ELAYNE RIGGS: Forward into the past
The comics industry stands at an exciting crossroads. International acceptance of graphic literature is starting to have a positive effect on how Americans see non-superhero genres, as manga saturates teen audiences and award-winning autiobiographical novels like Fun Home and Persepolis enthrall adults. When you factor the geek contingent into that, as even the superhero genre (the one most non-comics readers associate and conflate with the medium itself) gains mainstream acceptance in blockbuster movies and hit TV shows, it would seem to be another Golden Age for the artform. The future of print and online comics looks healthier than ever.
So why is so much of the comics industry still mired in the past?
Take Previews, for instance. Now, Diamond Comics distribution and comic book retailers do many things right. Diamond’s comic store locator provides a valuable service, and Free Comic Book Day (this Saturday, don’t forget to peruse your local store with someone "new" to comics!) has become a much-anticipated event. And I suspect Previews isn’t as much a problem as a symptom of a wider dilemma facing brick-and-mortar specialty stores caught in the timeline between the demise of newsstand and mom-and-pop outlets (where many of today’s adult readers bought their first comics) and the promise of mainstream bookstores and targeted online purchasing.
Personally, I think the root of the problem is non-returnable product.
Not being able to return comics that don’t sell means that most retailers — a sizeable majority of whom are fanboys themselves — aren’t going to take chances with products that haven’t been proven sellers in the past 30 years. And for most of them, that means going with the sure things, meaning the things that have been sure throughout the reign of the specialty stores — standard superhero fare, mostly from the Big Two, of greatest appeal to an ever-shrinking demographic of post-adolescent males who generally buy anatomically exaggerated guys in tights beating each other up and anatomically incorrect gals in tighter tights (when they wear tights at all) posing provocatively.
Retailers have little financial incentive to order much outside the superhero genre, or not done by "big names," or stuff that appeals beyond their current consumer base – it’s a vicious circle-jerk game. "We can’t take a chance on selling books that might not sell (and with which we’ll be stuck), therefore this stuff doesn’t sell because we can’t take a chance on it, therefore we’ll sell this other stuff because it sells."
And the symptom of Previews — the only game in town for comic book retailer orders — feeds into that dilemma perfectly. As one might expect, the editorial section is a bit light on substance and heavy on the exclamation points and recycled press releases and hype aimed more at fanboys than retailers. The section after this features the four major Premier Comics companies (Dark Horse, DC, Image and Marvel) advertising their licensed product, superheroes and related primarily-male-geek-oriented genres like horror.
Whatever doesn’t fall along these lines is treated as a one-off or special event. May, for instance, is "Manga Month 2007!" As far as I can tell, this is an irony-free effort to acknowledge a field currently far outstripping the stuff Previews usually pushes, a field whose products are starting to take up more and more pages in their own magazine even though they’re purchased for the most part in their own specialty outlets and online, rather than in comic stores whose owners and employees often note their existence grudgingly if at all. In the past Previews has also saluted, for instance, comics aimed at women (it was in a February solicitations issue, ’cause women love romance, don’tcha know!), who buy more books by far than men but way fewer comics because we’re still considered adjuncts and objects.
And not just by Previews, but by their customers – it’s 2007 and I’m still hearing stories from women who want to buy and like comics saying "I felt like I was walking into a pornography shop, it was so dingy and unwelcoming and insular." If you’re given no financial incentive to sell beyond a narrow demographic, it’s not surprising that your store will reflect that "no gurlz allowed" mentality. (And let’s not even get started on the "no kids allowed" mentality!)
I often feel excluded just flipping through the pages in Previews‘ Comics and Graphic Novels section, which contains product from all the companies that haven’t sold or paid enough to get into the Premier section. It’s hard for these companies to distinguish themselves (and getting harder to even get into Diamond’s distribution cycle in the first place!), and I feel for them, but only to a certain extent. See, I come into this section primed to buy, and expecting I’ll find all sorts of interesting stories I’ll want to try. It usually takes something of an effort to turn me off potential purchases. And yet, Previews usually accomplishes this by the letter "C."
Part of it is, I know, my personal preferences. I’m not interested in anything catering to the hetero male gaze, so right away this eliminates all the cheesecakey stuff that isn’t about the story to begin with. And all things being equal, I prefer to read stories written and drawn by women, and with lead female characters, but many solicitations are surname-only and all the cool-sounding adventures feature boys. (Except for manga, of course, and again, shouldn’t that be something of a clue for the other companies?) And as I look through Previews and see page after page of things that might interest me If Only, I’m torn between my desire to support Team Comics and my loyalty to my own tastes.
I start to feel the same way I did back in high school when the local library’s science fiction section consisted of Heinlein and Bradbury and Asimov and That Was It. Not for nothing did my post-college fantasy book buying kick consist of only books written by women; I’d felt left out of the fun for so long it took me years to return to anything male-written. And the silliest thing is, there’s just no need to exclude half your potential readership in this way. Science fiction shouldn’t be doing it, and neither should comics. We all of us yearn to be the heroes of our own adventures, and it would just seem to make more sense for stories to tap into loftier desires rather than baser ones.
Did you know Previews publishes an Adult catalog as well, of material that "due to customs and international restrictions… may not be available in some international markets"? One wonders, looking at some ads in the supposedly family-friendly version, how much worse the restricted one could possibly be. I guess there’s a reason they’re called solicitations! But my name’s not John, and I ain’t buying. (And how many actually are, when one can find so many free websites that cater to the libido much better than most drawings. But to suggest that would be going against the common wisdom, wouldn’t it?)
It sometimes takes a major effort for me to complete my Previews browsing; occasionally I’ll let it go for two or more months. Doesn’t make a difference, now that I no longer work in NYC and my actual store trips are few and far between. Previews is often my first line of exposure to what’s coming down the pike, and it’s often exhausting and discouraging and seems less and less worthwhile. The gems are hidden in tiny type and completely overwhelmed by boob-and-butt art. Because, after all, sex sells, so why take a chance on actual stories of interest beyond the drooling demographic?
And I don’t like feeling that way. I love comics, but I’d love them a lot more if more were made for me. Change has to come from within, and it’s good to see the larger companies starting to diversify their product. But that product won’t be ordered, publicized and sold by stores in anything approaching healthy quantities unless those same companies have enough confidence in their pamphlets (already seen by many as loss-leaders for graphic novels and trade paperback collections, with their longer shelf lives and greater potential in non-specialty outlets) to make them returnable.
Publishers need to give retailers a bigger break than price discounts if they want those primary customers to stay in business. Once that major financial hurdle is jumped, stores can stock more than the usual, and Previews can promote and distribute it accordingly. And little by little, making my buying decisions will become less onerous and more like fun. Which is, to me, part of what comics is all about.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor and has been very busy lately, but still hopes to take some time this Saturday to introduce her godson to the wonders of Free Comic Book Day. After all, she’s responsible for his spiritual development.