Tuesday, June 12, 2007
A Future for Comics -- It is my long-held belief that the direct market network of mostly superhero-oriented comic book stores is headed for extinction. The reason it is passing into history is because it excludes new readers and embraces only an existing “fanbase,” willfully ignoring the fact that comics as a vital, living artform are so much more than superheroes. At the same time, a minority of shops within the direct market are reaching out to a broader audience for comics, one nurtured by mainstream media coverage like comics receive on National Public Radio or in print publications like Time Magazine. The question is, will the truly full-service comic book stores that point the way to the future serve as an example to the majority of stores currently dependent on Diamond’s weekly shipments of superhero titles? Or will the backward, pro-superhero (but ultimately anti-comics) policies of such stores destroy the direct market before a transition can be made to a viable graphic novel-dominant marketplace that serves all comics readers?
In the 1970s and '80s, the direct market thrived because superheroes were about all there were in comics, at least in North America. Alternative/ground-level titles like Elfquest, Cerebus and Love and Rockets were curious sidebars to what most readers thought of as comics, but in the 1990s and especially since the beginning of the 21st Century CE, those comics as well as manga and some newspaper strips, have come to define what the average person thinks of as comics. Meanwhile corporate superhero comics have marginalized themselves through editor-driven, continuity-dependent, poorly-crafted "events" like Identity Crisis and its descendants. Such titles create a frenzy of interest in the minority of comics readers who value the sub-genre of superhero adventure fiction more than they value the artform of comics as a whole.
Such readers don’t consider actual quality much of an element in the debate over the future of comics at all, and have created an artificial sales bubble that is destined to feed on itself until the direct market itself collapses. The collapse of the direct market in the 1990s was based in large part on the fact that the comics that were selling weren’t very good, and therefore weren’t interesting readers in their contents as quality storytelling. The prime reason people were buying comics before the ‘90s collapse had more to do with issues of collectability and “investment.” But a comic book is worth nothing if it doesn’t contain a story that is well-written and well-drawn, and more importantly draws the reader into its world. And a comic that is worth nothing ultimately will drive its buyers away, however gratifying its short-term thrill of mere possession might be.
Looking at the most successful general-interest bookstores, both independents as well as chains like Borders or Barnes and Noble, I think it’s clear that the only comic shops that are sustainable and viable in the long term are those that cater to readers of all ages, genders and interests. Stores that welcome entire families of readers, as good bookstores do. Increasingly the superhero convenience stores that make up the vast majority of the direct market cater primarily – if not only -- to male buyers interested primarily – if not only -- in continuity-heavy superhero events. But Diamond, and the direct market, are not comics, anymore than one 7/11 on the corner of a main street in a medium-sized town represents the entire market for potato chips. Diamond and the direct market it simultaneously serves and cripples represents only a small fraction of the overall comics market, as demonstrated in David Beard’s revealing piece on Diamond’s distortion of the perception of what is the market for comics, in The Comics Journal #283 (June, 2007):
“There will be no impetus to reform the data collection system upon which the cottage industry of comic sales analysis is built if we keep pretending that the current Diamond data is reliable…as long as we are dependent on Diamond data, our ability to assess the industry, market and medium is crippled.“
Beard is critical of various “Top 300” lists and the like, and rightfully dismisses them as little more than public relations for a functioning monopoly that has every reason to foster the illusion that it is the comics industry, and no reason at all to provide good information about its true place in the overall comics market.
On a regular basis, articles appear online speculating about the sales number of comics and what their ultimate meaning is, and yet those sales figures are almost always based solely on Diamond’s sales to comic book stores (as opposed to those stores’ sales to their customers), most of which traffic virtually exclusively in corporate superhero comic books and associated items like t-shirts, action figures and other “collectibles.” But this “sales analysis” ultimately stands revealed as intellectual nerd-journalism, a blinkered and pretentious iteration of the old “Who’s stronger, Hulk or Thor?” argument. It pays little to no attention to the wider market for comics in mainstream bookstores and other outlets (manga in CD stores, Archie Comics in supermarkets, etc.) and therefore, ultimately, has little value above that timeless debate about Thor versus The Hulk.
In fact, Beard states in his Comics Journal piece that “A strong argument could be made that no data would be better than faithful reliance in the data presented by Diamond.” When one pauses to reflect that good information about the true scope and nature of the whole market for comics is crucial to the health and viability of comic book stores now and in the uncertain future, one sees it is more than a numbers game for superhero fans. The ability of shop owners to sustain their business and provide for their families is dependent on the accuracy of such information.
I have shopped at a lot of comic book stores since the 1970s, and stores that carry mainly the latest corporate superhero comics with a heavy emphasis on back issues increasingly fill me with indifference bordering on contempt. In the past few years, there has been more of an interest in comics among the general public than I have ever seen in my lifetime. And yet 9 out of every 10 comic book stores seem actively hostile to any potential customer that doesn’t reflect back the owner’s interests, attitudes and even appearance. For every clean, well-managed and professionally run comic book store I have been in, there are many more that are dirty, dark, ill-managed and altogether unpleasant places to shop. And if the lifelong comic book reader in me has learned to tolerate such deficiencies, getting married and raising two children has educated me mightily in what is or isn’t a welcoming retail environment. In my 20s, I may have been amused by my wife’s distaste for entering the average comic book store. Here in my early 40s, I not only understand it, I share it.
I do a lot of browsing of comic book stores in the company of my wife and children. That's four people in a given comic shop when we visit, and a savvy retailer should by definition want to generate interest in his wares from everyone that comes through the door. If my daughter can find a new issue of Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man, or even better, a new volume of one of her favourite manga series, then we're in good shape. Perhaps my son will find an issue of Teen Titans Go, or better yet his other favourites, Bongo's line of Simpsons comics. We know we're really in a good store if there are Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts collections -- you know, comics people have heard of in the real world, outside the narrow boundaries of the mostly insular, unreflective and very likely doomed direct market.
To truly run a professional business, viable comics shops must recognize that manga is comics. The Far Side is comics. Kampung Boy, Dennis the Menace Archie and Mr. Natural are all comics. And all of these, just a small portion of the breadth of the comics artform.
The very best shops want to sell comics to everybody, but most comics shops – that network of mostly poorly-run superhero convenience stores -- have seemingly abandoned the future of the industry and the viability of their own business. I see elements of racism, hostility, ignorance, stupidity, and/or fear in these attitudes. It's hard to see what else might account for such self-destructive, shortsighted business practices. It’s not like there aren’t professional business models to learn from, and I can’t imagine why one would start a business without making an effort to learn what the best practices are for the industry you want to be a part of.
After learning the ins and outs of rental contracts, insurance, vacuum cleaners, feather dusters and professional shelving, would-be professional comic book retailers should look at what it means to sell comics. What comics should be available in a good comic shop? Borders and Barnes and Noble have not created an enormous expansion of their manga aisles because they want to service non-buying browsers. Despite those deceptive “sales reports,” people out there in the world are buying comics in huge numbers. But the superhero-oriented fraction of the overall comics industry grits its teeth and closes its eyes and re-defines "comics" so that Civil War or 52 are falsely seen as best-sellers by readers unable or unwilling to investigate deeper into the reality of the comics market. The end result is a false sense of security for readers comforted by superhero (and sales) fiction – and more dangerously, a false sense of security for superhero convenience store owners.
Among consumers of American-made corporate superhero comic books, yes, event comics sell pretty well. They did in the early 1990s, too, until the speculators and fanboys deserted the direct market and thousands of stores closed. Given the insecurity evident in catering only to superhero hobbyists, is it not absolutely absurd to ignore manga, artcomix and/or newspaper strip collections that appeal to a staggeringly wider audience than poorly-crafted, spandex-obsessed revenge fantasies? So-called "best-selling" superhero titles are barely a blip on a vast cultural movement toward true mainstream acceptance of comics.
The best we can hope for at this point seems to be that new stores slowly emerge inspired by the few existing good comic shops, to service the new audience before the old guard collapses from within. We can also hope that at least some stores -- it seems definitely to be ten percent or less -- are canny and visionary enough to both explore new readership avenues and expand their product lines wisely, slowly, and in a professional, businesslike manner. Because as nice as it is to have graphic novels widely available at Barnes and Noble and Borders, I personally prefer patronizing stores (and store owners dedicated to the artform of comics. I think it’s good for the future of comics to have comic book stores, I just want those stores to want to sell comics to everyone that wants to buy them, not just people that look, sound and act like the store’s owner(s) and employee(s).
In an earlier, less considered version of this essay, I concluded by saying “In my darkest moments, I must say that the comics industry cannot die fast enough for me.” Upon reflection, and after the passage of a couple of years, I have to admit I don’t feel that way anymore. I will always value the artform over the industry – anyone who truly loves comics must -- but I don’t want the industry to die. I want it to thrive. And it will only do so through visionary, professional business practices and an ongoing, genuine desire to sell comics to everyone that wants them.
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