“The word’s getting out,” says Dan Merritt, speaking of his favorite subject, comics. “There’s graphic novel reviews on time.com and comic reviews in Entertainment Weekly. There’s still some barriers to break down. I want the awareness. I want the acceptance. That’s what I hope to be brought about with Free Comic Book Day.”
Dan is co-owner of Green Brain Comics in east Dearborn with his wife, Katie, whom he refers to affectionately as “the boss.” She’s the secretary and bookkeeper for the store.
“I’m not a numbers guy,” says Dan, drinking a Coke and smiling broadly as he watches customers weave in and out of the store, often referring to them by name and thanking them for coming in. There’s the soft metallic ring of the door opening — playing the words “Front … door …” like the monotonic computers on sci-fi shows such as “Star Trek” and “Babylon 5” — as you walk in. Lined against the walls are large posters immersed in America’s mythology. A superhero in pastels and bright colors gazes at you narrowly, a reminder of the power of myth, the power of a story to transform our waking lives into something meaningful and pure. Comic-book stores are a gateway, a temple.
Everything at Green Brain Comics has Dan’s personal touch. He places all the orders and oversees the general influx of questions and activities that spring up throughout the week. Standing about 6-foot-6-inches, he has long, thin hair parted at the middle, highlighted with green and framing a strong face and eyes that move constantly, the signs of a creative mind at work. He’s the clichéd “gentle giant” of urban fantasy, fresh off the page of a Charles De Lint novella, complete with jeans, T-shirt and a button-down shirt worn over it. He invites you into his store with wide, accommodating arms and the promise of magic. And his enthusiasm is as contagious as the dust blown by the impish blond fairy who touches your nose with a magic wand and transports you to somewhere else — anywhere else — preferably a place limited only by your imagination.
That’s what comics always have meant to Dan, even before he could read. And rather than growing out of that sense of wonder — as is expected in a country where animation is marginalized as a child’s diversion and comics as adolescent fare — he grew more enthused by the art of graphic storytelling. So when the opportunity came to leave a well-paying but unsatisfying job as a foreman, there was little debate.
“I was ready,” he said. “I hated my job and had no respect for the people I worked with. That was a clear indicator that it was time to move on. I don’t regret it. I love what I do now.”
Before the Merritts purchased Green Brain Comics (formerly Comics Plus), it was owned by Caliber Comics publisher Gary Reed. He owned four comics shops in the ’80s — most notably Readers Exchange, as well as Comic Gallery. Katie Merritt (then Katie McGee) had been working at Comic Gallery in Wyandotte for a year and was transferred to Comics Plus when the Gallery closed in 1989. Not long afterward, Dan and Katie began forming a strong friendship and dated for four years before marrying in 1997.
By 1999, Reed’s remaining store was Comics Plus, on Michigan Avenue between Greenfield and Schaefer. As in a Hollywood story, at the end of the first act a door opened for them unexpectedly. “I need to sell the place,” Reed said to Katie one evening after closing the shop. (She was already practically running the store, as Reed became more engaged in his publishing pursuits and less connected to the retail end of comics.) But what came next was a surprise.
“I’ll offer it to you first. Want to buy it?”
Dan eagerly convinced Katie that the opportunity was there and they should take it. They were only 32 and 29, respectively, when they took over the business that proved to be a vehicle for one of Dan’s wildest ideas. As Dan says of the original moniker, Comics Plus, “It was always my intention to do away with the name. I felt we needed something to set ourselves apart, to be more distinctive.”
So what about that name, “Green Brain”?
“Well, I was warned against not having ‘comics’ as the first word of our store. You travel nationwide and you see the landscape littered with ‘comics’ as the first name, and I don’t know, maybe you get yourself that much further in the yellow pages, but I just had to say, ‘Everyone does that.’” He smiles, taps the table and glances sheepishly out the window. “I wanted to do something stupid.”
Dan explains it this way: “It’s using the idea of a grand logo as a viral means of communication. I put the idea in your head — it stays there. You transfer the virus by saying it. First time, the reaction is, ‘What the hell?’ Second time is, ‘Oh yeah, that place.’ Third time is, ‘Been hearing more about that place — sounds creepy and fascinating.’ People expect to walk in and find themselves immersed in a head shop or something. I guess part of it’s in the intrigue.”
The name was incorporated in 2000, the year when the first X-Men movie, which was generally tagged as bringing the waning superhero genre back to the big screen, was released. On the comics end, however, 2000 was a dismal year for Marvel before the movie’s release, as well as for the industry at large.
“That was the year,” says Dan, “when people realized that this industry they loved was in dire straits and if we don’t put some care and attention to what the market needs, we’re going to lose it.”
Marvel was just getting out of bankruptcy and many other publishers were struggling to hold on. Still, the money from the movie helped the company to rebuild itself and start rethinking its sales base.
“Comics have always been read consistently by the 18-35 demographic anyway.” For the first time, Marvel and others set out to write for “their” audience. But did the success of the X-Men help bring more customers into the store?
“The X-Men movie had nothing to do with the X-Men comic. People came in, said, ‘This was great (referring to the movie),’ but when I handed them the comic, they said, ‘Can you sell me something that looks more like the movie?’ So, no, I don’t think it necessarily helped, but it didn’t hurt,” Dan says. “Later, Marvel cleverly — ingeniously — thought, ‘OK, we’ll restart Spider-man. They didn’t really ‘restart’ the title as much as they rethought the character. What they did was take the essence of the Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko character and ‘recontexualized’ it — put him in a modern setting, gave him modern problems — and it clicked. The movie came out, did really well. Essentially it gave people something to identify with.”
Despite the film industry’s recent interest in comic-inspired creations (Daredevil, the new Hulk movie, LXG), the differences between the two mediums have widened, not only in the cost of production, but in that comics require some elementary grasp of phonics and basic reading comprehension, while film asks only that you keep your eyes locked on a screen that uses your imagination as little as possible. Movies do all the thinking for you; comics require — demand, even — that you participate in how the story is told. It’s an interactive experience between creator and audience. Comics, like reading, is an internalized experience, not governed by the 24 frames per second of film.
“Hollywood’s gotta pay some guy to jump through a window, or millions of dollars to make Spider-man swing convincingly through the streets. Comics do it better because you’re seeing Spider-man swing in your mind’s eye, not some approximation that some guy in a studio came up with.”
Free Comic Book Day will also be an opportunity to bring another minority into the shop — women. Getting women to read comics is another struggle, with its own particularities and misconceptions. Much like the “comics are for kids” slogan, so goes a similar refrain that comics are not only for little boys, but childish men who’ve never truly grown up.
“I didn’t begin reading comics till after I was 18,” Katie says, her voice quick and assertive, in defense of the genre. “Not because I wouldn’t have. I just wasn’t exposed to them.”
In addition to being co-owner of Green Brain Comics, she’s also president of the Friends of Lulu Organization, a nonprofit group whose “comics are for everyone” slogan is steadily gaining it more members and bringing more visibility to women in the industry.
“There are comics for all interests. I think Free Comic Book Day will show a lot of people just what variety’s out there. I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
This is only the second year of the event.
“Last year we didn’t get to do all that could have been done,” says Dan with a touch of disappointment in his voice.
“We were still at the old store … but now we’ve got more square footage and it’s a lot easier to find us now. We’re right on the corner and, if for no other reason, the bottom line is it’s free. Stop in. It’s going to be a major event. A few local comic creators will be by; we’ll have refreshments and, who knows, you might even be surprised at how far comics have truly come. And guess what? They’re getting even better. There’s still room for innovation in the medium; it has in no way burnt itself out on ideas, which is a good thing.
“The mainstream acceptance is coming. I see a continuing renaissance in comics. It’ll be the art form to watch in the new century.”
Don’t miss Free Comic Book Day, Saturday, May 3 at Green Brain Comics (13210 Michigan Ave., east of Schaefer, Dearborn). Doors open at 10 a.m. Call 313-582-9444.Cornelius A. Fortune is a Detroit-based fiction writer. E-mail [email protected]