Friday, March 23, 2018

One Year at the Comicbook Store

During my tenure at Sequart Organization I authored a misguided piece that, while genuinely motivated, brought up the hardships of traditional publishing industries currently, suggesting that comics would eventually befall the same fate. I suggested that Amazon would slowly price out and out-distribute local comic shops (specifically trade paperbacks and hardcover editions), ultimately replacing an inefficient platform (similar to how Walmart defeated the local grocer in the mid-west). What I didn’t anticipate was the vehement backlash the article produced, mostly due to my use of a photo of a large and successful comic book store. (Which reasonably implied that I was coming after them.) After profusely apologizing, I ate my words and reader criticism.  Since then I’ve reformulated and reassessed my perspective of the “local comicbook store,” even going so far to patron one for an extended period of time. And while my initial assessment hasn’t much changed, I have encountered a variety of interesting takeaways from my time spent supporting my local comicbook store.  What prompted this you ask? I had to give up my 5 issue pull-a-month habit because of personal finances. So, why not reflect. Right?

Store community, Store feasibility:

My first impression of the store was of the admirable community that surrounded it. It reminded me of my days spent at the skate park in the town where I grew up. There we hung out in the pro shop and watched grainy footage of teens doing “sick” moves on government property, ate nachos with pennies we scavenged, and watched Wayne's World on VHS. The comicbook store was a watering hole where people gathered to talk, socialize, pass the time, play games, and (occasionally) buy things. The shop catered to a wide audience, featuring not only comic books and related accessories, but also board games, baseball cards, and painted models. All this served to attract a wide base of people, however schizophrenic in direction.  Meanwhile, another store up the street featured what seemed to be exclusively comics and board games. The latter I regarded with less suspicion.

My impression was mixed. (I am a loner I admit, which doesn’t really help me in any attempt to be a part of a community.) As someone who barely has time to read the books I buy, it’s difficult to commit in the activities of a surrogate church of pop-culture. When asked to participate, it was always an imposition. I really wanted to go, to be a bit player in the unfolding drama, but it was too much. It’s a “kids” game. (“Kid” an operative term for anyone without pressing responsibilities.  They weren’t always 13 and under.) The people that worked at the store were nice and very helpful. I enjoyed being around them and kicking around hypothetical storytelling and hero mashups. The only thing lacking was tact. A 12 issue plot twist was revealed to me as I was purchasing the comic, as if I had the ability to read a comic before even purchasing it for myself. It made me a “sad panda.” It also didn’t help knowing that the store was always on the cusp of going under.  Right off the main boulevard, I couldn’t begin to comprehend the cost of rent for the storefront. Every employee working there was on minimum wage and without benefits.  And there was no official use of inventory software, so pulls that I signed up for were lost several times and I had to wait for backorders to come in more than a few times.  A good friend of mine, older, wiser, told me stories about the local comic book store in his hometown, where the store was run by one person and had absolutely no insight into their cash flow. Also, it was an under-the-table operation. On the contrary,  that my store had multiple employees was admirable, if not impressive for an independent installation. I often wondered if my shop too was a cash operation, given how much of the inventory was used. 

The Cost of Comics:

One thing that I’ve come to love about used bookstores is the thrill of the hunt: finding a missing book in a collection for pennies on the dollar or discovering new content without the trepidation of having to dump a bunch of capital to invest. One of my biggest complaints for supporting a comic book shop was the fact that used trade paperbacks, despite being worn and handled, were charged the full MSRP. It was incredibly frustrating. I found myself constantly price checking comics against Amazon. (Before you condemn me remember that I have a right to do this as a consumer. Also I have a fucking budget.) When supporting a local comic shop is akin to supporting a charity, feeling like you are getting gouged defeats any effort in winning over possible donors. Not to mention, each of these books were traded in tremendously depreciated in value. (i.e. a $25 book is worth $5 in store credit, etc). Even selling a book for $10 yields a $5 profit. That said, anything new I purchased was typically a matter of time and availability. Do I pay $30 for something that’s $20 on Amazon? The answer to that question was typically one of the following: is this going out of print soon, should I “treat myself,” or is this worth the hassle of waiting for a strategic, non-prime Amazon purchase?  


I think that comic book shops make their dollars on browsers-turned-buyers.  Not much more to say here. I have a weakness for Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, and I would typically buy anything that my store had available that I didn’t already own. Needless to say, the comic store always beat me when I came in to buy a $3 issue and walked out with a $40 trade paperback included.

Incremental storytelling :

Lastly, and probably the most compelling reason I stopped buying was because I didn’t like reading incomplete stories. The tradition of pulp fiction is getting hooked and waiting for the next installment with baited breath. For myself, I always found I was constantly having to go back and re-read stories to find out where I was. Also it’s easier to spot filler narratives: arcs and issues deployed just to pass the time while the main event is coming. Initially, I was hooked on the Rebirth stories when they first started coming out because of the Watchmen crossover event tease. Little did I know that, almost a year and half later, I would find myself still getting breadcrumbs and nothing in the way of morsels. In the meantime the stories were OK, but not memorable. Any memorable floppies felt easily discarded because they were full of adverts as well as they weren’t easily distinguishable on a bookshelf due to their lack of spine.

(My first foray into comics were full stories captured in volumes that I marathon read. I never fully adjusted to reading floppies because there was no momentum in the narrative.)

(These are just throwaway examples, no pun-intended.)

 In sum, I feel more vindicated returning to the fold of trade paperback purchases after my experiences of sponsoring a shop. It was a really interesting, enriching experience, but at the end of the day my allegiance is to what saves me money. Why? Because life is expensive...

Monday, March 12, 2018

Giving Up Ghosts

I am planning on giving away a few books to my good friend and fellow writer Desmond rather soon here.

I was very impressed by Alan Moore’s Neonomicon and Providence series. Like his other occult works (Promethea comes to mind), Alan is doing best what all writers do, which is justify their worldview through their respective mediums. After all, our desires inform our writings. We pen what we desire to be true. Grant Morrison took mushrooms and saw aliens and other dimensions. Neil Gaiman, a Journalist originally, wants normal folks to understand their sometimes almost supernatural imprint they make on the world, and why their uniqueness makes the world delightful. Alan Moore, is exactly who he appears to be in his writings: a disgusted and vengeful man that desires the upheaval of the status quo in favor of non-conventional society influenced by hermetic thought. (Given how DC and Warner Brothers have treated his intellectual property, I am not surprised in the least.)
                Providence and Neonomicon are powerful works. They are intertextual, metaphysical expositions on the nature of consciousness and waking madness. When I purchased them, I was solely throwing my money at Avatar Press on the basis of Moore’s reputation alone. Providence is in many ways a prequel of Neonomicon, following the exploits of a gay jew, who has eschewed a comfortable life in New York City as a Journalist to pursue a mystery cult after the death of his lover. The characters and overarching plot of Neonomicon find their fulfillment in Providence’s three volume narrative, consisting of a standard length comic followed by handwritten journal excerpts from the protagonist. The later aspect of the storytelling is, I suppose, the root of the elements of existential horror that are interwoven through the narrative. Robert Black, our protagonist, writes from his perspective completely unaware of the secret world of occultism up until the conclusion. It made me wonder how he could be so dense. But could I have been so willing to accept the cosmic nihilism awaiting the subsequent generations?
                 Horror as a genre today, especially in the context of film, is sort of a celebration of gross-out, grindhouse films of the 70s. But there is little about them that is “scary.” Sure, there are jump scares, moments where you need to catch your breath and take stock of your surroundings. But all these things are transient. If anything, they are cathartic, but catharsis implies an ultimate end to the experience. Moore’s horror is far different. So different, that I need to give up these books altogether from my library.
                Moore’s works are largely apocalyptic, narratives preoccupied with the end of things. This is both sad and fortunate, considering the bevy of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives that have saturated the market. (I’ve made great effort in my own writings to not give in to the seductive hooks presented by this genre.) Many follow the formulaic establishment-being-overthrown narrative, and we watch society degenerate into a mire of violence and oppression. The saving grace is always the lone hero, who vows to restore stability. These stories dominate the market, obscuring the actual stories that truly horrify us, hence myself giving up Moore’s work from my bookshelves. His work is existential, of course, but also claustrophobic. You feel trapped in his world after reading, and after so much time spent in his alternative histories, the real and unreal blur.
                One of the aspects of Providence that really impressed upon me the most was the pseudo-biographical treatment of H.P. Lovecraft himself, revealing—very deliberately—his repugnant private self. Robert Black’s twice-made-outsider status conflicts heavily with the source material he is placed in. And Moore wastes no time in establishing the disillusionment of Black, a devotee meeting his hero and being gravely disappointed. I myself was enthralled with Lovecraft’s celebrated works, though very soon realized that I was enjoying the work of an anti-Semite and white supremacist. Moore and I seem to be on the same page, Black’s revulsion being Moore’s and vice-versa.
                Why then must I give up the text?
                There’s just so much anger buried in it.
                I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s too dark, too hopeless. As I aforementioned, an author’s work very much reflects who an author is, deep down. There are desires and motivations that go into drafting any story. I feel that when I write, for instance, that I am trying to investigate something about myself or the society that I find myself in. For Moore, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it was nostalgia and reverence for the penny dreadfuls and turn-of-the-century travelogue narratives of adventure and danger. In V For Vendetta, he was denouncing the seemingly authoritarian government of Margaret Thatcher. In The Watchmen, in the wake of 80s revisionism in comic books, Moore borrowed the identities of forgotten Charlton Comics characters and told the world what would’ve really happened if the Superman was American. All these starting points are acceptable and well founded. They are critically acclaimed for good reason. But Providence and Neonomicon is hardly that. They are something different, something darker. And they need to get the hell out of my house.