"I remember how I used to go on a comic book safari when I was little..."
- Crazy Harry of FUNKY WINKERBEAN fame
Let's start by revisiting the "Oh, So?" column from CBG #1579 (February 20). Reader Joe Dombi took exception to what he saw as my dismissal of several comics shops within driving distance of our hometown of Medina, Ohio. As I wrote last week, his letter got me to thinking about what's important to me in a comics shop. Within a few weeks, I'll be sharing my list with you and hitting the trail to see how those shops measure up to my expectations.
In the same "Oh, So?" column, Howard E. Michaels Jr. described his "interest level in manga and manga-related material" as being "equal to [his] level of general knowledge concerning the sleeping habits of inner-city sewer rats." My first reaction was to muse if there was, in actuality, any difference between the sleeping habits of those rats and the presumably more affluent rats dwelling in the suburbs, and if I could write a good story about it. Maybe a class warfare allegory with rodents. Maybe not.
Manga is often misunderstood by those who haven't sampled its range. Later in his letter, Michaels refers to it as a "genre" and that's just plain wrong. Though many manga series do share a rough similarity of artistic style and a fondness for young protagonists, the Japanese comics industry isn't dominated by one kind of comic. One of my favorite manga series is about a modern-day chef, another is about a 17th century kid pirate whose body has the consistency of rubber. Those series - IRON WOK JAN and ONE PIECE - were just the first two that came to mind.
Manga gets discussed frequently in online comics forums. Some consider it the salvation of the comics shops while others disdain it. Some fear the manga "style" will unduly influence the American comics and their publishers. In this spirit of debate, I'll offer a few of my own observations.
The two most important lessons to be learned from manga are value and variety. Those $9.95 manga volumes and the $4.95 SHONEN JUMP deliver a lot of entertainment for the reader's money. If the American comics publishers are going to compete with that, they've either got to make comics so much better than the manga that their readers will pay the higher cost or find a way to offer their wares at a better price. Since I think the best manga is as good as the best American comics, I'd recommend going for the value incentive, though that will surely demand that the American publishers rethink how they make and package their products.
Variety? I looked at Marvel's April shipping schedule and there were 20 X-Men and 7 Spider-Man comics on it. Out of a total of 61 titles, every one of them featuring super-heroes. True, the other major publishers - DC, Dark Horse, Image - all do much better in this area, but even those outfits concentrate on the tried-and-true genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and super-heroes. Unique efforts like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and AGE OF BRONZE are few in number and that's a pity.
Format, format, format. I grew up reading the 32-page comic books and they still feel pretty good to me, up until I see the price, get blinded by glare from the glossy interior pages, and, on regaining my sight, come to the sad realization that the artistry of computer coloring is lagging behind the technology. I still love those thin little packets of pleasure, but it's a love from my nostalgic heart and not from my head.
I hold the typical manga volume - approximately seven by five inches, two hundred pages thick - and, even with the lack of color, it feels just as good to me. Their size makes them easy to carry and firm enough to stand up to some traveling. I generally keep a volume in my van to read while I'm waiting to pick up my kids from one of their after-school activities.
This format would work for American publishers as well, though I think they should avoid any imitative trade dress. Maybe you can trick a reader - once - into mistaking your book for those coming from ToykoPop or Viz, but most of them will immediately see through the camouflage. Be true to your self, so to speak, and thus avoid annoying a potential costumer.
I mostly hate faux-manga. There are comics where it works for me, such as DC's TEEN TITANS GO!, but, more frequently than not, the look hurts my eyes when I see it applied to Superman or Spider-Man. Every major Superman artist, every major Spider-Man artist, brought a unity of vision to the characters and the worlds around them. With the manga wannabees, their look is neither one thing or the other...and the comics are weaker for that.
There's nothing wrong with traditional Western super-heroics that can't be fixed by better writing, better editing, and better storytelling. Aping the most trite elements of the manga "style" is every bit as artistically vacant as doing endless Jack Kirby and Neal Adams swipes. Learn from the masters, yes, including comics masters from across the sea, but then show me something different. Something that comes from you.
Comics retailers can compete with the mainstream bookstore chains for manga sales. Last Christmas, I gave manga volumes to some friends. Sensing they were bored with their usual comic-book entertainment, I thought they might enjoy reading something new to them. I hit the bookstores armed with a list of maybe a half-dozen series, looking for the first volumes of those series.
The chain bookstores I visited all had healthy manga sections, but generally only had a single copy of each volume of those series they carried. To buy the first ONE PIECE volume for two friends, I had to go to two different stores. I never saw the first volume of BATTLE ROYALE, though the stores usually had subsequent volumes of the series on hand.
I don't claim to be a retailing genius, but it seems to me you stand a much better chance of selling the second, third, and fourth volumes of a series to customers if they can buy that first volume from you. If that first volume isn't on your shelf, the odds are the later volumes will just sit there.
Smart comics retailers know better. They embrace collections of popular American titles because they can sell those collections to readers who have heard good things about the titles but missed the earlier issues. Sometimes, this creates a regular customer for subsequent collections and even the single issues. The same holds true for manga.
One of the things I'll be looking for when I visit the comics shops in my area are how easy they make it for a new reader to get into an ongoing series, be it American or Japanese. Keeping those first volumes in stock is vital.
Would a chain bookstore ever allow itself to run out of the first HARRY POTTER novel? I think not.
Beware the manga glut. ToykoPop and Viz are publishing over two dozen manga volumes per month, not surprising given their recent successes. Other existing manga publishers are increasing their production as well with still other publishers - DC and Del Ray, to name two - entering the market. Simple logic would tell a comics retailer that not all of these new series will be as good as those recent successes.
The arrival of so many additional ten-dollar manga books into the marketplace is going to stretch the capabilities of all manga outlets. Retailers will need to pay close attention to both word-of-mouth and word-of-Internet, order cautiously on the new titles, and make swift reordering their mantra.
Retailers: know manga and know your manga customers. This is my most obvious observation. The more you know about manga and manga readers, the better you'll be able to attract those readers to your store and make them your customers.
Women and teens are buying lots of manga. It's time to take down the poster of Mammary Maid and de-emphasize the "spandex slut" comics on your, pardon the expression, racks. Good old boys will still search out such comics in the back of the shop, but you won't be stopping your new women customers at your door.
Keeping your store clean? Also a plus.
The teens? It's creepy when you try to be their pal, so just don't disrespect them. They don't communicate easily with adults, at least not at first, but, when they do talk, be ready to listen and either know what they're talking about or have someone on your staff who does. Maybe your next hire shouldn't be the guy who can discuss Batman for hours. Your staff should reflect the diversity of our marketplace.
Having long-windedly set the stage, let's take a look at the debuts of two series by FUSHIGI YUGI creator Yu Watasa...
CERES: CELESTIAL LEGEND VOL. 1: AYA (Viz; $9.95) uses elements of horror, romance, and comedy to tell its story of a young woman descended from a angel who, denied the means to return to her true home, lived as a human woman and mother centuries ago. The angel's bloodline continues to this day and, among those who carry it, are Aya and her twin brother Aki.
Watasa tells a great story and also throws a mean curve. In its earliest pages, CERES establishes the bond between sister and brother and the disconnect between the siblings and their parents. The relationships so held my interest that, even knowing there were horror elements in this series, I was caught off guard when those elements exploded into the story. Other "gotcha" moments in this debut were equally effective; the one such moment Watasa telegraphs unfolds with such building suspense that it's still effective. Now that's edge-of-your-seat storytelling!
In the plus column:
The volume's editorial "extras" introduce the characters well and explain references which would not be familiar to non-Japanese readers. I also got a kick out of Watase's notes to her readers, which are included within the story proper. The other "extras" are a trio of gallery illustrations, a guide to Japanese sound effects found in the story, and a short Watase bio.
In the minus column:
The use of a comical "homage" character from an anime series comes from nowhere and remains a distraction whenever the character reappears in the story. The humor which derived naturally from the main characters - especially one of Aya's protectors - was a better fit for the work as a whole.
Visually, Watase handles action, comedy, horror, and romance with equivalent skill and artistry. I liked her writing and art so much that I picked up the first volume of another Watase series as soon as I finished this one.
On our scale of zero to five, Watase's CERES: CELESTIAL LEGEND VOL. 1: AYA earns a full five Tonys. Rated "T" for "older teens," I'd have less concern allowing my 12-year-old daughter to read this than I did allowing her to watch some episodes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. As always, recognizing the differences between our western culture and that of Japan, I strongly recommend parents read manga volumes before giving them to their kids.
The heroine of ALICE 19TH VOLUME 1: LOTUS MASTER (Viz, $9.95) is a departure from the feisty heroine of CERES. Alice Seno meekly accepts her place in the shadow of her popular older sister Mayura, and shyly accommodate all around her, even when such accommodation causes her pain. In this initial volume, complications enter her life and force her to face both her paralyzing shortcomings and her incredible power. Complications like:
She and her sister are in love with the same boy.
Her new pet is actually a mystical "rabbit-girl" sent to teach her the power of words and how to use them.
The careless use of her power can harm her and those who she cares about.
There are more, but I'm trying to say out of "spoiler warning" territory this week.
As in CERES, Watase can make readers laugh, make them sad, and hit them with a "whoa" when they least expect it. You can bet I'll be following her work closely in the future.
ALICE 19TH VOLUME 1: LOTUS MASTER has much the same "extras" as the first volume of CERES. The storytelling is a tad less sure than in CERES, but this volume still deserves the full five Tonys. It's also rated "T" for "older teens," but, again, I would have no problem giving it to my daughter to read.
If you're a comics retailer looking for manga titles which may appeal to the BUFFY fans, ALICE 19TH and CERES are definitely worth your consideration.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1582 [March 12, 2004], which shipped on February 23. The issue's cover story reports that writer Ron Marz, who introduced Kyle Rayner as the new Green Lantern ten years ago, is returning to write GREEN LANTERN #176-181. I think Marz did his best work after he left DC for CrossGen, but I'll probably check out these issues just to see if he brings his "A" game to the increasingly held-together-with-spit-and-a-prayer DC Universe.
The secondary lead announced the opening of the annual CBG FAN AWARDS...with the balloting closing on May 15. You can find this ballot online at:
Justin went to MegaCon. Tony had computer problems. TOT was the plaything of a capricious, often cruel universe. Your devoted columnist took some time off to celebrate some good news and spend quality time with family and friends. These were the factors which denied you new installments of this feature since March 6, or, more accurately, the factors of which I can speak.
We're back. We appreciate your patience and your support as we work towards restoring TOT to its original daily frequency, and we especially appreciate the handful of donations which have been deposited in our PayPal account. Those donations can and do keep TOT coming to you.
We're back. How do you like us so far?
CBG'S QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Which cons do you plan to attend in 2004?
MID-OHIO-CON 2004 is the only convention of any kind I will be attending this year. I may pop in at some other area conventions to meet friends for dinner, but Mid-Ohio-Con is the only event for which my appearance is guaranteed...at least so far as that afore-mentioned capacious universe allows.
Even with Mid-Ohio-Con, the current plan is for me *not* to be at the event as a guest. I won't be appearing on panels. I won't be signing at a booth unless called upon to do for some good cause. I'm just going to be there to enjoy myself and help out my friend Roger Price.
Those of who you know me realize I won't refuse to sign books and comics I've written - that would be an unspeakably rude way to treat my readers - but, more than likely, you will have to catch me on the fly. Note also that I will not sign in restaurants or rest rooms...at least not with ink.
All the same, if you see me at Mid-Ohio-Con or any other show this year, don't be shy about walking over to me and saying "hi." I'm always delighted to talk with friendly and polite readers and, when possible, answer their questions.
For the latest on MID-OHIO-CON, my favorite convention of them all, visit the show's official website at:
Quite a few readers e-mailed me after today's column appeared in CBG. First up is HOWARD MICHAELS, JR., whose published letter was mentioned above:
While I could get upset and P.O.ed (or maybe even heartbroken) about your basic dismissal of me and my generally lousy opinion of manga, I realize that you really are entitled to your own opinion. I also get the feeling maybe you're only doing your best to promote one of the ways in which the manga and manga-influenced comics published in this country today can hopefully aid what looks like a dying form of entertainment. Or maybe just a form in serious trouble. Either way, I feel that the future looks fairly cloudy at present.
Though I may not have used the term "genre" correctly (and I apologize for that), I guess cute little figures with eyeballs bigger than their hands have reminded me too much of something an eleven-year-old girl might draw on the back of her tablet. Or what might be found on a grade-schooler's Valentines Day card.
As a reader/fan of Wendy and Richard Pini's various "Elfquest" projects, I guess the manga-influence isn't all that bad. But that still does not mean I'll consider spending ten bucks or so on what appears to me to be a collection of pre-teen post-it note drawings. And it doesn't matter to me whether the drawings are of pirate ships, spaceships, or sailing ships. Sorry, but I'll pass.
How can you say I "dismissed" you when I responded to your letter? I think you're equating my disagreement (and I do disagree with you) with dismissal.
I don't disagree that the future of comics in this country is cloudy, but you're way off-base in ascribing possible motives to my writings. I like good comics, all kinds of good comics. These days, as some of those happen to be manga, and as manga also offers good value to readers, I've been writing about manga.
You lose me even more with your remarks about "eleven-year-old girl" and "grade-schooler's Valentines Day card." Such uninformed insults aren't likely to convince me. Besides, having seen some of Wendy Pini's drawings when she wasn't much older than eleven, I'm all for any comic books or style of comic books that inspire other young ladies to start drawing anything.
I have never understood why comics fans get so steamed when someone likes a comic or kind of comics they don't like...or when someone doesn't like a comic or kind of they do like. Me, I remain thrilled with all the variety available to me.
Comics retailer DAVID SEIGLER e-mailed me after reading my TOT for March 6:
I own and operate a comic shop in Tyler, Texas. I read your column regularly and enjoy it very much. I take great pride in my shop, so it was with interest that I read your comments concerning comic shops.
A good letter would clearly state right off the bat whether I agreed or disagreed with you, but neither is the case.
Would my shop pass your criteria of what makes a good comic shop? Sadly, it likely would not. I love the various publications from TwoMorrows. I always order a copy of them for myself and also order copies for my two customers who have it on their comic saver list. Beyond that...
For a fairly long time, I would order one extra copy for the stands. Eventually, I gave up on this as that extra copy never sold, no matter how much I pushed it on new customers. I still order an occasional extra of one of their titles on a rotating basis, just to see if the interest might eventually be there. Once in a very great while, someone, usually someone from out of town, will buy a copy. Already my shop would not score very many points with you.
As to stocking comics not on Diamond's Top 100 list, I would again not score many points with you here. I have a difficult time selling LOVE AND ROCKETS, a book that I love very much. My orders for this book is always three copies: one for me, one that I sell, and one copy left over every issue. This is bad business, but I keep hoping I will eventually add another fan to that book.
There have been other modest successes. I was selling fair numbers of THE GOON long before it went to Dark Horse and made the Top 100 list. I always manage to stock (and sell) a few copies of HSU AND CHAN, THE NORM, POISON ELVES and a few others. But, for the most part, I order a small smattering of indy titles that just sit on the shelves.
When Top Shelf had its financial difficulty the year before last, I dutifully ordered a couple dozen books from them - mostly Eddie Campbell books plus BOX OFFICE POISON and a few others. Almost all of them still sit on my shelves. In fact, when the one customer who bought THIEVES AND KINGS each issue disappeared, that made another excellent title that I cannot sell a single copy of.
You'll have to pardon my being long winded here. Thoroughness is my chief failing. I'm simply trying to show we make an effort to stock some indy titles, but, for the most, this effort is rewarded only with unsold copies.
I think it's a shop's responsibility to attempt to expand its customers' tastes into new material, otherwise that same audience stagnates. But frankly, there is a lot more profit in stocking what people want to buy.
On to your third listed criteria: customer service. As you may have gathered from the bulk of this e-mail, my store is not in a metropolitan area. Tyler has approximately 85,000 people. So my clientele is a familiar one. I'm here every day and I know each regular customer by name and greet them using it.
What kind of service would you get as someone who is not a regular customer?
I'd like to think I would give the same courteous service that I give my regular customers, but I have to grudgingly admit this might not be the case...depending on what you asked for.
There have been many times someone has asked me to help them find a comic, for example, a Superman issue. They'll describe what they are looking for. Maybe one that has Superman in flight. I'll pull out issue after issue, removing each from its bag.
After a few dozen issues that don't have what they are looking for, they finally tell me they are getting a Superman tattoo and have this certain pose in mind. Maybe this one was close, but can you find one that has his cape bigger? Finally after 30-45 minutes, we find one that is perfect.
"$5.00? No, no, I'm not going to pay $5.00 for one. Can't you find one a buck or less?"
Courtesy usually begets courtesy. Sadly, I find the opposite can be true as well.
I don't say all of this in an attempt to change your opinion or criteria of what you desire from a comic shop, but rather simply as food for thought.
For a small-town shop, we pride ourselves in our selection. In fact, people come to the store from Dallas, Houston and other Texas cities and say how impressed they are at the diversity of items we have. However, invariably, right after those compliments, someone else will come in and ask for a copy of something we do not have and remark, "What? Is this ALL you have?"
Too many customers expect us to have every book sitting on the shelves waiting for them. Unfortunately, this is simply impossible. Not to mention really bad business. I listen to each request for product and factor them into decisions on what we stock. Of course, we offer comic savers and always have a copy of PREVIEWS available for special orders.
In this day and age, it's getting tougher and tougher. We're open seven days a week and I'm here at least six of them. There is little way to compete with large chains on their own terms. We simply can't compete with their longer hours, convenient locations, and often discounted price.
We attempt to compete with a more cutting edge selection and better service. But there is only so much service a $3.00 purchase can really feasiblely warrant. We acknowledge that each sale is to a potential repeat customer and try to treat them as such. Do I fail occasionally? I'm sure that I do.
Why this letter? I think I run a very nice shop. I'm proud of what we are able to offer, considering the size of our city and the limits the industry places on us. But, based on what I read in your column, I'm afraid I wouldn't meet your standards of a good comic shop. This is eye-opening to me, and there are things that I will address as to how we can improve even more. I will, however, put to you this thought:
Instead of just expecting a shop to automatically stock the TwoMorrows Publications or smaller selling comic titles, ask them to order them for you each month. If you are not willing to buy it regularly through their store, is it entirely fair to expect them to regularly offer it? In the end, all shops depend on customers to keep their doors open and walk a very fine line between offering a wide product selection and still maintaining an acceptable profit margin.
Thanks for writing, David. I think your GROUND ZERO COMICS would likely rate higher with me than you believe. You seem to be doing a great many things well.
When I say a shop that didn't carry ALTER EGO wouldn't score any points with me, I didn't mean to suggest it would necessarily lose points with me either. If I asked about it, a "We don't have a steady clientele for it, but we'd be happy to order any available issues for you." would be a good response. You'd be amazed at how many shops would either a) not know ALTER EGO what is, or b) answer my query with disdain or disinterest.
That you found my column eye-opening delights me. That's why I write them. If I ever found a "perfect for Tony Isabella" comics shop, the owners might never be able to get me to leave. But maybe I can offer some ideas to shops that will help them make reasonable changes that will help them and the customers like me who take more pleasure from comics outside the Diamond 100.
I found your letter as informative as you found my column. All of us in the comics industry are still in school, learning while earning. Hopefully. Even when we disagree, we can gain insight from these ongoing dialogues.
Again, thanks for writing. Any TOT readers who want to visit GROUND ZERO COMICS can find its contact information from the store website at:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Please send material you would like me to review to: