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Washington City Paper

Feb. 10–16, 2006

‘Big’ Problems

by David Dunlap Jr.

Comic-book shops’ rivalry gets litigious.

Not more than a few years ago, Joel Pollack was lamenting the imminent death of the comic-book store. The rise of video games had decimated the teenage-boy demographic crucial to the success of his three-outlet Big Planet Comics chain. “That’s the one that has been hardest to recapture,” Pollack said in a May 2002 National Public Radio interview.

These days, though, the 56-year-old Pollack has got more competition than he’d like—and in a familiar location. In October, a new shop opened up less than two blocks away from Big Planet’s store in Georgetown. And, to Pollack, it bears an all-too-familiar name: The new shop is dubbed Big Monkey Comics.

Unsurprisingly, in the small and tightknit comic-book world, Pollack knows the simian-monikered interlopers well. But that hasn’t stopped him from siccing his lawyer on them: A cease-and-desist letter sent to Big Monkey in December reads, “We believe that your use of the name has caused, and will cause, confusion among comic book consumers and will dilute the registered servicemark and good will held by Mr. Pollack and the various Big Planet Comic stores.”

If there were one demographic that would be particularly adept at differentiating between monkeys and planets, it would be comic-book fans, says Scipio Garling, 41, one of Big Monkey’s owners. “We should call our store newsletter The Daily Monkey,” he says, jokingly referring to Clark Kent’s place of business, The Daily Planet.

The clash between the two shops is as much a clash of sub-subcultures as it is a business matter. And it’s one that has been long brewing in the contentious Georgetown comics scene. Big Planet has carved out a niche over the years as a place where—as the store’s slogan puts it—“We’re Serious About Comics.” Pollack envisions his chain, which has its other locations in Bethesda and Vienna, as “bookstores that happen to specialize in comics.”

That means Big Planet stocks plenty of “trade paperbacks,” which are slickly bound volumes that contain multiple issues of a comic title. The format makes them easier to sell in big chain bookstores and allows the consumer to read a year’s worth of comics without the weekly shipment-day treks. Big Planet Comics has devoted roughly 70 percent of its floor space to the trade paperbacks. The Georgetown store, Pollack says, was intended to emulate an “English bookstore.”

Big Monkey puts on no such airs. The folks behind the store may dearly love their funny books, but they could never be accused of taking them too seriously. Whereas Big Planet stores have their trade paperbacks up front, Big Monkey has a selection of kid-friendly books on an old-fashioned twirl rack greeting the customers. Big Monkey has also made a big play for the booming Internet business. There’s a store blog, reviews, news feeds, a section designed to appeal to women, and even a Big Monkey Comics streaming radio station that plays superhero-themed songs. “Comic-book stores are like barbershops for geeks,” Garling says. “It’s a place where people can gather each week to talk about all sorts of things.”

Presently, there is little camaraderie between Garling and Pollack, however. Garling felt that the cease-and-desist letter was unnecessarily aggressive, and Pollack didn’t appreciate the fact that Garling posted the letter on his well-read personal comics blog—a move that Pollack deems “strictly Amateursville.”

The sore feelings date back at least as far as 2001. That year, with the closing of M Street comics mecca Another Universe, Pollack took the opportunity to expand his chain into Georgetown. He had a friend who had a bookstore in the area but was looking to move. The spot seemed perfect, the rent was affordable, and Pollack opened a third store on Dumbarton Street. Meanwhile, Beyond Comics, another local chain, bought out Another Universe’s old stock and moved into their M Street space.

The first real point of tension occurred after 9/11. “Like everybody else, I thought the world was ending,” says Devon Sanders, 33, then a manager at Beyond, who now works for Big Monkey. “Helicopters were circling the city. I went to work just to get a sense of normalcy. Comics have always been a comfort for me.” Concerned about that week’s shipments, Sanders called Maryland-based Diamond Comic Distributors, which supplies virtually every comics shop in the nation. He worked out an arrangement to get that week’s delivery on the usual Wednesday. Because of delays caused by the disaster, every other store in the country wouldn’t receive their shipments until Thursday. That included Pollack’s.

According to Sanders, Pollack called him out on an Internet comics board for “being unpatriotic.” Pollack says that getting the books early was an underhanded move and felt that Sanders falsely defended himself as being patriotic. Nerves only got rawer when Beyond moved up Wisconsin Avenue in 2002, ending up less than two blocks from Big Planet. Pollack says that if he had known another shop would open so close by, he never would have opened in Georgetown in the first place.

Things stayed civil, though, until Beyond sold out last October to Garling & Co., who applied the Big Monkey moniker. The next month, another shop, Fantom Comics, opened up in Tenleytown, raising the scene’s competitive atmosphere still higher.

It’s not so much that Pollack believes diehard comic-book fans won’t be able to tell the difference. “They are much more intelligent than the average consumer and are more informed about the inner workings of the industry,” he says. His bigger concern is confusing “the laypeople.” Most comic stores have a loyal following who dutifully arrive every shipment day—usually Wednesday—looking for their four-color fix. But fanboys aren’t necessarily enough to sustain a business, so stores look to appeal to people who might otherwise assume that comics are strictly for kids and 40-year-old virgins.

Why choose a name as similar as Big Monkey? According to co-owner Jack Mingus, the name was originally intended to be on a store 120 miles away from Big Planet, instead of 120 feet.

Mingus, once a regular Beyond customer, wanted to quit his job at a law firm last summer and open a comic-book store in Richmond, Va. According to Garling, when Mingus was brainstorming names, Garling’s advice was to “pair up a random adjective with a random noun, like Red Kangaroo.” Mingus had been mulling over “Big Robot Space Alien Ninja Monkey,” and Garling suggested shortening it to Big Monkey. And, Mingus says, “Since we’ve been together, my wife’s pet name for me has been ‘monkey,’ so she encouraged me to go with that.” When plans for the Richmond store fell through, Garling invited Mingus to join him in taking over Beyond.

Plus, Garling says, Big Monkey’s not the only comic-book store in Georgetown with a thematically linked name. Predating Big Planet, he points out, were stores named Another World and Another Universe. “At least with the Big Monkey name, we got away from the whole cosmological theme,” Garling says. “I took mine from the animal kingdom.”

Garling says he made sure his store’s logo looked nothing like Big Planet’s, instructing a graphic designer to remove certain elements to avoid confusion.

Indeed, if there is one portion of the cease-and-desist letter that Pollack would take back, it’s the bit about the similar logos. Pollack, who designed his own logo, says, “I don’t really think that their logo is similar except for the stacked type. In fact, I think their logo is great.” But that hasn’t softened his stance on the name. “I have spent 20 years establishing the Big Planet Comics brand,” Pollack says, “and I don’t want some pissant to come along and mess with that.” CP

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