Come In Alone: Issue #5

Fri, December 31st, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

I have very little time, so this one will have to be quick.

These columns seem to have triggered off a lot of mail asking, once again, "how to save comics." How to, as someone put it, put the industry "back on the right foot."

So here's something that will, once again, have half the audience thinking I've lost my shit.

Comics don't need saving.

You see, when you say "right foot," you pretty much mean a restoration to the boom-period at the start of the decade. The time where everyone got rich and vast royalty cheques got Fabian Nicieza his house and Scott Lobdell his teeth.

"Comics don't need saving."

Now, Grant Morrison claims that a new boom is coming back. With his astrological charts, reports on sunspot activity, entrails of roadkill and a bloody Etch-A-Sketch, he can prove that a cycle of industry wealth and success exists, and that we're currently moving along the upswing of the curve towards a brand new peak, a little optimum. In just a few years, everyone will be all over us again, people will back truckloads of money up to our doors, we'll shift more units of THE LONELY DEATH OF GOT NO LEGS BOY in one week than Shania bloody Twain shifts CDs in a year, and we'll all live like kings.

But, to be blunt, Grant is on drugs.

No boom coming, folks. A boom, at this stage, would require access to a larger audience. And the only audience we have, the only audience we currently have the apparatus to reach, is those people prepared to walk through the door of a direct market comics store. And there aren't nearly as many direct market comics stores as there were during the boom. We have something like half the retail visibility of that we had back then.

Okay. I know what comes next. You've read my ranting elsewhere over the last few years, and you quote it back to me. We need to be reaching out to a new audience via new distribution channels. Newsstands, book stores, record stores. (I note that Tower is taking a new initiative with graphic novels.) Yes, we do. But the simple truth is that this is not going to happen any time soon.

Marvel and DC simply are not interested in fully opening up these distribution channels. They have too much invested in the survival of the direct market. They have had myriad chances to reopen newsstand dealings, and don't take them properly. Hell, DC actively forced sales away from the newsstand into the direct market. Marvel killed my SATANA so that their entire line was considered wholly safe for sale in K-Mart and other family mass outlets. I've not been in an American K-Mart recently, but I have had royalty statements for the piece of all-ages work I've done for them since, and I've been following the company's general disposition. And this doesn't seem to have done them a whole hell of a lot of good, does it? I believe the Archie books are still peddling their dismal, retarded unreality in supermarkets and the like, but those people are the Enemy, to be vilified, hunted down and fucked to death. Dark Horse supposedly attempted to penetrate the newsstand market with Barry Windsor-Smith's STORYTELLER, and bugger all happened there. I've heard two versions of why: one version has it that Dark Horse eventually didn't have the staff or resources to succeed in such a (admittedly large) task, the other version has it that DH just didn't try hard enough, in this instance or for STORYTELLER in general.

You see, you and me, we don't have the clout, the cash or the staff to see done the things that should be done -- forcing comics into these new sales points, getting the right work in front of the right people. All you and I have is the direct market, because that's all the major companies are interested in supporting.

"You see, you and me, we don't have the clout, the cash or the staff to see done the things that should be done -- forcing comics into these new sales points, getting the right work in front of the right people."

So it behooves us to bolster the failing direct market system if we want to continue selling comics in the current paradigm. And I'd like to, because I'd like to continue paying for my house and stuff. And that means changing the comics store culture.

That means getting rid of the talking Jar Jar Binks stand-up in the doorway. It means racking the T&A stuff somewhere else. It means focussing more on graphic novels than back-issue bins. It means displaying your comics in the window, not the bloody toys, and making your standalone floor displays out of comics and graphic novels, not those stupid pewter figures for pretending to be sodding elves in role-paying games with. It means talking to customers, not just standing idly by or peering over your till with an air of false superiority. It means talking to the people who work in and run the shop, telling them what you think works, telling them what you want to read. It means call-out sections where you rack by creator, and all the comics shops I know of that have tried it have discovered that it works very well indeed. Because people who don't come from the comics-store culture will walk into stores and look, not for a title, but the new Neil Gaiman, or the new Alan Moore, or the new Frank Miller.

Basically, if we're going to attempt to drive new potential readers into comics store, we don't want them retching from man-stench and cheap porno-manga the minute they get into the store. We need to provide a mature environment in line with bookstores and record stores. A sense of relaxed professionalism. An environment that's proud to sell its wares, as opposed to covering them up with miles of Magic boxes or brazenly (or sloppily) leaving the ugly and ephemeral mainstream stuff in front and hiding the good stuff in the back. Newsflash; if someone newly interested in comics enters a comics store for the first time, odds are good that they're not going to want this month's AMAZING FROTTAGE-MAN.

"We need to provide a mature environment in line with bookstores and record stores. A sense of relaxed professionalism."

This is the problem that needs solving. For every Comix Experience or Page 45 or Nexus-VI, there are ten Scrotal Sac Comics that are really only interested in selling Spider-Man to the same forty people while paying the rent with this year's Pokemon. The number of stores that are unafraid to sell comics and make their packet by drawing new, non-comics-culture people into the store to show them the good stuff are outnumbered.

But here's an interesting point. The regular stores complain that profits are still shrinking. But Comix Experience in San Francisco -- a city with more than its fair share of comics stores -- has actually shown a continual rise in profits. How does store owner Brian Hibbs and his fine staff manage that, do you think?

By doing the job.

As you read this, I will be in Hamburg, Germany, celebrating New Year with my family in the midst of a city-wide Millennial music festival topped off by a firework and laser show at midnight over the central lakes, also featuring a 2000-voice choir. Yeah, you and I know the Millennium isn't counted until next year, but everyone thinks it's this year, and years from now people will still ask "What did you do on the Millennium?" And I wanted my daughter to have a good answer.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My website, currently undergoing an update, is http://www.warrenellis.com. There is a COME IN ALONE discussion area here on CBR.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read Projections 10: Hollywood Film-makers on Film-making by Mike Figgis (Faber & Faber, 1999), listen to Brought To Light, Alan Moore's dramatic reading of the graphic novel as produced by Gary Lloyd (Codex, 1999), and hit the Norman Spinrad website at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/normanspinrad/ (and tell him I said hello). Today's recommended graphic novel is BRYAN TALBOT'S BRAINSTORM: The Complete Chester P Hackenbush And Other Underground Classics by Bryan Talbot (Alchemy, 1999). Now begone.

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