Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The Comics Journal's End and New Beginning -- In a way I am heartbroken over the end of the monthly-or-so edition of The Comics Journal, as detailed by Dirk Deppey on his blog.
I've been an avid follower of TCJ for decades, starting around 1979, not long after it launched. I guess younger comics readers don't know or don't care, but there was nothing like the Journal in its heyday; it stirred up shit, got down to brass tacks, and featured interviews with the most creative and forward-thinking minds in comics that sometimes took days to read, and longer than that to absorb. Think of it as Fanboy Rampage, Journalista and The Comics Reporter all at their peak, all wrapped up in one glorious package.
Getting my first piece into the Journal was a dream come true, the very pinnacle of my efforts in writing about comics. It's all but forgotten by anyone but me, now, of course, but that's the way it is with people and their dreams, whether they come true or not.
I am intrigued and excited about the changes coming to the new online Comics Journal, and I have no doubt at all that the print editions will be a thing of beauty. Comic Art proved over the past few years that magazines about comics can be weighty and attractive art objects, and the TCJ gang certainly has it in them to create something to compete with any magazine or book about comics that can be conceived.
After thirty years, though, it's just very weird and a little sad to think the world has changed so much that something I used to look forward to finding on the stands every month has taken on such a new and different form. I wish them every success in the world and can't wait to see what comes of it. I just wish it didn't make me feel so damned old, me, pining away for the lost print magazines of my youth.
Friday, April 03, 2009
Reminder: Albany Comicon is This Sunday -- I wrote about it here. Hope to see you there.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Albany, NY Comicon is One Week from Today -- The latest in a series of Albany comic book conventions is Sunday, April 5th at the Holiday Inn on Wolf Road in Albany. Full disclosure: the show is advertised on Comic Book Galaxy (via the banner ad at the top of this page).
John and Matt from Excellent Adventures in Ballston Spa have made each show bigger than the last, and this one looks to be the biggest yet, with plans for a panel discussion and an expansion into an additional room. I got some huge bargains at the last show and am still making my way through some of the books that I picked up that day. In addition, if you live anywhere in the Upstate New York region, you're pretty much guaranteed to run into a Who's Who of area people involved in some way with the artform and industry of comics. At previous shows I've run into Gene Kannenberg, and FantaCo alumni like Roger Green and Rocco Nigro, to name a few. Pictures from last fall's show are here.
This year's guest list includes Marvel Comics legends Herb Trimpe and Joe Sinnott, writer Ron Marz, cartoonists Fred Hembeck and Joe Staton, and others. My wife and I have brought our kids to each one of these Albany Comicons, and we're all excited for next Sunday to get here for the Spring, 2009 edition. the FantaCons of the 1980s were some of the best days of my teenage years, and I'm incredibly grateful to John and Matt and everyone that supports their efforts for bringing back a great area tradition so I can share it with my own children. I hope to see you there.
Full details on next Sunday's Albany Comicon are here.
Friday, February 06, 2009
"Hey, What Are You Reading?" -- It was as recently as two or three years ago that I was astonished by the discipline of friends of mine in comics that started "waiting for the trade," eschewing monthly floppy comics in favor of their sturdier, often more handsome collected versions. I had been making weekly treks to the comics shop (in one form or another) since I was 8 or 9 years old, and the thought of actually waiting months, or even a year or more, to read stories I could read in serialized for right now (well, once a month), seemed beyond the limits of my imagination.
Then bad writers seemed to take over superhero comics, packing once-beloved titles with mediocre (or worse) stories, often tied into "events" that mattered not a bit to me, whether it was House of M, Infinite Crisis, or any one of a dozen other gimmicks that drove me away from current-day superhero comics. These "events" are designed to increase sales, but in my case, the proliferation of truly lousy comics just made me throw my hands up and give up on the North American corporate-owned superhero comic as something I needed to keep up with on a weekly basis.
So it's always a weird moment for me when someone asks -- and they do, from time to time -- "What are you reading these days?" I genuinely have to think about it to remember what I've read recently that I enjoyed. More often than not it's a standalone graphic novel, probably of the artcomix variety, but of course the person asking my opinion is usually a superhero comics fan and is interested in knowing what I think is good in that neck of the woods. "Nothing much at all," would be the answer these days, of course.
But there are regularly-published titles that still jazz me up -- just, very few of them are monthly. The Scott Pilgrim series of manga-sized books is as good as comics get these days, completely deserving of all the hype it gets, and better than sex, pizza and the new Battlestar Galactica combined.
It's easy to take Love and Rockets for granted after all these years, but the new annual format provides an amazing slab of great comics. There are no better living comics creators than Los Bros -- a few equals like Clowes and Ware, but no one is better. Do I love the idea of waiting a year between "issues?" No, of course not. I'd like my L&R fix weekly if possible, and there was a time a decade ago or so when it seemed like that was actually happening -- but I'll wait that year, knowing that in the end I'll be rewarded with comics that are among the best and most entertaining ever created.
I'm looking forward to the Cold Heat collection from Picturebox -- I was just starting to "get" the floppies when they canceled it, due to Diamond's inability to properly market and distribute single issues of non-superhero comics. Frank Santoro (one half of the Cold Heat creative team) is pretty amazing if you like artcomix; Storeyville was superb and Incanto, a mini-comic he did, was beautiful and mysterious.
Then we come to the actual, traditional stapled, floppy, monthly-type comic books. Godland from Image, Buffy from Dark Horse and Criminal and Incognito from Marvel/Icon are about the only monthly floppies I still bother with. I am, indeed, waiting for the trades on Conan (not as transcendent as it was under Busiek/Nord, but still very good, and fun to read, adventure comics).
I'd talk about the horror/detective procedural Fell if I thought it was ever coming out again. And speaking of Warren Ellis, I wonder if the last issue of Planetary will be published this decade.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Images from the Fall 2008 Albany Comicon -- Here are some pictures my wife Lora took at yesterday's comic book convention in Albany, New York. Click 'em to make 'em bigger.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Notes From the Albany Comicon -- The fall edition of the Albany Comicon took place today. I brought the wife and kids, and I think everyone had a better time than any other convention we've attended.
* My wife got an amazing drawing of her favourite Archie characters by Joe Staton. I'll post an image of it here when I download the pics from today, but suffice to say my wife was very, very happy to finally get a piece of original art featuring Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica. I was thrilled to finally meet Joe in person -- his work has been some of my favourite in comics from E-Man in the mid-1970s up to the current series Femme Noir. He's a great artist and it was great getting to talk to him a few minutes and getting that sketch for my wife. Thanks, Joe!
* Joe also shared the fantastic news that Image will be publishing two E-Man projects in 2009 -- a softcover, black and white omnibus (over 600 pages) of ALL of the Staton/Cuti E-Man stories, published by Charlton, Image and other companies. Joe confirmed for me that he considers only the stories by Cuti and himself canonical, so the somewhat dated Marty Pasko-written stuff won't be included, which is fine by me. Also, a colour hardcover will collect the superb original 10 Charlton E-Man issues. Joe told me he is currently working on restoring the art for these two projects, which are officially my most anticipated releases for 2009.
* Saw the Hembecks -- Fred seemed swamped by fans, which is always nice to see, and it was good to meet Fred's wife, too.
* Saw just about every person I know in New York's Capital District who is interested in comics. Great to see you, Tom, Roger, Rocco (an expat now, but back for this event), Tim, Mick, Alicia, Darren, John, Matt, and I know I am forgetting someone, but it was overwhelming to see so many friends and acquaintances in such a short span of time, some I hadn't seen since the late 1990s.
* Spent TOO MUCH MONEY. Bought the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus and Two-Fisted Tales Archives Vol. 1, offered up for 30 percent off, too good a deal to turn down. Spent 50 dollars on Star Trek action figures (NERD), and gave my kids probably 50 or 60 bucks all told. They bought lots of stuff that made them happy. On the plus side, my wife bought us all lunch at Pizza Mare, and that was the tastiest slice of pizza I've had in a long time. Thanks, Lora!
* The kids really had a wonderful time -- my daughter found plenty of manga-related stuff to keep her attention (and dwindle her con allowance), and my son found a few Star Wars items I know he's wanted for a long time. My wife and Earthworld's Alicia had a nice chat, as they usually do when they see each other, and as I said earlier, the Archie drawing by Joe Staton really cemented the idea that this was a great convention for my wife, which is a good feeling. I've probably dragged her to a few that she had no fun at all at, but that wasn't the case today. A good time had by all, to coin a phrase.
* Funniest thing I think I said today: When introduced to a friend of a friend, he told me "I've read your stuff on the internet." "Yep, that's where I keep it," I replied. Well, I thought it was funny at the time.
* Funniest gross thing I thought of on the way into the convention: The worst soup of all time must be the "Soup of Bidet." I'm amazed no one appears to have ever used this phrase on the internet. Look at me, blazing the trail!
Monday, August 18, 2008
Jim Crocker on Kramers Ergot #7 -- I know, I know, I said I was done with this subject. But when the owner of my favourite comic book store in the United States weighs in on a subject as controversial as the $125.00 price tag of the next volume of Kramers Ergot, I have to give him the floor. Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Crocker of Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts.
How many will you order for your shelves?My thanks to Jim for letting me know his plans and thoughts regarding Kramers Ergot #7. And anyone who has not set foot in Modern Myths has no place casting aspersions at Jim's opinion. He is the savviest and most forward-thinking comics retailer I have met in the United States, and his store runs a very close second behind The Beguiling in terms of being the very best comic book store I have ever set foot in. For him to respond so negatively to the price point of KE7 should be food for thought for anyone involved in the publishing of this book. Modern Myths the most alternative comics-friendly shop I've set foot in in the US, and for him to regard the book with such reluctance, tells me the vast majority of comic book retailers will not be supporting the book at its currently-expected price point.
BWAAA HAAAA HAAA HAAA HAAA HAAAA! None.
How many would you guess you may preorder by request of regular customers?
Do you think $125.00 for a 96 page anthology is a reasonable price for your customer base?
$125.00 for 96 pages is pure art-house gimmick pricing. It's comics removed from any even remote expectation that they're going to be read by ANY sort of mass audience and reduced to elitist art-world gallery projects. They're not comics at that point, they're basically museum catalogs of contemporary works that happen to have a narrative joining the pieces.
Will you offer it at a discount, either to customers pre-ordering it, or on your store shelves?
I don't offer anything else at a discount, why should I offer this? At that price it's basically a convention/Amazon exclusive in all but actual name.
How do you feel about Amazon's discounting of the book (currently over 30 percent off) and how it might impact your store, or the direct market in general.
Meh. When you've got hundreds of millions in venture capital and can lose more money than I'll see in my entire life for 5+ years, how does the market actually apply to you in any real way? Amazon isn't retailing, it's using something that looks like retail to move stock. Nearly everything they do is destructive to the long-term health of publishing, but the same can be said of most publicly-traded, solely profit-driven companies in any field they operate in. 'Hating' them accomplishes as much as 'hating' aggressive childhood leukemia or those little voles hating the dinosaurs did. We just scamper around scavenging for what they miss and try not to get stepped on.
Bottom line: Amazon discounts EVERYTHING. The impact they have on any individual title is just part of the mix these days, like hurricanes, UPS truck breakdowns, and convention pre-releases.
As for me, and the process of deliberation I've engaged in these past few weeks trying to decide whether to order the book was decided this past weekend, when I re-read Kramers Ergot #5 and #6. Both were priced about $35.00, both had far more than 96 pages, and both had more than 50 percent of their contents flipped quickly through by me as I realized that either they weren't comics, or weren't good enough comics for me to bother reading. The occasional appearance in the pages of KE volumes 5 and 6 by artists like Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch was not enough to offset the self-indulgent tripe contributed by alt-comix divas like CF, Ron Rege and Paper Rad.
So, no, I will find better things to do with my comics-buying money this fall than spend it on KE7. And given the likelihood of a print run in the high hundreds to very low thousands, I'm guessing the creators whose work I do want to read, such as Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, will be smart enough to collect their KE pieces down the line in future volumes of their own work. And like Jim says, if they don't, chances are very few people will ever see those stories. And what would be the point of that?
Friday, August 15, 2008
The Dark Side of the San Diego Comicon -- Beaucoup Kevin shines a light on some pretty loathsome sexual abuse incidents at Comicon International at San Diego. I can't say this is a surprise, but the seeming widespread institutionalization of it is. I'd say the convention organizers have a responsibility to respond to these claims and police future conventions a lot more closely than they obviously did this year.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Bending the Comics -- Reading Occasional Superheroine's nightmarish comic shop story (which includes a nice plug for my piece in the next Comics Journal; thanks, Val!), reminded me of one of my real horrors from buying comics in my teens.
My family lived in Florida in the 1970s, and in 1980, when I was about 14, we moved back to upstate New York from whence we came and where we belonged. Now, I had discovered all sorts of wonderful things between, say, 1978 and 1980: The Bud Plant Catalog, Cerebus, Star*Reach, The Comics Journal, hell, the very existence of comic book stores probably hit in there somewhere, in that formative 12-to-14 year old time in my life.
And while there were no "good comic shops" (as I like to call them) where we lived (St. Augustine, Florida -- this may have changed since 1980, I've never been back and would not know), there was one used coin shop that both bought and sold comics and had maybe 5 or 10 longboxes full of back issues. This was the first store ever where I experienced bringing in my unwanted extras and stuff I no longer cared for and walking out flush with cash.
In my memory, that store paid full guide for back issues, but knowing what I know now, that seems sort of impossible. Maybe they paid some crazy figure like 80 percent of guide and kept a low profit margin; after all, comics were just a sidelight in this shop. But at any rate, I probably sold many hundreds if not thousands of my accumulated comics to that store in a two-year or so time period -- all my Bill Mantlo/Sal Buscema Incredible Hulks certainly ended up there: Incredible Hulk by Mantlo and Buscema was one of those comics that seemed awesome at 10 and incredibly lame by 12, you know?
But between that shop and the great number of 7/11s and Jiffy Marts that were in our area (one within walking distance of our home in St. Augustine Shores, a middle-class housing development built on swampland on the outskirts of town -- that one was a jiffy Mart that became a 7/11), I never wanted for comics. They were always available, either new in the convenience stores or used at that coin shop. In fact, not a weekend went by, probably from the age of 8 or 9 right up until we moved when I was 14 that I would not take a buck or three and walk down to the Jiffy Mart (it was Jiffy Mart most of the time we lived there, in my memory) and get some comics, a Slush Puppy (later a Slurpie once it became 7/11), and walk home with my bounty, set for the weekend of reading. And in the early part of those years, when comics were 20 cents? Two bucks bought a lot of comics. Toward the end I think they were closer to 35 or 40 cents, so, then, not so much. But I digress...my memory is wandering all over the place looking back.
So, living in Florida: Plenty of comics to be had. Flash ahead to 1980, back in upstate New York (where my comics addiction had begun, at the age of 6, recovering from having my tonsils out): After she had the good sense to leave her husband, my mom moved us (me, my brother and her) to the very small town (literally one red light in those days; it might be three, now) of Greenwich, in Washington County. And like in St. Augustine, we lived not "in town," but rather on the outskirts. And rural Washington County is pretty damn rural. Not Deliverance rural, where we were, but closer to that than to any sort of Gilmore Girls small-town idyll.
Greenwich had no comic shops. Unicorn Comics in Saratoga Springs, probably the second most significant comics shop of my teenage years after FantaCo in Albany (40 miles south and reserved for special trips, maybe once a month), would not open for months, so as we settled in Greenwich, I was parched for comics with nothing but desert all around.
Downtown in Greenwich one day with mom and my younger brother, we went into Hughes Newsroom. Ah-ha! There on the bottom tier of a two-tiered magazine rack were the comics. Well, you knew they had to be here somewhere, right? 1980 was still in the beginning years of the direct market, and comics were living out their dying breaths in the mainstream magazine distribution chain, so they generally could be found in most towns, but you had to look.
I grabbed as many as I could afford (read: talk my mom into buying for me) and went up to the counter. And here is the meat of this tale, which laid buried in my mind until Val brought it back for me in her post (linked above):
The old man, Hughes himself, took the stack of maybe half-a-dozen comics. He put them on the counter. He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.
Again: He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.
In my head, a voice screamed: OH MY GOD. HE IS KILLING MY COMICS. STOP KILLING MY COMICS!
In the store, a young teenage boy smiled meekly as the old man, Hughes himself, handed me a bag with my now-ruined comics and no doubt told me to "have a nice day." A day he had just destroyed by KILLING MY COMICS.
It was no different than bringing a hamster to the cash register of a pet shop, having the clerk break its neck, take your money and hand you the dead hamster in a paper bag. In fact, this is exactly what it felt like.
And I'd like to tell you that I either spoke up next time, or never shopped there again, but as I say, other than once or twice a month trips to FantaCo (hi, Roger! Wish I'd said it then!), I had no comics and I was hooked on comics. You may be able to relate, but from the age of 6 until, well, now, my whole life in any retail environment is basically where are the comics? Are there comics here? No? Anywhere nearby? Have you any comics? Come on, there must be some comics here someplace! And in those days, that was a successful strategy more often than not. Every garage sale, thrift shop, drug store and supermarket had the comics; you just had to look. And look I did.
But no, it was many weeks -- maybe months -- before I screwed up the courage to take my stack to the counter at Hughes Newsroom and meekly say to to the old man, Hughes himself, "Could you please not bend them?"
You could have heard a pin drop, as they say.
In my memory, he was smoking a cigar. That may be my brain playing tricks on me, but intimidating and big is how I remember this old man, and I swear to God I think he was smoking a cigar. A short, stubby one. Which he would have had to take out to ask me, "What?"
And there it was, in my first moment of comics consumer activism (that's right, blame old man Hughes), I repeated my plea that he please not break my hamster's neck. I mean, please don't bend my comics.
Boy howdy, did he ever look at me like I was out of my fucking mind. I guaran-goddamn-tee you that every comic book he ever sold, from probably the 1940s when that store probably opened up until the chubby teenager spoke up in spring or summer of 1980, every comic book that old man ever sold had its spine broken by his checkout method. Palm on lower half of cover of top comic: Check. Comics bent back one by one to verify prices: Check. Comics ruined: Check.
And thinking about it, back then, every goddamned comic cost the same! Always! Unless you were buying some outsized Warren magazine or Heavy Metal, they were all the same price! All he had to do was count them. That old son of a bitch!
It was some tense moments, there, in Hughes Newsroom there in early 1980. But after I explained, no doubt with many stutters and stammers and a good deal of flop sweat, that he was destroying any resale value the comics might have had (and by then, as noted, I had a good deal of experience reselling my old comics), he came around. Never again did old man Hughes destroy my comics when I checked out there, which I did at least twice a week. See, his distributor dropped off the new comics twice weekly, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think it was, so I was in there twice a week. And from then on, there were no more broken spines on my comics from Hughes Newsroom.
At least, not for me. I wonder now if he extended the same courtesy to anyone else who bought comics there. If anyone else even did.
It was some months later that my mom found an article in The Saratogian newspaper about Unicorn Comics opening up, and once that happened I don't remember ever going back to Hughes Newsroom again. I thereafter had my first real pull list at a real comic book store, and later on even a part-time job "working the register," which was an honest-to-God cigar box. But that's another story altogether.
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:
- They will be clean
- They will be well-lit
- They will be well-organized
- They will open on time
- They will have prices clearly marked and up to date on all merchandise
- They will operate their business in accordance with local, state and federal laws, including labor and employment laws
- They will not favor one genre or sub-genre over another
- They will recognize that all comics are comics, no matter what country they originate from, or what format they are published in
- They will actively welcome all people interested in buying some kind of comics to shop at their store
- They will 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
- They will 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
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.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Paul O'Brien is Not A Comics Critic -- Shocking, I know, but it's a conclusion I came to some time ago. And Dick got me talking about it in the comments after this excellent post.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Saratoga Springs Comicon 2007 -- The first of what is hoped to be an annual series of comic book conventions was held today at the Saratoga Springs City Center. I brought along my digital camera, so here are some images from the event. Click the pictures to open a larger version.
A good-sized crowd browsed the tables all afternoon.
My daughter Kira and her friend Connie meet a local author.
I'm not sure who gave better tips to whom.
Another view of the tables.
My son Aaron browses original art for sale.
Some colourful DC recreations/reimaginings were on sale.
More of those.
Best friends at the end of our day at the con.
The City Center's capacity of 2,500 was not sorely tested by the crowds we saw, but the attendance seemed encouraging to me. I hope the event comes back for a second year in 2008, because our area of upstate New York is sorely lacking in comics-related events, but has plenty of people interested in coming out to socialize and spend money.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Saratoga Springs Comicon -- I figure I'll check out the Saratoga Springs, NY Comicon mentioned this week by Roger Green. Which leads me to wonder, any other comics readers/bloggers/creators/etc. from the Upstate New York region planning to attend? Drop me a line if you're going, or thinking about it...
Friday, June 08, 2007
The Day in Comics -- My son had a field trip to the Bronx Zoo today that my wife accompanied him on, and faced with the choice of working while my daughter went to school, or both of us taking the day off and chasing comics around the northeastern United States, well, what do you think we did?
We left around dawn, and after a gigantic breakfast at Cracker Barrel (the one chain I don't try to avoid like the plague, although I am sure my doctor would be happier if I did), we jumped on the New York State Thruway and headed east to Massachusetts.
It's been a couple of years or more since I'd been to Modern Myths in Northampton, and believe me, it's been calling to me in my dreams. Probably the best-stocked store within three hours' drive of my home, and also one of the best-run and most attractive comic shops I've ever had the pleasure to be in. Luck was with me as manager Jim Crocker was on duty. Meeting and getting to know Jim and his store has been one of the biggest pleasures of my time writing about comics, and he not only welcomed my daughter and I to hang out for a few hours, but even treated us to lunch at an excellent Mexican restaurant right up the street. (There is an uncanny number of high-quality restaurants near Modern Myths, most of them really reasonably priced, too).
We had a good long chat about comics and the state of the industry, and Jim really went above and beyond by introducing my daughter to a manga and anime shop not far from his store. This is the first time ever, I think, that a comics-buying excursion ended with one of my kids getting as much or more than I did, but there were a lot of manga in Northampton that she was interested in, titles and genres you don't see much even in the Albany area. Nuff said.
Among my scores today were the new Ivan Brunetti collection Misery Loves Comedy (I was fence-sitting until Chris Allen convinced me it was worth picking up despite my having all the individual Schizo issues), the new Kev collection, and House by Josh Simmons, which I've heard many good things about.
Maybe the most interesting moment in Northampton was when Jim and I were talking politics and my daughter, nearly 14 now and becoming more and more aware of the world, asked what a liberal was. That led to a great discussion (over even greater ice cream -- ever had burnt sugar and butter flavour ice cream? Jim did not steer me wrong once during this entire trip!) about liberal vs. conservative and other subjects. Being in Northampton always feels like coming home to me, because of its culture, energy and the general character of the town. I'd long thought my daughter would really fit in well in a town like this, and by the time we were done with our trip today, she not only understood but agreed.
All in all it was a great day, one of those once-every-few-years kind of days where everything comes together just right. It won't be years before we return to Northampton again -- it's a great town with a truly first-class comic shop, and at the end of the day, that's all I really ask for.
Thanks to Jim and the gang at Modern Myths for being great hosts, and running one of my all-time favourite places to shop.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Spurge's Comicon Wrap-Up -- A great summary of Tom Spurgeon's Comicon experiences, divided into easy-to-digest numbered segments.
It well and truly sucks that Tom's backpack was stolen; I'd be apopleptic if some asshole ripped off my sunglasses, because A) I love them and B) They're prescription and cost me about the same as my monthly rent payment. C'mon, you cretin -- do like the bald guy from Midnight Oil said and GIVE IT BACK.
Also: Damn, what are these two new Fantagraphics reprint projects? Enquiring minds want to know! C'mon, guys, I can keep a secret, honest!
Sunday, July 23, 2006
UPDATED: Chris Allen's Con-Blogging -- Maybe it's because he actually lives in San Diego that I enjoy Chris's writing about the Comicon so much. He lacks the starry-eyed wonder of nerds travelling in from East Bumfuck, thrilled beyond all reason to learn who will be inking Jim Lee on some fill-in issue of Green Arrow, or whatever. Instead, he delivers the only con-gossip I'm interested in, actual con-gossip.
Update: Chris has posted part two of what looks to be his three-part look at his San Diego experiences.
Monday, August 22, 2005
Hooray for Boredom! -- You really have to thank Paul O'Brien for his recent Ninth Art column on how bored he is with the boring comics he has bought and written (usually much more interestingly than the comics themselves) about on his site. As dangerously nerdtastic as Paul's exasperation is (contrast it with the positive changes Randy Lander has initiated over at Fourth Rail after having a similar critical crisis), it has resulted in some wonderful summations of everything that has been right in comics this year.
Christopher Butcher: "Mini-comics, indies, art-comics, manga, they're all undergoing relative booms right now, in terms of quality and diversity of material. You ask the guy hitting the comic shop once a month to pick up some of the newer and more interesting 'art-comix' graphic novels, and he or she will probably tell you that, if anything, they've had to budget themselves because there's too much good material coming out. ART COMIX DILEMMA: TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS. Which is to say nothing of the manga fans getting 60 new graphic novels a month."
Thanks also to Christopher for both linking to and understanding why I started KOCHALKAHOLIC!, saying "Cheers to ADD for putting something uniformly positive and interesting onto the web this week."
And as if that weren't enough, Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon has kicked off a new 8-week series on the fascinating stories going on right now during one of comics' best summers ever: "Luckily, there's a ton of stuff happening or about to happen that's way too interesting, fun, and enjoyable for anything less than our full attention."
Tom starts with a timely essay on the new Calvin and Hobbes collection.
Still more. Logan Polk, in the new Loose Staples column today at Comic Book Galaxy: "I just don’t get it. I see it, I used to be one of those, but discovering how much is really out there has been probably the best adventure of my life so far." Seeing someone like Logan discover the richness of the comics artform (and I envy him reading some of the titles he mentions having in his reading stack), and sharing the joy that he takes in it, makes five years of ups and downs of this site well worthwhile.
Comics: You either love 'em right now, or you need to read different ones. Nuff said, true believer.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Great Expectations, Limited Visions -- I don't agree with everything in this "Harvey Jerkwater" essay on three landmark artcomix, but I agree with much of it*, particularly about Blankets and Buddy Bradley, and I heartily recommend giving it a read for no other reason than that someone is expressing negative thoughts about artcomix but actually reading and thinking about them first, and apparently he wasn't "bored" by even the most flawed of the three works.
* I particularly think "Harvey's" read of Jimmy Corrigan is a bit under-nuanced and unappreciative of the depth of despair in Jimmy's relationship to his father and the generational anxieties of the novel, but again, the mere fact that "Harvey" actually read the thing is a cause for celebration among those who discuss comics online.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
The Thrill and Excitement of Comics -- It's truly astonishing to me that anyone would say they are "bored" with "comics" right now -- I was looking over the site, and here are some of the great comics that we've covered here at Comic Book Galaxy in our reviews and commentary sections since our relaunch in June:
OR ELSE #3
BUMPERBOY LOSES HIS MARBLES!
SHUCK THE SULFURSTAR
WALT AND SKEEZIX
THE R. CRUMB HANDBOOK
BONE VOL. 1
THE CUTE MANIFESTO
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
And ALL-STAR SUPERMAN hasn't even come out yet. If you read comics and you're bored, dude, comics isn't the problem.
Nuff said, true believer!
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