A BROADER PUBLISHING PERSPECTIVE: MARVEL & 7-11
I was recently contacted by the fine folks at the Comics Journal for my opinions on Marvel's move into 6000 7-11 stores. As a direct market retailer, it's something that could directly affect my business, good or bad, and the folks at the Journal wanted to know what retailers like myself thought about it. So I told them, but there's no way the Journal is going to use everything a long-winded, opinionated retailer like myself might have to say on this topic. And y'know, it's a topic that's important to me as a retailer and I got a hell of a lot to say about it. So, I thought to myself, what better way to share my opinions than in this very column? So here we go...
Marvel & 7-11, Marvel & 7-11, Marvel & 7-11: what does this mean for direct market retailers and comic stores?
Overall, I think this move makes it really obvious that Marvel doesn't see themselves as an intellectual property research and development firm for the movie industry, but are really interested in getting people to read comics. So, in general, I see it as a great thing for Marvel as a company and for the industry as a whole. I love that Hollywood is picking the fresh comics crop and cooking up some delicious morsels for mass consumption, like American Splendor, Ghost World, and the X-Men series. But I do think that comic creators and publishers have to be careful of seeing themselves as a sort of "pick your own" field for Hollywood, because if the comics aren't good in their own right, for example, if I can't put Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-men in the hands of that X-Men movie fan looking for a fix between flicks, then what good does the added attention a movie gives to the industry do other than to line a few individual's pockets in green?
As an aside, I realize that movie interest hasn't always meant interest or increased sales for the funny books and there's been a lot of disagreement on this issue in the past. But the recent BookScan's numbers show what us retailers have already been experiencing, good movies plus good comics equals good sales numbers. But really that's a whole 'nother column!
In any case, it's pretty obvious that Marvel, despite all their headway into intellectual property exploitation, also sees themselves as a comic company and they are getting really aggressive about getting comics into new readers' hands. Both through their recently announced lesson plan program which will put up to 1 million Fantastic Four comics in the hands of elementary school readers and now this 7-11 partnership. Sure, Marvel has done these as cross-promotions with these major mass-market corporations to make these recent pushes happen but that doesn't mean it's not focused on building a customer base for comics. We aren't talking about "Mighty Marvel Maze Book," "Spider-Man's Choose Your Own Adventure," "Marvel Fun and Games," or even a line of collectable Marvel Slurpee cups here. We're talking about comic books. We're talking about Marvel putting comic books into people's hands. And to me that's pretty fucking significant.
If your goal is to get comic books into new reader's hands then you're not going to do half-bad by partnering up with a company like 7-11 because 7-11s are everywhere. And there are certainly more people walking in the front door of a typical 7-11 than there are people walking in the front door of a typical comic book shop. That means more exposure to comics for people who might not think about comics otherwise. The more exposure people have to comics, the more likely they are to feel that it is still a living artform, not just a relic left over from their childhood. I like seeing comics showing up in more and more different kinds of stores, because it really drives home the message that this thriving artform has something for everyone, whether they shop at a comic book store, a Barnes & Nobles, or a 7-11.
Of course, this move is not without its disadvantages, particularly to folks like me who sell comics for a living. Most notably that it might seem like a slap in the face to the direct market retailers by offering the same product in a more readily accessible market, and let's face it 7-11 wasn't there to support Marvel during the lean years when there wasn't any Hollywood money or Ron Perelman money or 7-11 money to be had. That was the direct market retailers. But this is business, and Marvel's going to do what's best for Marvel, I certainly can't blame them for making a strong push to create new readership or for wanting to make their publishing business grow.
When convenience stores like 7-11 started carrying everyday necessities like milk, this really hurt sales of these products at grocery stores. Why would anyone make a special trip to the grocery store just for milk when they could just pick it up while they're buying gas? It's hard to imagine that a convenience store would bring down the grocery industry based on milk sales alone, just as it's hard to imagine that Marvel sales in 7-11 will make the comics direct market irrelevant. But as a direct market retailer it's my job to keep an eye on how this is going to affect the market in which my shop exists. Big box grocery stores chose to fight fire with fire by offering lower milk prices and by setting up convenience store-like coolers stocked with products (like milk) near the door and the express aisles. But if push comes to shove, lowering prices isn't going to save direct market comic stores. Following the big box grocery industry lead in this example would cost us dearly. Because comic stores aren't big box grocery stores... we're specialty retail, and that means we're experts who specialize at what we do... more like gourmet or organic food stores. Price gouging is a game that can't be won by gourmet food stores or comic book stores, so it's a game that we're better off not even playing in the first place.
The way that the direct market of comics should combat the comic businesses of stores like 7-11 is by focusing on what makes our specialty retail shopping experiences unique. If both kinds of stores have a cash register and both have a Spider-Man comic, that's where the comparison ends. Because specialty retail is all about superior product selection, superior personal customer service, providing unique and memorable shopping experiences, and most of all sharing your passion with your customers. Direct market stores carry the largest selection of the greatest variety of comic books, have the most knowledgeable and passionate people selling them, each have a distinct personality that interacts with customers on a personal level, and offer customers a chance to participate in the store's unique comic culture. When done right, all of this adds up to once-in-a-lifetime shopping experiences, ones that you quite simply are just not going to get at a 7-11.
With stores like 7-11 and Barnes & Nobles carrying comics, the product diversity, passion, personality, and a sense of participation all become that much more crucial for direct market retailers like myself. The importance of leveraging product diversity is especially critical because while the mega-stores might carry a breadth of products, no 7-11 is going to come anywhere near the depth a comic store can when it comes to individual categories. And while providing personal shopping experiences is something that might be talked about at 7-11's corporate meetings it's something specialty comic retailers can provide to every single customer every single day. Special occasion events like a creator in-store event go a long, long way to creating unique once-in-a-lifetime experiences for customers that when compared to what a 7-11 offers their customers, make places like 7-11 look downright lame. Combine these events with a staff who is equipped with superior product knowledge, a little flash and panache, and some serious love for the artform ... and the spinner rack at the local 7-11 isn't going to make much of an impact on the nightly close-out whatsoever.
That said, the only real concern a retailer like myself might have is exclusive product. And part of Marvel's plan includes offering exclusive items, such as the soft-cover Marvel Masterworks that are exclusive to Barnes & Nobles. I'm not particularly pleased with any comic publisher offering exclusive product to retailers outside of the direct market and keeping specialty comic retailers like me out of the loop... but what the hell, there's more to the comic industry than just one or two companies. Because believe it or not, just like there are more retail outlets out there in the world for Marvel Comics than direct market shops like mine, there are a hell of a lot more comics out there to feature, to stock, and to sell. For every watered-down exclusive "X-Men" comic that a 7-11 might get, there's a hundred "Shaolin Cowboy," "Amazing Joy Buzzards" and "Ex Machina" books out there just waiting for an audience. I'm happy to put my resources and shelf space into the things that differentiate the direct market from the generic chain shops where these other comics are being offered. So when those Barnes & Noble and 7-11 customers come in my front door looking for more comics than are available at those other outlets I'll have almost an entire store full of exclusives that those non-specialty shops either don't care about or have never heard about. And you had better believe that I won't complain about putting a copy of "Ex Machina" in a new customer's hands.
It's my job to make sure people leave my shop with something that makes them happy, and hopefully, makes them fall in love with comics all over again. Thankfully there's a whole industry of creators and publishers out there who can help me do just that. As long as my staff and I keep our customer service skills sharp we're going to open these new readers' eyes up to a whole new world of comic reading entertainment... and that's the most fun part of the job!
A BROADER RETAILING PERSPECTIVE: INDYS & SUPERHEROES
While we're on the subject of comics outreach and the culture of comic book shops, I thought this particular topic went hand-in-hand with another mini-article I wrote for The Isotope Communique, a daily update of comic news, cool culture, and comic READING suggestions which just so happens to be written by yours truly on my store's website. The entirety of this article "Comic Readers Secret Wars" is reprinted here for your convenience.
Indy Comics Verses Superhero Comics: The Absurdity of the Genre War
There are those who believe that all superhero comics are bad, others who wouldn't touch an autobiographical graphic novel with a ten foot pole, and still others who hate manga and everything it represents. You can hear them preaching their respective gospels on messageboards, read them belittling those who don't subscribe to their particular beliefs on industry websites and in magazines, and see them turning up their noses at another's selections at places where comics are sold. Apparently these people think that these different aspects of comics are best divided, forever locked into their unique genre definitions and battling with each other in some sort of comic readers secret war.
Sure those people are out there, and because they can be so rabid about beating the genre war drum they've helped make the perception that is how most, if not all, comic readers make their buying decisions at the comic book counter. And that is the way that comics have to be sold. But that's just not the case. If anything, quite the opposite.
When you're taking a stack of comics up to the counter you're more likely to be hoping that you'll be getting your hard-earned money's worth out of that pile of funnybooks than you 'll be thinking about what genre classification they fall into. And as long as the person behind the counter doesn't go out of their way to make you feel embarrassed by your selections, you're going to leave that store thinking about going to your favorite place to read and finding out what lies inside those comic book pages. And when you're reading those comics you're going to be thinking about whether or not you're enjoying those comics, not some non-existent spandex vs flannel spectrum on the nerd totem-pole.
In my experience I've found that the majority of comic readers are looking for one very simple thing in their comic entertainment. Something that makes them love comics all over again, even if that means checking out something that falls just outside of their comfort zone. More often than not, if a reader hears that a book is good, they'll at least flip open the cover and see what it has to offer. If they like the look and it's in their price range they'll give it a try. More than anything comic readers just want to be entertained and occassionally enlightened by their comics. And they don't like missing out on the comics that might do just that for them.
Us verses them retailing is absurd because all it does is limit the consumer's choices and discourage both consumer and industry growth. Perhaps all that fans of superhero, manga, art comics, and any other genre of the artform truly need is a place where comic genres are considered equal and get to stand side-by-side, not as genres, but as that which they all truly are... comics.
Because who among us doesn't love comics?
THIS WEEK THE ISOTOPE STAFF IS READING
Black Panther #2
Nikolai Dante: The Great Game TPB
Miss: Better Living Through Crime TPB
Incredible Hulk #79
Devlin Waugh: Red Tide TPB
Ex Machina #9
Space Ghost #5
Shaolin Cowboy #2
Ultimates 2 #4Captain America #4
Until next time...
James Sime is the proprietor of San Francisco's Isotope - the comic book lounge. He's the son of a retired high school chemistry teacher and is knee-deep in great mini-comics right now.