Wednesday, 20 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Six)

By the time I arrived on the retailing scene, had I had any common sense at all, I should have turned around on my heels and gone and opened a record or bookshop. People not familiar with retail might be confused, but essentially in any specialised market a retailer who is selling wares is most often than not treated with a kind of holy status. Not a direct worship, but most definitely a sort of ‘we’ll bend over backwards to help you help us make money’. Everyone worships at the altar of Mammon and worshippers tend to stick together if it's in their interests. This most commonly happens in the entertainment industry, of which comicbooks is a sub-division of. Video and DVD shops, record, bookshops and especially games shops, all of these are patronised by distributors and production companies.

Major releases are accompanied by heaps of freebies, large Point Of Sale (POS) presentations, more posters and mobiles than you can shake the proverbial stick at. The entertainment industry knows that it has to look good. It needs to sell itself – big time. It knows that the difference between a good national campaign and a bad one could be as little as a few thousand pounds worth of POS. It can be argued that comics, as the poor cousin to all the bigger, more patronised entertainment mediums, doesn't have the money to do this kind of thing. That argument would be facile if you look at how much the industry has made from everything from sales to superhero films. Comics publishers use films as their advertisement of choice now. In the 90s they were as forward thinking as mayflies.

The week before I opened my comic shop I visited my distributor to stock up on essentials. I had this image in my mind of a great sweeping window display, with posters, mobiles and maybe, if I was lucky, one of the distributor’s in-house window dressers performing the task. Oh my naivety makes me laugh so much, in hindsight...

I’m walking round the warehouse with the salesman and I asked him about Point of Sale. “Oh,” he says, “it’s over here.” And he leads me to a bit of Dexion racking at the back of the small warehouse. Feeling slightly underwhelmed I proceeded to pull out some posters, a couple of spinner racks with DC Comics emblazoned on it, and just a lot of stuff that I figured I could tart the shop up with. We got back to where the rest of my order was waiting and the sales guy says “Wait here while I go and work out how much your Point Of Sale stuff is.”


“Hang on, mate. What do you mean, find out how much the Point Of Sale stuff is?”

“Your Point Of Sale stuff.” He said as if he were talking to a moron – and I suppose that must have been how it seemed.

“Do you mean I have to pay for Point of Sale stuff?” I asked disbelievingly. He nodded. I frowned. He nodded again as if he knew exactly what I meant. “Exactly how much is this stack of tatty little goodies going to cost me?” Five minutes later he was back.

“£70.” I picked my jaw off the flaw and said the only two words that seemed appropriate at the time.

“Fuck that!” The sales guy shrugged his shoulders. “I just don’t believe it. You have the audacity to charge for Point of Sale?”

“No. The publishers charge for it.”

“You are kidding me?” I think he realised I was also being rhetorical.

That’s it. That’s the first hard and fast rule of comics retailing. You get fuck all for nothing.

Every month I’d look at the POS stuff in the back of the catalogues and work my blood pressure up to boiling point, especially when I saw stuff that had that horrendous acronym POA next to it. Like when you see it on houses in posh estate agents, POA means Price On Application; to me it means – this is too expensive for the likes of you.

Actually it still makes my blood boil because it hasn’t changed much and probably won’t change much either. Can you honestly think of any other multi-million dollar making industry that does this?

It’s not good, is it?

There has been a change, a move to make some stuff available to the retailer – DC sends posters and handouts to retailers, depending on the number of copies a person takes of a specifically publicised issue – no more, no less – the figure is governed by DC. There are no provisos for doing anything other than putting a poster on a wall or putting a flier in a bag. Probably you have to restrict the fliers because you need to target those most likely to buy rather than having a punt and seeing if you can attract some new readers.

I mentioned elsewhere that comics retailers are not real retailers. They’re people (on more occasions than not) with either too much money or too many comics. I mean, if you’re a comic fan what better way to earn a living than sitting on your fat arse reading comics all day, chatting to fellow comics fans and taking their money off of them? Hell, it was why I did it and I didn't have a fat arse or any real desire to talk costumes with Fred Customer.

When comics fans are young most want to be artists or writers, but as they grow older and realise that they have absolutely no natural talent they end up opening comic shops.

After the economic implosion of the early 1990s, even more onus was placed on the retailer. But during the boom years – post Batman movie – comics sales went through the roof, or so it seemed. There was so much money moving around and, for a limited period only, so much profit being made that retailers couldn’t care less about the even more stringent economic demands the distributors placed on them. As the rest of the world faced economic downturn, comics were still riding high. The distributor could enforce tighter credit controls without opposition, using the rest of the world’s economic plight as the excuse, while they were still probably not actually being hurt by it - comics retailing looked pretty much bullet-proof at this point. As well as cutting credit terms to 15 days from 30, the distributors started offering volume discounts to their larger retailers. This meant that shops started to over order on the strength of two ifs – if they can sell them and if they will be worth anything in the future. In most cases No was the answer to both.

Meltdown started with the mutants. But we’re still a way from them.

Actually something happened before that. Many historians say that it all started to go really wrong around 1993 and that complete meltdown happened in 1995. This isn’t true; these people were kidding themselves and us.

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Tim Burton’s Batman. Advances in cinematic techniques meant that superheroes on screen no longer had to look cheap and shoddy. In fact, there had been so many technological advances in the 15 years between Superman: the Movie and Batman that Hollywood was eyeing comics as a major source of (cheaper) exploitation.

Batman was so good and so evocative that it did something that the comics publishers probably didn’t expect. It brought decades of retired comic fans out of the closet and into the comic shops. Because Batman was cool, comics, by osmosis, were also cool. As stated earlier, the world went through a period where it was cool to have comics on coffee tables. The month I opened my shop a computer game company offered me a six-foot life-size Batman and wall display featuring the Batmobile and other characters from the film. I couldn’t really refuse and wondered how much this would cost me. I was doubly embarrassed when the girl said nothing at all. I mean, she answered me, she just said it was the compliments of Segasoft, or whoever the manufacturer was. In fact whenever a computer game company produced anything that was remotely linked to comics I suppose they figured that comics readers might buy computer games and I was often the recipient of much free stuff. What a different world and I didn’t even seriously sell their products? Which sort of puts the comics POS fiasco into perspective; I sold a few computer games, yet would be showered with freebies; I sold mainly comics and couldn’t get an advertising poster for nothing.

But I digress, at some point in the late 1980s sales of comics started to rise. It was obvious that this rise was due to an influx of new readers. Never having any need for demographics, the industry just figured it was a slew of new young faces about to have their worlds transformed. In truth, there were a lot of new comics readers, Batman had helped that, but it also grew because of the enthusiasm of big brothers or fathers who were returning to comics. With sales on the up for the first time in years the industry actually remained reticent about it. They had seen passing fads before, but in all honesty probably not one with a sales spike like this. It never seemed to occur to the major publishers that former fans, now with more disposable income, could be returning to the fold. It also didn't seem to occur to them that these people should be nurtured.

Marvel was the market leader; it had taken the company over 20 years to usurp DC as the top US comics company, but the advent of the Direct Market and Marvel’s aggressive stand with it helped the company wrestle power from DC once and for all. Perhaps sensing changes in the future that would be detrimental to them, DC decided to reinvent themselves in 1986. It needed not only to shed nearly 50 years of baggage, but it had to appeal to the younger generations of comic readers who ignored DC in favour of the more sophisticated soap opera-styled Marvel comics. DC released a 12-part series called Crisis on Infinite Earths and essentially got rid of 50 years of history in 12 months and basically reinvented every character from the ground up. Only Batman was left alone – the changes demanded by DC’s execs and their future readers barely touched the Dark Knight, his world changed around him, but he stayed essentially the same. The reason? Batman still made money and there was a big budget film in the schedules. Incredibly Superman, DC's real icon, wasn’t exempt – especially as no more films were likely after the Quest For Peace flopped.

Two years later and with comics sales rising, DC execs were probably patting themselves on the back thinking it was a job well done. Sales on all their key comics were up and Batman was the hottest thing in town. But they remained quiet. They just didn’t seem able to comprehend the success.

Then Marvel really happened. DC had had major commercial and critical successes with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – a modern look at a not-too-distant future Batman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen – which was basically a reinvention of the characters belonging to a now defunct comics company called Charlton Comics (effectively for many years the third publisher behind Marvel and DC) and an Alan Moore written Batman one-shot called The Killing Joke. The fact that Alan Moore was obviously a very talented ‘writer’ and not just a ‘comics writer’ probably helped and Frank Miller’s stark realities of Dark Knight made people aware that superheroes in spandex weren’t just a laugh a minute. These two writers probably helped put a human face on comics. But it was Marvel that had a lot of rising young stars working for them and in terms of economic return it was Marvel who benefited from DC’s critical success. Comics critics were actually praising a lot of Marvel books rather than whining about them. Whatever happened to Marvel in 1988 it helped catch that wave and not just ride it, but sail high above it. It’s amazing the company went bankrupt a few years later.

I suppose most Marvel success stories start with Spider-Man. He is, after all, the most successful Marvel creation and the only viable iconic alternative to DC’s Batman and Superman. Spider-Man first appeared in 1962, by Stan Lee and a reclusive artist named Steve Ditko – together they created the quintessential comicbook hero. Unlike Superman and Batman, the reader identified as much with Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, as they did with the wall-crawling wisecracking crime fighter. What attracted comics reader to Spider-Man was the fact that Peter Parker represented the nerd, the high school geek, the guy that all the jocks pushed around, the wimp with his face in a stack of books – the character most comic readers could identify with themselves. Jocks didn’t read comics. Jocks were like Flash Thompson in Spider-Man, they hung around with the best looking girls, they did cool things and they were guaranteed a place in college because of their physical prowess. Parker was weedy, nerdy and unhappy – he was the average US teenager. Not only did Spider-Man deal with an assortment of colourful villains, but Peter Parker had to deal with things like bereavement, having crushes, being bullied, feeling isolated and, above all else, loneliness. Clark Kent might have been mild-mannered, but he wasn’t the bundle of neuroses that Peter Parker was. More important than that was that Parker’s dilemmas either got worse or better every month. The reader was expected to believe they were reading the chronicles of a hero, where they knew every facet of his life.

Where Superman’s basic plot for thirty years had been Lois Lane trying to solve the mystery of his secret identity (the previous month’s adventure was rarely ever mentioned). Superman could remember fighting Braniac six months earlier, but Lois couldn’t remember the nose on her face (or the difference a pair of glasses made). This was an endearing charm of all the Superman books, but the reader had toughened up in the tough real world of the 1960s and changes happened; by the 1980s the reader expected even more. There was more sophistication on TV and at the cinema, so the DC comics reader wanted realism and if realism wasn’t possible then they want chronological order – they wanted the continuity that Marvel introduced into their stories (Despite the fact that Marvel continuity was now over 20 years old and Peter Parker had only aged about three years). Spider-Man not only remembered fighting villains, but also remembered conversations he had with friends, family and girlfriends – Spider-Man was soap opera; Superman was vignette.

Next week: more on the need for continuity and how a new breed of creators began having a profound effect on comics in general.

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