Monday, September 17, 2007

The future of the Comic Shop

Like many comic book readers, I found my first comics on a spinner rack at a grocery store (where I would sit and read a bunch of comics while my mom shopped- a great way to keep your kid from asking for all the sugary cereal with toys in the box!) and other news stand outlets, and then migrated into specialty comic book retailers as I got older and began seeking a more consistent and dependable source for comics (not to mention variety and quality- as I began to understand the potential value in comics I no longer was willing to buy a dinged up comic with bent corners and cracked spine if I could help it).

A little history

There's no doubt that the opening of the direct market allowed the comic book industry to survive and helped comics aimed at an older audience flourish. But it also seems like a double-edged sword. As news stands quit carrying comics in favor of more expensive and higher profit items and readers moved in to specialty stores, comics quit being sold to children in spinner racks and instead were purchased by college kids in dusty basements and back rooms, the first "real" specialty stores. Later, comic shops started popping up in strip malls and more convenient and cleaner locations but the die had already been cast. Younger generations were not exposed to comics in a convenient and "safe" setting. And, as sales skewed to older fans, the books themselves were made to appeal to the core demographic. The result was a gradual and depressing toward "grim and gritty" comics and a loss of the fun and innocence of those earlier comics.

Let's be honest here, comics needed to grow up. For too long comics were seen as a medium for illiterate children, socially awkward teens and horny GIs. However, the sort of "mature" comics that bloomed in the direct market were often as juvenile as those "kiddy" comics, just with lots of sex and violence thrown in to make them "adult." However, those direct market shops also helped foster the insane amount of quality and truly mature comics we have today. Fantagraphics sold lots of issues of Love and Rockets and the early works from Dan Clowes and more next to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Elfquest. We wouldn't have cartoonists in the New York Times if not for those early direct market shops fostering the works of the post-underground artists. When federal laws cracked down on the head shops that once sold hundreds of thousands of underground comics, there had been no market for works outside the big 2 superhero comics companies, Marvel and DC.

However, as time went on, the market boomed and busted. Shops realized they could no longer carry everything being published and began to concentrate on the new speculator market that was being created by Marvel, DC and new companies like Image which threatened to usurp the dominance of the Big 2 in the marketplace. Store shelves were flooded with pre-bagged, poly-chrome garbage that sold to get-rich-quick investors who were buying comics like they were stocks, to be tucked away until a later when they were sold at full market value. But, much like Beanie Babies, these comics eventually proved worthless as millions of readers buying the same unreadable garbage collectively realized their goldmine was actually a big pile of shit they couldn't get rid of. In an instant the market crashed, stores went bankrupt and thousands of readers, feeling ripped off, left the medium.

In the aftermath, the remaining shops were forced even more to cater to the whims of the few hardy souls that remained, the hardcore nerds. The distributor wars that left Diamond the sole survivor only made matters worse as the top companies signed up to exclusive deals that helped shut out the smaller publishers from the market even more. Suddenly, the diversity and innovation of earlier days gave rise to a downward spiral of superhero decadence with company-wide crossovers filled with continuity porn that further decreased the chances of anyone outside the closed circle entering the medium.

As the direct market became increasingly hostile to smaller publishers and anything outside the One True Genre of superheroes, the alternative publishers and the rising crowd of American manga repackagers, who were no less despised and ignored in comics shops, looked to new markets. In the end, their desperation helped open the bookstore market and led to the shelves of manga and graphic novels we see in bookstores and libraries today. Finally, once again children have access to comics, but it's mostly manga and that has the superhero nerd boys crying in their Frosted Flakes.

However, the bookstore market has remained open and friendly to the superhero publishers, helped along by a Baby Boomer sense of nostalgia for the funny books of their youth and a increased awareness through Hollywood film successes with superhero properties. Finally, we're starting to see a rebirth of comics aimed for kids, mostly manga and collections from large publishing houses such as Bone or The Baby-Sitters Club and a whole new generation is being turned on to the power and thrill of comics. Each year bookstore sales grow exponentially and with it I fear that the direct market stores which once helped shelter the medium from the storms of 70s, 80s and 90s may not be long lived.

We are at a crossroads.

As readers find fat trade paperbacks and thick graphic novels in their bookstores, which are mostly well-capitalized chain stores with friendly staff and good lighting, the dank and dingy basements and strip mall outlets that once held a monopoly aren't doing so well selling those flimsy monthly pamphlets now known somewhat derisively as "floppies." Even the companies who once controlled the direct market now find it hard to sell new properties or to maintain sales on existing ones without the same sort of trickery that led to the implosion of the 90s. Variant covers have returned and there's been the creation of the "slabbed" comic which can come with an "official" guarantee of its worth which somehow is much more if you make it unreadable by encasing it permanently in a protective sphere.

The market is trying to find ways to rescue floppies- witness the "slimline" books at Image (slimline originator Warren Ellis' Fell, Casanova by Matt Fraction) that are affordable and contain material not available in the later collected editions, an idea which has also been picked up by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip with their book Criminal at Marvel's Icon imprint. However, from what I can see none of these books are setting the world on fire with their sales. Readers have now been trained to wait for the trade but publishers are still relying on the serialized monthly books to to turn a profit, or at least pay for the initial creative costs of the book.

Many are now openly wondering if the monthly, serialized comics will die out, but I have yet to hear anyone ask the same question of the stores that rely on selling them to an audience increasingly willing to wait months for the eventual collection which they will buy for a deep discount on Amazon or at their local Borders or Barnes & Noble. Direct market stores not only lose that weekly or monthly customer, they don't even end up selling the trade. How much longer can this continue before we see another round of store closings? At what point do we start to ask if the direct market stores are still needed or even wanted?

I think the direct market specialty comics shop still have a vital role to play in the industry. In much the same way that I prefer to buy music at a local indy record store or rent videos instead of relying on Netflix, I enjoy the weekly shopping experience to browse the shelves to see each Wednesday's new releases but I fear this will become a thing of the past as smaller publishers give up serializing in print for the cheaper and more accessible web. First Blockbuster and now Netflix have killed the local video rental store. Is the same thing happening to the direct market comics retailer? I fear so. So, the question is, what's next? If I had the answer I'd be starting to make Steve Geppi money.

Gaze into the crystal ball

My gut feeling is that comics shops can survive as they are for another 20 years, at least until their hard core base fans start dying off in serious numbers (given the average weight and health of comics fans maybe it's more like 10 years). For any form of comic book retail business to actually survive and flourish, my bet is they will have to start to look less like the Android's Dungeon from The Simpons and instead resemble more those chain bookstores a bit more and start skewing their business to the GNs, trade paperbacks and manga while creating a comfortable and inviting shopping atmosphere for all ages- which isn't likely to happen unless one of the big book chains decides to start a specialty comics-only chain which is also unlikely.

Chances are, outside the big cities where such a shop could survive, most of us will be sampling comics online through serialized web comics and then ordering the collected editions through Amazon or buying them at a local big box chain bookstore unless something drastic happens.

However, it's entirely possible (through perhaps not probable) that the new generation of comic readers I mentioned earlier migrates to specialty shops as they seek out material that isn't from Scholastic or Random House- after all, small publishers will always by the innovators while the gigantic book publishers will perfect their ability to gauge what will sell and forget or try to bury everything else. I also wonder if there's not a glut of sub par books coming out from these publishers and if bookstores, librarians and readers may grow increasingly wary of anything not deemed a certifiable hit (and as more of these publishers enter the field if they don't crowd out the ones who helped create the market- American history is riddled with innovators who failed because a more well-capitalized competitor came in, stole the idea and made it a success). Could the same sense of creative freedom that existed during the black and white boom of the late 70s and early 80s lead to another generation of comics talent that can't find a home in the stable of the giant publishers seeking its fortunes on the shelves of your local comics shop? Or maybe the spinner rack comes back to your local grocery store. Anything could happen... after all, this is comic books ; )

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