Girl In The Clubhouse: Issue #4

Fri, October 28th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Johanna Stokes, Columnist

WHAT GIRLS CAN DO FOR COMICS

Over the past three weeks, we've looked at how guys could bring their girlfriends to comics, how retailers could make their shops more female friendly and how publishers could make their comics more accessible to women. But I'm a good Southern girl, which means never taking something without giving something back, compliments and insults included. (Hell, Southerners will do something nice for you and when you send them a thank you note they'll send you one right back. It's really a vicious cycle.)

Loving comics like I do and knowing that there are lots of women out there who feel the same way, I asked the professionals what we could do for the industry. Keith Giffen said lower necklines and shorter hemlines, but let's call that Plan B, 'kay?

STEP ONE - Buy The Book

This sounds so simple, right? We've all lived in the world long enough to have our little hearts broken and come to the bitter realization that it doesn't really matter how good something is - if it isn't making money, it isn't gonna last. "Arrested Development" is one of the most brilliant shows on T.V. and yet every season we hear how it may be canceled, regardless of how many Emmys it's won. (And on the flip side, if something is making money, it'll probably stick around regardless of how bad it is. That's how we ended up with all those damn Earnest movies. "Earnest Goes to Camp." "Earnest Goes to Jail." "Earnest Goes to School." "Earnest Goes to Africa." Earnest needs to get somewhere and stay there.)

So we know we need to support a product if we want it to last. But like I've mentioned before, very few newbies come into comics with the drive of a collector. If we're going to skip a few meals and cut rent a little close it'll be for a weekend in Vegas, thank you very much, not a bunch of funny books.

But I want to make the case for comics. Now I'll be the first to admit that there are more bad comics out there than there is corn in a corn field, but we've also got our fair share of incredibly talented creators that can make us laugh, cry, remember and wish to forget. I'd put our lot up against any other without flinching. And for the price of a movie you can have a stack of comics at your disposal to read and return to time and again. You don't have to buy out the store or continue to purchase comics you no longer enjoy but if you love a book… buy it. If you think you might like a book… buy it. Strip away all the message boards and e-mails and fan letters. Buying the book is the single most powerful way you can support a series.

Renae Geerlings, the VP of Publishing and Managing Editor at Top Cow Productions said, "I'm sure the creators love fan mail and moral support, but the only way that matters in the long run is to buy the books. Buy them for your family, buy them as gifts, donate them to libraries (which is a write-off by the way), whatever you have to do to keep the books rolling off the shelves."

STEP TWO - Be The Buzz

If it's one thing comic fans love to do, it's talk about comics. And sometimes it's hard to get a word in edgewise. I once asked a retailer a very specific question and when he started down the crazy-land-fun-house road of comics babble and moved far out of the neighborhood of actually addressing my question, I dared to try to steer him back on course. He squared off with me and said, "You asked for my opinion and you're gonna get it!" So I quietly listened to him not answering my question, nodded a lot and, when he wasn't looking, backed my ass up outta that shop. So trust me, I know it can be intimidating. But when it comes to talking about books you believe in, it can make a difference.

Here's who's listening.

*People Close to You -

Don't be afraid to talk about comics. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your teachers and your co-workers. And don't just tell them you like something. Tell them why they might like it, too.

When Warren Ellis did his columns on CBR, he called them "Come in Alone" because reading comics is a very solitary activity. But it doesn't have to be. I told you last week how I had just finished "We3" by Morrison and all I've done since then is push that book on other people because I needed someone to see what I had seen. I needed to share that experience. And everyone who's read it has responded the same. "Okay. I'm gonna need to go pick up some more Morrison." And that's a powerful thing.

*Retailers -

This is your middle man. This is as close as most of you will ever get to speaking directly to a major publisher. His store may be small, but in one way or another, he's got the ear of the people who make the books.

"Tell your retailer," Ross Richie, publisher at BOOM! Studios, said. "They've got forty two bazillion Infinite Houses of Stuff to order every month, and they need to know if a fan's there to support a specific creator. It's easy to get lost in the shuffle. If you're buying Boom!'s books and enjoying them, let the retailer know at the counter. It'll make a difference. They definitely listen to the fans, because they're their livelihood."

Devin Grayson, writer of "Nightwing" and "Matador" at DC Comics says, "The trick with comics is that they're pre-ordered by the comic store, which does make the issue of 'buzz' important. Let the person you buy comics from know you're excited about something well before it hits the stands, and if it's good, go back to that person and tell them how much you're looking forward to the second issue in the series, and so on. Comics live and die by retailer's order numbers even more than how many are actually sold on the stands."

Don't forget that retailers talk to each other. If a retailer is getting positive feedback about a project and he hears that other retailers are hearing the same, all of a sudden he's going to be acutely aware of that particular book - order a few more than he may have planned, watch how it sells and be sure to keep it in stock. Maybe he starts to read it, maybe he starts to talk about it. Maybe he starts to push it. Multiply that by 5, 10, 20 stores and there is absolutely an influence on the market.

*Editors & Publishers -

"Letters to the editors and especially the publishers do help," Grayson says. "Currently, at DC, Dan DiDio oversees the creative staffing of nearly every project - so if you like a creator, it's important to let him know that. The same is true of Joe Quesada over at Marvel. The editors are good people to write to, but they don't always have the power to change things, and the writers themselves almost never do. As much as I appreciate kind words and support in fan mail, I'd rather those same people wrote to the people who get to determine whether or not I work."

And on the publisher's side of that coin, Richie said "Feedback's a great thing. The most e-mail I've ever gotten was for Mike Mignola and Troy Nixey's book 'Jenny Finn' and it made quite an impression. Fan support is a very important thing, and I'm all about having a book that has people buzzing."

And they're not just reading your letters.

Geerlings said, "We do keep an eye on the websites. It's good to get immediate feedback and to interact with those who are most passionate about what we're putting out. There is a relatively small group of people on them, however. The problem with a vocal minority is that they're just that, vocal. It's the paying majority that really makes the decisions for us."

And it sounds like Scott Allie, editor at Dark Horse, agrees with her. "Message boards and lettercols are usually filled with the same group of ten or twelve or fifty passionate fans. So if they get real riled up about a title, it's no great surprise - and it doesn't mean that a book's gonna get the sales it needs. If I needed a book to sell 20,000 copies, and it was only selling 15,000, but there was a website where fifty people were really into the book ... that's not gonna make much difference."

So don't let the same people that are on every single comic site speak for you. Get in there. Weigh in. Speak up. There are certainly a bunch of angry people on the boards and the blogs but you can't be scared off by that. If you're new to comics and you risk putting yourself out there, you'll also find a really generous, thoughtful community who is eager to help and encourage you. Tell them what books you're enjoying and I guarantee you they'll tell you why it's even better than you think it is and find you a dozen more like it.

STEP THREE - Take a Chance

Keith Giffen said that the comics industry, like most others, has a glass ceiling. But this one, "has spikes." So I want to encourage women to take a chance on female creators. I would never ask you to blindly shell out money for a book you didn't believe in but I would ask you to at least take the time to find out if you like it or not. If you see a woman's name on a book, if you hear about a new female artist or writer, give her a chance. Buy the book.

Grayson said "Comic readers can and should discuss the kind of voices they want to hear amid the throng of comic writers. The industry press, on the other hand, is long overdue for treating all creators equally."

So until the industry is blind to the gender of its creators, we can't afford to be. If you want women in comics, you have to support women in comics. And we're going to have to fight for it because most people in the industry are going to cling to that antiquated way of thinking: "Well, we've never done it that way before."

The other day at a signing I met this 18 year old young woman that was cuter than a speckled pup. She was so full of enthusiasm and told me how she wanted to write and draw comics but she knew her skill level wasn't where it needed to be. I told her to stick with it and keep honing her craft and that by the time she was ready for the comics world, the world of comics would be ready for her. Don't make a liar out of me, comics industry. It's your responsibility to put women in the game.

"I personally," Allie said, "would love to see more diversity in the medium, more different kinds of stories being told, and getting quality female writers and artists contributing can help make that happen."

So while we have very little power over who gets put on what book, if people in the industry take a chance on a female creator, the onus will always fall to us to support them.

STEP FOUR - What Not to Do

*What Are You Waiting For?

We, as an industry, are in a bit of a conundrum. The cry that echoes out of every shop across the nation is "I'll wait for the trade." Maybe that's okay for "Walking Dead" or "Y: The Last Man." Those books have earned their keep and publishers and retailers know that when those trades do hit, they're going to sell out. So they can afford to churn out the monthlies, even if the sales aren't great.

But what about a new book? What would make a publisher think that collecting a book that nobody bought and trying to sell it again would make any sense? We like to look at the industry as the evil conglomerates diving "Scrooge McDuck-style" into their vaults of gold coins but the fact is, comics are hurting. They're a business. How many of them would be able to survive if Hollywood and stopped financing them?

But on the other hand, I don't want to buy the same thing twice. I like trades. I like being able to pull them off my bookshelf instead of digging through a long box to find them. I like being able to read an entire story arc at once instead of waiting month to month and forgetting whole pieces of the story in the meantime.

"Most of us, the publishers," Allie said, "would love to move to go direct to trade paperbacks, skipping the pamphlet comics. But it doesn't work out economically for us."

I know the entire industry is thinking about this and I wish I had the solution. I've tried to think of compromises. Maybe the audience could promise to buy serialized books until they hit the first trade and then we could forgo the monthlies and move straight to the collected editions? But there are a dozen things wrong with that idea, as well. So what's the answer? I don't know.

What I do know is that if we don't buy the new books, they aren't going to last.

*Relax. It's Only Comics

I like comics. I like reading them, I like writing them, I like talking about them. But if I'm going to get angry about something, it's going to be about something significant - not a make believe character's costume change or a bad artist on a good storyline. It's comics, people. It's fantasy stories about people and places that don't exist. Take your righteous indignation and channel it towards something worthwhile, like, I don't know, real people and real places that are suffering.

Like Allie said, "Crusade on behalf of starving animals in Louisiana, not comics," and I'm apt to agree.

I believe it is a basic human need to want to be heard, but often in our quest to be understood we kick and scream and shake our fists at the heavens and wonder why no one's listening. How can they when you're barely making sense?

Is it okay for you to have an opinion about something happening in a book you love? Of course! Is it okay for you to want to vocalize that opinion and get feedback from other fans? Most assuredly. Is it okay for you to do it in an angry, aggressive, ostracizing way? Mmm, I guess, but will it really do you any good?

When I asked Richie about fans speaking out he said, "They can become so impassioned that they become angry. If a book's late, it's not because the creator or the publisher wants it to be. Everyone's working hard to make the thing that the fans are waiting for. A little kindness and patience -- within reason, of course -- beats hands-down a negative and angry level of feedback. We had a lot of difficulty completing 'Jenny Finn' and often, in the face of ticked off fans, I just had to remember that they were upset because they love the creators and cared and wanted to see the book. Angry fan feedback can really be a kick in the teeth and sap your energy when you're publishing. Who wants to go to work every morning with a giant cup of 'You suck' dropped on their desk?"

And Geerlings said, "They can sure spend a lot of energy doing things that won't help. Writing scathing e-mails or complaining on websites doesn't accomplish much except making them feel better perhaps."

She went on to say, "The question is -- what can I do to help? And there is where the grass roots campaigns come in. Start reading groups. Donate books to schools. Get involved with a reading program and suggest working with comic books. Share them with friends and girlfriends. Take a field trip to a comic book convention. Whatever you can creatively come up with to expand the fan base in your area is what you should do."

And Grayson said, "Enthusiasm in any form, always counts. Quietly liking something is nice but loudly adoring it is better. I've been to Duran Duran concerts and know for a fact that this is something girls can do."

So as you delve deeper into a medium that is sure to delight and surprise you, remember to buy the books you want to support, hit the message boards and write the editors in a thoughtful, intelligent manner, talk about it with your friends and colleagues and tell your retailer to keep those books stocked.

It's easy to feel small and like an outsider in an industry that's so close and tight knit but it's because it's that way that a single voice can make a difference. Make that voice your own.

In closing, I just wanted to sincerely thank Jonah Weiland and the crew at CBR for letting me prattle on for the past few weeks and say again to those that took the time to read the column and write in how incredibly grateful I am and how much your kind words and support have meant.

A society, a culture, can be judged on many things - how it treats the young and the old, what value it places on finances or freedom, and how its citizens are allowed or encouraged to express themselves. Art makes us better - as a nation, as a world, as a people. Art is the promise of remembering our yesterday. Art is the daring to imagine a different tomorrow. Art is the hope that we can be the ones to make it so.

Keep fighting the good fight, comics. We believe in you.

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