Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 26, 2012

A Few Things I Mulled Over While On East Chapparal Drive


I spent parts of the last two weeks in Scottsdale, Arizona. During that time, I went to several comic book stores in the greater Phoenix area. Here are a few things I observed.


1. Most people I spoke to thought the transition to a post-Atomic Comics era for the Phoenix market went well.

imageAtomic Comics was a prominent four-establishment store that closed its doors in Summer 2011. The suggested reasons for its closure are as different as you can imagine one might hear from comics people in a variety of positions and from a number of vantage points. I heard everything from the chain simply being caught cash-short due to the kind of stores it was running to a cascading series of setbacks that became much worse when a significant swathe of stock in one store was lost to a car-to-store accident.

There was much greater agreement on how the rest of the Phoenix retail community has benefited from those stores' sudden departure. This is never a guaranteed thing when a bunch of stores close. Comics fans become attached to specific buying habits and patterns, and anything that causes a break in those habits risks losing a certain kind of customer. Reasons cited in my direction for Phoenix doing what other markets haven't included key employees finding positions at other stores and a great deal of general attention to providing continuity, everything from keeping subscribers from going on too long of a break to one store actually moving into an old Atomic Comics location. What happened in Phoenix is something to think about and perhaps learn from if another chain or prominent store goes under, or, if you prefer, when that happens.

2. More than ever, comic shops are finding ways to function as spaces in addition to being retail stops.

imageSomething that came up a number of times without my ever asking after it was the benefit derived from having enough space so that a store can host events. This included card-games (it seems like the Phoenix area is big with the card games), straight-up signings and special promotions like 24-Hour Comics Day. Not only does having space serve existing customers in a value-added way, a couple of the managers to whom I spoke thought that having this option extended their service footprint. If someone out there is able count on a store to have a certain kind of event, they might include that store in how they perceive of places to access comics. You have your local comics shop, and then you have that other shop you go to for tournaments or signings. I certainly thought of stores in Indianapolis like this when I was a kid, drawing my distinctions from the kind and amount of stock they had on hand when compared to the stores in my hometown. So this actually makes a lot of sense to me.

It also seems logical that stores would want to become event hubs simply because that's a significant advantage that can be put into play by physical retail, and comics shops are -- amazingly, given some of their fragilities -- a bastion for that kind of commercial enterprise as it exists today. You can also kind of see a precursor/parallel track with this valuation in how Fantagraphics, SLG and D+Q have turned retail spaces into event spaces very explicitly in making the choice to open such shops.

3. We've maybe undersold the era winding down at Marvel Comics right now, but it's not like we aren't being helped along a bit there.

I buy mainstream comics in comic book stores, because I don't see them otherwise. In case you haven't heard, Marvel is at this moment releasing the initial issues of what will soon be a sprawling, line-wide reconfiguration. With that kind of move and certainly this one comes any number of creative-team changes and new titles. I have the luxury of not having to be 100 percent cynical about a move while maintaining my basic skepticism about big-company moves and PR-driven hype. To be honest with you, as much criticism as has been tossed Marvel's way over the last year, the rolling out of re-launched books without breaking continuity was probably the most workable solution for the energy boost their line desperately needs. It's something that also plays off the strength of their deep talent bench, particularly on the writing side of things.

imageThe flip side of all the new creative assignments -- and Ed Brubaker making a strong move into film and television, with Image being his primary comics output now -- is that this Fall sees the wrapping up of a lot of long-time assignments. This includes Jonathan Hickman on the various Fantastic Four books, Brubaker on the various Captain America efforts and Matt Fraction on Iron Man. While there is some material out there celebrating the end of these writerly runs, even those articles feel more like Marvel hoping to God that they don't experience a bottoming-out of sales before the new titles spring into existence. Marvel is beholden to its bottom line in a way that a cataclysmic quarter before a re-launch would be a very bad thing.

At any rate, I think a lot of those writers -- Jeff Parker, Brian Bendis and Rick Remender are others -- did solid work on a lot of those books, the kind that if I were 14 now instead of in my early 40s, or had more focused tastes generally, would have been consistent, compelling highlights of my week, I'm sure. In fact, my hunch that at least five of the last decade's runs -- the Bendis-written Daredevil and Alias/Pulse, the Captain America, the initial Iron Fist comics and the Iron Man -- might make it onto a top 100 of all time in that genre, which is a considerable accomplishment if only for all of the attention and focus afforded superhero comics. (There are likely others, and your list may not contain all of the books I've selected. A future list of my own might not, either.)

There are a few things I think work against a proper estimation of these runs, or at least forgive our attention drifting elsewhere. One is that eyes are mostly forward no matter how many "end of an era" ads get run. That's just how these commercial enterprises work now, by creating an aura of anticipation and then either delivering on it or failing to. This is doubly true of serial-comics focused Marvel. Another cultural construct keeping us from discussing these series the way we've talked about them in the past is that we talk about these runs in terms of the writers now. That's how Marvel operates in this day and age, and I think that focus has an effect on the legacy of these books. There are primary artists involved in most of the significant runs, of course. And their achievements are considerable. If you look at Ed Brubaker's first Captain America, for example, there's a moment involving Captain America making his way onto a runaway elevated train whose visual execution seems to me just as crucial as the Brubaker-penned plot twist at comic's end in terms of getting the new approach over with fans.

What's different now is the emphasis of these companies and the fact that so many comics are done under a specific title's umbrella, meaning readers tend to attach to whatever talent provides general continuity and point-and-cite authorship. Steve Epting isn't quite linked to Captain America the way John Byrne is still linked to that run of Uncanny X-Men. You could say "John Byrne's era" in addition to "Claremont/Byrne" regarding those X-Men comics in a manner I'm not sure you can about an artist's run on a recent book, except maybe Bryan Hitch's work with the Ultimates material. The end result is a group of perceived creative accomplishments with only half of the usual attachments readers like to bring to such things. In addition, to many the work itself may seem slightly uneven for the number of artists who have their hand in it. Recall that Marvel has a sort of trade collection Tourette's going on, books spinning out of the publishing house in what seems like random and even unserious fashion. Even though some of the trade collections put the spotlight directly on certain creators, the book collections aren't consistently reflective of how that work might be better organized to flatter the authors let alone build a list of go-and-look perennials.

Still, I enjoyed a lot of the recent Marvel comics whenever I saw them. A lot of people did. I hope that all of the creators involved have that blessed sense of a major part of their professional lives drawing to a close, with all of the satisfaction that allows, even as new opportunities arrive. It's one important way we all mark time.

4. 24-Hour Comics Day exists in an entirely different context than it used to, but that doesn't mean it's any less necessary.

imageI looked at four different 24-Hour Comics Day submissions for a contest I judged at a Tempe comics shop called Pop Culture Paradise. Marc Mason of Comics Waiting Room invited me to help him out. It was fun. I always enjoy talking to Marc about comics. It struck me while looking at the submissions, though, that the reason that 24-Hour Comics were exciting to a lot of people back in the mid-1990s is that doing a comic so quickly actually seemed like a radical idea in the context of professional comics production as it was widely understood. Scott McCloud and the initial converts were calling on their fellow creators to loosen up a bit, to change their expectations as to what made for an effort worth pursuing. The closest thing anyone knew to a 24-hour comic before there were 24-hour comics usually involved a story of some poor mainstream guy taking a book home over a weekend under threat of being fired and doing page after page like End Credits Stephen J. Cannell tossing typewritten material from his magic typewriter. They were horror stories.

I'm pretty certain that this isn't what doing a 24-Hour comic means these days. My guess is that the idea of comics taking a major effort is no longer the pair of shackles worn by entire generations of comics-makers the way it once was. I think everyone working now, if not everyone working and everyone reading now, knows of or can conceive of ways in which comics, good comics, can be made quickly.

Where the 24-Hour comic helps now is a bit more basic than that. I figure its primary virtue is as a process useful to beginning cartoonists. Making a 24-Hour comic has become something everyone should do once for the practical benefits. It's less a movement than a mechanism. Making a comic very quickly can help the individual comics-maker learn to make strong decisions on the paper. It may force someone to get a first comic done. It may even inspire someone to explore different areas of their skill set than they engage in what may be an on-again, off-again relationship to the medium. All of that is just as valuable as helping a generation of dedicated craftsman to separate ways of working from the work itself.


Arizona is beautiful. The lives I see being lived here feel isolated to me, so much so I imagine I might disintegrate were I to move here full time. The lifestyles I've encountered make sense, though, despite all the driving involved. Phoenix is the other side of the hole into which the entire country has nearly fallen, and what comes out isn't as bad as you'd think. There are compensating virtues as well. The desert offers a way of life that facilitates comics shops, that's for sure. They were places to go when cities had few, and that may never change. My thanks to all of the comics people with whom I spent a few moments while there; you helped make a difficult few days go by more quickly.



posted 5:10 am PST | Permalink

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