INTERVIEW: Comic Book Creator and Retailer Juan Navarro Talks About The Industry

“It comes down to the love of art”

Juan Navarro is it the heart and center of the comic book industry. As a retailer he has first-hand knowledge of the business side of this roller-coaster of a world. And as a creator he has experienced an entirely different kind of ride. Juan took time away from his busy schedule of slinging AND creating funny books to talk to us here at TuffGnarl.com about his personal history with comics, the origins of his shop, and the creation of his indie comic TOMMY.

Juan Navarro
Comics Retailer/Creator

Tuff Gnarl.com: As a retailer and a creator, you are seeing both sides of the comics industry now. Does having both viewpoints help? Does one inform the other?

Juan Navarro: You start understanding things as a business and as a whole. You see how fans react. Not only to the work being produced but all the stunts and gimmicks. I try to run the shop like an art gallery more than anything. My job is to make FANS and match them to work they cannot just enjoy but engage in.  Sure I can always make a profit, but in the long run, I need to earn people’s trust. My father used to say “You can rip people off, but you can only do it once”. Hence at times, I have to be at odds with the trends that happen in comics. If a comic is hot, it’s hot. But if it’s shit, I will not carry it.  Or I’ll be forward and tell people. Even then I have customers who don’t care. They are more collectors or rabid about the subject. Then I step aside.  It’s helped me understand the many ways to make a comics That sometimes it’s not about how good a book is but how well people understand it.
Have you been a lifelong comics fan?
Yes, that’s for sure. I remember buying my first comic when I was 4 or 5 years old at B.Dalton Bookstore in Westland Mall. It was Star Comics and had Heathcliff (Garfield sucks!), Madballs and He-Man in it. I loved it. Since then I was hooked and read everything that could fall in my lap.

Did you always want to own a comics shop? Or a tattoo shop? Where did the idea to put them together come from?
That’s the thing right, the idea of having a comic book shop was always around. It really didn’t present itself until 3 years ago when my partner in Creature Entertainment, John introduced me to Xavier Rieche, who was opening a tattoo shop in Hialeah Gardens. Back then he just wanted something different for the shop in front, then just a lounge area. [So] we spoke about what could be done, and a comic shop seemed the logical. Originally it was sort of made like a display counter with some books. But it grew with the business. After being in the trenches together long enough, we soon had [the] working relationship where we merged the companies (back then it was The Goblin’s Heist and Dapper 13 Tattoos) and became Tattoos and Comics, with a new partner Daniel Margolis. Since then we have been pumping full steam ahead!

What is it about tattoos and comics that make them work together?
It comes down to the love of art. I mean, when you think about it, getting an image emblazed into you, no matter what it is, is definitely subscribing to a thought and brand behind whatever image it is. The same can be said of reading a comic or collecting certain comics. Be it indie, mainstream, superhero or crime; when you invest and search and buy and surround yourself with this one thing, or things, you are dedicating yourself. Or better said, [you are] loving a certain work enough to spend time and money on it. Same goes for the art form of tattoos.  It’s funny, I got to meet Art Spiegelman last year at the Miami Book Fair and we had this great conversation about comic art and tattoos. After an illustration, he did, (I think it was for the New Yorker) that he went and researched tattoo artists and their techniques. He said that the only artist who gets LESS respect than the comic artist is the tattoo artist. [He thought] it was amazing that I mixed the two together. We had a good laugh about that. And spoke of the virtues of the craft afterward. As a business, it also works logically. If you’re going to spend $1200 on a shoulder piece here of Batman, a $40 [comic book] variant is not going to phase you. It can easily be added to the tab. The Same way that a person who is seriously into AKIRA would want someone who is not only knowledgeable about the manga and anime of the series but a fan too. And Xavier a big panda of a fanboy, too!

Who are your influences?
For me, it comes down handful that I keep coming back to. Sam Kieth, artist, writer and creator of THE MAXX series, which brought me back into comics in the 90s after having a huge fall out after the fiasco that was an industry at the time. Kurt Vonnegut.  Many of his books, especially Bluebeard, made me realize that humanity can be contained on paper. David Choe, the artist, showed me that things need to flow, [be it] bad or good, out of you onto a page if you wish to get anywhere serious with your work. And Warren Ellis, writer and ‘bastard’.  He shows me that you are a product of the world and that no matter what gets thrown at you, you can make and bend it with words and sheer will into something of your own. His Transmetropolitan and The Authority run I still come back to form time to time. Louis CK.  As a comedian, a director and actor. His work ethic, mindset, approach and overall honesty to his work tends to be what I model myself after.
Tell us about Creature Entertainment? How long has it been an entity?
This is one of those questions that don’t freak you out until someone asks it. We have been at it for almost, if not over, 10 years now as a group. I’ve been making comics for 20. So half my career has been pushing this rock along with John Ulloa and Julio Alvarez up the hill. We came together through a ‘Meet Up’ of all things, at an old studio they had in Doral. I was just starting to do ZOMBIE YEARS online after Graphicsmash.com had closed and sought other comic people around me. I had done this before and worked with Micro Comics and other creators at the time, to get our work out. But this time there was a team of people dedicated to it. I soon joined and have been at it since then.

What defines the idea behind it?
It comes down to a love of the art form again. Creature is made up of people that love comics and the making of comics, and hence what propels us forward. From there its aesthetics as the next layer of the love of indie and underground comics. Sure we like Spider-Man, Batman and all that as much as the next guy. But we can talk your ear off about old Heavy Metal comics, Eastman and Laird’s original run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mila Manara’s various X-rated work. That’s our bread and butter! So we approach comics in that way and think about the stories that got us inspired when we think of our own properties.

TOMMYTell us about your comic? How did you get the idea?
TOMMY started a while ago with John Ulloa and myself talking over beers. We started relating the horrible crap teachers did to us, our insane childhood growing up in Hialeah, all the craziness that would happen and it all ended up being spun into a book. Combined with the love of old Tex Avery cartoons, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and other underground influences, I started drawing this insane rabbit, Jack, that was torturing a kid named Tommy. Soon after he became the serial killer imaginary friend we all know and love today.

Do you have a long story already thought out or is it growing on its own?
It’s not so much as one big long story but points and plots you want to hit here and there. It grows from there and also in the process of making the comic itself. Ideas will come forward or a mistake becomes an opportunity to tell it in a better way. Issue 1 of TOMMY had 3 false starts to it before we actually started making final art for these series.

What do you hope reader’s get from your comic? What kind of experience?
Mostly to laugh at dark humor. We’re not here to make some huge life changing point but to entertain with a story that may lead your brain to some different thinking. Sometimes I get fans at cons who read the first issue and come back for the second almost asking WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ? And I think that what I was going for.Tommy Kickstarter
Have you found having a Kickstarter helpful?
Always. It helps us launch a project just right, find new fans, and venture forth with real possibilities. A lot of times it also shows you what has legs and what doesn’t. Because you see how the fan base out there reacts to your idea. Because of that, it’s invaluable.

With the world so focused on established, ‘Big Two’ driven comic book properties, what do you feel is the role of indie books and out of the box ideas like yours?
To provide something different. To take risks. The ‘Big Two’ have to keep properties that are 20-30-75 years old relevant to today. We don’t. We’re about establishing a story that is relevant now, in the market that is here, to the audience in front of us. Which makes it harder in some aspect and easier in others.

What’s your creative process like?
Feed the brain. Read, watch, consume as much info as possible, outside of comics and in. Look at all types of art and film. Talk to all types of people. And then let it all digest. From there, stuff starts popping up. Stuff starts getting into the air. Next, you know it you’re making a book.Tommy Operation

How do you balance that with running a small business?
One feeds the other. I talk to readers and look at what’s coming out, what seems to be a trend out there. You have to hit the responsibilities of the shop as it keeps the lights on, while in the long run, you hope the comics are what will help “make it”. Whatever that is.
How does your store fit into your local community?
We are Hialeah to the bone! I was born and raised here. And now in our new space right in front of the Hialeah City Hall in a new emerging art district, I think we have the potential to reach our audience better in the center of Miami-Dade and to also introduce people to the love of comics here in Miami.

Why do you think ‘brick and mortar’ comic stores are still relevant?
Well let’s not bullshit here for a second; I cannot compete with Amazon on pricing. At all. No one can. But that’s not everything. ‘Brick and mortar’ is also about identity and community, having a space where people can come and ask about something they love and gather around others who love it is a HUGE deal. That’s where I can beat an online store. In pure product, fine I’m not going to win. But in bringing the RIGHT product and content with the product, the sense of community; being around others who enjoy it, and even the fact that I can get items from various conventions, exclusives and hard to find items, stuff that Amazon does not have, and make sure you have that right book personally, that is the only way this business can gain wings.

What do you think of the current role of comic book/pop culture conventions?
You have to be more than a store. You have to be more than a tattoo shop. You have to be more than an art studio. On top being or trying to be the best, it’s also about making it right, making it work. We are here 24/7 practically, figuring that out. If people don’t feel the need to support and be at your shop, how will you survive? There has to be more than opening the doors and selling comics and doing tattoos and that is the energy you give off. That spills into the cons. Conventions were once these unique events that came once a year, but now it seems we are inundated with them and feel that now they are not as special. Some are just a chance to get an autograph and picture and flip them on eBay. Other times it’s just a way to rip people off. We try to make it a way to introduce ourselves and bridge a gap to the community as a whole and ourselves. Some cons that do that right are ones like Florida Super Con. They fill the days and night with events and panels and such. I’ve never seen another convention do that. Many cons, at 8 pm, close their doors and it’s “bye, see you tomorrow!”  Super Con is one of the few that go on and on through the weekend and really engages the audience in a way that keeps them coming back. It’s all a give and takes; ebbs and flow.

You can follow Juan and his endeavors at the following links:

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Manny Gomez

Creative at Wizard Army
Manny Gomez is a freelance writer based out of Florida's west coast. He obsessively reads interviews, binge watches TV shows, loves comics, movies, punk rock, hip-hop, stand-up comedy, detective novels and the mythology of baseball. His best friend is a dog.

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