I've been following with interest a recent mini-thread regarding bad comic book shop experiences, including what I think of as a reasonable and thought-provoking response by Tom Spurgeon (you'll have to scroll down a bit to find it). This has got me thinking once again about comic shops, in both economic and cultural terms: what they do, what they can do, and how my own reading life has been impacted by shopping in such shops. It happens that the students in my Comics & Graphic Novels class submitted essays about comic shops in our area a few weeks ago, essays that I got through reading and grading not long ago, so those too are echoing through my head.
This post will be a bit of a departure for Thought Balloonists. Because I'm interested in the economy of artistic forms, hence in comics shops, this post will be the first of an occasional series about the direct market -- both the market in general and certain shops in particular.
I should say ahead of time that I will not offer, and am not qualified to offer, insider commentary on the pragmatics of comic book retailing or on the current economic shape of the market. I will offer no sales figures or stats. I'm not a comics retailer and my focus is on the cultural and artistic ripples created by comics shops, not the practical day-to-day business of keeping shops running and competitive. (That said, I hope to interview some comics retailers in this series and let them speak to the practical challenges in ways I can't.)
I became more conscious of my own history and activity as a direct-market consumer while working on my book, Alternative Comics. In that book I argue that shops, in essence, serve to educate and "discipline" the consumer. They may not mean to be, but they are educators, in much the same way that a video rental store (which in essence is a commercial lending library) serves to educate viewers about cinema and TV. Comic shops, I argue, function as did eighteenth and nineteenth-century circulating libraries for books: they're a specialized kind of retail enclave that supports a specialized reading culture. Chapter One of my book argues, in essence, that people ought to know about these shops and understand how they do business, from what perspective, and with what systemic advantages and disadvantages. I wrote that chapter to introduce the uninitiated to the historical and economic bases of alternative comics and graphic novels.
It's funny, I set out to write the book (originally my PhD dissertation) in hopes of getting comics more generally recognized as literature, period, but as I went along I found myself stressing the indissoluble specificity of comics, in particular the reading culture of comics fandom and how the economics of the comic book business affect the artistic aspirations and very content of comics themselves. All of this I went into by way of a history of the direct market, starting with underground comix and nostalgic comic book fandom in the '60s. The alternative comics movement, as I understand it, is a product of, or at least substantially beholden to, the direct market and its unique terms of trade, a point that I try to communicate to students each year in my class. At the same time, of course, the recognition of alternative comics as some kind of "literature" depends on their ability to get beyond the direct market and be exhibited in other contexts, such as libraries and mainstream bookstores.
The recent successes of GN publishers such as Pantheon and First Second, and of course more obviously the blossoming of manga into its own GN market, point to an irony that, from a direct market POV, may be bitter: the fact that, once nurtured by comic book shops, GNs are now finding their way increasingly into mainstream bookstores that compete against comic book shops. (The issue is particularly vexed with respect to manga.) This, as I see it, is one of the several reasons why comic book retailers nowadays, at least those who want or need to extend their clientele beyond devoted collectors of periodical comic books, need to be more resourceful, inventive, and adaptable than ever. The very success of manga and graphic novels as categories has changed the playing field for comics shops retailers. Artistically, it seems to me that comics are now in a very generative and accepting climate, but this does not mean that recent changes in the market have been greeted enthusiastically by every comic shop retailer.
On First Shopping in Comic Book Shops (a tilt toward the autobiographical)
Just about every comic book fan has "shop" stories, and, before I go any further with this series, here are some of mine:
My own understanding of comics was shaped by formative experiences in comics shops circa 1984-85, during my second and third years of college. Two shops in particular played a part in getting me back "into" comics after a seven-year hiatus. Both of these shops no longer exist: the Andromeda Bookshop, a SF/Fantasy, genre fiction, and comic book shop located on the De la Guerra Plaza just off State Street in downtown Santa Barbara (a convenient bus ride away from where I lived as a student at UC Santa Barbara); and Comics Unlimited, a comic book shop, period, located in the inaptly-named Orange County suburb of Hawaiian Gardens (Comics Unlimited later opened a shop in Westminster, which still exists). Both of these were to affect the way I thought about comics and make it possible for me to become, once again, a comic book fan, at a crucial juncture in my life.
Very little of what I remember about these shops has to do with the people who ran them. With the exception of a friend who worked at Andromeda, I didn't know who ran these shops. In most cases I didn't even know the names of the checkout clerks, whom I probably saw over and over again. Nor do my memories have to do with the kind of fannish conversations that, nowadays, I love to indulge in when I'm shopping for comics. Yes, I enjoyed talking to other fans about comics, but I don't recall doing much of that in the shops back then. Any sense of "community" I had regarding comics was vague and unarticulated. Mostly what I remember is simply buying comics -- in some cases buying comics that fed my nostalgic memories of childhood (which was not so far off then, in fact hardly behind me at all), and in some case buying comics the likes of which I had never seen before. Both types of comics had to be present in order for comic book shops to draw and retain my interest.
Andromeda I experienced, at first, as a SF/Fantasy bookshop, inasmuch as I went shopping there for paperbacks but did not avail myself of their comics. I went there semi-regularly from late 1983 (my freshman year) onward, but did not begin buying comics there until 1985, which is a sign of how disengaged I was from comics at that point. That strikes me as odd, in hindsight, since I had had a consuming passion for comic books from about ages nine to twelve, years earlier, enough so that I had already read a number of reference works on comics and was familiar with many of the privileged names in comic book history. Despite this, I paid little attention to Andromeda's substantial focus on comics, preferring to cling to the store's outer room full of SF, Fantasy, etc. and shop for, in most cases, paperback novels. This was a reflection, I think, of the company I kept, since my best friends on entering college, including my good friend and roommate Steve, were focused on SF and Fantasy rather than comics. I'm not sure I ever went to Andromeda by myself; I was always in company. In any case, I was a loyal Andromeda customer well before I started buying comics there.
(Aside: at that time, I had been in only one other bookshop specializing in SF and Fantasy, which was L.A.'s original Change of Hobbit, and I had been there only once. Years later I would discover the wonderful, now gone and much missed, Space Crime Continuum in Northampton, MA.)
Andromeda was in an excellent location, on De la Guerra Plaza:
I remember the shop as a well-organized if densely-packed space, with plenty of shelving and not so much room (therefore plenty of potential butt brush factor). It was a nicely-appointed space, thick with stuff, and with a corner opposite the doorway where signings used to take place (and I recall that signings often led to long lines outside the door, out into the Plaza, because Andromeda, of course, didn't have the floor space to accommodate queuing indoors). On the walls up high, going round the room, were posters for SF and other genre movies. Paperbacks, hardcovers, and even collectors' editions were plentiful.
A separate back room was devoted to comics, with, if I remember rightly, wire comic racks along the right-hand wall (where the new releases were displayed) and a long counter on the left, behind which were numerous cubbyholes filled with older stuff. I bet I went into that room just about every time I visited Andromeda, and yet, for more than a year, I never bought a damn thing in it. Certainly there was a lot of stuff to look at in there, even though the room was smaller than the room out front. My looking, though, never focused down to anything purposeful or acquisitive. Maybe it was all a mystery to me, but, if so, it was a mystery based on lots of things I recognized and should have understood.
This, although I didn't realize it, was my first look at a direct-market comics specialty shop. I have a hard time understanding why I didn't go for it right away.
The first comic shop I recognized as such (as opposed to a SF bookshop, which is how I thought of Andromeda) was Comics Unlimited, in Hawaiian Gardens, not so far from my parents' condo. I discovered it in the summer of 1985, while working, in a plodding, uninterested, isolated, and frankly lonely way, at a nearby Kmart to earn some extra money. This was just after I turned twenty, and I was "home from college." I was still getting the hang of living at but not permanently "living in" my parents' home. Working at Kmart was one of those rites of passages I had to go through: I had to make a show of earning some money to help offset the terrible costs my parents were footing to keep me at University. A mid-summer visit from my grandparents and cousins proved to be the catalyst for going comics shopping: my cousin Brian had a yen for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which he may have heard about from me), and so I looked in a Yellow Pages and found Comics Unlimited. It soon became my lunchtime retreat from Kmart.
I should acknowledge here that the first issue of the original TMNT, which I discovered in the summer of 1984, was the first comic I had purchased in, what?, more than six years (I had stopped buying comics regularly, and almost completely, in late 1977, some seven years before). I didn't buy TMNT #1 in a comic shop; in fact I discovered it at a dealer's table at the first TimeCon, a Doctor Who/SF convention in San Jose. Taking it as a one-off, I bought it because it was such a goofy concept. I read it without recognizing anything that was being parodied in it except for the original Daredevil, chuckled a bit, and then mailed it to my brother Scott as a gag gift (I seem to recall it was around the time of his birthday). To my surprise, I found a second issue of TMNT at Andromeda the following spring, and so I bought it, along with a second copy of #1, making these my first comic book purchases from a direct-market shop.
So, by the time I began frequenting Comics Unlimited (the following summer), I was already interested in buying comics again. I suppose I had tricked myself into it. What I found at Comic Unlimited was an education of sorts, starting, as learning so often does, from familiar and reassuring things and building toward the new and unfamiliar. I remember Comics Unlimited as a fairly ecumenical, all-genres, full-service comics store (of the type that, for a while, I feared was doomed to extinction after the market implosion, post-1993).I think shopping at that store taught me a lot.
I learned inadvertently.
At the time, DC was six or seven issues into Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I confess I was familiar enough with DC "continuity" (Earth-1, Earth-2, all that) to immediately grasp what was at stake in that series. I bought #1, which was still out on the shelves, and told myself that I'd come back in a week and get more if I liked it. In fact I came back the next day for #2, and within a week of fugitive lunch-hours I had picked up all the remaining issues to date. The series' epic scope, nostalgic nods to old comics, intertextual richness (like the ironic riff on Superman's origin in #1), occasional moments of artistic pastiche, and, frankly, breast-beating pathos all got to me. What helped is that the old issues were displayed next to the newest one, so that I could see all that accumulation of story, right there; I could see it as a series of objects, and I came to understand that the shop had a rich inventory of such objects, all carefully tended. I soon learned that, when the next new issue came out, the oldest one on the shelves would be pulled and placed in the back-issue bins.
See, Comics Unlimited had more space than Andromeda, and part of what filled that space was raked wooden shelving that ran around a good part of the perimeter of the shop. Those slanted shelves held new and recent comic book releases in undiscriminating alphabetical order, on two levels: up at about eye level for the new stuff, then down below, at floor level, for the older (but not too old) stuff. They were not quick to bag, board, and sequester their back issues, but instead left the better part of seven or eight months' worth of continuity on the shelves for casual perusal. That in itself was educational.
Two other things besides Crisis fed my nostalgia jones:
ONE. I could see from the then-current issue of Amazing Heroes that Marvel was about to launch a mini-series revival of Jack Kirby's Eternals, a series I had loved as a kid but had lost track of a couple of issues before its cancellation. This was the initially Peter Gillis-scripted, Sal Buscema-drawn revival:
So I wanted to get that, and, for several months, I did (until I learned of Kirby's battle with Marvel over their refusal to return his original art, news that prompted me to boycott Marvel for a while -- but that's another story...).
TWO. One thing that excited me about Comics Unlimited is that their ample back-issue stock included, at affordable prices, so many comic books I had followed during my first fever of comics-buying, circa 1975-77. At a time when new standard comic books, at least DC and Marvel books, were going for, typically, 75 cents, Comics Unlimited had a healthy stock of back issues that were too recent to fetch true collectors' prices but too old (and in some cases from defunct and therefore not very collectible titles) to compete with the new releases. These comics -- comics just old enough to have had cover prices from about 20 to 35 cents when they were first published -- sold at Comics Unlimited for 50 or 60 cents a pop. Mind you, I'm not talking about the "cheap" bins here, or desperate "sale" items, just regular back issues, at about 60 cents a pop.
Since I had purged much of my ragtag comics "collection" from the seventies, and since I had never had regular access to back issues as a kid and therefore had considered anything a couple of years old unattainable, Comics Unlimited's inventory was, to me, a treasure: an invitation for me to go back, fill in, and learn about the comics that came just before or just after what I had been buying new as a kid. I completed runs of The Eternals and Kamandi here, and, for the first time, got to read beyond an issue or two of Kirby's Fourth World titles (which had been just a couple of years before my peak time in comics as a kid, and were therefore an undiscovered goldmine to me). Most of these comics were cheap at Comics Unlimited then. Turns out the seven to twelve-year-old comics were mostly priced between their original cover prices and the then-going price for new comics, so stocking up on them was easy, tempting.
It seems odd to me, in hindsight, that a twenty-year-old should be so nostalgic for being a ten-year-old. But I suppose nostalgia -- along with its proximate causes, loneliness and a sense of displacement -- was an important, animating factor in my renewed comics buying. The thing is, the retail environment I found in Comics Unlimited exposed me to quite a bit more than I had anticipated; besides appeals to nostalgia, and the thrill of reading what was, to me, unfamiliar Kirby, Comics Unlimited also introduced me, quite accidentally, to "independent" comics.
Sure, I recalled seeing some of these before, TMNT and others, and of course I had a vague (and at the time disapproving) familiarity with the idea of underground comix. But being in a direct-market shop that served a wide range of genres, with ample shelving and wholly arbitrary alphabetical sorting, quickly exposed me to things I would not have looked for. For instance, I found Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld (under "B") not far from Amazing Heroes, which ended up being a hell of a lot more meaningful to me than that Eternals revival. It even seemed more Kirbyesque, in fact.
So, in a nutshell, I had the classic, hoped-for experience of the "mainstream" comics fan who stumbles into independent comics by dint of regular shopping in a comic book shop. I'd say that this experience of accidental discovery (something that became so much harder to experience in shops after the disastrous contractions in the market a few years later) is the reason why I stayed with comics when the wan pleasures of nostalgia began to fizzle. I simply found other comics to engage me, right there on the shelves near the more familiar stuff. In this sense, DM comic shops were an education to me. Of course there were early enthusiasms that didn't last (Albedo Anthropomorphics, for example, or, for that matter, TMNT), but these were all part of my explorations. From my POV, exploring is something comic shops should make possible, and this is why I prefer shops that routinely stock all sorts of comics to shops that simply invite me to order what I already know I want from Previews.
Shopping at Comics Unlimited primed me for Jaime Hernandez's Mechanics (consisting mainly of Love & Rockets reprints), all three issues of which I found at an enticing price the following school year, back at Andromeda in Santa Barbara. Mechanics was transparently an attempt to draw readers of mainstream color comics to an alternative, B&W comic. In my case, it worked. By that time, of course, I was making weekly or semi-weekly "Andromeda runs" with my friends and fellow comics fans, Dio and Benson. And the whole focus of those trips to Andromeda had changed.
Years later, I would become disenchanted with the direct market, enough so that I made some published comments that, regrettably, served to piss off and alienate a local shop owner whose good opinion I valued. But that's another story, for later. Suffice to say that I have fond, grateful memories of my first year of direct-market shopping, c. 1985-86, which began the process of redrawing my mental map of comics. As I say, I learned inadvertently, unwittingly, by tacking back and forth aimlessly in the shops. Allowing for that is part of what comic shops can do.