Friday, January 16, 2004



The more I think about it, the more this whole issue of comics expanding into bookstores through graphic novel sections bothers me. I’m not opposed to the idea at all; in fact, it’s something I’ve advocated for a long time. But now that it’s actually happening, I’m finding that it’s creating conflicts between several personal convictions.

On the one hand, living and traveling in a largely rural state that has seen the life of its small towns drained by Wal-Marts has pushed me to use local businesses when and wherever possible. My comic shop is a locally owned business. The staff is friendly. They know me by name, and they know my preferences. I have never received less than 100% courtesy and professionalism from them, whether I’m doing a special order or just browsing.

At the same time, it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that the comic market, as personified in the current direct market is in the kind of slow, steady decline that will ultimately lead to its demise. I’m not saying that’s a good thing and I’m not saying that’s what I want to see happen. But there’s only so long that this landlocked retail system, dominated and dependent on the sales of one moribund genre which survives in the face of an ever-dwindling and aging fan-base by manufacturing “events” to artificially spike sales and is treated by its own publishers as nothing more than licensing fodder, can survive. Even in my own fairly progressive and open-minded shop, the only way I can guarantee that I’ll get a copy of something as commonplace as Love Fights or Hopeless Savages is to pre-order. (It shouldn’t have to be that hard to get titles from an established, mid-size publisher with a proven track record by creators with established fan-bases, but that’s another ramble.)

I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, or even in the next five years, but it’s going to happen. If it happened this year, I know it would take most of the mid-sized publishers who comprise the bulk of my reading with it. Most of them still need the chunk of income that comes from the direct market, while they establish firm footholds in other markets. Given that these companies are what keeps me reading comics, I want to support their expansion into other arenas. But, in this day of steady market decline, I also want to support my shop to the fullest extent possible. And this is where the values collide. What it boils down to is this: Where do I get the next Drawn and Quarterly? Do I buy it in my comic shop, supporting them in their efforts to stay open? Or do I buy it in a bookstore, and support the publisher in their growing presence in other markets? It’s basically trying to be loyal to two opposing forces, both with honorable goals and objectives.

Complicating things quite a bit is the nature of the bookstore market, which is more and more dominated by the big box retailers. Can I support comics’ presence here, if it means going with a major corporation over the local guys, be they my locally-owned comic shop or a locally–owned bookseller?

Beyond that the big box book guys are trading in the super-hero myopia of the direct market for a shortsightedness that’s all their own: all manga, all the time, all over the place. I like manga and it’s great to have a place to get it, since the comic market is determined to remain manga-unfriendly. But I don’t like it at the expense of other stuff. I hardly blame the stores for going with what sells, but less than a month after Borders bought out the best of our locally-owned bookstores, all of the alternative/art material they had in the graphic novel section had shrunk to a half-shelf, while the manga had taken over a bookcase and a half. It’s the comic market all over again! I don’t know that this is a model that I want to support.

Locally-owned, independent booksellers remain an alternative, but the big box guys are putting them under fast. We’re left with one in Louisville, and while it has an expanding graphic novel section that’s rich in stuff from Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, it also pits two local businesses who need my dollars into competition against each other for them. Comic shop versus local bookseller: it’s not a choice I really want to have to make.

Maybe I’m over-thinking things a bit (which I’m always prone to do), but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to be as ethical a consumer as possible, particularly when it comes to the local economy. For the moment, I’m trying to split the difference by pre-ordering a few things from my comic shop and picking up other things from the local bookseller as they turn up there. I’m not sure if it’s enough to really support either side of the equation and keep it viable, and I may actually be canceling myself out by giving to both sides. But for the moment, it’s the best I can do.


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