I really considered just making a graphic along the lines of “This column censored due to SOPA” and posting that today. But I figured my iFanoverlords would expect better, and I do aim to please those rapscallions. So how about one way I think we could actually help reduce comics piracy? I’m no expert on the matter, but I have this column and I have enough opinions to get the discussion started. I actually had a list, but the first item on my list got away from me. So here it is, the first, but by no means only way I think the comics community can help combat piracy.
Step 1: Make comic shops not suck
Step 2: See step 1
It’s a hard truth but comic shops are still the front lines. We can lob artillery shells of podcasts and cruise missile columns but comic shops and the people who work there are still the ground troops of our pop culture invasion. And comic shops have become an iconographic place in pop-culture, yet probably for the wrong reasons. People, right or wrong, think of comic shops as places where smelly nerds go to yell at each other and find ways to belittle any uninitiated person foolish enough to step into their lair.
And I’ll be damned if I haven’t been to shops that fit the model to a tee. I travel a lot and often try to scope out the local comic shop (LCS) wherever I am. I’m not naming names, but a recent shop literally had a tater-tot on one of the shelves next to a bunch of trades. A goddamn tater tot, people. Rule 1) Don’t leave your food on the shelves of your local shop. And Rule 2) if you own a shop, apparently you need to occasionaly check to make sure your shelves are free of leftovers. At no other business I frequent would such an issue ever present itself, but based on the smell of this particular shop from the moment I walked in, I wasn’t all that surprised.
Don’t blame bigger bookstores. Don’t even blame indie bookstores. I go to a lot of bookstores, and I would argue that they are whole different animal from comic shops. In my experience big bookstores often have reasonable comic selections, but they are just as often horribly disorganized, shrink-wrapped, seemingly randomly stocked, and heaven help you if you can find someone working the floor who has any clue about any of it. I hate the shrink-wrap. No other books get shrink-wrapped. I don’t care what font the novel I’m picked up is written in, I’m not Ron, but I do care about the art. I decided a long time ago that not being able to see that art means I will not be buying the book from that establishment, and will recommend others do the same.
One time at an airport–I want to say somewhere in Texas, Mr. Timmy Wood–I found 300, the hyper-violent homoerotic Spartan comic by noted crazy-person Frank Miller, stocked in the children’s section. I calmly took the entire stack of books to the register, flipped open one to the page where a guy is getting a spear through the throat, and let them know they had this book in the children’s section. The now mortified woman at the checkout counter put the books on a shelf beneath the register, and I’d be amazed if they were ever seen on the shelf again.
Indie bookstores, again based on my limited experiences, have their own shelving problems as they tend to throw in a few token indie comics with the humor section. The number of times I’ve seen Maus or something by Joe Sacco next to the latest collection of Zits or Boondocks is astounding. I know we can all agree that just because a book has words and pictures that it automatically goes next to Garfield. Nothing goes next to Garfield. Why is Garfield even in your shop, indie bookstore? But I digress.
There are so many great shops out there for which a lesser store could learn valuable lessons. I worked in a shop that, while far from being perfect, made sure that everyone who came inside was greeted with a smile and a “Hello.” It’s not much, but the number of shops I’ve walked into and been ignored is staggering. I have walked around in silence aching for one of those wonderful LCS conversations to happen, all the while the employees organized decks of Magic cards behind the counter. But beyond being friendly, the shop I worked at moved some product. I knew those shelves backwards and forwards. I, and the rest of the staff, prided ourselves on being able to find a book for anyone who came in. I sold the entire first series of Runaways to someone who hadn’t read page 1, I got a middle-aged woman who was just browsing to pick up Astro City. I’m not bragging, these are my experiences and I found out quickly that people were more willing to buy a book when you could give them a synopsis, or your own opinion on it. On the other hand I’ve been to shops where I’ve already read every mainstream book that gets “recommended” to me. Yes, I already know Batman is very good right now, thanks.
So while I am in no real position to tell anyone how to run a business, I will give these three pieces of advice. Keep your place as clean, odor-free, and clutter-free as possible, make everyone who comes inside feel welcome, and have enough variety of books that someone new to comics can get something they’ll enjoy from your shop. This isn’t rocket science. And if the shop you go to fails in any of the above regards, say something. If the owner is a megalomaniac, consider letting them know that you’re dissatisfied and that Amazon exists if they’re really not that interested in keeping your business. It’s harsh, but its how the real world works.
I’m not an expert on SOPA, so I won’t pretend to speak authoritatively about what it says nor its implications. But I will say this: SOPA seems to be about the benefit of large corporations. Comic shops are not large corporations, they are more often than not small business run by hard working people operating on razor thin profit margins. Thus I can’t imagine there’s a huge lobbying presence in Washington from our local retailers. But those retailers are also the people who are getting hurt by piracy. It’s a tough situation, and I don’t envy anyone trying to run a small business right now, but the more welcome people feel inside a shop the more likely they are to return. I now forfeit the remainder of my time to the comments. Thank you.
Ryan Haupt knows your local comic shop / indie bookstore / sacred cow is perfect and beyond criticism, but thanks for letting him know in the comments anyways. He does a podcast called Science… sort of, where he is also often wrong.