Sunday, January 27, 2008

By Dint of Explanation

I found it amusing that a couple of the comments for my last post believed I was inveighing against some kind of "straw man" with that bit of satire. Obviously there was some exaggeration - but there really was very little in that post that was not representative of reality as seen on the ground in some aspect of the comics retailing world past or present. Straw men or not, there's (almost) nothing on that list that I haven't at some point encountered firsthand, or worse, propagated myself.

(I didn't even mention the two stores I frequented in the mid-90s which I am pretty much 95% sure were drug fronts. Or even touched on the kind of music played in those stores - I used to like They Might Be Giants.)

One thing that gets overlooked in the ongoing discussions over the evolving role of the comic book store is the fact that the "old school" model, for all it's obvious faults, also had a few virtues. It is undeniably true that the stereotypical "comic book store" has a lot of problems, isn't particularly forward-thinking in its business model, probably serves to actively keep new readers out of the industry, etc etc. But for someone who grew up reading comics and spent decades buying comics under the old system, at a number of "old school" type establishments, there is also something indefinable missing in the rush to modernize the industry.

The "clubhouse" mentality gets a bad rap, deservedly so. But at the same time, the clubhouses served a purpose. They existed - and still exist - for a reason. We're not talking about pushing the medium of comics forward with intelligent, insightful retailing decisions. Buying comics in the direct market in the 80s and 90s, there weren't a lot of shops around that didn't exclusively reflect the dominant paradigm of superhero comics in almost every aspect of their retail model. The good shops aren't exactly ubiquitous now, but there are many of them, and by now most intelligent comics readers have an idea in their heads of what a good comic book shop should look like. A lot of good retailers have spent a lot of time trying to build an audience for a new type of direct market, and I will not say anything to gainsay their immense contributions to the increasingly positive shape of the modern comics industry.

But still.

There's a shop near where I live, whose name I won't mention, which I believe is probably a model of what a "good" comic book store should be. They've got a well-lit, family-friendly interior, deep backlists of alternative, "art" comics, manga, strip reprint and even superhero trades on nice bookshelves. They've even got a nice used section. No scruffy longboxes to be seen anywhere, and just a handful of RPG books sequestered at the rear of the store. They do sell Magic cards and Heroclix, but again, it's not up-front, it's clearly a sideline and not their raison d'etre. The staff are friendly, there are always lots of women and children browsing, and the whole store is really well put-together.

But here's the catch: I hate shopping there. I feel really uncomfortable whenever I'm in that store. For the most part, if I buy comics I try to avoid buying them at this store. Again, I can't accuse the store of doing anything wrong: it's pretty much exactly what I think a comic book store should be in the twenty-first century. But it nonetheless rubs me the wrong way, because it goes against decades of conditioning. Used to be, there was no comics market for women, no comic market for casual browsers, no distinctive comic market for kids. There was only one comics market, and it was a bunker mentality.

If you are roughly my age - maybe a little older, maybe a little younger - you didn't grow up in today's modern, ecumenical atmosphere. If you read comics and you were old enough to appreciate girls, you were part of a deviant subculture. Chances are you were a comics fan because you got something out of the hobby that you didn't get elsewhere in your life. For every five kids who dropped comics when they hit puberty, there was one who didn't, and who stayed with the medium because it filled some kind of gap in their lives. Instead of being a passing phase, superhero comics were a lifeline, because they were fat, they were nerdy, too skinny, too pale, covered in zits, their parents fought, their parents were divorced, their parents had left, they were sick, they were angry. It wasn't necessarily something that coincided exactly with puberty: there are older comics readers and younger comics readers, but if you've read comics continually throughout the last twenty or thirty years, with no abatement, through the darkest days of the 80s and 90s, chances are at some point comics for you stopped being a passive indulgence and instead became an active psychological crutch. If you can look back on the last twenty or twenty-five years and point to an unbroken record of comics reading, you had to overcome a lot of obstacles. You've got battle scars.

As strange as that sounds, in the comic shops of yore, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared experience of being a misfit on some profound level. If you frequented comic book stores in the dark days of the mid-90s, you were one of the hardcore. When you walked into a comic book store, you were manning the battlements against a cruel and uncaring world - or at least, in your mind. There may have been nowhere in the world you felt you fit in, or nowhere you felt you could be yourself, or nowhere safe from the pressing concerns of the world, except for the confines of your comic book store.

What we consider the modern comics industry grew to a large degree out of the ruins of this mentality, the superhero hobbyists bunkered down in their "No Gurlz Allowed" fortresses. This kind of fannish behavior was never really attractive, and it has obviously curdled as so many younger comics fans have grown older but not necessarily wiser. Superhero hobbyists have more reason than ever to feel embittered, in the context of their already-paranoid worldview, because their clubhouse has been invaded by hordes of strangers looking for books like Naruto and Fun Home and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But before we entirely castigate the Android's Dungeons of yore, let's take a moment to reflect: it would be disingenuous of us - most of us, at least - not to admit that for a time these stores served a purpose, and served it well. I think I've grown out of that mentality, just as my tastes in comics have grown and changed, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the old ways, at least a little bit.

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