has to do this full-time and does not want to be another one of eBay or Amazon’s herd of cash cattle, that person should get in touch with me. We should team-up or at least go have some cocktails.
If you are the “but, this is my dream” type and you have enough capital, you could open a shop. Don’t be an arsehole about it and open up in a small town that already has a comic shop and ruin two people’s lives. Be really careful about what kind of lease you sign up for because landlords are evil and, if they can, they will take all your money and some of your internal organs, and probably your soul too, if such a thing exists. Do some research and plan for diversification according to the needs of your local community. Few shops just sell comics. You’ll need to sell something else and you should make an informed choice about what that will be.
To anyone who is planning to start their own business of any kind, I’d probably be a crappy choice for a mentor but I can tell you how I approach things.
Firstly, long before I started my own business I decided that, as a consumer, I would make an effort to do what I believe is right. I treat other businesses and business people how I want people to treat LTC. I make a concerted effort to buy from small, independent business wherever I can and with whatever I am buying even if that means paying a bit more and, I treat those businesses with kindness and respect. I avoid buying from unregistered sellers and big corporations if I can (it is not always possible). I leave positive reviews, good feedback and post social media messages about the independent businesses or services that I use.
I have always gone for a tempered approach to spending where LTC is concerned. You cannot be completely risk averse in business but I believe most businesses that fail do so because they over-reach on expenditure. I pay for everything up front. I very rarely borrow and when I do I only borrow the minimum needed and pay it back as quickly as I can. If I don’t have the money, then I can’t afford to buy whatever someone is offering to sell me. I work with what I already have.
It is really important to leave some space for your business to change and adapt. When I look back I can see that I have been intuitively changing what I am selling and how I am selling it according to the market and what I have to work with. You cannot decide that you want your market to be a certain shape and force your business model onto that. You have to shape your business to what may turn out to be a subtly undulating market.
I don’t get attached to my own stock. Fortunately, I am someone who loves getting rid of things and making spaces and keeping my world tidy and organised. That makes me suited to selling. There are a lot of comic dealers out there who are also collectors and that can turn out to be an internal conflict of interest.
If you are blessed with personal charm then use it. A small business can really benefit from having friends and allies. Talk to potential allies. Win their support. Sadly, I have had to get through life with absolutely no personal charm but I have tenacity instead.
I have had to learn not to be too generous. I used to answer every single email, whatever people were asking or whatever free advice they wanted. I used to work my ass off trying to get all the comic dealers to work together and socialise and support each other. I used to buy all the drinks and include everyone. I have met some really good people through comics and the comics industry and I have also met a lot of really unpleasant and dishonest people. There are always people out there who want to get you to undervalue your time, your knowledge, your stock, you skills, your business, yourself. That is one area where most comic creators and I would understand each other. There are always people who think it is okay to take and give nothing back. These days I will delete emails, I will say no and I will tell people that my time, knowledge and stock all have value and if they don’t want to pay for it then they should just go away.
Finally, if you could have any kind of superpower, what would it be?
How could I possibly be content with just one? I want all of them!
I think it would be easier to say which super-heroes I would like to be, at least some of them time. My top choice would be She-Hulk. She has everything that I want and is everything I want to be and, even with her current troubles (read Hulk people) I would still love to be her. Awhile ago I met a little girl at a convention who loved She-Hulk. I said,
“Why do you love Shulkie? Is it because she’s really strong and brave and intelligent and kind and beautiful and tall and funny and she knows how to look after her friends and have fun?”
“Because she’s green”
I could not argue with that. Green is my favourite colour too!
I am not a big Hulk and Wolverine fan but there is something about those characters that I want sometimes. I was telling an old housemate once that I have never in my life genuinely lost my temper or seen that ‘red mist’ that people talk about. But, there is a part of me that would love to let go, grow really big and bounce around smashing the shit out of everything in my path. Or leap at things and rip my claws through them and then go have some beer and a cigar with no concern about consequences. I assumed everyone must feel that way. He said that’s not a thing. Apparently it’s just me.
Obviously, super strength and flying and all that crap would be amazing but it’s hard to see how they would fit into the reality we live in. Brian Wood and Ming Doyle made a mini series called Mara a few years ago. I think that was great understated story imagining what might happen if someone displayed a super power in a world similar to ours. Not pretty.
If I could wish for anything superpower-like my inspiration would not actually be a super-hero story. It would be the film, Limitless. One of the saddest things about being a human being for me was that when I reached a certain age it hit me just how much I would like to be able to change the world and it exactly coincided with the realisation that I never will. If I was presented with a pill that would kill in me in five years but would give me a mind that I could change the world with, I would take it in a heartbeat.
Sumyra Ihsan is a Manchester based comic seller and the owner of Lucky Target Comics. Her online store has a diverse amount of comics and you can purchase them by checking out the website. Be sure to follow Lucky Target on Twitter as well for the latest updates.