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Saturday, July 16, 2005
Graeme: If you'd told me that I'd be involved with running a comic book store when I was a kid, then you would've seen the face of a very excited, very acne-ridden, young boy. My first trip into a comic store was like finding Aladdin's cave in the heart of suburban Glasgow. It didn't matter to me that the store itself was roughly the size of a small cupboard, that there wasn't really any rhyme or reason to the way that things were laid out - in fact, most of the comics were randomly piled up and falling off shelves so that, if you wanted to find a particular issue of something, you'd kind of have to get on your hands and knees and search through everything. It didn't matter to me that the guy who ran the store was this weird, kind-of-seeming-stoned, bearded guy who was very helpful and nice and all, but still seemed kind of removed from the real world. Even the slightly musty, stale smell of the place didn't bother me. I had found a store entirely devoted to comic books. It was heaven for me.
Not so much a heaven for my mum and dad, mind you. And, as I was but a kid when I found this store, it'd be unusual for me to be in Glasgow without at least one parent in tow. So, whenever I went to this store - with a regularity that could even be called "every single time it was possible, thanks very much" - they had to come with me. And I remember that, more than anything, they found the place funny. Not scary, not off-putting or any of the other things that people tend to have as criticisms of comic stores these days, but funny. They looked at it as if it was some kind of experiment gone wrong, as if the owner was just this comic book fan who had one day decided to open a store without having any business plan, shelving or common sense, and that the store was staying alive purely through the kindness of strangers and siren song to other proto-geeks like the teenaged me. More often than not, they'd send me into the store while they disappeared to have coffee for half an hour, rather than come into the place themselves.
There's something to that, I think. I don't really know what, though. It sticks in my head, the feeling that that store wasn't really seen as a real store, but some kind of clubhouse. The first time Kate (my lovely wife) saw the old Isotope, she said something along the lines of "It seems like a real shop," as opposed to the other comic stores I'd dragged her to. That sticks in my head, too. It seems kind of sad that comic stores that feel like "real" stores are a rarity, you know?
Nora: Throwing my two cents in here, what I think you're after is partially that comics are [now?] no longer for a specific, marginalized sub-group of unpopular young kids. Not only have the people who loved comics in the 60's-70's grown up to become adult comic book lovers and retailers, but they're now seeing a younger generation of comic book readers that remind them of themselves - and part of making a real shop is sharing your love of the medium with kids just like your younger self (and any adults you can hoodwink into the shop). In a sense, giving them what you never had as a comic geek back in the day.
I don't know whether to take that "unpopular young kids" thing as an insult or not.
Heh, more a stereotype of the world at large than an insult. :)
I think there's a part of that, but more what I was after is: Why can't comic stores be real stores? Why do we settle for the small niche market? Why do we stay in the direct market? Are comics just scared of playing in the real world?
I think part of the reason comics "settle" for the niche market is exactly due to that phenomenon-- that the subculture supporting it is used to being marginalized, and now that comics are cool, we want to make sure that "not just anyone" can be a comic fan now. Sort of like the "I heard that band back when they weren't famous" mentality. I don't share that opinion, but I can definitely feel it in the air. As if fanboys/girls are used to paying the social dues for liking comics, and now that it's cool to do so, there's an air of bitterness.
I think the last thing a lot of the core fanbase wants to do is to open comics up to the world-- find their favorite series in Walmart, for example-- just like that band you like being on MTV once or twice is cool, but them playing a Christmas concert in Times Square to thousands of screaming fans makes you feel jilted and abandoned.
Maybe that's just my take on the idea. Any subculture likes to think that they're superior to the mainstream, and part of that is making their culture hard to find or attain, as if to make you prove that you're cool enough to be part of the group.
Nothing wrong with rambling in my book.
I see what you're getting at, and I agree. It's just that it's not something I'm happy with, you know? There's a book called The Manual, by a British pop artist (in the pop art and pop music senses) called Bill Drummond; it's a tongue-in-cheek guide to creating a hit record, and there's this great part in it about that very attitude, the "don't sell out, keep something to yourself", thing:
"Taking the angst-ridden, 'I'm above all this!' outsider stance only gets you so far and even then takes sodding years and ends up with you alienating vast chunks of the Great British Public who don't want to be confronted with [the Jesus and Mary Chain's] Jim Reid's skin problem on a Thursday evening."
The idea of paying fanboy/girl dues is interesting, if only because I suddenly realized that I have no idea how you and Sean got into comics in the first place. Have you two paid your dues? Should I be throwing both of you out of the store because you can't tell me what space sector Hal Jordan patrols?
I guess the real question is-- how do you open up comics to the mainstream comfortably without having legions of fans feel like you're giving away the secret code to the uncaring masses (who will then exploit it to their own ends and ruin everything)? Man, that could be a brilliant allegorical comic book in itself.
What is it about comics that fans feel the need to protect so venomously? Elitism thrives in all forms of media, and yet movies are mainstream without losing their indie edge (there are just different forms/values to movies, some are considered art and some are fluff-- just like comics now-- but at least 60% of them could be considered mainstream, which comics can't boast). What is it about comics that makes everyone want to keep hoarding the industry greats like secret jewels under the bed? Comics fans don't seem to be big on sharing the wealth unless they're sharing it with other "proven" comic fans... maybe because they want to be special by having that wealth only at their fingertips?
I have in no way paid my dues. I couldn't tell Hal Jordan's space sector from a hole in the ground. I came into comics when I was 17 as an art form and a storytelling medium, hooked by Sandman and Preacher and several other stories that tweaked my brain and visual centers far more than anything I was seeing either on film or in print. And part of me has always had this remove from superhero comics entirely because of that "paying dues" viewpoint-- so you don't want me in your club until I prove myself? Fine, screw your stupid club. I don't need it. And in part I honestly don't-- the superhero stereotype has never appealed to me. But I know there are good stories waiting in there for me to discover them, once I get over my bias of being unwanted in that sphere (as a reader and to some extent as a girl—I mean, girls can giggle and look cute but a lot of fans won't take them seriously unless they pay EXTRA dues to fit in).
Wow, there's your rambling, Graeme. ;)
Are comics fans more self-loathing than fans of other media? I don't know. In a weird way, I think that every media has their share of possessive fans, it's just that, with comics, that's all that are left, you know? Or maybe I just spend too much time looking for Fanboy Rampage fodder and it's skewed my sense of reality. But if I'm right - which would be a shock, I know, but go with me on this for a second - then surely the answer is to bring more casual readers to the medium? And to do that, then the trick is to introduce casual readers to the idea that comics aren't just whatever their preconceptions are. Shove Smoke and Guns or Signal To Noise or The Goon or whatever under their noses and see what they think.
Which may be what we're supposed to do, here. But how to do it, in that case?
Sean: Well, Graeme, to answer the opening question; I've been spoiled in this regard. Of the five comics stores I've made myself a regular at in my comics-reading life - two of them before the fall from grace the industry experienced in the mid-90's, three of them since I rediscovered the medium through Preacher and Sin City - only one has even come close to being a crapbox along the lines of what you're talking about.
My first comic was Incredible Hulk #329, in early 1987. I was six years old, visiting my grandparents, and picked it up from a spinner rack at a Quick Stop (think 7-11, and also consider now the wisdom of Marvel's recent efforts to break out of the direct market). I read it about a thousand times on the 8-hour car trip home. I begged my parents for more; my old man saw a great way to get me reading, and found me my first home-away-from-home.
It was a place in Pacifica called Coastside Comics, and my dad had done some construction work on the owner's house - bingo. I needed a ride to and from, of course, but it was a great way for my parents to get me out of their hair for an hour at a time so they could, say, do the grocery shopping. The layout was one I ended up seeing all over the place - islands of back-issue boxes in the middle of the space, with the newer issues face-up on racks along the walls. The owner was a sweet-faced, clean-shaven fellow in a flannel shirt, who always welcomed me into the store by name and gave me free run of the place - I'd pore over every rack trying to find cool new stuff, and spend all my allowance on the Hulk and Spider-Man and anything I could find that had monster-men in the shape of animals. Pure visual joy.
This guy was brilliant. He didn't do all the work, of course - if he'd been selling cooking magazines I'd have just as soon gone to Safeway with mom and dad and gotten my free sugar cookie. But he was an affable adult who set me at ease; I felt safe in the store, like hanging out at a friend's house.
I began to think of the comic store as a "clubhouse," as you put it, but I don't think that prevented it from having a "real business" vibe, any more than a pub's regular customers prevent said pub from being a real business - if anything, I think the social element present in comics retailing gives the medium a leg-up over other media. To find a similar environment for film, or music, or literature, you'd have to attend a festival or buy a ticket to a show or join a book club. If a comics retailer is doing his job right, all you have to do to find a fun, smart social environment for comics is walk into the store.
I've always heard about the Comics Dungeon style of retailing, but I've been lucky so far to avoid it - with one major exception that I'll talk about later. I'm interested, though, in addressing the whole concept of comics as an unaccepted medium, a refuge for freaks and geeks, outsiders who've turned social Darwinism to their supposed advantage and made themselves insiders.
That Hulk issue I told you about, my first comic? The story was called, funnily enough, "Outcasts". It featured the Rick Jones Hulk on the run from SHIELD, just trying to find a place where he could escape and live in peace; he stumbles on a weird community of Gamma-mutated animal monsters and enjoys fitting in with his new friends until those government bastards show up, persecute everyone who's different, force the Hulk into a fight that destroys all their stuff and sends him bounding on his troubled way. It's a classic underdog story; I've always thought the character was as much Phantom of the Opera as he was Jekyll and Hyde.
And the Phantom wanted nothing more than to be accepted and loved; that proved impossible, so he resorted to being feared, and the only way to do that was to show that he was powerful and dangerous. This translates pretty well to super-hero comics - we've all been hearing for years that they're basically a power fantasy for boys who want or need it. Sure. So maybe that's where the defensiveness comes in when people consider the medium becoming truly "mainstream". Or maybe there are just some assholes who don't like to share and it's time we broke their damn cookie in half and gave a piece to their younger brother - the new comics audience.
For a long time, the industry has pandered to this audience, from creators to publishers to retailers, and there's no reason not to - they're great customers. They've got a lot personally invested in the books they care about, and they've stuck through many of the coldest winters.
The problem is not that we've served them loyally; it's that we've served them almost exclusively. To make comics a bigger business, a safer place to invest and a more lucrative medium on all fronts, the place to start, as many smart comics businessmen have realized, is by expanding the audience. That's one of the most important things I want to talk about here: finding new readers.
Talk away, in that case, Mr. Maher.
Something that we're going to have to address in that case is whether the direct market, and by extension, specialty comics retailers, are hurting the medium. I'm as much of a direct market basher as the next man, for no other reason than the fact that it's ended up dominated by Marvel and DC and marketed almost completely at people who want to keep it that way. And, really, I don't know whose fault that is: Diamond, for offering favorable terms to Marvel and DC? But they only do that because that's what sells. If, through some strange freak of reality, Alias started publishing books that everyone loved, I'm sure Diamond would break their back looking to please them. So is it the customers' fault? And if it is, how do you fix that? Get new customers who want something else? But they'd be entering a market that's dominated by and geared towards people who want superheroes, so they'd either have to be dedicated enough to search out the "something else", you know?
One of the reasons why companies like Tokyopop have been so successful building alternative audiences seems to me to be because they're doing it outside the Direct Market. So should all alternative publishers try to build core audiences of casual buyers outside the DM, hoping that a high enough percentage of that audience will then become interested enough to enter more specialized comic stores for the more obscure titles? Should they abandon the DM altogether? And if not, why not?
Feh. Too many questions.
Parallel to the real discussion, and for readers of the blog who may be thinking that we're in danger of disappearing up our own asses with hypotheticals, I have to say this, Sean: You lucky bastard for having your first comic be a Peter David one.
I'm known, I hate to admit, as a grumpy old meanie who hates every comic in existance. And, well, there's some truth to that. But I have to admit, Peter David's Hulk? I love it with a horrific passion. From the Todd McFarlane issues all the way through Gary Frank's run, I was entirely hooked, almost entirely because he was one of the few writers (in my mind, at least) how to balance thrills, spills and comedy. David was probably the first writer that I intentionally followed from title to title, which meant that I read his entirely forgotten Blasters one-shot that DC put out in, what, 1989 or something? It's a comic I mention purely because it has one of my favorite stupid pun background jokes ever: One of the main characters is reading a comic at one point, and the comic has this cliched action hero with square jaw, and behind him, this giant angry bear with mouth open in anger. The name of the comic? Ben Steel With His Bear Hans.
The best jokes are the shittest ones.
Wasn't PAD, actually. Came right after his first issue, yes, but his first issue was a one-shot. His full run came about 4 months later. Mine was written by a fella named Milgrom, I think.
Sorry to rain on the parade.
Motherfucker. You started with an Al Milgrom one? Surprised you're still reading comics...
This is, for some reason, the comic I always think was the first American comic I read:
That has to be a false memory, though, because I know that I definitely read this as a kid:
I love that DC TV Comic logo. I'm such a retro design nerd.