I wrote last month, but got interrupted right before the end. I cleaned it up a little before posting, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think in the comments.

This is just a small observation, but a pretty good one, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

I’ve taken over working Saturdays on the main floor of The Beguiling to give my boss an extra day off a week (he’s now up to 1-and-a-half). For those of you who don’t know, The Beguiling is split across two floors, with the first floor being set up as a ‘general interest’ comic store, with a focus on art, literature, and the kinds of books you read positive reviews of in mainstream media. Fantagraphics and D&Q, but also Picturebox, NBM, Top Shelf, Pantheon, Abrams, and the like. French-language and Euro graphic novels, art books, Tintin and  Asterix anchoring the kids section. Basically the platonic ideal of the non-superhero, non-manga comic book store… shoved into about half as much space as it really _needs_ to breathe. But c’est la vie.

The second floor, that’s for “the initiated”, the people who buy and large know what they want–either because they’ve been comics fans their whole lives and are buying their favourites, or they’re single-title/creator/genre folks (like the Gaimanites, Whedonites, and Zombieites). Maybe they’re in for the newest media tie-in too. Superheroes and other DM-centric publishers, manga, and the new-release rack. I work the second floor, mostly because my boss rules the main floor with an iron fist and I’m the only person at the store (and one of the only people in North America) approaching his level of product knowledge and so I cover the other sales floor. But I’m pretty handy the rest of it and so I can fill in for him if I have to… Just don’t ask me to find anything in French. :)

Because of the way the store is set-up, whilst there is a cash-register on each floor all of the debit and credit card purchases have to be rung out on the first floor. That means that, being behind the second-floor register, I see people making cash purchases, but almost entirely of stuff bought from the second floor — superheroes and manga. Sure, if it’s new comics day the interesting stuff that’s come out that week from the art comics publishers is still around–new releases from D&Q and Fanta get prominent display for 2 or 3 weeks. The “new mainstream” books like Oni’s JAM: Tales of Roller-dirby or KENK from Toronto publisher Pop Sandbox get their due, at least a week or two of full-face display. But that means that I’ll be ringing up orders that are 90% new releases–with Marvel and DC doing their damndest to crowd every other new release off the rack, week after week, and 100 new manga graphic novels in a given month–and it paints a picture of the comics industry.

The picture it paints is that the industry–and particularly direct market comic book stores–is 70% superheroes and then 20% manga and then there’s not-much of everything else. The second floor is, essentially, your average comic book store in miniature (although I’ve been in quite a few stores smaller than our second floor…). It paints a picture that the reason that the comic book industry is this way is because the fans are this way. This is what the fans want. But that’s only true until you remember that there’s still a first floor, and man, that first floor is very, very different.

So I’ve been working the first floor a little more, and the customer for comics is, frankly, completely different than we think it is. Sure, I just sold a copy of SCARLETT #1 by Bendis and Maleev to a dude wearing a Superman t-shirt, but before that I sold a copy of Gabrielle Bell’s CECIL & JORDAN and a Shintaro Kago import-manga to a 20-something girl and before her, I sold Sfar’s LITTLE VAMPIRE and DUNGEON ZENITH 2 & 3 to a dad and his two kids, cuz all of them are in love with those books. A guy today dropped a few hundred bucks on PictureBox and D&Q books. Guy approaching the cash right now has the work of Ken Dahl, Kevin Cannon, and Kevin Huizenga in his hands. Another lady came down the stairs with an armful of McKean, Seinkewicz, and Mack just now. Working the first floor, you get this picture of balance in the medium, and it’s a balance that heavily favours good, interesting, and ambitious works.

An aside: When we (and I mean all of us comic fans) look at the newspaper page, we tend to groan at the ‘legacy’ strips like Family Circus or Hagar, where the original author of that work has passed on and handed the book off to their offspring or a trusted friend. It’s a lot of bland stuff on the comics page, but familiar, and we all kinda wish those strips would go away and make room for something new. Now realize that 90% of comics sold through the direct market are themselves “Legacy Strips”, choking out innovation with (more often than not) their original creators long gone, existing solely to hold a space on a rack. That’s not to say that good stories can’t be told–they frequently are. It’s just that we’re largely intolerant of the practice in one area of comics, and embrace it with a blinding obedience in another.

I’d like to suggest–or really, remind–that this balance in the medium could just as easily be a balance in the industry.

But the reason that we don’t have it I think? Most retailers, myself included, tend only to see what’s in front of them. If I only ever worked in one type of store, I’d be convinced that there’d only be one superhero-and-new-release-heavy model of doing business in comics as well. Hell I worked at that store for a long time–in my last 6 months there I finally figured out that you could order books not in the Diamond catalogue each month. That you could back order things. That books exist beyond their monthly solicitation or (increasingly rare) resolicitiation… I wonder how many retailers are in the same boat? Hopefully far fewer, with the vast array of online tools available… But…

So yeah, a small change in perspective for a few weekends per month, and… well it’s not so much that my view of the industry has changed, but that I’ve been reminded that it is possible to find balance and that good work flourishes and sells when it’s not just one shelf at the back of the store, but curated, selected, promoted, understood, and shared. That readers aren’t–or at least don’t have to be–superhero readers or artcomix readers or manga readers… they can just be readers. I know it’s going to seem obvious to a lot of the readers of my blog here, I feel like folks here tend to have a pretty open mind and wide tastes in what they read. But seeing that sort of customer in action is a nice reminder of what we could do in the industry as a whole. It’s worth continuing to work towards.

- Chris

5 Comments on “The comics industry and the big picture”

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  1. Dustin Harbin says:

    I love this. Especially your aside–getting rid of dead weight in favor of new stuff is a must for future health. On the other hand, speaking as a former retailer, it’s hard to ignore that “nut” of Wednesday new comics sales from the big publishers, as a real buttress to a shop’s ability to order more idiosyncratic stuff. The market has to change I guess, along with retailer culture/philosophy. But man, that’s tough. Those “legacy” strips are still in the paper because the newspaper jealously guards the remains of its dwindling readership, and that dwindling readership will raise unholy hell if Hi and Lois isn’t in there. Same reason politicians love old people–they vote.

  2. Graffiti On The Sun Comics says:

    The set up of your store sounds great, I wish more place had a simialer set up, maybe not two floors but you have enough…”none mainstrea” comics (which oddly tend to be more mainsteam) to have there own section.

    I’ll have to remember to check out your store the next time I’m in T-dot.

    and what you said about comics being the same as the legacy strips in the papers is cutting but true.

    As a fan I have to admit I like checking in on some old superheroes I read as a kid from time to time but I also want new stuff and types of things you can find on your 1st floor. And I think part of the reason why the market has gone down over the years is people thinks us fans only want the former and not the later and doing so they miss out on both new fans and old fans who are starting to get tired of the same old same old.

  3. Jason Marcy says:

    Great piece, Chris. Makes me look at things in a whole new manner!! We all need to view comics in a broader sense.

  4. DeBT says:

    Your store sounds like the kind of store I’ve oftentimes hoped that would be the model, rather than the exception. Also, the fact that a girl special ordered a Shintaro Kago import just makes me grin like a cackling madman. It reminds me of a 4-panel comic in a French Otaku magazine where a Hell’s Angel asked for Princess Tutu, a young girl asked for Fake, and a middle-aged wife asked for Berserk.

  5. Torsten Adair says:

    With the non-returnability of the Direct Market, how does a store develop a diverse selection of titles and a diverse clientèle?

    Chris… you do the monthly Previews ordering, right? Shouldn’t your sales info tell you what’s selling? Or is it a snowstorm/snowflake problem, and you only noticing the snowballs? I’d be curious to see how your various categories sell, but I think Brian Hibbs has staked that territory…

    Myself, I’m a reader. Got hooked on Marvel, discovered Eclipse, then DC, Dark Horse… What sort of comics do I read? GOOD comics.

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