Saturday, June 16, 2007

 
8,396 -- That's about how many words I wrote on this blog this week.

It's good to be back.

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What Do I Know? -- Over the past week, I've written about my experiences over the past thirty years of shopping for comics in the direct market, where the market is at now, and where I think it needs to go in the future.

Other than having been a broadcast journalist for two-thirds of that thirty years, and exercising my powers of observation and reportage, I can't claim any expertise. What I've talked about, I've seen first-hand, from shops that fail to open on time most of the time, to shops that deliberately alienate anyone who isn't an aging male superhero fan, all the better to not have to deal with the difficult tastes of women, children, or even other men who somehow prefer to read more than just power fantasies about men in tight pants battling in close quarters over and over again for decades on end.

But, as the title says, what do I know?

You know who might have some insight into the current state of the market? Maybe a guy who actually publishes them for a living, and has for the past few years.

Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions:

The dismal failure of 90% of the comics shop owner/managers to provide comics to a wider audience is mind-boggling to me. I won't say retailing is easy, by any means, but neither is it a rocket science.

So many times i've visited stores in new cities, with nary an art-comic on their shelves, where the dork behind the counter says, "Well, they don't sell." Duh, dude!! If you don't have them, people can't buy them! I'm not talking about somewhere in the middle of Kansas, i'm talking about super liberal college campuses (like where i went to school in Eugene, OR), where alternative comics would thrive.

One time, i checked back on a store who had purchased some comics from me at our standard wholesale discount, to see if they needed a restock. Sure enough, the comics had sold, but when i asked if he'd like more, he mumbled, "Thank god those are gone," as if he'd finally rid his store of a flea-infested stray dog. He MADE MONEY on my comics, but acted as if i were putting him in a bind. What the fu*k!@?

And what about those who say comic shops should just continue to sell what sells? They'll always be around, right?
It's somewhat hard to believe, but having polled other indy publishers, we've come to the conclusion that "maybe" 250 comics shops in North America represent 90% of our direct market sales. There's possibly 3,500 comics shops (or some weak iteration thereof, in the form of a baseball card store here or a hobby & games store there), and it's difficult not to wonder, and dream "what if?" even half of these shops truly knew the scope of PROFITS to be made in the emerging market for non-spandex comics? What would happen? Are you high?

Much more at the Top Shelf blog. I appreciate Brett taking the time to comment, because Top Shelf has published some of the best graphic novels of the past decade -- books accessible and entertaining to readers far, far outside the average superhero convenience shop.

But hopefully you already know that.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

 
The Friday Briefing -- Hello, good day and welcome to -- you know, I just want to say, it really does feel good to be blogging regularly again. Thanks to everyone who has dropped me a line to welcome me back. I really, really appreciate it.

Now then, as to the subject of the week -- no, not Zombie Mary Jane, although I will say I saw Chris Butcher's point crystal-clear once I saw the Zombie poster side-by-side with the original comic, which I vividly remember buying for my daughter a few years ago. I love me some Marvel Zombies as much as anybody, but for me the Suydam covers were never a part of the attraction, and I have to agree that this one goes over the line.

No, the subject hereabouts has been the future of comics retailing. I started off with a revision of an old essay on the subject, which didn't quite hit all the points I wanted to make. So I wrote more on what kind of shops exist now, and what kind of shops will likely survive in a changing marketplace. Basically I think that superhero-centric stores are living in the glorious past of the '80s and '90s, when it kind of made sense to emphasize superhero comics because that's all there were, and all they could sell. But in the 21st century, the world outside the direct market is gobbling up comics in ever-increasing numbers, just, superhero comics are not in the majority of what it is they're buying. Manga and artcomix have both made huge inroads since the century began, albeit in different manners and different numbers, but they're indisputably the comics that sell outside the insular (I always want to say "inbred," but I'm trying to be nice), misinformed (again see that David Beard piece in the new Comics Journal) and ultimately self-destructive world of the direct market.

One criticism angrily lobbed by hardcore superhero convenience store customers at me, one of the many mischaracterizations of what I wrote, is that I don't want superhero comics available at all, anywhere. Well, how would I buy my Marvel Zombies, then? Or Paul Dini's Detective Comics? All-Star Superman?

Engine member David Wynne really latched on to a point I guess I meant but kind of buried in what I wrote, and I'll confess that my distaste for dirty, disorganized comic shops that open late on a regular basis may have caused me not to see I didn't make this point clearly enough. So I'll let Wynne put it in his words. Responding to an Engine reader who implied that comic stores currently must rely on superhero fanatics to stay in business, Wynne gets it exactly right when he says:

"...but those customers are already hooked. As long as a shop continues to stock the crap they come in for, they'll still keep coming in. Which means it doesn't need to be pushed right up in the front window, making any casual passers by think that they won't find anything else inside."

When discussing this obvious fact in casual conversation, I usually say something like "You could stock all the superhero comics in a dumpster behind the store, and you wouldn't lose one superhero-oriented customer. If it's Wednesday, they know what they want, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it."

Have you ever experienced a superhero-heavy comic book store on Wednesday afternoon? It's quite a lot like watching addicts line up for methadone outside the clinic. Damn it, now I've cast another aspersion. It's like I have Aspersions Syndrome. But what I am saying is, all that space -- all that goddamned space -- retailers at superhero convenience shops devote to superhero comics? It's a total waste of their retail space. The vast majority of such shops could easily cut that space in half without dropping a single title, and devote the new space to comics other people would like. People like the wives, girlfriends, children and friends the superhero addict drags along with him to the store. What if those people find something to read? Would it really be so awful, Mr. Diamond-Centric Retailer, to get the money from both your regular superhero guy and his girlfriend?

Believe it or not, the answer in some cases is yes. A lot of retailers are extraordinarily comfortable with the established "Good Ol' Boys" atmosphere of their shop, and they would gladly eschew growing their business if they don't have to deal with women. Or kids. Or, oh my god, women and their kids!

Don't believe it? Then you haven't been in many comic book stores.

Speaking of which, yesterday I also posted about my favourite comic book stores. If you visit one or two or all of them, I think you'll see why my standards are so high for comics retailing. I mean, if your store meets most of my criteria for being a good one, then I have no problem with you. I am, in fact, not even talking about you. But if women and children feel unwelcome in your shop, if you are rude or deceptive to your customers, if you don't open on time and can't for the life of you imagine why anyone would want to read comics that you don't want to read -- or stock -- then yeah, I am talking to you. Well, talking about you.

Because, really, I am talking to people who buy comics. Not "Comics consumers," not "collectors," "fans," or little-z Marvel zombies. I am talking to people who like to read comics, who want to share their passion for the artform with their friends and loved ones, and who want to support stores that have a good chance of surviving the current transition from floppy monthly pamphlet comic booklets to the comics the whole world has said it wants to read: Comics with a spine and a complete story.

If that sounds like you, well, hello. I've been talking to you all week and haven't really said a proper hello. And what I want to say to you during this, The Friday Briefing, is this:

Please vote with your dollars. Please support the shops that work hard to present the best face for the artform we love, and who try damned hard to sell comics to everyone that wants to buy them, whatever country they originated in, and whatever format they are presented in. If your dealer presents a sloppy retail environment, or demonstrates unprofessional business practices, or worse, both, then find a better shop. They're out there. We're not really talking about stores that only exist in my imagination, they already exist right now. Some are better than others, but if you are buying from a dead-end retailer, you already know there's a problem. I've just been trying to help you put into words what the problem is, and suggest some solutions. I'm not trying to ban superhero comics, I'm just lobbying for a world in which superhero comics don't continue to alienate readers of other comics, who already exist, and who want to buy more comics -- from anyone who wants to sell them to them, in a welcoming and professional manner.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

 
My Favourite Comic Shops -- With all this talk of what comics should be -- and I'm excited to see folks discussing what I wrote on a few message boards and blog comment threads -- I thought I'd spend a few minutes writing about the comic shops I visit regularly and would recommend to anyone who wants to shop for comics and graphic novels in my part of the country.

Fantastic Planet in Plattsburgh, New York is a store that was pretty good the first time I visited it a few years ago, and has only gotten better since it moved locations a year or two back. The artcomix selection is not where I ideally would like to see it, but they have a good manga section and a huge collection of TPBs and graphic novels, as well as being extremely clean and well-organized. The folks that run it are nice, too. We live about two hours south of there, but I try to go up at least once a year and see what's what. I usually end up spending a hundred bucks or more on GNs I've missed elsewhere.

Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts is an awesome comic shop in somewhat cramped quarters. Extremely good for imports, mini-comics, and pretty much every graphic novel in print, and a few that aren't.

Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts is probably the finest comic book store I have shopped at in the United States (keep in mind I have never been west of Ohio, so, no offense James!). The store is family-friendly, with sections for all ages, interests and genders, everything is clean, well-organized and logically laid out, and I really just can't recommend this store enough. It's a nearly-three hour drive for me, and it's worth the time and gas to get there, even now. Gamers will also enjoy the extensive selection of games, and I believe there are regular in-store tournaments. If you go, please tell manager Jim Crocker I said hi. He's a great guy and a pleasure to talk comics with.

Earthworld Comics in Albany, New York was my shop of choice for most of the past five years. A change of job means I don't get to Albany much anymore, and I recently and with great reluctance had to end my subscription there. Owner JC Glindmyer is a great businessman and an even bigger fan of comics of all sorts, and his shop's great diversity reflects that. You can pretty much bet on any given Wednesday that if shipped from Diamond, you can find a copy at Earthworld. If not, they can usually have it for you within a week. JC, Tom, Alicia and the rest are all friendly and know a lot about comics, and if you're anywhere near Albany, this is a great shop to spend hours browsing in.

Comic Depot in Greenfield Center, New York is a relative newcomer to the region, having opened about two years ago. They're along Route 9-N north of Saratoga Springs, and for the past few months I've had my subscription here. The store definitely focuses on superheroes, but there's a great variety of titles from diverse publishers like Dark Horse and Dynamite Entertainment as well, and most importantly for a small shop, Darren is extremely responsive to special orders. The customer service is among the best I have ever received, and if you're anywhere near Albany or Saratoga Springs, you should stop in and take a look around. Like Modern Myths, Comic Depot also appeals to gamers, and although they don't stock as much as Modern Myths, they do have in-store tournaments that seem well-attended and everybody seem to be having fun. (Can you tell I myself am not into gaming?)

Electric City Comics is in Schenectady, New York and is a longtime fixture in the Capital Region comics scene, such as it is. It's a small shop, but they have a large selection of graphic novels and a surprising stock of undergrounds and alternative comics. I had my subscription there many years ago and still try to stop in a few times a year, because you never know what you might find. The customer service at Electric City is also excellent.

The Beguiling in Toronto, Ontario is a special case for me. It's an eight-hour drive away, so I will probably only make it there every few years (the first and only time to date was in 2005, but I went back three times in four days because it was so awe-inspiring; and thanks for taking me, Jay!). I'm being as honest as I can be when I tell you it is the best comic shop I have ever been in, and very likely the best in the world -- certainly in North America. See, I have had dreams all my life of being in an unfamiliar comic shop and finding untold treasures on the racks, little-known or unknown works by my favourite cartoonists, and promising works by people I somehow have never heard of. I kid you not that my first time walking into The Beguiling, I was actually in the store I had dreamed of all my life. I can't imagine anything in comics that you can't find there, and the folks that run it (hi Peter, hi, Chris!) know their shit like you wouldn't believe. Take it from me that the things you're hearing about in comics right at this moment, they've probably had for sale for the past six months at The Beguiling. Worth a trip from anywhere in the world, I swear to God.

I can recommend any of these shops without reservation, and I hope if you're anywhere in the Northeast you'll try to give some of them a look. Tell them you read about them on the ADD Blog. Sure, they'll go "on the what now?" But it'll make me feel better.

If you want to share your thoughts on your favourite comic shops, feel free to drop me an e-mail and I'll post your thoughts here.

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Daniel Robert Epstein -- By now you've probably heard of the death of Daniel Robert Epstein, one of the comics internet's most valuable journalists. More often than not over the past few years, if someone somewhere linked to an interview with a cartoonist I was interested in, it turned out Epstein conducted the piece, and his work was uniformly excellent. Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics has compiled a list of Daniel Robert Epstein's interviews with Fantagraphics cartoonists. (Thanks to Dirk Deppey for spotting this).

Newsarama's Matt Brady also remembers Epstein, who was a frequent contributer to Newsarama.

Finally, here's one of Epstein's last pieces of comics journalism, an interview with Joe Matt upon the release of his new collection Spent, published by Drawn and Quarterly. I'm going to go read this piece now. I'm grateful for all the great reading Epstein provided all of us with over the past few years. His was one of the few names I automatically associated with excellence every time I heard it, and I hoped we'd see much, much more from him.

Update: Here's an interview Epstein conducted with perennial Galaxy fave Jason Marcy.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

 
Pointing to the Future -- So, what comic book stores reflect the best future for the direct market?

To determine which shops are good, first we must determine what kind of shops are out there. What is the definition of "comic book store?" Diamond claims there are thousands of "comic book stores" in North America, but I would guess they really mean they have thousands of accounts, many of which may be much like the "hobby shop" near my house, which makes its bread and butter on radio controlled cars, accessories, snacks and soda, but has a small selection of comics delivered from Diamond weekly. They have a couple dozen subscribers, they carry comics, but in my view this is not a "comic book store." It is run more as a hobby than a business, and that is one of the key problems in the direct market as it exists today.

Too many shops are run by former fans who never bothered to learn how to be professional businessmen. As opposed to the hobby shop above, these are actual comic book stores, but they have profound problems (that the people running the store are either not aware of or don't see as problems). Maybe you've been in one of these stores -- perhaps the owner/cashier was eating lunch at the cash register, maybe annoyed that you had a question for him. Perhaps the back issues have no prices on them, or the prices are subject to change because they've gone up in value since the last time anyone bothered to price them. Perhaps you can feel the dust caking on your fingers as you browse the back issues -- or even the new stock (!). And let's not even get into the hours the store is open -- they may be posted, but how often does someone have the door open and the store ready to welcome customers before or at the posted opening time? If it's not 99 percent (allowing for family emergencies and genuine traffic tie-ups), then it's not a professional business; it's a hobby.

These are the very worst kind of "comic book stores," providing a negative impression for customers, potential customers, and the people they may bring along with them, such as their friends or family members, any or all of which, under the right retail circumstances, may be driven to spend their money in the shop as well. But it's extremely easy to lose interest in a dirty, dark pit that your comics-reading friend/boyfriend/husband/co-worker may have dragged you in to. It is almost needless to say that virtually all of the shops that fall under this criteria focus almost solely on corporate superhero comic books, and if there are other interests in evidence, they will be similarly off-putting. For example:

I've been in shops that had bad VHS tapes of professional wrestling playing on a small TV on the counter all the time. Superheroes and professional wrestling, we get it -- whatever your entertainment, it must involve men in tight clothing locked in dramatic conflict. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," to coin a phrase, but when a young mother comes in looking for Persepolis because she heard a wonderful interview with Marjane Satrape on NPR and looked up "graphic novels" in the phone book, don't be surprised when she sees this environment and rightly assumes she probably won't find what she's looking for. I'll go so far as to say that if she asked nicely and the owner was in a good mood, he might order it from Diamond for her, but she'll never get to that step in the process -- the amateurish retail hell she has entered into is something she wants to exit, and try to forget. She may find what she's looking for at Borders, she thinks -- how often has anyone turned and walked out of that or any mainstream bookstore because of the environment they were confronted with upon initial entry?

And while I'm at it, have you ever been able to guess the main interest of the owner or manager of a mainstream bookstore simply by how the books are racked, or by what videos are in stock? Now ask that question about the comic book stores you've been in. If any specific genre dominates, with everything else abandoned to the manga or artcomix ghetto in a dark, inconvenient corner of the store, again, this is not the comic shop of the future.

There are stores that are slightly or significantly better than this, but which are still flawed. The owner or manager may have a more expansive view of comics as an artform, and may even be open to stocking comics from other countries. Certainly he should be, since those comics are building new audiences across all ages, genders and interests, and presumably they want to not only stay in business, but experience growth from year to year. But the limiting factor I see in a store like this is the continuing emphasis on corporate superhero comics, from the window displays to the huge waterfall racks to the posters, action figures and other items on sale.

Certainly superhero comics have a place in even a good comic book store, but if they are obviously favoured over every other genre of storytelling within the comics artform, then the store is limiting its potential income and very likely turning people off, if they even walk through the door. I've actually seen a comic shop that carried a decent starter stock of manga, but there was no mention of manga whatsoever in the window display, yellow-pages ad, or anywhere else. If you browsed the shelves in the back for a while, though, you might stumble over them. I submit to you that you should not have to stumble over a comic book store's manga selection. Not that it should be emphasized any more than any other type of comics, but certainly it should be given equal prominence. Like in a real bookstore. All of this applies to artcomix/alternative comics/undergrounds, what-have-you, as well. It's fine -- preferable, perhaps -- to have different displays and areas for all the different flavours of the comics artform. But a new customer coming through the door should not be able to guess which one is the owner/manager's favourite, and certainly they should not be hit over the head by such poor management of the store's retail space.

So those are the shops I think we mostly have now -- non-comics hobby shops with a Diamond account for a few interested customers; shops fun by fans who are unwilling to create a welcoming, professional retail environment for a wide range of potential customers; well-meaning, more expansive shops that still have an over-emphasis on superheroes for one reason or another. Not as off-putting as the previous two types, but still cutting themselves out of the growing market for all kinds of comics aimed at all types of readers. The chances of these stores continuing to exist in another decade depends, in my opinion, largely on whether they can adapt to the emerging marketplace for comics. The ones that don't adapt may not go out of business --although I think a majority of them will -- but the ones that survive may find themselves doing merely that: Surviving. I think if I owned a retail business I would want to do better than that.

By now you may have a pretty good picture of what I think is the type of shop that will exist in the future, after the superhero convenience stores have mostly burned themselves out. I'll grant you there may always be stores that traffic primarily if not solely in superheroes, but for them to genuinely compete with full-service comic book stores in the same communities, they will have to either clean themselves up and learn better business practices, or they will go even further to seed, looking like nothing so much as that adult book store the town council keeps trying to kick out of town by changing the zoning laws every six months. Either way, those superhero-oriented stores will still be welcoming only one kind of customer, while that customer's family and friends gets its comic fix elsewhere.

The comic book stores that will thrive in the future will have a number of things in common.

If the place you buy your comics at meets most or all of these criteria, be happy that you are supporting a professional comic shop that represents the best possible future for comics retailing.

If the place you buy your comics at fails to meet most (or all) of these criteria, you should probably start looking for a better shop. Not to punish your current shop, but because their days are very likely numbered. And more importantly, because you are probably missing out on a great many comics you would enjoy but have never seen. There's whole galaxy of worlds to be explored in the comics artform, and comic book stores that exist in the future will be your gateway to new experiences, new voices and new stories in comics. The great news is, some of them are out there right now, pushing comics forward every day.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

 
One part of the vast future of comics, my son Aaron.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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And Now For Something Completely Different -- Minor medical emergency wrecked the hell right out of my Monday evening...I won't disgust -- bore you with the details, but needless to say the essay I was polishing up Monday afternoon may not be up for a day or two. I'm on antibiotics and hopefully will be all better in a few days. But if I don't post much today, I didn't want you to think I had crawled back in my cave, although hibernating sounds awfully good right now.

Sopranos Spoiler Alert...

I did get around to watching The Sopranos finale, and while I was a bit baffled at first (like much of the rest of the viewers), I did some online research and found out that if you watch carefully, and pay attention to what characters are in the restaurant at the end, there's little doubt about what happened.

I think writer/director David Chase deserves a little more credit than outraged but apparently very casual viewers are giving him. There were a couple of echoes of the original pilot, which I would not have caught if I hadn't watched it Sunday night, and I think the most important clue goes back to the conversation Tony and Bobby had on the boat when they were relaxing on Lake George a few weeks back, before they got mad and beat the crap out of each other.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

 
The Monday Briefing -- Hello, good day and welcome to the Monday Briefing for June 11th. June 11th?!? So the year is virtually half-over? That doesn't seem possible, and yet, I know the kids are almost done with school and summer is about to begin.

I kind of felt like my summer vacation already happened with Friday's trip to Northampton. Sure it was just one day, but my daughter and I had a great time. I'm still making my way through the comics and graphic novels I picked up at Modern Myths. Which is funny, because I browsed the shelves for something like three hours and still felt like I might have missed something. MM has a lot of books. Oh, one thing I failed to mention on Friday was manager Jim Crocker's hardcover policy, which I noticed right away and was blown away by. Any hardcover graphic novel that has a dustcover is reinforced with a library-style clear plastic sleeve. Every single one. It makes the books look classier and adds protection to the book that will extend its shelf-life and even enhance its re-sale potential, if that's your thing. And how much does Modern Myths charge for this feature?

Nothing.

Since the first time I walked in the door, I thought Modern Myths represented the best possible future for comic book stores, and that feeling has only grown over the years. If you're anywhere near Northampton, Massachusetts, stop in and see if you don't agree.

The Sopranos wrapped up last night, but I haven't seen it yet, so, don't spoil it for me. Hopefully I will get to it this evening after work. Last night my wife and I re-watched the pilot episode from the first season, and it was interesting to see what's changed and what hasn't. Paulie hasn't changed a bit, but guys like him never do, do they? James Gandolfini seemed to be talking in a higher pitch, maybe invoking Joe Pesci. He was also much less dark, both because Tony Soprano was trying Prozac for his depression and because the worst years of his life were to come in the next decade. Gandolfini's acting has been a consistent joy to watch over the course of the series, and if you somehow have never seen the series, add it to your Netflix pile or keep an eye out for an eventual complete series DVD collection. The individual seasons have been criminally (ho, ho) expensive, but if they make an affordable full-series set, it would be a great addition to the video library of anyone who enjoys quality storytelling.

Except the Columbus Day episode, yes, but that's the exception that proves the rule.

Over at The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon interviews Joe Casey again. I think this is the third time? At least? Spurgeon 'fesses up to a desire to interview Casey every few years, and that would be fine by me. Their original Comics Journal interview found Casey discussing the occasional disconnect between his ideas and getting them intact into his comics. Given how many interesting titles Casey has worked on that ultimately did not quite work out, he's a great case-study for what can go wrong and right when working in comics, especially corporate superhero comics.

I think Casey's greatest creative success was probably Wildcats Vol. 2 and Vol. 3.0 before the "Coup d'Etat" event destroyed not only that title but the Wildstorm universe as a viable storytelling milieu. Casey mentions his Iron Man: The Inevitable mini-series in the new interview, and, well, I'm sure there was a good idea in there somewhere.

Speaking of Iron Man, do you think Marvel will eventually reset or redeem the character, or will he just remain the outright evil supervillain he's been since Civil War began? You know what would have been a great ending for that? Garth Ennis writing the last issue, as Frank Castle blows away Tony Stark and everyone cheers, The End. (Andrew Wheeler nicely sums up the series' flaws in this post at The V).

I've been thinking about this since borrowing the first three issues of The Avengers: The Initiative from The Favoured Store. Is there a character left in the Marvel Universe that is actually a good guy?

I talked to Jim Crocker on Friday a bit about my conviction that the current era of corporate superhero comics will one day be recognized as The Fan Fiction Age, due to the poor quality of the storytelling, which often reminds me of an eight-year-old playing in the tub with action figures: "Then Superboy PUNCHES THROUGH TIME!" "Geoff? Make sure you wash behind your ears, now!" "Aw, mom!!!"

I can't remember the last time I read a Marvel or DC story that seemed canonical with the comics the companies produced in the 20th century. I fully expect a writer to emerge in the next five years or so who will successfully kick off a new paradigm that makes Marvel and DC's characters not only viable, but appealing again.

And sure, there are creators working today who could do that: Darwyn Cooke, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis all come to mind. But the companies either marginalize their best efforts, things like New Frontier, Nextwave or Seven Soldiers are off to the side and don't really have an impact on the universes proper. Or, like Morrison with 52 or Ellis with Thunderbolts, these creators choose to play in the fan-fiction sandbox the companies have endorsed, with the resulting comics not quite meeting the best standard the creators have proven themselves capable of.

Back in the early 1980s, Alan Moore, Frank Miller and some other folks came along and re-energized the Marvel and DC universes with storytelling that looked at the characters and their settings in a way far different from what had been the status quo. I doubt Moore would want the job these days, and God knows Miller isn't fit for the task, but what is needed is someone with that same sort of energy, intelligence and passion for comics storytelling to come along and inject superhero comics with those very qualities. Until then, folks like Johns, Straczynski and others will continue to create comics that damage the longterm viability of the characters even as they sell like hotcakes to borderline psychotic nerds who actually think these comics are any better than the crap Marvel and DC pumped out by the metric fuckload in the 1990s.

I'm pretty far from the John Byrne "Superhero Comics Are For Kids" bandwagon -- I think there should be all types of genres and storytelling modes available for readers of all ages, genders and interests. But what I see coming out of Marvel and DC these days, their core books -- they are about as far from what they could and should be as is even imaginable. Max Lord taking a bullet through the melon on-panel, and The Elongated Man's wife getting raped doggie-style both seemed to me like superhero porn at the time, and things have only gotten worse from there.

My kids are 11 and 13, and there's not a single Marvel or DC universe book that appeals to them. Check my pull list in the sidebar to the right -- anything with an asterisk (*) is a title I have reserved for them. I guess as a parent it makes me a little sad that they can't enjoy the superhero universes that entertained me so much when I was their age, because of the poor stewardship of the characters on the part of the current management at the two major corporate superhero publishers. And if you're thinking that the publishers have all-ages titles like Avengers Adventures for kids, my response is, why should they have to? When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, Avengers was a title any superhero fan could enjoy, of any age. I've tried the Adventures titles on my kids, but somehow I think they sense the pandering and condescension that is inherent in the need for all-ages versions of characters that are, by definition, meant to be enjoyed by readers of all ages anyway. I can't think of any other reason why most of those titles fail to generate any interest in my kids. Or in me, come to think of it.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

 
Labels -- It'll take me a while to label years worth of blog posts, but I've started using Blogger's Labels function to group posts. Click on the label at the end of each post to see other posts on the same subject(s). Labels include art, corporate comics, culture, equal marriage rights, essays, FCBD, five questions, good comic shops, industry, linkblogging, lists, memes, meta, movies, music, pre-ordering, pull list, radio, real life and reviews. As always, your comments and suggestions are much appreciated!

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Blogging About Blogging -- Since I resumed regular blogging here, I have learned a number of things.

1. Blogger seems a bit...diminished to me. Posts and especially template changes seem to take forever to go through, although I'm learning that sometimes it may just be my machine the changes aren't showing up on. Because...

2. Internet Explorer realy does suck like everyone says, and I've switched to Firefox. Firefox seems to be a huge improvement in internet browsing, but with Blogger there may be cache and cookie issues, which require workarounds for me until I figure thing out. Workarounds like...

3. Add a question mark to the end of a URL and then hit shift+reload, and you will actually see the newest version of a webpage. Something to do with making a dynamic call to the server, kind of like an agitated drunk in a bar. "Garcon!" Anyway, I learned much of this either because of switching to Firefox and Googling the problems I was having, or because of problems I've had establishing...

4. RSS Feeds. I'll be honest with you, I don't much see the point of them -- I'm really old, and I like my bookmarks just fine. If I like your site, chances are, pathetically, I check it several times a day to see what you're up to. And I guess I kind of assumed everyone was as bored/neurotic/desperate for information as I am. But no, Johanna let me know pretty clearly that a lot of people are hooked on RSS these days with no plans to go into rehab. Now, if you have been checking this site several times a day, you probably know I have had a number of RSS misfires, at least one of which required ointment to heal. I don't wanna make a big deal about it in case it once again doesn't work, but I have once again attemtped to create a working RSS Feed for The ADD Blog. Please try it out if you're RSS-savvy, and after a couple more updates here let me know if it seems to be working right. if it isn't, and chances seem to favour that outcome, there's always...

5. The Google Group. I've created one so you can subscribe to an updates mailing list for this blog. Subscribe here. Yes, I know it's the 20th century way of getting things done. But I was born in early 1966, so that not only makes me old, it makes me older than Star Trek. And anyone that old should know...

6. Blogging about blogging is a sin. Yes, Mike, I know!

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