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

September 26, 2007

Go, Read: Steven Grant on Barcodes

The writer Steven Grant has been on fire the last couple of weeks in his popular Comic Book Resources column "Master of the Obvious," with stronger than usual opinion-throwing. Not to say that Grant isn't usually willing to share his opinion, it's just that the last couple of weeks have given him better than average material. His dissection of sales problems that faced the WildStorm series The Highwaymen was almost brutal in its casual elucidation on the notion that while a comic series can be pretty good, pretty good in terms of story and execution may not be enough right now, and some of the blame for non-performance should be shouldered by the books. That column is here, with a follow-up in terms of letter response half-way down here.

It's that second column that makes me want to comment, though, as its first half deals with an announcement Diamond made at their Baltimore retailer summit about requiring all product to have bar codes from now on. Grant declares that Diamond "has pretty much shut down small comics publishing" with this announcement. I'm not sure this statement holds weight. I guess we'll see if there's a massive dying off. While there are quandaries for publishers created by such an edict, I'm not certain that it's an absolute barrier to publish as much as it's a mixed big of added hassles more effectively defined by a range of costs and options than characterized as a slasher film bogeyman five minutes away from chopping through the front door, as the people in this thread discuss. What little I'm able to read on-line about the added cost doesn't seem like a massive burden.

There's almost certainly a criticism to be made that this a policy that may punish certain people more than it helps, that adding a bar code of some sort doesn't do a thing to nudge in the direction of small press work a market largely oblivious to such material, one proven intractable over the years when it comes to any kind of alternative to superhero comics via a combination of inclination, history and resources pressed by the excesses of mainstream publishers seeking to maximize short-term returns. I get that. I disagree, and my hunch is that bar codes and POS systems will actually help nearly every participant a little bit and probably have helped some publishers already doing it. But I get the argument. At the same time, the entire notion of companies being shattered by an additional cost also triggers a pet peeve that I have about non-mainstream comics publishing, the idea that publishers in comics are somehow given dispensation to avoid the kind of basic investment in product that publishers are supposed to by definition bring to the table.

I think that comics have developed past a point where the desire to publish should be enough to publish. This phenomenon with its historical antecedents in the under-capitalized early arts-comics, self- and indy publishers of the late '70s and early '80s has as its highest profile, most noxious examples those set-ups that offer almost abusive contracts to creators in order to mitigate any risk for a publisher, with the hope that something might stick in the comics field, or, more likely, in Hollywood somewhere, where the publisher's fingers are dug so far into the ancillary rights pie it's pretty much a finger pie. Those publishers should be derided at any opportunity to do so. Yet I also think we're past the point where we should automatically have sympathy for business entities with far more modest or even admirable goals that seek a place in a market just because there might be some cost to enter that market. That's what businesses do that want to enter markets; they bear the costs of getting there. This is true of small theater companies, for example, that simply want to put on shows for 35 people at a time, or an independent movie whose greatest hope for exposure is maybe getting a one-time broadcast with no commercial push on a cable outfit like A&E. It should be true of comics, too, at least on a scale that makes sense.

To put it another way, it seems to me that if a company as modest in its aims and ultimately limited in its potential return as Alternative Comics, which continues to hang in there year after year, can do something like offer bar codes on its own initiative, it's not something that should be a barrier to anyone halfway serious about participating in a certain marketplace. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect most of the publishers are going to hang in there, and if there is an effect it will be an almost subtle shift in terms of market depth in certain commercial genres, a phenomenon that's already active.
posted 10:02 pm PST | Permalink

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