Tagged: Comic Book Shops

Marc Alan Fishman: Epic Barriers to Entry

That thought of a 9-year old girl being intimidated by her local comic shop has not left my mind, kiddos.

I said what I could on the subject just a few weeks ago. Beyond the local comic shop being the culprit for the stagnation we as fans feel for the specific love of the pulp and paper side of comic bookery, there’s a plethora of other barriers to entry. Little mountains that stand in the way for people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and level of declared geekery that make the journey to our shores feel not unlike the one those halflings took from their little town, to that live volcano. And much like that epic, the damned eagles were there all along if anyone would have thought to ask for a quicker trip.

Epic Back Catalogs    

“I like Captain America!” the little tyke exclaims. He’s taken to his local comic shop, allowance in tow. Where, oh where does he begin? If he gets the current issue, he might be wondering why Steve Rogers is an agent of Hydra. Or why Sam Wilson isn’t Falcon. And just how many issues does he need to go back and buy to catch up? Of which volume? And what about trades vs. floppies? Or what if, by chance, the book falls in the middle of an epic crossover?

Touched on lightly in my aforementioned article, the advent of the epic crossover has been a thoroughly exhausting trend weaved into the modern comic book production schedule. It seems once to twice a year now, the big boys of comics (who are the specific targets I’m aiming at here) are hellbent to change the status quo. Grand schemes crawl and sprawl across special mini-series, and dump into the pages of dozens of titles – all in the effort to tell a larger story.

When it was done with years in-between, it was great! Crisis on Infinite Earths, Civil War, or The Infinity Gauntlet each stood as massive touchstones for years to come. Their larger-than-normal villains had massive plans, which required the multi-tentacled reach of an editorial Cthulu in order to come to the final catharsis. And in their wakes? New rules, new books, and time to let what transpired breathe.

Now?  Not so much. Every book becomes mandatory reading, and before you blink, new series are given birth, fail to catch on, and are chucked into the ethereal pit from whence they came. How could a muggle traipse into their local comic shop, cash and enthusiasm in hand, be told in order to jump on board they’ll need to drop serious coin, and spend the remainder of their afternoon reading Wikipedia to make sense of it all? This, of course, leads me to…

Epic Pricing

A standard comic, all-in-all, isn’t that expensive… until you compare it to similar media. A weeks’ worth of books for me (back when I bought books weekly) ran me $15-20 for a small haul. Left on the back of my toilet for easy-reading and metering out, I was done just in time for a whole new set the following week. For roughly the same amount of money I can have both the WWE Network and Netflix… which combined provide me thousands of hours of entertainment I don’t even need to read to enjoy. Apples to oranges you say? Correct, padawan. But tell that to an 8-year old.

Make no bones about it: kids do love comics. The static art being produced in any number of styles, slaved over by teams of passionate creators should be beloved, cherished, and sought after. For Rao’s sake, that is why I toil nightly to produce my own books! But I’d be lying if I didn’t feel like it can be a bit of a hard sell when the average comic can be absorbed in 15 minutes. The economics of it are depressing.

And, to my knowledge, publishers-at-large haven’t exactly solved how to compete. While Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and their next-of-kin pony up money for solid, respectable original content in addition to their bread-and-butter second-hand material… they have all found the panacea to their pricier counterpoints (cable TV, and the movie theater). Simply put, they found a price so low that people can barely argue about their subscription. For roughly ten bucks a month, their consumers have more content available then they can consume.

So, why haven’t the publishers figured this out?

Epic Conclusions on Infinite Earths

As it stands, there are no easy answers. Netflix and the like all started in different places – Netflix as a mail-order rent-a-DVD catalog, Hulu as pricey YouTube – but would up in the same business. DC, Marvel, and the other major publishers each offer a maddening number of ways to consume their comic content. Floppies or trades? Printed or Digital? Direct market, subscriptions, ComiXology, Comix Blitz, or any other number of other ways I don’t know? Because the original content is printed (but doesn’t necessarily need to be), it simply stands to ask the biggest question of all:

In the land of plenty, is the niche market of comic books too splintered to be as profitable as it needs to be… to sustain real growth? Are there simply too many choices out there for a truly casual fan to make a choice they can feel confident in, when it comes to their consumption? And is the looming specter of a digital device being so ubiquitous, how far off are we truly to even needing paper books? It’s why vinyl records made a comeback, and CDs are nearly non-existent. It’s why DVDs and Blu-Rays are slowly being discount-binned into-oblivion. And why we all have at very least… free Spotify or something similar on our smartphones.

In my estimation, the only way comics can truly save the day, is to match what their brethren in other industries have done. There needs to be a singular wave of content accessible, available, and bingeable… offered at a price so low it can’t be argued with. Weekly comics need to still create an eco-system in the direct market… but come packaged in such a way that it allows new readers to have their cake and eat it too. The ocean of content that exists in long boxes needs to be set free, where all publishers can coexist. The eagles are soaring over our heads. We need only ask for a ride into the mouth of the volcano.

Marc Alan Fishman: Are Comics Shops Intimidating?

How do we earn new fans of comic books? Not comics characters, mind you. Long before he could recognize them immediately on a page, my son learned about the Avengers via movies, Batman via cartoon shows, and Spider-Man via his pajamas. As he and my younger son grow up, they will no doubt be immersed in comics culture. It helps when daddy is chained to his desktop computer and/or iPad Pro every day making his own comics, but I can easily imagine how their generation — with more content in more available mediums that I would have in my own childhood (which in itself was fairly diverse all things considered) — could lose comics in the shuffle so easily.

While he was joking, my good friend and comic retailer Shawn Hilton (of Comics Cubed in Kokomo, Indiana), was quick to make his request to save the industry at large. “Destroy all devices with “I” in the title, get rid of cell phones, and destroy the internet. Minecraft and YouTube have to be wiped out as well.”

He makes a point. The ubiquitous market of video games and streaming video compete with pulp and paper in the most unfair of fights. Find me a kid who chooses prose to pixels, and I’ll show you a diamond in the rough. I’m not here to pat myself on the back. I personally didn’t find a love of comics specifically until I was in middle school, and even then my initial liking of them was tied specifically in with wanting to have more in common with my-soon-to-be brother-from-another-mother, Unshaven Comics’ own Matt Wright.

Another friend of mine, mother to an bright and amazing nine-year old girl, was quick to denote the barrier to entry in the subculture. When I asked her if she ever took her child to the local comic shop, her reply broke my heart.

“We have. She always grabs a few at Free Comic Book Day, and she purchased a Donald Duck comic once. The store intimidates her though, even though she knows on of the staff (our next-door neighbor and friend works there one night a week to pay for his books). Dan Mishkin belongs to our synagogue as well, and she enjoyed a comic book workshop he taught recently, and she’s “writing” her own book now too, but she doesn’t like the comic shop. She feels more comfortable at a traditional bookstore. Comic shops are not generally welcoming places for nine-year old girls.”

Let’s dissect that a bit. Her daughter is one of the good eggs, the kind we strive to hold amongst our ranks. The lure of Free Comic Book Day clearly has worked a bit. The local community hosting a comic book workshop helped too. But twice in her response my friend is clear: “the store intimidates her.”

In the war to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of comic book fans, I am of the opinion that it will begin and end with the local comic shop. While Shawn may do battle with smartphones, tablets, and YouTube, I am apt to defend those distractions to the death. It can never be us vs. them. There is room for both electronic and paper entertainment. Marvel, DC, and the industry writ-large is holding up their end of the bargain — saturating the market with high quality adapted works for TV, movies, and video games. They’re introducing the next generation to their characters and storylines right where that next generation is looking. The local comic shops must find the way to build the bridge from those screens to their doors.

I should note that the publishers bear the burden of offering comics that keeps kids coming back. I freely admit I got event-comic’ed to death. The continual need to collect books I didn’t want to ensure I got the whole story felt (and was) a cheap ploy to ply my money from my hands. The tail wagged the dog too much, and I was forced out of weekly books — opting instead to seek more backing of Kickstarters and artist alleys at comic conventions to satiate my need for sequential art. The devil is always in the details.

I know that without my own hometown always have a comic shop nearby, I would have never found myself rifling through a long box for a back issue. Without a (mostly) friendly staff there to hold my books weekly, make excellent suggestions and jabber with me when I wanted to vent, I’d never have become a subscriber. To save printed comics, we must save small businesses in our communities. In turn, those businesses must do what they can to attract all manners of customers and serve them. I don’t profess to know that specific secret mind you; it’s why Matt and I turned down the chance to own our own comic shop about a year ago.

Inevitably, I’ve ended up as a snake eating its own tail here. The comic shops must be all-inclusive. The publishers must produce meaningful work at an affordable price. Kids have to see the value in the printed comic being physically in their possession over dropping bitcoins into Candy Crush. Inevitably many comic shops wind up catering to the older generations with more disposable income and they don’t care about kids coming in for some all-ages books. The publishers produce the cash-grab-friendly crossover event comics because time-and-again it lands them predictable revenue in an ever-growing marketplace with hot competition.  And the kids are lured away by Minecraft. Ce la vie.

But I remain a vigilant optimist. The next generation of comic book fans are out there. The only way we’ll earn their fandom is to do the work to earn it.

So… what have you done to keep our medium alive today?

Ed Catto: Our Geek Economy

Aw Yeah

In recent years we’ve seen big changes in the Pop Culture retail landscape. Record stores are a thing of the past, of course. We all buy, own and experience music in very different ways than we did even ten years ago. Big toy stores like Toys R Us continue to struggle while small stores become as rare as Tickle Me Elmo was a decade ago. Independent bookstores have struggled, clobbered by online sales and the big chains. In fact, the remaining big retail chains are struggling too.

BookendsBarnes & Noble reported that revenue for its fiscal first quarter (which ended on Aug 1st – contradicting all those calendars they sell) at its retail stores and website fell to $939 million, a drop of 1.7% vs. the previous year. EBIDA (earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization) for their retail business fell $21 million, to $45 million, versus a year ago.

But independent bookstores that focus on events, such as author signings and book premiere parties, perform better. In my suburban community just outside of New York City, we have a fantastic bookstore called Bookends. When traffic is clogged in our little downtown, the first thought that comes to mind is “Bookends must have a big celebrity in today for a book signing.”

HagarAnd my cousin, Yamu, drove five hours to attend the Sammy Hagar book signing at Bookends.

Similarly, comic shops seem to be doing pretty well. The general media has done a good job reporting how comic conventions continue to grow, but the other half of the story is that comic shops, as specialty retailers, are doing pretty well.

Two FerI’m researching for more hard data, but there is an undeniable optimism in the air. One unnamed source at a leading publisher told me, ”I can also add to your anecdotal data from retailers by adding that in conversations I’ve had over the past two months with approximately a dozen retailers I have heard YOY gains ranging from 4-9%, and no downturns amongst those I’ve spoken with.”

There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons contributing to the health of this retail sector. “Success has many fathers…” as the old saying goes. But I’m convinced that one of the key drivers is the ability of comic stores to provide those special events and moments that create memorable experiences for fans.

Three-FerSometimes a comic retail shop is like the proverbial office water cooler. Today, passionate fans come armed with their own opinions and news (so much is gleaned from the Internet) eager for the opportunity to share one-to-one.

Today, fans come with a clear expectation of what new products will be available, but are simultaneously ready for a weekly treasure hunt for new goodies. Today, fans come for author/artist signings or to buy tickets to conventions.

It’s so much more about the experience than it is about the accumulation of stuff.

The Brooding HulkVisits to comic shops are about seeing what’s out there, learning what other people like and finding out about upcoming movies, TV shows and products.

It was in 1998 when the Harvard Business Review published Pine and Gilbert’s Experience Economy article. They argued that American culture had started as an agriculturally based society, then morphed with the industrial revolution, shifted into a service economy and had blossomed into an experiential-based economy.

Hats off to the entrepreneurial comic shop retailers and to the fans that embrace Geek Culture for figuring this out and making it work. It’s a unique retail environment full of marketing potential and community building.

I’m looking forward not only to Local Comic Shop Day on November 28th, but to a lot more experiences in comic shops every week.

Ed Catto: The Retail Panel That Started 35 Years Ago

Maxwells Another one of the panels I moderated at San Diego Comic-Con was called “The 7 Comic Shop Archetypes.” “Who Will Triumph, Thrive and Survive?” was the admittedly over-the-top subheading. The purpose of this B2B panel was to explore the business aspects of this retail outlet that serves as both the sentry guard and encouraging ambassador for the exploding world of Pop Culture. In many ways, comic shops are on the frontier of one-to-one customer service for many communities and customers.

IMG_2923I was excited to start this panel on that Saturday of SDCC, but I think it really started way back in the ‘70s. I clearly remember that point where I had graduated to buying my own comics each week. Before that, my dad had bought me a comic each Sunday after our traditional Italian Pasta Dinner. He’s a very generous guy, and sometimes still buys me comics. Now I had reached a point where I was really into purchasing comics myself with money I earned. Imagining myself as a “world’s greatest detective type,” I took great pride in discerning the shipping schedules for all the comics.

I learned that Thursday was the day they’d rack the new comics. And then I decrypted the Marvel monthly schedule. The Avengers always showed up on the first week of the month, then Captain America and Thor the second week, Spider-Man was the third week and Fantastic Four was always the last week of the month. This was well before the Diamond Previews catalog existed, and I was still a couple of years away from discovering fanzines like The Comic Reader.

So each Thursday I’d ride my bike down to Maxwell’s Food Store at Five Points in Auburn, NY. In typical upstate New York fashion, this was a wonky place where five roads intersected. Maxwell’s, a family owned store, was a kind of “prototype 7-11” style convenience store. When I was there, the stock boy always lurked about, suspicious that I would steal comics. After a while I tolerated that. But I never got used to the “aren’t you a little old for those funny books?” stare from them all. Thankfully, I think that’s stigma’s finally been erased for today’s comic buyers.

One day, on my way home, with my stack of new comics, I saw an incredible sight. Right next to the local barbershop, a man and a woman were moving boxes into the tiny storefront. (We never got our hair cut there – he wasn’t Italian). And they had a sign out front: Kim’s Collectible Comics and Records.


I was jumping outta my skin. I introduced myself and pestered them, anxious to go into their store. But they just weren’t ready and explained they were opening the next day. They gave me the “come back tomorrow” line, and I sure did.

The next morning, I was there waiting for them to open up…. and, as you can guess, I went back again and again.

Since then, I’ve always had the good fortune of having a great local comic shop in all the places I’ve lived:

  • Comics For Collectors in Ithaca
  • Million Year Picnic, New England Comics and Newbury Comics in Boston
  • Chapel Hill Comics when I was doing my graduation work at UNC (“Go ‘Heels! Dook sucks!”)
  • Joker’s Child when we settled down in New Jersey
  • Midtown Comics & Jim Hanley’s Universe were perfect for a weekday visit when I commuted into NYC

And now I’m lucky that I can always rationalize a comic shop trip when I’m traveling.

Comic Shops are an important lynchpin for Pop Culture. They also represent a vanishing breed of community-based retailer. Most of us no longer have a neighborhood butcher, a neighborhood vacuum-cleaner-repairman or a neighborhood bartender. Even the person who does your hair probably doesn’t have an exclusive relationship with you. Some of us are lucky enough to have independent, neighborhood bookstores, but not many.

But to many consumers, comic shops are the place where they can find a friendly advisor as they walk down the perilous path of pop culture. And at the same time, they provide a real world “water cooler” opportunity to speak face-to-face with someone passionate and knowledgeable.

Last year at this time, Business Insider proclaimed, “The Comic Book Industry is On Fire, and it’s not just the movies.” Reporter Gus Luben talked about the increase in graphic novels and comics and about the perfect storm of media exposure and conventions. They projected the sales of just comics and GNs at $870 Million at that time. As you’ve been seeing if you’ve been paying attention, that’s all just increased and intensified in 2015.

In my job, as I help connect brands with pop culture in authentic ways, I know that more companies and marketing agencies take geek culture more seriously. Smart marketers understand how important comics shops can be in developing those conversations and relationships. You didn’t have to attend my SDCC panel to understand that.