'Progressive' Changes Part Three: A Second Opinion

Wolverine

A conversation with a local comic shop owner sheds some light on the current state of the comics industry.

Justin Knight

By Justin Knight @StoicWriter

I decided to take a walk down to my local comic shop in Northampton, which is run by a man whose knowledge of the comic world was vastly superior to my own. His name is Jeff Chahal and he has been running the store for a while. He has another store in my hometown that his brother runs. He also heads up a yearly convention called Nice Con, were he gathers mainly English comic writers and artists to attend and do sketches, sign autographs and even give talks. I showed Jeff the article I mentioned in the previous part of this blog and asked what he thought of it while throwing in my own questions along the way. What follows is the conversation we had and, in my mind, Jeff shows that he certainly knows what he is talking about.

So where did this article go right with what was being said?

"Firstly he's right. Sales are down. Sales are down vastly in store because online sales are up so it's not so much that the industry is going to collapse any moment now. The problem that we've got as 'bricks and mortar' retailers is that less and less people are buying in store and they are turning to the Internet for delivery. That's partially to do with it. But they are right that there is a lot of product and people only have a set amount of money to spend. If you've got £10/$10 to spend a month on your comic habit you're not going to think 'I'll take ten new titles' out of the sixty Marvel have just relaunched or the fifty-two ongoing that DC have. The quality of the product is spreading thin. We're seeing more and more quality product being produced by companies like Image because creators are not stupid. So why would they give their stuff to a company that's not going to pay them the dividend?"

Yes, Marvel are notorious for that.

"When they can take that product to Image, put your back into it and if it hits, you pocket the money and that makes perfect sense."

One quote that I think was said in the article was that the likes of Marvel and DC like to focus on longer and convoluted stories so they can eventually get a trade paperback out of it.

"Yeah, I mean the days of one or two issue stories seem to have long gone. When I was a kid you'd get a two-part story or a double sized issue and that would be the whole thing. Now, they are looking at this and going 'can we stretch this two part story into six issues to get a trade out of it.' From a business perspective, that makes sense, but for readers it feels like you're treading water. You're spending more money than you need to and I genuinely think that if the big two publishers were to cut back on the amount of titles that they produced, they would probably see more consistent sales and they could probably also do -- to be fair -- would be to drop the price of Issue Ones as I don't know why we've got new Spiderman comics being launched at $4 or $5 for a first issue. You could quite easily do that book for $1. You'd get somebody that's going to buy two comics for $6 and they'd think 'Oh a dollar? I'll try six new titles.'"

Yes, one example of this was the new Wolverine. How many variants did that have?

"Well, yes but the variants is a whole different issue. The market is saturated. The variant market is beginning to slow down in a big way. We as retailers have never really pushed that market as I'd rather a customer with that extra £15-£20 spend that on another five or six comics rather than buying the same one twice because it's got a pretty picture on it. I also get some people that like particular artists and they'll think 'that's that guy's/woman's work that I really like; I want to own that cover!' I get that but sometimes it is just pandering to the collector mentality and making people feel like they have to buy all these covers. It gets very expensive and they will lose customers through it. We've seen it before in the '90s as a prime example, so it's not as if it hasn't happened before. The market will collapse under its own weight, but as a retailer my job is to make sure that when that moment comes that I have moved enough of my customers forward from reading a generic Marvel or DC title to looking at books from a creator-owned point of view and thinking 'well I really like this person's work. What else are they doing?' and that is a far better reading experience. It's the same with music. Why would you follow just (one) label? I certainly wouldn't sit at home and listen to music only published by Sony, for example, as you would be insane."

So where did the article go wrong in any way?

"I wouldn't say the article went wrong because each retail environment is different."

As an example, in the article, one guy says he is seeing the biggest dip in sales for quite some time at his store. Have sales been affected here that much?

"Not that much, no, but we are going against the grain already. We saw this coming and had already cut back on our ordering and we were already moving people across to look at comics from creator control as opposed to publisher control. It's like I always say to people: Marvel, DC and so on are not going to ring you up on a Saturday night and invite you out for a beer. They're not your friend; they just want your money. They're a business and you need to stop looking at the advertising and think 'they said that's good, I'd better get it,' as it's not true. A character being killed? How often do we see that happen and he's back six months later or back in time for a movie?"

It's the old Marvel clichê, isn't it?

"Well they all do it, to a point. It's supposed to be fun but once it starts dominating your wage packet it stops being fun. It becomes something else and this is supposed to be a hobby and my understanding of that is a hobby is something you're supposed to enjoy... do to relax and take the weight off of your mind, not think 'I've got a $200 this month. I can't afford to do that, but what do I do because I have to get that rare variant that Marvel has said will be worth a million in fifty years-time.' It's a false economy."

So one of the things that has been pointed out to me before was that, using Marvel as an example, some have felt that newer content being brought out is pushing the older audience away and welcoming in the more 'politically correct' crowd, as they're known. Thoughts?

"I think it's a difficult one because we're seeing a backlash because people are saying they're doing more comics for women, but the reality is we've ignored the female market for so long and obviously once we open those floodgates, there is going to be a lot more product out there. I think once the dust settles and everyone is in their right groove and they know what product is for who, it's not a problem. Personally for me, I've never been one of those people. As far as I'm concerned comics are for everyone and they always have been. I'm Indian by decent; my parents were Indian. I never had been in a comic shop before and I wasn't going to buy one just because it had an Indian person in it because that would be insanity. We do get buyers that think 'Well, I want a character that's going to relate to me, so I want a female character,' or 'I want a comic with a guy as a hero.' That will eventually settle in this period of a restart, really, and we have a lot of new product coming to the market that is going to be aimed at these new readers. As a business they would be insane to ignore it."

Another point that has been put to me was the example of Thor becoming a woman. Instead of changing old characters to fit a new audience, can they not just make new ones?

"Well, if only it was that simple. We see the new stuff over at Image, products that are untried and untested. We do see new characters at Marvel and DC but people like the same trick over and over again as they like it. It is very difficult to get new product into the market and this is where going back to creator control comes in. If you like a particular character and you go back and look at the stories that you enjoyed the most -- let's take Batman for example -- at the moment Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's run is on a high as it was a good retake on Batman. and lots of people enjoyed it. If those guys left and I started writing and drawing the comic, it would be awful as I can't do either so what people would think is 'Jeff is doing that now and he's crap! What are the other two doing now?' and they go and look at what they're working on."

And with Thor?

"Right... Jason Aaron was the writer with the previous run and is still writing it. Thor still exists 'normal' Thor and this is a different Thor. The people that complained about it now being a woman: Fine, vote with your money and don't buy it if you don't enjoy it."

Sales for the comic have dropped recently though, haven't they?

"Yes. This is like the Fantastic Four movie though. People decided they didn't like it before they had even seen it. At the end of the day though, I'm still following it but I don't feel this run is as good as the previous run but that's because I liked the previous artist's work and now it's someone different, but he's still fine. It's a difficult market to keep happy as there are so many people involved from so many different backgrounds that you're never going to make everybody happy."

Do you think that part of the problem may come from people getting upset with the writers putting in their own personal politics in the comics as what was seen in issue 3 or 4 of Thor with the feminist dialogue which came across as quite cringe worthy and Angela: Queen of Hel issue 4, where the writer intentionally redacted what she saw as offensive dialogue such as 'sexist red pill' and so on. Readers asked why she had done that as it was out of place to begin with. However with the new Wolverine, X23 speaks about taking over from Logan and says it's mainly 'guys on the Internet' who don't like her and then just left it at that.

"Horses for courses, different writers for different people, different personalities, different backgrounds. I think that if a writer has the balls to say what they feel, more power to them and whether you agree with it is a different matter, but someone has a voice and they decide not to use it, they have no standing. Irrelevant of what your opinion may be, I think anybody should be free to voice their opinion whether it's right or wrong and how you want to absorb that is entirely up to yourself."

What about the section of the article where the guy complains about the new art that Marvel is accommodating? He refers to it as cartoony and from a certain perspective I can see his point, but what do you think?

"You've got so many artists working in this industry. Those that are not enjoying the artwork on the likes of Thor, Wolverine and so on, don't buy it and look for something that you like instead as this is a hobby and you're supposed to enjoy it. Don't like this? Try something new as these companies don't actually owe anybody anything. There is no contract signed stating they must keep 'him or her' happy for the rest of his life. It doesn't work like that. It's like what happened with that video game where people didn't like the ending and there was a massive uproar about it."

Mass Effect 3?

"Yeah, they had to rewrite the ending and I saw that and thought 'but what does that say about the creator?' You've got this team of people that have made this game. This was their finished product but then other people come along and say 'that's crap, fix it and make it better for me,' and that's not really how it should work. This was their choice and whether you like it or not shouldn't be relevant."

So the message at the end of the day is: If you don't like it, don't buy it. Simple as that?

"Absolutely. All these companies want your money and that's the most powerful thing you have. Vote with your pocket! If you don't like it, don't spend the money on it; and you know what? If that artist -- whoever he or she may be -- if they're not selling the books for them, they will be moved irrelevant if they're any good or not doesn't come into the equation. The company will see that sales are massively down, realize the previous artist was doing well and the writer is still the same, so it must be down to the new artist so they look for another one. You will not get results by complaining about it on the Internet, but still buying the comic because people are still getting paid and there is no motivation for the company to make that change, as they are still bringing in money."

So for the final question then: A new customer comes into your store looking for something new. What do you recommend to them and why?

"Oooooohh... First you have to ask them questions: Who are they? What do they like? What movies and TV shows do they watch? What music do they listen to? What comics have they already read? Based on the answers they give, I then try to steer them down the right path."

You mentioned Image earlier...

"Yeah. Image have got lots and lots of different titles that will appeal to more mainstream readers than Marvel or DC would. Somebody comes in off the street and they're 25 years-plus and they want to try comics for the first time? I would more than likely steer them towards an Image title with the right creative team then I would then saying 'here, try Deadpool.'"

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