17 February, 2009

Time for comics to grow up

All but the most myopic of comic fans can see that the writing is on the wall for comic shops.

Amazon and online book retail, the graphic novel or trade paperback finding shelf-space in high-street bookshops (like Waterstones and Barnes & Noble), the proliferation of free comics online (legal and not so legal), the move away from print and the development of
web-native formats are besieging these grubby palaces of pre-pubescent fantasy.

But should we mourn the passing of comics shops or speed it up?

Many years ago I worked in a shop called Comics Showcase, on Neal Street, in London. This was a geek’s paradise, with walls covered in stupid toys and Golden Age and Silver Age comics in plastic cases, presided over by a cast of grotesques. I loved comics madly, but even I could see that comprehensive knowledge of the history of X-Force and WildCats was useless in any environment other than the comic shop.

When I say that stereotypes are stereotypes because they are largely true, I mean that they accurately mirror a cultural view of their subjects, with all the prejudices and biases entailed. There is a reason why the stereotypes of comics fanboys and comics shops are so fitting. What disturbs me is that comics readers and especially owners of comics shops are so comfortable with this stereotype, that they do nothing to challenge it.

Despite the fact that comics have changed hugely over the past twenty years, to comprise a much larger and more diverse readership, the most insular, immature and vocal constituency of comics culture continues to determine the way comics are perceived on a wider cultural level.

I was shocked to hear on a recent Comic Cast podcast that Irish comics creator Bob Byrne was unable to get an Arts Council publication grant for his graphic novel, Mr. Amperduke. This, despite Byrne’s being the first Irish comics creator to gain international distribution from Diamond for his work, despite producing a graphic novel which has put Ireland on the map.

Happily Byrne has gone on to successfully self-publish the graphic novel. But it points to a serious problem about the way comics are perceived. The US leads the way in terms of accepting comics as a serious medium and there you can find not only the superhero staples, but also more literary comics and graphic novels and small-press work.

Before the 1980s you bought your comics at a newstand or supermarket. I bought my first comics in my local newsagent. In the current economic climate, comics retailers had better realise that comics are a medium, not merely a sub-culture, and cater to a wider group than it does at present.

Unless comics retailers reach out to a broader audience, I believe th
e market will die within the next few years. This would be catastrophic. As comics fans know comic shops are not just retail outlets, they are the coffee shops, exhibition halls and cultural centres of the medium.