The Ramblings of a Demented Comic Book Professional
Augie is off this weekend to the Small Press Expo and has asked me to fill in for him while he enjoys ANOTHER in a summer-long stream of conventions. The fact that there are so many conventions for so many different "cliques" is really interesting to me in that when I started in this business I knew nothing about comic books and classified all comic books as juvenile, stupid things for dumb people. An oversight to be sure, but yet a stigma that many outside comic books still see as true.
You see, amazing as it is, unlike most others in the comic book business, I never was really interested in comics -- I loved baseball. When my contemporaries were reading and collecting comics, I was watching baseball, playing baseball and collecting trading cards. As a younger child my father would take my sister Marian and I to the candy store every week or so and let us have one thing. My sister always grabbed some kind of candy, which was usually gone before we got back to the car. Smart little guy that I was, I would usually get baseball cards (they lasted longer than candy), but on occasion, would pick up a comic book -- I liked THE FLASH. Now, I only picked up a few of them and they didn't inspire me as they did others.
My uncle owned a second-hand book dealer and we would go to his warehouse every once in a while when I was around 10. I used to sit in these giant bins and pick out the cartoon books. Mostly Mad reprints or Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Wizard of Id and B.C. Now those I liked! I would read 'em day and night and still have those beat up books today. I guess the fact that these "comics" were in the newspaper subconsciously said to me that they weren't dumb and stupid like comic books.
Flash forward to my senior year in High School. I had a friend, Mike, who loved comics. I never understood it, but we were in the band together and hung out. He introduced me to comics and I got into them a little, but nothing crazy. By the time I graduated, I didn't really think twice about them -- I liked comic strips and baseball.
I went to college at the Fashion Institute of Technology to study advertising and graphic design. (I went there because 85% of the student body was women -- and BEAUTIFUL women! I told my parents it was because of the curriculum.) I recently found my old transcript and saw that in my two type classes I was given only "C"s. Kinda ironic for a letterer, don't ya think? In my last two years I had to declare a minor. I didn't want to do fashion illustration, so I chose regular illustration. Eventually I had to pick classes and decided to take a course on sequential illustration taught by some guy named Gene Colan.
Now, at the time, I had no clue who Gene Colan was. I was just taking this course because it seemed pretty easy. I fell into it -- sorta the theme of my career. At one point during that semester I was told that for my final semester I had to have an internship. Again, I wanted it easy and on a "field trip" with Gene to Marvel I found the place I wanted to intern. Not because I loved comics or had the fantasy to work for MARVEL COMICS -- I wanted it because it was the only company that didn't require a tie! I split my time interning for then-editor Carl Potts and in the production department. I knew a bunch about production and was soon getting freelance work from them. When my internship ended they hired me freelance at first and then 2 months later full-time.
When I first got there everyone wanted to know my favorite comics and which artist I liked. I was dumbfounded -- how do you tell these people that you think comics are stupid and juvenile? I wimped out and told them that I don't read comics. I felt like I was in an E.F. Hutton commercial -- y'know, where the whole room goes quiet and stares at the idiot who just said the stupidest thing he could. I eventually joined the lettering department -- not because I liked it, but because you could make more money and eventually got enough work to go freelance full-time.
Now, I went through my history to point out the fact that I'm one of those people out there who thought comics were nothing more than kiddy things that no "adult" would lower himself to read. I'm that person the industry should be reaching out to -- trying to convince that it isn't all just stupid, dumbed-down reading pulp. It took me ten years in this industry to realize what comic books CAN be. They can be inspiring, funny, scary, thought-provoking and sometimes startling. But it still took me ten years to discover that.Comic books aren't just superheroes, (though there is nothing wrong with them -- I make a living working on them) comics can be personal stories like an independent movie. I look at the recent surge of independent movies out there and see what we as an industry could be doing. Sure, you have the big blockbusters out there, but you can also tell wonderful stories. Comic books can be like the movie industry, but it will take reinventing itself.
The hardest thing to do is to change people's perceptions of comic books. I always believed they were for kids or "weirdos", but I now see that's not the case. How do we get the folks outside the industry to open their minds a bit and take a look around? There's got to be an avenue to get folks in the door. I propose the idea that comic strips can lead people into the doors. On the one hand, comic strips in the newspaper are a dying art form. Newspapers are reducing the only unique feature in their medium so small and have the artists watering down the content so badly that there really isn't much that's thought provoking and unique there anymore. What would happen if someone like Bill Watterson, who also complained of size and content restrictions, were to publish a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic book? Would "average folks" come flocking into comic book stores to find the book and along the way look at other books out there? An idea worth exploring I think, but that's just small potatoes.
The biggest problem, I believe is that the executives of the larger companies -- the ones who make upwards of a million dollars a year with bonuses for a company that LOSES money -- are those same people who don't "get" what comic books are and what their potential can be. I don't know how many new presidents, vice-presidents, CEOs and COOs have walked into Marvel's doors saying they can sell comics and get the industry back on its feet. They all assume comics are like toothbrushes. I can almost hear them saying, "I sold 2 million toothbrushes to people last year; I can do the same for comic books!" The difference is that people don't have negative preconceived notions of toothbrushes. They can't sell comic books like toothbrushes and yet, the only thing they look at is the bottom line. Let's see what makes money and all we have to do is produce more of them or launch a title that people know as an all-new book.
I'm afraid it's not that easy.
Another giant problem is twofold. The fact that comics cost so much and the only place you can find them is comic book stores. Printing costs, retailer costs, distributor costs are so high these days that you HAVE to charge that much. Now don't get me wrong, I believe everyone deserves to make a profit and make a living, but I've heard too many times that people would like to give my comic a shot but they're on a limited budget and can't afford it. On one hand, $3.50 at a magazine rack will buy you a full color "Time" magazine which has 96 pages -- give or take. On the other, you have a 24 page black and white comic for $2.95. If you were the average person off the street, wouldn't you go for the better deal? You'd buy "Time" and look like a "well-rounded" person riding the train home. Also, the way newsstand distributors now stand, it'll be virtually impossible to get comics back on the stands.
Here's another suggestion. Why can't we -- I use the collective "we" because I believe we all have something to gain or lose by this -- print comic books on newsprint like the COMIC SHOP NEWS and sell them to newspapers? Or, better yet, find advertisers and GIVE the comic to newspapers. The printing costs are down and since people aren't coming to the product, why not bring the product to the people who don't know it's there? Of course, newspaper editors will complain about content or will worry about offending people, but I say put a disclaimer on them or run comics suited for all ages and then work up to the more adult ones -- the idea is to get a foot in the door. Now, I'm just a simple cartoonist/letterer guy who's not too business savvy, but others may have a better shot at opening those doors.
Others have suggested the electronic frontier will be the place to gain a new audience. I'm trying that by offering my new book as an eBook as well as a published one. How will it work, only time will tell, but I'm sure people don't want to be staring at a computer screen all day reading comics. Hopefully Rocket book and other hand-held reading devices may work at bringing new folks in.
Needless to say -- getting back to the "cliques" -- I find it so interesting that people want to segregate themselves off from a small community as it is. There's the San Diego Comic-con that is more of an entertainment con. Wizard World, so I've been told, is a con for teenage boys with no interest for any other market segments. The Small Press Expo isn't about any book published by a big company. Why? Why are we looking to condemn one form for another? Shouldn't the idea be to enjoy the comic book entertainment as a whole? Sure, you can prefer one over the other, but isn't it the form that we love? There is no blame here or dislike -- I'm just beginning to learn what a big industry we have in style if not numbers, and think that everyone should have an open mind to others as opposed to alienating them!
Well, I wanted to go to the SPX this year, but my wife, two kids and I are going to the Baltimore area later this month and I was told that I went to enough conventions this year. I tried to explain that this con was more of my target audience--she looked at me like I had 2 heads. "A convention is a convention, isn't it?" So, if you see me wandering around the Inner Harbor or at an Orioles game (it's that baseball thing again) trying to sell my book to people on the street, please realize I'm just trying to do my part.