Sunday, March 06, 2005

You probably haven't looked to notice, but you can't buy a comic book at the 7-11 anymore. Or at the Walgreens, or at grocery store.

I didn't START buying comics at comic shops, and I am sure that if you ask any comic fan cooling their heals in their late twenties or older, you'll find the same is true. We all started buying comics off newsracks in locations to which we had access.

I distinctly recall buying Uncanny X-Men #210 at the Chicago airport. I picked up #212 at Piggly Wiggly within biking distance of the old homestead. Each store and shop you went in to had a news stand of some sort, and I scoured the covers of the bent comics to see if anything struck my fancy.

I picked up Teen Titans this way, Transformers, Batman (I confess to not getting turned on to Superman until very late high school and early college, and then it was the movies, cartoons and Justice League comics). I recall a family road trip which took over a month during which the Death of Kraven storyline was criss-crossing over multiple Spider-Man titles. Each gas station, bookstore, etc... I was busily seeking out each issue, trying to keep up with a haunting, creepy story.

Every single trip to Skaggs Alpha-Beta was punctuated with my quick dash to check out the comics while my mom was in the check out line. The goal was to grab a new one, quick, before they finished tallying the groceries.

And we knew about Austin Books, down on North Lamar. It's still there, cleaned up, now a massive example of what a comic shop SHOULD be. But then it was a dingy hole of a shop, a place the mothers would drop us off and let us go root through long boxes in our endless search for back of X-Men and Batman.

But you had to ask for a ride to the shop, you know? It was way down on Lamar, and my mother (ever willing to humor her two geeky kids) was still only willing to go down there once every few months.

In the mid-90's, the business model changed. 1) Diamond Comic Distributors became a monopolistic titan, the only way comic companies (large and small) could get their comics out to market. 2) Someone on the magazine racks figured out that they could make more money selling a $7.00 copy of Maxim than a $2.00 copy of X-Men.

Comics also decided that, if they were to be taken seriously, they must abandon the news stands and be available only in bookstores, like respectable books, or in comic shops, like, uhmmm... Well, it was a place to go buy comics where the clerk wouldn't raise her eyebrows as your comic passed over the electric eye. "Aren't you a little old for the funny books, sweetie?"

The chilling effect on the comic book industry has been staggering.

Essentially, a generation of kids was told they were not welcome to get involved. Comics were a commodity available only in specialized shops, usually off the beaten path, and certainly not a place your average mom or dad was already travelling to pick up a newspaper and a Slurpee. And believe me, I've seen the horrified looks of the mothers when they walk into the shops... they eye the pictures of the mostly naked warrior girls, with ridiculous proportions, and why, exactly, would a mother think leaving her kid alone with cartoon porn seem like a good idea..?

Simply put, readers are drifting, and no new readers are replacing them. At one point, Action Comics sold around a million copies each time it published. The numbers today are around 36,000 each issue. That's horrible. That isn't the sign of a healthy industry which can sustain itself. Make fun of the Silver-Age all you want, but back then they were selling the heck out of comics at drug stores and news stands.

With movies like Spider-Man out there, and Spider-Man selling t-shirts, underwear, costumes, video games and every conceivable outlet for the Spider-Man logo... why weren't the publishers making sure the original product was at eye level for 8 year olds to pick up? Flooding the comic shops is selling to the choir. Hoping people who already love Spider-man will pick up Spider-Man is redundant.

But Marvel is learning. Marvel, who had led the charge at the turn of the millenium to ensure comics were an ADULT medium and drove teh market mostly into direct market resale, is now taking a step back in the face of ever dwindling sales. Marvel is going into Barnes and Noble, and Marvel is going into 7-11's all over again.

And while even your standard faire of Batman and the X-Men might need to drop a few profanities to make the world safe from over-anxious mothers again, it's fantastic for the industry as a whole.

Regarding the usual screams of disapproval from loser fanboys trying to ensure comics are only for them and not for kids... As always, Heidi says it all better than me...

According to Newsarama, the Marvel Adventures line will spearhead the move into the 7-11s. The line, aimed at younger readers, is not popular with comic book fans. Nor should it be -- it isn't aimed at them. The Millarworld thread I alluded to in a previous entry was largely given over to the usual argument over whether kids will read these books, whether kids read comics, etc etc etc. To which I can only say...


So, start looking for comics as they pop up in magazine racks once again. Look for them at the grocery and at the airport. Hopefully DC and other companies will follow suit and the fate of comics will be taken out of the hands of fate as created by us geeks and put back into the world of kids discovering them for the first time.

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