Issue #294

"Found the commentary about comic books shops below at Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin website and wondered what your thoughts/reactions might be:

What to make of this exchange I overheard between a customer and his son at the shop today:

'So, what do you think of this place?'

'I think it's a necessary evil.'"

Not sure. How old were they and which of them said what? (It's worse if the son said the punchline.)

Seriously, I don't envy comics shop owners these days. It must be a bit like being AT&T or Sprint and watching the onset of cable and Internet telephony: a territory you thought you had long since sewn up is slipping through your fingers. (AT&T recently took the step of unceremoniously ending its fledgling internet telephone service, the one it introduced to keep customers from flocking to services like Voip and Vonage, and telling them that within two months their phone service will be dead and their numbers are non-transferable. This is a little like Detroit's foray into the electric car, which they only leased and refused to sell or even market - their idea of marketing was to warn off potential customers - and then abruptly withdrew from availability, declared them a failure and destroyed the lot of them at significant financial loss, though electric car users loved them and tried to buy them but were rebuffed without explanation.) It wasn't that long ago that the comics shop was significant enough to the comics market that shops could call the shots when they felt like it. They were pretty much the sole outlet for comics, and in the days when comics got hip the smart shop owners were swimming in cash and customers.

These days, you really have to be in the comics shop business for love, but, just like for comics writers and artists, love's a whole lot sweeter when it produces a living income. Not that comics shops aren't still important to the comics industry - for the vast majority of comics published in America, the comics shop is about as close to public exposure as those titles are going to get - but they've largely become the industry's whipping boy, not in the least because bad comics shops tear down the public image of the good. Many among even the current survivors of a once-boom business are short on customer service, and all comics shops are caught between the shifting whims of publishers and customers. It's common to blame low sales of books on poor orders from comics shops, or the inability of comics shops to sell comics, and while that's not entirely out of line, those comments are usually made without regard to the quality of comics they're expecting comics shops to sell, and with little regard for the peculiar challenges facing comics shops. It's not difficult to understand why many comics shop owners get a bit miserly when it comes to ordering comics, since the direct market is set up to put the financial burden on comics shops, and they're the ones usually forced to absorb the expense of any overorders, the stock that doesn't sell through. (As opposed to the book trade and newsstands, where unsold copies can be returned to publishers, who bear the lion's share of the financial risk.) Their profit margin's on most items are slender at best, meaning comics sales is a bulk business, and in the last decade this hasn't been much of a bulk market.

Comics shops have borne the brunt of the shifting economy of the business as we convert from the magazine economy that comics shops were built on to the book economy that general bookstores are better equipped to cope with. Add to that the growing Internet economy the column's been discussing on and off the past few months, and it's difficult to see how most of them are going to survive in the long run. Yet the comics recovery of the '80s and boom of the '90s was as fueled by the proliferation of comics shops as it was by an expansion of available comics; the comics shop was the accessible public face of the comics industry, and the easy availability of the comics shop in many locales meant easier availability of comics than had existed in this country for a long time.

And y'know what? When hard times came, we threw 'em to the wolves. When customers started feeling burned by all the gimmicks and the crap, and the speculator bubble burst, it wasn't because the publishers had treated the audience like their own private gullible piggy banks, it wasn't because the editors and the talent had homogenized the content into dull, indistinguishable recycled crap, no, it was because the comics shops didn't know how to do their job. Not that anyone was lifting many fingers (well... one...) to do any actual marketing; as usual, "marketing" consisted mostly of getting titles to shop shelves, and that doesn't even work for Procter & Gamble. So a hell of a lot of shops went out of business, cutting the whole industry's visibility and increasing the runaway perception that it was moribund. A lot of shops tried to convert to "hobby" stores, shifting their main attractions to gaming cards and Beanie Babies and model kits and such things, and keeping a comics stock more as vestigial nostalgia than as selling items as they serviced a rapidly shrinking and increasingly insular audience. A few comic shops stuck to their guns and fed their core business, and most of the survivors of that bunch are relatively profitable today, though I doubt anyone's getting rich selling comics anymore.

So I'm not sure what's up for the comics shop today. (Let's be clear on something else, while we're at it: a lot of what happened to comics shops was the result of their willingness to go along with and even encourage the forces that eventually destroyed them.) Even with an expanded cultural presence of comics courtesy of manga, anime, comics movies and the growing acceptance of the graphic novels, only one of those - comics movies, specifically superhero movies - plays to their traditional strengths, and it's unclear how well placed they are to capitalize on it. It would seem there are only a few avenues open to them: evolve into hobby/media stores; evolve into specialty bookstores; stay the course and keep fingers crossed that comics will become a superhot item once again.

All are risky prospects, and, as I said, there are now other outlets looking to carve up pieces of the traditional comics shop niche. But comics shops aren't a necessary evil, because there's nothing evil about them, usually. The question is how much the business, as it's still set up, can carry on without them if most of them went away. Ideally, the future would see publishers taking advantage of and making profitable all outlets for comics, including a lot more comics shops, however the concept is altered, with both comics and shops expanding their audience together as they once did. But right now I don't see how that's going to happen.

A little more TWO GUNS, from the current issue:

That's what really separates the Ghost's administration from the Roman Empire: in the Roman Empire good soldiers who fell onto their swords didn't come back to write books about it a couple years later. Former CIA boss George Tenet has been making the rounds lately with a new book whose message is mostly "Hey, don't blame the Iraq mess on me!" and while Tenet's protestations are more than a smidge disingenuous - there were plenty of angry CIA analysts at the time breaking protocol to leak that Tenet and the White House were ignoring any findings that contradicted the designated scenario, and Tenet has always been known as a political hack who saw his role as serving the whims of his masters, which made him the perfect patsy to take the heat when it become obvious to virtually everyone that the rationales for invading Iraq were largely fantasized - there are also plenty of independently verifiable anecdotes that add texture to the long chain of data verifying that action against Iraq was a pre-existing Administration goal that they used 9/11 to rally support for. It's just too bad Tenet's book is also full of fabrications apparently concocted to make him look better than he deserves. As such the book is less about correcting the record than replacing one myth with another. (On CBS's 60 MINUTES Tenet showed his equivocation skills by insisting the USA doesn't engage in torture, then, when faced with evidence from Guantanamo, refuses "to discuss techniques" and justifies the practice with a string of post-9/11 homilies, then concludes by again denying the USA tortures anyone. Nice way to maintain that credibility, George.)

Meanwhile, Ghost appointee/Rumsfeld acolyte/neo-con hardliner Paul Wolfowitz, one of the real architects of the Iraq quagmire, looks to be forced out of his cushy gig as head of The World Bank pretty soon over making one of his top priorities at the agency ensuring his girlfriend ended up with a career advancement at a far higher salary than her circumstances merited. (He tried to justify it by saying she had previously been "fast-tracked," but no fast track existed.) Then former Secretary Of Labor Robert Reich spells out why Wall Street's climb means nothing for the rest of us: many of America's corporations, the ones that profit from the continued boom of stock prices, are making their money and placing their investments overseas, beneficiaries of the internationalist economic largesse of the last several administrations. But what that also means is that they're not spending their money here and are shifting many of their operations overseas as well, so no economic "trickle down" to the general American public happens. Which is triggering the interesting phenomenon of a new populist wing of the Republican Party talking about new regulations of multinationals based in America. Which probably won't amount to much, but it's interesting to see this decade's Republicans transforming themselves into early '60s Democrats. The Ghost's "security advisors" are bailing out like a horde of mad rats as new investigations into what was known when about the real pre-war situation in Iraq and what was planned when, and to show just how bad things are getting for the Ghost, with his public approval rating now about as low as any president's has ever been in the history of American polling, even presidential aspirant John McCain, who has been running an insane non-campaign with the theme that he's the man that can keep everything heading down the toilet we're already swirling around in, "separated" himself from the Administration at last at a debate of Republican candidates when he was asked how he differs from the Ghost, and tersely replied "I would not have mismanaged the war." Ouch. At least he didn't say bungled. (On the other hand, three minor candidates tried appealing to the Republican rank and file by proudly announcing they didn't believe in evolution, but that may not be a critical issue come election time.)

But what the Administration tried poo-pooing as a minor non-scandal may ultimately bite them in the ass the hardest, as the "US attorneys" incident rapidly expands into unexpected territory. It began with the firing of several U.S. attorneys and replaced, as is generally the wont of any administration. But some were replaced after getting calls from frustrated Republican Congressmen to find out if attorneys were bringing charges against Democrats before last year's election, with subsequent calls to the White House when they were told no. Some who were fired successfully prosecuted (now formerly-) powerful Republicans on corruption charges. Some were simply told they were being pushed out so Administration chosen ones, like one of Karl Rove's assistants, could be given their jobs and thus have an impressive title they could flash around when pursuing public office. (Hey, it worked for Rudy Guiliani.) In most cases, the replacement U.S. attorneys had no criminal trial experience and little criminal law experience. The Justice Department, courtesy of attorney general and former Ghost personal attorney Alberto Gonzales, blew off all criticisms as business-as-usual, perfectly within the normal purview of the Department Of Justice.

Then it came out that the DoJ had chats with administration functionaries like Karl Rove and White House counsel Harriet Myers while determining who to fire, and who to replace them with. Which also might have been considered business as usual, except they all started trying to deny it. Gonzales turned out to have been at critical meetings he previously had denied knowing about. An entire Republican National Committee alternative e-mail system surfaced, apparently created to bypass e-mail that would have by law been part of the public record. Then reputedly pertinent e-mails from that system abruptly vanished. Then Gonzales sidekick Kyle Sampson resigned, falling on his sword in an attempt to take all the blame. Then another Gonzales sidekick, Monica Gooding, broke down in tears over fears that she also would have to resign, and has taken the Fifth amendment rather than answer questions before Congress, though her lawyers are trying to sniff out an immunity deal. Then more stories came out. A US attorney based in Washington State previously ran afoul of the DoJ for his investigation into the murder of a federal prosecutor, which the DoJ for some reason didn't want him to pursue. A US attorney based in San Francisco who was investigating Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis (not that one) on corruption charges was also on the DoJ hit list, but resigned before the firings to take a job with Administration-connected law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher - which happened to be defending Lewis in the case. The Lewis investigation subsequently ground to a halt, and in other cases investigations into powerful Republicans were halted when the prosecutors handling them were removed. The fired attorneys started receiving phone calls from the DoJ "encouraging" them not to talk to Congress. DoJ employees were encouraged not to talk to Congress. (The fired attorneys' immediate superior, who had little notice that they were to be removed, did talk to Congress and adamantly contradicted Gonzales' claim that the attorneys' work ethics and skills weren't up to snuff, and the DoJ employee who had the calls has testified he was ordered to by his boss.) Various DoJ employees called to testify, including Gonzales, got coached in White House strategy sessions first, further giving the appearance of direct White House influence on the firings.

The most recent blowouts of all this concern the DoJ's civil rights division, which seems to have been turned by this administration into the voting rights division, as per the new, curious RNC definition of "voting rights," which is essentially new poll taxes, created after the Civil War to thwart blacks trying to vote. Republicans in several states, following practices in Florida in the controversial 2000 presidential election and subsequent elections in other states like Georgia, have attempted to introduce legislation limiting the access to the polls of groups perceived to have Democratic Party leanings (in every case where they've successfully passed such laws, as in Missouri, courts have thrown the laws out) on the theory that the Democrats engage in widespread voter fraud to steal elections. (Considering various Republican shenanigans here in Nevada in 2004, including state Republican committee backed registrars mounting concerted registration drives in strongly Democratic areas particularly in the Las Vegas area, then throwing all the registrations in the garbage instead of filing them and leaving hundreds of people thinking they were registered to vote until it was too late for them to do anything about it, such accusations are sickly ironic.) Gonzales' DoJ, ostensibly non-partisan, is now being investigated for partisan hiring practices, as when one high ranking official in the civil rights division told applicants to mask their status as registered Republicans before he hired them, apparently so he could pretend he didn't know they were Republicans if it came up. (They got hired.) The aforementioned Monica Gooding is under investigation mainly for swinging toward Republican party affiliation when hiring. Many of the DoJ's hirees for the civil rights division had few credentials and little experience except in fighting civil rights. But they were Republicans. The DoJ civil rights division boss in question, Bradley Schlozman, since made his mark by taking over for a Missouri US attorney who refused to file a voter fraud lawsuit in 2005, and filing the lawsuit, accusing several Democrat supporters of various illegal registration practices, right on the eve of the 2006 election. The suit was since thrown out, and Schlozman has effectively gone into hiding as his role in the civil rights division hirings gets illuminated.

So the question is whether this is all mere synchronicity or whether there's a pattern of politicizing various government offices, hampering non-Republican voting and, in the case of the fired attorneys, pursuing a deliberate course to obstruct justice and sidetrack investigations against corrupt but powerful politicians and the lobbyists, contributors and contractors that are almost always also caught in such nets. At this point, with nerves fraying and deals being made, we might even find out, since it seems that good soldiers just don't fall on their swords like they used to.

Notes from under the floorboard:

TWO GUNS #2 (of 5) is theoretically available today at your local comics shop, from Boom! Studios. You might have noticed a few pages decorating today's column again. For those who came in late, I've heard it said that it's just the greatest crime comic of this decade... but it might have been me who said it. At any rate, go buy a copy. (Or order it here.)

Just so you don't thinks it's all about me, also go get the first Marvel Icon collection from Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips' excellent CRIMINAL series, the cover of which appears elsewhere in this column. Some things you just shouldn't miss.

So Friday morning - I usually wake up to the sound of local news at 5:30 every weekday morning, as my TV's timer activates, and that way I can immediately catch any earthshaking stories that erupted overnight as I claw my way up to consciousness - and suddenly I'm hearing the female co-anchor, who had seen a press screening of SPIDER-MAN 3 the previous evening, launching into a mini-dissertation on why it wasn't as good as the previous ones. It was very strange, hearing this woman in her late 20s ramble on about relatively arcane minutiae of Spider-Man's comics continuity - it sounded like she read Spider-Man comics in high school in the '90s - and then, while calling herself "a Marvel girl," she made it sound as though she thought Spider-Man was a DC character. The really interesting thing is that she talked about both Marvel and DC like everyone would automatically know the difference, even if she didn't seem to, so I guess DC has finally made some inroads into public consciousness, since it wasn't that long ago that every civilian I talked to automatically assumed Marvel was the only comics company and they published SUPERMAN and BATMAN. It's funny how these things never come up on the evening news...

Finally got around to reading the first few issues of DC's new BRAVE & BOLD series by Mark Waid and George Perez, reviving "the original team-up comics." It's a decent if fairly standard DC superhero story, at minimum Mark and George both almost always produce entertaining work, and I like the concept of interweaving team-ups (Batman & Green Lantern, Green Lantern & Supergirl, Batman & Blue Beetle, etc.) forming one expansive story. But what the hell is the deal with Supergirl?! One issue she makes all goo-goo at Green Lantern then dresses up like a slutty manga schoolgirl, the next she's flashing Lobo. I haven't read anything else featuring Supergirl in a long time; is this quasi-hentai version the standard characterization these days? (Mark's usually pretty good in his portrayal of women, so it's hard to believe it originated with him.) If so, it's a real shame. Not that it means squat to me personally, but, due to her appearances on the SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE/JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED cartoons on the WB and Cartoon Network, Supergirl is probably, if not better known to teenage girls than Wonder Woman now, known equally well, far easier for them to identify with and far more likable. That version, anyway. This version's just creepy, and it's a little weird that on the one hand DC makes a big show of introducing a whole line of "girls' comics" and on the other pisses all over one of the best shots they've got at cracking that market, and certainly the best they've got at cracking it with a superhero. (She'd need a better costume, though - I think the white and red number from the cartoons was the most attractive she ever had, and I know I'm not alone - and, curiously, Warren Ellis is now running a "Redesign Supergirl" thread, though most of the suggestions posted haven't exactly been spectacular...)

I know where I come from, spirituality and superhero are two words that just naturally go together (I wonder how many more italicized words I need before the sarcasm just drips off this sentence) - and now someone has come up with a Superheroes And Spirituality Quiz.

I guess because kids don't get used enough to the idea of using credit cards just by watching their parents whip them out every time the mood strikes them, Visa has teamed with Hasbro for a new version of the board game LIFE, which replaces cold hard cash with - you guessed it - your very own Visa card. No word on whether it comes complete with predatory lending practices or what happens in the game when you drown in credit card debt.

Before I forget, this came in moments after last week's column went to press, and I know it's of incredible importance and moment to all of you -- This just in: the latest issue (#16) Danny Fingeroth's WRITE NOW! magazine, available in comic shops or off the TwoMorrows Publishing website now, features not only interviews with, writing advice from and sample scripts by the likes of Joe Straczynski, J.M. deMatteis, Grant Morrison, Jim Ottaviani, John Ostrander and my old HARDY BOYS CASEFILES cohort Bill McCay, it also features part one of a three part collation of the Down and Dirty Guide to Creating Comics that used to run here. You haven't seen so much sage wisdom in one place this side of a Denny O'Neil trip to Tibet. Don't miss it.

Congratulations to Nicolas Juzda, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "playing cards." (For those who are wondering, the covers contain Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Joker and Trump, though not in that order.) Nicolas directs your attention to his current favorite comics blog, Pretty Fizzy Paradise, so go take a look.

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme - it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything - and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next's week's column. If you need any clues beyond what's here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. There's one hidden in this week's column, but you'll need a broad knowledge of comics history to spot it.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn't?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

Absolute Carnage Miles Morales
One of Spider-Man's Oldest Enemies Just Became Carnage

More in CBR Exclusives