Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thinking About Diversity in Comics

It seems like quite a few things in the news (comics news, of course, not the other news where no one ever wears a cape) have been making me reflect on the state of diversity in comics today and the larger presence of comics in the media.  Just this week, DC announced that it would begin a title in its mass reboot called “Batwing,” featuring the first black character to don the Bat-cowl.  This news came on the heels of DC also announcing that Barbara Gordon would be leaving her long-time role as the wheelchair-bound Oracle to resume her original mantle as Batgirl.  I think much can be said, and will be said here, about attempts to diversify the comic-book landscape in the last twenty years, but the news of Babs become “able” again without yet an explanation from writer Gail Simone coming, I think it’s a good time to assess how diversity is getting taken up in superhero comics and how it is getting cast aside.

A History of Great, White Men

The history of superheroes starting with the first appearance of Superman in 1938 mirrored most of popular entertainment at the time and, frankly, most of what students saw in history books as they learned about the legacy of the US – a bunch of white dudes.  There were far fewer secret identities to learn about with the Founders (or so we think…), but the Golden Age of comics came during an era in which most non-white cultural expression was relegated to its own pocketed enclaves like the Harlem Renaissance, Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith in smoke-filled Southern blues clubs or the Nicholas Brothers on Vaudeville.  Most of what made up popular entertainment on stage, in films and in the early days of television was mainstream, white culture.

It should really come as no shock, then, that even the most cursory glance across the early years of the superhero genre will show that the longest lasting and even shortest running heroes were white and (save for the legacy of Wonder Woman) men.  The purpose of my writing here is not condemn those creators like Siegel and Shuster, Eisner, Kane or the rest as racists or white supremacists.  They were, of course, products of their time and producing stories in the context of the Great Depression, World War Two and the post-War conservative years.

 For as dopey and oafish as characters of color were in this era, as impactful and pernicious as the racial epithets they perpetuated were, I want to start by simply accepting that comics started with heroes almost entirely white fighting often with minstrel-style sidekicks (the Spirit’s Ebony White)and  villains drawn as the most deprecating of Asian stereotypes.  There is no need for an extensive history of racist caricature in comics here (that work is already out there – see Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation).  Instead, let’s start by recognizing the legacy of snowy whiteness in the early funny books and discuss what the industry has done to (attempt to) become more inclusive.

Diversity in New and Legacy Heroes

The most immediate way to address there being no superheroes of color is to simply create non-white superheroes.  Marvel, not surprisingly, led the way in producing new, black characters in the late 1960s, giving mainstream comics its first black hero in the Black Panther, the prince of a fictitious African country known as Wakanda who fights crime with super-intellect, superior physical traits, and an arsenal of advanced technology made from the country’s rare natural resource, vibranium.  Debuting in 1966, Black Panther was followed just months later by Goliath and only a few years away from the Falcon, Captain America’s perennial sidekick.

DC was not far behind in creating new black characters, and the 1970s saw a proliferation of new, African American heroes, most notably Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Misty Knight, and Blade.  Still, the defining characteristic of most of these characters became simply that they were black.  As the 1970s also marked the heyday of blacksploitation films, comic characters were not far from the larger media representation of blacks in the US as living in poverty, dealing with drug abuse and incarceration, and constantly up against hardened pimps and loose women.  Even Luke Cage, beginning as Power Man and now one of Marvel Comics most consistently present minority characters (for this, thank Bendis) gained his powers from a prison science experiment that gave him impenetrable skin and increased strength, which of course helped aid his escape.

These new, black characters were unable to escape their exoticism as the other, and often it became the thing that gave them their character appeal.  As non-white characters began to surface, then, it seems like simply adding darker faces to the standard hero line-up did as much damage as good in addressing pesky stereotypes about African American life in the US. 

Very quickly, if there is one place to identify a strong attempt at adding non-white heroes to the continuity of universes, I should mention the work of Milestone Media, an organization owned and operated by black business partners, in producing new black heroes made specifically for black audiences.  Founded in 1993, Milestone produced heroes like Hardware, Icon and Static that saw limited lasting presence but a devoted, passionate fan-base (Static even became the subject of a popular Saturday-morning cartoon).  For a fantastic history of Milestone Comics, check out the work of Jeffery A. Brown.

The main problem publishers faced in producing new heroes, I would argue, had less to do with creating believable and engaging black characters (Black Panther remains one of my absolute favorites), and it has much more to do with the fact that the Big Two already had a bevy of established white heroes on which to milk their newsstand sales every month.

Looking again at the Big Two, who dominate the share of the market and media presence, DC has its “holy trinity” in Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.  Marvel has no blessed triumvirate, but its central cast of heavy hitters consists of Captain America, Spider-man, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Wolverine.  Lots of white faces in that line-up (and one green one, I guess).  These characters and their respective titles are solidified in the weekly and monthly publishing ranks of the two publishers, and if any title is going to get cut from the pile, don’t count on it ever being one of these.  So, if the central superheroes remain, and remain WASP, and even the next tier of characters has been mostly white for decades, how would a publisher inject a little rainbow in the mix?  The most creative answer so far has been in the creation of legacy heroes, and by that I mean those hero titles that are taken up by other characters after their death or as the heroes “team” expands.  Looking at the work the Big Two has done in diversifying a once lily-white line-up by concentrating on the diversity within legacy heroes does give some hope.  In this regard, DC has actually led the way, first opening up a spot on the Green Lantern Corps for John Stewart in 1971, then replacing white characters with non-white alternatives like Ray Palmer with Ryan Choi (the Atom), Ted Kord with Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle), Clark Kent with John Henry Irons (Superman to Steel), and Ronnie Raymond with Jason Rusch (Firestorm).  Marvel has been able to use some of its main titles to provide new, non-white legacy characters like James “Rhodey” Rhodes as War Machine in the Iron Man comics, but its strongest tool in introduce minority characters is through the X-titles, which are consistently introducing new mutants from all over the world.  Still, even though characters like Storm, Sunfire, Thunderbird, and Bishop have added some diversity to the X-men line-up, the group remains predominantly white.  It is interesting to point out that a title like X-men that started as one of genetically “different” heroes fighting to help the world understand that difference is acceptable was made of entirely white characters and still could use a decent color wash to live up to its cornerstone ideals.

From Comics to Other Media

An unexpected place that has allowed some injection of diversity into the general world of comicdom has been the transition of many characters and stories from the pages of the comic magazines themselves to other media like film and television.  Some effort has been taken by studios to take historically white characters and cast them with black actors when portrayed on-screen.  For instance, Michael Clarke Duncan played Kingpin in Daredevil and Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury, head S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho for what seemed like one movie, and now I can’t remember the last movie I saw that didn’t have Sammy J come in somewhere wearing an eye-patch.  Jackson’s portrayal so far has been interesting, at least, and Duncan suffered as Kingpin not because he wasn’t believable, but because the script was a total dud.  And Idris Elba just plain rocked as Heimdall in Thor.  Also, as the Brian Michael Bendis series Powers comes to television, it was recently announce that actor Charles S. Dutton would play the title’s Captain Cross, a white character.

 Aside from the fact that the groundskeeper from Rudy is now a superhero, most of these attempts are a positive look at the way we can remake (and racially complicate) superhero titles for a new generation as the move from medium to medium.  It remains to be seen, though, if any studio has the fortitude to cast a major white character with a non-white actor.  Recently, Community funny-man Donald Glover openly declared that he wanted to play Spider-man in a new movie.  It was never entirely clear how serious his own attempt was, but it begged the question: would audiences accept a black Spidey.  Unfortunately, the fanboy blogosphere showed mixed emotions.  People, myself vehemently included, love Glover from Community, so that carried his support much further than I originally expected.  But the main diatribes against Glover’s campaign went something like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “what would happen if they cast a white actor in a black superhero’s role?”  There are already enough white folks in comics, and here’s a pretty great news flash from the world of Critical Race Theory: white privilege isn’t going anywhere.  My short answer to these detractors is this: no harm is done to the strangle-hold white heroes have on the industry by having them portrayed by black actors on screen, but to take away the few good black heroes by making them white in film and television is incredibly destructive.  Because of the centuries-old, white-over-black racial order in the US, the racial switch in the media transition doesn’t work the same in reverse.  Personally, I would love to see a fantastic actor like Forrest Whitaker sitting in Charles Xavier’s chair or Djimon Hounsou with a great big “S” on his chest.  These characters, our contemporary world’s metaphors for that which we find heroic, are living breathing things also.  Why not let them evolve racially or culturally through media representations?  I believe resistance to these transitions pinpoints one of the greatest shortcomings of the diversity efforts in the world of comics, even still.

Diverse Representation vs. Critical Analysis

I wrote this entry and provided all the above context to make this basic point.  Superhero comics, at least as far as we can trace the development of the two biggest publishers over the last eighty years, are mostly counting diversity as a game of numbers.  Much like we teach diversity with the toothless language of tolerance in our schools, the overpowering message we get in our daily lives as our world increasingly diversifies is that if we can just get enough representation of non-white faces, we are doing our part to make the world a beautiful place.  I guess I would never, at least, argue that representation is not an integral part of the process.  It is NOT okay to continue putting out comics that show no faces of color with which white and non-white readers can find something to identify and respect.  At this game, the Big Two are getting better (although there is work to do, which I will discuss in a moment), but I’m afraid it’s not the only part of the game that needs played.

What mainstream superhero comics tend to lack are a critical engagement of difference and its effect on maintaining the order of power in society.  As I stated before, even X-Men, which started in the 1960s as a comic about the danger of oppressing one group because they are different, has slowly lost its critical edge.  What could be more useful to point out the categories by which we maintain difference, maintain a sense of “normal,” maintain a perpetual “other,” than a comic book about one group outcast because of a particular genetic marker?  References to this process, one in which power is constantly negotiated and one in which the same groups typically maintain that power, are sporadic throughout X-stories, and almost never explicitly framed in that way. 

 Some titles have tried to bring attention to issues of power and oppression in US society, like the famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow arc in which the Green Lantern is accused of helping people throughout the galaxy with every skin color except black.  And often superhero titles will call attention to injustices in social life.  After Arizona passed a bill requiring that all immigrants carry their registration papers at all times, who didn’t immediately pull out their copies of Civil War to see what Cap would say?  But most of the pressing issues comics will engage wax philosophically about justice framed as law being fair.  There is still plenty of room to think about how superheroes can stand for a different kind of justice.  How they can stand for social justice.  That is one place where our superheroes still have a lot of work to do.

Not Just the Color Line

I suppose I will end in the same place I began, by looking at what Barbara Gordon’s resumption of the Batgirl helm has to do with diversity.  Up until now, I have talked about attempts to diversify comics as adding faces of color to the pages.  While this has had some lasting benefit and contributed just as well to stereotypes and mis-characterizations of entire groups, this should not be the only concern of comics creators looking to extend diversity into superhero universes.  To put it more simply, diversity is not solely a black/white issue. 
Superhero comics have been making inroads on different fronts in complimenting the landscape of characters with myriad cultures and lifestyles, from the aforementioned Thunderbird (Native American) to Northstar (an openly gay character).  So, the question I am left with is this: don’t the dis/abled count?  Having Babs miraculously walk again tarnishes the attempts made at diversity, especially as she was such a strong, female character as Oracle.  In a world where pretty much everyone is super-abled, it was always refreshing to have a dis/abled character who can be a forceful presence in any issue she graces.  Oracle was one of the only dis/abled heroes in comics whose disability wasn’t also intended as a foil for their great powers (Daredevil is blind but all other powers are enhanced; Professor X is in a wheelchair but also the most powerful psychic on the planet).

If superhero comics are to keep pushing the work of diversity, they must engage social issues, and they must understand the importance of including ALL groups in their pages.  Let’s start seeing more Muslim heroes.  Let’s have a committed, gay couple.  Let’s have an openly gay actor play a superhero on-screen (Neil Patrick Harris as Barry Allen, anyone?).  It’s time the Big Two joined the rest of the industry on the edge and started doing the work of progress, not stagnation for the sake of market appeal.  And if we are looking for progress, a reframing of what counts as diversity HAS to be part of that project.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Create (and Keep) a Comics Budget

In my last post, I implored all readers to support their local comic shop, to spend their hard-earned money at local comic shops rather than buying through online services or whatever else might be out there.  It occurred to me, though, that it was a relatively privileged position to take, as many of us struggle to come up with funds monthly to grab the titles that keep us reading well into our, um, let's say better years.  For that reason, I thought I would use this week's entry to discuss ways I have found useful in keeping the money spent on comics managed and (mostly) there when I need it.

As this year began, DC Comics admitted it was “drawing the line at $2.99,” and other publishers like Marvel Comics seem to be at least entertaining the issue, as well.  From those of us who have had to reach deep into the bowels of our sofas and car seats, from those of us who have had to decide between one more taco supreme or grabbing this month's latest issue of The Flash, from those of us who go even further to add a separate line on our monthly budget simply titled “Comics,” we thank you giant, industry-dominating, mega-event-billing, cross-over-overkilling, keeping-Zack-Snyder's-film-career-alive publishers for thinking of us consumers.

While we do appreciate the thoughtfulness behind lowering the general prices of monthly titles, most comics readers have to develop a sensible budget from month-to-month to ensure that they never fall behind on the latest planet the Hulk presumes to smash or the newest death (then immediately back to life) storyline in our favorite graphic universes.  I'm sure there's some sort of psychological term for this voracious consumption of men and women in capes and cowls.  Freud would say it's about your mom.  Or sex.  Or both.  A bunch of grumpy Marxists in the 60s would have just called it consumer capitalism, ultimately to be blamed on The Man.  There's no need to explain the phenomenon, at least not here.  Let's begin by simply admitting that in the food-and-shelter sense of the word, none of us “need” comics, but comics readers like to read them and will continue to do so while they are still around.  And comics publishers know that if you'll read Spidey twice a month, you might also buy issues of Deadpool or the Immortal Iron Fist if he so much as graces the cover.  With that in mind, I have created a list of ways to develop a useful budget for monthly comic purchases that assumes no one reading this has a bottomless bank account.  If you do, why are you be reading an article called “How to Create (and Keep) a Comics Budget”? And why aren't you hanging out at your local shop and buying comics for everyone else who needs to be reading this?  You, sir or madam, are a jerk.
These are only guidelines, but they might prove useful when needing to make those tough choices between when to buy, when to pass, and what to add or take out of your pull-file.  Whether your monthly comics budget is $10 or $200, what hits the shelf every week that might be worth a read sometimes seems overwhelming, so these six basic rules are here to help.

Know what you can afford and stick to it
This seems like re-stating (and over-stating) the obvious.  When I first started buying comics, it was pretty simple.  Find the one you really like, convince your little brother that he should really like the other one you might have wanted so you can read it when he's done, show it to Dad to make sure there were no scenes of gratuitous sex or violence, and take it home.  As an adult, keeping up with the characters I like, the stories I like, the publishing universes I like takes sometimes dozens of book purchases a month, and somehow I still I feel like there are things I'm missing.  How did Wolverine get on the Avengers?  When did Tim Drake become Red Robin or Renee Montoya become The Question?  Who the hell is The Web?  Here's what to do about this: take a deep breath, accept the fact that you can't read everything, and start thinking about the things you know you can't live without from month to month.  Thoughts around what to put in your pull-list at the local shop should always consist of two things: how much you can afford to spend and what you absolutely have to have each month. 
The first part is much easier to deal with so we'll start there.  Add up all your bills for the month (not to sound like your mom, but don't go homeless for the sake of finding out what all those Flashpoint teasers are about) and subtract that from what you actually make at whatever your job is.  Hopefully what you have left over is a positive number, and if it is, decide what amount of that remaining (let's call it disposable so I sound like I know what it feels like to have some) income you are willing to commit to comics purchases.  Then do some pretty quick math.  Let's assume for the sake of easy arithmetic that all issues cost $3.00 and you can afford to spend $84 on comics every month.  Then you can read exactly 28 issues each month.  Careful to note that I don't mean titles.  Some titles like The Incredible Hulk(s) or Brightest Day publish bi-weekly or even weekly, so having 28 titles in your file can potentially run you over your limit.  So, if you can purchase 28 issues every month, you should be walking out of the shop on average with 7 books every Wednesday.  That average number won't always be how many of your usual titles come out in a particular week, but keep in mind that if your file only gets two books one week, the next could be ten or eleven.  If you get sucked into “exploring” new titles every time you hit a down week, you could run your budget WAY over the limit before you know it.  Sometimes that is harder than it sounds.  It can be hard when you know you only have two books to read for the week not to think to yourself: “maybe I actually do want to see if Black Panther makes a good Daredevil replacement” (let me save you some time there: he doesn't.  Come back soon, Matt Murdock!).
Before I move on, somebody check my math.  I majored in history, for god's sake.
Now, the problem we run into while budgeting for comics is that often our answer to the first consideration of budgeting (how much you can afford) doesn't always match the second (what you know you have to have).  Publishers are always releasing new things to try to entice new readers, some of it good, some of it steaming piles of M.O.D.O.K. brain drippings.  The cross-over and blockbuster events don't make anything any easier.  And though I've kept my references at titles in the Big Two so far, there are great reads out there that need a little searching but are worth the dig (i.e. anything that says Eric Powell on the cover).  All of us fall victim to an incredibly sharp, calculated marketing team that convinces us that we actually can't live without seeing what happens to someone in the Fantastic Four sooner or later.  There wouldn't be such a field as advertising if it didn't work.  You can major in Cultural Studies all you want, but even the most critical consumer finds herself at some point thinking, “I liked Usagi Yojimbo as a kid, why wouldn't I like him in a comic book?” The next five guidelines for your budget, then, are for you to think about how to control those impulses, to think about what you should hold on to and what can go (and probably should have months ago).

Pay attention to your pile
I think this might be the best advice to give when starting to think about how to trim the stack of books you buy every month to fit a standard monthly budget.  Let's assume that most readers follow the same basic process when leaving (or squatting in the corner of) the shop with the week's pile of reads, which is to stack them according to reading order, putting the must-have at the top of the pile and working your way down.  Your process might look a little less OCD, but most of us know that some books are much more eagerly awaited and are read first or second nearly every time.  My advice: pay attention to this process.  You might start to realize that you have been keeping a title in your pull file that actually no longer tickles your imaginary fancy.
Here's an anecdote to illustrate what I mean.  As a huge Mike Mignola fan, I read most titles he puts out, if for no other reason than to marvel at the complexity of the growing Mignola-verse.  Hellboy stays on the pull list for me.  When that book comes out (not as often as I would hope, these days), it is almost always a top-three read for the week.  But my hetero- Mignola-crush seduced me into breaking my own rule.  Month after month I kept Hellboy's sister title, B.P.R.D., on my pull list, not paying attention to the fact that every month it fell deeper in my read pile, sometimes making it to the next week's pile because I still had not made time to read it.  Most titles go through “down” points where you read them just to keep up with continuity until it picks up again (what's with all the Hulks?!?), but when you see a title reaching the gutter of the read pile month after month, scrap it and save three bucks on reads you enjoy.

Recognize a bad run
If there is one rule I find the hardest to keep for myself, it's this one.  The comics industry has been blessed with innovative and complex writing for decades now, and multiple-issue story lines are the standard storytelling form, much more than the occasional one-shot.  Most stories in the main titles of characters run three, four sometimes even five or six issues.  Huge cross-over events might require even more commitment to get from beginning to end (seriously 52? seriously?).  But here's the big secret: you don't actually have to get to the end.
This ties back into the last point of knowing your read pile, but sometimes a title has a bad run and you begin to notice that its lost its intrigue, that you don't really care what color of Lantern did something zany in who-knows-where sector of the universe, why the kid from Sweet Tooth has no belly button, or when someone at Marvel will take the time to discover that the Frankencastle idea was really dumb.  But often as readers we make the same claim to ourselves: well, I've come this far.  I should at least finish the story.
I hate to walk out of a theater on a movie.  I really don't even like to turn off a movie I rented and don't like or take a book back to the library if it's going nowhere.  Stories take investment, not just monetarily but emotionally, as we get attached to characters and spend time identifying with whatever issue they are facing.  That's what makes a good story.  They also take a time investment, and I hate to have my time wasted without the payoff of at least seeing how this thing I bought into ends.  But at some point, we have to cut our losses and say, “you know what, Zatanna, I really don't care if that zombie guy eats your cousin or not.  Best of luck to you and your adventures.”  The bigger the arc, the more crucial these decisions become.  If you get to issue 13 of Brightest Day and realize it's dead in the water, cut your losses quickly before committing to another twelve issues for the sake of finishing a sub-par story.
Also, let's be honest about collector's value.  Unless it's a particularly momentous storyline, having a full run is probably not going to make the comics worth much more money in the future.  Having all issues of the recent “Three” storyline for the Fantastic Four, including the death issue might make for a good pay-day down the line.  But having all issues of War of the Supermen really isn't doing your collection's net value any discernible favors.  Save your money now by cutting the dead weight in your monthly expenses.

Not every tie-in actually ties in
The major publishers know how to do the cross-over thing.  Marvel and DC continuously publish a suffocating stream of multiple-title, mega-blockbuster events that never fail to promise dramatic shifts in their respective comics as we know them.  In the last five years there has been Civil War, 52 and Countdown, Shadowland, and Blackest Night and Brightest day, to name only a few.  While most of these events have a main title that focuses solely on the central arc, the thread runs throughout other titles in the publisher's arsenal meant to “tie in” the story lines and maintain the continuity of an actual “universe” of characters.  It makes for great reading when beloved characters unexpectedly appear in other titles and creates the illusion of unity throughout superherodom.  But it can become incredibly costly in the attempt to keep pace.
It's disheartening as the reader to discover that some tie-ins are mostly marketing ploy and offer little satisfaction actually supplementing a larger story.  While on a budget, you don't want to waste part of your monthly limit on a Brightest Day tie-in of Birds of Prey, only to find that it happens in a speech balloon where Black Canary says “I heard Hawk and Dove came back to life,” and then the entire book goes on without another apparent reference to the main event property emblazoned on the cover, or to buy Avengers #7 to see the Red Hulk join the team, only to have it not happen until the last panel of the last page.  All of these are perfectly effective techniques by the publisher to get more books in your hands.  But when thinking about your own money and investment, all of these are perfectly bloody irritating.
My suggestion here is to eliminate most of the guess work.  A good general rule is probably this: main event – yes; tie-in titles – no.  The Big Two make their bank on the main arc that they dump so much effort and willpower into selling.  The tie-in series are sometimes fun and entertaining ways of delving deeper into the story, but if any moment occurs with enough force to actually shift the continuity of a character or the entire publishing line, it will happen in the primary arc and not a periphery story.  After following that basic guideline, all other aforementioned rules apply.  If you like the event and you care enough about it for more tie-in titles, those purchases will displace something on your pull list, so you'll have to make some room.  If you get on board for the blockbuster and all of its tie-ins and they end up being a huge let-down (I'm looking at you, Shadowland), drop it quickly and move on.  With DC's Flashpoint and Marvel's Fear Itself events on the way, thinking about your summer comics budget is quickly becoming an immediate predicament.  Which reminds me...

Pay attention to what's happening next
The comic book industry has luckily benefited from the internet and so have we as consumers.  Information about what is coming in the field is readily available and most publishers utilize multiple media channels in order to bill their latest schtick and drum up interest.  I often suggest Newsarama or Comic Vine as good places to start and get connected to the who's and when's of what's coming next.  Not only do comics websites and blogs chat about upcoming developments with creators and offer sneak peaks and teasers, but most publishers also release solicitations months in advance so you can see what will actually hit the shelf in April by mid January.
There are advantages to staying informed to upcoming moves with your favorite titles.  Primarily, it allows you a little more space to make those tough decisions about what to drop or add from you file and when.  If you know the big summer events are going to be something you want to check out, go back to the pile and start that same process of figuring out what you can trim to make room.  Also, if there are titles you have founding lacking of any luster for a while but you know major changes with story or creative team are coming that you don't want to miss, it gives you a reason to hang on just a little longer while your favorite hero works out their daddy issues.  When you love reading comics, keeping an eye on what's happening and what's coming could be the most useful way of making sure every book bought is money well spent.
But quick warning, all of those teasers, interviews, solicitations and press releases are carefully coordinated by the publishers.  Rarely is information actually “leaked” onto the net, as much as we would all like to believe otherwise.  Our media networking creates such a powerful resource to craft sharp, conscious consumers, but it also keeps the people selling you the books on your immediate radar daily, if not hourly.  They do a good job of letting you know what's coming soon because they want you to buy their work.  And we do.  That's why you're reading this.  All that advertising, though, can tempt you to stray from your budget, leaving you with an “I put pants on, drove to the shop, and wasted three bucks on this?” feeling , which never feels great (are you still reading this, Shadowland?).  And then again, not every book these days only costs three dollars.

To $3.99 or not to $3.99
And we're back to the problem that started this entry, the $2.99 vs. $3.99 debate.  For the record, I'll say that the move to $3.99 for first and second-tier titles by the main publishers is distressing.  Not because we should expect our comics to stay the same price forever.  Action Comics #1 cost ten cents when it was first published.  We get it.  Inflation happens.  But in the current industry, the rise in price doesn't seem to be from rising cost analysis of publishing, but through selling buyers additional pages attached to their favorite characters.  Of course, these additional pages usually have to do with the misadventures of one of the titles fifth-tier sidekicks and are almost never read by anyone.  And by anyone, I mean by me.  Nomad, you are not welcome in my Cap books, so beat it and save me a dollar.  It does appear that the consumer's voice has been resounding to the somewhat dubious price hike, and while there will be special issues of all sorts that cost anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99, it looks like we might make our way back to the $2.99 across the board until the increase can be justified with either more quality work cover-to-cover or a more unified shift to raise prices, leaving readers to take it or leave it entirely.  Ah, capitalism.
In the meantime, think about all of the other guidelines I have offered here to gauge how you might make the call between a book that is $2.99 and one that is $3.99.  It doesn't seem like much at first glance, but let's go back to our original budget.  If you can spend $84 in one month on comics, that one-dollar shift on every book you buy is the difference of seven total book purchases for the month!  If volume is what you desire, as many books as you can get for your money, then the choice is pretty easy – stick with the cheaper books.  If you want to follow a particular character and his/her book is sitting at the higher end of the cost spectrum, you have to make some decisions about making room.  My hope is that the short list of guidelines I provided here will make some of those decisions easier as you think about how to get your money's worth in tough economic times.  Personally, I would rather spend $3.99 on one or two books of a character I enjoy then try to keep up with that character across five titles that all cost $2.99.  That leads me to my next entry coming soon: why I stopped reading Batman...

Much peace, 
Dr. M

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My first post - feast your eyes

Welcome to my inaugural blog post.  Quick introduction.  I am a history professor teaching in the South.  My sub-specialties are Cultural Studies and Comics Studies.  These blog entries will be to explore some of the issues coming up around comics, comics in the media, and the overpowering joy of identifying as a "fanboy" while working in and around education and the academy.  You don’t have to have been a lifelong reader of comics here, only interested in how comics and comic books enter into our lives in unique and critical ways.  I look forward to any responses to thoughts shared here and welcome conversation around a variety of comics topics.  Most of all, thanks for reading.

I’ll make this first blog entry brief, as I really don’t have a lot of followers on the site yet and just want to throw up an few words to get any readers who might come across my stuff acquainted with my virtual and textual visage in our little online community.  So let’s do this.  Here it is:


I am a proponent of buying local.  Although, the public conversation about buying local is usually about food, usually by some smarmy, self-inflated pedant who likes himself much more than anyone else does.  Of course you only eat locally.  You live in Southern California.  I would eat local that much, too, if I could get fresh avocados eleven months out of the year.

Small businesses make up only a small part of the conversation around the “buy local” campaign.  For my money, there isn’t a small business more worth supporting than you local comic book shop.  I am not a shop owner myself, so I’m not trumpeting my own store here or anything.  But the reality is that we as consumers have myriad options for getting our weekly or monthly fix on the books we love.  Some of that has come with exciting new creator-owned web-series and the major publishers putting books up online or creating web-specific arcs for popular characters.  For the most part, though, our monthly reads come in comic magazine form and need to be purchased somewhere.

That’s where your shop comes in.  Or that’s where it used to come in.  Lately, I have heard several diatribes coming through the fanboy pipes of readers suggesting that others turn to online companies that distribute comics through the mail, mostly because the service can get books to your door more efficiently and a little cheaper.  I suppose these sites are useful if you live in an area without a specialty shop.  But many of you might live closer to one than you think and not even know (check out if you are not sure).  There are other advantages to “buying local” though that do not have as much to do with saving time and a few cents per book.  The standard marching call is that small business creates jobs for (fill in the blank with patriotic cheer for blue-collar middle-America).  That, of course, applies to the comic shop, too.  The owner of your shop is a small business owner who has invested time and money into providing a service for you and other readers and whose ability to feed herself or himself relies on the revenue that business produces.  While that is true, the public discourse celebrating small businesses is stale and uninspired, what is presented as a “small business” or “local farm” is usually distorted through clever marketing rather than the reality of its size and practice, and what comes out the other end is a bastardized version of Jefferson’s hope that the US would be a union entirely of small, yeoman farmers.  Not to say that you shouldn’t shop at local small businesses.  I think you should, but it is not the reason I’m preaching the local shop in this entry.

A local shop gives a space for community.  As social actors, we navigate intersecting and layered communities daily, from work to home to school to the market and wherever.  Your local shop gives that wonderful third space where people who perform a shared identity get to connect and explore the hazy contours of that very identity they have in common.  And it works in a way that most local businesses do not.  Like your local food co-op isn’t exactly a place where everyone goes to be around others with a shared interest.  I mean, I don’t look at the guy in line behind me and say, “hey, you like eggs from Blount County, too?” or “you catch that last batch of greens from the Johnson farm?”  But it’s not uncommon while I am emptying out my pull file to chat with whoever is around about whether or not Geoff Johns needs to write maybe a dozen less titles or what new books are floating around out there that maybe I don’t know about yet or if Brightest Day is ever going to get any better (spoiler alert – it doesn’t).

I do not mean to assume that any given comics reader always takes up the fanboy identity or wants to belong to a community of other comics readers.  I can’t even definitively say what a particular person would mean when proudly carrying the fanboy banner.  Hmm.  I smell an ethnography brewing.  Dibs.  And that’s academic dibs, which we all know is legally binding as per the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.  What I do want to argue here, having been in high schools as a student and teacher long enough and having hidden my comic-book personality from many a potential friend and date until the moment I figured I had sufficiently secured their unequivocal acceptance, is that the comic book/fanboy community is consistently othered with that dreaded n-word – nerds.  It’s not the kind of systemic othering that perpetuates deeply rooted social inequities like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, able-ism or any others.  But the nerd epithet broods over self-policing adolescents and can leave those pure, permanent high school scars that sting even decades later.  If nothing else then, your local comic shop gives a place to let that nerd flag fly.

A safe space.  A community space.  The third space outside home (first space) and work/school (second space) where people negotiate their identity and the identity of those with whom they want to relate.  That’s what this entry is about.  That’s why I am asking you all to support your local shop.  You can get your comics anywhere, really.  Order from the publishers themselves.  Use an online service.  Wait until stories come out in trade paperbacks and then buy them from a bookstore.   Borrow them from somebody like a week after they are done with them.  For that matter, just read it over their shoulder until they become uncomfortable with your breath on their neck.  My support for the local shop is not really about extolling the small business model, although it is a nice thought.  But I cannot imagine a guy with a monthly pull list that includes almost entirely Marvel titles (the company that makes up the majority share of total sales nearly every month) is in any place to say he is fighting the good fight for the small fish, comrades.  I am asking you to consider using your local shop instead of another service because it keeps that community space open.  And not just the comics community.  Many shops, like my own favorite here in Knoxville, offer space for RPG gaming, collecting, trading and other activities that fall under the larger umbrella of fanboy culture.  Pretty much everything, really the only thing, I know about D&D comes from watching folks play for a spell while grabbing my own weekly reads, all in the same space of that beloved shop.  Because so many of these activities remain part of a subculture, a culture pocketed away from the mainstream, it is worth protecting the place where they all come together.  A community, if you will.  And I will.  I just did.

Other comic-book purchasing options get the books in your hands, but they can’t offer you the community.  Without your business, the community literally can’t keep its doors open.  So I suppose it’s worth reiterating:


much peace,
Dr. M