Heh. Arguing with other columns I haven’t the right to reprint!
You can figure it out, though.
TILTING AT WINDMILLS #4
By Brian Hibbs
One of the nice things about writing an opinion column is that I can write about anything that I damn well please. If I wanted to talk about religion or politics, I can (as long as I can at least peripherally tie it in to comics retailing). The soapbox is mine. This being so, I'm going to continue a debate that began in Comics Retailer #1, in Pat O'Neill's article, "Stop ‘Preaching to the Choir'", and was continued into Dialog in CR #3, via Lou Bank's letter. Well, I'm bringing it into my column, `cuz I think Lou is wrong, wrong, wrong.
First off, a couple of disclaimers. Numero uno, is that this column is entirely my opinion, and certainly doesn't reflect any views that CR, K.C., or Krause might hold. I say this because I figure the last thing this fledgling magazine needs is Marvel honked off at them. Direct your ire straight at me, if you please. Second, Pat certainly doesn't need me acting as apologist for him. Hell, Pat and I disagree on many, many things, but he's on the right track with this one.
Anyway, I'm very surprised that Lou even wrote a letter, seeing that he is not doing much more than parroting what he's said before. It is obvious that his main contentions come from someone who does not work in a store, on a day-to-day basis, and, as such, are completely indefensible.
His first contention, repeated in both pieces, is that "No one's going to walk into a comics shop for a horror comic if they aren't already familiar with the comic format. If they're a big horror reader, I don't think they'll buy a horror comic, unless they're already somewhat familiar with comics."
Well, Lou, I say thee nay! In my store, Clive Barker comics, Anne Rice titles, licensed SF/Horror titles (Twilight Zone, and the like), and similar comics go in the window. Invariably, we get several people a day wandering in, proclaiming that they didn't even know that comics were still printed, let alone telling stories of characters and stories they are already familiar with. Compare this to when we put a superhero comic in the window. The requests usually border on nonexistent -- exceptions being media tie-ins like Batman vs. Predator.
Now, I will accept that mass media stories (like Northstar announcing he was gay, Superman's engagement, or Spidey's 30th anniversary) do pump the sales way up, but these sales are very problematic. The first problem is that the sales usually go back down to pre-event numbers within 4 months. Yes, we got dozens of civilians walking in looking for Superman #50, but exceedingly few of them came back next month for #51. The second problem is that the vast bulk of these additional sales are generated not by civilians, but by speculators, smelling a buck at the expense of the ignorant. Every time one of these type of media-generated hits come out, we have at least two or three unknown (and greedy-looking) people trying to buy out our entire stock. Every time! The end result is that these books become hot within a span of a day, and the civilian perceives comics as a rip-off, because they won't pay $5 for a comic that came out yesterday. My most immediate example is Spectacular Spider-Man #189 --the 30th Anniversary issue. The comic shipped on Friday, and by Saturday, most stores were charging $7 for it!
Lou points to the success of the Batman movie as proof of his theory. Batman was a huge success, and since all those hundreds of thousands of theater-goers got into the idea that a man could dress like a rodent, and punch out a clown, they immediately have an innate enjoyment of a totally foreign medium. How the one leads directly to another, I simply cannot fathom. I think it is evident that -- while Batman sales reached remarkable sales peaks throughout that summer -- by the time winter came, sell-through was at a fraction of what it had been. Even now that the sequel is coming, I see almost no signs of the fad we had last time. In San Francisco, at least, Batman sales are equal to, or lower than they were this time last year. The same is true of most retailers I speak with in different parts of the country.
So, if you want to talk about follow-through sales, I think it is dead-wrong to suggest that anything more than a minuscule fraction is generated by people reading in USA Today that Spider-Man is getting married. It is my direct experience that this is not the case. More readers (but perhaps not numerical sales) are grown by intelligent comics, and media tie-ins, then there are by super-hero one-hit wonders.
It is important to distinguish between readers and numerical sales. I believe that the number of actual comic readers is stagnant at best, and perhaps even diminishing. Most other retailers inform me that multiple copy sales is beginning to become the norm, rather than the exception. I know of one store where, by the owners admission, 40% of the stores sales were multiple copies! And this doesn't begin to figure in the copies that are held back for the back issues. I am firmly of the opinion that most mainstream comics have, at best, a readership of half their circulation. The other side of this are so-called "fringe books" like Sandman, Love & Rockets, or Hate, where, while they have smaller print-runs, virtually 100% of those copies are reaching actual readers.
In my experience of dealing with the bureaucracy of the largest comics companies (though not the individuals themselves) the overriding concern is for sales, not readers. It doesn't matter if 90% of the 8-million-plus copies of X-Men #1 are ever going to be read by anyone, the only important thing is that it sold more than eight million. I submit that this type of attitude is severely detrimental to the industry itself. What happens when the people finally wake up, and realize that all the cases of X-Men, Robin II, and X-Force they have aren't actually worth a damn thing? They'll stop buying the next "big" thing. And the retailers will be the ones left holding the bag -- not the publishers, who just print the books, and reap the rewards. It's an easy ride, and I more than understand the underlying reasons that a corporation (and a publicly traded one at that) chooses this path: it is profitable. But I think at the end of the day, it ultimately hurts the marketplace itself -- damaging the company in the long run.
So, if the comics reading public really is stagnant, it is apparent, to me at least, that steps must be taken to create a new readership, and that the key to this is advertising. I know that full-page monthly ads in Rolling Stone are definitely out, but what about regional editions, local alternative papers, independent radio or TV? There are dozens of potential test-markets out here for us to learn how, exactly, to sell comics to civilians. One thing I know is that it won't ultimately be with spandex punch-outs. I'd be happy to advertise and experiment with increasing the sales of, say, Hellraiser. More people know who Clive Barker, than who know comics are still published, let alone in specialty stores. Sadly, the only ads Marvel sees fit to produce for co-op are garish and project a feel of "Hoo, hoo, bloodcurdling horror, kiddies" I certainly can't see them attracting new readers.
Unfortunately, the great unwashed hasn't a great affinity to the concept of illustrated fiction. And super-heroes aren't going to attract them in droves. I can see no tangible evidence that the current genre as it stands holds anything for the average person. Expanding the genres, advertising options for them, and general accessibility for the truly new reader are the only things that will grow our market.
There are retailers out here who want desperately to expand our audience, who are not content in simple lying back and selling 25 copies of "Hot" book #1 to a decreasing number of customers. There is not one comic book company which is giving their full support to the market. Oh, sure, if I call up, I can probably get someone to work with me, but there is non-existent levels of direct retailer support as a policy. Fuck, you should be calling me, and the dozens just like me, who are fighting to give our medium the future it deserves, and who desperately show our desire to work with you, in that betterment.
But, damn it, we can't do it alone.
So, rather than mouthing vague platitudes to the shrine of the super-hero media stories, why don't we all do some active work in our communities? Spend more than a week working at a comic shop, and it's painfully obvious that we have to work a helluva lot harder to turn our stagnant pool of speculators and fanboys into a swiftly expanding market of a diverse and eclectic group of readers. Our time would be better used by attempting to find new markets, rather than defending the status quo.
Let's all get on the stick, okay?