THE COMIC PIMP? WHAT’S THAT?
After a couple months away from this column I have finally learned the most important lesson Stan Lee ever taught me, “Every issue is somebody’s first.” The assumption that a readership consists of the same return visitors who have a context for what you are doing is a problem that has helped stagnate readership growth in the comic industry, and no doubt this column as well. So with my return to CBR I’ll be applying the lessons learned from “The Man” and approach each column as if it were someone’s first exposure to my sometimes controversial approach to marketing, promotion and comics retailing.
So if this is your first time reading The Comic Pimp, hello and welcome. I’m James Sime, your suit-wearing funny-hair-havin’ host. I own a unique comic shop in San Francisco that enables me to share my passion for comics with others on a daily basis, put any crazy ideas I might have about retailing or marketing comics into action in the flash of an eye, meet a massive amount of hip nerd people who love comics just as much as I do, and to write this from-the-retailer’s-perspective column for you and the rest of CBR to enjoy. I’m not exactly your typical retailer, comic or otherwise, and you can often find me going way beyond that extra mile in service of spreading the good word about great comics, throwing extravagant creator in-store appearances at my shop, nurturing an ever-growing community of comic fans and professionals in my shop and on-line as well, and constantly one-upping my last big idea that had my detractors pissing themselves and all my customers cheering.
And as you’re about to see from reading this very column, I don’t just sell comics. Baby, I pimp them.
For those returning readers, welcome back for a month and a half of weekly CBR columns from yours truly… I promise I’ll keep the new readers intro to a minimum next time. This week’s theme song is “More Bounce To The Ounce” by Zapp and Roger Troutman. Slip it in your CD player, turn the bass up all the way until it gets thumping hard, and dig into the rest of what The Comic Pimp has for you this week.
Four years ago this month I embarked on the strange and exciting adventure known as comic retailing, and as any businessman will agree, an anniversary is a time to do a little reflection on the past and make decisions for the future. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and re-thinking on what it is that I do for a living, and how I do it.
I came into this business on a balls-to-the-fucking-wall mission. I wanted to kick the industry door down, tear down every preconception of what a comic store was or could be, and build something completely new and fresh. Just like thousands of other comic readers out there, I had this idea that if I was a comic store owner I’d do things differently. I’d been spending my hard earned money in comic shops across the country for decades and as much as I may have enjoyed the books, the customers, and the retailers I’d met in those years I always felt that comic stores were falling pretty far from what I saw as the potential. As a consumer I don’t just want to go from one end of the economic meatgrinder to the next, I want something more… and years working in outrageously expensive restaurants and swanky bars had taught me that I wasn’t alone.
I envisioned a shop that was more than just a sales depot where comics and other accoutrements of nerd culture were peddled. Sure, I wanted to fill the shelves with the kinds of comics that I knew existed, but could rarely find in the stores, but more than that I wanted to celebrate that comic shop culture, not just hock the totems. I wanted a place where comics were actually being made, where writers would meet artists, where projects were dreamed up, written down and sketched up. Where meeting someone inspirational, famous, profound, or brilliant was a regular occurrence. I wanted to create an exciting, creative, and social environment where divergent peoples of all ages, backgrounds, and styles could all meet on equal footing and share our mutual appreciation of art, culture, and four color entertainment together. I wanted to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences and memories for those people who walked into my store that they would treasure until the end of their days. And most of all I wanted to use my shop as an introductory experience for those who weren’t yet comic readers, and present the artform in as sexy and appealing of an environment as possible.
Give me the keys, my pre-retailing self thought, and I’d drive comics retailing as fast as its wheels could turn. I’d pop that clutch and make the rubber squeal. I’d be the Steve McQueen, Sonny Barger, Dale Earnhardt, and Evel Knievel of comics, and once I got moving nothing short of death was going to slow me down.
But what the fuck did I know about owning a comic store? I’d never owned or operated a business before. Although I had a degree in something or other, I’d been too busy slinging cocktails in high class bars, chatting up customers and waitresses, and playing bass and synth in shitty low-rent space rock bands to have gone to business school. And I didn’t have any sack of secret Nazi gold stashed under the staircase or even any friends in this industry. And for all the comics I’d bought and all the stores I’d been to and all the times I’d walked a convention floor, I hadn’t networked for shit and I didn’t really know a single comic industry person anywhere.
But that wasn’t going to stop me. All I knew was that I had a vision and I needed to bring it to life. So I got down to work and four years ago I did just that.
Knowing there was a very real chance that my store might crash and burn like millions of other businesses large and small before it, and knowing that I was risking financial ruin, stress-induced ulcers and who knows what other health problems, not to mention one hell of a bitchslap to my ego, I knew if I was going to take those keys I’d have to drive harder and faster than the old ladies in the slow lane would ever dare. So that’s exactly what I did. I threw in everything I had, jammed that accelerator down to the floorboards and opened up my own comic store.
I’m a flashy, unpredictable kind of driver who isn’t afraid to break the speed limit by ten or thirty miles per hour, and perhaps some people might think I’m not the right guy to have in the driver’s seat. I tend to push the accelerator down a little too far and make the tires smoke, palm the wheel through the turns, turn the radio up high enough to feel the bass pumping through the seats, and work the clutch on that classic Mustang kind of hard. But selling comics isn’t a safe, Sunday drive with grandma proposition, especially if you’ve tasked yourself with the kind of high-octane objectives I had.
“Where is all this leading?” you might be wondering. Well, the reason I’ve been reflecting on the past and re-thinking the comic retailing possibilities is because I recently announced a move to a new location for my store. Which not only offers me a brand new blank canvas to paint my vision for comic store utopia on and a vastly bigger space in which to do it… but it also puts my comic store right in the path of the San Francisco Bay Area’s populace, right into the heart of one of the most creatively vital neighborhoods on the entire west coast. It’s a huge step for my shop, but business is ever-growing and the time is right… but it also means I’m back to square one in terms of the actual building and design of that comic shop utopia I was talking about. Which gives me a perfect opportunity to reflect on that vision and to address the single most requested column topic I’ve ever been asked to write by Comic Pimp readers, “How do you open up a comic book store?,” all at once.
Over the next few columns, I’ll be taking a behind-the-scenes look at everything it takes to drop a nitrous oxide tank into a comic retailing environment. We’re going to go from rough diagrams drawn on bar napkins to the implementation of ideas to the completed project. We’re going to go from idle theory to real-world practice with a peek at the scrapped ideas that never saw the day of light and brilliant 11th hour solutions. We’re going to dissect a successful comic retail shop to find out what makes it tick and we’re going to improve it with new approaches to display, lighting, racking, fixtures, and usage of negative space. It’s time to tear it all down and build it bigger, better, and faster. It’s time to retake Comics Retailing Driver’s Ed 101 and relearn how to drive through the orange cones, how to accelerate into the turns, and how to win the race in the end.
Join me, won’t you?
It’s the industry’s cyclical mantra, “Where’s the comics for the kids?”
Just about every six months or so someone of industry importance breaks out the soapbox and demands the industry wake up from our perpetual stupor and start doing something with younger readers in mind again. It might be in an open letter in the Comics Journal, or in a op/ed column, or in an entry on their blog, or it might be on stage at the Eisner Awards, but no matter what form this rant takes it’s usually quickly picked up by a chorus of folks who want the same thing. And for four or five weeks no industry messageboard is safe from getting caught up in the “Hey Kids, Comics!” fever.
These folks sure are quick to point fingers at industry leaders Marvel and DC for everything they’re doing to chase away the next generation of comic readers. “What about the kids? Nobody is writing comics for the kids!” mania spreads through the industry with “when I was a kid it took longer than two minutes to read a comic” and “today’s comics cost too much, cheaper paper is the solution” and “I’ll buy comics for myself, but this stuff is too violent for me to read to my kids” and “retailers don’t care about expanding their audiences, they’re just trying to soak the ever-shrinking market they already have for more money” getting their share of virtual airtime as well.
Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree with the need for comics for kids in direct market comic book shops. As both a retailer and a fan of the medium I’ve got a vested interest in, you’d better believe I want to see dirt cheap comics chocked full of good writing and heartwarming stories and a sense of wonderment for the little ones.
But a quick walk down the graphic novel isle of any Borders Bookstore and it’s pretty obvious that the kids want comics for them too. And they’re getting them in the form of Princess Ai, InuYasha, Fruits Basket, .Hack, Chobits, and Love Hina. In hindsight it’s pretty amusing to think that not too long ago common comic industry knowledge told us that teenage girls didn’t want comics, that there wasn’t a very big market for black and white comics from creators who the typical American comic fan had never heard of before, that romance wasn’t a genre comic readers had much interest in, that ten dollars was too much for kids to put down in order to purchase a comic, and that the reason kids weren’t reading comics was because they were too busy playing videogames, going to the movies and dreaming about customizing their Hondas or whatever. But there they are, teenage girls and boys sitting in those Border’s Books isles with ten dollar TokyoPop books in hand reading comics and proving that what was once common comic industry knowledge is bullshit. And that even big slow corporate giant bookstores were better at identifying, supporting, and supplying a new comic market than even comic stores themselves were.
And apparently comic retailers weren’t the only ones to miss the manga boat because even five years later we still have the six month “where are the kids comics?” cycle rolling, with the twice annually demand for comics for kids just as loud as ever.
This group of parents, fans, and concerned industry citizens are such a powerfully vocal group in our industry that one might think anytime a copy of Teen Titans Go! was solicited it would be putting a serious dent in Wizard’s top 100 list… but for some reason when it comes time to getting behind the all ages books the industry already has this group gets surprisingly quiet.
And you know what? Marvel is making me one happy comic pimp this Wednesday, thanks to the release of the first wave of their dollar digests.
One glorious dollar is all these suckers are going to cost. I’m pretty confident that today’s young potential comic readers can afford a comic that only costs a buck, especially considering it wasn’t such a stretch for me when I was a kid comic reader a couple decades ago. Sure, reprinting Stan Lee classics from decades gone by might not be the right formula for bringing today’s young readers flocking into the comic shops, and perhaps the format isn’t exactly right… but for fuck’s sake, if one dollar digests containing kid-friendly comics coming to comic shops as early as this next Wednesday isn’t a step in the right direction for Marvel, I don’t know what is!
I say Marvel deserves a mighty round of applause from all of us who want to see the direct market’s industry-leading companies putting out kid friendly, bargain basement comic book entertainment that the young ‘uns can afford.
Because if all we’re going to do is ignore the efforts to address the need for kid’s comics and continue to complain about the lack of anything good in the comic industry, we can’t expect that these efforts will be considered a worthwhile investment by the publishers and then we might as well be the douchebags who chase away the next generation of comic readers. If as an industry we’re going to stand up and complain about wanting more comics for kids, we then also need to stand up and applaud the kids comics that we do have.
Want comics for kids? Happy to see that publishers like Marvel, DC, TokyoPop, Gemstone, Bongo Comics, AdHouse Books, AIT-PlanetLar, Dark Horse Comics, Archie Comics and the rest of the publishers who are producing them? Want to do something constructive with all that energy and discuss more ways we can get comics into young readers hands? Want to quit our bitching and see if we can encourage these companies to make more comics for the next generation of readers?
In celebration of the new Isotope, we will be welcoming:
Author of Bonerest (Image Comics), Silent Dance (Slave Labor Graphics), and co-author of the upcoming Batman: Europa (DC Comics)
Author and Artist of Due (Slave Labor Graphics)
Artist of Silent Dance (Slave Labor Graphics)
Artist of Lex Luthor Man of Steel (DC Comics)
Artist of All Star Batman and Robin (DC Comics)
Wednesday, July 20th.
More details to follow. Mark your calendars!
Until next time…
James Sime is the proprietor of San Francisco’s Isotope – the comic book lounge. He prefers his steak dry aged for four to six weeks and although he didn’t believe it was possible he actually thinks the Batmobile in Batman Begins was pretty fucking cool.