Thursday, 9 February 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Seven)

Comics Lesson 25:

With the waters already muddying up, let’s throw the final bucket of shit into the mire. Fandom: we’re entering true nerd territory here. Fandom is rather neatly summed up by this quote from US retailer Steve Fischler of Metropolis Comics, “If you go to a convention, you’ll see a lot of strange people. I’ve always wondered: Are these normal people turned strange by comic books? Or were they strange already and comic books just attracted them?” Coming from a man who runs a comics store this seems a bit rich, but that’s just my opinion. What he says is both funny and very accurate. Even though the weirdoes only represent a small percentage of comics fandom, they are by far and away the most recognisable and therefore the entire comics industry has this stigma attached to it as a haven for miscreants, undesirables and perverts. Comics the place to be if you’re a social outcast!

Fandom isn’t unique to comics, but if ever there was a concept that applied to this industry ‘fandom’ was it. I’ll stick my neck out and say Stan Lee probably created organised comics fandom during the early years of Marvel’s superhero renaissance. Not only did he turn his comics into ongoing soap operas, he welcomed the fans, their comments and their ideas with open arms – the fans were the people who put the money in his pocket, they had to be shown some respect. He even started a fan club that made fans feel as though they were part of the entire process. That is what fandom is and by default, I have been slagging off the people who make fandom; the nerds and geeks who have the time to devote to making fandom a real place.

Fandom is an odd word and Wikipedia has this as the definition: Fandom (from the noun fan and the affix -dom, as in kingdom, freedom, etc.) is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates "fannish" (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest.

Reading that, I'm wondering why I bothered writing this.

Fandom, or at least this definition, does not include comics fans in a list of notable fandoms; yet even the word fandom sounds like a word only a comics fan could create. But the point is comics and fandom work well together and it is a good thing, even if you think of it as a place for all the freaks to go and not bother the rest of us.

Every genre and medium has its own fandom, abounding with fanzines and fan movements. Punk’s fandom was huge and it was during that time that the black and white appreciation pamphlets produced in the cheapest way possible became really popular (and will probably never see the light again because of the Internet).

Comics fandom generally applies to the collective noun attributed to all comics fans; they read comics therefore they belong to comics fandom. That's not true; for starters probably about 70% of all comics readers either are unaware of its existence or couldn't care less. Fandom isn't about Mr Average Batman reader, it's about people who want to live their hobby; the people who have a desire to discuss, dissect and immerse themselves fully in every aspect of comics they find floats their collective boats. Subsequently, this is why a large percentage of fans will attend conventions dressed as Spider-Man or Tank Girl, Wolverine or Vampirella. In a way, I call these people nerds, but they display not only a passion for their subject, but also a hell of a lot of balls, especially fat spotty girls who insist they look just like She Hulk with all that green dye spread over their sweaty carcasses.

However, while Fandoms exist, then there is hope for the future. The state of fandom tends to reflect the state of the industry, or has done for the last 50 years or so. A healthy fandom normally relates to a vibrant industry; it is derided, but it also a good yardstick; it breeds new generations of creators and it can be a way to encourage people to read, especially if a normal person befriends a comics geek and gets addicted by a mixture of osmosis and brow-beating.

In the UK, the staple comicbooks are still there, they might not be going as strong as they once were but 2000AD has grown in readership over the last couple of years, and The Beano, Dandy and Viz, the three biggest selling comics in the UK do not look like their futures are in any doubt at the moment. However there’s bugger all else, unless I’m mistaken. Yes, there are some small press stuff, some independents, but even a lot of that has migrated to the internet. The sad truth is that outside of nursery titles, nothing much makes the shelves much nowadays.

When I wrote the majority of this, I had just spent the day in London with Martin Shipp and the publisher of Egmont Poland, Tomek Kolodziecjzak – repaying him for some of his hospitality when we were guests in Lodz. We spent an enjoyable day visiting some of central London’s comics emporiums, drinking in pubs and basically trying to work out why the UK comics industry is quite probably smaller than the Polish one. I continued to bang on about the perception of comicbooks in the eyes of the general public – the underlying theme of this book. He told me, in his almost faultless English that he lives on the outskirts of Warsaw and has to travel into work every day on Warsaw’s only underground train. As publisher and editor of many of Egmont Poland’s comics lines he normally has a new comic to look at every day, even if it one produced by the competition. Even there, some people give him that look, the look that says ‘what’s a man of your age [36] doing reading a children’s thing?’ But he made a very important distinction, one that I myself had started to notice since I began to work on this book – the people giving him that look were the people in the same age range as Tomek. People in their 30s and 40s, the same ages as I am [was] and many of the other people I know in the comics industry. Comics fans are actually derided by their peers – older generations look at comics with fondness and nostalgia - they remember before the derision; and the young… well, let me tell you about young people.

When I started working with homeless teenagers, one of the jobs I had to do was try and implement a literacy scheme to get some of the young people we worked with up to scratch and able to handle things such as forms, applications and basic reading. If you work with a bunch of hyperactive teens with histories you’d rather not know about, trying to get an ex-car thief or a drug taker, who maybe can’t read very well, to sit down with a book is like trying to convince the Pope that outlawing paedophile priests is essential. But you give them a comic with Superman, Spider-Man, Spawn, Batman, The X-Men, Transformers or anything else, the colours, the design, the entire package is more appealing than 300+ pages of text. Heck, it's more appealing than 1 page of text, for them.

So that’s what I did. I was producing Borderline and we’d recently run an interview with yet another Northamptonshire comics writer, Jamie Delano, and the two of us talked about the boxes and boxes of complimentary copies of DC comics he received month in and month out and what he could do with them. I said he could give them to the organisation I worked for and he thought it was a splendid idea. So armed with ten boxes containing about 500 comics and books, I gradually introduced the people I worked with to comics. To my amazement many of them already knew comics, some had even collected them or had siblings who had. Now we’re talking about young people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, who have had horrible lives but are still driven by the modern consumerist visions – they have to have mobile phones, CDs by Eminem, tongue or eyebrow piercing is almost a pre-requisite, and if they don’t have the right kind of training shoes or the right label on their underwear they are derided by their peers. Yet many of these ‘little shits’ who would steal your car, sell your DVD player or possibly even sexually molest your children are all walking around with comics and there isn’t a dissenting voice in the room. Remember when I mentioned Mark and Darren from my shop and the fact they were two 20-something guys with modern lifestyles and girlfriends who dripped attractiveness and success? Well they should have alerted me to the change that was beginning by their actions alone and the fact they brought others into the shop who bought stuff – many only bought Freak Brothers comics or something like Dark Knight Returns, but they did so because of recommendations from their mates and they didn’t feel as though they were walking into a sex shop and purchasing the latest issue of Teen Sluts in Bondage.

Young people don’t think comics are stupid; they’re just something else in the magical tapestry of life. I’ll even go as far to say that the price isn’t even really an issue – we’re talking about new generations who think spending £10 on a pair of boxer shorts is ‘normal’. A couple of quid for a comic isn’t going to kill them, is it?

Marvel Comics appears to be exploiting the new generation a little better than DC. But the two giants hold their place in the industry. One has again found the need to be innovative; the other is relying on its good name and history.

Marvel does seem to be changing its publishing priorities, DC is staying very similar to what it’s always been like, but there is no real evidence that either company has actually done any research or thrown any money into researching how to get more people reading comics.

Marvel now has a policy that involves doing away with the old concept of the ongoing comic and is replacing it with the 6-issue story arcs we talked about earlier. These package well as trade paperbacks and work equally well in the European formats. They appear to have forsaken the idea of continuity – which isn’t as bad as it sounds – and are attempting to produce as many comics series that will turn the comics fan on as they can. But of course this is costing them an awful lot of money and the break-even point gets higher and higher. Expectations become higher and before you know it there’s an awful lot of pressure on a book to succeed, especially if there’s been outlay on the comic and it hasn’t sold enough to cover costs.

And what of the poor comics retailer in all of this? He has to now stock as many trade paperbacks and graphic novels as he can to appease demand (or lack of it) and these beasts cost considerably more than a standard comicbook and just how many do you order? Do you re-order if you sell out? Is so, how many? Once upon a time it was a pre-requisite for a comics shop to have a huge array of back issues – now it’s more important for the shop to have a huge selection of trade collections and that is an enormous amount of outlay for a new shop opening in today’s climate – especially as Diamond Distribution now look to the store owner to pay up front for his orders for at least the first 9 months! See, there is nothing to encourage people to open a comic shop; it’s almost like a fucking endless computer game – if you can get past all the levels, you’ve succeeded in being allowed to continue... to dodge more rocket-fuelled retail shit in the future!

Marvel is spreading itself out thinner than it has ever done before and it isn’t a bad thing – comics publishers should be elastic, but they only tend to flex at the wrong times. Marvel’s arrogance overlooked, the company is showing signs of experimenting in areas that have always been alien to them before, and ironically areas that DC could have exploited had it the chutzpah that Marvel showed at times. You see the hyperbole does have some positive effect, Marvel believes everything it does will succeed and amazingly when it doesn’t the company shows a resilience that would make Richard Johnston proud. Failures are water off a duck’s back for Marvel, a company that has often adhered to the ‘throw enough shit and some of it is bound to stick’ ethos.

DC, because of its rather staid nature has actually tried more things than people care to remember, the problem is they don’t have the impact that Marvel has, don’t have the self-belief, which is why so many things the company releases look really half-hearted, almost apologetic.

DC is a real enigma and it obviously says a lot about TimeWarner’s view of comics. DC is still in that short-term mentality they finally adapted in the mid 1990s and years after everyone else has moved on they’re finally getting with the 21st century programme. They have a streamlined look about their new monthly titles, but the icons stand out – Superman and Batman are still graced with some of the finest artists DC can afford, led by Jim Lee, now more than just an illustrator. But essentially they still pander to the collector who wants periodic adventures and only collect, what appear to be randomly, selected titles in trade paperback format, and many of these collections from its mature readers imprint Vertigo.

Why DC doesn’t invest something into the future of comics is probably down to the fact that that comics sales have dropped so rapidly over the last 30 years that there are probably very few people in the executive offices who believe there is nothing left other than the death rattles. The money is in the characters and not the comics – with even more Batman and Superman films in the offing, plus a raft of other characters waiting in the wings, DC’s future isn’t in comics, but if the comics can co-exist with the films, TV series, video games, and any other merchandising opportunity, then fine, TimeWarner are happy – just don’t ask for anything!

Marvel’s new execs probably see that investment into the future is needed, but this was a company that existed on an almost hand to mouth basis and for every guy in the Marvel offices that thinks so-and-so should be done, there’ll be a team of accountants screaming ‘bottom lines’ at them and reminding them what a pay cheque looks like. The success of their film line hasn’t been transferred to the comics – Disney’s acquisition of Marvel hasn’t seen the company benefit from films like Iron Man, Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four; far from it. It’s like a songwriter who writes great songs, but is a talentless arse in person; use the songs, not the songwriter!

Just because Marvel seems to be heading towards the right direction – new lines of comics, prose imprints and recruiting of familiar ‘real life’ people to make comics far more accessible to ‘real people’, doesn’t mean it is doing it right, and comics, which were created as a cheap disposable form of entertainment to be read over and over, look as though they are about to become the property of only those with disposable incomes, only in countries like ours and the USA. Collectible comics was an oxymoron in the 1940s and early 1950s; it has now become the raison d’être of the industry and it no longer really applies.

And that’s the conclusion I’m afraid – comics, as long as the young keep them alive, are actually in reasonably safe hands – there are new readers coming in, there could be more, but the companies really need to look at this new breed of comics readers (as well as try to think of fair ways of helping the poor retailers who sell their wares), who are going to be a damned sight more ephemeral than previous incarnations, and the major companies need to wonder what they have to do to make sure this kid and his mates all want to read comics, like their fathers and their grandfathers did and for more generations to come. Comics are most likely going to become even more of a cottage industry than they have ever been. I expect Marvel and DC will remain huge in a contracting market, but I also expect the Internet to change the way people read and for future generations having something tangible in their hands will be as alien to them as reading a comicbook on a computer screen is to people of my age. Comics will always be produced and they will adapt to their surroundings accordingly. Some will get rich, most will not. Some things change, some things stay the same.

I talk about comics to the disadvantaged kids I’ve worked with over the last 10 years and I’m not derided. Many of them might not be interested in comics, but they don’t view them as sad. The youth of today are eclectic generally; they might like shit rap music, but they also like rock and pop and soul and classical – whatever their mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, uncles and brothers listen to. In 2009, I was working with a right little Herbert; he had been done for all manner of heinous things. He was in my car, ignoring me, with his iPod headphones on, listening to something. It sounded vaguely familiar from what I could make out. He was listening to the original soundtrack from Grease and he was a big fan. I was slightly gobsmacked, yet not really surprised. His generation got a remix of a Yes song into the top 10 the same year. His generation have made talent shows big again, while also becoming huge fans of ballroom dancing. The youth of today are the future and they’re being influenced by the past – no change there, except this young generation don’t have the same prejudices we once did.

That makes me happy.

Next: Yard sweepings

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