Blog: Dan Merritt

Dan Merritt co-owns and operates Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan, with his wife Katie. He is active in the local business community and is vice-chair of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority. Dan's first clear thought upon waking up each morning is about comic books; how to sell them, how to promote them and most importantly, when he can read the next one.

Green Brain Comics is a comic book specialty shop that focuses squarely on comic books and graphic novels. It has been locally recognized with multiple Best Of awards from the Detroit News, Metro Times (just announced, a fifth Best Comic Book Store in Wayne County 2011) and Corp Magazine. Green Brain Comics has also been nominated three times for the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award presented at the San Diego Comic Con.

Dan is a founding member of the non-profit Kids Read Comics, a reading advocacy organization that promotes the use of comic books and graphic novels as tools for teaching, learning and personal growth for children of all ages. The organization is run by Edith Burney, a youth librarian at the Chelsea Public Library, teaching artist Jerzy Drozd, and veteran comic writer Dan Mishkin. Since forming in 2008, they have organized two annual comic festivals (with a third coming this June in Chelsea, Michigan) and a comic book workshop tour of libraries throughout the lower peninsula.

Never one for shying away from a challenge, in 2009 Dan became the curator for the HeadSpace Gallery, which currently resides within Green Brain Comics. His goals are to help promote the work of local artists, to create a richer experience for the customers and to sweeten the pot for art lovers that don’t normally frequent comics shops.

When Dan is not obsessing about his favorite art form he is in his basement workshop modifying children's electronic musical toys for insidious auditory purposes.

Dan Merritt - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5 - Penny For Your Thoughts: Free Comic Book Day

In the early part of this century, retailer Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, brainstormed an idea, which manifested in 2002 as Free Comic Book Day.

This is the idea in a nutshell. On Free Comic Book Day, participating comic book store retailers give away specially printed copies of free comic books to anyone who visits their establishments. Retailers purchase them from the publishers, which make them available at a nominal fee (12-50 cents). Publishers customize the book to best exemplify their available products or soon-to-debut summer book. Diamond Comics Distribution shares the cost of the promotion by distributing the books and organizing the promotional resources. Hurray Team Comics!

From the first Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) my wife Katie and I were on board. As an open house concept, it couldn't be better. Entice the customer in and show them how great your store is, than reward them for their time by showering them with quality free stuff that they can take home. Better yet, there was great synergy with the movie industry. The first year was timed to release of the first Spider Man movie, which was released on the first Friday of May in 2004. FCBD was the first Saturday. The response was great for a first time event. There was an amazing amount of new faces that came through the store, and we even got a few new regular customers. After the event, Katie and I nervously waited for the national response, which was overwhelmingly positive. Later that year, all of the stakeholders agreed that it should be an annual event.

And after nine years, we've only had one dud. In 2004, the FCBD steering committee made a change in the traditional schedule. It was decided to reschedule the event to a July date to coincide with the release of the Spider Man movie sequel. Hindsight wasn't necessary to see that this most assuredly spelled disaster for the event. The conventional wisdom showed that a holiday weekend in the summer was the worst time to plan a large retail event. And we were proven right, as turnout was miserable. But maybe more importantly, over the next two years something else was became an accepted fact.

For the following two years (4th & 5th) FCBD re-orientated to its traditional date of the first Saturday in May, and had no coinciding movie releases. And each year the event grew bigger than the previous year. This reinforced that FCBD was the draw, and that movie tie-ins were just an effective marketing tool for our event. Since, by accident or design, the movie studios have placed a big budget super-hero movie release on Free Comic Book Day weekend. It felt great to be right.

And as a reward to you for reading my posts throughout the week, we would like to extend a personal invitation to you and your family to our 10th anniversary Free Comic Book Day Celebration. This year it falls on Saturday, May 7th and will run from 10am to 8pm. But keep in mind, it's not just about the free stuff, it's also about the culture and the world we live in. Let me lay out the particulars.

Just for visiting you can choose three FCBD comic books. No strings attached. Over three dozen different titles to choose from, and many of them kid-friendly. There will be something for everyone in the mix.

Want more FCBD comic books? We have come up with several ways for you to get more and help the community at the same time.

All day we will be accepting donations for the following list of non-profit organizations.

Gleaners Community Food Bank will be here to accept canned and non-perishable food items. (You can receive up to three additional FCBD comic books for these donations)

Cell Phones for Soldiers (You can receive up to three additional FCBD comic books for these donations)

And to further support our local community, a portion of every sale that day will go to support WDET, non-commercial radio from the campus of Wayne State University.

While you're here on Free Comic Book Day, we hope you get a chance to meet our special guest comic creators:

Christian Slade (Creator of KORGI from Top Shelf Productions)
Jerzy Drozd (Creator of The Front)
Mark Rudolph (Creator of My Life with a Meteor Hunter)
Jesse Rubenfeld (Creator of Into the Dust)
Jon Hickey  / Mike Roll (Writer & Artist of Apooka: The World's Most Adorable Zombie Girl)
Randy Zimmerman (Editor and co-founder of Flint Comics and Entertainment)

But wait! There's more.

Entertainment will be provided throughout the day by Alter Ego Management providing live DJs to keep the energy level high and Found Object Orchestra Internationale providing live experimental soundscapes.

And last, but surely not least: we look forward to our annual visit from Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly, who is expected to present an official document proclaiming Saturday, May 7th 2011 Free Comic Book Day in Dearborn. This is an honor that Mayor O'Reilly has bestowed on us for the last four years.

Not enough? Good, 'cause we are always adding little things into the event like door prizes and special exclusive free comic books. So keep an eye on the event page at Green Brain Comics for up to date info on what stands to be the biggest Free Comic Book Day Celebration ever!

Post 4: No Comic Book Store is an Island

East Downtown Dearborn is a unique neighborhood in the urban landscape of metro Detroit. Once a thriving shopping district in the mid 20th century, it has evolved with the local manufacturing base over the last several decades into a mix of retail, restaurants and a growing segment of health services. It now strives to accommodate the shifting demographics of the area, along with the change in socio-economic conditions.

Over the last few years, I have become more intimately acquainted with the businesses in this area. After participating in a few committees organized by the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority (EDDDA) it became apparent that I had a role and a responsibility to become more involved with the work of this small part of the Dearborn City government. The DDA advocates, directs and manages revitalization and economic growth and acts to support and promote the district businesses. Kind of a no brainer for an owner-operator such as myself to get involved.

In 2008, I was appointed to be on the board of directors for the EDDDA. Within my first few years, we had set up an annual free concert series, Jazz on the Ave, in City Hall Park featuring several local jazz acts, the Taste of Dearborn East restaurant crawl, and are now working with the nation's leading nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, Artspace, to create affordable live/work space for area artists and and arts organizations. In 2010 I was appointed vice-chair of the EDDDA and continue to serve the district and to promote the idea of East Downtown Dearborn as a dynamic and unique destination.

With this experience under my belt and a strengthened sense of community responsibility, I now participate in an equally lively, but much looser organization of Detroit area comic book retailers. Our goals are simpler as well: to promote the culture of comic book stores by networking, sharing ideas and pooling our resources for promotions for seasonal promotions and coordinated events.

And our most ambitious collaboration is with a non profit organization called Kids Read Comics with fellow organizers Edith Burney (Youth librarian, Chelsea District Library), Jerzy Drozd (teaching artist, cartoonist and artist in residence at CDL), and Dan Mishkin (veteran comic writer and creator of characters like Blue Devil and Amethyst). Our mission is to promote kid friendly comic books within schools and libraries and to teach kids the tools to create comic books of their own. So far this has manifested itself in two annual Kids Read Comics Festivals, with another coming up in downtown Chelsea, Michigan, on June 18th & 19th. It has also spawned a library workshop tour led by Jerzy. Our long term goals include creating a database of teaching artists in Michigan to be used by schools and libraries and the continuation of annual Kids Read Comics Festivals around the state.

Through each of these relationships we strengthen our ties to the respective communities and in turn further empower those communities by our contributions.

Post 3: Surviving the economy in East Downtown Dearborn With a Little Help From Our Friends!

Our original location was on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, just east of Schaefer Road in a section of the city known as East Dearborn. It had opened in 1985 as Comics Plus, in an 1,100-square-foot space, sandwiched in between a pizzeria and a laundromat. business had relied on a small legion of dedicated customers that had appreciated its convenient location, down-to-earth atmosphere and the friendly, helpful manager, my wife Katie.

When the owner of the business decided he wanted out of the comic book retail business, he offered to sell it to Katie first. At the time I was working as a machinist with little to no job satisfaction and even less opportunity for advancement. Now my experience was certainly not in business management, but I knew comic books, having been a lifelong comic book consumer and enthusiast. Convincing Katie to buy the business and forsake the security of a weekly paycheck was much easier than securing the loan to make it happen. However, we eventually prevailed in finding a financial institution smart enough to identify us as two enthusiastic entrepreneurs willing to do what it took to succeed.

Our first year in business was fantastic, our loyal clientele stayed loyal and the publishers stayed in business. Business was so good that we were looking for a new identity (the name Comics Plus just didn't do it for me) and a bigger location where the business would have more room to grow. By chance we lucked on a piece of prime retail space at the far east edge of the business district. In July of 2002, the newly renamed Green Brain Comics took up residence at 13210 Michigan Avenue, quadrupling our retail space and creating a new era of comic book retailing.

Nine months into our second year in the new location, the Wayne County Road Commission started a three-and-a-half-year-long reconstruction project of Michigan Ave., centered directly in front of our new storefront. Sales tanked as only the most loyal customers braved the mountainous piles of debris, construction equipment and traffic snarls. That's about when I realized we needed to make some new friends.

I first met then Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido at a public forum to address the concerns of local businesses and residents regarding the construction project. There was only so much he could offer in the way of help for those of us struggling with these adversities, but everything he offered I accepted.

And I should mention that I was joined at that public forum by another business owner and friend from the district, Windy Weber, co-owner of Stormy Records with her husband Carl Hultgren, or more popularly known as Windy & Carl. We were pals and fellow victims of the construction project.

Within a year from that meeting, Windy and Carl had moved Stormy Records into the vacant second floor over top of Green Brain Comics, the much delayed construction cleared, and Michigan Avenue had reopened. This was the spring of 2006, and within a year the Great Recession hit Michigan hard. Thankfully, with the relationships created and the experiences gained, we were prepared. And by a long series of careful adjustments, consolidations and the continued rethinking of business practices and purchases, we have weathered economic situations that forced more than a few companies out of business.

The future of comic retailing

Much like the challenges faced by the music industry caused by the digital music player and file sharing, today the comic book industry must confront eerily similar dilemmas.  Digital comics both legal and pirated have moved in to slowly but surely take their share of the audience. The comic book publishers have learned how important it is to transition into these new markets, but where does that leave the brick and mortar stores?

Years ago, my wife Katie and I decided that we would do our best to stand out in a crowd and make Green Brain Comics a unique destination. We declared that the focus would be solely on comic books, graphic novels, and the experience of shopping for them. This meant creating a distinctive atmosphere, making it user friendly, and incorporating as many exciting products and events as we can (creator appearances, art exhibits, comic jams, and our annual Free Comic Book Day Celebration) to add value to every visit while enticing new customers to try something incomparable: my favorite original American art form, the comic book.

In a way, this early business philosophy helped set us up for the future of comic retailing, a future which may already be upon us.

Later this year Diamond Comics Distribution, the biggest comic book distribution service, will begin providing a system for retailers to sell download redemption codes for digital comic books. Now, using a service like that might help usher in a new era, a grand new renaissance for this once proud colossus that in its heyday sold millions of copies, but now struggles to hit 100k print runs.

Or we stick to the plan, the plan that saw us through some of the most turbulent economic times in American history.

Much like our pals Windy and Carl that still sell vinyl records at Stormy Records, on the floor above our shop, I have an unrelenting faith in our product. Physical comic books are to digital comics as record albums are to mp3s. Comic books are best experienced in a comfortable chair, not hunched over a desk or running on a treadmill. Sure, digital comics look nice, and they sure get a lot of attention, but I don't need to recharge my copy of the Watchmen graphic novel between each chapter.

What it really comes down to for us is being a physical store that sells products to physical people. We are building a community with those people, and creating a unique experience that draws you in and makes you feel a part of something special.

Now I'm not declaring that our future business model will mandate a download-free zone. But what I am saying is that we sell comic books. WE SELL COMIC BOOKS!

Post 2: Tales From The Shelves of a Comic Retailer my wife Katie and I bought Green Brain Comics (then Comics Plus) in 1999, the comic book industry was just recovering from the bursting of its own speculative bubble.

Our new endeavor was surely seen as a foolhardy move by those closest to us, and by most every bank that we took our business proposal to. Maybe it was the passion that won out over common sense.

As fate would have it, mass market book stores discovered comic books soon afterwards. More specifically, book stores discovered graphic novels (sometimes called trade paperbacks), a compact, bookshelf-friendly off-shoot of the traditional comic book format.  This helped to not only stimulate regrowth for the comic book publishers after almost catastrophic losses in the 90s, but it also catalyzed a metamorphosis for the floundering comic shop business model.

Graphic novels gave us a new product with a multitude of positive aspects. First, they have a much longer shelf life, where periodicals have a 4-8 week sell-through expectation. Flexibility in storage and display are innate with a conventional book, not only touting a full cover illustration that sells itself, but maintaining a descriptive spine with a more prudent opportunity for shelving. Most importantly, graphic novels provided stores like ours the type of product that appealed to an audience not normally receptive to the established comic book periodical, sometimes disparagingly called a "floppy".

Even with all of the charm of this new product, the time-honored format of the comic book format was rightfully never aband
oned. While a few smaller publishers have forsaken it in their product line, the comic book remains fresh and functional. are a place to innovate and develop new ideas with a relatively small amount of risk for the producer and the consumer.

This brings me to some important notes about comic retailing in the metro Detroit area. Detroit has long been a huge market for comic publishers, during the booms and the busts. When America went to war in the '40s, comic books went too.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in Detroit, "The Arsenal of Democracy". The post war baby-boomer generation grew up on a steady diet of TV and comic books, and Detroit manufacturing gave their parents the income to afford these luxuries.  In the '70s, Detroit was home to one of the first direct market distribution companies, Big Rapids Distribution, which later became a model for the current direct distribution of comic books when newsstands could no longer keep up with the rapid expansion of comic book publishers.

Today, Detroit remains one of the biggest markets for direct market comic book stores. It's been estimated that Detroit area comic book stores sell five million dollars' worth of comic books, graphic novels, and miscellaneous related products annually. This doesn't even include the mass market book store share.

This isn't to say that our geographical mark
et is without its challenges, but I'll talk about that in a post to come.

Post 1: Take that, you foul and baseless cliché! is truly amazing how the Detroit area comic culture has evolved over the decades. We have evolved from a loose group of enthusiasts buying comic books from a spinner rack at a drugstore to the upright collection of professional artists, writers, retailers and consumers that we are today.

Detroit is arguably the birthplace of the modern comic convention, Detroit Triple Fan Fare,  and currently plays host to several local and regional conventions. Over the years, the Detroit area has also been home to some of the most amazing creative talent working in comic books: veterans like Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and Keith Pollard, along with more recently acclaimed creators, Eisner award winners like Guy Davis and David Petersen. Also worth mentioning, in 2010, Ann Arbor-based comic book retailer Vault of Midnight became the first Michigan retailer to be awarded the Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award, so named after the creator of The Spirit and the person that popularized the term "graphic novel".

Green Brain Comics has itself been awarded several Best of Detroit awards from local media outlets like the Metro Times, Detroit News, and CORP Magazine as well as being nominated twice for the above-mentioned Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award.

Stating these achievements is not meant to toot my own horn or inflate the importance of my peers, many of which are also personal friends. I mention these things as a starting point to demonstrate where we are now in the perception of the public, the media, and how widely accepted this comic book art form has become. For example, Art Speigelman, the creator of the MAUS graphic novel, received a Pulitzer Prize for that work back in 1992. And over the next two decades, almost every major literary award has recognized the achievements in graphic novels. Even the New York Times now includes a Graphic Book Bestseller list. It seems that we may have finally arrived.

Our biggest challenge remaining is in changing the last residual prejudices against the comic book culture. The Android's Dungeon and its owner, "Comic Book Guy" from The Simpsons cartoon, typifies most of the remaining obstacles standing in the way of the whole industry. Like most stereotypes though, there is a grain of tru to it.

For instance, there may be some customers hanging out near our front counter, having a spirited conversation with my wife and I about some recent comic book or super-hero movie. Whereas now, that person is more than likely to be a factory worker, engineer, religious leader or even a high ranking public servant. And increasingly likely, that customer may be a woman. We can now quantify that our clientele demographics include more than 25% female readership. Take that, you foul and baseless cliché!

And finally, a few words about comic book readers. At Green Brain Comics, we do everything in our power to increase and diversify the clientele, appealing to every race, color, religion, creed, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status or sexual orientation. We don't differentiate whether you have a birth certificate, green card or are registered to one political party or another. Consequently, we never know who is going to walk through the door next.

It might be you.