Friday, December 07, 2007

Free Comic Book Day 2008 Controversy

Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) doesn't arrive again until May 3, 2008, but already there seems to be a bit of a controversy emerging. According to blog@newsarama and Johanna Carlson, the FCBD Committee is requiring the comics be appropriate for all ages and contain no nudity. I do not have a publisher verification on that yet, but I will assume it to be true, as Johanna is typically a reliable source.

In past years, the gold level publishers had to provide all-age comics, but the silver level could publish whatever they wanted pretty much. Now it sounds like, in order to keep things like the Gordon Lee incident from happening, and in reaction to several retailers who were upset about some of the 2007 offerings (like a panel where a guy is in a room full of dildos), the committee has added the "all age appropriate" stipulation to the contract for any publisher participating.

As a retailer who participates in the event, I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I like to have a variety of comics for people. But on the other hand, I don't think nudity is necessary in comics, especially for this event. We do what we can that day to keep kids from grabbing the more adult titles, but that's not to say accident's can't happen and that some angry parent wouldn't come after me. Or your favorite comic book store. Or that an adult would grab it and when their child asks for it they'd hand it to him or her without looking at it first, assuming as people often do, that comics are for kids.

I also believe that the "all ages" term has far too negative of a connotation for some people. It doesn't have to mean "for kids." Look at Star Wars - that is an excellent example of something for all ages - kids enjoy it, and their parents do too. If more comics could be shared by children and their parents I think that the industry might even have more readers and a better shot of surviving another 20 years. Comic books do NOT have to talk down to people for kids to enjoy and understand them, and they do not have to have nudity, cusses, or graphic violence for adults to enjoy them. For those few people coming into a comic book store wanting something adult in nature, a good retailer can make suggestions for comics they can purchase. But I do not see why that kind of thing has to be given out for free on one of the busiest days in a comic book store.

I had it suggested to me that instead of being in favor of an "all age" stipulation that I just order comics that are for all ages and not order the "adult" ones. There are two problems with that. The first is that I do like having some variety - I don't want to just order Mickey Mouse and Archie. The second is that we do not get to see the comics before hand. All we receive is a typical Previews solicitation - a cover image and a few sentences describing the book. There isn't a rating system used for comics, so we do not know what age it's appropriate for. We might order something because it sounded interesting, and then find out that it has several panels including nudity and beheading. We do get the comics before the FCBD event, so there is some time to read them, so we can at least get a better feeling for the comics and what's in them. But we have to pay for them - before the event - and we don't get to return leftovers. So, if a seemingly "R" comic becomes a "NC17" or "X" well, we're stuck with it - and we'll end up handing it out because we paid for the dang thing. All we can do is try to keep it from ending up in the wrong hands on the big day.

Personally, I would rather have full PDF's available to me for every FCBD book that we could buy BEFORE I have to order them. Then I could see what comes after that cover image and make my own decision as to what I'll buy and not buy for my store's event. Then publishers and each store owner can use their own judgment for their participation and investment in the event. I suggested it to people on the committee when they asked for suggestions, but I guess they decided that trying to jam everyone into the "all ages" framework was the easier thing to do. That way even lazy retailers who wouldn't take the time to look over the FCBD books before handing them out would still be "safe." After all, there are a LOT of kids running around on FCBD and we want them to touch paper comics while they still can.


Johanna said...

My last name is actually Draper Carlson, thanks. And the original reporting can be found in that link, which is what Newsarama used for its story. My source was one of the potential FCBD publishers who didn't care to be named.

Lisa said...

Actually the Blog@ post had other useful links your post did not, that's why I used that one. The Blog@ linked to you, and I gave you credit. So there is no need to restate it, but thank you for the clarification.

Johanna said...

The Newsarama post also got my name right, so that plus my sourcing is new information here. :)

Swinebread said...

I have to admit every time I’ve gone to a Free Comic Book Day event it’s had a family atmosphere, so I don’t have a big problem with it. There are plenty of “adult” comics without nudity that folks could sample on FCBD if some thought was put into it. We want to bring people in, not push them away.

Lisa said...

I agree swinebread! Many current customers only bring their kids in on FCBD and we get a lot of kids from the community who wander in or whose parents send them in when they see the signs that comics are free. If someone wants a comic with nudity they're going to have to pay for it. I'd rather not have that kind of stuff "surprising" families on FCBD. If you were a mom or dad and hadn't gone into a comic book store until FCBD and didn't really know what the whole thing was about, what would you think if they were handing out free nudy books? Aren't comic book retailers trying to repair that seedy image?

Johanna said...

Alternately, if I was a new adult reader attracted by press coverage of graphic novels who found out that all the comics had been sanitized, my previous perception that comics were only for kids would be confirmed.

We can play "what if" all we want. My opinion is that FCBD books should represent the full range of material and publishers available, and retailers should make their own decisions what to carry instead of relying on a censorship committee.

Lisa said...

Johanna - the flaw in your statement is that not everything would have the content sanitized, just the FCBD give-away items. If someone heard of a cool graphic novel and they want to buy one, I can and will help them out. Part of the point of FCBD is getting people to come into brick and mortar comic book stores to buy things.

Since there is not a standard rating system for comics and since publishers do not do a good job informing retailers about what's in these comics when they have to be ordered, censorship is, unfortunately, a safe option. It would be great if retailers could make educated decisions on these books, but we can't because we don't get to see them before ordering and we only have about 100 words telling us what's inside.

It should also be noted many have said that leaving the "all age" connotation in the contract for silver sponsors was an error on the part of Diamond. I have heard that there are publishers in contact with Diamond to have the contract corrected.

Johanna said...

Forcing a publisher to put out non-representative FCBD comics strikes me as something of a bait and switch tactic. And saying "censorship is a good option since people aren't doing a better job of informing customers" doesn't convince me.

Lisa said...

Johanna - don't live in a glass house here. What do you think would happen to your favorite local comic book store if the owner was sued like Lee was because an adult comic fell into the wrong hands? As much as we might not want censorship it unfortunately exists. As much as we might not want to admit that there are retailers out there that are not diligent, there are.

And another flaw in your thinking - no publisher is required to submit a comic book for FCBD. If they do not have content that fits the requirements then they don't need to have a FCBD book. There are LOTS of publishers out there that could meet the requirement. And if you've ever looked at some of those silver books you'd agree that a LOT of them are crap anyway. I have yet to have an adult pick up an adult/mature themed free comic book and then come back for the other comics or graphic novels.

Johanna said...

I've worked a comic retail counter when an undercover officer came into the store and displayed an unusual amount of attention towards the books on the high shelves, Lisa. (Thankfully, he turned out to be the owner's friend.) I understand the concerns both intellectually and emotionally. But you don't get anywhere saying "censorship is bad except in the case where I want it".

It's a shame that you're now saying willing publishers should be locked out of FCBD if their line isn't aimed at kids. I believe that's the definition of the slippery slope, and you've slid way down it.

Yes, some of the silver publications are crap... and so are some of the gold, including some of the kid-friendly ones. If you're not able to convert any of your new adult potential customers to purchasing anything, should we assume that that's solely the fault of the publication?

Lisa said...

First Johanna, let me address your last point. "Free" will always bring people in who just want stuff for free and/or will find stuff they like and then buy it cheap on Amazon or other sites instead of supporting the local retailer who gave them the free stuff. They want a deal and it doesn't matter if it hurts the retailer as long as they don't have to pay cover price. You should know a bit about this yourself. But quality comics WILL bring people back - we've sold a ton of the Peanuts collections for COVER PRICE after that Peanuts FCBD book got into the hands of people who didn't realize they could get this stuff at comic stores, and I know they've been topping Amazon's sales charts too. In addition, I've had far more repeat customers who came in wanting to know more about comics and made a purchase based on recommendations from someone in the store than I've had from people who came in for free stuff and didn't make any financial investment.

Now your other point. No one is locking any publisher out of FCBD. Customers can BUY things that day - and if that publisher thinks they've got something people will want then have it released that week so FCBD visitors buy it. Maybe offer a rebate coupon via their website. OR, they can do a 25 cent or 50 cent or even 99 cent comic book that will release near the FCBD date - often the cost to retailers on the 25 and 50 cent comics is less than what we pay per comic for the FCBD offerings. MANY retailers use those low cost books to supliment their FCBD offerings. Or they can go the extra mile and send out free promotional comics (Marvel did this twice recently). Those on CBIA can offer books directly to any retailer interested. All the restriction says is that comics listed on the official FCBD web site and having the FCBD logo must be all age. Kind of like they did before with gold sponsors. Were you OK with that? No one is saying that publishers have to either offer all age comics or their books must be locked in a vault on FCBD. They just have to be a bit more creative.

If Diamond, as a business, decided that they wanted to only brand all age appropriate comics with the FCBD logo, that is a business decision. Businesses make choices and decisions all the time that might be called censorship or discrimination or unfair, but make sense for that business. For example, UPS requires a warehouse worker to be able to lift a minimum weight. Now that's not too fair to frail people, old people, the handicapped... but it is a rule that makes business sense. If Diamond believes that it is in the best interest of itself and its retail partners to only have all age comics for FCBD then that's their decision. We will see if they're right or not. The Mayfair Games post I made that commented on a while back on your own blog was about a game maker making a business decision about how much stores can discount their product. It is a decision they made because they believe it is what is best for their business. It will anger some people who sell their games. Some people will be "eliminated" from carrying Mayfair Games product because they will not accept the rules. But it is a business decision Mayfair made. Maybe it was a bad decision, maybe not, but it was a business decision. Are you going to argue against censorship of comics but for censorship of business decisions? Diamond should publish an entire catalog just of FCBD books from every publisher because it wouldn't be fair to set standards for anyone? I think they realize that the information we're provided isn't enough, and that many store owners don't have the time to read every book before FCBD. This is a way of helping retailers by doing some of the screening for us. By setting standards that we know about before we make a purchase. By your definition a store owner is committing censorship by not buying those books they deem objectionable or just plain bad - what if someone walks in and wants that and that's the only B&M comic book store for miles around? That person has been denied their freedom to read what they want because a retailer made a business decision that didn't match with that person's personal preferences. And how about that rule that internet sellers don't get the comics? Are you against that too?

As far as top shelf material - I never said or implied that there should not be any mature themed comics. If a retailer thinks that they need to hand out that kind of material on FCBD because it benefits their business they can. Maybe they have back issues of that stuff that they give away. Maybe they buy some 25 cent preview books. But never did I say that we can't have mature themed comics in a store.

If the FCBD comics were clearly marked with a rating that would be understood by anyone who came in and would be stated when a store is deciding what to order I would be more inclined to take your side. Unfortunately I can't see the world through rose colored glasses. As a retailer myself I understand that the actions of one can impact all of us. One guy getting sued makes us all look a little less professional. I also know that there are more ways to get people interested in comics than handing them something branded with the FCBD logo. Maybe this will get publishers to think more, to be more creative and try to actually do some of the work of promoting their books themselves.

Remember Johanna, life isn't always "fair." No amount of love for comics or devotion to freedom of speech will keep a store open if the owner is sued and the store's reputation becomes tarnished in their community. There's a difference between threatening freedom and having common sense. Somewhere along the line someone has to say these pass and these don't. Your line just seems to be in a different place.