Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Return Of The Comic As Collectible

I took a vacation this week, and barely checked the Internet outside of the news aggregator app on my iPhone. I had no exposure to the latest angsts, outrages, causes, feuds, criticisms, memes, proclamations of doom, rumors, and other minutia regarding the comic book industry -- and that was quite delightful. In fact, the only time I discussed comics at all was with the person behind the counter at a direct market shop in a Florida outdoor mall.

After about 5 minutes of browsing the mall with my family, the clerk asked us if we heard about the amazing new thing DC Comics has done. The real answer was yes, I've been hearing about this for at least three months straight, but I wanted to hear the pitch anyway. And so the comic shop employee went on to discuss the DC "New 52" program, how all the comics were starting at #1, and how it was a great place to start collecting for the new reader.

I asked him what books were doing well for the store, and he said the biggest seller was Detective Comics. Anything with Batman and Green Lantern sold really good right off the bat. Action Comics was a little more of a harder sell, but he played up the Grant Morrison angle. Aquaman was a surprise hit. His personal favorite writer was Scott Lobdell, and he recommended Red Hood and the Outlaws. He proudly said that his store ordered enough copies in advance to meet the demand, though he regretted that they did not buy more Flashpoint, because it led into the relaunch.

The shop was neat, clean, and organized. Unlike some of my local shops in NYC, they had quite a substantial back-issue collection, the long boxes arranged in shelves along the store's perimeter. New single issues were bagged and boarded on the racks. There was a modest shelf of trade paperbacks, mostly high-profile backlist stock. There was some Vertigo and Walking Dead, but I wouldn't say there was a massive amount of indie titles -- at least by my admittedly cursory observation. On the counter, on a lucite stand, was the new volume of the Sailor Moon manga.

I'm going to take a guess here and assume that this shop is similar to many others throughout the United States -- and that, in a way, it represents the heart of what is currently the Direct Market. There's a lot of DC and Marvel, but also a desire to reach out to new customers and a (cautious) delving into alternative titles and formats such as manga. The DC "New 52" initiative was used as a conversation-starter with potential new customers, as I'm sure the latest Marvel movies were before that.

Shops like the one I visited yesterday are key to the longevity of the comic book as we currently understand it to be. If these shops fall, and comics become the domain of mostly digital devices and booksellers, what we know and identify as a "comic book" will change dramatically. Now, I am not saying this as if it is a good or bad thing -- there is no judgement here. I'm just saying this as a fact. These changes will not only impact the format of these publications, but what type of content is produced, how often, in what shape and frequency, with what characters, etc. -- and, of course, it will also impact many, many jobs as well. It would take a whole series of posts to outline just how radically transformed a mostly digital comics industry would differ from what we are used to now.

Ironically, what elements I first associated with hurting the Direct Market in terms of maintaining and reaching out to new readers -- positioning the comics themselves as not just reading material but collectibles -- will probably end up saving (or, at least, helping) it as paper makes its inexorable march towards digital. Once the single issue is readily and easily available on the reading device of choice on day of release, positioning and branding the paper edition as a physical commodity, as a collectible product you can hold in your hand, will become all-important.

Thus, bagging and boarding the "floppies" a store displays on the rack immediately makes them seem more substantial and collectible. Pushing "number ones" generates excitement. Variant covers, sold-out issues, limited edition second printings, movie tie-ins, gadgets and gimmicks and purchasing incentives -- all the things that have been sneered at for literally decades by the Comics Cognocenti as lowest of lowbrow comix experience -- will ironically be key elements to help the Direct Market weather the transition to digital consumption.

And actually, this marketing tactic will have some success with new or lapsed customers -- not just the hardcore fans. I mean, people collect lots of things -- Swatch watches, limited edition Blu-ray, McDonalds glasses, snowglobes, motorcycles, vinyl toys, etc. The initial investment the comics shop asks from the customer for a potential collectible is on the lower-end of the spectrum -- $3 or $4 a pop. The buying becomes an Experience, the trek to the shop becomes a Destination, the dialogue one has with the shop owners and fellow collectors becomes a Community -- and (get your rotten tomatoes of righteously indignant ire ready to hurl) the collecting becomes, in a sense, an Investment.

Again -- I realize this line of thinking would probably make many comic "purists" want to throw up. But from a business and marketing standpoint, I submit that this is a valid idea in terms of stirring up excitement for the product. Now, I anticipate the counterpoint: why not just get the customer excited about the story and the art? The problem here is that when same-day digital and e-readers become commonplace, it will be harder to convince readers to buy a monthly paper edition -- they're getting the same story and art in both formats. The fetishization of the physical copy will then become crucial in the Direct Market setting.

If this all sounds too unconfortably like the Nineties for you -- keep in mind, that decade also had great music!