Monday, June 04, 2007

A Couple of Thoughts about "The Industry"

In my research of women comic book store owners I discovered that while the numbers for women owners (that are active, not just owners in name only) and managers are pretty bad (about 12% is generous) that for minorities it's even worse. When I asked on ComicsPRO I found that about 15% of ComicsPRO member stores have a woman owner or other active high-ranking woman that works in or for the store, but when someone else asked about minority ownership the silence was deafening. While when I did my Diamond study I wasn't looking for minority owners, I do recall not seeing very many shown in the photos. I then came up with this little concept:

POWER in Comics

Writing (and drawing)
In Comics by women and minorities.

What this concept turns into - well, that's a different story. Could it become an organization? An initiative? A web site/blog of support and ideas? I don't know. I just know that in order for the comic book industry to move forward in the United States we need to open the industry on a variety of levels (as shown in the acronym) to more women and minorities.

Second thought...

Why isn't there a comic book chain or franchise? No equivalent to Barns & Noble or even Half Price Books when it comes to comics. Is it that the markets from state to state, and even city to city change too much? Is it that there is so little profit in it that no one could do it? I don't know, but I do know that on boards where large comic book retailers participate many claim that it can't be done - not outside of a localized area anyway. But why not? That has never really been explained. Does the industry need such an iconic brand? I am starting to think it does. A large enough conglomerate could (& probably would) become its own distributor, rather than using Diamond. But if the time is right for one, why do so many owners say it can't be done?


Kanoff said...
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James Meeley said...

Does the industry need such an iconic brand? I am starting to think it does. A large enough conglomerate could (& probably would) become its own distributor, rather than using Diamond. But if the time is right for one, why do so many owners say it can't be done?

Fear. Plain and simple.

And i don't mean fear of women and minorities having power, but fear of failing.

When they say it "can't be done", what they are really saying is "it's never been done before and neither I or anyone else wants to be the first to do it, because such ventures, more times than not, end in failure, so I'm not giving up my comfy situation here, to try for something bigger and better, knowing the odds are already stacked way against me."

Of course, until someone does try it, the situation will remain a dark mystery if it truly can be done, as you've already learned, Lisa. If someone DID try it, even if they failed, other would at least learn from that person's experience and try again, using the knowledge learned by the one that failed to help they have a chance at success. But no one wants to be the first one to try and sacrifice what they already have (as stagnant and incomplete as even that may be). It's a case of "better the devil you know, over the one you don't."

So, like I said before I began this long-winded diatribe, why do comic shop owners think it can't be done? Fear. Fear of the unknown; Fear of risk: Fear of failure. That's kind of odd, in an ironic sort of way, when the majority of the product most shops carry is about people who are putting a greater good above themselves and are willing to sacrifice everything to make their world a better place. I guess people really DON'T read comics anymore.... ;)

munkeyboy said...

I think (or maybe I'd like to think) it has more to do with an independent spirit. It always seems like there is a stigma to buying comics at a "bookstore". In Minneapolis there are a couple of stores called Shinder's. They carried books, used books, card games, baseball cards, ect.. I would always buy my comics there but as soon as I found out about a little "independent" comic store that was tucked away in some little strip mall, I bought my comics there from then on.

I think it could be possible to start a chain if some of the bigger comic stores (is it CBN that advertises in all the books) were to ban together and start something but I think that the comic community would bawk in response to them. The same way alot of people who would shop at Harry W. Schwartz are repelled by Barnes and Nobel.

Elayne said...

What James and munkeyboy said. As long as the majority of (white male) comic store owners see their stores as an extension of fandom rather than as actual businesses, the only chains will be local or regional, like Midtown (2 Manhattan outlets) and St. Mark's (one Manhattan, one Brooklyn).

You might want to consult with Cheryl Lynn of the Ormes Society re: your POWER idea. I think it has merit.

munkeyboy said...

I wonder if the decentralized nature of comic book stores results in the lower number of women owners in that it is more difficult to break into. I'm sure if you were to look into "minority" ownership of a franchised business like Subway it would be much higher. When the path to ownership is layed before you the goings are much easier. With no "easy-in", comic store ownership seems more intimidating not to mention the lack of support coming from advertising and name recognition.

Another reason ownership is so disappointing goes to what elayne wrote. Comics are read by mostly white males. There is a growing diversity of readership which in time will (hopefully) result in a larger ownership ratios. The fact that this type of blog exists is a step in the right direction. When picking a business venture most people want to stick with what they know.

Lisa said...

You've all made GREAT points! James is right that fear is a part of it. Munkyboy is right that part of it is the "novelty" factor and sense of individualism that comic book stores currently have. And Elayne and Munkyboy again bring up good points about how it's a white man's business right now, largely steming out of the fact that white men are the primary consumers and have been for a couple of decades now. Another point that no one yet brought up is that part of it is control. Once someone spreads their business out in either a large corporate organization or a franchise the original business owner looses control of the businesses. Many owners feel like they're the best one at doing what they do and that the store is what it is because he is there, and if other owners get involved the store will no longer be what they created.

Lisa said...

Elayne - I will contact Cheryl at Ormes and see what she has to say. Thanks!

Devil Doll said...

I'll be interested to see what kind of response you get to this idea. Hopefully no death threats, you uppity feminist. *g*

Erica Well said...

A comic book store franchise! Gosh -- what a terrific idea.

As both a minority and female who has tried (co-owning) retail back in the day (oh gosh, don't ask) I see what's probably 2 basic huge problems with the comic book franchise scenario: 1)everyone needs to eat, but not everyone needs to buy comic books.

Even with Borders or Barnes and Nobles as terrific bookstore-with-many-outlets examples, far fewer people will buy comic books. We are already looking at a smaller return in the investment (unless the store also sells other things to keep it going?)

2) I can't see running a store with only one really major comics distributor. When I worked in it there were 3 or 4 -- but with Diamond holding the lion's share of distribution now, it puts little stores with small sales figures at a disadvantage. When you're at the mercy of reorders that do not arrive (or may not ever arrive) in a timely manner, potential sales do get lost.

ManoDogs said...

I'm sure I'll get slammed for this, but I'm pretty sure the reason so many "white males" are comic shop owners and fans is because we're the people to whom comic books appeal. They've tried many minority superhero titles over the years and none of them have ever made a big "splash." Comic books, as a hobby and pursuit, simply don't seem to appeal to a large portion of women or minorities, and there's nothing wrong with that. It may be a cultural thing, but it's a truism.

Further, why make the division? I think a website or something might be interesting, but is there really a need for women and minorities to make a fight out of something like this? Seems to be overly aggressive for no real reason other than to make a stink. Maybe it's not self-serving, but I see no other valid reason.

As for a chain store comics shop, it may well work, but I think one of the biggest reasons it hasn't been tried is because the general fans of comic books tend to be outcasts/outsiders in one form or another and they wouldn't support it. That being said, Games Workshop has been pretty successful with their RPG-based chain store, so it just may work.

Alexa said...

Well, as one of those elitists who's not the biggest fan of chain bookstores either, I am hesitant at the thought of a chain of comic book stores. What I would love would be for comic shops to band together à la BookSense. That way you kinda get the best of both worlds. Not so much the name recognition, but in terms of both keeping fandom centers and distancing from Diamond. However, I do think there should be some kind of quality requirements in terms of not just selection, but also the service and atmosphere (i.e. that dungeon I work at should not be eligible until they get a real floor and slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls, for starters)

Vail said...

I think the biggest problem getting women and minorities into reading comics is letting them know it's out there. Now that there are Spiderman movies etc. there are more reasons for someone to walk into a comic book store and maybe pick up a lesser known comic that would appeal to them. You can't have a "build it and they will come" type outlook though, you have to be proactive. Comics used to be sold in grocery stores and other main stream places back in the "good old days" and that got it into the hands of guys everywhere. Now people have to search it out in specialty stores pretty much. You need to advertise, just like they did to get girls in the USA to read Manga.

Lisa said...

manodogs - I am glad you brought up this objection, because it needs to be addressed. I believe someone mentioned earlier that this can't be handled in a "if you build it they will come" way. That's right, and what you mention is exactly that. The present, established comic book industry seems to think that if you make comics that have women and minorities in them then those people will read them. That hasn't happened, just as you state. And in some cases it's actually served to do just the opposite.

My approach is different - it is a developmental approach that will take longer, but I think have more real impact. If, by having more women and minorities reading comics and working in the comic book industry as creators and store owners and on the publishing side as editors and the like, then that should be able to grow and spread. Those people working in the comic book community will draw more from their own communities, getting more women and minorities interested in them and becoming involved. The byproduct, somewhere down the road, might be more comics about women and minorities, but then there will also be an audience for them. It doesn't make much sense to make comics for a market that doesn't exist - that's where the existing system has gone wrong. But, if you develop the market first then those brave enough to write comics about women and minorities will have more of an audience available.

Mainly, there just need to be more people interested in comics, and better comics being made, that will get more people interested in comics and the comic industry. If the white male population is already saturated and if people want to see the comic book market overall grow then a good way to do that is to reach out to those not being reached and get them involved.

Lisa said...

erica and alexa - great points about the chain stores. One probably doesn't want a chain feel to a store. And getting out from under the tyrany of Diamond is a tricky part of the problem. But, some kind of franchise or shared business plan concept like Alexa brings up could work. Something like a franchise - where each owner is his or her own person and has their own store and interests and ties to the community - but they also have some standards to follow and are given some assistance with starting their store. When getting money they also would have the advantage of having a set business plan and some solid performance data from other stores that are part of their franchised network. AND there would be a shared group of retailers supporting each other instead of out to compete and fight with each other - like often happens now in the direct market community. Plus, if the franchise becomes large enough I would think that it would be possible for it to become its own distributor for the franchise owners, rather than having each owner have to deal with buying from Diamond. It seems like such an easy idea that would benefit so many that I can't believe it isn't already being done. I guess maybe it's just not as easy as it sounds.

Vail said...

I think that comic book owners should band together to buy time on TV or advertise in major magazines that would be aimed at people other then single white males. Collectable card games did this, and now they have a bigger market then the small amount of people going to Gaming/Hobby stores before. You gotta get people into the stores first, then you can add product lines. As for the distributing problem, if you have a growing market, then someone else might decide to take on Diamond, but there has to be a market that supports 2 companies. Having them band together to buy direct might work, but they would have to get a very big group to be able to swing it.

ManoDogs said...

Firstly, thanks for being open to what I had to say and not jumping down my throat!

As for taking on Diamond, I'm not sure how long everyone has been collecting comics here, but Bud Plant will distribute your indie comics through his outlets and mail order. He also publishes some magazines, but I think he got out of the distribution game in a Big Way (ala Diamond).

Also, you may remember that Dave Sim took on Diamond back when he started selling his Cerebus phonebooks. Also, Mile High jumped in the game with the now-famous Tick.

I like the idea and concept, but it would take muchos dinero to actually do it right and, were I you and I really wanted to pursue this, I'd contact Bud. He's a real guy and a really cool one, too. He'll listen.

As for more minorities in the industry, I couldn't agree more with what you say, Lisa. I would love to see more minorities in comics, so long as they did comics that appeal to me. If any of you have read my blog, you know that I've put down a lot of indie comics because they simply aren't that good! But with the recent success of the films and so forth, I think it would be easy to get some really good minority talent into the game with a little promise of money.

But again, if they come into the game - as I think we're all agreed - doing comics that appeal to a very limited number of people, then they're most likely going to end up with a bitter taste in their mouth because the audience just isn't there.

Really good discussion. I'll add you to my blogroll and mention this over there. Let me know if you'd like some more publicity and we'll set you up a page or two on the site as well!

Lisa said...

Vail - great idea. ComicsPRO should work on that. It's the most organized group of comic book retailers out there right now.

Lisa said...

manodog - thanks for coming here and posting and being willing to see both sides. I have added you to my blogroll as well and once I get this POWER in Comics community going it would be great if you could give it some publicity.

Erica Well said...

Manodogs, please don't take this personally (and to be fair, I will also disclose I am a Hispanic woman married to a white male fanboy, and I love him for it!) but I have found that the "... I'm pretty sure the reason so many "white males" are comic shop owners and fans is because we're the people to whom comic books appeal." is a kind of shortsightedness that some fans have towards other fans, and that is what has gotten us into this shrinking-fanbase and comics-are-just-for-30+-white-males editorial sloppiness spiral in the first place.

The more that limited idea is reinforced, the fewer readers there will be. It's a self-pepetuating limitation.

See, as goofy as some 70s and early 80s comics are -- and some of them are flat out hilarious, and I love them for it -- they really are almost more universal in appeal because they at least tried to be. Nowadays they seem to be not even trying anymore and I don't know where that editorially "broke".

The appeal of comics is not a limited cultural thing, because that leaves absolutely no room for the plainly HUGE comics fans and businesses in Mexico, Spain, Japan, China and Korea, (for example) and the women who read them there, too.

Mainstream superhero comics nowadays don't appeal much to women and minorities because women and minorities are nothing more than foils (if even) for the main character, which tends more often that not to be a male caucasian.

But I also think people tend to write what they know. And if they don't have women or minority friends (or if they try to overcompensate for it but STILL end up writing caricatures) then what women and minorities truly need to do is step up, break into the biz and make some quality comics.

If someone wants work on staff, then they should move to NYC or CA (or) where the work is. And get really educated as to what an editor's job REALLY is.

Ya wanna work freelance and pencil or ink, and actually draw racially diverse people? Go to the conventions and get to know the editors and impress the hell out of them with consistent and good work. Updated regularly!

Good work handed in on time goes a long way. And when you impress us, we will make sure we try to hook you up with a break-in gig. (At least as long as that staffer is doing their job right. I did my best when I was on staff to do that.)

I do agree with you that we should not go for division. That just makes no sense if you want to work on mainstream superheroes. We otherwise wind up in a ghetto and gosh, publishing is hard enough as it is.

Even when Milestone launched, and we were all about minorities -- and GOSH even the staff was beautifully diverse! -- we couldn't get enough readers to pick up the book because hardly anyone knew the books existed in the first place!

We couldn't get house ads for our books to cross over into DC mainstream books. Comic stores were too scared to give us a try or keep carrying the books past issue #3 -- so how in the world were we ever going to be read by people who would enjoy the books? And this is an imprint carried by DC Comics!

So yeah, Lisa, that "if you build it they will come" mentality just isn't enough. There has to be structure to back it up.

The change has to come from within the mainstream, within the company structure, and from exceptionally qualified individuals who take the jobs on and create the change.

And the more I mull over it, I really do like that franchise/band together idea (I need to go look up BookSense now.)

ManoDogs said...

Oh, you're not offending me! I think this a great discussion and a very important one. I also appreciate not being yelled-down for my input.

"Cultural" was not a good choice of words; maybe "social" would have been better, because I thought about what you say re: manga and other countries, cultures, and societies, where comics have a broader (no pun intended!) appeal.

My real concern is that I don't want to support a self-defeating movement which is just being organized to make a point - and I don't think that's what this is. By that, I mean that I've seen - especially in other entertainment fields - minorities enter a white, male-dominated field and make a big to-do over being minorities in that field, then release a product with an obviously limited market appeal in a field which does not cater to that market, then use its defeat as a weapon to criticize white males and the field/industry as a whole.

I mean, other than liking pretty girls and constantly thinking about having sex with Angelina Jolie, what do I have in common with lesbians? Why would I want to read about a lesbian who comes to terms with her own sexuality when she falls in love with her college roommate, who happens to be straight? Especially since I've read that story - in and out of comics - about 50 billion times already!

Yet, they churn them out with sub-standard artwork, non-existent production value (read: Xerox and staples), get a write-up in The Comics Journal and use every criticism leveled at them as a means to distance themselves from the mainstream market. Which is, as you suggest about the comics appeal to white males argument, just as self-perpetuating a practice.

If there were a comic book about a lesbian superhero that focused as much on crime-fighting and swinging around the city as it does on her coming to terms with her sexuality or her relationship(s), I really might be interested in that! Pending, of course, it has good artwork, interesting dialogue and storylines, and isn't a Xeroxed side-stapler with a $3.99 cover price!

Something along the lines of the current Daredevil, which is just as often focused on Matt Murdock's interpersonal relationships and personal life as with whatever villain he is currently facing.

Vail said...

Of course nothing is gonna change if comic book owners don't take action to make their shops "newbie" friendly. What I mean is having shops free of posters with tenticle porn on them, "fan service" statues all over etc. They also need to treat females as customers and not as aliens coming to zap their minds. I suggest that they have an area for new customers to browse full of "newbie" friendly comics (i.e. something they can pick up and dive in, without having to read 5 zillion crossovers). They could actually learn some from booksellers who have recommended lists, endcap displays of new items and book clubs.

Anonymous said...

I got here from Heidi @ Comics Fairplay. I can't stay too long, but I just wanted to toss this out there.

One major reason that their is no Franchise stores (of any size) is because most shop owners are "independant thinkers" and when you own/run a franchise, you are following the rules and dictate from "the Man"

There just needs to be a stronger support system for comic shop owners.... what ever happened to ICCA???

Be Well,
Do Good Work,
Keep in Touch,


Erica Well said...

Manodogs -- :) I'm happy we can discuss this, too.

Your third paragraph ("My real concern is...) also touches on a larger social issue ... (I keep thinking of the Affirmative Action backlash there was about a year or so ago, too)

I also think, though, that "limited market appeal" is a relative term nowadays, especially with POD. Just looking at a typical magazine rack at a supermarket or bookstore will show an incredible amount of niche market magazines available to the reading public. I think it's a matter of knowing your market and where to place your comics work appropriately. That's why we have Indie Comics and Underground Comix, aside from the Superheroes. (And I'm sure it's all splintered into even smaller niches since I last looked.)

I think the crux of what people are trying to address in the (general public mainstream) hoopla is in your other paragraph: "...If there were a comic book about a lesbian superhero that focused as much on crime-fighting and swinging around the city as it does on her coming to terms with her sexuality or her relationship(s), I really might be interested in that! Pending, of course, it has good artwork, interesting dialogue and storylines, and isn't a Xeroxed side-stapler with a $3.99 cover price!..."

If we want to bring diversity to mainstream superhero comics, then we do have to deal with the fact that the corporate ground rules are set up as to how ya play: ie., pencils and inks HAVE to be finished to a certain calibre of quality and in the "House Style". Stories have to be written of and about the superheroes -- who already have long-established histories. So then, it remains for the editors and creators to BRING the diversity IN with us.

[NOW, when an EOE's employee gets into a discrimination situation once you're there, THAT'S a whole other kettle of worms ... see:Occasional Superheroine ... BUT let's just keep this all simple for now.]

Vail, your comment about the "newbie friendly" area in the store is terrific. And part that's why I still find the comics store franchise idea so appealing, and helpful to those who don't know how to start but really want to be in that business and learn it. If many comics shops were less intimidating-looking and fan-cliqueish and more retail-looking (I keep thinking of the Jim Hanley's Universe store in Manhattan, which was terrific last I visited) I think we'd have more walk ins and maybe more Moms happy to take their kids to the comic shop. (The 5-zillion part comics crossover is a whole other problem ...)

Brian -- I've been wondering about ICAA ever since it was time to renew my husband's membership over a year ago. They seem to have disappeared, which is too bad cause they started out with such a bang. Does ANYONE know what happened to any of them?

Lisa -- thanks so much for bringing up this interesting POWER concept and hosting this discussion. I'm enjoying catching up with your other posts, too.