Interview with Dan Merritt of Green Brain Comics: “We’re Breaking All of the Stereotypes!”
There’s no place out there quite like Green Brain Comics. This gem is nestled in downtown Dearborn, Michigan and is bursting with comics. Their sections are eclectic, often showcasing difficult to find titles you’d typically have to order online. The store itself is an optical treat with its bright green aesthetic and versatile displays. The workers are helpful, but never overbearing, creating a comfortable browsing atmosphere. A unique characteristic is that their building space is shared with Stormy Records, an ambient music store. Comic shoppers can peek over partition and see the record store, and vinyl shoppers can peek on the comics. It’s a win-win. Green Brain Comics’ co-manager Dan Merritt spoke with us about the store.
We’re actually celebrating thirty years in business. The store opened in May of 1985, under the name Comics Plus. The original owner was Gary Reed, who is currently the publisher of Caliber Comics. He recently revived the publishing imprint and is making another go at it. My wife and boss Katie started working for him 27 years ago. When he was ready to sell, he offered it to her first, and we bought it in 1999.
Where did the store name come from?
The name is partly inspired by an x-ray that I got back in my skater days. Something happened to it where you usually get the blue tint. The stock was kind of weird, so it gave it a green tint. When we were looking for a new name we wanted it to have character and be an icon. We wanted a color and a shape—a symbol. So, green brain came to mind.
Stands out for sure. Recently the store moved from the old location a few blocks up the street. How long were you located there?
We were there for 12 years; it was nice being in that building. It felt like it was ours, but it wasn’t ours. This is ours.
I like the crossover with Stormy Records. It must be nice to hear their music over the partition.
They are the house DJs. They’ve been with us for nine years now. They moved into the second floor of our old building. It was one of those situations where we wanted to expand the business into the second floor, but we never had the chance. When the difficult financial times came, we felt it was best to give them an outlet. It was a time where records weren’t selling well, but they had potential, so we wanted to boost them up. It’s a great partnership—a good crossover.
What would you say is your mission as a comic book store?
We want to promote diversity. Not only in the comics that we support, but the audience that supports us. We are continually driving to get more customers from different backgrounds. We’ve spent a lot of time growing our female audience and our kids audience. Some of the stereotypes of comics are that “comics are for kids,” “comics aren’t for kids,” and “girls don’t read comics.” We’re breaking all of the stereotypes, and we do it with everything we have. With every initiative that we promote, we promote diversity.
That ties into Comique Con. By the way, how do you pronounce it? I’ve been saying “comeek” con, but is it “comic” con?
It’s “comeek” con, with two hard “K” sounds. I like that Chelsea Liddy had the idea that the “que” is feminizing comics. It’s like the association with queen.
Who approached who about collaborating on Comique Con?
Chelsea approached us. She and a few of her friends had a great idea when they brought it to us, and we immediately said yes. I’m very careful about what I say yes to these days, because up until recently I said yes to everything. And that gets me in trouble as far as scheduling. Quite often I over schedule myself. But we felt like this was the right initiative at the right time.
What aspects of the event are Green Brain Comics most involved in?
We were brought in for a couple different reasons—consulting, primarily. We’ve put on several small, specialty conventions, and Chelsea wanted to have us onboard to help steer the organization and to make sure Comique Con had a good, solid foundation. We’ve also helped with getting potential guests, speaking with publishers, and organizing the custom variant for Swords of Sorrow through Dynamite. We also organized the cover created by local artist Dave Acosta. We contribute in part to the publicity. I do want people to understand that Chelsea is the face of this convention. It’s not our convention. We’ve run enough conventions to understand that a con needs a strong identity. With a female-focused convention I want to make sure that identity is strongly female-fronted. One of the other conventions we help organize is Kids Read Comics, which is now in its seventh year as an annual event in Ann Arbor at the AADL.
I was there; I love that convention. I did see your booth there. Can you describe your involvement with KRC?
Along with being founders and organizers of the event, we are the official bookseller on site. This year we represented a dozen different creators that were busy that weekend doing workshops and panels. Our role at Kids Read Comics has evolved. Initially, we were on the floor making sure that all the guests were where they needed to be and all the amenities were organized. But we’ve got this great partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library, and they have such a great staff, we’ve kind of found ourselves being placed in the role of the bookseller, which is great because that’s what we do. We organize all the purchasing of the books for the creators, so they don’t have to haul them into the show. We do all of the actual selling. You may have seen Raina Telgemeier there. Raina is such a big name now that she shouldn’t have to deal with that end of a con. Bookselling is not what she does. What she does is interact with her billions of fans. And she needs all of that stuff taken care of so she can do what she does best. She is such an amazing public figure now. She’s not just the New York Times bestselling graphic novelist. It’s amazing. She alone has pushed our objectives further than we could ever do. She has gotten more kids and women involved in comics, and all we can do is say, “Look, here’s Raina!” And do what we can to make sure the attention is on her.
I noticed Luke Pearson titles at your booth. Was he there and I missed seeing him?
No, we were selling Luke Pearson’s books, because he was the first recipient of our annual Dwayne McDuffie Excellence in Kid Comics Award. I was on the judging panel for that, and we had so many incredible submissions this year. We had ten finalists, and it was really tough to narrow it down. We eventually came to the decision that the Hilda books were on the top. But there were other great, notable books on our nominee list too.
Was this the first year for the Dwayne McDuffie award?
Yes. Not only was Dwayne a terrific booster for all ages comics, he was also a good friend of one of our co-organizers, Dan Mishkin. Dan had been trying to get Dwayne McDuffie to appear at the show for years, but Dwayne was a very busy person, and then he unfortunately passed a few years ago. Dan has led the charge for creating an award in observance and recognition of all his great work and also using that awareness to bring more attention to new works.
There is another type of award given at Kids Read Comics, correct?
Yes, it’s an actual awards show called KCR! Kids’ Comics Award. That has turned into an interesting production. I heard a lot about it, but we could not attend because of obligations of bookselling. We look forward to seeing the video.
Beyond Kids Read Comics and Comique Con, what other specialty cons has the store been involved in?
We also did a small press show that was purely local creators that were self publishers. The name of that show was Snap. with an exclamation point. Snap! lasted two years. We think it was a little before its time for the area. We’ve considered revisiting it, but KRC and Comique Con have filled that hole for us.
What events do Green Brain Comics offer in-house?
We are gearing up for release of a podcast within the month. Brain Waves is the official Green Brain comics podcast. That is going to be a weekly podcast that will feature discussions on the new releases, getting the word out on upcoming events in and around the store, and we’ll do some interviews here and there to spice things up. We also have a pretty regular schedule of author signings. My boss is organizing the annual Ladies Night. We’ve also had live music here in our lower level. We had Adam WarRock, who has become an annual event for us. He is a geek rapper. You can call it nerd rap. We hope to have more music and are completely open to suggestions. We’ve got a full sound system down here. Everything is removable. We’ve fit upwards of fifty people in here. It’s a good space, a good mutable space. Also, in the past we’ve had comic jams. If you’re not familiar, it’s a social event. We bring in local creators to collaborate on an improvised comic page. It is essentially a blank nine panel page, we pass it around the table, and everyone does a panel. I just did a comic jam event at the Dearborn Heights Public Library. They were super impressed with how many kids we got involved and how intently they paid attention. Comic jams are something we’ve made a reputation on. We hope to start a movie night as well. We would like to have a regular movie night schedule. We’re completely open to different types of events.
What comics are you reading right now?
As the purchaser, I have to read a lot. I have to be pretty familiar with the books that I’m selling. I have a few favorites. Deadly Class by Rick Remender and Wes Craig is amazing. I love it. I’m a big fan of Southern Bastards. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have created a book that pays a lot of attention to Southern high school football culture. Each of those elements are things that I would not normally read. I think it is a testament to the quality of the book, the writing, and the art that I will read a book about football.
Both good choices. What else do you guys have going on that we haven’t covered yet?
We are big supporters of the community. We are in a very active downtown district. I myself am the current chair of the East Downtown Dearborn District Authority. Our job is to promote the district with events promoting economic growth, bringing in new business, and attracting a new audiences to the area. We helped facilitate the purchase of the Dearborn City Hall just a few blocks down on the corner of Michigan and Schaefer. That is now in the hands of a non-profit real estate developer called Artspace. Artspace is redeveloping the building and its campus for multiple use live-work studio space for working artists. At this point, it is planned to have upwards of 50 live-work studios. The building has two large colonial elements. These two will house the units and in between is a connector building that we call the annex. Inside the annex will be a communal space, potentially a gallery space. It also housed the former city council chamber, which is a classic amphitheater room that will be used for live performances. All in all, by the end of the year they need to get the spaces leased and occupied. In 2016, we’ll hopefully see full occupancy. We’ve been involved in this process for six years and to see it finally coming to fruition is pretty amazing. The DDA that I am chair of is in charge of maintenance and programming for the city hall campus, which is the green space in front of the building. I’m a busy guy. You know how I said I have a hard time saying no to stuff? Yeah, I’m finding it easier now.
Are you still active with any of the larger conventions, like Motor City Comic Con?
No, those aren’t something we really focus on. We really try to bring as much attention to a brick and mortar retail presence. It’s really important for us to show people that it’s a comic convention every day here. This is a great meeting place, a great communal space. All you have to do is pay attention to our Facebook feed and you’ll see that we’ve got convention style events happening throughout the year. If you’ve been to our Free Comic Book Day, that is a convention on its own. We’ve got our hands full with our own events.