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Sunday, January 27, 2008

 
Two Beautiful Women and My Birthday -- Over at The ADD Writeblog is a new short story about my weekend, Two Beautiful Women and My Birthday. Warning: Nothing about comics, except a quick Captain America cameo.

Friday, January 25, 2008

 
This Week's Punisher -- Well, that was about one of the best issues of Ennis's storied run on the title. It had it all, violence, moral complexity, and even a definitive ending that allows readers to feel the full weight of Frank Castle's burden.

A brilliant issue, wrapping up Ennis's penultimate story-arc. I buy the floppies, but I also am collecting this series in the expensive, oversized hardcovers, and I just can't recommend it enough to anyone who loves good storytelling.

 
Fantagraphics Responds to Convention Sales Issue -- Over at the Flog Blog, Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth offer some much-needed nuance and solid information to this week's hot-button issue.

Monday, January 21, 2008

 
Retailers vs. Convention Sales: Publishers Respond -- Over the weekend, comics bloggers responded (Comics Worth Reading; The Comics Reporter; Journalista; Comics Comics; Dick Hates Your Blog; and me, here and here) to ComicsPRO's allegation that direct market retailers are losing revenue because some publishers sell new works at comic book conventions before Diamond delivers those works to the direct market.

Their Side of the Story

One good retailer point of view can be found at The Savage Critic; while Brian Hibbs and I don't always agree on some pretty key issues, he clearly wants many of the same things that I do for the comic book stores within the direct market.

Diamond's Policies From the Publisher's Side

A former publisher still active in comics as a cartoonist told me of his discouraging experience with Diamond, asking not to be named, but making it clear that Diamond impeded his efforts at every step along the way to trying to get distribution to comic book stores within the direct market. He spoke of building relationships one by one with good comic book stores that want to serve a base wider than that of aging superhero fans, and said those stores -- what I call superhero convenience stores -- are actively disinterested in carrying non-superhero works. He also noted that dealing direct with stores interested in his product saves time and money, because the small publisher does not have to ship to Diamond, which then (eventually) ships to the retailer. He expressed nothing but disdain for any shop unwilling to build a direct partnership with smaller publishers, and indicated that his future efforts will work around Diamond to get right to retailers wherever possible.

Bloggers Enjoy Commenting on Everything, Even Important Issues Like This

Comics blogger Christopher Allen isn't convinced by the ComicsPRO position paper:
"I don't buy the argument that retailers just don't know what books will debut at conventions. Nonsense. Marvel and DC don't debut books there. Dark Horse and Image may have some sort of preview samplers, and Avatar and other genre publishers may have a convention edition or two every year, but for the most part we're talking about pricey artcomix from Top Shelf, Fanta, D&Q, and a few others, right? Anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention, or who had been to a convention in the past 5 years, could have predicted prior to Diamond order deadlines, that Lost Girls, Flight, Comic Art, and whatever other big books of the year were going to be available at SDCC. I'm sure the SDCC site and frequent update fliers mentioned guests like Seth. Was he going to sign old shit, or, just maybe, the new book of his that was coming out soon? I just think it's a case of retailers not wanting to do the work of knowing their products and their customers."
One Man's Experience with Diamond and Convention Sales

Cartoonist Frank Santoro has had extensive experience dealing with Diamond, beginning in the mid-1990s with his company Sirk Publications. Diamond is the monopolistic distributor that holds most of the power when it comes to getting books distributed within the direct market, and so timing of delivery of any given product to comic book stores is often within their control. He answered some questions for me.

1. Do you regularly engage in convention sales that take place prior to when Diamond delivers your product to comic book stores within the direct market?


Frank Santoro: Yes, of course. We need those sales and that connection with our core audience.

2. If so, what is the primary reason you do so? What is the benefit, and are there any downsides?

Why wouldn't we do that? That is the blueprint. The benefits are endless. There are no downsides.

3. How satisfied are you with Diamond's ability to deliver your product to retailers in the direct market in a timely manner?

Not satisfied at all. We have no choice but to use Diamond if we are to get into certain shops that won't deal directly with us.

4. If retailers were willing to pay to have books direct-shipped to them in order to have product available at the same time they will debut at a given convention, would you have any objection to them doing so? Would you be willing to cooperate with a system in which this is a regular option for them?

Yes, we already do that with many of the larger stores who do sell our work. It's beneficial for everyone.

5. Assuming you will continue to sell at conventions prior to Diamond making product available to the retailers in the direct market, what incentives could retailers offer to publishers to cause you to reconsider your plans?

None.

6. Have other arms in your distribution chain, outside the retailers in the direct market, complained about convention sales? If so, how have you addressed their concerns? If not, what makes them different from retailers within the direct market?


No.

7. Do you believe the direct market serviced by Diamond represents a good portion of your present customer base? If so, what percentage of direct market stores do you believe actively works with you as a partner in getting your books to the readers that want them? If not, do you believe that the direct market will, in the future, be more or less interested in working with your company to grow the market for your product?

No, it represents about 20 percent. But we still need that 20 percent. So we're forced to use them because there is no alternative except Last Gasp and only certain stores use Last Gasp.

Another View

AiT/PlanetLar publisher Larry Young's response to the issue:
"This actually doesn't impact us at all, as we don't sell books at cons that aren't already available from Diamond. We don't debut books at shows, because we're an "evergreen" company. All of our books are awesome and will be so forever, whether you get it on Day One or Year Five. There's just no reason for us to debut books at cons.

"Sorry that's not a sexy soundbite answer, but I think we're in a different comics industry than most other folks. The Latest Outrage™ never seems to much impact us."

A Major Player Responds


One of the major publishers of non-superhero comics in North America asked to remain anonymous, and explained why their company will continue to sell their product at conventions before Diamond delivers the same product to direct market retailers. He told me that ideally books would debut at conventions and comic book stores on the same day, but printing delays and other problems don't always make that possible. He said that it's worth paying the extra shipping to get books to a convention in order to have them available for the cartoonist to sign for readers, and that this is a key marketing tool in building good word of mouth for their books. He doubts most retailers would be willing, as he is, to swallow a $10.00 per book shipping charge to get the books at the same time as they are being debuted at a convention. It's this publisher's belief that convention sales in this way improve sales within the direct market by creating additional demand for a given work. He told me that if convention signings on new books are done away with, there will be less demand for the books, and therefore lower sales for the direct market retailers.

Final Thoughts, For the Moment

As I said in a letter over the weekend to Tom Spurgeon, what's exciting to me about the current convention sales discussion is that it finally brings out the hardcore issues that separate the direct market retail mindset from the real world.

Dirk Deppey picks up on that in his blog post today, when he says "this fight is really just a set of shadows concealing larger and more intractable problems." He's right: this debate has been a microcosm of the divide between the needs of three distinct groups. Readers (represented by the comics bloggers, who despite claims by retailer like Robert Scott, have not only a right but a responsibility to report on their experiences in the comics retail environment and explain how retailers can make their businesses better for their own self-interest, never mind for the betterment of comics as a whole), retailers, and publishers.

Readers will keep reading comics as long as the ones they want to read are available; publishers will continue to publish them as long as they maintain whatever borderline profit margin they have set for themselves, despite the many aggravations of working within the superhero-centric direct market. But what of retailers within that obviously changing direct market?

Seeing the comments by some high-visibility retailers, it becomes clear that they are far from engaged with reality when it comes to what is going on in comics anywhere outside their own front door. The past decade has seen a revolution in how comics are perceived, pursued and purchased by the reading public. But most direct market retailers participating in this discussion these past few days seem not to see the forest for the trees.

You can chalk that up to their dedication to, and focus on, their own business; or you can see it as having their collective heads in the sand; the truth is likely somewhere in-between, although I remember vividly a major retailer telling me a few years ago, in the early days of the manga explosion, that the stuff just doesn't sell; he seemed totally unaware that the Borders a mile down the road had expanded their manga section enormously, and that that same section was populated by interested readers any time you happened to give it a look.

If comic book stores as an entity are to be dragged into professional retail practices and competing in a world in which the direct market is just one piece of the entire comics market rather than its virtual entirety, it's now clearer than ever that they will have to be dragged there kicking, wailing and screaming. Some of them, like the aforementioned Robert Scott, are already doing enough of that to get themselves banned from the Comics Worth Reading comments section, moderated by Johanna Draper Carlson, whose level head and fairness are unquestioned, and who put up with Scott's insults far longer than I would have.

Dealing with this retailer intransigence and inability to face facts, I assume, is part of what Spurgeon's "first thought of the day" was about on Sunday.

This all, this entire debate, is exactly what I was talking about a couple of years ago in my (admittedly) poorly-worded letter to Spurgeon declaring my wish for the direct market to "die." I've rewritten that piece three times now, and I am grateful to Spurgeon for posting it way back when, because the response to it has forced me to really focus my thinking and try to explain what the problem is as I see it, rather than just indulging in gleeful eye-poking. It seems to me a lot of retailers are now poking themselves in their own eyes while the rest of us calmly insist that the retail sector of the direct market grow up, already.

Update: David Wynne has some good perspective and advice for retailers; and Johanna has more as well.

Update 2: I was wondering when Heidi would weigh in on this debate, and now she has. It was worth waiting for. And as is usual these past few days, the comments following the post are worth reading.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

 
The Upper Echelon of Comic Book Retailers -- In the ongoing discussion with comic book retailers about convention sales happening at Comics Worth Reading (scroll down to the comments following Johanna's initial post), noted comics retailer Rory Root said today:
"I’d be quite pleased if folk would stop judging the upper echelon of comic stores by the bottom feeders. It’s as if the gourmet restaurants in the market were judged by how the greasy spoons operated."
I think this is one of the key issues facing comic book retailers and the direct market today, and here is how I responded to Rory's plea:
It’s up to the progressive stores to separate themselves from the majority superhero convenience stores and their anti-comics policies, Rory. One major step would be to create a list of best practices that all professional businesses should adhere to. Has ComicsPRO issued a paper like this for its members?

Here are some of the practices I personally endorse:

Professional comic book stores are clean.

Professional comic book stores are well-lit.

Professional comic book stores are well-organized.

Professional comic book stores are open on time, all the time.

Professional comic book stores have prices clearly marked and up to date on all merchandise.

Professional comic book stores operate their business in accordance with local, state and federal laws, including labor and employment laws.

Professional comic book stores do not favor one genre or sub-genre over another.

Professional comic book stores recognize that all comics are comics, no matter what country they originate from, or what format they are published in.

Professional comic book stores actively welcome all people interested in buying some kind of comics to shop at their store,

Professional comic book stores recognize the transition from periodical pamphlet comics to more appealing and enduring graphic novels, and accommodate the readership’s clear preference for comics with a spine and a complete story.

Professional comic book stores actively seek to buy from a variety of distributors, not relying on one monopolistic distributor for the entirety of their business, and not settling for receiving books “whenever Diamond ships them,” but rather, as soon as they are available, in order to better serve their customers.

Now, if ComicsPRO as an organization insists its members adhere to standards that meet or exceed these, then I’d agree you and your colleagues are all working for positive change within the direct market. If not, then you continue to allow the bottom feeders to thrive and use quality retailers such as yourself as cover for their shoddy, amateur practices.

Please let me know where online I may find ComicsPRO’s position paper on this issue. If it doesn’t exist yet, please keep us posted on its progress. Because until then, a lack of professionalism in the majority of the direct market’s stores, and impotent declarations like the convention sales position paper, will only work to cripple ComicsPRO and its attempt to build a reputation for its members as professional retailers worth supporting.
I'll have much more on this story, hopefully within the next 24 hours or so. But I thought this exchange was important enough to call it out on its own for further discussion and consideration.

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ComicsPRO vs. Convention Sales Update -- I'm working on additional coverage of ComicsPRO's position paper against convention sales, and hopefully will have something up Monday.

In the meantime, here is Tom Spurgeon talking to Brian Hibbs about the issue of convention sales and how they allegedly affect comic book retailers.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

 
A Future for Comics White Paper -- You can now download my essay A Future for Comics (Revised January 2008 Version) as a PDF white paper you can read in Adobe Reader or Acrobat, or can print out to read at your leisure. Or print out and leave copies at comic shops that need a little nudge into professionalism.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

 
A Future for Comics (Revised 2008 Edition) -- What follows is a single essay compiled and revised from a previous five-part series that ran on this blog in 2007. Given this week's direct market news, I thought it might be time to dust it off and give it a shine for the new year. You could look at it from the perspective of a comics reader, in terms of what you should find to be minimally acceptable retail practices, or if you are (or wish to become) a comics retailer, you might find some good advice here regarding how to run a comic book shop in a professional manner with better potential for long-term success and steady growth.

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 “fan base,” 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 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. This is a minority that would much rather watch Heroes on NBC than ever crack open a graphic novel not published by Marvel or DC. It’s not comics they’re fans of, it’s superheroes and all the adolescent power fantasies the sub-genre implies.

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.

So, what kind of 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 have 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 favored 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 flavors 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 favorite, 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 run 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 depend, 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.

But their efforts are vastly overshadowed by the superhero-centric stores that continue to live in the glorious past of the '80s and '90s, when it made a kind of sense to emphasize superhero comics, because that's virtually 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; it’s just that 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 Comics Journal #283) and ultimately self-destructive world of the direct market.

One criticism angrily lobbed by hardcore superhero convenience store customers at me when I bring up this subject is the idea that I don't want superhero comics available at all, anywhere. When discussing this 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. All that space -- all that goddamned space – that 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 newly-created 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 to generate income 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, worst of all, women and their kids! Don't believe that’s a real, existing attitude within the direct market? Then you haven't been in many comic book stores.

I admit my standards are high for comics retailing; they’re high for the same reason my standards are high for quality inspection of the food my family eats. I want the best, and I want to be able to rest assured that my family and I will enjoy a safe and viable product for years to come. If your store meets most of my criteria for being a good one, then I have no problem with 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. Or about you, at any rate.

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 definitively said it wants to read: Comics with a spine and a complete story. And what I am saying 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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ComicsPRO Tries to Bully Publishers -- At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna has details on a bullying attempt by an organization of direct market comic book retailers to tell publishers how to run their businesses. Johanna doesn't characterize it as bullying, but I certainly do.

When ComicsPRO first organized, I guess I thought it might allow the brightest, most forward-thinking retailers to influence the shitty majority within the direct market. Instead, the paper Johanna talks about seems to indicate the very opposite.

At issue are publishers who sell new publications before they arrive at direct market stores, usually through convention sales. This happens a lot during convention season when, say, Top Shelf has their copies of a major new work and wants to make a splash and bring attention to a book that Diamond might not bother to get to comic shops in the direct market until days or weeks later. Johanna correctly notes that ComicsPRO is demanding that stop without offering to better serve these publishers so they don't feel the need to go directly to readers with their offerings. This is key, because usually the books in question are non-superhero titles that the shitty majority of comic shops within the direct market doesn't want to deal with anyway.

Instead of acknowledging the cold, hard fact that retailers need to stop being dependent on Diamond for their bread-and-butter and build better direct relationships with publishers (or at least investigate alternative distribution methods, such as distributors who traditionally work with the mainstream book trade, or the smaller comic book distributors, however many might be left), which would make it easier for shops to acquire non-superhero works sooner, they choose to issue this whiny, bullying declaration that indicates a lack of insight and will to change within ComicsPRO.

I'll say it again. The truly outstanding comic shops I have been in -- The Beguiling in Toronto and Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts, to name two -- have had books in stock earlier than Diamond brought them to the direct market, every time I have paid either one of them a visit. I always come out of stores like those with new books that I don't end up seeing in Diamondcentric comic shops until many weeks later.

So there's clearly a way to get new works from the publishers ComicsPRO is talking to earlier than Diamond delivers them. And if the retailers that make up the organization were listening to the smart, savvy and profit-oriented retailers in their industry, they wouldn't ever have had to embarrass themselves with this impotent, and as Johanna notes, years-old, complaint.

We've heard it all before, boys; mommy's a big meanie because you want milk to go with your cookies but you don't want to get off your ass and go get it yourself.

Well, you're a big boy now. Go get it yourself. It's time to grow up.

UPDATE: There's a good discussion of this issue going on in the comments thread, including input from some ComicsPRO board members.

UPDATE AGAIN: Tom Spurgeon has read the ComicsPRO position paper, and says it's "terrible." Meanwhile, Christopher Butcher promises to weigh in on the subject within the next day or so.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

 
Andrew Goletz Returns -- Life of Reilly co-writer Andrew Goletz is blogging comics; already up are posts on the recent Spidey kerfuffle and a Best of 2007 post. Click on over, and welcome back, Andrew!

 
Monday Briefly -- Just a couple notes this morning...

* Noah Berlatsky looks at whatever happened to Ariel Schrag; I think it was Jason Marcy that first alerted me to Schrag's comics. I guess her GLBT autobio subject matter and outsider art style mean she's an acquired taste at best, but I've liked the comic I've read by her (Definition, and some issues of Likewise) and would like to read more.

* I started reading the new Acme Novelty Library last night; since it features Chris Ware's "Building Stories," I was kind of dreading it. To date the excerpts of Building Stories that I have encountered have left me pretty uninterested. But Ware pulls it all together in Acme #18, and his character study of a lonely young woman could end up being his best and most natural storytelling yet. I'm still looking forward to more Rusty Brown (serialized in Acme #16 and 17), but I want to read more of Building Stories even more.

* The new issue of Buffy Season 8, a standalone Joss Whedon story, kind of confused the hell out of me. I feel like I should have understood it a lot better than I did, and I'm not sure if Whedon is to blame, or me. Maybe when more of the "season" unfolds, it will make more sense.

* I've been reading Greg Rucka's Atticus Kodiak novels, and regretting I didn't check them out sooner. I've read the first three, and am on the related novel "Shooting at Midnight" (featuring Kodiak's colleague/girlfriend), and all of them have been excellent so far. Tightly written suspense stories with an engaging cast and an excellent sense of both place and subject matter. All of 'em (the first is Keeper) are highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

 

10 Things I Love About The New Mome -- The tenth volume of the Fantagraphics comics anthology Mome is in my hands, and to celebrate its tenth volume, here are ten things I loved about it:

10. Dash Shaw's mind-fucking backward/forward robot war tragicomedy "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two." FANTASTIC.

9. The textures in the Jim Woodring piece; the story (continued from Vol. 9) is up to the usual Woodring standard of psychedelic excellence, but the textures on display in the neighbourhood scenes are astonishing.

8. The final panel in the Woodring story: study it carefully. How long have these kids been weeping, and what are they mourning? A lost world of wonder? Their own ability to function in a universe they no longer understand?

7. Tom Kaczynski's interview, conducted by Gary Groth. Groth is one of my personal heroes, whatever his perceived flaws, and no one can doubt his ability to paint fascinating portraits of the people he interviews, virtually every time out. Kaczynski is no exception -- his life story is interesting stuff, and his inclusion in Mome has improved it measurably.

6. No surprise, then, that his story in this volume is one of the highlights. He takes the Clowes/Tomine ball that he references in the Groth interview, and he runs off in unexpected directions with it.

5. Kaczynski's portrait of The Lizard bursting out of Spider-Man's costume is worth noting all on its own.

4. Ten volumes in, and no price increase.

3. The Sophie Crumb full-page portrait right at the front of the issue. I am finding her strips a little out of place in Mome and I wish we'd see more of her solo series Belly Button Comix, but this is a nice piece of art and a stretch from her usual Mome offerings.

2. John Hankiewicz's "Success Comes to Westmont, IL" is a change of pace for the cartoonist, a little more direct than his usual fare, but also using stylistic change-ups to add depth and nuance to the narrator's bitter complaint.

1. Al Columbia's cover -- there are cat people and dog people, and I am a cat people. The front and back covers are both cat portraits by Al Columbia, and both are extraordinary and chilling in very different ways. I think the thing I love the most is the phantom claw just barely visible on the right side of the image; is Columbia showing us a bit of his process, or suggesting the speed with which cats move, or both? Also of note: This is the first original cover the series has featured, instead of a blown-up image from the interior. I liked that idea, but I love Columbia's cover more.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

 
Return of The Spurge -- Glad to see The Comics Reporter is back up after some downtime over the holidays.

I guess I was one of the lucky ones, because I got to read the Sean Collins and Eric Reynolds interviews when they were briefly up this morning before being taken down to be retooled and re-posted, I assume, sometime soon. Both were bracing chats with two of the smartest guys in and around comics, and they're well worth reading (as all Tom's interviews are) once they're back up.

UPDATE: The Eric Reynolds interview is up now.

 
Reminder: ADD's Free e-Book -- I figure now that the holidays are over some of you may have missed my posting my free e-book, Strange Whine. Download the PDF and you'll find about 150 pages of my reviews and essays, about comics and real life, along with new commentary on most of the pieces. Have a look, and if you feel like it, let me know what you think.

 

Palestine: The Special Edition -- Joe Sacco's particular brand of comics journalism has been one of the highlights of the artcomix revolution that has occurred over the past decade or so. In the 1970s and '80s, no one would have known what the hell to do with works like Safe Area Gorazde or The Fixer, but now that non-fiction comics are more widely read and talked about in the mainstream press, Sacco has been able to carve out a nice little niche that perfectly suits both his talents and his obsessive curiosity about why and how the awful things happen that happen in this world.

Palestine was one of the first works of Sacco's that I read, and certainly it made Sacco's reputation as a contrarian journalist of the first order, unwilling to swallow whole any government propaganda, and damned determined to get to the bottom of whatever story he was investigating, even if it put him in harm's way.

Fantagraphics Books has now released a deluxe version of Palestine that better presents the work in contexts both historical and artistic. Lengthy, generously-illustrated text pieces lead off the new hardcover edition, with Sacco providing first-person commentary on his experiences in the Middle East and how he translated them into comics form. He admits to the book's minor flaws (chiefly, that the pamphlet format the work was originally serialized in leaves for a somewhat choppy graphic novel reading experience) while giving genuine insight into the artistic choices he made in presenting the story as he experienced it, and I was interested to see how most of the visual decisions Sacco made were chosen to better present as objective a journalistic view as possible. As horrific as, say, a man being beaten and suffering a broken arm in the attack is, Sacco makes a convincing case that it's even more chilling when presented with as little visual melodrama as possible. Less is more, so much more so in the case of non-fiction on as serious and important a topic as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Sacco's work to reveal the truth about what is happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians remains as powerful and timely now as it was when originally published, and it deserves to be seen and experienced in this new, prestigious edition. Whether you're a longtime Sacco follower or just curious about what it is that he does that makes him so noteworthy among his fellow cartoonists, Palestine: The Special Edition is absolutely indispensable.

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Spider-Man: More Lost Than Ever -- Being the guy who approved the original idea for a column (Life of Reilly) about the 1990s Spider-Man clone storyline, I have more than a passing familiarity with analysis of disastrous decisions involving Spider-Man.

When Comic Book Galaxy launched Life of Reilly, written by Andrew Goletz and former Spidey editor Glenn Greenberg, there was a mini-quake of nerd outrage. Why would a reputable comic book website devote over half a year of coverage to one of the worst, most mishandled story lines in superhero history?

As it turned out, the column was extremely popular; if you click the link above, you'll find out why. In addition to summarizing every event of the misbegotten saga of Ben Reilly (a character I retain an inordinate fondness for, despite or perhaps because of the fan reaction to his existence), Andrew and Glenn provided extensive interviews with the people who carried out the story, providing, perhaps for the first time, a journalistic behind-the-scenes view of one of the most controversial stories ever to occur in the pages of North American superhero comics.

And now, even those who cheered when Marvel killed off Ben Reilly and tried to return Peter Parker to his previous status quo must be longing for the days of The Scarlet Spider.

Comic Book Resources this week has been rolling out a five-part interview with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3), wherein Quesada explains the reasons for, and creation of, the most recent Spider-Man storyline "One More Day," which dismantles (despite Quesada's claims) decades of Spider-Man stories and sets Peter Parker down in a new universe in which he never married, and Harry Osborn is just returning after months (decades, in real-world time) in rehab following his freak-out on "the drugs" back in the Stan Lee days.

Among the many interesting details in this train wreck Quesada has created is the fact that Amazing Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski apparently wrote his own story contrary to what the committee that generated this miserable narrative had intended. Straczynski's story would have reset the clock on every event in Spider-Man history back to those Stan Lee/Gil Kane days, meaning among other things, Gwen Stacy would still be alive. Obviously this would have been a bad idea.

But you know what? The outcome of the rewrite that Quesada inflicted on One More Day (a bad story to begin with, let there be no doubt) is even worse. Quesada claims in the CBR interview that only three things are changed by One More Day: the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane is wiped out by the story (in which Peter and MJ make a deal with Mephisto (AKA Satan for those of you not into Marvel continuity), Harry Osborn is back and in Peter's social circle, and the unmasking of Peter Parker from Civil War is forgotten and his identity once more a secret. Quesada believes these are good fixes that allow the character to move on in a positive direction.

But it's virtually impossible to imagine a Spider-Man reader who won't be alienated by the utter lack of regard this story has for the characters and their history. I'm not saying Spider-Man doesn't need to be fixed -- clearly he's been lost in the woods since well before the clone story of the 1990s -- but this doesn't fix anything, and creates only more problems. Primary among those is the fact that if MJ and Pete never married, if Harry Osborn is alive and well and freshly home from rehab, and if Civil War (a vomit-worthy story in and of itself) never happened in quite the way readers remember, then the floodgates are wide open for the next wave of fan fiction stories within the pages of Marvel Comics, filling in all the gaps and mysteries that must now exist as a result of these, sorry Joe, monumental alterations to decades of stories -- some of them actually good stories.

And look, I am not a continuity porn kind of guy. I stopped reading Amazing Spider-Man regularly years ago, when it became obvious (sometime around the Norman/Gwen fuck flashback) that JMS's Spider-Man was firmly entrenched in the Fan-Fiction Age of Superhero Comics, and was not, as it was sold, an attempt to just tell good superhero stories.

Alan Moore once famously said that he worked to give readers not what they want, but what they need. When a superhero storyline fails as spectacularly as One More Day has failed, it can almost always be traced to that brilliant axiom. In this case, though, reading the CBR interviews with Quesada (and I recommend you do), keep in mind one thing: In this case, the fan being given what he wants is just one person, named Joe Quesada. And that his need to make this cruddy story a reality was so strong that he overrode the (forgive me, God) artistic vision of a better writer (Straczynski), and wrote and drew Spider-Man into the worst narrative corner he has ever been forced into.

For those of us who enjoy good comics, for those of us not addicted to superheroes but rather fond of them when they are used to create good stories, Spider-Man is lost to us. More lost than ever.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

 
A New Year of Contrasts -- Ring in 2008 with Sean Collins and his best of 2007 list, then come back down to earth with James Howard Kunstler's outlook for the year ahead.

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