Wednesday, July 11, 2007

1990s Part Two

Before we get started on the 1990s stuff, there's a major news story which needs to be publicized as much as possible. I know I toss around the phrase "holy fuck" or words to that effect pretty often. I probably shouldn't, because it leaves me with fewer options to accurately convey my excitement in times like these: Beanworld is apparently on its way back. Wow. For those of you unfamiliar with Beanworld, hopefully this means the original volumes will be headed back into print. Maybe I'll re-read them all this weekend. (Via Heidi MacDonald, BTW)

Dick Hyacinth's 90s Part II


I probably need to delve into the history of the comics shop I frequented c. 1988-93. Super Giant Comics was a chain store (remember when comic shop chains were typical?), with the original shop located in either Hickory or Asheville, NC. Eventually the chain made its way over the border, opening a store in my hometown (more or less) of Spartanburg, SC. Their original location was in an obscurely located strip mall, about a mile from anything resembling a vibrant commercial district. Our patronage of the store coincided with its move to a much more convenient location in a cavernous strip mall next to Westgate Mall. This was a HUGE shopping center, holding a Phar-Mor, Circuit City, and Toys R Us in sort of an L shape. Super Giant was located in the darkest, dankest storefront available, in the recessed corner of the complex. The strip mall was generally considered a failure, BTW, apparently because the rent was too high. Aside from the three big anchor stores, most of the retail space remained (and remains) empty. But everyone in my family was happy with this location; we rented movies and games from Phar-Mor, and my grandparents refilled their prescriptions there. Circuit City was probably my father's favorite store at the time, and my brother was still young enough to consider Toys R Us his favorite. This convenience probably fed our comics addiction; in the summer, we would occasionally visit the store a couple of times a week. Eventually Super Giant Comics relocated to a different strip mall, the one dominated by Wal-Mart. It was a less convenient location for us, but I think they did better business there.

Unlike any comics store I've frequented in subsequent years, the Spartanburg Super Giant Comics had predominately female employees. In the five or six years I shopped there, only one out of five cashiers was a dude. The manager of the store was a middle aged woman; she and/or her adult daughter were usually the ones behind the counter when we came in. They were always very nice to my brother and me, and even recognized our mother by sight when she came in to do Christmas shopping. (Despite his massive comics collection, Dad never took much of an interest in our comics hobby.) I don't think the daughter actually read comics, but her mother was a fan of Golden Age superheroes. Most of the other employees liked us too; in fact, I think we were sort of a source of amusement. I never remember receiving unsolicited recommendations, and I really don't remember asking for any either. I knew what I liked.

Where did I learn about new comics? I think most people in the early 90s were relying on Comics Shop News, but Super Giant didn't carry it. I was an avid reader of Marvel's in-house hype organ, Marvel Age. In fact, my brother actually collected back issues of Marvel Age, which we both read cover-to-cover! I think this might have presaged my interest in the history and discourse of the mundane. I also read Comics Scene, a glossy magazine published by Starlog. The Wikipedia entry linked above claims that Comics Scene focused primarily on movie adaptations rather than actual comics, but I remember more of an even split between the two subjects. I read Wizard when it started up as well, but I'll cover that in greater detail later on.

Since I was mostly buying Marvel anyway, I'm not sure how much it matter that I was getting most of my news from the house organ. I certainly wasn't buying everything they hyped in the magazine. I had almost zero interest in X-Men or its spinoffs, for instance. I think this was mostly due to the property's low visibility in the realm of licensed products during the early 80s. I was also intimidated by what seemed like a sprawling, impenetrable backstory. Worst of all, it just never looked like it would be any fun. Instead, I continued to read comics featuring Spider-Man, Thor, Silver Surfer, and the Avengers.

I mentioned in the previous installment that I was not just a reader, but a collector by this period. This is a little misleading--I wasn't really collecting every issue of a given series, but every issue of a given series featuring art (and to a lesser extent writing) by a given creator. When Todd McFarlane left Amazing Spider-Man, I was pissed. I actually felt betrayed, blaming editorial for this horrific turn of events. That his replacement, Erik Larsen, seemed to be imitating his style made matters far worse. In other cases, I picked up books because I was excited about the incoming creators. West Coast Avengers (Byrne) and Fantastic Four (Simonson) are the two good examples of this phenomenon; neither book was of any interest to me before, and I had no particular fondness for the characters either. I was just interested in reading comics by John Byrne and Walt Simonson.

However much I liked the work of a creator, however, I was not willing to follow him (or, occasionally, her) to the ends of the earth. I was totally mesmerized by the art of Jim Lee (and Whilce Portacio, too, for that matter) as soon as I saw it, but I had absolutely zero interest in reading a Punisher comic (partly because I was already quite the good little liberal, appropriately offended at the idea of the Punisher as a hero). Likewise, I passed on the Simonsons' X-Factor due to my aversion to all things mutant. Later on, when Portacio, Lee, and Liefeld were on all the X-books, I would reluctantly wade my way into this morass. But when the 90s first hit, both my budget and my patience were limited.

I think I had about seven books on my pull list at the dawn of the decade. I'm not sure exactly what these books were--I suspect it was something like West Coast Avengers, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange...and that's as far as I can go without consulting my long boxes. I didn't get a lot of allowance money in my early adolescence--I think it was maybe $2 a week for a rotating schedule of washing dishes, taking out the trash, and feeding the dog. My brother and I were supposed to rotate between these tasks, but the only one which we consistently managed to perform was feeding the dog. As a result, we didn't receive our allowance on a consistent basis. We could, however, rely on a $1 weekly stipend from my grandfather (which my grandmother eventually matched), which covered a significant chunk of our monthly comics bill. I'm not sure about my brother, but almost all my money at that time was going toward comic buying. Comics were not my only interest, but nothing else required a financial commitment--I could watch/read about sports for free, and I mostly listened to the radio to get my fix of new music. We rented most of our video games; for whatever reason, my parents were always willing to pay for spur-0f-the-moment rentals, but not for purchases (except for Super Mario 3, but that involved an extraordinary and pathetic amount of begging from my brother and me). My interest in the opposite sex was purely theoretical at the time, so that didn't take any money, either. Mom bought all my clothes, which might be related to the previous sentence.

I wasn't restricting my purchases to the titles on my pull list. I still made a fair number of impulse buys, usually based on how much I liked the art when I flipped through the issue in the store. Sometimes impulse buys would graduate into regular buys, but usually they remained sporadic purchases. I was still buying 95% Marvel, mostly because my sense of aesthetics were very much in harmony with what Marvel was producing at that time (probably because my tastes had been shaped by years of reading Marvel comics). I occasionally bought a DC comic, usually something featuring Batman. Generally speaking, though, I never even looked at the stuff DC was producing at the time. Even today, I couldn't tell you much of anything about the DC comics of the period. I occasionally fell victim to Marvel/DC's hype machine--I bought a copy of War of the Gods #1, but none of the crossovers. I think I viewed that first issue as an investment, actually. I wasn't especially good about preserving my comics--I frequently stuffed four issues in a single bag--but I still bought a lot of first issues as some sort of half-assed investment scheme. This tendency became more pronounced in the years to come.

As for non-Marvel/DC stuff, I don't remember buying a whole lot of it. This was in the lull between the B&W bust and the rise of Image/Valiant/Malibu, so it's not like there was a lot of material out there which would have appealed to a 13 year old boy. I bought the Dark Horse Star Wars series as soon as it started, but I didn't manage to buy every single issue. It's not that I wasn't aware of independent comics--Comics Scene was actually very good about covering them--it's just that they weren't much of a priority most of the time. Strangely though, when my family was on vacation in the Beaufort area, we bought a ton of independent comics out of the cheap bins at Sports Cards Unlimited. I'm not sure what brought this on exactly--probably a combination of affordability, excess money (we always seemed to have a little more while on vacation), boredom, a desire to remain "loyal" to Super Giant by not buying our regular comics, and the novelty of the situation inspiring experimentation or something. In any event, the stuff we were buying wasn't especially great--Puma Blues was almost certainly the best of the bunch. Mostly it was stuff like post-Eastman/Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My brother really liked Femforce a lot, to the point where I think he would have kept buying it if Super Giant had carried it.

So anyway, all things considered, I don't think shopping at a dedicated comics shop really changed my buying habits as much as one might guess. I still collected only those series where I enjoyed both the characters and the creative teams. I still made a lot of impulse purchases. I still spent most of my money on comics. I certainly didn't start buying a more diverse array of comics. In fact, I can't really remember if Super Giant Comics really carried a much in the way of non-Marvel/DC, non-superhero stuff. That's probably pretty telling re: my attitudes towards those kinds of comics at the time.

How does this relate to the contemporary direct market? Well, I'm not sure if there are really a lot of consumers like the 13-year-old me out there anymore. There just aren't many self-contained stories anymore, which discourages impulse buying. I was always willing to pick up comics of which I didn't know the backstory or any of the characters, so long as it wasn't in the middle of a story. That's really not possible anymore. I'm not saying that people don't make impulse buys in the comics shop today--I do it all the time myself--but I suspect these purchases are for graphic novels, not single issues. That might be a bit out of the price range for the average kid, especially if they're already spending $6-9 on floppies every week.

Second, I wonder about the current discussion re: kids' willingness to blow all their dough on stupid, overpriced comics. I was certainly willing to do it back then. Now, I'm not trying to say I was a typical comics reader--I was obviously a fanatic even back then--but I really don't see many teenagers in comics shops anymore. Maybe they're downloading comics, or reading manga, or maybe video games are so cool now that they feel compelled to save up all their money in order to buy them instead of comics. (This begs the question: why aren't kids just pirating the games AND the comics? And if they are, what exactly do they spend their money on? Internet access? IPods?) This is especially strange, given that more shop owners are trying to be kid-friendly these days. Do any of you shop at stores with a lot of young teenage customers?

Tomorrow: I might need to do a forensic analysis of my comics collection (or, to be more accurate, the portion of it which resides in my apartment rather than at my parent's home) in order to proceed any further. So that might delay it by a day, cause I've got a hankering to play some Oblivion tonight.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

so many memories--i can't wait to hear more. you're a little older than me and have slightly different tastes (i got in just before X-Men #1, having read most of the annuals for Armageddon 2001 in a grocery store) but i always love hearing our generation of comics readers put our voices out there.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how many people decry Marvel's Secret Wars, and yet you and I both got into comics primarily through this series and its toys.

Todd C. Murry said...

Very interesting stuff. What jogged me from opportunistic reader to avid reader was the Star Wars comic. Born in 1968, I was just about the optimal age for the Star Wars phenomenon. I tried to subscribe to the comic after buying reprints of issues 4-6 (the last half of the original movie adaptation) in the toy section of some New Orleans department store that I almost never went to (my mom was a sale rat, so there was probably some clearance there that was just too good to pass up), but something got messed up in the transaction (the fact that I sent cash probably had something to do with it) and I was torn up about it. But 1.5 years or so later, Empire came out, and I saw issue 39 (the first issue Empire adaptation) at Time Saver (a convenience store… didn’t realize they had comics before then), bought it, was really into it. Then a friend (who was a Fantastic Four nut but we never talked about it much) advocated for the Marvel superhero stuff, and I bought Avengers 200 and Thor 300 (which were on the stands at the same time), and got hooked pretty quick.

Looking at the above, I required 3 things to get me into comics: 1. familiarity with comics from years of occasional reading, almost exclusively Archie; 2. hunger for connection to a property that was a consuming thing APART from comics, which the comics could feed (especially since I was “growing out” of the toys – this point could actually be fragmented into 1a – comic connection to popular property; 1b – lack of available narrative having to do with the property, creating a need; and 1c – societal compulsion to graduate to another level of engagement with the thing of interest, i.e. trading toys for comic books); and 3. a friend who nudged me a little to look around once I had arrived at “destination: comics.”

I think this is similar to your situation (except point 3?), and it is tempting to try to apply our examples to make a blanket statement about kids and comics today, but the major difference between then and now for both of us would seem to be saturation. It’s hard to imagine someone picking up a toy now-a-days and be inspired to get the comic the toy is “based on”since, in almost every example outside of McFarline toys sold mostly in comic shops, the kid would view the comics a having, at most, a distant tertiary connection to the toy (if they are aware of comics at all). For all action figures, there is a video game and a cartoon and a majormotionpicturecomingsoon (I think that rimes well enough to be a lyric). There’s no need to investigate an unfamiliar media (unfamiliar because they were never board enough to try it) to get satisfaction.

Now the Naruto model is a little similar to our experiences in that the kids now can watch a cartoon (whether the interest comes fro m the toys or not… probably most often not) and realize that they can get ahead of the other kids if they read the manga. They will be extra cool (at age 9) because they can tell the other kids “just wait, they meet these sand village guys next.” The hope is (from someone who likes comics and would like the company) that, once they got to Naruto, they’ll look around and get interested in other stuff, much the way I instigated a family vacation to Dinosaur National Monument when I was a kid ‘cause Dinosaurs were really cool, but mostly came away awestruck with the terrain of the southwest (I live in Vegas now… coincidence?). That stuff, however, won’t probably be superheroes. Aside – there was a period when I was younger when the word cool wasn’t cool to use, but I can’t remember what we called awesome stuff then (this was in the pre radical days).