Entries in nonfiction (2)


Nonfiction Writing Sample #2: Laughing All The Way To The Bank

(SAMPLE NOTE: This magazine article was written for a graduate course in the spring of 2009 and never submitted for publication.)

How one company’s focus on pleasing the customer has labeled them “The K-Mart of Comics” by their competition.

Historically, some businesses are not devastated by a nationwide economic recession: health care, cosmetics, ice cream. Add comic books to that list, believes Steve Lubold, fifty, the manager of the Laughing Ogre comic book store in Fairfax, Virginia. He should know; he’s worked at the Ogre and its previous manifestations for the last twenty years. “Comics are pretty recession-proof due to their low cost.”

The Laughing Ogre of Fairfax has existed in its current form since 2003 in the University Mall on Braddock Road. Owned by Gary Dills and Jeff Moen, it is one of three stores in North America to carry the name; the others are located in Lansdowne, Virginia and Columbus, Ohio.

The Ogre vs. The Rest

However, finding the store is not easy. If you’re using Google Maps, the software tells you that it shares the same address with two other businesses; “Phoenix Comics and Toys, Inc.” (its most recent former name) and “BC Comics” (an even older name). Once at the mall, the signage (including the one right above the store’s main entrance) still displays the Phoenix name, even though the name change occurred a few months ago. Such is the importance of signage to a business with long-time return customers who routinely bring new customers with them. Or perhaps the only important word in the title of any comic book store is simply the term “comics.”

Whatever the name, the store itself cannot be seen from either Braddock Road or Ox Road, the intersection on which University Mall sits. The Laughing Ogre and its neighbor, a karate dojo, are nestled within a small, open-air courtyard accessible only from a few entry ways. Walking into this courtyard, the mall roof of old wooden shingles turned grey by time and nature coupled with the dull concrete under foot drains the visitor of energy and enthusiasm. Even in the noon sunshine, it all says, “Go away.”

But even with all of these confusing elements, the Laughing Ogre is in one of the sweetest spots for a comic book store; directly across the street is the main campus of George Mason University, and a few blocks away is the Robinson Secondary School, a combined middle and high school. There is no lack for young people and their disposable income here.

Stepping inside the Ogre, bright fluorescent lighting and aisles of well-organized comic books welcome customers. Action figures, toys, and figurines line the walls above the comics or stand guard in clean glass cases. Light wood paneling covers the walls behind the comics and figures, but it carries only a warm, welcoming memory of childhood sleepovers in finished basements. The aisles are wide and accommodating, with some shelves labeled with the names of prominent writers to help guide patrons to finding just what they were looking for. The faded and bagged used comics occupy only a small section in the rear of the store, tucked away in cardboard long boxes with the few dozen high-value issues hanging on the walls above.

The sales counter, strategically centered in the store, provides the staff with good sight lines to both guard against shoplifters and allow staff to spot a customer in need of a little help in finding the right book. At the counter, Lubold regularly sits in a low chair and cheerily greets customers as they enter. His voice lacks any local accent, but it has a touch of a nasal twang to it. Lubold’s reddish-blonde hair and full beard may conjure comparisons to the “Comic Book Guy” character on The Simpsons, but he lacks the arrogance made infamous by the character (and other comic store proprietors); he is friendly and helpful, never talks down to his customers, and is in better shape. With his twenty years behind the counter, he also has more experience than Comic Book Guy, a character introduced only eighteen years ago.

When she’s in the Fairfax store, Norah Curry, thirty, sits on a stool behind the counter and helps Lubold run the shop. Curry, who looks nothing like the Comic Book Guy, works as the Promotions Director for the three Laughing Ogre stores, and keeps her weathered MacBook Pro open and nearby, in constant contact with the two other stores and the owners, Dills and Moen. Curry is very thin with short, straight black hair and thick, rectangular glasses. She has a very dry delivery, but when she discusses a topic she’s passionate about, her tough-skinned defenses as a woman in a male-dominated environment fall, her eyes brighten, and her tone softens. Both she and Lubold wear black t-shirts emblazoned with the Laughing Ogre crest on the front and the word ‘STAFF’ across the shoulder blades.

While Lubold remarks that the store is successful because of their long history in the area and large customer base, Curry (like a true PR professional) rattles off a list of reasons without hesitation: “We run it like a business. We work really hard at customer service. We keep it clean. We keep it nice. We are involved in the community. We are responsible, small business owners.”

A common misconception is that selling comics is easy. “Many comic fans say to themselves, ‘Hey, I like reading comics. I’ll open a store, put out some issues, sit back, and read them all day long,’” says Lubold. “But it’s a business, and if you’re going to succeed, you need to treat it that way.” All three Laughing Ogre locations embrace the same business philosophy of offering customers a wide variety of material (Curry: “We have more SKUs than Target.”) in a pleasant environment with helpful sales staff.

The company’s community outreach programs also set them apart from their counterparts. Throughout the year, Curry meets with local public library staff to discuss and speak to the public about the comics’ age rating system and to change people’s perceptions of comics; while some aren’t age-appropriate for children, others can be great educational tools. Curry also spends time with local public school teachers and staff to discuss ways to encourage children to read through introducing comic books into the curriculum.

While Laughing Ogre works hard to put a positive spin on comic books in the community no matter what store someone visits, there are certain competitors who resent their success. “Some store owners in the Metro D.C. area think we’re like K-Mart, with our large inventory, bright lights, wide aisles, and attention to cleanliness,” says Curry. “But to us, that’s just good business sense.” Unfortunately, poorly run comic shops dot the American landscape.

You’ve probably seen one, or even been in one. In any reasonably-sized town, there is at least one comic store, usually in a strip mall like the Ogre. But unlike the Ogre, the air inside this shop is stale and musty with the smell of perspiration and mold. It is dimly lit, the brightest light coming through the windows, if there are any. The store is maybe twenty-feet wide and twice as long because rent is expensive, so it’s a tight squeeze between the wall-mounted racks of new comics and the multiple long boxes stuffed with used comics lined up on folding tables. At the cash register, the owner sits hunched over on a stool with a comic in his hands. He is a middle-aged man in jeans and a black t-shirt or a bulky sweater, and may have stubble and greasy hair. It only takes a moment before you wish that you were somewhere else—anywhere else—and, if you weren’t desperate for a comic, you soon leave, frustrated and empty-handed. “These shop owners sit there all day, reading comics, talking to the occasional customer who only affirms whatever comes out of the owners’ mouth because this is all they know,” Curry laments. “It only reaffirms the misconceptions people have about comics, comic book stores, their staff, and the fans.”

The Business

Comics are drawn and written by artists and writers hired by a comic publisher (e.g., Marvel Comics (The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man) and DC Comics (Superman, Batman)) that owns the rights to the comic book characters. The publisher prints the comics and deals with a distributor to store and deliver the comics. The distributor takes orders from retail stores who sell the comics. New retailers must pay for their orders upon receipt, but those who are good customers may be allowed a grace period of seven days. Diamond Distributors is the largest distributor serving North America and has exclusive agreements with the four largest publishers: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics. Everyone in the line must make a profit. For example (these amounts are representative only), Marvel prints a comic for fifty cents. They sell it to Diamond for one dollar. Diamond turns around and charges a retailer two dollars for storage and shipping. The retailer then sells it for the three dollars cover price to the customer.

Recently, Marvel raised the price on some of their big titles by one dollar, which sounds like a small amount, but in comics, that’s an increase of thirty-three percent on a three dollar price. DC has also raised some of their prices. While Lubold believes the increase is “ridiculous” and that the publishers could cut corners elsewhere to counter operating costs, Curry believes the specific increases on certain titles fits a business model similar to one commonly used in the film industry called “tent-pole programming;” studios put out blockbuster films to make lots of money so that they may take risks on smaller, art-house fare that may not do well financially, but provides them a chance to make films that are attractive to film artists and may garner awards that the studio can consider as their own achievements. “Some of these higher priced comics also have extra content included, so while you are paying thirty percent more than other comics, you may get more for your money,” reasoned Curry. However, Lubold says the increase had the opposite effect on one regular subscriber: “He went through his list of comics and removed the increased ones. While he loved those stories and characters, he couldn’t justify the extra expense.”

Yet in the face of such changes, Lubold and Curry should remain successful. With their professional approach to sales, strong understanding of what makes for a positive shopping experience, and desire to promote comics and reading in general, the Laughing Ogre will continue to draw customers until the publishers stop printing.

Of course, they have no control over what happens outside the store walls. Sometimes, circumstances force customers to stop shopping. “Usually we lose customers when someone gets married or has children,” Curry says, “but if they can continue to buy comics through those two major life events, we’ve probably got a customer for life.”



Nonfiction Writing Sample #1: The Man On The Overpass

(SAMPLE NOTE: This magazine article was written for a graduate course in the spring of 2009 and never submitted for publication. The subject’s name has been changed, and his employer has been withheld for privacy reasons.)

On a sunny morning in April 2008, a man in black stood on an overpass of I-270 near Washington, D.C.. He had a video camera pointed at the northbound lanes and at times would look intently through its viewfinder. A few miles back, a highway sign told drivers to report suspicious activity. Was this the kind of activity they meant? Was he dangerous?

No. In fact, John Smith was there for the complete opposite reason: driver safety. In his early thirties, Smith is a researcher at [redacted], a contracting firm that provides the U.S. Government with custom research and evaluation studies on multiple topics. Smith works in the Transportation area and specializes in Human Factors, i.e., how humans relate to the world. In his two years at [redacted], Smith has worked on a variety of studies—how to best remind teenagers to wear their seat belts, the best method to monitor the quality of new drivers, the conspicuity of motorcycles, and better methods to improve safety at railroad crossings. While most of Smith’s research can be done in the office, sometimes it takes a few hours on an overpass to capture what is needed. And sometimes people can be a little testy about it.

Five minutes after he began recording, a police cruiser rolled up. The officer ordered Smith to cease taping. “I tried to explain why I was there and even gave him the phone number of our division vice-president, but he was insistent,” Smith explained in his slightly nasal voice. While Smith doesn’t cut the most menacing figure with his youthful face, short blonde hair and beard, perhaps it was his favorite black leather coat, grey jeans, and the camera that brought undue attention his way. He can be charming and self-deprecating too (his t-shirt collection includes one with a circle labeled “the loop” and a dot outside of it labeled “me”), but perhaps it was Smith’s penchant for detailed and long-winded explanations that further annoyed the cop who continued to insist that he leave. Whatever the reason, Smith returned to his office and explained the situation to his boss. Calls were made, and the next day, Smith was positioned on an unfinished pedestrian walkway over I-270, not far from the prior overpass. This time however, he wore more official-looking gear: a hardhat and an orange reflector vest.

Aside from unscheduled run-ins with local law enforcement, Smith enjoys working at [redacted] as a “Macgyver” type individual, coming up with new ways to get reliable data without a lot of expense to [redacted], and by extension, the taxpayer. He likes the job’s technical subject matter that requires an understanding of electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry that employs the critical-thinking skills that he’s had since he was a kid.

Growing up, he liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Smith’s father also likes to tinker, and when Smith was a boy, his father used to build the kids small electrical devices as toys. “One was basically a nine-volt battery hooked up to blinking LEDs, but it was cool because it was something he built himself for us.” Grown up, Smith’s interest in how things work now includes reading books on quantum mechanics in his off hours. And while he can’t recombine items at the molecular level, Smith has a knack for putting things back together.

When he was nine years old, he offered to clean his father’s chainsaw and took it into the basement. Hours later, with no sign of his son, Smith’s father descended into the basement. To his regret, he found his son. He also found the chainsaw completely dismantled with its parts laid out across several tables. “As I was cleaning it, I had to take off parts, which uncovered other parts that needed cleaning. Then my curiosity got the best of me and I just kept going,” Smith says now of the situation.

Resigned to the idea that he would soon be the owner of a brand new chainsaw, Smith’s father walked back upstairs. To his surprise, a few hours later, his son returned with the chainsaw completely rebuilt and working perfectly. “My brother still uses that chainsaw,” Smith says proudly.

Smith says his father, a human factors professional himself, has a very scientific and autodidactic approach to life and that it rubbed off on him. “While I didn’t really mean to follow in his footsteps, he is proud of me,” Smith says. “When I have questions about things at work, it’s nice being able to talk with him about real things instead of just ‘Oh, how was your day?’”

So what was he looking for on that overpass with his video camera in April? Collecting video for training purposes. “We’re doing a massive seat belt usage study, and one of the side studies deals with commercial trucks. For normal passengers cars, being on the side of the road is enough, but for trucks, being above them is the best vantage point.”