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"?


Blogger Uncle Jerry said...

I think your position of caring about the "personality" of a business represents a growing trend in the population.
I have never bought a comic book, but I see it in the farm/food producing business.
I think Dr. Drew is typical of most people up to 5 or 10 years ago. It was the attitude of not caring about the quality of products or where they came from that fed the "Walmart" mentality of shopping.
But as stores of all kinds grew larger and larger, more people realized that volume and low price meant lower quality and a less safe food supply. All the recent E-coli contaminated beef recalls have proved this fact.
"Local food" movements and direct marketing of farm produce (where the consumer is buying direct from farmers) has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 5+ years now. While it is still a small percentage, it is growing and it is fed by the fact that consumers prefer to see the people that are being supported by their dollar. They do not wish to support some faceless huge corporation who does not care about quality of their product or the people employed, only volume and profit.
It is a trend that is good for everybody, everybody that is, except the huge international corporations!

1:06 AM  
Blogger Uncle Jerry said...

In my previous post I should have used the word "proven" instead of "proved". I am sure that grammatical error will annoy you, Azor, so I wanted to correct it!

1:10 AM  
Blogger thesincitymama said...

Indeed Sir! I too must smile when I hear of the few brave souls with the willingness to make a potentially unpopular judgement call in spite of economic pressure. A business owner who refuses to step into the cookie-cutter is ok in my book. Even if his theories make no sense to me, I can appreciate his fortitude. - Kim Daugherty

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Couldn't agree more with Uncle Jerry. In fact, that's why I buy Sassy Cow milk. I got to meet Sassy the cow herself at a milk tasting at my locally owned Sendik's (she made the trip from Columbus). I get a kick out of the stickers and trading cards of the farm's actual cows that come with the gallons of milk. Speaking of, can I find your milk anywhere in the Milwaukee area, Jerry?

I think the local comic shop model is going to eventually expand to all sectors of the economy. Here's my prediction and manifesto of sorts about the "slow clothes movement" -

5:25 PM  
Blogger 想想 said...

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11:55 PM  
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3:02 PM  

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