"I love comic shops. As much as I enjoyed as a kid pedaling to Ross Supermarket or Marsh or Klink's and accosting their spinner rack, as much as the feel of turning one with a couple of fingers hooked over a thick, coated wire made of metal with a slight flick of the wrist is a sense memory as strong as any I maintain, it's the comic shop that cemented my childhood fascination with the form and enabled me to remain a reader into my teen and adult years by allowing me access to comics that appealed to me at whatever age I happened to be. [...] I owe comic shops my relationship to a great International art form that has enriched my life.
"That's one of the reasons why I'm always a little bit astonished when people go after comic shops in nasty, summarily dismissive fashion."
Since nobody's experience is universal, I'll try to address some of Tom Spurgeon's astonishment by describing my early experiences with comic book shops. It seems that his comic shop was his equivalent of my neighborhood library, or the world as seen from a banana-seat one-spead bicycle, I suppose -- the vantage point from which I learned to observe, as the writers of the books I read observed their worlds. It's strange to me that a comic shop could produce that feeling of discovery because I don't love comic shops. At least not those that I went into when I first started reading comics. It wasn't until I went to Atlantis Fantasy World in Santa Cruz that I realized that a comic book shop could be something different from Comic Zone or Comics Depot, the two places in my home town where I got my comics.
Comic Zone was where my male friends had been getting their comic books since the dawn of time, apparently. It was a tiny, dark shop near the railroad tracks. Posters hung over the windows to prevent curious passersby from seeing in and to protect the precious merchandise from sunlight. The place was cramped with shelving and had McFarlane toys hung all over. To find a comic I might like, I had to squeeze past shelves of "Swimsuit Issue" covers (this was the early nineties -- I was lucky if the cover featuring the barely-clad Lady Death wasn't embossed so that fanboys could feel her up with their thumbs). The proprietor was a small, creepy (in that creepy way you can't define and could be a complete mischaracterization except every instinct you have says it's so) sort of fellow. Once, I found that I didn't have enough cash on me for the Black Orchid trade paperback and asked if he would hold onto it for a few minutes while I got some money. He gave me a suspicious look and a disgruntled affirmative, warning me not to take too long. I knew for a fact that my male friends often asked him to hold merchandise for days, until they got enough money to pay for it. Comic Zone closed a few years ago. I hadn't been there for years before.
Comics Depot was a typical comic shop -- magazine racks for new issues, long boxes of back issues. They carried a few indie comics and the owner was very obliging about special ordering. Unfortunately, he often was dressed in overalls with no shirt and smelled of whiskey and cigarettes. He employed men who had a habit of looking at me in a way I didn't like but couldn't quite pin down, one of whom once even called another man from the back room of the store so he could look at me, too. Comics Depot is closed now, too -- they shut up business about a year after I started working at SLG.
Except for the occasional visit to Treasure Island (a bright, clean, well-run comic shop with friendly staff in my town that is, unfortunately, mostly stocked with DC and Marvel books), I don't go to comic shops anymore. I've walked into a few and known that I would never go back. (Dark, dusty, full of sweaty adolescent boys playing card games, take your pick.) The best comic stores around here, like Atlantis Fantasy World, Comic Relief and Isotope are too far from me for regular visits. Because I keep apprised of what's going on in the industry, get Previews in the office and for the most part don't read floppies, I don't need a comic shop. I order graphic novels from Amazon.com or buy them at conventions. Sometimes I'll get them at Borders or Barnes and Noble. As a consumer, I don't support the direct market, not from any philosophical predisposition, but just as a matter of convenience and preference.
I know that not all comic book shops are like those I first encountered, and I've been lucky to learn about comics shops that are wonderful places. But I can see how someone who has only had experiences like mine would soon go sour on comic shops, and perhaps comics themselves.
Another quote from Spurgeon's article:
[Comic shops'] basic business arrangement's consequence in allowing low-capital entry into the market via non-returnability has been a boon to the serviced art form equaled by no other medium in the last 30 years, and that can continue.
I'm not exactly sure how non-returnability has been a boon for anyone. Sure, it means low risk for publishers -- comic stores cannot return unsold stock to distributors, unlike bookstores, which can. However, this makes trying new merchandise risky for comic book shops and encourages the pattern of shops carrying the comics that already appeal to existing customers, rather than taking a chance on comics that they can recommend to their existing customers or comics that might attract new customers. In the long run, this is bad for independent publishers, who have to do the hard work of convincing comic shops to order their non-returnable comics that they are not sure they can sell rather than stocking only comics they know they can sell.
I don't know if returnability in the direct market is a solution, however. In the current system, if we do get comics shops to order our comics, there is no guarantee that they will get their customers to buy them. In my experience (very limited, admittedly), a lot of comic stores seem to operate on a system in which they put comics on the shelf and if someone buys them, someone buys them. I think that most shops could probably learn from better-run shops that are creative in their displays and have knowledgeable, personable employees who do more than take money and make sure no one steals anything -- Spurgeon addresses this as well, in the second part of his editorial.
"But it is a market, a valuable one, one that allows and should continue to allow nearly every publisher to have a deeper catalog, a market that allows hundreds and hundreds of creators a better living than would be available to them were they not there, and a business model that keeps work before an audience in a sustained, perennial fashion that many art forms can only dream about.
My god, I had no idea that comic shops were veritable artistic Utopias. And cynicism wants me to say that if there were no direct market, perhaps there would be no more comics, and perhaps people who are comic artists and publishers now might have directed their creative talents and energies into something that actually made them money.
That aside, I really am not at all confident that all of this is true. Had comics become integrated into regular bookstores long ago, I don't know that it would matter if the direct market weren't here. I can go into a bookstore and buy a book that was first published 200 years ago or more. That's "sustained and perennial" for you. As I said, I haven't been in a comic book shop very recently, so I have to ask: Is it easy to find back issues in comic shops you go to? Is there diversity in the titles they carry?
So the apologia portion I have some problems with. But Spurgeon's suggestions on how to improve comics shops are excellent. Here they are in digested form. Read the article at The Comics Reporter to get the full story.
1. Comic book stores should have employees who are knowledgeable about the industry and willing to help with special requests.
2. Diamond Comics (the "not a monopoly" distributor of comics to comic book stores) should do a better job of promoting a fair marketplace for small publishers.
3. Publishers should work to have more regular publishing schedules. (Oh, don't I know it. In good news, it seems the schedule craziness at Diamond has been resolved. Books that should have been in stores the first week of August are only now making it to them.)