by Brandon Schatz
There was a piece hovering around the comics internet this weekend about the industry’s supposed need of more shit-talkers. It was an interesting and well-intentioned conversation, but the premise was flawed from the start. The industry doesn’t need destructive forces. It currently has its fill of that. What the industry needs is more constructure forces. It needs companies and retailers and creators and fans who will ask uncomfortable questions and confront uncomfortable answers.
When I write these pieces, I always try to stay constructive. It would be very easy to tears strips off a publisher or a creator and cry doom at the top of my lungs and call it a day. Have you ever tried to build a house? What a condescending question. Sorry about that. The point is, building a house is hard. Knocking it down is a whole lot easier. If you build, it means you have a place to work and live for a while. If you break, you have a pile of rubble to kick around. Is this metaphor working at all? Regardless, I want to build something – or at least help do it. To do that, I need a foundation. If I’m going to stress the metaphor even further, I need a basement. This is going to be that basement.
A few words of warning: this is going to be rough, and broad. The intent is to hit upon all the key parts of the industry, and provide a basic structure for what the basic roles are, and what they should accomplish. There is very little finesse involved at this stage, as the concrete is poured, but nobody expects a basement to be fancy – or at least, not when you’re providing the bones. I need to shut up about houses.
The comic book industry, broken down to its foundation, as seen by a retailer. Here goes.
A reader is a person who likes comics and reads them in their spare time. A singular reader has likes and dislikes, and their money spent reflects this.
As a collective, readers are the hot molten core of the industry. Without them, there would be no reason to exist, no reason to produce. As a mass, they have an indirect effect on what is made, and a more direct effect on what sticks. Their job, if you can call it that, is to purchase and consume. That is it. That is all.
Readers are not arbiters, no matter what anybody says. They do not settle disputes and their purchases should say nothing more than “I like this” and “I don’t like that”. While some would shame and call readers to task for their habits, at a basic level, the industry should be allowed to provide the experience of entertainment unencumbered, first and foremost. Shades and layers can and should always be plied atop of this foundation, but readers shouldn’t be required to keep up with the inner machinations of comic book companies, or the ethics of creator compensation or the like. As long as the urge for entertainment is being sated, then the readers are sated.
A creator is a person who likes comics and creates them – sometimes as a job, sometimes as an outlet. If a creator is working in the comic book industry, there is something about it that speaks to them in a way that other mediums can’t quite sate. This is why they are here, and not there, after all.
Creators craft stories that they want and need to tell. Why would they do anything else? Why should they do anything else?
Creators are not responsible for making the landscape of the industry diverse. Their first responsibility should always been themselves, first and foremost. Readers can tell if a creator is hacking a book out, and they usually react. More than anything, readers wants to connect with the material, and the easiest way for that to happen is for the creator or creators to feel connected as well, to form that connection at inception. When this happens or as this happens, the reaction between creator, creation and reader is pure. It satisfies need, and fuels the industry with content. This is what is needed. This is the goal.
A critic is a person who likes comics or admires the craft. At their best, they can take a comic and reverse engineer it, pulling out various bits of writing and art and ably seeing how parts function separately and together.
A great critic uses opinion sparingly to inform an audience of personal bias while providing readers with the means to make an informed decision. Therein lies the key difference between a true critic, and a fan. A fan lives and breathe opinion and uses that in an attempt to sway readers. There’s nothing wrong with this, but ascribing a critical nature to a screed based more in opinion than craft is selling the art of critique short. Having the money to have internet access and the wherewithal to stake out a piece of internet real estate does not make you a critic, it makes you a person who has access to the internet. That said, there is never, ever anything wrong with having or sharing opinions. That’s what I’m doing here, after all. What I’m presenting here isn’t fact so much as it’s my interpretation of certain facts. I would also not describe myself as a critic, but a retailer with opinions.
A publisher is a person or a group of people who like comics. People might say otherwise, but there’s a good reason they chose to work in the industry – and it sure as hell isn’t the money.
Publishers make comics because they love them. In a perfect world, they might do this without any other motive, but because it’s our world, they have to serve the needs of the business so that readers have something to read and creators have something to create.
Publishers have it rough. Keeping a balance of art and business is hard, as evidenced by the trail of broken ongoings left in the dust of time. Nobody starts a project with intending for its life to be cut short. No one creates a character with the hopes that their time will come before it’s due – but it happens. Readers don’t connect, either emotionally or physically. The business doesn’t support the art, and so something has to give. If something doesn’t give, then soon, the company goes along with it. So yes, it would be great if a book like Ms. Marvel would go on forever, and yes, it might be great if there was one or two less X-Men or Batman books on the schedule – but a publisher can’t ignore the information that readers give them. That said, they can and should ignore the information that a reader gives them. There is nothing worse than a reader or a fan calling dominion over public opinion. Again: a reader is not an arbiter. A fan is not an arbiter. They are singular. When part of a mass, when measured in sales, they are a force to be listened to and reckoned with, and not before that.
A distributor might not actually like comics – although that is more my personal opinion than actual fact. Currently, the comic industry’s physical distributor is nearly singular, with a few bits and bobs trickling out to newsstands from magazine distributors. It’s legal digital distributor is similar, though infinitely more complicated to get into in this particular article. Rest assured, that will be explored in full at a later date. Anyway, distributors are often just a means to an end – and to that end, ours are a little problematic. For instance, this week, I was shorted the entirety of my All New Ultimates order. This is something that occurs far too regularly, along with miscounted quantities and scads of damaged product. In a perfect world, a distributor would get content out without much or any conflict, allowing retailers and readers access without barrier. Which brings us to:
A retailer is a person or people who like comics. Or at least they should. They are the nexus of all points, where the needs of readers and creators and publishers and distributors all meet. Retailers pay for product. They are also paid for product. As such, they carry with them some immeasurable responsibilities. They need to be fans, they need to be businesses, and they need to be critics, and they need to know how to properly measure out doses of all three. Retailers who don’t do this? They don’t need to exist.
I am a retailer. I order books, and I make sure comics get into the hands of the people who want to read them. That is what I do. That is my goal. I know full well that I’m not needed. If there was a system that moved people straight to the product, we wouldn’t need to exist. And yes, I know, “the future is now”. ComiXology and the like provide that very service to people, combining the retailer and distributor into a singular entity. (More to the point, Marvel’s Unlimited app does something similar, though it condenses the retailer and distributor roles even further into the publishing realm.) Yet, retailers still exist. Are they vestigial appendages to an old system? Are they a vital part of the future of the industry?
The answer to both questions are “yes”. There are retailers out there who are a means to an end. They exist because they’ve always existed, and were once a vital part of the industry – but they are no longer required. These retailers will disappear into the ether, providing a service that can be obtained elsewhere, with easier access. There are other retailers, however, that will remain, despite the changes the industry will face. They are the ones who take upon all rolls, and balance them with aplomb. They are the readers, they are the fans, they are the distributors who know and care about the wants and needs of their customers. They are the ones who seek to work with the publishers, even when the publishers might be seemingly working against them. They are the ones who can’t help but love this industry, and claw for the best. They are the ones who address hard questions and attempt to deal with the consequence of hard answers, balancing art and commerce so that readers and creators don’t have to.
This industry needs good retailers. At least for now. Who knows, in the future, all comics might be digital. I’ve long suspected the fact that single issues will disappear in the physical format, leaving stores as a place to obtain physical collections for all those who wish for their favourites to take up tangible space in their lives. Whatever happens, the industry will need all of it’s cogs to work in perfect or near perfect order to continue. It will need a solid base to grow from. Hopefully, we can all make that happen.\
[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He's spent the past four as the manager of Wizard's Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and stares at passive keyboards and empty word documents, making secret wishes and bargains that will surely come back to haunt him. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]