Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 1: Comic Shop Blues

A Year Called Comics, part 1: Comic Shop Blues
(The first of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

Comics are everywhere. Outside of the funnybooks we fanatics purchase every Wednesday, comics in their native strip form can be found practically anywhere print meets page – and even if you’ve survived an entire week without spotting some sequential art, comics are determinedly delivered to your doorstep in the Sunday paper. Think about that; sometime in the last century, someone thought that comics were so important that they deserved their own full color section in the most widely distributed edition of every newspaper in the country. Does any other medium elicit that kind of reverence, in spite of the fact that, as Dr. Egon Spengler has firmly stated, “Print is dead?”

So why, on more than one occasion this past year, did I have such a danged hard time finding comics?

Don’t worry; I already know the answer to that question, which is the unfortunate inspiration of my periodic case of the comic shop blues. Simply put, thanks in large part to the recycling efforts of World War II and the subsequent Senate hearings about their juvenile suitability, when comics meet books they are publicly regarded as collectibles, not story-based periodicals, and are thus horded away in the most peculiar corners of the marketplace. Only recently has the comic book, now more stoically dubbed the graphic novel, earned a section in global bookstore chains, achieving significance in the strata of pop culture as viable source material for blockbuster film-making. As a longstanding fan, the exposure is bittersweet; while the medium’s overall circulation expands, its infrastructure seems to retract, favoring mass market material (namely, superhero fare) over the full range of genres the comic book boasted in, say, those perilous ‘50s: fantasy, horror, romance, western, and detective titles, specifically.

Therefore, despite the comic book stores, antique and hobby shops, conventions and trade shows, swap meets, flea markets, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Virgin Megastores, Target magazine aisles I frequented to acquire the over 365 comics I needed to fuel A Comic A Day, on a few memorable occasions, I simply couldn’t find anything other than capes and tights, which was only a bad thing in the context of my horizons-spanning goal. Fortunately, most of the time, I discovered plentiful caches of comics at hobby shops or flea markets, where I mass-acquired very inexpensive (ranging from a quarter to two dollars) Silver and Bronze Age issues – I fondly remember Mighty Samson #5, Space Adventures #52, and Forbidden Worlds #139 starring Magicman (from which I discovered my favorite quote in a comic book, “I've got muscles and I've got strong magic! What can beat that combination?”), to name a few. Fortunately, many of these comics weren’t overtly superheroism but rather simply toured the spectrum of science fiction through the googie lens of yesteryear. They’re the guilty pleasures of comic book collecting and unfortunately buried under dusty stacks of Life magazines at an antique store probably surprisingly near you.

So, those days when real life consumed nearly all of my waking hours and I was desperate for some graphic goodness, when I should’ve been rushing to a comic book store, I ended up rushing to the local 7-11 for the comics-centric Heavy Metal or Nickelodeon magazines.

No, I don’t think we need a comics shop on every corner, in between the Subway and Starbucks. I do think that, at a time when comics are influencing film, television, and mass merchandizing more than ever, comics shops need to adapt a more versatile sales strategy. Perhaps such shops’ success is regional, but where I’ve lived, in both Orange County and the Phoenix metropolitan area, I’ve witnessed comics shops with the most coveted storefronts in town fold like cheap spandex . . . and I was rarely if ever surprised. It’s the kind of thing that elicits the thought I think every fanboy has had: “If I owned a comic book store, I would . . .” This past year, I’ve fancied those thoughts more than ever. To liken my philosophy to contemporary politics, I’ve determined that running a comic book store is a lot like running for President: you must appeal to your base while correspondingly attracting a larger audience, proving both your commitment to longstanding tradition and your cutting-edginess toward significant trends. Specifically, your target is me, the diehard Batman fan that has decided to try Bone for the first time . . . oh, and maybe 364 other obscurities.

Now you’re dying to know how I’d run a comics shop, right? No? Good, because I’m not going to tell you. Instead, I humbly offer a few tips to those “comic book guys” still in business, in the hopes that they merge these ideas I’ve seen respectively represented at shops to create one uber­-shop, preferably biking distance from my home or work.

If you have a storefront window, use it! Comic book stores aren’t just peddling funnybooks anymore. They’re trading in viable pop culture and should capitalize on the medium’s success. Every comics shop I’ve frequented has significant storefront space, and so few of them use that built-in billboard to exploit the mainstream trends that would attract a casual customer base! For example, this month my storefront would feature Transformers and Captain America paraphernalia, since both franchises have captured headlines lately. (Not to mention that Cap stuff would celebrate the Fourth quite nicely, too!) Seriously, when kids are bugging their parents for a Bumblebee toy, where do you think they should go, Wal-Mart or Mile High Comics? With an effective storefront in a busy part of town, parents will know where to go for all of their child’s Bumblebee needs and can rest assured they won’t have to wade through aisles of guns or Tupperware. With an effective storefront, the local comics shop would have the reputation for specializing in . . . well, what’s cool that day.

Clutter and cleanliness are compatible! Of course, the term “comics shop” is a misnomer, since comics shops often also offer action figures, posters, various clothing, statuettes, busts, props, and anything else on which DC can slap a bat symbol. (“Comics and comics related merchandise shop” is just too long a distinction.) As a fan of stuff, these accessories create a visually textured shopping experience, but many small strip mall spaces can hardly accommodate one month’s Diamond catalog, let alone an accumulating inventory’s worth. I’ve been to plenty of shops where I’m stepping over PVC figurine sets, or even wiping cobwebs from action figure pegs to find Captain Obscure with Safari Action Gear (not a real figure). Further, have you ever looked at your fingertips after an hour of back-issue-hunting? If the inventory isn’t going to move, how difficult is organizing it, maybe even in aisles like any other commercial business? Do shops in short distance of one another communicate, because what one store might have in abundance another might need? The comic book medium is always attempting to offer its readers clean slate – so the stores that carry them should, too.

Offer customer incentives! Many comics shops offer preorder discounts via the Diamond Previews catalog, but as I eluded earlier, this incentive only panders to the fanboy base. The way I see it, comic book stores attract three types of customers: the dedicated Wednesday regulars, the casual fans that shop for whatever whenever (which is what I’ve become thanks to the A Comic A Day challenge), and the pedestrian attracted by a trend or sheer curiosity. While weekend sales (preferably themed with trends or specific overstock) benefit everyone, a friend once told me about his shop’s “trial by issue” plan, whereby the shop actually loaned new titles to frequent customers for either future purchase or a trade to try again. Through this process, the shop doesn’t actually lose inventory but in fact potentially gains new business, as a reader daring to try anything once, if I don’t like WildStorm’s The Highwaymen #1, it doesn’t have to clutter my intricate filing system as a solo installment. How about a “buy nine, get the tenth free” card? I’d eat through those like Pac-man. “Comic book guys” should yearn to gain customers and move inventory, but if it’s simply all talk, I just won’t buy it, period.

(Aside: Despite The Simpsons’ stereotypical Comic Book Guy character, most comics shopkeepers I’ve met are really skinny, almost emo-types. Is this indicative of a more emotional subtext in the modern medium?)

Of course, the ideal comic book store is simply the one with comic books in it. While we all remember the old “this is not a library” speech, some shops, like the Isotope Comic Book Lounge in San Francisco, have embraced a “hang out” mentality. Other shops have become hubs for gaming, and Meltdown Comics on Sunset Blvd. has an oft-changing artist gallery (I caught some breathtaking Scott Morse stuff a few years ago). Recently, Atomic Comics in Phoenix landed the elusive Warren Ellis for his only store signing all year. These gimmicks are exciting, but merely bait. For all of its validity and validation in pop culture, for as frequently as one can find it, comics, like the shops that carry them, are still looking for their niche. In fact, I think it’s this floundering that makes the modern medium so ultimately accessible, as it inspires forays into different genres or artistic efforts that stretch the bounds of graphic storytelling. Sometimes the attempts are elusive, both physically and artistically, but when the chain from creator to publisher to distributor to retailer to customer (with an occasional yard sale or antique shop detour) is well linked, the bond stems well beyond any one year commitment.

If print is dying, the comic book is its last gasp, blending its two finest forms – words and pictures – into a form of entertainment that makes such an impression, its fans either clamor to make it or sell it, either way passing it on for others to enjoy. No wonder comics are everywhere.

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