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Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

I should go ahead and warn you right now. This month's "Why Do Online Comics?" focuses heavily on the print side of comics. This may seem a tad odd to you, but since doing online comics has led me to a lot of this line of thought, and since ultimately I think the best world is one where online comics and print comics build off and feed off each other in a strong symbiotic relationship, I feel presenting the information in this column is not only merited, but important.

I grew up in a relatively small town. Sierra Vista, Arizona was about five miles by five miles altogether, with eleven or twelve streetlights and a population of 25,000 or so (if you didn't count the military base attached to it). My parents were selectively overprotective, in that they wouldn't let me ride a bicycle (period.), but I could walk as far as my legs would take me. When I was twelve, those legs would take me pretty far. Many afternoons during that summer, they would take me to the local comic book shop.

Other than a smattering of Star Wars and G.I. Joe issues, I hadn't really gotten into comics yet, though I had always liked the idea of them. When I walked into that shop for the first time, my mind was pretty open as to what sort of comic I might like to buy. If they had placed manga in front of me, that's what I would have developed a passion for. If they had small press stuff, I probably would have gotten into that. I was sure I wanted to start collecting comics, I just didn't know exactly which ones I had to collect yet.

What they had for me to buy were superhero comics. There may have been some manga or something stuffed in the depths of their back issue bins, but on the shelves prominently displayed with the newest titles were X-Men, Spider-Man, and the like. My first comic there ended up being X-Factor #47.

A while later, the wedding of Spider-Man was getting hyped like crazy in all the comic magazines and the posters in my local shop. I thought this was kind of exciting, but I started thinking about why it was cool. What was cool about it, and what I liked about my favorite single issues of superhero books, was when the story was about characters rather than about who or what got blown up that month. This thought formed in my head, "Man, I bet people would like to read entire comics that are just about ordinary people living their lives, like sitcoms or romantic comedies or something." At the time, I thought I was being quite revolutionary.

One of my favorite things about online comics, as they exist today anyway, is the wonderful diversity they present. The ones seeing the most popularity and financial success seem to be humor strips that are either about video games or have cute yet somewhat psychotic animal characters interacting with humans. The great thing about that, though, is that there aren't a thousand other online strips following the same format (not successfully, anyway). It isn't like print comics, where Marvel just slaps a skintight jumpsuit, some superpowers, and ridiculously-proportioned females into a book and sells thousands of copies of at least the first issue (though that trend, thankfully, appears to be slowing somewhat). Comics on the web seem to almost require the diversity they maintain in order to succeed. That makes for a pretty rich breeding ground for innovation, and is one of the primary reasons I am on the web creating and reading comics.

I do think there is hope, however, for print comics to be as greatly diverse as their web counterparts. Like the people doing successful webcomics today, however, there needs to be some thinking outside the proverbial box. I've been doing a lot of thinking about how our poor delusioned print comic comrades could learn from online comics and reinvent their own industry, or at least invigorate it. This month’s theme for Comixpedia is relationships, and I think the relationship between web and print comics can be far more supportive and successful, if, just like any good relationship, people start listening to each other.

Up until recently, I've been going to the big comic shop in the area for many of my needs. Usually they order at least one or two copies of many of the small press stuff I am interested in, and if they don't have it, then not only are they eager to get it, but they often know what I am talking about. Sure, for every copy of Blue Monday, the Same Difference trade, or Hsu and Chan, there're a hundred-or-two copies of the latest Batman or X-Men book... but still, it's a start.

Well, this same shop really rubbed me the wrong way just the other day. While not going into specifics, let's just say that on that one day, I was subjected to practically EVERY single imaginable form of BAD customer service known to Peoplekind. From both the employees AND management, even. It may have been a freak of nature, as it hadn’t happened before, but on that day, they were just ANTI-customer.

So I decided I'd go check out the new comic book shop that opened near me, to compare and see if I find something better. Here is a account of some of the things I discovered in this store:

Huge tables with the latest issues of the big Marvel, DC, and Dreamwave comics took up about 60% of the floor. One wall had trading cards, toys, and supplies on it; another had high-value back issues; another was relatively sparse save the hallway back to the gaming area and offices (I assume); the fourth wall had comics. Of the comics on the fourth wall, many were but slightly less recent and popular Marvel, DC, and Dreamwave stuff. They had one small "independent" section, which consisted of 99% CrossGen, Dark Horse, and a smattering of Image. I say 99% because while I did not see an exception to those three publishers, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe I missed one.

No Oni. No SLG. No Alternative Comics. No comics from any of the publishers that interest me or that I consider "independent". There was an extremely tiny area of graphic novels, but they looked to be in poor shape, dusty, and kind of looked like they belonged on the Island of Misfit Marvel Books from the 90s.

Worst of all, at no time was another human being in the room with me. They were all in the back playing a game, behind a closed door, with a window they could look through to make sure no one was stealing anything. I was in there five or six minutes altogether, and other than the sound of my breathing and the occasional high wail of laughter from something happening in their game, it was eerily silent.

* * *

It's stores like this that are killing the comics industry. And when stores that I think show promise give bad service like what I had to go through the other day, it reminds me that I've never really gotten the kind of service in a comic store that I would demand MINIMALLY in almost any other environment.

Now, because I'm not one to bitch and moan without providing a solution, I have come up with an excruciatingly detailed list of what I would do if I could open my own comic store and do it the way I want. We're talking optimal conditions, with me having the finances, staff, and temporal resources I would need to do things right:

I want a comic book store that sells primarily independent and small press comics. I’d have a little, smelly, demeaning section of the store, maybe roped off like I was hiding porn or something back there, where all the Marvel and DC books would be exiled.

It would not only sell supplies to local artists for their comic needs, but would also have nooks set up for local artists to come and create comics in the store.

It would have a coffee bar annexed to it, so people could order an espresso drink and then curl up on a couch with a good graphic novel they had just bought.

It would have a wireless hub, so that people who create online comics (and who have laptops set up for it) can have all the access they need in order to post their work on the fly and whatnot). They could also read online comics, of course, and there would be recommended reading lists regularly updated and conveniently located for usage.

It would be clean, and not smell of geek. Not that I mind the smell of geek – but just not in the store I have created in my head.

There are lots of other smaller details. "Atmosphere" things, like the right kinds of music, furniture, and decoration. Framed artwork on the walls for sale by comics artists that frequent the place. Open mike nights. Matchmaking nights, where artists can find writers, writers can find artists, and readers can come in and chat with their favorite local creators as easily as people can chat with them on the Internet now.

Signings.

Comic jams and slams. Jams, where all sorts of different creators get together, the writers write out a script together, the artists take panels (maybe randomly, maybe not) and sketch them out, and at the end you have a comic. Or slams, where it would be like a radio play, with pictures. There could be a screen with a projection of a 'panel' or image, and multiple people at microphones (one per character, unless they're talented and do voices) speaking the lines corresponding to the images. The story told through the sequential images and the sound of people's voices, bringing and presenting comics in a new way.

A small range of printing and consignment services for local artists. Giving away brochures with tips on size/formatting/how to do such things with your computer. Getting the equipment to allow for small runs of things, taking people's finished comics electronic files, and churning out B/W or color covers (just like Cafe Press) and comics for the local artists to sell through the store on consignment.

Oh, and I’d need a manga-knowledgeable employee, since I don’t (relatively speaking) know anything about it but would certainly want to carry a good assortment of it, at least equivalent to some of the better displays I have seen in larger book stores (Barnes and Noble, Bookstar, Borders, etc.).

It would pretty much have to be in a college town environment, the most local to me being Arizona State University. I'm certain there are places in towns like San Francisco or Chicago where such a store would be able to make it. Maybe I'm just dreaming and this isn't reality, at least not yet. But isn't that what innovation is about? Isn't that how change happens? Someone has the same ideas others might have already had, but actually tries to implement it, and eventually the right person tries and manages to succeed?

Making a comic book store that the public perceives as a warm, welcoming, fun place to be. A place where a community can form and inspire each other to great things. A place where people can come, have a cup of coffee, and stumble upon an interesting graphic novel about a subject that interests them, thus opening their eyes to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, comics are a medium that can be taken seriously.

It's so crazy, it just might work.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Well, although I'd like to see most of what you said in a comic book shop too, I thin you are being a little utopic. For example, a shop can't live out of independent comics. In fact, it needs to sell enough mainstream to support them just by reserving a little space in the shelves...

Regarding the clerks, I may be lucky, because every time a go to my usual shop for comics, I spend 1h in there, more or less 5-10 min looking comics, and the rest of the hour talking to the clerk about them (and learning a lot of things form his side of this business, btw). Regarding the gaming thingie, I know a friend's boyfriend who has a shop himself. When he opened, he put some tables at the end of the shop for gaming, and he always had a LOT of kids playing magic, buying cokes (his best business idea), and buying cards form time to time. You can always see him playing in the counter with one of the kids, while attending you, and even chat a little. A great guy.

Of course I know a lot of shops commanded by jerks, more than clerks, but I just avoid them.

Reduce a little your expectations, maybe get in the car, and look around. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised (o^.^)o

Pepius ~(/0.0)

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Iain Hamp's picture

Yeahhhh... so that last response was by me. I assumed I was already logged in, since I normally am on this computer. *shrug*

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Iain Hamp's picture

As fortune would have it, here is a shop which appears to be headed in the right direction as far as what I am looking for is concerned. Kudos to Neil Gaiman's Journal/blog for pointing me to this at such a temporally appropriate moment.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

You may also be interested in this essay/manifesto by one of Page 45's owners. There's a few decent comic stores scattered here and there (The Beguiling in Toronto, and Brian Hibb's Comix Experience in San Francisco immediately come to mind) but alas they are few and far between.

The sad fact is, there just isn't enough people retailing who have a love for the medium. As Dave Sim once mentioned, it's kind of hard to gain respect when your establishment looks like a pop-culture junk store. "This is 'Maus', it won a pulitzer prize. Comics are serious business. Oh, and check out this fucking cool lightsabre"

While Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience was telling other retailers that shelving his comics by genre instead of by company increased his sales the other retailers were racing to stock POGS, Magic cards, and every other collectible that comes down the path. While the Beguiling has an entire floor of graphic novels, other retailers are buying into the notion that having gumball machines out front is the greatest thing a retailer can do, 'because if the kids aren't spending their leftover nickles at your store, they're spending them somewhere else'

Nowadays, the average comic store in North America makes only a third of its revenue from comics. Now that, imho, is sad.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Of course, I think that this vision of the comic shop is really very appealing. Our local shop is reasonably friendly, but has given me no motivation to stop by at anything approaching regular intervals.
I really think what is necessary in the world of comic retailers, as well as in the world of print comics themselves, is diversity. It's fine to have stores that cater to the geek market, but we also want stores that cater to other demographics. This is a really nice model for the hipster/intellectual/coffee house set. I also think that we ought to have comic stores that are targeted at the true mainstream. There should be comic book stores in malls with sections of children's comics, romance comics, comedy comics, etc. etc. Though this ultimately may not be the sort of comic shop I personally would want to patronize, I think it would be great for the medium.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

a shop can't live out of independent comics. In fact, it needs to sell enough mainstream to support them just by reserving a little space in the shelves...
Nonsense.
This is only the case because that is the environment that has been established. If you build a store on the foundation of little boys power fantasies, then it's no big surprise when Ghost World sits untouched in the corner.
That's no indication of the market for Ghost World. Just an indication that the current market cultivated makes little room for such works. When a store exists that treats comics as a medium and the male power-fantasies as one small subset of the genre, then the 'independent' comics make up the bulk of the sales with little difficulty.
It's largely because of the retailers out there now that I do online comics. I don't have to fight against the lazy retailer with the 'Lady Death-Spank' posters in the window and the action figure display filling a third of the store. I don't have to fight tooth and nail for a new reader, only to have some retailer tell them my book's cancelled because that's easier to do than adjusting the order for that week. My works can be judged for themselves, and not against the backdrop of the BIF BAM POW school of storytelling.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Iain Hamp's picture

I would love to have something like that in a mall somewhere. How do you get the people to come in your store though? If you call your store a comic bok store, people will think spandex and walk by. So you have to market it carefully. But I like the idea, and I'll definitely chew on it for a bit. Any ideas on how one would get such a store to be a success?

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Well, Scott McCloud mentioned something in Reinventing Comics (I believe, I may be wrong about that) about having a large mechanical comic book in your store window that can be paged through by pushing a button. I think that would help attract people based on novelty alone. Besides that, I think if you load down the storefront windows with comics that tie in to other media, you could attract people who are perhaps interested in, for example, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" but not necessarily comics. Really, I think this business model requires a new kind of comic publisher (or at least one that hasn't yet risen to prominence) which targets the same sort of audiences as mainstream film studios, TV networks, book publishers, etc. This may not be the publisher that brings us the next Maus, but it would vastly increase the scope of the medium.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

There is a certain group of people who would see posters of Spider-Man, Batman, and G.I. Joe on the windows of a store and be drawn like flies to it. In a way, I am even in this group, not so much because I want to go buy up the latest Spider-man, Batman, and G.I. Joe titles, but because I recognize these posters are telling me I just might find comics I do want in there.

From the time I have logged in coffee houses and in comic stores, I see a huge potential for a crossover crowd. That crowd, however, is not interested, generally, in who beat up whom that week in Metropolis. They are, however, certainly inclined to enjoy things like Johnny The Homicidal Maniac, Strangers In Paradise, or Same Difference. Let me be very clear, I am not interested in perpetuating the perception that comic books = people in tights with superhuman abilities. My goals are to shatter that misconception one person at a time, and having a store that makes its money from the sales of such books is not going to do anything to further that cause. I am not aiming to attract people who already read comics. I want people who come in for a cup of coffee, are the generally open-minded type of crowd that likes to frequent coffee shops, and then pick up a free six page sample of a graphic novel (which we would have for sale of course) to peruse while they sip on their cafe mocha.

I should toss in here, just to be sure it is understood - I have nothing against the superhero genre other than that it has become so emblazoned in the general populace's minds as synonymous with "comic books." This misperception drives me absolutely batty, and I'm going to do everything I can to break that idea up.

Is this a utopian, or at least somewhat idealistic idea? Sure. Does it have any chance of success in reality? Hard to say, though without enough initial capital to build a regular patronage and tweak things here and there, probably not. But I do think it could work, in the right environment (i.e. by a major university or something), and if the right circumstances come about for me financially, I'll be the first to take the risk on something like this. I'm at university right now working towards a degree that should give me a pretty great idea of whether or not I could pull something like this off.

One last thing. Thanks for commenting. Seriously, without discussions about the kinds of things I write about here, I can't get any sense of how successful and/or utter crap my columns are. So, I appreciate you taking the time to write.

Re: Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

I'd like to support what you say about modern stores, and maybe take the opportunity to gripe a little. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where there are, by my count, two stores worth visiting, and one worth buying from. One of the biggest names locally is also one of the worst....the staffers spend more time playing games than they do handling the shop, and treat customers like an intrusion rather than their lifeblood...the books are unbagged and jammed haphazardly into old boxes at guide prices....the whole place is dusty and unfriendly. Another major name is a penny pinching tyrant of an owner who does not understand the value of a customer. Is this the way of all modern stores? If so, it's no wonder that people are taking it to the Net.