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

December 8, 2008

Another Reason Comics May Have Hope In These Economic Times: The Lifers

By Tom Spurgeon:

The recent retirement of Copenhagen retailer Soren Pederson of Fantask, one of the every first comics shops, underscores the fact that so much of the North American comics industry is currently facilitated by men and women with a life-long commitment to the field, many of whom are in the prime of their professional careers. Comics' direct market is anchored by a number of stores with 20-30 years in their present locations and with the same owner. The fanzine generation has given us figureheads at companies big (DC Comics and Paul Levitz), companies small (Fantagraphics co-owner Gary Groth), and important industry movements (self-publisher Dave Sim). The folks in that group may have an even longer life in comics than similar figures in film and prose since many were making publications of some sort since their early teens. Comics folks in general tend to see their comics reading and their professional lives as part of the same continuity, which means that even among those that don't have a more invested experience working in the industry at age 15 will feel as if they long ago made the commitment to doing so.

It's not always easy to speak of comics in terms of vocational issues, and it may be more difficult when speaking of non-creators than artists and writers. When it comes to the North American comics industry there are a lot more t-shirts than ties, a lot more Keepers of the Flame than holder of MBAs, and a lot more personal loans than revolving lines of credit. It's not always to comics' benefit that so many of its professionals come from fandom of one kind or another. There are times when it can be argued comics suffer from a restrictive worldview, or that the industry wastes time fighting battles that were first waged via mimeograph machine, or that there are limits to the personal and professional skill sets involved as comics moves into areas of art, business and literature that were unforeseen in 1970. One might say that the success of certain folks within the industry is better measured in how far they've moved away from a bedroom bookshelf made of bricks and boards and stuffed with Lin Carter, Jean-Michel Jarre and a spare copy of Empire of the Petal Throne, not how close they remain. I get it, and in many cases and at many times I agree.

For right now, though, I think there's a certain comfort to be had in so many comics lifers holding so many key positions not just as creators but in all of those places of support, background and business. People that spend 30 years publishing, editing, and selling comic books either largely or solely under their own supervision are going to be that much more reluctant to lose their present job to go and join so many others trying to find something else to do. And because so many of them are small business owners or operate fiefdoms under a certain amount of limited supervision, that decision is more frequently theirs than with many working folks. I'm convinced that some art industries are suffering more quickly and with a much more furious panic for having lost this kind of devoted, independent owner. That doesn't means that times aren't tough and aren't going to get tougher and aren't going to result in closings and departures out the wazoo, just that conceivably a person that owns their own business and is doing something they love is going to be happier than a conglomerate in it for the money if they're just being able to pay the bills for a while. Something similar is true of the other comics industries, too. -- I can't think of any independent comics companies that had they been book publishing imprints instead wouldn't have been in danger of closing shop during last week's book publishing purge. As for newspapers, let me put it to you like this: I don't think Brian Duffy would have lost his job in a pre-Gannett 1984.

As much as they're second-guessed, and rightfully so, a lot of industry veterans have by definition been around long enough to have some idea what they're doing. A lot of people on the shared island of North American Comics long ago fell prey to the giant spider in the cave, or fell off a cliff, or drowned in the lagoon, if you know what I mean. Most of the comics industry veterans out there survived two if not three previous and likely to be smaller recessions with their businesses intact, and are familiar with the occasional period of industry self-immolation that may look and feel like a recession. A decision that comes from age, affection and conservatism to keep certain sales avenues alive looks better when newer sales arenas correct themselves or wither altogether. If reduced revenues place a greater premium on interpersonal relationships and knowing one's customers individual by individual, veteran businesspeople may have a leg up on others there as well. Investment money eventually goes away, but a stuffed rolodex rarely does. Johnny Carson once told an up and coming comedian that once in show business a performer ends up using “everything you've ever known.” I think that's true of all entertainment industries. If the apocalypse is on its way, that's a pretty grizzled, skilled, devoted group on the point, able to break more than its share of storms.
posted 7:30 am PST | Permalink

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