Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Comics International thoughts....

Picked up the new Comic International, finally publishing again after the layoff from it's change in ownership. It's very much business as usual with this return issue. Some of the articles have been expanded, the reviews section is a little bigger and better, but mostly it's as we've come to expect. That said, there's still a lot to interest us comic people within it's pages.

Of note to me though is an interesting compare and contrast between Stephen Holland (owner Page 45) in his Talking Shop column and Beau Smith (writer, VP sales and marketing for many companies) in his Fighting Words column.

Stephen makes his usual great points about expanding the medium by reaching out to the real mainstream out there. His column talks about how to get new customers into the shop and how to get them reading comics.
See, Stephen has definite ideas about his business, ones that I tend to agree with.
His definition of a real mainstream has been particularly useful over the years. For Stephen, the real mainstream is the sorts of things that the general populous enjoys. Hence crime, romance, real life, drama, sci-fi and fantasy are real mainstream but superheroes are not.
In the context of getting people into comics his ideas of the real mainstream are perfect. Because, as many of us have found when trying to get friends, family and loved ones reading comics, the majority of people see superhero comics as adolescent fantasy books read by boys and grown up boys who should know better. If we're going to get more regular people reading comics (ie, the 95% of the population not currently reading them) we need to be focusing on reaching them with authors like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Andi Watson, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco et al.

But jump forward a few pages and Beau Smith is talking about mainstream comicbook characters like Spider-Man and then goes on to say ... "and by mainstream comics I mean the superhero ones"

One of these men is sitting in the comic book club looking at ways to get more people to read a very small range of comics that most people in the real world outside of comics have no interest in. The other one is actively trying to find comics that appeal to the real world noncomic readers. I know which one I'd rather be talking to.

Beau Smith seems perfectly content with comics as they are and seems to spend his time trying to get superhero comics to sell more.
Stephen Holland seems more than happy to sell you superhero comics, especially great superhero comics like Ultimates, but also looks beyond the limited readership for superhero titles and wants to sell comics to that audience as well.
Personally I think Stephen is spot on.

On the simplest level it has always been an obvious argument: Look at what people read in book shops. Look at the range of books that sell. If 20% of the population regularly shop for books, why does less than 5% regularly shop for comics? Could it be that comic shops traditionally have sold only one type of comic?
Doesn't that just seem small minded, short term and completely wrong in terms of building a customer base?


  1. Anonymous9:04 PM

    But surely the fact that Steven Holland is a twat and so far up his own arse does make it hard to take any of his arguments seriously!!

  2. Stephen's a shameless self publicist (well actually he publicises the shop, not himself, but shop publicist doesn't scan as well) and is always looking to get himself into the media to talk about comics in general and Page45 in particular.
    But he's genuinely evangelical about promoting comics. And from what evidence we have, it seems that Page45 is extremely successful in getting a wider range of people through the doors and reading comics than most comic shops.
    He's also a very nice bloke and is more than forthcoming with information, help and advice.

    But whether or not you like him, the arguments stand up and should not be ignored because of a personality clash.

  3. By promoting HIS shop, he is by extension promoting himself. So you can stick with your earlier comment!
    I also think that, aside from the self promotion, he can be a bit (yes im going to say it!) closed minded! I understand that his opinion of "mainstrem" differs from alot of people's (which is good, since I think comics without capes can, and are fantastic). But in no way should he promote these comics at the expense of superhero stuff. I think to get a well rounded view of comics you need as much Andi Watson as Jim Lee. He seems to intensely dislike "capes" stuff.

    Lets get some balance here people...its a personal choice...and you can like both!

  4. Hmm. Well Page 45 was the only comic shop my wife will go in. She won't go to Nostalgia & Comics (my local), she finds a chair and sits looking lost in London's Forbidden Planet, but when studying in Nottingham she'd pop into Page 45 for me. In fact she even queued to get a signed Pete Bagge comic one time for herself. She has no interest in capes or continuity, she just likes good non-superhero comics and collections. She's the market Steve and Page 45 aim at, and it works.

    I've been subscribing to Page 45's monthly email shot and he does like some superhero stuff, but it's usually the off-beat or high quality stuff that we all like. I can't imagine him effusing about the latest issue of Outsiders, god help me if I'm wrong...

  5. Rich Nunn4:50 PM

    He's a comics snob pure and simple. He's afraid to say that he likes superhero comics in case one of his Comics Journal reading friends laughs in his face. How dare anyone enjoy the escapism from the problems everyday life that you can find in these books. This type of comic has been the backbone of the industry for over sixty years. They must be doing something right.

  6. Ah Cathryn, Rich.......

    I don't want to turn this over to a defend Stephen Holland thing, but I must jump in about the actively disliking superheroes comment.

    It's something that's been levelled at me more than once as well and, like Stephen Holland, it couldn't be further from the truth.

    I love superheroes & I know Stephen loves superheroes as well.
    You only have to look at the regular e-mail newsletter from Page 45 to discover this. But I'll talk from my perspective from this point on.....

    Some of my favourite books are superhero books:
    Watchmen, Ultimates, Batman Adventures, Spirit, Authority, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Miracleman, New X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, Zenith, Daredevil, Captain Britain......
    I could go on and on.

    My problem with superhero books is two fold:
    1. Far too many superhero books are absolute rubbish. Good books are valid and worthwhile whatever genre they are in.
    2. The sheer volume of superhero comics tends to choke out all of the other genres of book in comic shops, effectively limiting the appeal of comics to the "Real Mainstream" who want to read romance, fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and every other genre out there.

    I heartily agree that there's room for Jim Lee and Andi Watson, my point has always been that we should champion the great and not the mediocre and to champion the great non-superhero work we need to rethink our shops.
    Put the superhero books in the back of the shop. Put the other genre work in the front.
    Superhero fans will still come in, but there's a better chance of getting everyone else in as well.

    Superheroes have been the backbone of the comics industry since just after the war, that's true.
    But the 1950s introduction of the Comics Code crippled the development of comics for decades, creating a medium that would forever by judged as a juvenile and allowing the artificial dominance of one small genre to continue.

    The dominance of superheroes in comics is the equivalent of the dominance of American teams in Baseball's world series.

  7. It might be the way he is or just the way he writes but Stephen Holland always seems to make out that "indy" or "real mainstream" stuff is better than any of the superhero comics out there. This is really not the case though is it.

    Like any media or entertainment be it books, music, films or comics there will always be tons of shit you have to sift through before you find anything you like or anything that is any good. This is very true for superhero books but it is also exactly the same for what your calling "Real mainstream" stuff. You have to go through this process to develop your taste in the things you enjoy. No genres should automatically be seen as "good" or "cool" over any others.

    Stephen Holland and yourself might not hate superhero books but it definitely seems as though he tries to alienate the fans of this medium. These people are his bread and butter so he really shouldn't look down his nose at them, which it seems that is what he is doing in his column.

  8. This is getting more and more off the initial point.

    That was that comic shops should be actively seeking to increase their customer base.

    And sound business sense should tell us that to do that you have to appeal to the greatest number of people that you can.

    Comic shops that sell a product mix consisting primarily of superhero comics are limiting their customer base.
    By concentrating all their efforts on just one small genre, whatever that is is logically going to limit sales.

    My argument was never that superhero comics are bad.

    Like Michael says, a lot of everything published is bad. It's our jobs in comics retailing to tell the customers what is good, whether it be superhero or any other genre.

    My point was that selling just superhero comics or selling primarily superhero comics means that the majority of people out there, the people who will not read superhero comics, will not come and spend money in your shop.
    No matter how good Astonishing X-Men is, or Daredevil, or Watchmen (or insert your current fave superhero book here) my wife (to use a good example) is not going to buy it or read it. But show her how good Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn, Bryan Talbot's Tale of One Bad Rat or Terry Moore's Starngers in Paradise is and you may just have a new customer.

    Broaden the product mix, highlight the breadth of what you do, market yourselves differently, change those window displays to appeal to more people.
    Increase your customer base by increasing the variety of what you sell.

    Makes sense to me.

  9. Anonymous7:19 AM

    Ok, so I admit my first comment may've been a bit personal considering I don't know Steve Holland, but it's just the impression I get is that if you were to look up the word smug in a dictionary there would be a picture of Mr Holland (and lets be honest, that pic of him in CI doesn't really help matters). So starting from a new position of him being a thoroughly nice chap, I still think his column sucks and his arguements stink. I'm sure he'd like to get more people in his shop and sell more product, because he's a businessman, and fairplay to him for having, from what I hear, is a nice looking shop, but all it is is one shop thats developed a niche market. Now I haven't read all his columns in CI, due to getting the kind of extreme reaction I displayed in my first comment, but I don't remember reading one where he extolled the virtues of superhero comics. Instead, again the impression one gets is that if you wanted to buy Mighty Avengers #2 or JLA #10 from his store a) you'd have trouble finding them, and b) when you got to the counter lights would flash, a big arrow would come down from the ceiling with the word "Loser" on it, and all his staff would laugh at you. Basically I just disagree with the whole hide the superheroes ethos. I mean, lets rent old Steve a 2 screen cinema over summer, one with 500 seats, and one with 50, and see where he puts Spiderman 3. And you see, therein lies part of the problem...what I would like, as well as getting more wet liberal Guardian readers (I can call them that because I am one) who've latched onto Persoplis into a comic book store, is to get just a small percentage of the people who go to see Spiderman 3 into the store...and make them buy comics...and I don't care what kind because I am that radical! I understand the talk of the real mainstream viz a viz Waterstones/Borders ie they sell all kinds of fiction, but to say "the real mainstream is the sorts of things that the general populous enjoys. Hence crime, romance, real life, drama, sci-fi and fantasy are real mainstream but superheroes are not." is a bit disingenuous. As far as popular culture goes it includes lots of superheroes, hence biggest new show on US TV is "Heroes", most eagerly awaited film of the summer is the aforementioned "Spiderman 3".
    The strange thing about this discussion is that we all want the same thing ie more people to read comics, but it probably ain't going to happen, mainly just because they are comics and the general publics perception is so deeply embedded it won't change...and putting leaves in the window is NOT the way forward (damn, there I go slaging off Steve H again). I would love it if Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco et al sold even half the amount of books that Rob Liefield does, but I'd also love it if Wes Anderson films took more money than Michael Bays, but guess what, that ain't going to happen either.
    So until then we have to be thankful there are shops that, although scary to some people, sell lots, and lots, and lots of comics and graphic novels, and don't ghettoize certain genres but just rack everything alphabetically so Outsiders is next to Persoplis which is next to Preacher, and whose staff will be happy to recommend Walking Dead, and Blankets, and Astonishing X-Men, but probably not Blue Beetle or Firestorm (sorry to their respective creators), and I am very proud to be the manager of one such store. And yes our mix of customers is 50/50, and they range from very teeny tiny babies to really really old people, and look I've put it in b&W so it must be true (ooops, there I go again). So if you read this anytime after May 4th and have seen and enjoyed the Spiderman movie pop along to your local comic store and see what they have to offer...