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The “Going Out of Business” Sale for the 20th Century

This is a story about the distribution model of comics and why I want to see it evolve to the same levels comics storytelling did in the ‘90s. And this story begins with two vignettes…

For Marlowe, you’re in our hearts, and our mirror neurons…

To begin with, two vignettes.

It didn’t happen here, and it didn’t happen to you, but it helps if you can imagine it happening in a place you love. In Barstow, just at the edge of things where it feels like there’s civilization behind you, and nothing more until Yuma, AZ. Or somewhere in Lovelace, NC where you’re just about close enough to reach out and touch Wilkesboro. Or somewhere on the byzantine streets of East Boston, right next to the harbor.

Marv, who runs the store, knows exactly what he’s doing—he places the comics on the level that’s below street level. Like some Revolutionary Era smokehouse tavern, he need to descend into the earth to find them, and once you’re there, once you’re there… It’s sublime how the comics occupy only the top shelf. You have to reach up to get them, but not so far’s you’d need a stepladder. Nearby, but just out of reach. Just where you have to stretch to get them down.

And by that act of reaching for them, and by that act alone, you’re rewarded from everything you did in your childhood—each weekend when you’d bust into the local drugstore and splash out three bucks and walk out with, like, three dozen comics. Even if you didn’t grow up in that era, even if it was well into the ‘90s and comics already began at a Dollar 99. Even then, you’re still rewarded by Marv’s sublime choice of putting the comics on the very top shelf.

Second. Maybe you’re smart enough to walk into your Local Comic Shop on a Thursday afternoon. Say during your lunch hour because your LCS is closer where you work than your home. You beat the weekend rush, and by Thursday afternoon, the store’s already unpacked and sorted the consignment that’s come in on Wednesday. You know there’re some comics kept aside for you. All you need do is ask, even if you don’t recognize the kid behind the counter.

But before all that, you scan the store anyway, making sure that there’s nothing you missed in Diamond’s Previews two months back when you ordered. Or, possibly, if there’s not something on the shelves or in the longboxes that this time catches your eye, and this time makes a little more sense. But there’s nothing really, and when you pick up the stuff on your pull list, you make a passing comment to the kid about one of the books you’re reading, and that’s when They emerge, the Know-It-All Gang.

You didn’t notice them when you first came in, possibly because they’re permanent fixtures of the LCS, almost like the decor. They know everything about all comics ever. At the drop of a hat, they can talk about what happened to every character in every issue you’ve just bought. They know what’s happened in those issues, long before anyone’s read it. One of them points out how foolish that comment you made was, the kind of comment made by someone who doesn’t really understand the characters or the creator or even the publisher. The another Gang member points out how foolish it was to say that. The atmosphere gets heavy. And you’re beginning to feel that the LCS is too rarefied an air, to removed from the cultural mainstream. And you begin to long for the safety of your office.

And of course, that’s the opposite of what comics ought to be about. In the pages of A New Literary History of America, in “Little Nemo sets off for Slumberland,” Kerry Roeder writers:

Beyond the stark black-and-white grids of the newspaper page lay the possibility of other worlds; the riotous color and fantastic scenes of the Sunday supplement served to disrupt the ordered reality of the preceding pages, just as the bright lights and fanciful buildings of Coney Island provided a counterpoint to the business and industry embodied by Manhattan’s skyline.

New York at the turn of the century was a metropolis teeming with novel and spectacular visual experiences. City dwellers navigated a new social landscape: advances in the speed of public transportation, combined with overcrowded streets, transformed notions of both time and space. The stresses of modern life led people to seek comfort in new forms of leisure, from the amusement parks to department stores and nickelodeons. Among the most popular diversions were the daily newspapers, whose eye-catching headlines, graphic illustrations, and rectilinear columns mirrored both the chaos and the order of New York’s urban fabric. The weekly comics in the newspapers’ Sunday supplements supplied both light entertainment and an opportunity for readers to grapple with the new experiences of modernity.

A lot of that was lost when… We lost a lot of that weight and that meaningfulness when comics seceded from the popcultural mainstream. Up until the mid-‘80s you could walk into a drugstore or by a newsstand and buy one or more of just about any kind of comic you wanted. But it wasn’t a Golden Age. Stories were almost always self-contained (but that wasn’t really the drag, the drag was that the stories were isolationist, there wasn’t an evolving story that could be told about the character whose book it was, primarily because audience metrics were never the same from month to month, audiences came and went as if by a revolving door).

But with the rise of the direct market, comics became almost, is a good way to describe it “artisanal?” We saw the introduction of new kinds of paper stock, New Format, Rebax, Mirraweb. We saw the rise of graphic novels, and with that the rise of the storyarc that redefined the storytelling mechanics of the comics medium. Storyarcs could treat individual comicbook issues like chapters in a larger story. Along with the shift to the direct market, there came a rejuvenation of the medium’s storytelling aesthetics as well. Comics became bigger, bolder, more ambitious in the stories they wove during the ‘90s when the direct market really took root. So what if comicbooks were no longer for everyone?

But that was exactly the problem. The maturation of storytelling in the medium, and the increasing standards in production values did come at an enormous cost. Culturally it meant the domination of the LCS and the exclusionary politics that came along with that. Aesthetically it meant individual stories were almost always subject to the demands of the continuing backstory known as “continuity.” Spider-Man, say, was no longer only Spider-Man in any given month. In any given month Spidey was the character who appeared in Amazing Spider-Man, in Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s Tangled Web or just plain Spider-Man. Keeping track of all the “Spider-Men” would in itself become a tangled web, especially since most of separate titles would be handled by different creative teams, and have different storytelling inflections.

But even that wasn’t the really pernicious problem.

The really pernicious problem wasn’t even that loss of postmodern connection with the landscape that Roeder wrote about so lovingly in A New Literary History of America. The really pernicious problem was “Auld Lang Syne.” Or at least, what you get at the very end of “Auld Lang Syne,” “we’ll taste a cup of kindness yet.” The line’s so purely evocative of the moment in the day when you turn your back on the world, drink your fireside wine and wrap yourself in Americana, that almost just by uttering it you become immersed in this sense of having elevated the medium behind the ghettos of its original confines. And with all the revolutionary maturation of the direct market, there’s still something vital that’s missing from the picture—the cultural breakout, the moment when you ignore that Robert Frost is writing poetry, or that Robert Redford is making films driven by his politics, and you just relax and soak it all up. So long after the ‘90s, long after the direct market, and long after digital distribution, where’s the cup of kindness we’re yet to taste with comics? Where’re the comics that set aside the superhero genre and embrace the same aspirations as literary fiction?

Like the comics industry has always taught me, I’m pinning my hopes on a particular publisher. From the past we know it would take an Image Comics to breakout and table the issue of creator rights. We know it would take a Dark Horse to table the issue of a wider range of content. And we know it would take both a DC and a Marvel and a DC to reset cultural expectations of the superhero genre in the new millennium. But right now, I’m asking for something else. Right now, I’m asking for someone, somewhere to evolve and mature the distribution model of comics. To make of it an insurgency game once more, when comics are new and connected to the cultural landscape in bold and exciting and meaningful ways.

Because I don’t want this to be the end. I don’t want to be living in what I’m living now. In what seems like the “Going Out of Business” sale for the late 20th century—where the only thing that’s marketable in popular culture is nostalgia, and what motivates you is as much fealty to your childhood, as fealty to the idea of comics and a world where you’re tied into either consuming the opinions of the Know-It-All Gang, or forming your own monstrous opinions about continuity to resist theirs.

If there’s a company I’m betting on to evolve the third leg of the industry (distribution third after variety, and production quality, both physical and aesthetic), it’d be Top Shelf. And for me, the litmus test will their annual $3 sale that kicks off today and runs for the next two weeks. Not because Top Shelf Productions has already driven us all closer to “that cup of kindness” with such titles as Congressman John Lewis’s March which recalls lived-through memories of the Civil Rights movement, or From Hell which performs a literary autopsy of the Victorian Era or The Homeland Directive which prefigures a surveillance state that consumption rather than communication. But because with Top Shelf’s entire catalog up for grabs, and a pioneering stance to sell DRM-free editions, it seems like Top Shelf is exactly what comics needs right now—someone to shake things up.

Images in order of appearance: Civil Rights Activist Congressman John Lewis and his book March, the cover to Robert Vendetti and Mike Huddleston’s Homeland Directive and Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder.

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