I’m poking my way through the new Comics Journal. It’s the first time in a while I haven’t had anything in an issue, so I feel somehow more free to comment on what is included. Not sure why, but there it is.
Anyway, I recently finished Alan David Doane’s impassioned plea for better comics stores, titled “A Future For Comics”. Doane’s basic argument is that many direct market stores are run by folks who care a lot about super-heroes and only a little about being professional retailers; as a result, the direct market caters to insular fanboys and ignores basic professional considerations (opening on time, stocking diverse titles, not sneering at customers) which would allow for growth into new markets (women, kids, guys who haven’t read super-hero comics since they were 8 — most people, in other words.)
I’m sympathetic to Doane’s argument for the most part, and his analysis of the problems with the direct market (insularity, basically) certainly seems correct. But I think the future he’s hoping for is already basically impossible. Free-standing, specialist comic-stores are, in the medium-term, doomed, and it doesn’t seem to me like there’s anything that can change that. Yes, as Doane points out, a few stores have made a shift to stocking manga and alternative titles, and maybe some of those will survive over the long term. But, really, folks who want that kind of material are already well served by bookstores and online markets. Those stores have already moved agressively into the market; they have a huge advantage already. Traditional direct market comic stores aren’t going to make that up.
Indeed, for them to try might well hasten the demise of some of them. To attract new people to direct market stores would require an entirely different business plan; different kinds of marketing, different kind of expertise, different purchasing patterns — the works. Making that kind of transition is really hard unless you’re quite smart and determined. Doane suggests it’s just a matter of selling to girlfriends and children as well as to the guys who are shopping in the first place, but you don’t make a living on odd sales like that. If women and kids aren’t coming to the store on their own, the places are doomed — and they won’t come on their own without massive alterations in how those stores are organized — and that’s not gonna happen — so, yeah, it’s over. Someday in the not too distant future freestanding comic stores will be seen as a historical aberration, a weird comics retail transition between drug store racks and bookstores (online and otherwise).
Is that a bad thing? I dunno. I haven’t been to a direct market comic store in years (other than the great Chicago Comics, which doesn’t really count.) I remember the stores of my youth with some nostalgia, but, well, so it goes. Small independent businesses losing out to corporate behemoths is distressing, but, as Doane points out, if anyone has it coming, its comics retailers.
I will say that I think Doane is a little off-base when he says that:
“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 the short-term thrill of mere possession might be.”
I think Gary Groth has made a similar argument, and I thought it was silly then as well. The problem with super-hero comics isn’t that the quality is bad. I mean, there’s *lots* of dreadful stuff that have a huge fan base (things like, oh, Scooby-Doo cartoons…or Rolling Stone concerts….or Alicia Keys albums….) Quality isn’t objective, of course, but using any aesthetic criteria, you’re going to find that sometimes quality and popularity are directly related, sometimes they’re inversely related, and sometimes they don’t seem to have any relationship at all. The problem with super-hero comics isn’t that they’re “bad” (though I agree that many of them are bad); it’s that, bad or good, they’re aimed at an audience which is increasingly insular, and that, as a result, the genre doesn’t really look sustainable in the long, or even medium, term.