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Thursday, January 29, 2009

 
The Sound of Crickets, Or Else -- Diamond's latest attempt at making sure everything they distribute has Wolverine in it has now claimed two titles popular with critics and artcomix aficionados. Crickets by Sammy Harkham has been the most traditional "comic book" of the two, while Or Else by Kevin Huizenga has experimented in format and content with virtually every issue.

(Digression: I think I have bought every issue of both series with the exception of the most recent Or Else, which Diamond was not capable of delivering to my retailer despite soliciting for it in the pages of Previews, making Previews even more useless than it obviously already is. I love paying five bucks for a catalog that does not deliver the items I order. That makes perfect sense to me, thank you.)

No less a commentator than Sean T. Collins has used the cancellation of Crickets to predict the end of the alternative comic book, and while I love Sean and swap graphic novels with him occasionally, I don't think he's right about this. In fact, I think, quite the opposite. This is the end of Diamond, not the end of alternative comic books.

It's instructive to note that Or Else and Crickets were so different. Harkham's title delivered fairly standard and easy-to-grasp comics (artcomix, yes, but pretty standard in terms of format) while Huizenga reserved his most oddball efforts for Or Else. We now know that Diamond has no use for either, and can presume that the distributor -- which has always tolerated non-superhero comics, nothing more -- now really has no desire to bother with anything other than superheroes, now that The Long Emergency has settled in.

Unlike Sean T., though, I don't think this spells the end of alternative comics. Certainly it is the end of alternative comic books being published and racked in superhero convenience stores as if they are the same thing, ready to compete against the latest, badly-written Brian Bendis mess or overwrought midbrow Brian K. Vaughan effort. It is the end of Diamond boxes packed with Mark Millar, J. Michael Straczynski and Kevin Huizenga as if they all represent the same thing. Nope, alternative comics will survive, and perhaps even thrive better without the Granny Goodness-like loving care of Diamond Distributors.

Kevin, it's time you and your compadres refocused and relaunched The USS Catastrophe Shop. I'd link to it, but it's far from what it used to be (the premier place to find minis and alternatives you would never, ever see ship through Diamond) and there is a claim that they are re-doing the site. Good. It's needed now more than ever. Sammy, maybe now you understand why I questioned the wisdom of a $125.00 comic book when the economy was clearly headed places that could not tolerate such a thing. I'm happy for those few who could afford Kramers Ergot #7, but the economy has reached nowhere near bottom yet and I hope you have plenty of other kindling around when the heat gets shut off and you start looking around for things to burn.

There have been alternative comic books almost as long as there have been comics. Tijuana bibles, alternatives and undergrounds have always found a way into the hands of the people that wanted them the most, and I think as long as there are people, there will be some form of alternative comics. Superhero junk may thrive in a bad economy because desperate people need facile fantasy material more than ever, but creating alternative comics just takes a cartoonist, a piece of paper and something to draw with. This batshit crazy notion of elegant, timeless comics like Or Else actually having a place in the Direct Market of disposable garbage was the artificial creation of society with too much money paying too little attention to the cliff we were all about to barrel over.

Well, the cliff is in the rear-view mirror, now. Most don't realize it yet, as they hang extended, Wile E. Coyote-like, about to begin the long descent into the true reality of The Long Emergency, but the American Century is over and the economy as we knew it for most of the life of the Direct Market is over. Cartoonists like Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham and Dan Clowes and Chris Ware and many more may find themselves self-publishing what they can, when they can. The end result may be fewer alternative comics, and certainly none delivered en masse by the UPS man once a week, but the ones that do survive will be like sweet water in the desert for those of us that still care, saddened by this momentous market correction (for truly that is all this is), but secure in the knowledge that some people make comics because they have to, and I'd rather have those than the corporate superhero junk that Diamond is killing itself on. I won't miss Diamond at all, and I'll always support alternative comic books. But if those are the kind you make, or love to read, then right now would be a very good time to start figuring out how to get around in the new world we're about to inhabit. Look at how it was done before there ever was a Diamond Distribution, because that's where the answers lie.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

 
Just the Essentials -- "I've tried to pare down my collection to just the essentials," says Seymour, an obsessive record collector clearly failing at his goals, in Terry Zwigoff and Dan Clowes's film adaptation of Clowes's graphic novel Ghost World. One look at the shelves of records, creaking under the weight of thousands of discs, and Enid, and we, know that the struggle to maintain those essentials is a futile one.

Putting aside over a dozen shortboxes of comic books, I've got four bookcases crammed full of close to 900 graphic novels now. When I was 14, I wanted to read just about every comic book published. Staring down 43, I try now to only buy comics and graphic novels that I know I will want to re-read in the future. I do this by focusing on creators I know and trust, such as Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, Clowes, Chris Ware and the others in my personal pantheon, but of course there are always new creators being discovered, usually after they are well-reviewed by critics I trust, like Jog, Tom Spurgeon, Rob Vollmar and others.

I hate those shortboxes occupying the northwest corner of my bedroom, although I love most of the comics within them. They are not expanding anywhere nearly as quickly as the bookcases full of graphic novels, because in the past year I have whittled my superhero comics pull list down to virtually zero. Here in this fan-fiction age of corporate superhero comics by the likes of Bendis, Meltzer, Johns and the rest, everything is a huge, meaningless event typed with fists of ham and dreams of avarice. Today's best-selling Direct Market creators have pretty much devastated the North American superhero comics landscape, so the money that I would have been spending on superhero comics a decade ago now goes to buying deluxe reprint collections of good DC and Marvel comics, like the new Alan Moore Swamp Thing HCs and Marvel Omnibus editions of great comics like Ditko's Spider-Man.

The shelves are arranged with a method of sorts, although anywhere from five to 15 additions a month of all shapes and dimensions mean compromises often must be made. Most of my Jack Kirby titles are on one shelf, but the Fantastic Four Omnibus is simply too heavy to go on that shelf, so it's on one of the bottom shelves with the other Omnibus editions in my library. Alan Moore is the only creator taking up more than one full shelf; his normal-sized collections and graphic novels fill up one shelf, and larger works like Lost Girls and Absolute Watchmen and Absolute League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Volumes One and Two, of course) take up maybe a third of the bottom shelf of that same bookcase. All Ed Brubaker books are shelved with each other, as are those by Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis, but it's driving me nuts that I have three oversized EC Comics-related hardcovers that I have not yet figured out how to join together in one logical spot.

One of my favorite shelves holds mostly anthologies, from Kramers Ergot and The Best American Comics (2006, 2007 and 2008 waiting patiently for the 2009 edition) to Ivan Brunetti's two brilliant anthologies of comics stories. The shelf under that one holds a number of coffee table art books like Masters of American Comics, Art Out of Time, The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, and Seth's sublime Vernacular Drawings. You could no doubt build an actual table using just the hard covers of the coffee table art books on my shelves. I love them, cherish them, am obsessed with them.

As much pleasure as they bring me, I do know from our last move four years ago that having nearly 1,000 graphic novels to haul around is a massive inconvenience. Like Seymour, I really to try to keep it to the essentials. I make it a habit to immediately sell or trade away any purchases that I find were tactical errors toward the goal of only owning graphic novels that fall within my personal canon. But I know the next time we move that either my back will break from lugging these books again, or my wallet will break from paying someone else to do it for me.

Other than the joy I get from re-reading the very best works in my personal graphic novel library, the only other comfort I have from this ever-expanding collection is the fact that both of my kids, and many of my friends, love comics. So at least when I drop dead I'll be leaving behind something for them to cherish and battle over, and gaze in wide wonder at my awesome taste in great comics, and my profound inability to budget wisely. "At least he kept it to just the essentials," someone will no doubt note.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

 
Random Thoughts on Fixing Comics Anthologies -- Here are a few thoughts that have been kicking around in my head as a result of the recent unpleasantness regarding comics anthologies such as Houghton-Mifflin's Best American Comics series.

* Multiple-pages-on-one page. This is the thing I hate the most about these anthologies, and it's been in a lot of these books. In the most recent example, Jeffrey Brown's autobio strips have four pages reduced and presented on one page. Is his artwork so simple that it can be reduced like that and not have a negative impact on the perceptions of the reader? Maybe Chris Ware or whoever thought so, but I didn't even bother to read those strips, because putting more than one page on one page is BULLSHIT and an insult to the artist and the reader.

* No excerpts. A short story should really be a short story, not 15 pages of a 275 page graphic novel. The current BAC volume has excerpts from Fun Home and Shortcomings, and in neither case did it do the longer work any favours to present such a short portion. But if you must present excerpts, this problem could be solved by my next complaint...

* Lack of context. Something I hate about most of the high-end comics anthologies of the past three or four years is the manner in which the stories are just thrown in there, one after another, relentlessly and without context. I realize this may be in order to cram as much comics into the volume as possible, but all the works in these anthologies would be better served by a one-page introduction by the editor, creator or someone else familiar with the work, who can succinctly put the story we're about to read onto some sort of continuum, with the other works we're reading, and with where the story fits into this current moment in time. To go from one excerpted story to another with no editorial transition is just jarring and extremely off-putting to me as a reader.

* New material. I'm all for presenting previously-seen material from little-known creators or total unknowns, but thanks to McSweeney's #13, the BAC volumes and the Brunetti-edited anthology, I think I own some pages of some stories two or three times over. It certainly feels that way, which is my essential point. I have said, and continue to believe, that these volumes are primarily created for and marketed to non-comics readers, but at some point we have to accept that even those folks are going to tire of seeing Crumb, Tomine, Brown, Ware, ad nauseum, in volume after volume after volume. At the very least, these deservedly-respected masters of art comics should be participating with new material created specifically for a given anthology.

And if that flies in the face of the remit of the BAC volumes, I don't give a shit. I want good, enduring comics anthologies. And while the effort is clearly being made to offer up just that to a waiting public, the points I've made here indicate to me that there's some work to be done before we can plunk down our $25.00 and be relatively secure in the knowledge that the books will be satisfying to our need for great works presented with excellence and vision.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

 
Me and Tom -- Tom Snyder, who died this week at the age of 71, will likely be best remembered for one of two things; either his groundbreaking late-night Tomorrow Show that followed Johnny Carson for years, or the Dan Aykroyd parody Snyder inspired. Aykroyd’s depiction of Snyder was fevered and bizarre, all tics and mannerisms, cigarettes and waving hands, but it had the ring of truth: Tom Snyder was strange to watch on TV. He was riveting, to be sure, and a damned good interviewer. But he looked odd on television, and Aykroyd’s shtick was as much homage as it was parody.

I was seven years old when Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow debuted on NBC, and while I did tend to stay up late to catch Carson as a young teen, Snyder was mostly known to me as the show that was coming on as I shut off the TV at 12:30 to go to bed. Tomorrow ended in 1982, still a little ways off from when the 12:30 slot would draw me in, not coincidentally because of the man chosen to succeed Snyder, David Letterman.

Letterman’s first NBC series had been a daytime variety/talk show that followed The Today Show sometime around 1979-1980. I was 13, I think, when the show debuted, and completely open and ready for Letterman’s subversive, deadpan sarcasm. It imprinted itself on my mind, and was a formative influence on my personality. So now you know who to blame.

But Snyder was someone whose cultural impact I had just missed by inches. I was just too young to care about his interviews, which skewed more to current events than to the laughs I would have been looking for in my early teens. Letterman was much more my cup of tea. So Snyder’s heyday flew almost entirely off my personal cultural radar.

But fate had other plans.

I started working at my first radio job in 1986, while still enrolled in college working toward a radio broadcasting certificate from the local Community College. The job was at WKAJ/WASM, a family-owned and operated AM/FM combo in Saratoga Springs, New York. The AM station was the more popular and influential of the two at the time, with a live air staff most hours of the day and a two-person full-time news department strongly focused on community news rather than national issues. I joined the news staff part-time to supplement the efforts of the two full-timers, Mike Hare and Dina Cimino. As a fill-in anchor and reporter, I never knew from day to day whether I would be spending hours at a City Council meeting hoping for an interview with the mayor, or anchoring morning or afternoon news, or any number of other tasks a part-time radio station employee will have visited upon him. It was a time of great learning, though, and I liked the people I worked with and the jobs I was asked to do.

In 1987, I left WKAJ for my first full-time job, as the overnight guy at a country station coincidentally owned by Mike Hare’s cousin Ed Stanley, WSCG in Corinth, New York. That job lasted less than a year, in large part because I hated it. I hated the music, I hated the building, and I hated the stench of Stanley’s cigars, which permeated every molecule of the building, and anyone and anything trapped within its cheap, airless confines.

I returned to WKAJ/WASM, which was now under new ownership. WASM, which had been an older-skewing Music of Your Life station was now transformed to WQQY, 102 Double Q, a pop/top 40 station. For the first time, the FM station was emphasized over the AM, and live DJs were brought in. The AM station, WKAJ, was set to carry a new late-night radio talk show hosted by Tom Snyder, and I was tapped to be the board operator for the show.

What that means is that I had to be behind the controls for the full three hours of the broadcast every night from 10 PM to 1 AM, turning the live feed up and down when demanded by the format of the show, to play local commercials and read the weather forecast.

Being a part-time board op at a small-town radio station is perhaps the lowest rung on the totem pole of radio. But I was 21 years old and full of enthusiasm for my chosen career, radio broadcasting. Soon, I found myself equally enamored of Tom Snyder. The show was a blast to listen to, and I was getting paid to do it.

As I say, this was not anyone’s definition of a dream radio job, but I loved it. And more than that, I had a grandiose, if self-parodying image of my importance in the grand scheme of things. I appropriated an unused, dusty desk in a far corner of the newsroom and transformed it into The Snyderdesk. A publicity photo of Tom on the wall over my workspace looked down in approval on what I was creating. I began issuing memos to the staff about what “Tom and I” needed to properly perform our jobs, and the staff at the radio station found it amusing that this young kid was making so much out of so very, very little.

I was joking, of course. I still took my actual job duties seriously; in addition to running the board for Snyder, I still did part-time news reporting and anchoring, filled in for vacationing disk jockeys, and whatever else management asked me to do. During this time I worked with some of the most dynamic and unique individuals ever to work in radio in our part of the country, including the aforementioned Mike Hare, the very British David Baker, and account executive and later general manager Jerry Shepard, who was to become someone I admired more than just about anyone I ever worked with in radio in the entirety of my career. I’ve often said of Jerry that he was “the only man I ever knew,” and I still think this is true most days.

But when I wasn’t working on actual radio station business, I was spending a good deal of time building up my Snyderdesk mythology. And one day, on a lark, I sent a sheaf of my Snyderdesk memos off to Tom Snyder. I thought he’d get a kick out of them.

Apparently he did.

One night, while running the board for the show, Tom started discussing my Snyderdesk memos during the somewhat free-wheeling third hour from midnight to 1 AM. He may have eased into the topic sideways, if I recall correctly, so that it only gradually dawned on me that he not only had received the memos, but had actually read them.

As that realization began to sink in, the telephone began ringing in the studio. Moments later, I was talking to Tom Fucking Snyder coast-to-coast on national radio.

I’d be lying if I said I remember much about the conversation. Wikipedia notes that Snyder often used his third hour to chat with his “legion of fans,” occasionally including well-known admirers like David Letterman and Ted Koppel. No doubt Tom sensed the genuine adoration that was a part of my Snyderdesk hyperbole, and he was warm and full of laughter as he read some of the memos on the show and asked me about the reaction to my efforts among my co-workers. This conversation, which lasted maybe 10 minutes, remains one of the highlights of my broadcasting career, just one of the most thrilling and enjoyable moments of my life. And certainly the first time I realized that if you enjoy the work of a well-known celebrity and approach them with honesty and no hidden motives, amazing things can happen.

I think I may have had one more on-air chat with Tom Snyder before the short-lived radio show came to an end, but it could not have been as magical or memorable to me as that first, incredible Snyderdesk chat. I did remain a genuine fan, and always made it a point to check out his later TV efforts, which were every bit as odd, unique and compelling as anything else Snyder ever accomplished. On radio or TV, he was a good host, but he was a great broadcaster.

One last anecdote that doesn’t really fit anywhere, but I am sure this happened in the latter days of the Snyder radio show.

When you are a radio board op, the rewards are few (if any), and the burdens many. Snyder seemed to understand this well, and often talked about the network of radio stations and dedicated board ops that made it possible for him to speak to the nation. If any of them were like me, they lost a lot of sleep due to the show’s odd hours, but they felt amply rewarded by the fact that Snyder cared enough to mention us on the air on a regular basis. You could tell he was a decent, empathetic soul.

As time wore on, Snyder began actually talking to the board ops after the broadcast each night. When you would turn down the knob that made the show live on the air, if you turned it all the way to the left until you felt a mild pop on the knob, you had turned it into “cue,” which meant you could now hear what was happening on that channel on a private speaker in the studio. Only someone standing in the studio could hear what came out of the speaker when it was in cue, and Snyder, a longtime broadcaster, knew that some of us would have the knob in cue, and he started talking to us every night.

It only went on for two or three minutes, after the show ended at 12:58:10 every morning. Tom no doubt was ready to go home, and certainly he knew we board ops were, but it became a nightly ritual for him to entertain just us board ops, just for a few minutes.

One night he was talking to us (we couldn’t talk back, this was strictly a one-way conversation) about a new publicity photo the network had ordered. “You should see this thing,” Snyder said, in his loud and blustery, yet intimate manner. “I’m wearing the biggest goddamned set of cans you’ve ever seen!” Cans, for those not in broadcasting, are headphones. Because it was a radio show, they wanted Snyder to wear headphones for his publicity headshot. This is how stupid network executives can be.

Snyder’s tale of the headshot was funny and delightful, as his board-op pep talks almost always were. But what Tom hadn’t counted on was that some board ops might not have turned the knob all the way to the left to put the show from live into cue. In fact, apparently some stations didn’t turn off the feed at all that night. Whether it was a sloppy or confused board op, or perhaps malfunctioning automation at stations that didn’t have live board ops, Snyder’s profane complaint about the “goddamned cans” and probably more damning, his implicit criticism of his higher-ups, was apparently broadcast on some percentage of stations that carried the broadcast.

So, that was pretty much the end of the private board-op pep-talks. Snyder humbly apologized soon thereafter, and no longer did turning the knob into cue at the end of the show provide the small measure of private joy it once did. Our secret little clique of board ops across the country, all led by Tom Snyder, had been disbanded by circumstance.

Like the entirety of Tom Snyder’s broadcasting career, it was fun while it lasted.

This one is for you Tom, in sincere admiration and love. You were, as I said, a great broadcaster, and I will never forget those late night chats with all us board ops, or the one special night that you took the time to talk only to me, and made me feel like I mattered, like I was somebody. Tom Snyder was a great broadcaster because he understood everyone in the chain, from himself to his guests to his viewers and listeners down to his part-time, small-town board-ops, mattered.

In his latter days, Tom liked to tweak the clichés of technology and hype, and tell his fans to “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.” Go ahead, Tom, fire one up. You earned it. Thank you.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

 
A Sea-Change for True Mainstream Comics? -- Tom Spurgeon posts an interesting letter from a comic book retailer about the possible end of Cold Cut's role in serving up non-superhero comics to the Direct Market:

"As someone who in the past has relied on Cold Cut in keeping perennial sellers like Blankets, Maus, or Persepolis on our shelves at all times, I now have to look elsewhere for those books."

Spurgeon recently covered the story about Cold Cut going up for sale and speculates on the non-reception to the story.

I sort of mentally red-flagged the news when it first appeared, but having had a day or two to think about it, I wonder what the ultimate impact on artcomics publishers will be. If Cold Cut disappears (or changes its business model enough so as to no longer be a major supplier of artcomics for progressive comic shops), this will have a definite effect on the bottom line of publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and the other major players in North American non-corporate, non-superhero comics and graphic novels.

While the worst-case scenario would be publishers going out of business or severely curtailing their release schedules as a result of fewer orders from within the direct market, the fact of the matter is that the percentage of comic book stores that actively deal with Cold Cut is probably only 10-25 percent of those that get their stock mostly or solely from Diamond, a quasi-monopoly that prioritizes weekly corporate superhero product over the kind of artcomics readers like to buy in regular bookstores, or those progressive comic shops (and how many of those are there across North America? 50? 75? I wish to fuck I knew).

But in the past few years, artcomics publishers have demonstrated a canny knack for dealing with real book distributors, getting their books into mainstream bookstores (both chain and independent shops) sometimes weeks to months before Diamond can be bothered to deliver them to the stores they service.

So with advance warning that Cold Cut may soon cease to be a viable distributor of their product, what will artcomics publishers do? They could encourage a new, independent distributor, one supposes, or, and I think this is the more likely scenario -- they could focus even more of their efforts on dealing with mainstream distributors, who have demonstrated a better understanding of their needs, and certainly have provided better distribution than Diamond has, judging by what I see in mainstream bookstores.

Frankly, the progressive comic shops I have shopped in in the past five or six years, from Modern Myths in Northampton to The Beguiling in Toronto and others, have long since begun dealing with distributors other than Diamond to make sure they have the product their diverse customer base wants. No doubt they have relied on Cold Cut to a lesser or greater extent, but they are already ahead of the curve, in that they have been used to a multi-distributor business model for their stores and are probably far more prepared to deal with the possible end of Cold Cut as a player in the overall comics marketplace than the average superhero convenience shop owner, who wants to deal solely with Diamond anyway, out of either laziness, ignorance or outright hostility to any comics product that doesn't reflect their own narrow, backward-looking interests.

One thing is certain: If Cold Cut does end its distribution of artcomics to the direct market, things will change for certain. I hope they change to the benefit of artcomics publishers and the progressive stores that support them.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

 
Diabetic Again -- This is a post I've been thinking about writing for a week or so now, and I can tell you it won't have anything to do with comics, not directly anyway. So if you're here for the funnybook chit-chat, come back later.

I wrote a couple-three weeks back about how I had experienced a bit of a health scare -- I won't go into the gory details, but something happened one afternoon that sent me immediately to the doctor's office. I was diagnosed with a fairly simple and common infection, and given some antibiotics. Within three or four days, I not only felt fantastic, but I had managed to kick my major, major caffeine habit that I had fostered under many years of working in morning radio. The nurse practitioner that I saw told me that caffeine and alcohol would only aggravate my condition, and as it was pretty painful in the beginning, I didn't want to make it any worse. After the symptoms cleared up, it just seemed like a good idea to kick caffeine once and hopefully for all. So I have gone from drinking 4-8 cans of Diet Mountain Dew per day (the diet version because I am diabetic and sugared sodas are definitely not on the menu for me) to drinking nothing but water, lots of it, and about one bottle of Diet Green Tea (no sugar, no caffeine, plus hopefully some antioxidants) every day.

During my visit to the doctor's office, the subject of my diabetes came up, and here's where it gets complicated and hard to talk about for me. But since I resumed blogging here, I don't feel the need to stick solely to the subject of comics, and I feel like I want this blog to be an honest discussion of whatever is on my mind, so again, feel free to click somewhere else if this is not of interest to you. I'm writing this one for me, really, not for you. Although those of you that stick around, I am extremely grateful to you, and you might even learn something about the arrogance and denial that have fucked up my health a bit. And it even ties into Comic Book Galaxy, to a degree. If you've read this far and keep on reading, and you've followed this site a while, you may even find some questions answered.

Where to start? Well, I was first diagnosed with Type 2 ("adult onset") diabetes on (you'll love this) Friday the 13th of November, 1998. I had been overwhelmed with fatigue and peeing every 30 minutes around the clock for weeks, so I knew something was wrong, but even with a family history of the disease (my mother was diabetic), I was ignorant and arrogant enough to actually hope, when I first went to see the doctor because of these symptoms, that maybe I was just suffering some sort of urinary tract infection.

I wasn't, of course. I found out that day that my blood sugar was 307, 300 percent of what a healthy person's reading would be. The news that I was diabetic hit me, at the grand old age of 32, like a brick to the skull. It was raining that day, and as I drove from the doctor's office to the supermarket, I remembering crying and feeling quite a bit like I had been handed a death sentence.

A lot of that emotion stemmed from the fact that I knew little to nothing about diabetes, despite my mother having had it (at this time she had been dead for four years, a victim of Alzheimer's and brain cancer). When I went to the store I bought healthier foods for the most part, but having yet not had any education about my disease at all, I also bought a big jug of orange juice. Mom had always had one in the fridge, and I realize now it was in case her blood sugar went too low. Orange juice has an enormous amount of sugar in it, so while it's good for reviving you if you're hypoglycemic (as in-control diabetics can sometimes become), for me, hyper-glycemic, it was not a very good thing to be drinking.

Luckily for me, within a week or two I had seen a nutritionist and done everything in my power (thank God for the internet, even in 1998) to learn as much as I could about diabetes. So I soon learned not to drink OJ unless it was medically necessary (and even then, it wouldn't take much to get your sugar back up to normal), and I began a radical diet program that consisted of -- amazing, for an American -- eating fewer calories than I was burning every day. This strict meal plan coupled with mild but committed exercise -- usually a half-hour or so walk every day -- allowed me to lose a mid-size child's worth of weight in less than a year, my blood sugar returned to low enough averages that my doctor cut the amount of diabetic medication I had to take every day, my eyesight improved, my libido returned to an 18-year-old's level, basically, life was incredibly good.

I didn't feel arrogant about it at first. For quite some time -- two or three years, I would say -- I felt extremely lucky. Blessed. I had been diagnosed with an incurable illness (I heard diabetes lumped with AIDS and cancer as incurable illnesses in a radio commercial one day, and it brought me to tears), and I had, through modern medicine and what seems to me now an enormous force of will, managed to bring my blood sugar levels basically to normal. All the complications of the disease -- blindness, amputations, heart disease, death -- seemed a lot further away than they did on that rainy day back in November of 1998.

But, as they do, things changed.

My job changed in late summer of 1999, and I think that's where it began. I had made my 30 minute walk a part of my daily routine at work, using my break time to keep myself healthy. When I switched jobs and started working at an all-news radio station in Albany, I now had to sit in a chair basically for seven or eight hours a day with no opportunity at all for exercise. I more or less stuck to my meal plan, but between the lack of opportunities for movement at work and the two-hour, 110 mile or so commute every day, I was just too exhausted by the end of the day to consider exercising at home.

That all-news radio job lasted about two years, then I decided to move on to a Public Radio station in 2001. The new job actually began a week and a day before the attacks of September 11th. The pay was out-of-this world compared to my Glens Falls radio days, or even the Albany job that immediately preceded it. I was a producer, editor and anchor, and also assignment editor for reporters ("bureau chiefs") over a wide swath of the northeastern United States. So I had mad cash, a lot of responsibility, felt like I was genuinely making a better world through my work in radio (a first in what was then about 15 years in broadcasting), and more or less thought I was on top of the world. As you might guess, I would trace the beginning of my arrogance to this period.

Because I had previously had such great control over my blood sugar, I went from 1998 and testing three or four times a day, to maybe once a day by 2000, and probably once a week or less by 2002 or so. I left the Public Radio station in late summer of 2004 under what I felt were less-than-ideal circumstances, and that's where I think the depression set in, depression that I experienced I would say from that time up until maybe the beginning of this year, 2007. So, for two or three years, beginning in August of 2004, I entered what was probably the darkest and most hopeless period of my life.

I said that this post would intersect with Comic Book Galaxy, and here's where that happens. I'm not going to bother digging into the CBG archives to come up with specific dates, so I admit that some of this may be hazy on exact details, but the crucial point is that sometime in 2005 or 2006, when things started to go wrong here (during the "New Comic Book Galaxy" phase that introduced a ton of new columnists and features), I was just too depressed and up my own ass to keep things on course here. I tried the best I could, because there's nothing in life I love more than this site except my family -- but as problems cropped up and had to be dealt with, my main method of dealing with them was just to end them.

So I fucked up this site quite a bit during this time. Offhand, I would say I owe huge and sincere apologies to Derik Badman, Johnny Bacardi, Mike Sterling, JC Glindmyer, Marc Sobel, Ed Cunard and Shawn Hoke, great contributors all; and all of whom came onboard CBG only to leave suddenly because of my inability to think my way through the various issues that came up during this time. Chris Allen, Rob Vollmar and Chris Hunter were an unbelievable help in trying to help me keep this thing going, but as 2005 rolled into 2006, my posting and ability to manage this site were increasingly sporadic.

I took a new radio job in late April of 2005, a time that coincided almost to the day with the accident that destroyed my red car. And while the decision not to buy a new one was based as much on ideology as budget constraints, I have to say that the lack of freedom was yet another blow to my ego and sense of self. These days I am a lot more philosophical about being carless -- if not proud -- but when the accident happened, it was just more crap to deal with, at a time when I wasn't dealing well with all the crap that was already on my plate.

The new job was stressful at first -- there was a lot to wrap my brain around, because although I had been in radio 19 years at that point, I was now doing things and charged with responsibilities I had never experienced before. The learning curve was steep, but eventually I came to grips with it, and came to love it more than any radio job I have ever had. That was a big part of coming out of what I now realized was probably a pretty deep depression, and for most of 2007, I have felt pretty good about my family and my job, while more or less ignoring my diabetes.

I think it was a combination of arrogance stemming from how quickly and effectively I got it under control circa 1998, and the subsequent improvement I experienced in many areas of my health. And dealing with all the different things I did in radio from 1998 to 2007, I find that it was really easy to just forget the fact that I am diabetic. Any of my fellow diabetics may or may not be shocked when I tell you this, but I don't think I tested my blood sugar more than once or twice a year over the past two or three years.

Physically, I felt fine -- artifically propped up by all that caffeine in the Diet Mountain Dew I drank like water -- and I was actively avoiding my doctor, for a number of reasons. Primarily I assumed -- wrongly -- that my sugar was still under control. He had also been a huge fan of the Public Radio station I worked at, so I was a bit humbled by the fact that I no longer worked there. Also, his very pro-active (and very wise) approach to managing my diabetes was just not something I felt I could deal with during this time, late 2004 to early 2007. So, I went to ground, abandoned totally my monitoring of my disease, and as any diabetic will tell you, when it comes to monitoring your blood sugar, out of sight is out of mind.

When I went in to the doctor's office a few weeks back, that was the beginning of digging my way out of all this. Emotionally I feel much better than I have in years -- I don't think I'm suffering from clinical depression anymore -- and I've started monitoring my blood sugar multiple times daily. My highest fasting blood sugar has been 180, and the lowest, this morning, after a few days back on my proper meds and with some real adjustments to my diet, was 135. But I know I've probably done some damage to my body in the time I was out of touch with my diabetes, and I know I have a lot of work to do before I can start to feel that it's under my control again.

I will say that there could not have come a better time for Michael Moore's Sicko, about the abhorrent state of U.S. health care even for people with insurance. Just in the past three weeks, I have experienced some of the stupidity, contempt, bureaucracy and outright hostility the system here in Los Estados Unidos has for people with serious, life-threatening issues. I have been confronted with a lack of knowledge and thoughtfulness by people in a position to help me, that made me realize a meeker, or poorer person than myself might have just given up. Hell, maybe I would have, myself, if I was still in the depression I was in not that long ago.

There's a scorched-earth war on right now against the health and well-being of anyone in this country who needs health care but isn't spectacularly wealthy. Anyone who tells you different is either lying or incredibly naive. I really wonder how much longer I'll be able to afford to take care of myself and my family, even with both my wife and I working full-time jobs. But the lesson of the past few weeks, and of the past few years of my living in denial about a gravely serious disease I will have the rest of my life, has made me realize more than ever that if I don't take full command of my life and my health, no one else will. On this day before Independence Day, 2007, the message I am getting is that here in the United States, our leaders and our health care system are staggeringly indifferent to the health and safety of the people. Of course, I need to watch out for my own health. Because it's crystal clear that no one else is going to do it, and in fact, the current system would prefer if we all just quietly suffer and die while politicians and pharmacological companies and anyone who profits from this clusterfuck of U.S. health care gets richer, and richer, and richer.

This is not a compassionate nation. In fact, health care is our national catastrophe, and we should all be ashamed. And we should all demand change, right fucking now. The billions we've wasted on the lie that is the Iraq war could have saved millions of lives. Lives not taken in the name of U.S. aggression, and lives of those receiving poor-to-no health care right here at home.

I'm not depressed anymore, I'm just pissed off. And determined to get myself better. This is a big change for me, and I hope you'll consider what you can and should change, yourself. If you're in denial about your health, or if you are in a position to effect or demand change in the way this country cares for its people -- all its people -- I hope you'll do so. If the people of this country can't watch out for each other, it's not a country worth saving. And right now we're all in grave danger, because of a corrupt and dysfunctional health care system. A good country is one that cares for and protects all its people before it wastes it resources elsewhere. This one has a lot of work to do to get where it should be, but luckily there are great examples -- Britain, Canada and France, for example -- of countries that get health care much more right than this one. What's needed is monumental change, which I fear will only be effected by monumental outrage. I'm starting to feel it. Are you?

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

 
Butcher, Beguiling, and Early Books -- Interesting, but I'm not sure it means anything: Christopher Butcher reveals in his comments on Fallen Son: Captain America: Iron Man: If Only We Had One More Colon in his comments on comics arriving in Diamond-serviced stores this week that the shop he works at, The Beguiling (certainly one of if not the best comic shops in the universe), does not subscribe to Marvel (and I'd presume DC's) Sneak Peek/First Look program(s).

You may or may not know that Diamond offers, for a flat fee, a varying number of titles shipped a week ahead of their release date. Supposedly so retailers can get a jump on "exciting" superhero "events," stores vary wildly in how they use these books, if they subscribe to the program. Some stores put them out on the counter for shoppers to browse, presumably to generate more interest for next week's books. Some shops don't share them with their customers, but use them as a guide for what they might need to re-order, should "events" merit. I even know of one Diamond account that sold them to a customer who wanted access to them for his comic book reviewing. I know that last one because it was me, circa 2000-2001. But let's not get into that semi-sordid story.

I do find it a little fascinating that the folks at The Beguiling don't participate. It could be that they just don't have time to review next week's superhero offerings, since they don't deal solely with Diamond are ordering and taking in new comics from multiple sources far more frequently than most Diamond-centric comic shops. It could be that they simply don't need to read or put out for display next week's books, because they have such a diverse customer base that superheroes make up only a piece of their overall retail pie. Now, there's a subject I would dearly love to see Chris Butcher or other progressive comics retailers address.

Ultimately I wonder, though, if it isn't just that those guys love comics, not just superhero comics, and since they live, breathe and eat the artform every day of the week, they're content to find out what's up in the Marvel and DC universes at the same time everyone else is? If at all?

One thing that really struck me on my three visits (over four days) to The Beguiling was this: Their pro-active approach to ordering and acquiring comics really positions them very well over any shop catered to solely by Diamond. I found books and comics in the shop on my visits that did not appear in Diamond-serviced stores for weeks to months later. Think I'm exaggerating? If, like me, you're lucky enough to have a graphic novel-friendly independent bookstore in your neck of the woods (you can find indy bookshops here, and check to see what their GN stock looks like), make note of what new releases they have by publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics, First Second, Top Shelf and graphic novel imprints of mainstream book publishers.

Albany's independent book store is The Book House, and they have a fairly impressive graphic novel section. Often I notice they get books in weeks ahead of Diamond-only stores, because Diamond's focus is almost completely centered on those publishers in the front of the Previews catalog. I've found books at The Book House that I really wanted from publishers like those I named above, sometimes a month or more ahead of their arrival in even the best Diamond-serviced shop in the region. And you know what? I bought them there, at The Book House. If it's in your hand, the chances you'll buy a book (or anything) you want are far, far greater than if you look forlornly at the racks at your local shop and are told, "Yeah, we'll have that in a few weeks." To quote my friend Tim, and imagine him in an old codger's voice with his face all scrunched up as he says it: Whooo giiiiiiiives a shiiiiiiiitttt?

This is why I have long tried to explain to anyone that will pay attention that comic shops that want to make the most money -- the ones that want to sell comics to everyone that wants to buy them from their store -- will most certainly not be satisfied with only dealing with Diamond. Whether it's whatever independent comics distributors still remain, or dealing direct with actual mainstream book distributors (Fantagraphics was smart as hell jumping on that bandwagon), the best way to get comics and graphic novels into the hands of your customers, as a retailer, is to be incredibly active and interested in everything going on in comics, and crucially, to create relationships with every reputable distributor and source of comics that you can.

I remember when MQP released The R. Crumb Handbook, a hugely appealing little hardcover that gave new and old readers alike a thrilling journey through the life and work of Robert Crumb, one of the finest and most important cartoonists ever to take pen to paper. I found the book at The Book House, drove home 50 miles to find a review copy in my mailbox, and wondered what to do with the extra copy. I decided to give it away, and asked the publisher if they could provide extra copies to make it a major giveaway. Now, this is what happened, I shit you not: I had found the book in a mainstream bookstore, read and reviewed it, and given away a dozen copies on this website, at least a month -- and I think it might have been two -- before it was shipped to stores by Diamond. I'll never forget the day Jesse at Earthworld in Albany told me a "new Crumb book" had come in, big Crumb fan that he is. I could not believe it when he showed me a book that to me was practically ancient (although revered) history. I don't know if he believed me when I told him I had already reviewed and given away many copies of this book many weeks ago, but that's exactly what had happened.

Long story short, the Diamond method of distributing comics works great if they're floppies or graphic novels from one of their "premier publishers," the corporations that allow Diamond to have their monopolistic stranglehold on the less progressive and less powerful stores in the Direct Market. But I find what kicked off all this thinking of mine, The Beguiling not bothering with the First Look/Sneak Peek programs, kind of an interesting canary in a coal mine in terms of the attitudes and long-term vision of any given comic shop. I'd be interested to know how your shop (the one you shop at, or better yet the one you own or work at, if applicable) deals with the one-week-early programs.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

 
Kicking Shit While It's Down -- I'd guess Tom Spurgeon got his copy of the final issue of the most recent, failed attempt at a Flash series the same way I did -- a review copy mailed by DC Comics. Spurgeon has posted a lengthy review of The Flash #13, and while I agree with pretty much everything he says, even I am shocked at the extent of his negativity.

"It was sort of like being dragged behind a boat for ten seconds after falling off your waterskis. There's no permanent damage, but it's unpleasant as all hell while it's happening."

Tom Spurgeon is more or less the best writer about comics who is currently blogging on a regular basis, and in this review he seems to me to be a bit more blunt than usual in his assessment of The Flash #13, which to my way of thinking pretty much defines the current state of corporate superhero comics: Utterly bereft of quality or entertainment value, marketable only to those who cherish trademarks over storytelling, and in fact may be incapable of even recognizing a story well told ("I don't know if it sucks or not, but I recognize that lightnng bolt on his chest!").

I know I aggravate blinkered superhero junkies who see my desire for better superhero comics as anti-superhero rhetoric. But the fact of the matter is that I don't hate superhero comics as a genre, at all. If you check out my pull list in the sidebar, you'll find a lot of superhero titles. I would love to have more good superhero comics to read, just as I would love to have more good crime comics to read, and more good autobiographical comics to read. I'll freely admit to hating bad superhero comics, though, and Flash #13 certainly falls squarely in that category.

DC sends me an occasional book for review -- not a lot, but they publish a lot of comics, and I appreciate whatever efforts they make to keep me and other critics current on what they think their best efforts are. Unlike Tom, I didn't see much reason to review Flash #13, because, well, what's the point? Not to disparage Tom's choice to review it -- he has a lot of things to say about the book and what it represents, and I'm glad he wrote about it -- but to me Marvel and DC's mainline of superhero comics taking place within their established "universes" are so universally poor that it's personally exhausting for me to spend much time reviewing them. Or even reading them, honestly.

Now, a few days ago I did review a new DC/Wildstorm comic, and my review was almost uniformly negative. But in this case, it was a first issue, and it was set outside the DC universe, so going into it I had hoped it would be entertaining. But it proved such a ham-handed pastiche of previous, better Wildstorm efforts that I found nothing much in it to recommend. Interesting that folks who mostly review superhero comics seemed to like Highwaymen #1, which says something about their critical faculties, or at the very least about the comparative value to be found in the average, say, X-Men comic vs. Highwaymen #1. The latter might be crap, but at least it's not X-Crap.

By the way, I was delighted that the writer of Highwaymen #1 didn't take my review personally, because it wasn't meant personally.

I wonder, though, how the Flash creative team will take Spurgeon's review? Did they honestly believe they were doing their best? I suppose anyone who has only read corporate superhero comics for the past 15 years or so could honestly believe something like Flash #13 represents quality storytelling. People who refuse to look outside superhero comics to all the vast riches the artform offers may think the current boatloads of shit offered up by Marvel and DC are actually the best "comics" has to offer. They could not be more wrong.

Maybe it's the editors at the corporate superhero companies, unable or unwilling to scout actual talent anymore. Maybe truly gifted creators just eschew the "Big Two" because they know they won't own their work or ever see even a fraction of what it earns for the companies, should it become popular and enduring. Maybe it's just that Marvel and DC are mostly staffed by a generation raised to think Image circa 1993 was radically good superhero comics. Whatever the reason, Flash #13 was shit. And while it's somewhat atypical for Tom Spurgeon to kick shit while it's down, I'm glad to see someone else speaking the truth about the sorry state of corporate superhero comics circa 2007.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

 
The End of the World is Nigh -- I haven't written much about it here, but it's something I am keenly interested in and tend to think is happening soon: The end of the world.

I don't think we'll be wiped out by space aliens, overtaken by zombies or even destroyed in an all-out nuclear war. Also, when I say "the end of the world," I mean it more in the REM sense: It's the end of the world as we know it. I don't, however, feel fine.

For over 100 years now, the human race has transformed the way it exists on this planet through the availability of cheap oil. The detrimental effects of the "happy motoring era," as James Howard Kunstler calls it, were predicted at least as far back as Orson Welles's never-properly-completed film The Magnificent Ambersons, which noted that the onset of motor vehicles had displaced the sense of community that had been a binding force in American culture prior to that. Welles's film was about much more than just that, of course, but that certainly was one of the key points.

I started to become aware of the destructive impact of the automobile after reading Kunstler's two magnificent books The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, both of which make powerful cases for a return to a more sane and sustainable lifestyle, with people living in human-scaled communities which they can mostly navigate on foot. The obvious benefits of walking to and from work, home, school and local businesses almost go without saying, but at this late date most people have become so fully invested in the idea of their car as their main mode of transportation that it never occurs to them what the rates of heart disease, obesity and other illnesses might look like if we had all spent the past century walking everywhere.

I don't walk everywhere, but living half a block from a shopping center that includes a supermarket, video store, pizza shop, Chinese restaurant and more, I walk as much as possible. The accident that destroyed my last car opened my eyes a bit, and I decided the day that happened that I would not buy another car. For the six years previous to that accident, I had paid over $600.00 a month for my wife and I to each have our own car, but I was also commuting 100 miles a day to work in Albany. These days my wife and I both live less than five miles from our jobs, and while my not having a car of my own is occasionally an inconvenience, the cash savings are substantial. I also like knowing I am no longer contributing to the environmental problems and other issues associated with owning and operating a motor vehicle.

In addition to the environmental impact of the automobile era, Kunstler's most recent (and I think most important) book, The Long Emergency, also introduces a much more pressing issue into the mix, that of the peak oil phenomenon. Maybe you've heard about peak oil, and the fact that we're very likely running out of the fossil fuels that have so changed the planet in the past century. Optimists like to posit a future in which mankind has come up with an alternative fuel that will allow everyone to keep scooting around in their cars all day long, all week long, all year long, all their lives.

But a cursory understanding of peak oil shows that the chances of that happening have long since passed. Perhaps if an intense effort was made across the planet to conserve fossil fuel and create new sources of energy 50 or 75 years ago, there would be hope that mankind could mostly get through the end of the cheap oil era with its lifestyle mostly unchanged. I think it's pretty clear that that window has long since slammed shut, though. Virtually every alternative, from solar power to hybrid automobiles, depends largely on the continuing availability of cheap oil. And most optimistic theorists turn a blind eye to the growing hunger for cheap oil in other nations, especially China. Their increasing reliance on automobiles and the unbelievable mass-production mega-industry in China makes them the nation to watch in the Global Oil Sweepstakes.

And anyone who thinks high technology will rescue us from a lack of oil is probably unaware that everything from cell phones to home computers are made of plastic, which is made of -- you guessed it -- oil.

I used to think that America and the countries that have emulated its example could probably go on another 25 or 50 years before the scarcity of oil had a negative impact on the lives of the average citizen. Now I tend to think we have five to ten years at best before our lives are irrevocably altered by the end of the cheap oil age.

I don't have a lot to offer in the way of analysis or suggestions. For that, I would ask you to read some of the books mentioned above, as well as the one I read this week that got me started thinking about blogging about all this: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben.

The worst estimated end-result of the end of the cheap oil era really does look like the end of the world: Kunstler, I think it was, predicted that only one out of every six people would survive on this planet after we stop extracting oil out of the ground. Not run out of oil, but stop extracting it. Because you need oil to power the machines that suck it up out of the earth. And at some point, it will take more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil from the ground. At that point, obviously, there is no profit whatsoever in continuing to drill for oil. The point is somewhere down the slope from the peak of oil extraction, a time many believe has either already passed or very soon will. And that worst-case scenario? Five billion people could be dead within this century. In fact, it seems likely that this planet never could have sustained the numbers it does if not for cheap oil, which has essentially provided most people in affluent nations with the equivalent of thousands of workers, labouring away for them without complaint.

Think for a moment how many people and how much time it would take to get a message across the country if you didn't have internet and cell phone technology. How many people and how long would it take to carry your entire family six states away on vacation? People living in countries with cheap, available oil are the luckiest and wealthiest people on the planet. But as Grant Morrison pointed out in The Filth, the luxuries we enjoy come at a price. The mis-allocation of resources across the planet means that while Americans sip lattes in air-conditioned Starbucks locations, across the globe others live in miserable conditions, with not enough to drink, not enough to eat, and no hope in sight for an equalization of conditions. No hope other than the almost-certainly inevitable end of the cheap oil era, a global market correction that will change the playing field for virtually everyone alive today.

Kunstler is seen by some as too negative and cynical; I find his tone and analysis to be simpatico with my own point of view, but McKibben's new book puts things in a more hopeful perspective, and it is to be profoundly hoped that Kunstler's worst predictions can be avoided (not that much is being done so far to achieve that laudable goal). McKibben looks to communities to weather the coming storm, and believes that by relying on our families and neighbours, by re-connecting with our local environments through social and commercial undertakings, we can better withstand the worst of what is almost certain to be coming in all our lifetimes. McKibben is a good deal more optimistic and hopeful than Kunstler, but I think both of them have very valuable things to say about where we are now, where we're going, and most importantly, where we can be if we take responsibility for ourselves and our communities. I can't recommend enough both The Long Emergency by Kunstler and Deep Economy by McKibben for background and insight on the issues that face us all. If you can't afford to buy them, you should visit your local library and check them out. Given the way most of us have abandoned our own communities, it's probably a good idea to visit your local library anyway. And bring the kids. If we're going to make a better, more sustainable world, introducing your children to one of the most important parts of their local community would be a great place to start.

More: 2005 interview with James Howard Kunstler at The Morning News; 2000 essay and brief interview with Kunstler by ADD.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

 
Dirk and Comics Piracy -- Check out today's Journalista for Dirk Deppey's observations about the nature, availability and scope of online comics piracy via bit torrent sites.

"Virtually every genre-oriented comics pamphlet is scanned and posted online within a day or two of its release in stores. This includes everything released by Marvel and DC, of course, but also most of the material released by smaller publishers as well."

That's merely one of the eleven valuable points Dirk makes about this growing phenomenon. Much, much more in the link -- scroll down to the seventh section, "Digital Comics," for the rest.

I've dabbled a bit in downloading comics from bit torrent sites, and I don't have eleven things to say about it, but here's a couple:

* Many, many times I've downloaded a comic out of curiosity only to enjoy it enough that I have gone on to buy the actual comic. Recent examples would include World War Hulk #1 by Greg Pak and John Romita, Jr., and the entirety of Garth Ennis's Punisher MAX series, which I have liked so much I bought all the trade paperback collections, and then went on and bought those stories again in the oversized hardcover collections. In the latter case, this is an investment of something like $200.00 or so. Lesson? The availability of free, downloadable comics in .cbr or .cbz format can and will lead to large outlays of cash, but there's a catch.

* Many, many --the majority -- of corporate superhero comics I have downloaded are so ham-handedly amateurish and uninteresting that I haven't even bothered to finish them. And those are the ones that I bothered with, because like the vast majority of downloaders responding to this comics piracy poll at The V Forum, (quoting the poll here) "I cherrypick which titles I want to read so I don't waste time downloading crap I don't want." So yes, the availability of free, downloadable comics in .cbr or .cbz format can and will lead to large outlays of cash, but there's a catch.

The comics have to be worth reading.

As Dirk notes, the majority of available comics that you can download are corporate superhero comics. I'd submit to you that "I cherrypick which titles I want to read" would not be doing so well in that (admittedly unscientific) poll, if Marvel and DC would spend more time investing in and nurturing talented creators, encouraging them to do their best work and then rewarding them for it. Instead, they continue, decade after decade, to pander and pile up the crap on the shelves of the direct market -- crap that the V poll clearly suggests is not worth reading even when easily available for free.

There's an obvious business model for Marvel and DC to follow here, if they want to compete outside the direct market with the greater mainstream audience for comic books. Because surely not all the people buying comics on Amazon, at Borders, or Chapters, or their local independent bookstore, want to buy Fruits Basket or Persepolis or the other titles they choose; some of them would probably like to spend their money on quality adventure fiction, some of that even superhero fiction. So what's pretty clearly called for is more emphasis on quality, and less on overwrought continuity porn and bland trademark maintenance. One more time:

To be worth buying, the comics have to be worth reading.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

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

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

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

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

Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions:

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

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

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

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

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

But hopefully you already know that.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

 
One part of the vast future of comics, my son Aaron.A Future for Comics -- It is my long-held belief that the direct market network of mostly superhero-oriented comic book stores is headed for extinction. The reason it is passing into history is because it excludes new readers and embraces only an existing “fanbase,” willfully ignoring the fact that comics as a vital, living artform are so much more than superheroes. At the same time, a minority of shops within the direct market are reaching out to a broader audience for comics, one nurtured by mainstream media coverage like comics receive on National Public Radio or in print publications like Time Magazine. The question is, will the truly full-service comic book stores that point the way to the future serve as an example to the majority of stores currently dependent on Diamond’s weekly shipments of superhero titles? Or will the backward, pro-superhero (but ultimately anti-comics) policies of such stores destroy the direct market before a transition can be made to a viable graphic novel-dominant marketplace that serves all comics readers?

In the 1970s and '80s, the direct market thrived because superheroes were about all there were in comics, at least in North America. Alternative/ground-level titles like Elfquest, Cerebus and Love and Rockets were curious sidebars to what most readers thought of as comics, but in the 1990s and especially since the beginning of the 21st Century CE, those comics as well as manga and some newspaper strips, have come to define what the average person thinks of as comics. Meanwhile corporate superhero comics have marginalized themselves through editor-driven, continuity-dependent, poorly-crafted "events" like Identity Crisis and its descendants. Such titles create a frenzy of interest in the minority of comics readers who value the sub-genre of superhero adventure fiction more than they value the artform of comics as a whole.

Such readers don’t consider actual quality much of an element in the debate over the future of comics at all, and have created an artificial sales bubble that is destined to feed on itself until the direct market itself collapses. The collapse of the direct market in the 1990s was based in large part on the fact that the comics that were selling weren’t very good, and therefore weren’t interesting readers in their contents as quality storytelling. The prime reason people were buying comics before the ‘90s collapse had more to do with issues of collectability and “investment.” But a comic book is worth nothing if it doesn’t contain a story that is well-written and well-drawn, and more importantly draws the reader into its world. And a comic that is worth nothing ultimately will drive its buyers away, however gratifying its short-term thrill of mere possession might be.

Looking at the most successful general-interest bookstores, both independents as well as chains like Borders or Barnes and Noble, I think it’s clear that the only comic shops that are sustainable and viable in the long term are those that cater to readers of all ages, genders and interests. Stores that welcome entire families of readers, as good bookstores do. Increasingly the superhero convenience stores that make up the vast majority of the direct market cater primarily – if not only -- to male buyers interested primarily – if not only -- in continuity-heavy superhero events. But Diamond, and the direct market, are not comics, anymore than one 7/11 on the corner of a main street in a medium-sized town represents the entire market for potato chips. Diamond and the direct market it simultaneously serves and cripples represents only a small fraction of the overall comics market, as demonstrated in David Beard’s revealing piece on Diamond’s distortion of the perception of what is the market for comics, in The Comics Journal #283 (June, 2007):

“There will be no impetus to reform the data collection system upon which the cottage industry of comic sales analysis is built if we keep pretending that the current Diamond data is reliable…as long as we are dependent on Diamond data, our ability to assess the industry, market and medium is crippled.“


Beard is critical of various “Top 300” lists and the like, and rightfully dismisses them as little more than public relations for a functioning monopoly that has every reason to foster the illusion that it is the comics industry, and no reason at all to provide good information about its true place in the overall comics market.

On a regular basis, articles appear online speculating about the sales number of comics and what their ultimate meaning is, and yet those sales figures are almost always based solely on Diamond’s sales to comic book stores (as opposed to those stores’ sales to their customers), most of which traffic virtually exclusively in corporate superhero comic books and associated items like t-shirts, action figures and other “collectibles.” But this “sales analysis” ultimately stands revealed as intellectual nerd-journalism, a blinkered and pretentious iteration of the old “Who’s stronger, Hulk or Thor?” argument. It pays little to no attention to the wider market for comics in mainstream bookstores and other outlets (manga in CD stores, Archie Comics in supermarkets, etc.) and therefore, ultimately, has little value above that timeless debate about Thor versus The Hulk.

In fact, Beard states in his Comics Journal piece that “A strong argument could be made that no data would be better than faithful reliance in the data presented by Diamond.” When one pauses to reflect that good information about the true scope and nature of the whole market for comics is crucial to the health and viability of comic book stores now and in the uncertain future, one sees it is more than a numbers game for superhero fans. The ability of shop owners to sustain their business and provide for their families is dependent on the accuracy of such information.

I have shopped at a lot of comic book stores since the 1970s, and stores that carry mainly the latest corporate superhero comics with a heavy emphasis on back issues increasingly fill me with indifference bordering on contempt. In the past few years, there has been more of an interest in comics among the general public than I have ever seen in my lifetime. And yet 9 out of every 10 comic book stores seem actively hostile to any potential customer that doesn’t reflect back the owner’s interests, attitudes and even appearance. For every clean, well-managed and professionally run comic book store I have been in, there are many more that are dirty, dark, ill-managed and altogether unpleasant places to shop. And if the lifelong comic book reader in me has learned to tolerate such deficiencies, getting married and raising two children has educated me mightily in what is or isn’t a welcoming retail environment. In my 20s, I may have been amused by my wife’s distaste for entering the average comic book store. Here in my early 40s, I not only understand it, I share it.

I do a lot of browsing of comic book stores in the company of my wife and children. That's four people in a given comic shop when we visit, and a savvy retailer should by definition want to generate interest in his wares from everyone that comes through the door. If my daughter can find a new issue of Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man, or even better, a new volume of one of her favourite manga series, then we're in good shape. Perhaps my son will find an issue of Teen Titans Go, or better yet his other favourites, Bongo's line of Simpsons comics. We know we're really in a good store if there are Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts collections -- you know, comics people have heard of in the real world, outside the narrow boundaries of the mostly insular, unreflective and very likely doomed direct market.

To truly run a professional business, viable comics shops must recognize that manga is comics. The Far Side is comics. Kampung Boy, Dennis the Menace Archie and Mr. Natural are all comics. And all of these, just a small portion of the breadth of the comics artform.

The very best shops want to sell comics to everybody, but most comics shops – that network of mostly poorly-run superhero convenience stores -- have seemingly abandoned the future of the industry and the viability of their own business. I see elements of racism, hostility, ignorance, stupidity, and/or fear in these attitudes. It's hard to see what else might account for such self-destructive, shortsighted business practices. It’s not like there aren’t professional business models to learn from, and I can’t imagine why one would start a business without making an effort to learn what the best practices are for the industry you want to be a part of.

After learning the ins and outs of rental contracts, insurance, vacuum cleaners, feather dusters and professional shelving, would-be professional comic book retailers should look at what it means to sell comics. What comics should be available in a good comic shop? Borders and Barnes and Noble have not created an enormous expansion of their manga aisles because they want to service non-buying browsers. Despite those deceptive “sales reports,” people out there in the world are buying comics in huge numbers. But the superhero-oriented fraction of the overall comics industry grits its teeth and closes its eyes and re-defines "comics" so that Civil War or 52 are falsely seen as best-sellers by readers unable or unwilling to investigate deeper into the reality of the comics market. The end result is a false sense of security for readers comforted by superhero (and sales) fiction – and more dangerously, a false sense of security for superhero convenience store owners.

Among consumers of American-made corporate superhero comic books, yes, event comics sell pretty well. They did in the early 1990s, too, until the speculators and fanboys deserted the direct market and thousands of stores closed. Given the insecurity evident in catering only to superhero hobbyists, is it not absolutely absurd to ignore manga, artcomix and/or newspaper strip collections that appeal to a staggeringly wider audience than poorly-crafted, spandex-obsessed revenge fantasies? So-called "best-selling" superhero titles are barely a blip on a vast cultural movement toward true mainstream acceptance of comics.

The best we can hope for at this point seems to be that new stores slowly emerge inspired by the few existing good comic shops, to service the new audience before the old guard collapses from within. We can also hope that at least some stores -- it seems definitely to be ten percent or less -- are canny and visionary enough to both explore new readership avenues and expand their product lines wisely, slowly, and in a professional, businesslike manner. Because as nice as it is to have graphic novels widely available at Barnes and Noble and Borders, I personally prefer patronizing stores (and store owners dedicated to the artform of comics. I think it’s good for the future of comics to have comic book stores, I just want those stores to want to sell comics to everyone that wants to buy them, not just people that look, sound and act like the store’s owner(s) and employee(s).

In an earlier, less considered version of this essay, I concluded by saying “In my darkest moments, I must say that the comics industry cannot die fast enough for me.” Upon reflection, and after the passage of a couple of years, I have to admit I don’t feel that way anymore. I will always value the artform over the industry – anyone who truly loves comics must -- but I don’t want the industry to die. I want it to thrive. And it will only do so through visionary, professional business practices and an ongoing, genuine desire to sell comics to everyone that wants them.

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