Comic Shop

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Dan Gearino, Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2017). 264 pp, $26.95.

Dan Gearino’s Comic Shop is a book I wish I could have written. Here’s why:

In my comics studies classes, I often teach the history and structure of the comic book market. Sometimes this takes the form of lecturing; sometimes it involves inviting local comic shop owners to share with my students their firsthand knowledge of the business. When I lecture, I typically show slides depicting contemporary comic shops, and then contrasting slides depicting newsstands from the 1930s, forties, and fifties (historic photographs, often drawn from online sources such as Shorpy). Among the more recent images I show is one of a shop interior that many students, upon inspection, recognize as fictional: the comic shop set from The Big Bang Theory. We talk about the seeming accuracy or inaccuracy of that sitcom’s depiction of comic shops and geek culture. I then share other popular depictions of comic shops, from The Simpsons(an action figure of Comic Book Guy never fails to elicit laughs) to Unbreakableto Kick-Ass. From those images, we work backward to the now less-familiar era of newsstand sales. My goals in doing this are, one, to point out how US comics distribution and retail has changed, and two, to acknowledge the caustic stereotypes that cling to the culture of comics fandom and the specialized shops that serve it—I  figure we might as well air those preconceptions at the outset. Where did these stereotypes come from, and what complex history do they hide? Gearino’s Comic Shopaddresses those questions.

One might reasonably ask, why go through this topic in courses devoted to the artof comics? I am neither an economist nor a scholar of the media industries, and my entry-level comics classes typically focus on form and aesthetics. So why get into the weeds with the business of distribution and retail? The argument I make (and have been making since I first began lecturing on this topic twenty-odd years ago) is that the marketplace profoundly shapes the form and content of comics. Specifically, I argue that the rise of the graphic novel, and of other publishing innovations such as mini-series and archival editions, presupposes a reading culture and market that will support those things—in other words, an audience that treats comics as treasures worth saving rather than everyday ephemera, and a business that feeds that appetite. Further, I suggest that even alternative and literary comics owe their emergence to (though they may prefer to ignore) the marginal culture of comics fandom, and that many artistic innovations in comic books of the 1980s and nineties came about due to the favorable economic terms of the specialized comic book market—that is, the direct market. Said market is Gearino’s subject.

Arguably, even comic scholars whose main interests are artistic or literary should pay attention to the deciding force of economics. Just as various subscription and retail arrangements have changed the history of popular literature, so the direct market’s unusual terms have changed comics. Those terms—a de facto subscription system consisting of the advance (pre-publication) ordering of nonreturnable merchandise—made the US comic book into a different social object from what it had been during its first roughly forty years. Specifically, direct market distribution and retail, while catering to fans, reduced publishers’ risk and allowed artists to earn a living with far less than mainstream magazine sales. Comic shops are not like mainstream bookstores; they enjoy a streamlined distribution apparatus and an eager captive audience, one willing to spend much of its money and time tracking comic books. Such shops, which by the early 1980s constituted a factious, intensely competitive network, arose from a grassroots capitalism that mixed underground methods of production and distribution with nostalgic populism and pulp tastes. Arising from the burgeoning fan culture of the sixties, which also nurtured conventions and fanzines, the direct market shop offered not only a clubhouse for collectors but also a hothouse for new experiments in publishing.

Those experiments—early examples being The First Kingdom, Star*Reach, Cerebus, Elfquest, and Sabre, all from the mid to late seventieslearned from the radical wing of comix, the underground, but appealed to fans anchored in mainstream comic books. This mix, as I argue in my book Alternative Comics(2005), rescued, but also ultimately narrowed the range, of the US comic book.1 In Santiago García’s words, the direct market saved comic book publishers but increasingly isolated them “from the outside world. They were able to escape death, but they wound up hooked to an IV drip.”2 Gearino’s Comic Shop is the first book-length study to focus on how this market grew and how it has worked, as well as its episodes of not working, of dysfunction, shrinking, and retrenchment. Sadly, few histories of the comic book, even academic ones, have been curious about the roots and development of this particular market.

Studies premised on the value of comic books as primary historical sources, that is, as mainstream mass culture artifacts, such as Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation (2001, rev. 2003), have tended to discuss the rise of the direct market only briefly, as an endpoint, as if to confirm the medium’s waning cultural relevance. Even Matthew Pustz’s pioneering ethnographic study of fandom,Comic Book Culture (1999), which takes the scene of the comic shop as its departure point, pays little attention to the economic structures of the market or how they got that way. The one academic history of American comic books to examine this market closely has been Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s Of Comics and Men(2009), a dryly unsentimental but revelatory account (and highly recommended). Even Gabilliet cannot quite conjure up and explain the cultural moment that gave birth to the direct market shop. Gearino helps.

A journalist by trade, Gearino has not written an academic book, though he does document his claims with seven pages of notes (and among his sources are new interviews with such retail and distribution pioneers as Jim Hanley, Jonni Levas, Bud Plant, and Chuck Rozanski). What he has written is, first, an engaging, compulsively readable historical narrative, interspersed with chapters of thematic analysis (Part 1, up to page 160); and second, a series of profiles of specific shops (Part 2). His way of organizing this material may seem eccentric: about half the chapters in Part 1 carry the historical narrative, from 1968 to 2016, yet the other chapters in Part 1, shuffled into that narrative like cards in a deck, deal with current or recent issues in the market. Typically, Gearino brings these issues into focus through the day-to-day business of an exemplary comic shop, The Laughing Ogre in Columbus, Ohio, which happens to be his local one. His profile of The Laughing Ogre keeps the book rooted in present-day industry concerns, punctuating though also interrupting his story.

For example, one chapter, “The Valkyries,” examines the belated acknowledgment and growing influence of women in comics retail, as well as the new wave of feminist work epitomized by the Valkyries, a professional advocacy and support group (and now social media movement) begun in 2013. Before that comes a chapter titled “Secret Convergence,” which recounts a worrying downturn of the comic book industry in 2015. After “The Valkyries” comes a chapter that reverts to deep history, and, like the other historical chapters, gives in its title a range of dates: “Heyday (1980-84).” Later, the chapter “Raina’s World” not only describes the phenomenal popularity of graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier (the United States’ highest-selling author of book-length comics) and the young readers’ graphic novel movement that she represents, but also, craftily, winds the clock back to look at the popularization of the graphic novel format itself. In addition, “Raina’s World” considers the challenges that comic shops face when competing with the larger book trade to sell graphic novels. This chapter is followed by one on an encouraging industry uptick in 2016 (predating the sobering stories we have since heard about 2017), and then another historical one, about the late eighties to early nineties, a notorious period of speculative boom and bust. In this way, Comic Shophas a flickering, unpredictable quality, like a constellation of feature articles rather than one fluid text. Yet it is hard to gainsay the wisdom of Gearino’s choices, which arguably make the book more timely, responsive, and accessible to current comics readers (as opposed to academic historians).

Accessibility is the byword. Gearino’s journalistic background shows in the way he baits the hook narratively at the beginning of most chapters, starting out with an anecdote: a vivid recollection of a particular day or incident (usually dated). The chapters seldom launch with abstraction, but instead favor the capturing of well-chosen moments. Also, Gearino keeps most of the chapters short (there are a score of them, in a book that is not very long). Gearino is a practiced hand at starting in medias res, then backfilling and explaining as he goes. He gives sidebars too, tidbits too tasty to be left out but too digressive to integrate into the main text (such as profiles of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquestor Jeff Smith’s Bone). On the other hand, there are recurring characters that serve to knit the book together. Overall, while Comic Shop explains a great many terms and concepts, its mode is narrative.

Actually, the narrative finishes two-thirds of the way through. Then Part 2 spends roughly fifty pages describing, by example, various kinds of comic shops, and another roughly fifteen pages listing the “Best of the Best” shops in the United States and Canada. This second part of the book feels likely to date quickly. In effect, Comic Shopdevolves into two books, one a brisk history and snapshot of the market, the other a kind of embedded shopper’s guide. There is something wonderful about this, as every comic shop is a unique animal, and profiles of the best are potentially a great resource for the traveling fan. Moreover, the range of shops profiled in Part 2, from “old school” haunts for collectors to hip upscale “comics galleries,” reveals something about the field’s rich, and fractured, nature. At the same time, though, Gearino’s odd organization makes the book seem less like an argument with a through-line that you can hold on to and more like a grab bag. I found myself wishing for more detailed analyses of certain issues and historical moments.

Research problems remain. For one, comic book scholars need to know more about the relationship between underground comix and mainstream comic books in the nascent days of the direct market. I have argued that the direct market introduced underground methods to mainstream comic book distribution and retail, and that the mainstream and underground comix overlapped considerably within many early comic shops. The pioneering Phil Seuling, credited by Gearino and many others with brainstorming the direct market, acknowledged as much; for example, in an interview with Will Eisner in 1983, Seuling remarked that “my way of distributing comic books was also an underground way,” and that he did distribute underground comix, which, he said, “moved very well through the market.”3 The pioneering Bay Area comic book retail chain Comics & Comix (cited by Gearino as likely the first such chain in the business) advertised through its very name the mixing of mainstream and underground fare; co-founder Bud Plant developed a strong interest in underground comix, and he and his colleagues played key roles in organizing the underground-focused Berkeley Comic Convention in 1973.4 Robert Beerbohm, a historian, veteran dealer, and sometime Comics & Comix partner, has argued that the direct market in essence began, not when Seuling made distribution deals with mainstream publishers such as DC and Marvel, but in the late sixties when the Berkeley-based underground publisher The Print Mint tapped into a countercultural network to achieve nationwide distribution of comix.5 Given the reputation of the direct market as an offshoot of nostalgic superhero fandom, the neglected role of the underground in helping to establish the market needs to be documented thoroughly. Also, the issue of fraud in the old-school newsstand distribution business, briefly raised by Gearino (page 32) as one impetus for the rise of the direct market, cries out for further investigation. The falsifying of affidavits regarding unsold comics, as newsstand distributors siphoned off comics to sell under the table to, among others, comics dealers, almost certainly put a dent in the sales of comic book titles sought after by devoted fans. Some have made under-documented claims about how this wave of fraud affected the bottom line at DC and Marvel; unfortunately, given that this fraud was criminal activity, the likelihood of finding reliable documentation of the practice seems slight. The question remains shrouded in decades-old rumors: skeletons in closets. Still, this issue calls for concerted excavation.6

Finally, I would ask for a more critical discussion of the market of the past twenty-plus years, a period glossed by Gearino in one chapter that ends on, for me, a surprisingly upbeat note. Said chapter amounts to a profile of Steve Geppi, the owner of Diamond Comics Distributors, or least finds its focus through Geppi’s career story. Gearino goes too easy here. During the period covered by this chapter (1994 to 2016), Diamond has enjoyed a near-monopoly on direct market distribution, during which, not coincidentally I would argue, direct market shops have generally become less supportive of small, independent publishers, said publishers have tended to flee the market, and the periodical alternative comic book has become an exceedingly rare species.7 Meanwhile, superhero movies, television series, games, and ancillary products have blown through the roof, in effect integrating comic shops into the economy of the culture industries at large, with a range of consequences both uplifting and worrying. As Bart Beaty has pointed out, this shift enabled comic shops to withstand the recession of roughly 2007 to 2009, but also exposed the direct market as never before to the effects of media conglomeration and globalization.8 A blockbuster mentality now governs both superhero films and comic book publishing. In this frenzied climate, intensified by social media, all the debates of the past, such as those over creators’ rights, feel different, and newly energized debates, such as those over diversification and the politics of representation, have made the direct market, like geek culture at large, factious and dynamic in a rather new way. We need tougher critical analysis of this complex, perhaps fateful period.

Those caveats aside, Comic Shopdoes important work for which I am most grateful. Since the book addresses a history that has concerned me for years, I am delighted, and frankly envious, of what Gearino has accomplished. He gives a vivid picture of a market and culture that are not easy to explain to the uninitiated, and, although textual analysis is not his beat, he demonstrates beyond doubt that the marketplace has drastically shaped comics’ form and content. Perhaps most importantly, Gearino brings to life the people who have made the business what it is: characters like Seuling, who made so much happen and whose outsize presence could fill a room, or his essential partner in life and business, Jonni Levas, whose historic role has been eclipsed until now. The direct market is an important structure in the comics world, true, but it is also a culture of willful, nonconforming, interesting people—and more than anything, Comic Shoppays them due tribute. Beyond gross stereotypes about the comic book market and its clientele is an essential human, economic, and artistic story, one still in the process of being told.

  1. Charles Hatfield, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 20-29. Regarding the market’s impact on comics’ content, see particularly “The Evolution of Direct Market Comic Books,” 25-27.
  2. Santiago García, On the Graphic Novel, trans. Bruce Campbell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 120.
  3. Will Eisner, Shop Talk, ed. Diana Schutz with Denis Kitchen (Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics, 2001), 293.
  4. “The Toucan Interview: Bud Plant: Comics Retailing Pioneer,” Toucan: The Official Comic-Con & WonderCon Blog, June 28, 2013. https://www.comic-con.org/toucan/bud-plant-comics-retailing-pioneer
  5. Robert L. Beerbohm, “Secret Origins of the Direct Market, Part Two: Phil Seuling and the Undergrounds Emerge,” Comic Book Artist 7 (February/March 2000): 116-125. See also Beerbohm, “Comics Dealer Extraordinaire Robert Beerbohm: In His Own Words,” Comic-Convention Memories [blog], January 6, 2010. http://www.comicconmemories.com/2010/01/06/comics-dealer-extraordinaire-robert-beerbohm-in-his-own-words/
  6. The most-cited source on this topic (Gearino cites it too) is Robert L. Beerbohm, “Secret Origins of the Direct Market, Part One: ‘Affidavit Returns’—The Scourge of Distribution,” Comic Book Artist 6 (Fall 1999): 80-91.
  7. Regarding recent changes in the direct market, and alternative comics creators’ move away from reliance on that market, see Charles Hatfield, “Do Independent Comics Still Exist in the US and Canada?” La bande dessinée en dissidence/Comics in Dissent, ed. Christophe Dony, Tanguy Habrand, and Gert Meesters (Liège, Belgium: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2014), 59-78.
  8. Bart Beaty, “The Recession and the American Comic Book Industry: From Inelastic Cultural Good to Economic Integration,”Popular Communication8.3 (2010): 203-07.