Mar 18, 2013, 10:48AM

You Have Something To Say, Say It

An interview with Benn Ray: The Mobtown Shank, owner of Atomic Books, and President of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

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Rachel Whang

By now, Atomic Books is a Baltimore institution: our city's best-known book store, selling zines, art toys, alternative comics, pornos, DIY guides, and local music. When Scott Huffines shut down the original Atomic Books in 2000, Benn Ray and Rachel Whang re-opened the store in Hampden a year later. Ray blogs at The Mobtown Shank, and contributes a weekly comic to The Daily B. He's also the President of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, a consortium of independent North Baltimore businesses. I talked to Ray via email.

SPLICE TODAY: Atomic Books was originally opened downtown in 1992 by Scott Huffines. How does the Atomic Books in Hampden compare? Does Scott Huffines still have any involvement with Atomic Books? And is there anything different you wanted to do with the store vs. what he wanted to do with it?

BENN RAY: Atomic opened in 1992 on Read St. in Mt. Vernon. When I lived on the Eastern Shore—this was before the internet—there really wasn't much culture that didn't involve paintings of wild waterfowl. So a carload of us would trek up to Baltimore after weeks of saving up our money, and we'd go to Atomic Books in Mt. Vernon and blow our money on zines and underground comics and then we'd go over to Fells Point and blow the rest of our money on punk rock at Reptilian Records. We'd load up on as much stuff as we could and then we'd go back to the Eastern Shore and be good for a while. Then we'd repeat the cycle.

Eventually, when I moved to Mt. Vernon, I lived around the corner from Atomic and went there all the time. I was already a huge fan of the store, and then I became friends with Scott Huffines, the owner.

I'd like to think Atomic still maintains the spirit of the original store even if our inventory is much larger. Culture changes, media changes, so "alternative culture" today is not the same as it was in the 1990s. Media is different too. The zine explosion of the '90s was a result of easy and cheap access to the means of production (i.e. having a friend who worked at a Kinkos who would make you free copies) and cheap mail distribution.

So everyone had a zine: some were crap, some were awesome, some were both. However, rising postal costs, vanishing copy shops, and blogs have changed the way subcultures connect and communicate.

A lot of self and small publishers got wiped out when Tower Records, Virgin Superstores, and Desert Moon Distro went under. Either they lost money on those bankruptcies that they couldn't recover from, or they suddenly saw their main distribution channels close and their print runs shrink. So, let's say you had a decent zine—and this was back when indie record labels actually had enough money to buy ads—you suddenly saw your print runs drop from 15,000 copies per issue to 4,000 copies per issue, most of which you'd now have to send out yourself to a handful of indie stores who may or may not pay you in a timely fashion—instead of just shipping a majority of your copies directly to a couple Distros, who may or may not have paid you in a timely fashion. So in the late '90s/'00s, blogs became more appealing. Printing your own zine became less appealing, and zines became more fringe.

From Dan Clowes' Modern Cartoonist essay, Eightball #18

With underground comics, back in the '90s, you had Pete Bagge's Hate coming out every other month. You had Dan Clowes' Eightball coming out a few times a year. Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library came out a few times a year. Adrian Tomine's Optic Never. Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte. Chester Brown's Yummy Fur. Joe Matt's Peep Show. Seth's Palookaville. These were comics all coming out on a regular basis.

Now, if one of these people do a book a year, it's a great year. And really, single issue comics are going the way of the dinosaur. The only person really doing that now that I can think of is Noah van Sciver with Blammo. And that comes out once year. Traditional superhero shops never liked underground comics. So the only place for them were at a handful of bookstores like Atomic, or in record stores which, like Tower and Virgin, imploded.

So a lot of what I love and associate with the original Atomic does not exist like it used to exist. I could give you a laundry list of excellent publications that in the '90s came out regularly but no longer exist.

But those which still exist, we are dedicated to carrying: zines, self-published comics, etc.

Atomic TV's 1998 Holiday Special

Also, Atomic always had fun tchotchkes. It was the first place in Baltimore that carried Archie McPhee toys, for example. But now, you can't walk into a store in Baltimore without seeing Archie McPhee toys at the counter. So not only do we not need to carry much of it, we kind of don't want to. So we've moved more into art toys, etc.

So I don't think we're trying to do anything different with Atomic than Scott was. But the world of bookstores, zines, alternative comics, Baltimore retail, etc. is very different than it was. Plus, our tastes and interests are always changing and expanding. As a curated bookstore, our inventory reflects the tastes of those who work here.

So we couldn't have 100% the exact same inventory as Atomic Books in 1994, because:

1. Much of that stuff just does not exist.
2. It would feel like a museum more so than a current and relevant bookstore.
3. The fringe/alternative stuff eventually becomes the norm or mainstream, so you have to keep exploring culture to find what's new, exciting, and fun.

Scott is retired from the business, but he makes a great adviser.

ST: You created the Said What comic, you've been a judge in the City Paper Comics Contests, and Atomic Books obviously has a huge interest in comics and graphic novels, were you really into comics as a kid? When did you start working on your own comics?

BR: I think I imprinted on things like Wacky Packages, CARtoons, MAD magazine, Cracked, and Savage Sword of Conan as a kid. I could look at a great illustration and just get lost in the linework. I always loved newspaper strips too. And the first comic books I started reading were probably Archies and Harveys.

In the superhero world, there are two sides. There is DC and Marvel. I was a DC kid. I actually kind of loathed Marvel. I saw much of what they were doing at the time as too derivative and angsty, even if those words weren't in my vocabulary as a kid [Laughs].

But I was also always attracted to the non-superhero stuff too: war comics, horror comics, romance comics; loved 'em. Then, in high school, I quit reading them. But in my freshman year of college one of my friends was into comics. So just about every Saturday we'd go to this thrift store in Virginia Beach and then next door to the comics shop. This was an old school superhero shop. Long boxes full of musty comics. Stacks of stuff you had to dig through. Overweight balding dude in sweatpants, a too-small Wolverine t-shirt with stains on it and flip flops.

As college wore on, I lost interest in comics again. When I moved to Salisbury there really wasn't a shop to buy them, plus, as an English major, I had a lot of other reading demanding my time. Then, when I was in grad school, two things happened: a friend gave me an Edward Gorey book, and my roommate Sarah had a copy of The Cartoon History of the Universe. These things reignited my interest. And Atomic Books in Baltimore showed me a whole world of weirdo comics I had no idea existed and it blew my mind. I was immediately attracted to it.

When I moved to Baltimore, I got a job working at Geppi's Comics World in the Inner Harbor and from there I worked for Gemstone Publishing which at the time had a monthly comics magazine, reprinted EC comics, and published the Overstreet Price Guide, which aside from pricing collectible comics also had a lot of valuable history. As a result, I more than made up for lost time and became very well educated in the comics world. When working on the comics magazine, I was an alternative comics evangelist. I was a Robert Crumb fan surrounded by Jack Kirby fans. 

The Confessions of Robert Crumb

ST: For someone like myself who doesn't know much about comics, can you talk about some of your favoriteswhat you really liked about them, what you would look for when you went to a comics store? I guess when I hear comics I usually just think of some of the older DC/Marvel comics that you mentioned, but even that stuff I mostly know through TV cartoons and the more recent movies.

BR: Well, the DC/Marvel stuff definitely provided a solid groundwork for me in middle school. It's interesting that when people think comics, they tend to think superheroes. It makes sense because that's what's dominated the medium for the past 40 years. But up through the '50s and '60s, comics offered a very diverse selection of reading, from horror and romance to historical to comedy to licensed TV/movie/radio characters, adventure stories, etc.

The other genres started to die away for a variety of reasons, and superheroes gained a prominence that has only recently been challenged, if you want to call it that, by "literary" comics.

When I bought new comics, I looked for anything weird or strange. As a kid, I loved, for example, The Creature Commandos: this was a Dracula, a Wolfman, a Frankenstein, and some other monsters who fought Nazis in World War II. There was The Haunted Tank, a World War II tank that was haunted by the ghost of a Confederate General. I liked horror anthologies like House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Tales of the Unexpected—these were all kind of like '80s rehashes of Tales From the Crypt and/or The Twilight Zone. Then Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman all came along and started to show how superhero comics could actually be something relevant that wasn't just childish fodder.

But at the same time, since I loved MAD and Cracked as a kid, I was also drawn to anything undergroundy. So Raw, Weirdo, Zap Comix not only fascinated me, but blew my mind in terms of what comics could be.

I guess my all time favorites would be Raw, Dan Clowes' Eightball, Pete Bage's Hate, Joe Matt's Peepshow, Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte, and right now I'd say Noah van Sciver's Blammo, Lisa Hanawalt's I Want You, and Matt Furie's Boy's Club.

I look for anything that doesn't involve dudes in tights pounding on other dudes in tights—then if the story and artwork looks disturbing, challenging, or fundamentally fucked up in some way, I'm in. [Laughs].

ST: Were you or your friends ever self-publishing your own zines?

BR: Oh yeah, absolutely. I tried my hand at a small zine called The Bucket. I did a couple issues of that and realized I wasn't very good at it. The layout was a mess. Eventually, that became an email zine called The MobTown Shank that I did on a weekly basis for almost 10 years—450-ish issues. And that just eventually became my blog.

I've done a few mini-comics here and there. But I find I'm much happier just writing my blog, doing my weekly comic strip for The Daily B and contributing stuff to other zines and publishing stuff I like when I can. I've contributed stuff to a couple issues of a comics anthology called Not My Small Diary. I'm a fairly consistent contributor to a local zine called Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore. And I'm a contributing editor for Chunklet magazine. Our new book comes out this month. It's totally self-published and self-distributed, etc.

ST: Are there online comics that you follow? And has any of the older stuff you used to read in print made a successful transition to online publication?

BR: I don't really read comics online. Here and there a little bit, maybe; like XKCD sometimes. There was also The Fart Party, but I came to that through Julia Wertz's mini comics. I checked out her online comics (which her minis collected) and I liked it so much we published two books of her stuff. I've realized I don't have the discipline to actually go to different webcomics sites and check stuff out, so I started thinking, maybe there should just be a sort of Funny Pages type of site for comics—all the better if they were comics I like—so we just created Mutant Funnies. We're still in the early stages, but the idea here is sort of like an online Funny Pages of stuff me and my friends do. It makes it more convenient for me to keep up with comics.

Photo by Rachel Whang

The last part of your question is kind of backwards. Print comics do not aspire to be online comics. They can do this easily and cheaply, and some do. But it is generally not a goal. Most online comics aspire to be in print, but because of expense, shrinking paper budgets, fewer print publications, they now exist online. Sometimes they will collect their comics into print on demand or self-published books, sometimes they even get publisher deals. It's a different model. But comics that start as printed material generally only move online because they have to—they get cut from papers, they go out of print—or because they think it'll help them tap into the rumored substantial online comics fanbase.

ST: That's interesting. I think with the Internet Revolution, all things 2.0 and whatnot, what we usually hear about is all this opportunity to find an audience or a marketyou know, now anyone can have a blog or a Bandcamp website or a Flickr or whatever and put their work out there. Of course, the newspapers and print publication troubles are well known, but we're always told the internet is Democratizingit helps the writer who can't get published or the band who can't find a record label, etc. But you don't buy that?

BR: If you have something interesting to say, or say things well, there is always the potential to find an audience. There is no implied promise, there is only potential. Whether you are online, in print or whatever medium you choose, it doesn't matter. No one medium offers any inherent guarantee that people are going to give a damn what you say and/or are going to want to pay you for it which will both motivate and enable you to keep saying it. And unsurprisingly, like any medium, it is usually the most mainstream endeavors that reach the largest audiences.

So it's not that I'm not buying any of it, there is a truth to it. After all, I have an online retail site, a webcomics page and my own blog. Almost anyone who can afford a computer and internet access (or get a library card) can put up a website or blog and post their writing and comics and photos and music and own videos etc. Online has a similar DIY appeal that zines and mini-comics have. There is a lot of opportunity online, and that appeal did draw some potential creators away from the zine/comics pool. And a lot of people with blogs or webcomics would be self-publishing their own stuff if this was 1995. Creative people who would prefer to—or in some cases have no option but to—go the DIY route will always be attracted to the cheapest and easiest way to try and reach others. And some people have been quite successful finding an audience and market online, so successful that they sometimes get publishing deals and collect their online output as a book that gets published.

But a few success stories does not mean that posting something online is more prone to "success." There have been a fair amount of print zine and comics successes too (McSweeney's, Eightball/Ghost World, Giant Robot).

In some instances, certain projects are more viable in certain formats. I think LOLCats makes more sense as a website than a book. I think Shit My Dad Says makes more sense as a Twitter Feed than it does as a book and a TV show. Found Magazine, which has a website, is far more satisfying as a zine and a book. No one medium is inherently superior to the other in that not every website could/would/should make a good book, and not every book/magazine/comic could/should be digitized. It's just that right now—and who knows if this'll change if we get a tiered internet—websites are the cheapest, easiest, newest, trendiest, and most convenient way to reach a large audience. Never underestimate the effects of cost and ease when we're talking about mass communication.

And if we're talking self-publishing, that is just as democratized as putting up a website. And I'm all for both. Don't let anyone tell you don't have a voice. You have something to say, say it. That's what DIY is all about. Don't sit around and wait for someone to discover and/or approve of what you say. Say it.

But the act of saying does not automatically deliver an audience. And an audience does not always equate to market—which I think a lot of people with online ventures don't always understand.

There is an impermanence to digital. If we go all digital, we're just one EMP away from recreating the disaster of the Library at Alexandria. When I die, my blog dies. My part of the conversation that is culture dies. However, when I die, the books I've published or been published in will live on. Sure they may be largely ignored, but there is a better chance for someone to pick up a copy of I Keee You!! and be inspired by it 100 years after I die than seeing comics I post online. And I think most people with a blog would be thrilled to have their digital output collected as a book. But I'm not so sure everyone with a book would want their published work recreated as a site.

ST: I'm 25, so I think someone like myself who never really went to Tower or Virgin before they went out of business tends to associate those stores with sort of '90s corporate major record label excess—you know $18 CDs and all that. Big box stores that came in and put small music stores out of business, sort of the way Starbucks came in and put small coffeeshops out of business. But you're saying, at least as far as comics go, they were pretty valuable and you really appreciated what they did? Was Tower, etc. actually providing a vital service to small distribution comics?

BR: I agree. To a certain extent, Tower and Virgin were sort of '90s corporate major label excess. It was an alternative culture bubble! [Laughs]. Which is why they're not around anymore. I would hasten to point out that when you complain about $18 CDs, the lionshare of that blame has to go to the record labels and their distros. That is one fucked up, ass-fucking business model for stores. The only things that have worse margins than books and magazines is CDs, records, and DVDs. And then, the major labels and major distros have no interest in distributing to small shops, so to get an account to sell Warner Bros. releases, for example, the paperwork and minimum orders and payment terms are simply absurd. I swear, it's like they don't want to distro their music. But also, with new releases, if you're paying $14 or $15 for a new CD release from a major label, that store is most likely making $1-3 dollars on it. That $18 CD, that's what the MSRP is, as set by the label, and the wholesale pricing structure is based on that.

But for comics and zines, these places helped and hurt. Obviously, what they were ordering wasn't sustainable, which is why they went out of business. But they ended up creating unrealistic expectations in self-publishers.

From Noah Van Sciver's Blammo (Van Sciver's blog)

Let's say you're making your own zine. Each issue, you try to make it better. So issue one you start with a photocopied, stapled zine. Then you go to off-set printing. Then perfect binding. By issue four, Tower and Virgin picks you up. All of a sudden your 500 print run zine is now 1,000. The next issue 3,000. The next 5,000. The next 10,000. And really most of the orders are coming from two or three places: Virgin, Tower, and Desert Moon distro. And you may also send copies out to few stores like Atomic, Quimbys (Chicago), and Reading Frenzy (Portland).

Then Desert Moon goes bankrupt. They owe you $3,000 on past issues they're not going to pay. Okay, that sucks, that hurts. But you hustle to sell more ads. But then the record companies, who are losing money to filesharing aren't buying as many ads anymore. But somehow you figure it out. So your next issue comes out, it's a little later than usual due to these problems, and now your fans are bitching at you. But there, it's done, it's out. But since Desert Moon is gone, you only have orders for 7,000.

Okay, so you're working harder, scraping for less money, your fans are mad and your numbers are down. Then Tower goes under. They owe you money, and now they're returning issues you thought were sold. So you have to store stuff you thought was gone. Tower pays you a fraction of what you thought was owed. But now you need to do the next issue. Again, you're scraping money because you're still hurting from Desert Moon, and now you're hurting even more from Tower. But you get the money together again. You're still late because of the financial issues—the record labels aren't doing any better. And now you see your orders for the new issue drop from 7,000 to 3,000. Then Virgin Records goes under. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Photo by Rachel Whang

So in the '90s, you were trending up. You were working hard, building an audience and achieving some success, even if it was falsely inflated by Tower and Virgin misordering quantities. But now, in the 2000s, you see your numbers collapsing. Shipping expenses are skyrocketing. Printing expenses are skyrocketing. Ad revenue for your zine is evaporating. You've lost thousands of dollars from distros and chains. And you're working harder than ever for a print run of maybe 2,000 copies. Meanwhile, everyone is telling you that print is dead and online is the way to go—even if there isn't a great way to monetize it, so financially, you'll still be digging the same holes.

This is the psychological environment you're in if you were doing a zine in the '90s.

So you just give up. Or maybe you delude yourself into thinking, I'll do my zine as an online zine. Boing Boing was very successful at that, but not many others.

Most traditional comic shops don't know what a zine is. And most are threatened by or don't understand "alternative comics." And the major distro for comics, Diamond Comics, has minimums you have to hit or they'll drop your title. You need to get orders for so many comics from their stores or it's financially not worth it for them to deal with you. So when the larger accounts, like chain record shops, started dying off, the initial order numbers for these alternative-type comics decreased. So the titles started getting cut. This meant in many cases that the comic was never published. The thinking was—and still is for some—since Diamond was really the only comic distro in the US, if they didn't carry your title, no one wanted it and there was no way to get it into stores.

Self-publishing isn't a rational act. And self-distibuting is a ton of headaches. So eventually, many of these comics and zines went away. Oddly, if you were to start a zine/comic/self-publication today, you'd be in much better shape because you don't have false expectations or motivations.

So, we decided to do this: 2011: The Revenge of Print

The Avenue, Hampden (Cecily7)

ST: Can you tell us about the Hampden Village Merchants Association: what its stated purpose and goals are? Did you found the HVMA and how many businesses are involved?

BR: The Hampden Village Merchants Association is an association of roughly 165 businesses in North Baltimore: Hampden, Medfield, Woodberry, Remington, Cross Keys, Roland Park. Our goal is primarily to look after the interests of our business community. Basically, we promote the concerns of our members, which are mostly, but not exclusively, locally owned, independent businesses.

I really don't know when the HVMA started. I have a banner from the 1970s, back when it was called the Hampden Businessmen's Association. Oh, the '70s. [Laughs]. So it's decades old. I've been the president for six years.

ST: So is the HVMA mostly about cooperation and good, working business relations or is it more political than that? I guess, to what extent do you deal with city officials or the Baltimore Legislature, etc.?

BR: The HVMA is not a political organization, it's a business organization. It is only political when it comes to business-related issues that we think will have an affect on our business community. We have dealt with city officials in the past for numerous things. We have a great relationship with our city council rep, Mary-Pat Clarke. We've dealt with city officials when appropriate. Recently we worked with the city on placing Zipcars in the neighborhood. We've worked with the city on parking issues. We've worked with the legislature a few years back to get some out-of-date zoning issues updated, etc. Mostly that kind of thing.

Plans for the 25th St. Station

ST: You're obviously no fan of the 25th St. Station development—the Remington Wal Mart, as its known. Did the HVMA protest at all? And have there been other redevelopment plans in the past that the HMVA was against? I remember an article in Urbanite a few years ago about some sort of Rotunda plan: pretty much a Hampden version of Harbor East.

BR: The HVMA was not directly involved in protesting the 25th St. Station Development. As an organization, we were somewhat miffed that the developers did not make us part of the process since we represent businesses in Remington. However, the only official position the HVMA took on the 25th St. Station was a unanimous vote to support Bmore Local's 13 Point Plan [PDF] with regard to the development's PUD legislation.

I feel the 25th St. Station developers really missed an opportunity to create something special that fits in with the community of North Baltimore. They went for lowest common denominator design, lowest common denominator retail, and basically told the community they shouldn't expect anything better.

I don't believe the HVMA fought against the failed Rotunda redevelopment. In fact, I don't recall the HVMA ever taking an official position on the development. I think the HVMA had some concerns about the scope of the development—which now seems pretty reasonable. Had that development gone through as planned and on schedule, we'd now be looking at a lot of big empty spaces in the heart of our neighborhood and in the center of several retirement communities whose residents depend on the Rotunda. We also were unhappy with the "Mainstreet" and "The New Ave. in Hampden" type of language the developers were using to promote their private project. But at the end of the day, Hekemian's Grand Rotunda was a by-right project (unlike the 25th St. Station, which required special legislation). Legally, they could pretty much do whatever they wanted.

Our concern/hope was that it fit within the fabric of the neighborhood as opposed to dominate and decimate the fabric—well, as much as a 22-story condo complex and big box retail stores could. In fact, some of us at one point tried to present them with a list of local businesses we hoped they would approach for their retail-side development. Guess how that turned out.


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