The SDCC Experience:

Interview with Mile High Comics’s Chuck Rozanski

Chuck Rozanski (pictured on the featured image on Sequart’s main page) is the owner of Mile High Comics who attends San Diego Comic Con as a vendor (along with other conventions). You can view Mile High Comic’s website here.

How long have you been attending San Diego Comic-Con?

This is my 44th year.

How would you compare Comic Con before the popularity boom compared to when you first attended?

Well, in the beginning, this was a gathering of people who were iconoclasts, to the extent that being a comic book fan in 1973 was not something that was socially acceptable, and yet we enjoyed each other’s company enormously and that was what made conventions so special. We were coming here because it was very seldom that any of us were in an environment where people shared our interests, and it was so exciting to walk in a room where not only would you have people that liked what you liked, but also the creators because at the early shows, creators were a substantial part of the total audience. The first show I attended only had 900 people and so when you had people like Jack Kirby, Ray Bradbury, Charles Schultz, people who were huge cultural icons that were taken for granted, and it was truly an awesome experience. Now it’s like going to this gigantic county fair full of people who are not terribly knowledgeable about comics at all, and see it as a great place to take the kids for an outing. To a certain extent, you almost feel like an animal at the zoo, with people pointing and saying, “looky there! There’s someone who remembers comic books.”

So would you say it is a much less sociable experience here or much less welcoming experience at Comic Con?

It’s not welcoming at all, not even in the slightest. Quite to the contrary in fact as now when you come to Comic Con you have to do all these logistic hurdles of getting your badge and trying to get into the building and dealing with security guards. There is very little in the way of interpersonal connections here. You come to Comic Con and you do this zombie shuffle where you walk down the aisles looking at this and looking at that. The amount of personal interaction that goes on is limited to people who already know each other or know of each other, but you do get to meet people. One of the things I’ve remarked on a couple of years ago, is that people come here to meet people that they’ve dealt with online and to actually meet them in person, and that’s a good thing. I think there are still pockets of people who share the same interests who also meet here, but as regards of people coming to conventions who aren’t part of any social group, it’s very hard to connect with people here if you don’t have a pre-existing connection.

It seems like the only times in which people start talking with each other is pretty much in the lines where their waiting for a panel or signing or some toy.

Right, and you can find a commonality with people here and you can meet people, but I think going to a panel about something that you like, as long as you’re relatively gregarious since you can’t be all bound up and have to be willing to be talking to people, you can meet people that share your interest and whether you like them or not that becomes the entire question.

How would define the culture or atmosphere of Comic Con today?

Well, there are Comic conventions now all across the country and it used to be that people came to conventions because they would be meeting up with people who shared their interest in physical, tangible products. You would go to a convention and there would be people who would collect books or collect old 16mm movies, or you would have people who were very much into comic books. Now people come here because others share their interests in popular culture that is oftentimes intangible, so you will come here because people are very much into Doctor Who, but they may not own a single piece of Doctor Who memorabilia as it may be totally based just on either watching the show or owning DVDs and that may be the extent of it. Now there are people here who are huge comic fans that do not own the physical comics since they own everything electronically, and so it’s way different from the past where these were primarily marketplaces where people could buy products related to that which they enjoy. Now there is no interest in that at all. Somebody could come in here and be a huge fan of the Avengers movie and not own a single Avengers comic. I had a guy ask about the Iron Man movie and after I mentioned that they were Iron Man comic books and they were completely surprised and asked if they started making them after the movie. A lot of people don’t have that historical frame of reference of realizing that the comics are the source material for a lot of the popular culture that they now enjoy. They have no clue that the comics were the beginning of everything related to it and it makes one feel old.

Would you see this as a more negative experience?

It’s simply different. If you see young people here with a look of wonder in their eyes and their smiles and just the joy that comes from that, you realize that you can’t lock yourself into believing that there is just one way to enjoy a comic convention or one way to enjoy the various mediums that are here. Our job is to present different worldviews and make them entertaining and enjoyable as well as not to judge. We can’t judge what makes a comic book convention enjoyable. Just because it is not the same kind of experience that it was in 1973, doesn’t mean that it can’t be just as valid and create that same sense of wonder and beautiful memories for a young person today, that was created when you were that young person 40 years ago. You have to be careful not to fall under that trap. I think today’s conventions are awesome and fantastic experiences, and they are nothing like what I joined up for, but I have had to learn to adapt and in the course of that adaptation, I have been taught a few things. So you have to be willing to see the world from a differing perspective and that is what makes life interesting.

How has the application for booths at Comic Con been? Has it changed or has it gotten more difficult compared to previous years?

If you have a booth, it is pretty simple. You just write a big check. You have to pay them at the end of the show and they cash the checks sometime in mid-winter. You just have to give them a whole lot of money. I guess the more important question is what is the revenue stream that supports that cost and that has become harder and harder because while they haven’t been raising the actual rates that much over the last few years, the lottery system makes it so people are paying $500 dollars for a ticket to come here and buy nothing and are instead here just for the experience. Before, buying a $50 ticketed acted as a way to screen attendees and keep the lookie-loos out. The price of a ticket back then practically guaranteed that everyone walking through the door intended to leave with a bag of something. Now the number one thing people come here to get are the exclusives that they can either brag about the fact that they got it, or resell it on Ebay. For the people coming here, the costs of the tickets are so high that their goal is to get back the cost of the hotel room and the tickets by running around here as fast as they can and scoring as many exclusives as they can, and so it’s a way different game than what it has been in the past.

I remember reading in your past newsletters that you weren’t considering coming back to Comic Con due to decreasing revenue. Is there anything else that would stop you from coming back?

Well, for the past three years, we’ve been down a couple of grand and we’ve been up a couple of grand. Last year we were up, but not by a lot. I think that the fact that the businesses around the convention center have become so rapacious and are so determined to screw every last dime out of the attendees whether they be dealers or fans is very disconcerting. We had two packages delivered to the Hilton and they charged us $105 just to receive the packages. That is something that should not be happening. I went to a restaurant a block from the convention center on Tuesday and they were selling omelets for $11.95. When I went on Wednesday, they had replaced all of their menus and the same omelet was $18.95, because it was their “Comic Con menu.” That’s unconscionable in my mind. You should not take a moment of opportunity and use that to really screw people. The businesses here are already receiving a financial windfall from the convention, why should they also be jacking up prices above and beyond. So if you’re a hotel and have 100% occupancy that’s nice, but if you’re a hotel with 100% occupancy at double your normal rate and next Monday the rate drops in half again, that’s pernicious. I understand supply and demand and I understand economics very well, but there’s a point where it just starts becoming ugly and San Diego and its greed are becoming culpable.

How long do you see San Diego Comic Con being a popular hotspot for Hollywood and television? Do you think that will last a long time or do you think it will eventually die down?

Well, I think that goes back to that whole greed factor. As the community and the business leaders in that community start taking advantage of the people coming here, which includes the major studios, and if they see the people of the city of San Diego engaging in these extremely ugly behaviors, then they will leave. It comes down to a collective guilt. If San Diego loses Comic Con, it will because they deserve to lose Comic Con.

How would you describe your relationship with the staff at Comic Con?

The staff at Comic Con is utterly indifferent to whether we live or die. This year for example, we had a situation where the company that they hired to deliver the freight to the booths utterly failed at their job. We were supposed to receive our freight on Tuesday and it was at the dock at eight in the morning and we still hadn’t received it at nine at night. There was no one we could call, there was no one who came by to say that they were going to look into it for us, and no one cared because they cleared our check in the middle of the winter and once they had our money from that point on we ceased to matter.

Did you know any of the original founders?

Oh absolutely, and I know a lot of the people that are on the board and they hide in their offices and never come out. They make huge salaries in what should be a not-for-profit, but that’s just an absolutely specious designation because the last I’ve heard they have an enormous reserve fund that totals in the millions of dollars. These people control it and there is no oversight over them whatsoever, so they just treat this as a private kingdom and we never see them. They never come out to check up on us. 15 to 20 years ago, they did, now they don’t.

So your revenue has been up and down over the past couple of years, but I’m assuming there has been a general decrease overall?

Yeah, as people have switched away from purchasing the tickets to the lottery system for the tickets in place today, it has been harder for us to know which customer base is going to win the lottery because when you have a million people who want tickets and they only give out 130,000 to 150,000 tickets, then the makeup of that customer base in terms of what their interests are is unclear. I mean, maybe we are going to get people who like comic books, or maybe we are just going to get people who like Twilight, or maybe we are going to get Doctor Who fans, or a whole bunch of video gaming fans. We have no way of knowing the composite makeup of the customer base that actually receives the tickets, so how can we as vendors plan what to bring? We have no idea who is going to show up in any given year. We bring the very best comics that we can and in fact, our booth this year has a broader and more diverse selection of really good comics than we have ever brought before to Comic Con. Yet, we have no expectations that we are going to do particularly well this year as we are just hoping to break even because we have no way of knowing whether any comic fans will make it in the doors. At what other -venue do you ever deal with that kind of uncertainty? I mean normally if you’re a coin dealer and you go to sell things at a coin show, you have a pretty good bet that the people coming in through the turnstile are going to be coin collectors, but here we are at San Diego Comic Con and the vast majority of the people coming in through the doors don’t own a comic book.

You mentioned before this interview that for making your own comic book exclusives, Marvel charges you $9000 just to make it an official cover exclusive?

Yeah, we pay $9000 for each different cover and I have done 30 of the Star Wars ones, so I have $270,000 invested in Star Wars variants.

When did they start doing this kind of practice?

Well, this has been going on for about five years, but I had to do this as a response to the publishers here printing their own variants and selling them directly to consumers while cutting us out. Dark Horse is the most glaring example of that. Dark Horse publishes variants and then sells them at their own store at Comic Con and cutting out all of the retailers who support them every week as their new books come out. You have publishers that are actively competing against their own retailers, so the only reaction that you can have is to take that huge financial risk of printing your own exclusive variants. I’ve done 30 Star Wars variants and about 70 other variants that I’ve printed that are only available through us, and that’s been our only way of responding. It’s such an enormous risk.

That seems kind of greedy of them to charge you $9000.

Oh no, I don’t begrudge them that. For $9000, we get 3000 copies and we’re the only ones on the planet who own those. So, it’s actually a very fair deal. It’s just also very capital intensive because if you don’t sell enough in your first month or two to get your $9000 back, then the meter is still running. Every 30 days it’s $9000 for new variants and it keeps on going on and on. It’s scary, but I’m very adaptable and if the publishers are going to compete against us with exclusive products that only they have available, then the only thing I can do is to pay whatever the toll is and make my own exclusives.

When they start introducing the idea of exclusive comic book variants at Comic Con?

Well, they had comic book variants for the past 25 years or so, but it was about 4 or 5 years ago and again, Dark Horse and Top Cow were two companies that started doing their own and not letting other people [retailers] have them. This year Aspen took it a step further. Aspen is selling exclusive variants at their booth that aren’t even their own company. Aspen went ahead and printed a Spiderman variant because they found a piece of Michael Turner art and since he has passed away, they created an Amazing Spiderman variant that is only available through Aspen even though it is a Marvel property. They used the Michael Turner art as a leverage point to do that. Now you have artists doing the same such as J. Scott Campbell, who is drawing and paying to print his own variants and not giving them to the retailers who have supported him in the past.

Have you talked with other comic book vendors as well in terms of how they are doing in sales?

I talked to one guy who is in the same kind of range as we are in terms of doing variants and he said he is not having a good show. Like I said, I think we are going to do ok by the end of the show, but it’s not going to be great. I think there is enough people looking through our comics. We brought 100, 000 books this year and I bought a very large collection two weeks ago and we brought a large representative of those here. However, the guy that I bought the very large collection from has been here for the last 14 years and he’s dropped about $10,000 a year. So he was one of the bigger buyers coming into San Diego, and he is never coming back to the show again. He said the costs just got too high and is tired of getting ripped off.

Could that be a concern in the future where many of these vendors are just going to stop coming to Comic Con?

Well it’s not the vendors we have to worry about, it’s the fans who don’t want to pay $19 for an omelet. When you have an event that causes traffic jams and things like that, sure there’s got to be covering the costs of additional police time and things like that, but what’s happening on a micro-level of price-gauging is really gotten out of hand. It used to be when you said let’s move Comic Con out of San Diego and take it to Las Vegas, everybody would have said, “oh hell no.” Now they are more open to the idea, because at least in Vegas you know that the costs are going to be X amount and they pretty much charge the same year-round whereas here it’s almost like we’re prey.

How would you describe your relationship with the bigger publishers? Are they still supportive of retailers such as yourself?

No.  They don’t really do a lot for us at all. I think that as the publishers themselves have been absorbed by larger corporations, their degree for empathy for smaller businesses has diminished. They at least gave lip service to caring about us 20 years ago, but that’s pretty much diminished. The reason why I sell back issues is because I don’t want to be beholden to any one publisher at any given time. When I buy collections and then resell them, that’s a business where I’m surviving on my own ability to recognize what was sellable and I risk my own capital and I don’t have worry about the craziness of what a publisher might or might not do. I don’t have a lot of faith in publishers at all. They have done things on occasion that have been so egregiously stupid and have cost me so much money and they don’t even say they’re sorry. They just claim that it’s something they needed to do. We are absolutely incidental to their worldview.

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Matthew Berg-Johnsen is a college student studying Business Economics who also aspires to be a creative writer. During his free time he likes to develop his story ideas into full length narratives. While he can't draw to save his life, Matthew still seeks to make said narratives into comics. If you have any questions (or criticisms) for him, you can either leave a comment below his articles.

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