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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Turning Point: Portland Comics Retailers Weigh In on Digital Comics, Buying Local, and Why You're Insanely Lucky

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 9:58 AM

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Comic books are changing.

Or, more accurately: The way people read comics is changing, and so are the ways they buy them.

With more and more digital comics coming out day-and-date with their hard-copy counterparts, Marvel and DC lowering their prices, and Dark Horse wading full-on into digital comics, the comics industry as a whole is in a state of flux. Over the next few years, what will happen in local comics shops across the country will affect any number of things—from the existence of tiny nerdery supply stores in small towns, to the omnipresent power of kajillion-dollar superhero blockbusters.

Few places are as good for comics as Portland, Oregon, a city that’s home to a huge array of comics creators, the Stumptown Comics Festival, publishers like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, and Top Shelf Productions, and some of the best comics shops in the world. So after all the news of the past few weeks, I emailed the owners and employees of some local shops to pick their brains about a few topics: If digital comics are gonna kill brick-and-mortar comics shops, how important it is for comics readers to shop local, and the current state—and the future—of the direct market.

(The "direct market," for you non-geeks, is a fancy word for comics shops—the stores that specialize in graphic novels and weekly comics, as well as ephemera like action figures, Magic: The Gathering cards, lovingly airbrushed posters of those shirtless dudes from 300, and "I GROK SPOCK" t-shirts. Thanks to exclusive arrangements with Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and other publishers, Diamond Comic Distributors has a monopoly on comic book distribution to the direct market.)

Hit the jump for some of the responses I got from Michael Ring, owner of Bridge City Comics; Adam Healy, co-owner of Cosmic Monkey Comics; Adam Rosko, assistant manager of Excalibur Books & Comics; Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics; Allie and Jeremy Tiedeman, owners of Guapo Comics and Coffee; and Aaron Duran, manager of the Portland Things from Another World. To get some perspective from the creator side of things, I also spoke with Periscope Studio's Steve Lieber—a guy who's not the only the artist of books like Whiteout and Underground, but also someone who's well aware that not all digital comics are of the legit variety.

Some of these peoples’ reactions to the current issues facing comics and comic book shops are exactly what you’d expect them to be. Others are pretty surprising.

DIGITAL COMICS: LIKE IT OR NOT, THE FUTURE IS HERE.

Across the board, the comics shop owners and employees I spoke with kinda like digital comics. I know, I know—it surprised me too! But their logic makes sense: They like 'em because they feel digital comics will bring new readers to brick-and-mortar shops.

“Digital comics will be here to stay, but it's not going to be a big deal. Just like VHS/Betamax/DVDs/Netflix didn't kill the movie theater, nor will digital comics kill the comic shops,” says Michael Ring of Bridge City Comics. “The people that come in looking for comics want to read comics. They want to hold them in their hands and be able to loan them out and pass them down to their kids. Digital comics are great as a low-cost way to sample new series.”

Ring adds, “I think there's a prevailing thought in the minds of a lot of comics publishers that there will be huge masses of people waiting to click ‘Buy Now’ on their iPads—and while there is definitely money to be made and an audience to be expanded in digital comics, there's also something to be said for the direct market and our unique ability to cultivate the audience for their books. Would a book like Chew exist without first being cultivated by the direct market? How about Walking Dead? Or Scott Pilgrim or Watchmen?”

“Digital comics aren't for me,” admits Jason Leivian of Floating World Comics. “A few preview pages [online] is fine. But I have a much different attention span on the internet. I like tabs and links and new and fast and disposable. But I wouldn't watch 2001 on YouTube, you know? I got it on Blu-ray. There's no reason to read Planetary on an iPad. I just got the Absolute Edition, and it is a gorgeous book.”

Personal preferences aside, Leivian sees the value of digital. “If someone can read the new issue of X-Men for free or cheap online, maybe that’s better,” he says. “Maybe they don’t need a physical copy if they’re never gonna read it again, so that would be a waste of $3 or $4. But eventually, they may come across something awesome that they want to own. And that may lead them to a comic shop to actually buy a book.”

Adam Rosko at Excalibur Books & Comics sees that trend in action. “We’ve noticed that people who have been sampling or buying single issues on iPads and such—if they enjoyed said issue, then they come in and buy a hard copy of the single [issue], or the complete graphic novel,” Rosko says. “If the iPad makes comics more accessible to people and gives people the wild hair to visit one of the comics shops in town, I think that’s really exciting.”

Taking it a step further, Adam Healy of Cosmic Monkey Comics thinks digital comics have an important role to play in the direct market, pointing out how important it is for comics readership to grow. “Digital has blown up at a time when print sales are falling due to high prices combined with an over-saturated market,” Healy says. “Digital comics are one of the few ways to bring in new readers and perhaps lure back old readers. The vast majority of the public is barely aware comics are still being made, and fewer still are willing to make a special trip to a comic book store to figure out what's going on in the comic world. Digital sales potential is in the millions, whereas print comics sales' ceiling currently is around 100,000. Digital is not a threat to print sales, mostly because they are so low already.”

“Clearly Warner Bros. [which owns DC Comics] and Disney [which owns Marvel] let Marvel and DC print all those things as some sort of write-off advertising cost [for movies and merchandising],” Leivian adds. “I'm glad that independent publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Oni Press, and Top Shelf have found creative ways to keep their companies in business, whether that's making movies or figuring out ways to expand their market. [But] we really just need bigger numbers in general. More readers, more customers. Print runs for single issues are so low, they couldn't possibly go any lower.”

“Overall, web comics and digital comics are and will be a good way of getting people interested in the books,” say Allie and Jeremy Tiedeman of Guapo Comics and Coffee. “The main goal of our business is to support/promote local artists and cartoonists. We have a large zine and mini-comic section, and it's hard to imagine these types of self-published pamphlets being usurped by digital technology.”

“I'm torn on digital comics,” confesses Aaron Duran of the Portland location of Things from Another World. “As a huge tech nerd, I love the idea of digital comics. They look fantastic and really create opportunities for small press and rising creators. Then again, part of me is still a member of the ‘Get off my lawn!’ crowd, and wants my comics made from dead trees, dang it!”

But try as he might, Duran can’t fully commit to the part of the curmudgeon. “I do see digital books are a part of the future of comics,” he adds. “I would hope the industry as a whole will continue to embrace the digital comics medium and not take a confrontational approach, like the music industry did and continues to do... ’cause we see how well that worked out for them. Will it hurt sales? Honestly, I don't think so. Shops might see an initial hit on monthly titles. However, in the long term, I think digital comics will help. I've seen many worthwhile titles die on the vine because readers simply can't drop another three to four bucks on something they've never heard of.”

“Ideally, I hope the comic book publishers develop a more symbiotic relationship with brick-and-mortar stores,” Duran continues. “What would I truly love to see? Soon as you finish reading your digital comic, you get a short message: ‘Like this comic? Click the ‘Buy Now’ button and head on over to your local shop and pick it up.’”

From a creator’s perspective, Steve Lieber sees huge potential for getting the work of comics professionals in front of more readers. “As a freelancer, I don't have access to the numbers that would make it possible to talk about the effects [of digital sales] on brick-and-mortar retailers—but to be honest, I don't think the publishers know either,” Lieber says. But that doesn’t stand in the way of his enthusiasm. “I'm incredibly eager to see the digital market grow,” he says. “There aren't nearly enough brick-and-mortar stores in the US to serve all the people who would like to read comics. Making it easier to get comics is the single best way to expand our readership.”

"HOLY SHIT!" (OR, COMICS ARE EXPENSIVE)

Four bucks for something that takes 15 minutes to read? Yeah. Not such a great deal. “Shop-owners I've spoken to have told me that the $3.99 price point was chasing away a number of once-steady customers,” Lieber says. Unsurprisingly, Marvel and DC’s recent announcements that they plan to ease up on charging $3.99 per issue have been welcomed by both readers and retailers.

“We think the drop in price is great news for the direct market,” say Allie and Jeremy Tiedeman. “Cheaper comics means it's easier for us and customers to take chances on something new…. The recent high prices have really made box subscribers cut down on the amount of titles they buy.”

“I think customers will dig it,” says Leivian. “I definitely noticed a drop in sales when they started doing more $3.99 books. Customers stopped taking chances on new series, [and] they dropped titles that they were just getting out of habit. A customer will feel one of two emotions after a purchase: They'll feel that they got a good deal, or that they just wasted their money. Instinctually, it seems that everyone felt $4 was too much.”

Ring, though, sees both pros and cons in the price drops. “In some ways, it's great because it will allow more people to read more comics. It will also lessen some of the ‘I can't believe how much I'm spending on comics!’ comments we've been hearing. When prices jumped, it made a lot of people take a long, hard look at the titles they were buying and drop those that they were either buying out of habit or on the fence about and perhaps not enjoying. Frankly, I'd be happier if Marvel and DC would just cut down on some of the bloat in their lines. Do we need 18 Batman titles in a month? Do we need six Wolverine books or 10 X-Men titles? I'd prefer to sell more copies of fewer good books than selling fewer copies of many mediocre books.”

But Ring’s also aware that less money spent on comics means… well, less money spent on comics. “People got used to spending more money on fewer books,” he says. “When the prices drop, they'll still be buying those fewer books, meaning we'll be making less money overall. It'll be up to us to find those good books and turn our customers on to them!”

Rosko notes that the high prices changed the way people thought of comics. “I think people will feel relieved in terms of the strain on their wallets,” he says. “As readers, we've all had to cut back on how we spend our ‘fun money,’ and for a lot people the first thing to go is the weekly trip to the comic shop. At $4 for most books, that could seriously cut into food, rent, [and] bill money. People start to seriously consider if it's worth it on some books. Four-to-five comics is a bill right there. Buying comics should never be a stressful experience—it's fun, it's candy. Going down to $3 is a generous attempt to try and alleviate some of that strain [and] make people feel better about comics. I think it'll make people happier about following monthly comics, rather than me ringing someone up and them shouting ‘Holy shit!’ even after their discount. It may also, over time, encourage people to try new things, which we've seen a significant drop in. People have been getting their ‘sure things’ because that's what they can afford, so if at $3 a book, they give it a try, that's great for stores and the industry."

Not that high prices have been the only thing holding back the industry, according to Healy. “Higher prices are just one reason sales are falling,” Healy says, noting customers care as much about value as price. “Other factors include late books, sporadic shipping schedules, too many titles in a line, readers' growing dissatisfaction with storylines dragging on, and comics not delivering in terms of content.”

Healy thinks it’s important to keep in mind that both Marvel and DC are out for profit—and also to remember that recent price drops should be looked at in a greater context.

“DC's announcement of the price decrease addressed all the recent criticisms retailers and fans have made recently,” Healy says. “They acknowledged the harm done to the industry and the need to put the fun back into it, and they were specific about their plans. Marvel did not address any of these concerns, made dubious claims that digital sales revenue allowed them to reduce some prices, and gave little to no specifics about their plans. They are both evil corporations run for profit. They both overproduce and crowd the shelves with unnecessary and unwanted spin-off titles (20 Batman books a month?!), but the difference in their communication styles is night and day.”

Healy adds, "I have a great deal of affection for comics and the people who make them. I hold the publishers in contempt for the most part. They sell the stuff of dreams, yet perpetuate nightmares in the pursuit of self-interest. Marvel and DC both have long, sordid histories of reprehensible behavior. A reasonable, rational adult of average intelligence should not have fond feelings for a publisher, for they would be misguided.”

THE DIRECT MARKET: YOUR SOURCE FOR “THE COOLEST BOOKS IN THE WORLD”

With the pricing and the format of comics in motion—and with both of those factors affecting small, local shops—I asked Portland’s comics shop owners about the state of the direct market in general. Unlike their responses to digital comics and pricing, their answers were more varied.

“We'd love to see the industry loosen [Diamond Comic Distributors'] virtual monopoly on distribution,” say Allie and Jeremy Tiedeman. “While [Diamond has] a lot of good qualities, it's discouraging to see their monthly catalog brimming with superhero and genre comics but short on a lot of awesome indie stuff. We'd love to see a more well-rounded distribution, whether via Diamond or some other company. We think comics will continue to spread throughout the culture, especially via indie and literary comics and graphic novels. We hope to see the self-publishing market in Portland continue to grow and flourish.”

At Excalibur, Rosko sees a general increase in comics reading, in part thanks to how successful superhero films have been in recent years. That interest, he says, will keep comics shops around. “Every time an ‘insider’ says the industry is going to take a crap, it comes back in a big way. I've been hearing ‘It's all over in five years’ for the last 15, and I'm sure they've been saying that longer than that,” he says. “That's what makes comics so interesting an industry—it changes and adapts and always finds a way to survive. We've also been noticing kids are coming in, looking to explore comics at an exponential rate. Kids have been devouring the books we give them. They see the characters on TV or in movies, and they want more adventures with their favorite characters. Luckily in some cases there are 40, 50, 70 years' [worth] of material they can read! We also have adults feeling the same way. Comic book characters and storytelling has permeated the popular culture—people more and more are now interested in reading comics.”

“I run a book store,” Leivian notes matter-of-factly. “Some people love books, and that's what we have to offer. The coolest books in the world. Download all you want, fill your hard drive. But when you want the experience of browsing a bookstore for something new, come to me.”

“Most, if not all, comics retailers do not go into retailing to make money or get rich,” Healy says. “I expect that most want to earn a good living, but don't imagine wealth will result from it. I don't know of any millionaire comic retailers, but there might be one or two. Most comic retailers get into the business because they love comics and are gratified to be part of the industry. The rewards we seek are the emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing a kid get excited when they walk in the door, or when a couple [of] customers get drawn into a long conversation that keeps them from doing what they meant to because they are so into the subject.

“Retailers do it because we love it and are compelled to do it," he continues. "This is the same motivation for a great many employees of the major publishers, but it is definitely not the motivation for top management. Businesspeople have business goals, but retailers have emotional goals that supersede profit. If that wasn't the case, there would be no direct market. It is not a big moneymaker. There are other things I could do and make more money, but I do this because it called to me.”

GETTING MARRIED AT THE COMICS SHOP: THE BENEFITS OF BRICK & MORTAR

“No one in publishing is prospering right now, and if all a store has going for it is the ability to place orders with a distributor, that store is gonna get clobbered,” says Lieber. “Shops are going to need to offer real expertise, constantly exposing customers to new stuff they’ll love and get hooked on.”

Luckily, that sort of expertise and enthusiasm is plentiful in Portland.

“We've seen customers date, get married, and even get divorced through the years. We had one couple get married in our store,” say Allie and Jeremy Tiedeman. “We've had pregnant customers whose kids are now grown up and picking out their own books. This is something you can never get online.

“It's important for Portlanders to buy their single issues from shops and not only online,” they continue. “It more directly supports small business as well as the many artists, cartoonists, and comics publishers that are all over this city.”

Portland’s comics shops also support each other. “We had a customer move here from New York and express interest in running a store,” Healy says. “They followed up with, ‘And I'll show everyone how it's done and put the other stores out of business.’ I pointed out that approaching the business with that attitude would ensure failure in this town. We support each other because we all support the comics market. If we all support the market and make sure it prospers, then we ensure our own prosperity. Profiteers can go die on a rock and their corpse can bake in the sun and turn to human jerky for all the critters. Profiteers should not be supported or tolerated. It is behavior that violates every value we hold dear. It is behavior that violates all the lessons we learned from reading comics as kids. But it is the behavior that built this industry and kept it going for many years. It is a conundrum."

That passion can be found in just about all of Portland’s shops. “We all love comics and we want you to leave happy and excited about what you got that week/month,” Rosko says. “Now, if you're moonlighting on the iPad/iPhone and find books you like there, cool! It's exciting technology in exciting times. To us, it's just another format to enjoy something on. However, there's an experience to be had in the comic shop. Sure, you can go scream to high heaven on the internet, but where else in public is it totally okay to just nerd-rage out about something? People like going in, seeing all the books, bullshitting with the clerk behind the counter, maybe vent about whatever book they love/hate. If you shop at a store regularly, these stores have small staffs, so they'll get to know you and your tastes and be able to find the next perfect book for you.”

“The stores in town, the owners, the workers, we all know each other and on our end, we care about everyone,” Rosko continues. “We help any of them in any way we can; it's actually very supportive. I've found every store does something different to help it stand apart as well as enrich the whole community. It's the best town for comics, period. Every store—every single one, hands down—beats any other store in the country.”

“Obviously I'm biased, but I think supporting your local comic shop is key to the health of the industry,” Ring says. “We're lucky in Portland that we have so many options! There are at least a dozen comics shops easily within driving distance or by public transportation, each specializing in our own niche of comics. The shops are where you go to find new things, get recommendations, meet other like-minded people, etc. They're event spaces where you can see original artwork, meet artists and writers, talk about your own comic work, and more. Anyone can download comics off the internet and enjoy them in the comfort of your own home, but comic shops offer you a place to talk about comics and expand your horizons. And Portland has a lot of damn fine comics shops.”

“We in Portland are insanely lucky," says Lieber. "We have some of the best comic shops in the country, staffed by smart, passionate curators of the medium. If we want to keep it like that, we have to support them.”

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