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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1437 (06/01/01)

"The insult hurts, but it is not the issue: let my destiny befall me, it is the destiny of mankind I am worried about."

--Anonymous Russian poet

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: We bid farewell to Rich Koslowski's "The 3 Geeks," whose swan song appeared in GEEKSVILLE #6 (Image; $2.95), itself the last issue of that most excellent title. In their final story, we saw a nightmarish vision of a future in which there were only two comics shops left in the world and in which no new comics had been published since the "comics crash of 2006."

Koslowski's characters seemed to place much of the blame for this sad future world on the comics retailers themselves, which is not surprising given that the teller of the history had always been portrayed as a DC/Marvel zombie. Surely those revered publishers, at least in his thinking, could not have been held accountable for their actions in the 1990s and beyond.

We closed with a promise to examine this future scenario more closely and, in doing so, talk about recent issues of interest to the comics community, recent announcements from major publishers, and much more. Our journey begins.

Let's say today is one of my bad days. On such a day, I could see a world in which no new comics "pamphlets" were being published in the USA and in which there were only two comics shops remaining in the entire country. However, even on my worst days, I couldn't see a world in which there were no new comics.

I love the monthly comics pamphlets; they were my passion as a kid and they remain so today. Yet my greater passion is for the comics art form itself. The pamphlets may disappear, but writers and artists will still create comics, albeit in graphic album and magazine and who-knows-what formats.

The DC/Marvel/Image comics shops may also disappear. But the same savvy comics shops which have consistently reached beyond the traditional comics market will evolve to fit the changing needs of their business and their customers.

Bryan Talbot, the creator of such works as A TALE OF ONE BAD RAT and HEART OF EMPIRE, has described such a "new model" shop, one which already exists and thrives, in an e-mail he sent to a friend. He asks readers to pardon the style as he was "cheesed off" at the time he penned the following

    Page 45. The best comic store in the country. They are very clever. For a start, the title is non-committal, non-genre, not "Fantasy Bastards" or some such.

    Their high street (not up a back alley) store front is very classic: black window frames, black sign with gold letters in Times Roman and the three windows are black showcases, into which they put simple and tasteful displays, perhaps just a single graphic novel and a blowup of one of the panels, as opposed to the usual garish displays of musclebound tiny-headed freaks and half-naked ludicrously-proportioned pin-ups (exciting for the owners but very off-putting to many people).

    The doors are always open wide, so it's as easy for passing trade to stroll into from the street and browse as a regular store. Most comic shops offer to the uninitiated passerby a bewildering barrage of esoteric magazines (amazing as this seems, to normal people, Spawn and X-Men ARE esoteric!) and toys. (Page 45 does NOT sell toys!) This makes them a little like sex or martial art shops, surgical stores or stamp collectors' emporiums. You just wouldn't go in unless you were part of the clique with whom the stores deal with.

    In Page 45, comic albums that would immediately interest the general public are the first thing you see when you enter: stuff to entice them in. Inside the shelves are black oak with the titles displayed face-out, not the usual box racks. There's nice music playing at a reasonable volume. No posters or stickers, just a couple of framed prints.

    The staff are well-motivated and mingle with the customers, chatting to them and recommending books. It's part of their job.

    "Oh, if you like that, you'll *love* this one."

    How many times have you been in the boys locker room-type of comics store where a geek sales assistant holds court to a few fans round the counter, ignoring the rare potential customers who drift in, look round and exit?

    They specialize in graphic novels, something with a much higher profit margin than monthly pamphlets. They always keep full runs of books in stock: every single Cerebus album, From Hell, Sandman, Bone, etc. This is very important for several reasons. They carry all the Small Press books; these are far more likely to sell to non-comic readers than super-hero comics.

    They *do* carry Super-Hero and Manga titles, but these are all tucked away in their own section right at the back of the store. Think about it; the comics fans who buy these titles are going to come in and buy them ANYWAY! There's no need to draw these existing customers in. Instead Page 45 concentrates on getting the general public in there.

    Their philosophy is that it's pointless trying to sell comics to the 0.01% of the population that comprises comic fans. They aim to sell comics to the 100%. The general public is their intended market. And it works.

    I've seen a Tory blue-rinse old lady wander in, saying "And what sort of a shop is this, then?" and walk out five minutes later clutching a graphic novel. There are actually women on their own looking round (in a comic shop?); in fact, there's a whole section of women's comics. In fact, the store has as many customers looking around all the time as a regular good bookstore.

    At a time when most comics shops are losing money hand over fist, Page 45's profits go up every year, well above their sales projections. This in a town with three other nearby comics shops, including a Forbidden Planet. They're now in their fifth or sixth year.

    The owners, Steve and Marc, are quite evangelical about it. They'd like to see stores like theirs all over. It would increase their own potential sales if more people read comics, a knock-on effect. But when they tried to tell other retailers how to achieve this, as in an open letter to retailers published in COMICS INTERNATIONAL, all they got back was abuse.

    "How dare you try and tell us how to sell comics?"

    Insane.

    Page 45 have sold well over 100 copies of each of my last few graphic novels in the first two weeks of sale. Then they keep them permanently in stock as consistent sellers. Most comics stores get a few in (if I'm lucky), sell those copies, then forget about them. If every town had an equivalent of Page 45, I'd be rich.

    That's my tirade to a hapless comic-book store owner who was moaning about falling comic sales. I think it's impossible to get these unreconstructed fan boys out of the boys' club mentality. The comics world needs retailers with the vision of the Page 45 guys. Then the future of the comic industry would be secured and we'd all be rich. If any of you know someone who's thinking of starting a comic store, please tell them about Page 45.


One last thought before we move on from the future scenario related in GEEKSVILLE. Even if the US comics industry crashes and burns, it won't take the comics art form with it. There will still be strong comics markets in Asia and Europe. There will still be American creators making comics; they will just have to make them differently than they do at present and distribute them to either a wider audience or a more specialized one. And there will still be collections of comic strips, a branch of the art form which has always commanded greater mainstream interest and respect than our monthly pamphlets. I'm not giving up on the comics industry yet, but I think it behooves creators and publishers and retailers alike to have back-up plans.

******

Our next topic has to be Marvel president Bill Jemas and his "in your face/made you look" style of promotion. Being a cynical sort of old fogey, most hype rolls off my back effortlessly and has done so for many years. I learned hype at the feet of the master, Stan Lee, and no one did it better than "The Man" or done it better since he did it. Of course, my beloved former boss had an edge on most of those who followed him; the comics he did with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, and others were as spectacular as he claimed they were. The truth is an absolute defense for even the most outrageous hype.

I have no insurmountable bone to pick with Jemas. He seems to have a sincere love for comic books. He seems willing to try new and different things. Like Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor-in-chief, he is clearly willing to put in the hours that will be necessary to change Marvel from the fading icon it became to the reborn dynamo of creativity and success it wants to be.

Industry friends of mine have been rightfully impressed by the generous access Jemas has maintained between industry professionals and not just Marvel, but himself personally. Witness this e-mail from a comics veteran

    I realize Jemas has his detractors, but he's the only comic- book exec I know who answers his own phone and who returns calls. I had a long talk with him a few weeks ago and if he was just "bee-essing" me, he took a lot of highly-paid executive time to do it. I may be singing a different tune in a few months--and I'll be the first to admit it--but right now, I have a lot of respect for Jemas. God knows the ULTIMATE X-MEN book is the first time those characters were readable since Roy Thomas and Neal Adams were doing the book. The plotline of the book is closer to the movie than I'd like, but at least Marvel is taking some cues from their best film.


Any balanced look at Marvel 2001 has to take note that Jemas is definitely doing some things right. One of the things he isn't doing right is insulting comics retailers who aren't enthusiastic about some of his decisions. When he makes with one of his snotty bon mots, he comes off like a kid with little or no understanding of the history of the Direct Sales Market.

Back in the day, I put it well over a decade in comics retail and distribution. In the Cleveland area alone, I could point to a half-dozen retailers who could easily have been the inspiration for the "Comic Book Guy" from THE SIMPSONS. Some of them were, despite their unsanitary appearance, savvy businessmen. Some of them were out-and-out idiots. But, all of them were assuming far more risks than the publishers of the day...and that will remain the case as long as they buy comics on a non-returnable basis.

Don't get me wrong. The retailers may not be getting returns on unsold product, but they do receive considerations in exchange for this: better discounts, exclusive to the Direst Sales Market products, generally reliable distribution, greater access to comics information and publishers than enjoyed by most sellers of books and magazines. But, just as certainly, they have suffered from the ill-considered policies which were enacted by Marvel in years past and this results in a not-inappropriate scepticism when they find themselves faced with new Marvel policies, such as the publisher's decision to "print to order."

I can't blame Marvel for retailers buying into such things as the company's flooding the market with hastily-concocted reprints in the 1980s, the enhanced/multiple cover frenzy of the 1990s, or any of the other crass gimmicks of the past. In the 1980s, we had a choice; we could have send "no" to this product. In the 1990s, by which time I was happily out of retailing, the retailers of the day could have said "no" to this product.

But, of course, the retailers didn't have a choice when Marvel foolishly attempted to distribute its own comics, bringing to mind the old adage about a defendant who acts as his own lawyer having a fool for a client. They didn't have a choice when Marvel owners treated the place like a bottomless cash cow, making bad deals with movie producers and toy manufacturers which deprived the company of funds which could have kept it from bankruptcy. They didn't have a choice when Jemas decreed the "no overprint" policy.

Is it a bad policy? Not necessarily. I think it needs some tweaking to make sure replacement copies are readily and swiftly available to cover any damages. I know Marvel wants this to be the case, but, from what I'm hearing, there is still work to be done in this area. However, whether it's a bad policy or a great policy, time will tell, I can see where some retailers might look at it as Marvel being unwilling to assume ANY risk on their behalf. Such a fear does not in itself speak to the retailer's diminished IQ or a need to attend "night school," as Jemas so charmingly put it; it is an entirely reasonable apprehension based on their history with the company. Marvel is not now and has never been infallible and, in a market which is still a shadow of its past successes, insults do not seem to be a helpful or particularly mature response to what is an understandable trepidation.

The flip side of this policy is that Marvel is putting more of an effort into reprinting its current and classic material in trade paperback. I like this plan for a number of reasons, but, to again cite the lessons of history, I remain cautious in light of Marvel's propensity for flooding its markets with more product than they can realistically handle. The company was known for this in the 1950s, which led to its almost-fatal crash circa 1957. It repeated this predilection towards overproduction in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, usually to short-term profits and long-term damage. The retailers are aware of this; Marvel needs to be aware of it as well.

Believe me when I wish great success to Jemas and Marvel, even if I have concerns about some of his and the company's ideas. Even if I didn't think a strong Marvel was good for the comics industry, I don't think it is automatically bad for it. It really depends on how big a picture the company is willing to gaze upon. Hopefully, it's large enough to include Marvel's creative and retail partners, and even its competition.

We're going to continue this discussion next week. After all, we haven't even touched upon Marvel's new deal with Diamond Comic Distribution, its "mature readers" line, or even its fetish for all things Hollywood.

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

I get e-mail...and I get a lot of it. Although I can't answer each note personally, I read all of it, answer as much of it as my schedule permits, and print the most interesting, provocative, and representative letters right here.

One letter I won't be printing is the long letter I got from a Bush supporter who, as a result of last week's column, tells me he won't be reading my columns anymore. It wouldn't be fair for me to print and respond to his comments knowing he won't be available to respond to my responses to same. However, for those of you who might be wondering, those of you who shared my delight over the exit of American hero Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party out-numbered the opposition about 20-1.

Of course, in the interest of fairness, I should also mention my mail generally runs about 20-1 in favor of whatever darn thing I've written. Readers are more likely to write letters of support than letters of disagreement. It was that way when I was putting together letter columns for DC and Marvel in the 1970s and hasn't changed since then.

I will be revisiting the Jeffords matter next week, but, while we're waiting, let's check out your comments on my recent columns. First up is RICH KOSLOWSKI

    Good article! I would love to visit PAGE 45.

    However, my boys weren't necessarily placing the blame on the retailers. I was actually trying to keep it broad, but if one had to pick who they were pointing their little fingers at it would have been the publishers and, more to the point, MARVEL and IMAGE. But that's neither here, nor there, as they say. I wanted to stir the thoughts and emotions of readers and have them draw their own conclusions and, like you, you lovable little lug, Allen refused to give in to the negativity in the end! He continued to self-publish his own little comic mag.

    It was my subtle way of saying there is hope! There is always hope. I tried to send a message of what our future COULD be, not what it WILL be. Like you, I'm an optimist. I'm also a realist. My ultimate point was, that if things don't change and fast, this is what will happen. It was also my subtle way of saying/bitching about the fact that this industry couldn't support a magnificent title like GEEKSVILLE! I figured my little story was a somewhat more diplomatic way of ranting than what I would have really liked to say. Agreed?


Amen, brother!

Next up is Dark Horse editor MIKE HANSEN

    Your "Magazine Watch" section is a great idea, especially for the comics mentions. Publicity is something comics sorely need (obviously), and this section reminds us comics folks that We Are Not Alone and that there are zillions of potential readers these comics mentions could grab. I hope you do more of these; you are a Beacon of Hope in these dark(er) times!

    Here's one more for you to check out. At the local Borders last night, I flipped through the premiere issue of MAXIM BLENDER (for the, uh, articles, of course) and discovered it has a comics reviews section (uh-oh, Tony, competition for ya!). I'm crossing my fingers hoping this spin-off is successful, since a magazine with MAXIM's circulation could put these comics mentions in front of a ton of people. Now we just have to be sure to create comics that are worth tracking down!


From JOHN RANDY BARRETT

    In regards to the developing Jeffords situation I have it on good authority that one of the main reasons that he switched to Independent status was because nobody in his home state will vote for either a Republican or a Democrat in any upcoming governor's race. Look for him to bolt from the Senate and run for governor as soon as its possible to do so.

    In all fairness, I'd like to point out that losing control of the Senate is not the end of the world for either the Republicans or W. During his first two years, Ronald Reagan passed most if not all of his legislative agenda with both the House and the Senate being controlled by the Democrats. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, found it almost impossible to get anything passed during the first two years of his administration during which time the Dems ran the House. And Clinton was probably one the best all-around politicians and thinkers of his generation.


The "Jeffords for Governor" story is nothing more than White House spin to cover their culpability in driving Jeffords from the GOP. We've already seen lots of Bushwhacker spin on this situation and I'm betting we'll see a lot more in the weeks to come. Those guys never learn.

We'll give the last word this week to TIM LaCLAIR

    I'm glad you've final realized what a great state I have the joy of living in. Although the colleges and universities could use some help with their technical programs (hence my out of state secondary education), I have been a lifetime Vermonter, and mostly proud of it.

    One note. In a particularly mean spirited gubernatorial race last year, many backwards-thinking Vermonter used the slogan "Take Back Vermont." They claimed several bones of contention, including tax laws several elections old. Most folks saw the campaign for what it was: a thinly-veiled attack against the Civil Union law. Then some fair thinking Vermonter countered with the slogan: "Take Vermont Forward."

    I'd urge you to alter your Bush-beating call-to-arms in a like fashion. Let's take America forward.


Well, okay, but I'm still gonna kick sand in his face at the beach. I'm entitled to that much.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 05/25/2001 | 06/01/2001 | 06/08/2001 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

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TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

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THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

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FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

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FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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