Getting 'Savage': Retailer/Writer Brian Hibbs talks 'Tilting at Windmills' & More

Tue, February 18th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

In the comic book industry, it's not often that retailers get spotlighted in interviews, but then again Brian Hibbs is not your average retailer. Running the successful and nationally recognized "Comix Experience" store in San Francisco, California, and suing Marvel Comics last year over the lack of returnability of some of their comics, Hibbs has made a name for himself as a man of passion. He's also shown his love for comic books through writing, weekly with the "Savage Critic" review column on his store's Web site and through the "Tilting at Windmills" column. The latter will be collected in a trade paperback and will see release in April from IDW Publishing, so CBR News thought it timely to speak with Hibbs about "Tilting" and other things going on with this outspoken retailer.

While "Tilting at Windmills" is definitely a unique name for a column, it isn't very self-explanatory at first and Hibbs is glad to explain the origin of the title, and the column itself. "The very first thing I wrote was an opinion piece entitled 'Ethics and the Comics Industry' for the Comics Buyer's Guide," explains Hibbs. "I was growing scared about the direction the business was taking -- sales were climbing throughout the late 80s and early 90s, yet it seemed to me that a lot of that growth was for the 'wrong reasons:' Speculation and the purchase of comics as a 'hot commodity' rather than because of the inherent quality, and passion and love for the medium.

"It struck me then that we were in danger of 'killing the golden goose' -- and of course, as an industry as a whole we proceeded to do exactly that -- so I felt it important that someone stand up and point these things out. Selling comics as a commodity to 'invest' in, and further, having publishers promote and sell material solely based upon that 'investment,' was, I thought, a huge mistake. It set future expectations for sales and growth that simply couldn't be perpetually met, and it ran the risk of alienating an entire generation of readers.

"It was obvious to me that the 'speculator boom' was just a short-term bubble, and that the bubble would, inevitably, like ALL bubbles, crash. The question was (and, in many ways, still is) 'Are we in any kind of a position to survive what happens afterwards?'

"I was hoping for an examination not only of the long-term net effects of pursuing a policy based upon a bubble, but what our ethical responsibility to our customers was. How could we look ourselves in the mirror when, as an industry, we were selling customers material for unsustainable and unreasonable prices that we all knew were unsustainable and unreasonable?

"Shortly after the piece ran, Harlan Ellison called me up, out of the blue, and thanked me for writing it. I didn't know Harlan, hadn't ever spoken to him, or done anything other than admire his work from afar, so to have a legendary writer call me like that was a really large boost.

"So, when I had heard that Krause Publications was starting up a magazine for industry professionals on the business of comics, buoyed by Harlan's kind words, I asked Don and Maggie Thompson if they were looking for regular writers. I still write for 'Comics Retailer' magazine to this day, some 12 years later.

"In the first issue they reran 'Ethics and the Comics Industry,' and I was asked to come up with a blanket name for future columns. You always want to have a name that speaks to your intentions and that focuses you, so I chose 'Tilting at Windmills' for the Quixote imagery -- I was off to slay dragons, though I was unsure if anyone else saw them but me."

Hibbs also explains that with "Tilting at Windmills," he's created a forum where he can address the injustices and wrongdoings he sees in the comic industry- nothing is off limits. "The column has long been a place for me to address ethical, moral, and even logical failures of policies that the industry has pursued -- to a large degree, the way one approaches business is a clear reflection of one's own moral character -- and I was raised to believe that when one sees an injustice, the greatest thing one can do is to try and combat it. Whether that's something simple like 'selling a comic for $5 that you have two cases of in your back room, and that you wouldn't purchase back from a customer at any price is immoral,' or it is more complex like the net effects of pursuing an exclusive distribution relationship, every business needs watchdogs to decry thoughtless directions as well as to enunciate those things that people are thinking but are too busy or scared to say out loud.

"That's not to try and set myself up as some sort of great moral arbiter, or anything -- lord knows I've made my own share of mistakes over the years -- but by having public conversations of unspoken and often taboo topics we raise the chances that we can find a common, and hopefully higher, moral baseline.

"I wrote the column monthly for nearly nine years. Having done that I'm totally in awe of folks like Peter David or Tony Isabella who manage to do it weekly. Post column #100 I've dropped back to bi-monthly columns because I found I was starting to repeat myself -- the same half a dozen types of problems keep coming back and around again, and there are only so many times I can say 'treat your fellow man with respect' and 'think about the long term ramifications of your decisions' before I start to drive myself nuts!

"Everything comes around again and again. 'Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it' as Santayana said. I don't even really want to think about the number of times that, say, publishers who are desperate for market share over expand their lines for short-term gain. It never ever works in the long run, yet every few years, somebody tries it again.

"I plan to still be here doing this in twenty more years so anything that would seem to work against that goal is fair game for the column."

If there's one thing that Hibbs is well known for, it's his tenacity and the bluntness of his comments and some have interpreted this as being overly critical. But the retailer believes that as long as one is being fair and open minded with the comments they make, then it's all a-OK. "Oh, I think it's almost always necessary to stay focused and on target with criticisms -- and to set a clear line of demarcation between right and wrong," says Hibbs. "Clearly, as the years have gone by, I've begun to understand that what once seemed clear-cut and obvious actually has more shades of gray than I initially realized, but I think that taking the 'high ground' is a better place to try and defend, than a lesser position.

"For example, I know that no one knowingly sets out to create a bad comic book -- most freelancers are trying their best, and often have to fight through editorial interference and perceived market demands and naturally end up compromising because of that. And I'm also aware that freelancing is a really difficult job because often one's first loyalty is to keeping food in one's belly and shelter over one's head. Yet when a shameful or cynical creative or marketing approach is taken, I think it is the moral man's responsibility to address that head on, regardless of the understanding that the freelancer is simply trying to feed his family or further his career.

"So, sometimes I take the hardest line possible because that's the right and correct thing to do, but other times I take that position because that is how you get more moderate ideas into play. I've found that, human nature being what it is, that if the goal is change a behavior to a '5' that it's incredibly useful to argue for '10' -- quite often the target of that behavior change will then feel like he's "meeting you halfway" by going to '6' and then you end up getting more than what you really wanted while allowing them to 'save face,' as it were, as well.

"Here's an example: for nearly a decade I've been arguing that the fully non-returnable nature of periodical comics has been acting as a brake upon the potential growth of the industry. The risk/reward calculation of the average retailer is such that it is generally economically wiser to 'lowball' your order and sell-through than to take a strong inventory position and risk having unsold material clogging up the arteries.

"My initial pieces on the topic argued for full line-wide implementation of 'partial returns,' even though it was clear to me that a change of that magnitude wouldn't ever happen in a fell swoop like that. And, although it has taken the better part of a decade, we're now at the stage where DC Comics is experimenting with the 'Share the Risk' program to introduce the concept of partial returns to some of their line. I tend to think that it was my extreme position that allowed the partial solution -- if I had argued for '4 books a month,' I don't think we would have gotten 'any.'

"Now my presumption is that when this plan is shown to work, DC will expand the program, and as that expansion is shown to work, other publishers will begin to jump in and adjust their thinking past the Phil Seuling model of how the Direct Market can operate.

"Eventually the hope is that the exclusive/brokered publishers, at least, will be offering significant portions of their lines and this can eventually become an established enough of a program that the forward thinking 'small' publishers will get another tool that they can use as well.

"I firmly believe that the reason that most 'lesser' books 'don't sell' is not because they don't have an audience, but that the nature of a non-returnable product creates a bottleneck at retail and most of that material doesn't make it to the racks in the first place.

"I particularly think that Marvel could utilize this scheme to great effect. In fact, I think that if Marvel had behaved like a 'real' publisher over the last few years (in terms of retail support, reorder availability, co-op, whatever) then Marvel would be holding well over half of the sales of the Direct Market right now. They have had exactly the right product for this period of the DM, yet they limited their own success by reinforcing and, in fact, encouraging the retail-level bottleneck by trying to manipulate how the market ordered, rather than opening up better channels and supply lines.

"Anyway, they say that you attract more flies with honey -- and while that tactic works well for Joe Field's column ('The Big Picture') in 'Comics Retailer,' I'm more of the mind that the Venus Fly Trap gets even more flies. As it were."

As the above comments show, Hibbs is a man of strong convictions and very controversial opinions, which would lead some fans to wonder exactly which company would decide to publish a collection of his works. But it was IDW, and some close friends at the company, who seemed like the perfect fit, explains Hibbs. "I've known Ted Adams and Beau Smith for a long long time, and they've always been among the most conscientious and ethical people in this business. I also really like IDW's aesthetic and thier hunger to expand the business. Regardless of anything else, I know the collection will look damn good. Plus, now that they've hired Jeff Mariotte as Editor, I know my work is in some of the most sensitive and dedicated hands in the business.

"Originally my thought was to self-publish the collection, but when IDW made the offer, I knew I would be in much better hands than if I tried to put the book together myself."

The collection will also be quite large, collecting 100 columns and Hibbs is loathe to pick his favorites, but believes that there is something for everyone in there. "The book is 'complete' in that it covers the first 100 columns I wrote for Krause, as well as another half-dozen or so pieces that didn't run as a 'Tilting' for various reasons. There are at least one or two pieces in the book that make me kinda wince all these years later, but I thought that the historical value of having it be complete more than offsets any embarrassment from my... less cogent commentaries.

"The book provides, I think, a good overview of how and why ethical considerations are important to business, and points out clearly where the industry went wrong in the 90s. Several of the columns now seem almost eerily prescient in terms of predicting the how's and why's of the Crash, and where the Distributor Wars would end up. I especially think that the book would be an excellent companion to Dan Raviv's 'Comic Wars' which dealt with the 'big picture' maneuvers of Marvel's meltdown, while my columns show the 'street level' reality and pains that Direct Market retailers went through during that period.

"I suspect that my own assessment of the 'best' (or at least 'most important') columns would be widely different than that of a fan -- I think one of the most important things I ever wrote was a piece on why discounting is mathematically annihilating to your typical small business comic book store, but I bet most fans really want that discount!

"I think that this book is a good primer for anyone looking for a career in comics, on any side of the table; or for people who just like 'behind the scenes' and 'industry expose' type of material. And at $20 for 400 pages (and nearly 9 years of my life!) I think it's a huge steal, as well!"

If you're interested in more of Hibbs' writing, there's always the aforementioned "Savage Critic" column and though one might wonder why a retailer would review almost every comic, every week, for free, Hibbs chalks it up to loving the medium. "Writing reviews can be fun, but also can be a huge pain in the rear too -- people can get upset if I skip a week," laughs Hibbs. "'The Savage Critic' basically started off as a bet back when 'the Internet' mostly meant places like CompuServe and Prodigy and 'portals' like that. I had mentioned that, as a portion of my job, I read basically every comic that came through the doors -- I thought and think it's very important to be aware of what you're selling and to be engaged in it as a fan, and not just a businessperson.

"Someone said something like 'NO WAY do you read all of that stuff, why are you lying?,' so I had to 'prove' it by writing up reviews of nearly everything that crossed my desk. Short reviews, though -- sometimes even one-word short -- there's just not the time in the week to do more than that.

"After a year or so of doing the reviews weekly, I just started to burn out on it, so I shut down the CompuServe column. But when we decided it was a good idea to have our own Comix Experience Web site, I thought that having an 'anchor' feature to get people coming regularly back was probably a smart idea. So, I brought back the 'Critic.'

"What I enjoy the most about it is the comedy. I'm not half as funny as, say, 'Title Bout' over on Movie Poop Shoot, but my real goal is to get at least one big belly laugh for both me and the audience each week.

"What's kept me (mostly) from not burning out on this incarnation is having a co-writer every other week or so in the form of Jeff Lester, CE's webmaster. Jeff is far more witty and articulate than me, and he's got an English major and everything so his reviews are actually cogent and they tend to make me try to write to a higher standard. I'd also fully recommend Jeff's 'Fanboy Rampage,' some of which can be found on the CE site at http://comixexperience.com/columns.htm. Actually, Jeff's single most hysterical column isn't on our site, for some stupid reason or another (probably having to do with Jeff being a Lazy Bastard) so you should read his one-act play 'A Fish Story' over here: http://www.thefourthrail.com/features/0801/fishstory.shtml "

Those well acquainted with Hibbs' reviewing style know the he's to the point and doesn't pull punches, so it may surprise you to learn that he's not often verbally abused by comic book professionals. "Not from Pros, no. I very occasionally a 'Gr!' letter, but the tone is almost always 'Next time you'll love it!' rather than 'I hate you, die!'"

"I think that looking at the 'Critic' over time you can see that I try to 'play fair' -- there are any number of occasions where I'll give issue after issue of a series a negative review, and then when it turns around I'm the first in line to praise it.

"I think that most readers, regardless of whether they agree with our assessments are just glad to see a review column where punches aren't pulled and honest gut-level reactions are stated forthrightly, con OR pro.

"I love comics. I live for comics. I wake up every morning thinking, 'Man, have I got the coolest job in the universe!' and most of that stems from never losing the fan in myself. And as a fan you like some stuff and you hate some stuff and I think that being honest about both is a responsibility.

"'There's an awful lot of comics review columns on the 'net, and I think the one thing that separates the 'Critic' from the others is that we have absolutely no qualms about calling a bad comic just that. I believe that this grants a much greater weight to the positive reviews."

In the spirit of providing positive reviews, CBR News asked the esteemed retailer what he felt his favorite comics were and while he says it changes, he could isolate it for this week. "It changes nearly weekly," admits Hibbs. "I know I'm liking a much greater proportion of Marvel's titles than I ever have in the past - 'New X-Men,' 'X-Statix,' 'Punisher,' 'Daredevil,' 'Ultimates,' 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' 'Alias' -- there's just a ton of books there that I'm buying.

"I've got fairly mainstream tastes, but I'm seldom less than passionate about more 'artsy' creators like Seth or Dan Clowes or Jason Lutes. I think the real reason the mainstream material gets so much play is that the 'artsy' folks tend to release only 1-2 comics a year.

"This week, right now, the best comic I've read so far (I'm about halfway through the stack) is Will Pfiefer's 'H.E.R.O. #1.' Damn fine debut."

As a retailer who's been so involved with the comic book community, Hibbs also hopes that fans realize their power to change the course of the industry and has some parting words for them. "Do the right thing, for the right reasons. Think about what your actions are and the ramifications they'll bring, and try to make the right, ethical choices. I'm no theologian, so I can't say if we get to go through this again, but I think the wisest thing we can do is to assume that we only get one go at life and doing the best by yourself and for others is the highest thing one can aspire to do.

"I think I'd say my philosophy was best expressed by Dylan Thomas: 'Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.' He was talking about old age specifically, but I think that as a general path in life you can't beat that. We should be helping the light shine and grow."

 
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