‘We are literally a shop-window for the industry.’
Derek Watson, Chaos City Comics, St Albans, UK.
Recently whilst attending a Marvel Comics panel at the KAPOW London comic convention a very commonly posed question was asked by a member of the audience. He quite understandably asked about the possibility of same day digital and physical comics releases. He professed to be busy at work and having to travel a lot. For his ease he was curious, as much of his comics reading is done on an iPad.
As questions go at Comics Conventions this is not an unusual question and it is something that seems to be on many peoples minds at the moment.
It was however the answer that got me thinking.
Steve Whacker (who is currently in the editorial chair at Marvel for the Spider-Man titles) answered the query. He admitted that the time may eventually come when comic stories are released on digital and in their physical format simultaneously. What he did go on to say was that this is not currently in any form of a planning stage at his company. And interestingly the main reason for this is that Marvel Comics value their relationship with comics stores and he referred to them as ‘partners.’
An interesting reply indeed.
We have seen some simultaneous releases recently. (The Iron Man Annual last year for example). But Mr Whacker claims that this was little more than an experiment. I for one genuinely hope that this is the case for all the big companies.
All of the above got me thinking about the value of the local comic shop. I make weekly use of my LCS and value the ease at getting the comics I read and the sense of community and involvement it supplies.
At the heart of this problem is the growing difficulty we can have at finding comics to read (the internet aside). I have been reading and collecting for roughly 35 years and back when I was a kid I would cycle to the surrounding newsagents to seek out new issues. Comics seemed to be available everywhere. You would go on holiday and find a pile for sale in a seaside shop or on a market stall. I am the first to admit that there was a serious lack of continuity for these shops. Sometimes a couple of months would go past without new deliveries however there would always be some somewhere.
So when did it all change? Was it the dawn of the direct sales market. Was it the growth of the internet and sites like DCBS and E-bay? I remember finding my first regular comics shop by pure chance (Globe Comics, Ipswich Town in the UK). It was a decidedly back street shop with a bit of a whiffy back room. I became a young but loyal customer and would hang about bothering the owner throughout my mid teens. The comics I bought there are still stuck in my memory.
But do comics shops think that they owe the comics reader / collector / nerd any kind of service at all (above and beyond the financial benefit of doing so)?
I have canvassed a few comics shops and asked their opinions on what they think their roles are with some interesting results.
Derek from Chaos City Comics (http://www.chaoscitycomics.com/ ) in St Albans has a pragmatic approach to the subject and made the following point.
‘Comic shops are increasingly becoming the only place that you can buy the monthly issues (at least here in the UK). And, with the alarming demise of most high street book stores, we are pretty much the only place you can buy graphic novels from a physical location!’
This has never been truer. We have seen the closure of bookshops all over the country. Look at the demise of Borders for example. They always gave the impression that they were backers of comics as a medium. I know from personal experience that the Charing Cross Road branch in central London had a number of promotional events around graphic novels. Sadly though Borders has now gone. Could Waterstones be far behind?
But shouldn’t a comics shop offer more than the Graphic Novel section of a bookshop?
Jared from OK Comics in Leeds ( http://www.okcomics.co.uk/ ) makes the following point. He seems to understand the personal touch that a comic shop can supply.
‘There's a comic out there for everyone, and I see it as my job to put the book and the reader together.’
To me there are a number of reasons that I value my LCS. Reliability is most certainly one of them. I work long hours and often won’t be able to get in to the shop on the day of release. Because of the service I get there I know that I won’t miss out on the books that I buy (as I have a pull list). The shop owner know my tastes in comics and will put aside some of the titles that are more likely to sell out quickly and I might miss out on. He also preorders titles for me, recommends new series I might like and brings my attention to things I may not have heard about.
Should a comic shop offer more than convenience when buying your weekly stack?
Derek from Chaos City Comics has the following to say.
‘Comic-stores also provide the focal point for the hobby as a whole. It's here that collectors can physically browse the vast selection of books and related merchandise that are on offer and, more importantly in my opinion, actually meet other collectors to share their love for the medium.’
It is clearly in the interests of the LCS to have a sense of community. It is certainly something that I will seek out. I enjoy the company of (most) regulars at my shop and look forward to talking about the product. This personal contact is something that not even the most sophisticated internet message board can supply.
A good comics shop should and often does provide that sense of belonging that you get elsewhere from a good local bar, pub or a club. The best comics shops that I have visited world wide are those that allow you to hang out, browse and chat. Something you don’t get in a chain bookshop.
In an age of uncertainty regarding the future of the medium what does this mean for the LCS? And what can be done to fight the decline?
Ooh what a thorny subject this is. I should also be careful not to wander as this question also addresses in so many ways the industry as a whole. We as an industry need to promote new readers and this translates to the comic shop more than ever. What is the secret to this? I am not a businessman so I cannot comment on the financial aspects but what I do know is that the quality of the art form has never been better. Comics are better written, drawn and printed than they ever have been in the past. But how do we get that message across to the general public.
If comics were bullets who would we fire them at? Video game players? They presumably would have the visual imagination needed. Do book shop regulars need to be pulled out of their tatty graphic novel sections and in to their LCS? There are many answers to this question.
With the wealth of comic related projects out there at the moment there has never been a time when the characters have been part of our collective consciousnesses more than now. Millions of people have been to see The Dark Knight or Spider-Man but when did you walk out of your multiplex to see a table selling comics or even a poster advertising a local shop. Education is certainly a good start. On a local level who other than the LCS is able to help with this?
Maybe events are the answer. Get a named writer or artist in and have them talk about the medium and maybe do a signing. There is nothing that encourages me to pick up a title more than the creator talking enthusiastically about its origins and philosophy. This sort of communication is infectious. I recently attended an event where Mike Carey talked about The Unwritten and I straightaway bought and read the series. How about linking the signing to something else. Get the comics writer in who is also a writer for TV or a gaming company and link the two hobbies. It can only be mutually productive. Kids will go to a Doctor Who or Ben 10 event but maybe not a comics event? What do you think?
It is also fair to say that comics are currently seen as ‘cooler’ than they ever have been before. So why are the numbers not higher. It’s easy to blame the rise of the internet and the proliferation of the video / computer game but we still should be doing much higher numbers.
But let’s face it the comic shop is not to blame for the decline. A change in how we consume media would appear to be the main culprit. But people being people we still on the whole crave that personal touch. A sense that we are not the sole person involved in the hobby. Sure most of us can be overly nerdy and the proprietary nature of each fans ownership of a character is often annoying and overbearing. Fans and by extrapolation the comic shops that they attend can provide an unnerving experience to strangers (in many ways like the record shops that preceded them). But this is slowly changing. How long ago was it that you would never see an actual real to life female in a shop. Now they are commonly catered for.
The over used phrase is applicable as ever ‘this is not a genre it is a medium.’ Many of the comics shops have grasped this fact and cater for all tastes. Gosh Comics in central London is a great example of this. It is situated near a big London museum and has a real art book shop vibe to it. David’s Comics in Brighton (surely the heart of the cool and hip in the UK) caters to counter culture and the new underground comics scene. It’s the knowledge of your customer base and the encouragement of them through style and product that seems to often be the key.
Comics are also valuable beyond the obvious. They are often a valuable educational tool. Visual literacy is a hot subject at the moment and a reliable and useful teaching style. Libraries seem to increasingly becoming supporters of the medium. I have attended talks by Dave Gibbons, Mike Carey and Pat Mills at local council libraries over the last couple of years and at each talk there has been a table of products to buy from the LCS. There are very few other local businesses that provide similar services. So many things are now comics related (often without people knowing) so shouldn’t we be getting involved more?
Derek again makes a valid comment.
‘More and more schools are identifying the value of sequential art in terms of improving visual literacy, and because of this parents are also starting to see their educational benefits - of course, if the parents are already comic book fans their children already have the advantage! - but there still needs to be a place where parents can take their children to browse the books that may inspire them.’
Listen I am just a comics fan. I have no real professional experience in the industry so all of my thoughts may be obvious conjecture to a hard working LCS owner.
What I am sure of is that the Local Comic Shop is a valuable asset. It’s worth goes beyond the obvious. Yes it is a place to buy and order comics, trades and related ephemera. However it also has the purpose of being that needed focal point for the hobby. To maintain an industry around the pastime it needs to grow the seeds placed in the local community. A place to hang out, a place to talk up the industry (oh yes and bitch about it when needed).
I for one will continue to get most of my product in this way (the discount never hurts). And continue to enjoy what it gives to me.
Long live the local comic shop.
Thanks to Derek and Jared at Chaos City and OK Comics for offering some opinions on the subject. Both shops are well worth a visit if you are in their respective towns.