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Party of Five Round II
Posted June 24, 2005

In each round of Party of Five, Bookshelf Comics editor James W. Powell poses a question to five members of the comic book community — a creator, a publisher, a retailer, a critic, and a fan — to get a variety of perspectives on the current subject. Party of Five features a rotating panel, so if you would like to participate in future editions, email the editor. Or, perhaps you'd like to be the one asking the question? If that's you, we'd like to hear from you as well.

Now, on to this round's question...

Previously, on
Party of Five:

 

The Question
Party of Five logo Walk into any comic shop and it's immediately obvious which genres dominate the shelves. Now, however, we're seeing the graphic novel section of big chain bookstores start to grow, which should translate into a wider, more diverse audience. With that in mind, which genre do you think is currently under-represented on the shelves, thus keeping potential readers away from the format? What genre would you like to see more of?
The Creator
The Creator: Matt Kindt
Matt Kindt
I think just straight fiction is the most under-represented, along with non-fiction. And by non-fiction, I'm not counting autobiographical books — a genre that's just feels done-to-death in comics. It's interesting to me that the two main categories of books that are listed on the NY Times Best Seller List are fiction and non-fiction, and those genres are what is most missing in comics. I really can't even think of too many books that fit into those categories. Luis Riel and Ice Haven are the two that come to mind as recent examples of good fiction/non-fiction books. I think it's those kind of books that would end up hooking new readers and bringing them into, if not comic shops, then bookstores to find them.

I think part of it is that the crossover of readers who read sci-fi and fantasy also read comics — it's all kind of the same pool of readers. But at the store, the sci-fi and fantasy section takes up maybe 2 shelves for the 20 shelves of fiction. So that tells me that there's a huge literate group of active readers out there that aren't interested in sci-fi or fantasy but love to read. So if they end up stumbling into a comic shop, what is there to recommend? They could spend years trying to read through all of the superhero and sci-fi and fantasy stuff and then spend a month reading the entire catalog of fiction and non-fiction books.

I really thought those Big Book of (fill in the blank) books were fantastic (from DC I think?). It was great, even in the short story format, to see a lot of talented main stream creators telling true stories.

I want to see Howard Chaykin do a thriller set in the 19th century. Or Paul Pope do a bio on Rodin or something about the British Navy fighting the French back in pirate times. Or Alex Ross do a thriller set in 1920s Chicago. Who wouldn't want to see John Romita or Joe Kubert do a book on Evil Knievel (or something like that)? Wasn't Frank Miller going to do his next big book on Jesus? I would have loved to have seen that! There's just tons of things to do but I think that publishers (of comics) know what they can sell and who their audience is, and those books aren't going to sell as much as the latest Superman/Batman team-up book. But then, the comic books that could fill out the fiction section of a bookstore aren't going to get created. Eventually I guess it will happen, but it will take creators who self-publish and publishers willing to take financial risks to keep putting these different kinds of books out.

Myself, I really don't have it in me to create those kind of books I'm suggesting even though I enjoy reading them. I grew up on pulp novels like Doc Savage and superhero comics and that pretty much still colors my taste in reading and creating today. I'm interested in the human story but as a creator I still like and feel the need to dress it up in a 40s crime story or spy thriller. And I think that's a symptom almost all comic book creators share. You grow up reading them and then you love the stuff you read as a kid. The problem is, readers of non-comic books don't have that background or taste for those trappings so there isn't much to interest them in comics as adults.

I just finished reading Clowes' Ice Haven this week and it just got me really energized about what comics can be again. There's nothing fantastical or super-powered about any of it but it still takes a lot of the genre trappings of detective books and mysteries and even auto-biography and puts it into something new. Something without capes and without robots. That's the first comic book I've ever loaned to my Mom to read because it's the closest thing comics has to a Nabakov (one of her favorite authors that she got me on to). Probably the best fiction comic book I've read in a long time. Can you imagine 10 or even 5 more shelves of books surrounding Ice Haven in the fiction section?

What's exciting to me about comics is that we're all really in on the ground floor. Modern comics have only been around for what? Maybe 100 years? Compare the writing in fiction of the first 100 years of novel-writing to what's we've got today. The first novels being written in...if you start with The Tale Of Genji (written in the 900s)...that would put you at around 900-1000 a.d.? Comics are just now scratching the surface of what they can be.

Matt Kindt was recently nominated for a 2005 Eisner Awards for his work on Pistolwhip and 2 Sisters in the category "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition." Kindt is the creator of Super-Spy, a series of inter-connected comic stories set in the 1940s.

The Publisher
The Publisher: Chris Ryall
Chris Ryall
Horror, obviously.

Really, more than just seeing one more genre represented in bookstores, I'd like to see a better distribution of the graphic novels throughout the stores. It's fine to have a "Graphic Novel" section, and it's at least nice to see the books get their own section separate from the "Humor" section they used to be stocked in, but there's still progress to be made. Rather than just stocking more horror titles or fantasy titles, it'd be great to see bookstores stock these books in their respective prose sections. A graphic novel adaptation of a Matheson or Barker or Bradbury novel should be stocked alongside prose books by those same authors. There's no hard rule that says books with pictures can't be stocked alongside prose. If someone's in a store and looking for Stephen King books, they should be able to find Creepshow next to Carrie, and so on. Treating graphic novels like they're somehow different than other books and relegating them all to just one section is confusing — other than the fact that they all include comic art, there's no good reason to find Batman, CSI, Desperado, and Sandman books all stacked next to each other.

Chris Ryall is the Editor-in-Chief at IDW Publishing, where he's also written comic adaptations of movies like Shaun of the Dead and George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. He also runs Kevin Smith's pop culture web site, MoviePoopShoot.com in his spare time.

The Retailer
The Retailer: James Sime
James Sime
Romance comics (laugh)! No seriously...

My main focus in the design, stocking, and merchandising of my comic shop has been to cultivate a wider audience for comics. That's been my mission from day one, to have a comic store that appealed to non-traditional comic readers, as well as people like me who have been reading Spider-Man and Love & Rockets for decades.

One of my best tools for turning new people onto the world of comics has always been Tom Beland’s True Story Swear to God, a terrific true-life romance comic which just so-happens to be one of the best ways to introduce new people who maybe wouldn't normally be interested in the artform excited about comics (I suggest starting with volume 1 of the AiT/PlanetLar collections, STAR17854). True Story is a great way to convert the family members, significant others, and friends into comic readers, and is like a gift from the comic gods above for a retailer like me. I can't tell you how easy it is to point to the end table next to our leather sofa and say, "Hey, you should check out that book sitting next to you, it's my favorite romance comic ever." And they're hooked! Everyone likes a good love story.

The manga boom in the big chain bookstores has no doubt been fueled by the increasing interest in comics and graphic novels among women and teenage girls, and part of the reason these new readers are interested in comics like Love Hina is because they are romance comics. That's great for Barnes & Noble and TokyoPop, but I'd like to see more creators and publishers making romance comics and more comic shops supporting the genre.

More good romances on the shelves at the comic stores equals a lot more new faces in the comic stores. And believe you me, the old bar adage "anywhere there is 3 women, 25 men will find them" applies to comic stores as well!

James Sime is a featured columnist on Comic Book Resources and the proprietor of San Francisco’s award-winning Isotope – the comic book lounge. James is known for his fine taste in suits, his appreciation for outrageous nightlife, and for his never-ending comic book enthusiasm. The Isotope is known for outrageous creator in-store events and has been called "best comic shop in which to be a girl" by the SF Chronicle.

The Critic
The Critic: David E. Miller
David E. Miller

I think the answer lies in an analogy. The big chain bookstores are a microcosm of what is going on in the market as a whole. I'll give an example. I was in a novelty shop on 6th Street, which is the main drag in Austin, TX. On 6th Street there were literally blocks of local bars and restaurants serving incredible BBQ and Mexican food. I was standing by the cash register and these older gentlemen were asking where the McDonalds was. I couldn't even have made this up if I tried.

For whatever reason, most people seek out the safe and familiar. They are comfortable with the options that have always been available to them. I find the same thing when I go to a Barnes & Noble in any city. I find the same graphic novels that have always been available. Every so often I'll find something that surprises me. I was in Dallas and found a nice run of Strangers in Paradise trades, but i think Terry Moore is from there.

I wish that there was a wider variety of independent trades available at the big chains. I shouldn't have to go to MoCCA to discover new books and publishers and to do all of my graphic novel shopping. I have to say though, that the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in Manhattan does it right. You can't go to the graphic novel section without navigating the minefield of pre-pubescent boys and girls reading manga on the floor. They have a phenomenal selection of mainstream and independent graphic novels as well. I really wish that it was that way in every big chain bookstore.

I think those publishers need to take note of whoever is doing the marketing for manga, however, because they really 'get it.' That genre literally went from nothing, to major shelf space, and the audience is rabid across both sexes. Somehow manga has drawn the audience that comics now dream about. I don't blame the audience though, because they can only be expected to know about what is in front of them. If they never see anything by Wil Eisner because they'll never go to a comic shop, but they frequent the bookstore, it's not their fault, but they are definitely missing out..

David E. Miller writes reviews and feature articles for Bookshelf Comics. He has been involved in the comic book industry for almost 20 years. He started out attending Serendipity Comic Book Conventions in Suburban Philly and befriending top independent creators like Reggie Byers (Shuriken for Comico). He parlayed his industry expertise into recruiting the Honorary Board for the New York City Comic Book Museum. His highest related achievement was sitting down with Stan Lee in his studio office for an hour talking history. His lowest was selling off most of his collection in High School.

The Fan
The Fan: Jordan Steinhoff
Jordan Steinhoff

In my area, the big chains like Borders and B&N seem to have mainly the big names in the superhero genre, but not much diversity in those titles. Generally some Superman, Batman, X-Men/Wolverine and JLA/JSA graphic novels. There's always a smattering of Star Wars compilations as well. There is also generally a small section of untranslated Manga.

The criteria seems to be only bridging what has become part of the social mainstream through movies and/or wide audience DVD rentals. Under-represented would seem to be anything that can't be tied into a movie.

Within the hero genre, I'd like to see the compilations of the other lesser known characters. Well, lesser known outside of the comics industry anyway. I'd love to see the Greatest Green Lantern Stories or the Greatest Joker Stories hardbacks on the shelves of my local B&N or Borders.

What it comes down to is, I'd like to see some non-comic stores take risks on any sort of compilation. While I'm sure titles like Preacher or Saint of Killers might draw some criticism and so will never see the lights of a big chain like Borders, there is just so much good writing and art out there that anything they should choose to stock should grab the eye of some of their customers, no matter what age group is looking.

I'd like the big chains to be the stepping on point for people to get into comics. Specialty stores of any type can be intimidating but if kids/teens/adults can pick up the love of comics in a more familiar setting and then move to specialty shops, it could only be good for the industry.

Jordan Steinhoff was born in Ontario, Canada in 1971. He now lives in Minnesota. He has collected comics on and off his whole life but became completely disillusioned in the mid 90s and sold everything. Now he's regretting that and starting to rebuild. Steinhoff is also the owner of a not completely comic related web site.

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