Saturday, January 30, 2010

Comic Book Guy vs. Wal-Mart

I got into (what I think is) an interesting disagreement/discussion on-line this week. A brief amount of necessary background: back in the 1990s, Marvel Comics ran a Spider-Man storyline called "The Clone Saga." Initially, sales for these stories were through the roof, so the business side of Marvel comics ordered the creative side to keep the story going. It eventually lasted for a couple years, to the point where they beat it into the ground, and it resulted in a fan backlash. Fast forward about a dozen years, and some of the original architects of the Clone Saga pitched a six-issue limited series, where they would be able to tell the story the way they originally intended it before editorial interference. The story is hitting comic book stores now, and it is inspiring discussion and debate on-line. One particular poster lamented that is out of stock at his local comic shop (LCS). Someone responded by telling him: "Try Amazon. That's what I've been doing. My LCS owner hated the original saga so much he's not even carrying the new one at all." This inspired someone else to respond "Seriously? Man, that is really unprofessional." At this point, I had to weigh in with the following:

I think it's cool (and this coming from someone who is enjoying the Clone Saga mini). In a nation of Wal-Marts, I like to hear of any business that offers "local color," where a cantankerous sole proprietor exercises editorial control over his merchandise, where a business offers a unique experience. And when someone makes a financial sacrifice in the name of principle (even if that principle is almost absurdly petty or one I disagree with), I can't help but smile.

I expected that this might be a somewhat controversial position, and sure enough, a guy calling himself "Dr. Drew" took umbrage:

Give me a break...I don't come to a comic store to bond with some "cantankerous owner." I come there to buy comics.

After comparing him to John Stossel, I came back with the following:

Of course that is what most people would say about most places of commerce. We view them as means to an end and we evaluate them purely on the basis of their utilitarian value. But personally I'm looking for personality.

To which Dr. Drew countered:

Personalities are for friends and pets. Most people go to a place of business to buy a certain product. My point, which you didn't seem to understand, was if a place of business is dedicated to serving a particular product, it is arrogant then to deny that product. The comic owner is disturbingly negligent in his duty. It reminds me of the condescending elitism you would find in the "Comic Book Guy" in Simpsons. I'm an English teacher. I don't skip teaching certain grammar exercises because I don't like them. What kind of a baloney excuse is that? It's a JOB. This is why comic-shop owners get a bad reputation. Because they are rude, elitist and they take their customers (and the taste of their customers) for granted.

After assuring him that in fact I had already noted that "most people go to a place of business to buy a certain product," I asserted that A) I don't have a problem with this particular display of arrogance B) The analogy doesn't work for me because while I agree that English teachers have a duty (being one myself, actually), I don't agree that merchants do and C) noting that "At least 'Comic Book Guy' is a character. Will you ever see 'Wal-Mart Guy' on the Simpsons?"

I do think that "Dr. Drew" speaks for a majority when he shares his opinions about places where products are sold. I suppose that when it comes to restaurants, taverns, or barbershops, people are often looking for atmosphere. But retail outlets are looked upon differently. And I do think that Wal-Mart not only sets the example for other businesses, but it also sets the tone for customer expectations. I detect a bit of a subtext in "Dr. Drew"'s post-- it might take it too far to call it a display of shame or of an inferiority complex, but I think a lot of comic book readers are sensitive to the stereotypes exhibited by "Comic Book Guy," and they cringe at the fact that their LCS is not as "professional" as Wal-Mart. And it is not an uncommon opinion that the main obstacle to comics becoming part of the "mainstream" is the distribution model, specifically the fact that the typical LCS revels in being a niche outlet serving a narrow subculture.

My argument is that if comic stores started following the Wal-Mart model, comic stores would disappear and the comic book industry would be crippled. There is no shortage of examples of businesses that try to expand beyond their niche, only to alienate their existing base (e.g. Airwalk Shoes).

Expanding the discussion beyond comic books, I wonder if more retail outlets could benefit from following the LCS model rather than the Wal-Mart model. Obviously, the biggest impediment to such a move would be customer expectations. If we've been conditioned to believe that "personalities are for pets and friends," we would be more likely to regard eccentricity as "unprofessional" and less likely to embrace it. But in a world where we can get any product we want shipped right to our front door, do we really need "professionalism" when we venture out beyond that door? Or could we all benefit from knowing a few more "Comic Book Guys"?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Raising Awareness

Several years ago, when I was living in a college dorm, I had a buddy down the hall, a first-generation Californian, who was very interested in the political situation in his parents' native country of Iran. One day he put up a poster on his door of a recently incarcarated Iranian political prisoner. I asked him about the poster, he told me the sad story behind it, and then I asked him what he was hoping to accomplish. He said his goal was to "raise awareness." I told him that thanks to him, I was aware. What should I do now? He told me that I could help by making other people aware. So I knocked on the door of another guy in the hall and told him about the political prisoner. This guy listened politely, though with a rather confused look on his face, and then I thanked him for his time and went on my way. I had apparently done my part to fight injustice.

But of course I didn't actually accomplish anything. And as I wrote about two and a half years ago, I don't think Al Gore or Bob Geldof succeeded in solving problems with last decade's "Live 8" and "Live Earth" concerts, which were staged in order to "raise awareness." And likewise, I don't think anyone who posted their bra color on facebook last week did anything to disrupt the ravages of breast cancer.

As I writing teacher, I preach to my students the term "concreteness." This is another way of trying to instill the old adage to "show don't tell." I urge them to give examples to back up their statements, and I especially encourage the use of stories (and I hope I successfully followed my own advice in the opening paragraph of this very post).

When trying to effect positive change, concreteness matters. The more specific you can be about how people can help others (or themselves), the more likely they will be persuaded to take action. At the risk of overdoing Malcolm Gladwell citations, I feel compelled to take note of his description of "stickiness" in The Tipping Point. He described a series of 1960s-era tests conducted in order to convince college students to get tetanus shots. Education about the benefits and dangers of tetanus didn't work. Scare tactics, such as a pamphlet showing graphic treatment of the disease, also failed to get results. But when students were additionally given a map of the campus health center and a list of times when the shots would be administered, participation went up from 3% to 28%.

By all accounts, there has been an outpouring of generosity to aid in the Haitian relief effort. I think the idea to have people donate money by texting the word "Haiti" is ingenious, precisely for the reasons outlined above. It gives many people a concrete, tangible task, which fits in with existing routines. But I also wonder if even more money could be raised if more time were spent discussing how specifically it will be spent. If MTV can do this, there is no reason other media outlets can't follow suit.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up inundated by "messages." Commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons were full of "The More You Know" or "One to Grow On" PSAs and many cartoons ended with a short segment in which one of the characters delivered a homily. This is not to mention that the plots themselves (in popular sitcoms as well as cartoons) often revolved around a lesson. Yet for all of the preaching about drugs, the environment, homelessness, sexual abuse, smoking, peer pressure, shoplifting, and exercise, the lessons that I think were most effective revolved around fire safety. I'm not one for camping, but thanks to Smokey the Bear, I am confident that even if I were to venture out into the woods, I will never start a forest fire. If I ever catch on fire (and I won't because I don't play with matches), I know to "stop, drop, and roll." And I know to check the batteries in my smoke alarms during the daylight savings time changes. Partly because of the already concrete nature of the messages, but also because of the saviness of the messengers, the fire safety lessons resonated with me then and even now.

If nothing else, I hope this blog post helps to raise awareness of the importance of doing more than simply raising awareness.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Hoarding

In anticipation of our first child arriving next month, my wife and I have been busy accumulating baby-related possessions. We've also launched an initiative to try to get rid some of our existing material belongings in order to accommodate the incoming merchandise. We've succeeded in dispensing with some furniture, and I've taken tentative steps to divest my CD collection and even some back issues of comic books. Other sundry items are now available for purchase at the Kiel Goodwill.

The process has made me think about the A&E show Hoarders. Even though I haven't actually seen an episode, I have run across articles and reflections on the series in multiple places on-line (I guess it was what you would call a "trending topic" a few weeks back). And the show's website has some pictures and clips that give an indication of the home of a "typical" hoarder.

Upon reflection, it makes sense to me that many people would struggle with hoarding, if not to the clinical degree exhibited in the TV show, at least to some extent. Economically, to part with a tangible object, particularly if there is not a tangible exchange, seems to result in a net loss. Psychologically, one must also account for the fact that for many of us a cigar really isn't ever "just a cigar;" we inform every object with overdetermined meaning. So when we throw an object away, we recoil at the thought that this symbolizes a likewise purgation of all we associate with the object.

Two examples from my life come to mind. First, starting at about age 13, I became enamoured with the USA Today sports section. In the pre-Internet era (and being without cable television), the amount of information contained therein blew my mind. Perhaps having access to the boxscore of an Islanders-Devils hockey game and the Super 25 national high school basketball rankings gave me a sense of empowerment, even though I wasn't in any sense interested in the NHL or national high school basketball. Also, the fifty cents per day that my habit required was a not-insignificant sum to a 13-year-old. I suspect it was a combination of these factors which drove me to "hoarding" USA Today sports sections (and I only kept the sports section; the other sections went to the trash within hours of purchase, usually unread). I must have accumulated over a year's worth before I looked at my pile one day, realized the lack of utilitarian value it represented, and donated over a year's worth of box scores and power rankings to my uncle to use as swine bedding.

A little less than 10 years later I had amassed a ticket-stub collection. I went to a lot of games when I was in college (Brewer games were especially cheap back then), and I made sure to keep my ticket stubs, no matter how unremarkable the games were (and the Brewers played a lot of unremarkable games in that time span). Precisely because going to games became so routine for me, there really wasn't a lot of sentimental value attached to the stubs. I think my reason for keeping them was actually more related to economics-- they were the only tangible artifact that I had in return for the money I spent. And then one day, just as with the newspapers, I realized that my ticket stubs were only taking up space, and I jettisoned them in one fell swoop (alas, no pigs benefited from this decision).

Although these examples might be unique to me, once again, I'm sure the general principle is something that a lot of people can identify with. And thanks to A&E, we know that some people take these seeming irrationalities to the extreme. It's interesting to ponder what exactly goes into any given person's decision to either keep or part with any given object.

And I think it's also interesting to consider how technology has influenced these decisions. I'm willing to part with my CD collection because of my ipod. I'm willing to part with my comic books because I can read the same stories on my computer. I probably wouldn't have collected USA Today's if I had had access to the Internet (where important content is archived anyway). I feel no need to keep ticket stubs from the Bob Dylan concerts I attend because I can get the dates and setlists on

I suppose some "hoarders" who developed their habits in the pre-Internet age could be immune to the charms of digital substitutes. But for future generations, could the lure of hoarding physical objects become less enticing? Perhaps, but I also wonder if there is such a thing as "digital hoarding." I know now that as I look at my Internet bookmarks, I have literally dozens of links stashed away that I have visited precisely once (the day I first ran across the site). And as I consider my list of facebook friends, and I ponder why I have sent friend requests to people I barely knew 15 years ago, let alone now, I realize that the hoarding instinct will survive long into the digital era.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Punny Stuff

Although Cookie Monster and Big Bird are household names, hardly anybody has heard of the Man from Alphabet. But based strictly on advanced publicity in 1969, the smart money would have been on the Man from Alphabet, more than any other Sesame Street character, to turn into the cultural icon. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell thoroughly explains why this didn't happen-- in short, the character specialized in puns, and children are confused by puns (and therefore quit paying attention whenever he would appear on screen). Since that time, educational psychologists have learned that young children don't yet have the capacity to apply double meanings to words. They are also very literal minded, which explains why naming a monster that eats cookies "Cookie Monster" or a big bird "Big Bird" was a good idea.

Although Sesame Street has retained puns, they are obviously more for the benefit of their adult viewers than its actual target audience. But I'm not sure what the producers of Electric Company were thinking. This was one of my favorite shows when I was very young, solely because Spider-Man was a featured character (it's hard to believe that Spider-Man had existed as a comic character for only 12 years when he made his show debut, but I digress). I don't remember much about the actual show, but I have clearer memories of the Electric Company magazine, which I received, to the best of my recollection, between the ages of five and eight.

I clearly remember that in the middle of every magazine, there was a two page spread consisting of illustrated "jokes," which were mostly puns and plays on words. Many of the jokes started "What do you get when you cross..." In hindsight, it was odd for the magazine to center so many jokes around the concept of cross-breeding. (When I read these jokes at the time, I would picture a person walking past the two things/animals/people--literally "crossing" them). One that I actually remember-- "What do you get when you cross Superman and a chicken?" The answer "Cluck Kent" stood out to me only because I was obsessed then (as now) with superheroes.

I also remember to this day "Why did the bride cry at her wedding? A- Because she didn't marry the best man." I actually thought this was a perfectly understandable reason for a bride to be upset, and I puzzled over why the groom is not the "best man" at his own wedding.

Perhaps so many adults are so impatient with puns because they have a latent hostility left over from childhood--some deep part of their subconscious remembers what it felt like to not be able to comprehend the intricacies required to appreciate a pun. And unlike "grown-up humor" that grown-ups know to keep away from children, in these instances, the grown-ups actually foist puns upon the youngsters, unreasonably expecting a show of appreciation.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the animosity many people display when hearing a pun is actually authentic. When confronted with humor, we are conditioned to show a faux-reaction. We reflexively initiate fake laughter in countless situations. But puns (or any other form of humor that relies more on wit than slapstick) seem to prohibit this specific reaction. And this doesn't seem wrong to me--it would seem strange and awkward to reward many puns with a mere "courtesy laugh." Still needing some kind of response, we instead "groan." But this doesn't seem right to me. A clever or creative turn of phrase shouldn't be "rewarded" with disapprobation, even an ironic disapprobation.

So what would be an appropriate way to show appreciation for a witty statement? Perhaps we could follow the example set by three people in response to a pun I recently posted as a facebook status-- give a thumbs up and say "I like that."

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New Decade Predictions

When I was 12-years-old, I considered myself to be a sophisticated television viewer. My favorite channel was "Fox 47," and since the Fox network at that time consisted of about two shows, the vast majority of the station's programming was syndicated. But it was a hodgepodge of syndication--shows that were produced specifically for syndication, reruns of series that were still airing on networks, and reruns of old shows from previous decades. Wikipedia wasn't invented yet, but I didn't need a reference source to know which was which. And if you were to name two of the shows at random, I'm pretty sure I would be able to tell you, based on the shows' aesthetic (though I wouldn't have known that word at the time), which was the older of the two.

I don't necessarily think that any of the above is particularly interesting. However, what I do find interesting in hindsight is that though I was acutely aware that television had evolved over time, I had no sense that the evolution would be continuing in the future. Though I may not have consciously articulated it, I was operating under the impression that shows like "Small Wonder" and "Out of This World" represented the telos of television, and I believed that for as long as I would live, programming would remain in the same mold. Shows with laugh tracks would exist in perpetuity. I couldn't conceive of anything more sophisticated.

This is all an obtuse way of pointing out that we are slaves to our time, that we can easily spot what is ridiculous in bygone epochs, but we are woefully ignorant of the absurdities of the present day. But I believe that it is worth attempting to transcend the current paradigm, to at least try to conceive of what we take for granted today that will be a punchline in the future. And since this is my first post of the decade, this would seem to be an appropriate time to do so. (Caveat: I don't necessarily believe we will experience any paradigm shifts regarding the following phenomena in the following decade, or even in my lifetime).

1) Ties: The only function that ties serve are to convince other people that we are taking a situation seriously. In the future, I am certain that we will develop a way to do this without choking ourselves.

2) Smoking: One day, it will seem patently absurd that people at one time paid money to buy wrapped-up leaves, for the sole purpose of setting them on fire and inhaling smoke, in many cases signing their own death warrants in the process.

3) Professional Wrestling: I used to wonder if pro wrestling would be more popular if it were actually real. Then MMA came along and I don't wonder anymore.

4) Daytime Soap Operas: Like pro wrestling, I acknowledge that a large segment of the population already finds the phenomena absurd. But there are still millions of devotees. Yet when those devotees die, the decades-long genre dies with them.

5) Academic Gobbledygook: People today read Kant--not a lot of people, but considering he died over 200 years ago, a remarkable number nonetheless. Hegel is considered to be rather inscrutable, but people take him seriously. I don't see people in the future taking Judith Butler seriously (this article presents a critique of contemporary academic prose). The commercial success of Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys shows that a significant sample size of the book-buying public is not anti-intellectual. Unfortunately, most of our intellectuals today write in a style that is anti-public. I have got to think that this is a phenomena that will one day be regarded with disbelief.

6) Televised Commercial Blocks: I find it hard to believe that people sit still and watch even two continuous minutes of people driving cars, old couples simulating intimate moments, and mooks drinking beer. But when generations used to time-shifting and on-demand entertainment succeed generations that have been beaten down into passively receiving intrusive commercial messages, this phenomenon will cease to exist. (This is not to say that I think marketing or commercialism is going away--just that the status quo will be displaced).

7) "Factory Farming": The radical wing of the "animal rights" movement has spurred a continual backlash that has prevented a more expedited inquiry into the morality of corporate agricultural practices. But the more moderate factions of the movement are making tangible inroads that will probably become mainstream at some point.

8) Packaged Breakfast Cereal: I realize I'm going out on a limb here, as Wikipedia reports that "The breakfast cereal industry has gross profit margins of 40-45%, 90% penetration in some markets,and steady and continued growth throughout its history." But to look at a singular "Frosted Flake" with a fresh pair of eyes, to truly behold the absurdity that is "Tony the Tiger," is to fleetingly inhabit a plane we may one day ascend to.

Final thought: I will gladly pay the industry standard 99 cents to anyone who records an updated version of "Imagine" using the ideas presented herein.