The first superhero comic I paid for with my own money was Sensational Spider-Man #0. It arrived at the pharmacy my mom worked at one cold December before school had let out for winter break. In those days, I would walk to my parent’s work after school and sit in the back reading comics until she finished and drove me and my sister home. It was a pretty sweet set up, and let me get into comics gently. Most of the books on the stands made little to no sense for me, operating on stories that had been set up months, if not years in advance, and requiring an access to titles that sometimes didn’t make it to the pharmacy’s comic book rack. Then, it arrived.
Wrapped inside a polybag with the intent to stay out of the prying hands of children, it sat on the shelf taunting me, a new beginning for a character I had grown to love on television, complete with a snazzy lenticular card attached to the cover. It was beautiful. It was also $7 Canadian, a veritable fortune to me at that point in my life. Eventually, I scraped together the cash and popped that sucker open. It was a bit confusing (although not as confusing as the last bits of the Clone Saga that immediately preceded it to the shelves), but all in all a satisfying read. It was also the first time I heard the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”.
While the phrase itself sometimes elicits groans from crusty old Spider-Man fans who already know Peter Parker’s deal, I’ve always been in the camp that enjoys seeing the phrase float through an adventure every now and then. Not only was it good advice for a fictional superhero, I find it’s just a great phrase to ply to several aspects of reality – especially comics retail.
As a retailer, I have a certain amount of power. For many people, I’m the face of the comic book industry. I am the person in control of the environment they walk into when they first decide to get comics. I’m the person who has hand picked what sits on the shelves, and in what quantity. That’s a lot of power to have, and it needs to be wielded responsibly. If I’ve created an unwelcoming environment, or if I have a poor selection on the shelves, I run the risk of having a new customer walk in, only to walk right out again. That would be irresponsible of me as a business, and as a representative of this industry.
A good comics retailer should always be thinking about what their store and selection is saying to people about the comic book industry. Are you upset that people think of comics as “just superheroes”? Does your store happen to feature a majority of those books on the shelves? That might be part of the problem. While it’s easy to shrug and say “superheroes sell”, that’s not the entire truth. Superhero books often sell themselves, whereas other titles need you to be a little proactive. If you want to reflect certain ideals in the comic industry and if you want to build it up, you absolutely have the power to do so at your finger tips.
Before I go on, I should say that there isn’t one good answer for being a great comic book retailer. There is an audience for all things, and if you want to focus on a certain aspect of the culture in the comic book industry, than more power to you. I like to focus on keeping my store’s content fairly broad and I emphasize a culture where everyone’s favourite comic is valid. I can do this because my temperament allows it, and it makes for quite a wide ranging customer base, which is always good for business. Many people don’t have this capacity, and focus on a small subset that aligns with their interest – and while it sounds like I might be shaming that practice, I really have no problem with folks who know what they like and market accordingly. Honesty will get you far in this business, and pretending to be something that you’re not will often only end in heartbreak. This industry is large enough to take on all comers, whether your focus is on superhero books or back issues or independent zine style books – but if you want to survive and thrive, you have to be honest with yourself and passionate about the product. What you can’t do is feed yourself with one hand, and decry yourself with the other.
Over the past few weeks, dozen of people have sent me links to things Chuck Rozanski had to say about his experience at this year’s San Diego Comic Con as a retailer. For those of you who don’t know, Chuck is the President of Mile High Comics, a site and shop that specializes in comics and collectibles for premium prices. After San Diego this year, he took to the internet to lament what would amount to a $10,000 loss from having attended the show. As he notes in the newsletter, he made a considerably greater amount of money at a smaller convention with the same set up than he did at San Diego, and he has some ideas as to why that is – mainly, publishers are cutting him out of some seemingly well deserved profits using booth exclusive product.
“…the comics publishers with booths at the San Diego convention have so cleverly exploited the greed and avarice of comics fans through limited edition publications that are only available through their own booths, that there is no longer enough disposable income left in the room to sustain us.”
He has quite a bit more to say on the subject, but the crux of it is in that quote. He is upset that comic book publishers are cutting him out of their business model when he attends shows, and sees that as an affront to his business. I don’t entirely blame him, because in many ways, that’s exactly what is happening. Rozanski is not wrong, just a little blind to the hypocrisy of it all.
Mile High is a site and a business that makes no bones about what they do: they buy comics and sell comics in a very specific and managed way, offering a wide selection of back issues to collectors on the hunt. Over the years, I’ve been the recipient of rants regarding their business practices, including a perceived “over-pricing” of items, done so deliberately to work with their frequent site code word sales that slash the prices of many books to manageable levels. While I don’t dabble too much in the back issue market outside of business, I know that if I’m stuck for pricing a back issue, I can always look at the Mile High price and knock it down by anywhere from 25-50% and come up with something palatable. I know that I would never purchase from them if I was looking for a decent price. Again, I don’t intend for that to be a knock on their business structure – they’ve been around longer than I’ve been into comics, and you can’t quite argue with a structure that allows you to weather a $10,000 with a few internet posts and a shrug and not the immediate or impending closure of your business. The market they are aiming for exists, I just don’t happen to be a part of it. That said, Chuck’s line about publisher’s preying on the greed and avarice of comic fans is fairly chuckle worthy. By now, you can probably see where I’m going with this, but in the interest of clarity, let’s lay things out.
As a business, and a successful one at that, a retailer will always prey upon the so-called greed and avarice of their customers. The crux of business comes from a consumer’s basic needs. The comic book industry, which provides entertainment more than it helps sustain our body’s basic needs, falls into an area of wants, rather than needs. Nobody needs comics, they want them – and if a publisher or retailer is doing their job properly, they can get consumers to want a lot of their product. Attaching the names of a couple of the deadly sins to the process does make the whole enterprise seem quite lascivious, but I do believe that was Chuck’s intent. He wants publishers to feel bad about selling their exclusive wares directly to the customer. To be fair to him, he’s not upset because they’re doing it (and he shouldn’t, considering how Mile High has an armful of variants exclusive to their store as well in stock), but the fact that they won’t let him in on the cash and prizes end of the deal – which is ridiculous.
Just like Mile High Comics, the comic book publishers are running a business, pure and simple. It behooves them to get product to customers in the most efficient form possible, both in terms of delivery and cost. These days, brick and mortar stores aren’t really doing the trick. In a world where digital product can reach the eyes of the consumer with a few clicks, you have to have a better reason that “existing” to bring in the customers when cutting out the middleman allows an easier and more cost effective product for all those involved. The same goes for conventions. If a publisher and a retailer are placed on equal footing, what incentive does the publisher have to sell you their product below the listed retail price? What more are you offering them? Surely it’s not distribution, because they are already there and have the structure to distribute just fine.
Now I know that some retailers out there like to think they are owed. For years, the direct market carried comic book companies, and how are those companies repaying retailers? That’s a question that’s always struck me as disingenuous. Expecting a publisher to continue to support you with product due to past performance would be like a store continuing to order copies of Spawn as though this were still ’92. Yes, at one time it was a monster, but these days, it’s nothing more than a solid performer in a larger and different market place. Does Todd McFarlane get upset with retailers because Spawn doesn’t sell like it used to? And if he did, would you listen?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a publisher selling comics directly to the fans, just like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way that Mile High, or any comic book store, sells comics to customers. Business functions on needs and wants, and the perceived equal exchange of goods and services. If one party isn’t getting what they need, the business ceases to be. If the playing field within the industry has changed, it behooves a business to change alongside it – otherwise the losses will start to mount. That’s just how business works. Nobody is owed anything. If you keep moving, you’ll have the power to stay in business and effect change for years to come. If you stop, the power ebs and you might find yourself searching for another line of work. This isn’t a great secret, it’s just how things go, even in an industry as wonderful and romantic as comics. Keep moving. Keep growing. Act responsibly. Be the change you want to see in the industry. Then everything will be fine.
[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 works on building his comic book recommendation engine over at Variant Edition. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]