Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mark One Turns 25

For a brief moment in the nineties I had access to two comic shops within cycling distance of my home. After establishing their first store in Auckland the Mark One franchise set up stores across New Zealand including my hometown Napier and the nearby Hastings. Sadly at one point the franchises all switched to operating independently with Chris Lander's Mark One Comics in Hamilton left as the sole store under the Mark One brand.  My local stores disappeared after the boom years in the nineties and my interest in comics dropped off.  In the mid 2000's I moved to Hamilton on a whim and after a few curious visits to Mark One I rekindled my interest in comics.

A highlight of every week was picking up a pile of comics on Friday and then lounging on our mansion porch (yeah, we had a mansion) on the banks of the mighty Waikato River and thumbing through all the four colour goodness that I thought I had grown out of. I remember picking up Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's brilliant Street Angel and the Palmiotti and Gray relaunch of my childhood favourite Jonah Hex amongst a regular stream of goodies. It was probably finding John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra chronicling Judge Dredd's origins in 2000AD that convinced me I needed to recommit to my childhood obsession. Chris was great for indulging my requests to order oddities from the Previews catalogue and things like, "Can you please not put sticky price tags on my Phantom comics?". Chris was great too for selling the tawdry comics I started making in Hamilton, "Here's a pile of hand stapled dick jokes I photocopied in an educational facility that I snuck into at 1am last night." It's really all Chris Lander's fault.

The following article appeared on the Mark One FB page and appears here courtesy of Tony Stevens.

Mark One Turns 25 by Tony Stevens

Superman puffs out his expansive chest triumphantly. To his left Batman glares menacingly, his shadowy costume a complete contrast to Supe’s provocative red and blue.

I take a few steps further and encounter Hellboy sporting his distinctive red stumps where two demonic horns should be. His giant stone hand protrudes from a scruffy leather coat filled with magical charms, amulets and protective trinkets.  A quick scan of the room reveals that I’m surrounded by aliens, predators, detectives, space cops, mutants, underwater monarchs, zombies and even the odd crew member the U.S.S. Enterprise.  Larger than life figures boast flowing velvet capes and proudly wear their underwear externally while more than a couple of billionaire playboys wear their egos and genius in the form of high-tech armoured battlesuits.  These are my heroes and there’s a special place in Hamilton where I can go to find them all in one place, not in the flesh but on the covers of a mighty array of comics, graphic novels, fantastical tomes and all manner of pop culture goodness.

That place is Mark One and I think it’s the coolest shop in the city.

Every Friday I pay a visit, intent on spending a good chunk of my wage on a rapidly growing collection of graphic novels.  I usually spend a few minutes inspecting the new releases on my routine trip but today I’m here to interview Mark One owner, Chris Lander, about his shop’s twenty-fifth birthday.

Chris has been enraptured with the graphic medium since he was eight when an issue of 2000AD, the post-apocalyptic story of future cop Judge Dredd, arrived via post in a little rolled tube.  His tastes have extended since then and he’s confident he can find a comic to please even the most persistent cynic.

“It’s just reading,” he says almost in defiance of the myriad stereotypes.

“It’s not a statement about you unless the statement is hey I can read.”

“Mark One isn’t a fan club; you don’t have to be a paid-up member of the costume brigade to come in here. I really do see us as just a specialised book store.

“The whole comic collecting side of it (as an investment) exists – but it’s just an aspect of it. They really are just good stories.” Celebrations for the twenty-fifth milestone kick off on Saturday, May 3, and will tie in with the international event Free Comic Book Day, where Chris will give away thousands of free comics to readers’ young and old alike.  The event has been swiftly gathering steam since American retailers birthed the concept in 2002. New Zealand audiences have been slower to catch on, however in the past two years hordes of Hamiltonians have assembled on Victoria Street to get their free comics.

“Last year we had 60-70 people queuing out the door. I opened the shop and it surged. I had to jump out of the way and I got trapped in the corner while this never ending torrent of people came through,” Chris said. Luckily Iron Man was on hand to keep the crowd pacified.

The ‘specialty’ bookstore had already been around for five years before Chris, 25, walked in to interview for a full-time position in 1994. The original owners Mark and Tania Paul had at that time established a network of Mark One franchises across New Zealand and two in Australia. The Pauls and their business partners were on the cusp of settling a deal to launch a store in the US, but a board-room scuffle and successive legal challenges derailed any plans for world domination, leaving the Hamilton store the lone survivor once the dust had settled.  Chris stayed on as manager and he and wife Rachel bought the business in 2000. Though when they took the keys he had to sell some of his personal collection to pay a month’s rent up front, including a rare convention special of Sandman #50 by renowned writer Neil Gaiman.  Despite the rent being well in hand now Chris maintains there is no treasure trove at home  – his collection is at the shop and it’s all for sale.

“I get a buzz out of introducing someone to a good read.  If somebody comes in and asks for a book it’s no good at home, it’s got to be here. “Besides when my kids got old enough to pull out my comics the safest place for them was at the shop.” Chris and Rachel’s youngest Ben, 6, thinks every family owns their own comic shop and is a big fan of everybody’s favourite neighbourhood Spiderman. Jamie’s a big fan of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard, while his mother is more partial to Iron Man thanks to the suave performance of Robert Downey Jr – and Chris? “Who is your favourite superhero?” I ask. It’s obvious he has mused on this issue more than once. Chris looks torn, grappling with multiple possible responses. He begins mouthing “Bat-“ but stops himself and says, “Hellboy.” “I really love Batman but…Hellboy is really everything I love about working here. The comic has bubblegum elements, you know fighting against the evil Nazis, but there is substance to that bubblegum. There’s a tonne of mythology to it, Russian, Celtic and even Christian – there’s just so much in there and it’s just a fun read.”

Fun is the ultimate goal for Chris and he hopes for his customers too – the joy of reading a good story. He maintains that comics aren’t just “captioned pictures” and can point to a number of works considered literary masterpieces. He literally does point to a few tomes I can see from where we’re standing by the counter. I can see Saga by Brian K. Vaughan,Locke & Key by Joe Hill, and obscured from my vision Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns. He rattles off a few more titles, almost all of them produced by ‘indie’ publishers. I’m surprised at how little the ‘big two’ come up our discussion – when people think comics they usually point to powerhouse publishers Marvel and DC, who are responsible for the likes of X-Men, Avengers, Batman, and The Justice League.

He assures me Marvel and DC are still producing great comics, but says recently it’s the independent titles that have grabbed the industry by the scruff and given it a good shake.

“I actually do think today is a golden era in comics.

 “I was managing the store in the early 90s when (customers purchased) X-Men and nothing else (but now) there is such variety. “Comics are now being produced for so many different markets whereas in the past they were being written for kids knowing that they also had an older audience.” Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is one such indie title that has stormed pop culture in recent years. Ever since it was released in 2003 Dead has been dominating the graphic novel market, not to mention spinning off a spectacularly successful TV show. It’s a black and white comic boasting themes of extinction, isolation, and societal deterioration, with a generous helping of blood and guts – definitely not one for kids.

Audiences have mutated as significantly as their comics since Mark One came on to the scene. When Chris started his career the industry was embroiled in a “speculator” boom where collectors rabidly snapped up multiple copies of titles, hoping their value would skyrocket over time.

“We’ve ridden fads like chatter-rings and Yu-Gi-Oh, but I’ve never seen a boom like the one I walked into. “You’d order a stupid load of something in and you still sell out. There were even firms in the US where you could pay a certain amount of money and they would purchase and even choose your comics for you and then store them in a vault, and you were apprised of its value every so often. It wasn’t happening to quite the same scale (in NZ) but it was still pretty crazy.” That historical priority of monetary value over a good yarn is the reason Chris is so adamant that Mark One is pitched at readers. The true value of a comic, he says, is the story, “otherwise what’s the point?” The speculator boom marked the glory days for comic book stores, but when the bubble burst a year later shops around the world began to sink, including many in the Mark One chain. Cue the legal arm-wrestle between franchise big-wigs. But Chris, mystified that his pay check kept rolling in, continued working. The closest he got to the skirmish was a phone call from Mark Paul warning him of attempts by stakeholders to change locks on the various Mark One stores. He was instructed to stand sentinel over the Hamilton shop until the corporate espionage had run its course.

According to Paul, Chris’ loyalty during this time is a big part of why the Hamilton shop survived when others collapsed. “Chris always struck me as an honest, hardworking guy with real integrity,” said Paul. “Chris’ loyalty (during the dispute) made it a priority for us to retain ownership of the Hamilton store, once the dust had settled. “This enabled us to eventually sell the business to Chris and Rachel, and we couldn’t be happier about that.”
Without Chris, Hamiltonians would be stuck ordering our comics from Amazon instead purchasing them from a local store we can call our own. No other retailers dabbling in the pop culture market have been able to match Mark One’s local popularity. 

Chris tells me about one of their early competitors Card Crazy, a shop opened in Centre Place by a Mark One alumnus at the height of the trading card craze. “Card Crazy?” a customer asks. He appears in his late thirties and certainly doesn’t strike me as the stereotypical comic book “geek”. “That’s going back a while,” he continues. Chris nods in agreement, and remarks on his own long innings. “Yeah you’ve been here since I was a kid,” the customer replies . “And you’ve got the customer base to prove it.”

This little exchange is a perfect example of the mutual loyalty that has kept the Hamilton store running for twenty-five years, almost unheard of in the turbulent industry. And he’s not the only customer to share nostalgic sentiments about their favourite shop during our interview. Another Mark One veteran, a seasoned gentleman Chris refers to as ‘Robin’, arrives at the counter a few minutes later and reminisces on shopping there pre-Chris, when he could get an issue of 2000AD for $0.30 (it’s now roughly $7.50). As Robin leaves I’m struck by how much foot traffic the shop has had since I walked in. I’ve been talking to Chris for close to two hours now and in that time close to 20 customers have come and gone. I’m anxious to get my own fix of comic books so I tell Chris I just have one question left for him.

What makes Hamilton such a good place to sell comic books? It’s a good uni town, he tells me. “We use to have to put extra staff on student loan draw down day when that was happening.” Cautious business decisions, avoiding fads and keeping within their capacity are all cited as other reasons for the shop’s longevity, but the biggest thing he tells me is, of course, the customers. “We’ve just got a great bunch of supporters that want to see us do well. “If you look after them they look after you – and I think MK1 is well looked after.”
I take my journalist hat off and check the new releases to see if any of my anticipated DC New 52 or Marvel Now! volumes are in stock. Nothing grabs me immediately so I turn my gaze to the back catalogue. I normally bounce back and forth between Mark One’s nicely laid out sections multiple times before making a decision – similar to a kid in a candy shop.
During these laps my eye catches a glimpse of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Whedon is also the director of Marvel’s cash factory The Avengers and I’ve heard his X-Men run is exemplary. I tuck volume 1 under my arm and continue browsing.

I recently finished reading Warren Ellis’ collected work on Planetary, a fantastic story of super-powered archaeologists charged with excavating the hidden history of the planet. I lament the closure of my journey with Planetary to Chris, who is a big Warren Ellis fan. He suggests I take a look at another of the author’s comics, Transmetropolitan.
I decide to give it a go and whip out my eftpos card to finalize the purchase. The card reader displays the price – $49.99 – the price of Astonishing X-Men on its own (volume 1 collects 12 issues). “Chris you forgot to add Transmetropolitan to the bill,” I say. “No it’s on the house.” That’s Chris – it’s almost as if he gets as much pleasure from exposing readers to the joy of comics as he does securing a purchase for his bank account. Though free comics are not the norm – except on Free Comic Book Day.

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